Gita Trelease, author of Enchantée (Flatiron Books, 2019) and Jodie Lynn Zdrok, author of Spectacle (Tor Teen, 2019) both set their magical, historical novels in Paris. They share their inspirations, moments along their writing journeys, and advice for fellow writers.
What first inspired you to write for young readers?
I think there were two things that happened at the same time (or maybe three!).
More than a decade ago, I was teaching a writing seminar at Princeton on fairy tales and contemporary culture. As we read the Grimms’ stories, and talked about their Disney counterparts, I noticed how much my teenage student connected to the fairy tales and the way magic and fantastical elements raised larger questions about identity, community, and the journey to adulthood.
At the same time, my young son was absolutely devouring books, and since he couldn’t read yet, I read for him. His enthusiasm brought me back in touch with children’s literature and the very rich body of work it had become since I was a kid.
And the last thing— a few years later, I stumbled upon Sabriel by Garth Nix (HarperCollins, 1996) and Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (Little, Brown, 2011). Both books captivated me with their incredibly original fantasy worlds, strong heroines, and beautiful writing. Here again were the elements of fairy tales that I loved: dark magic and strong heroines and a difficult, unbiddable world in which they sought their dreams. Reading these books, I thought: if this is YA, then this is what I want to try to write.
Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?
I started writing a long time ago, probably shortly after I learned to read. When I was ten, I spent a lot of time riding horses, playing the piano, and hanging out with my best friend, but I also lived a lot in my imagination. I wrote poetry all through high school and college, where I also took a class on poetry writing. But I never studied novel writing formally at college or beyond.
As I embarked on my first YA manuscript, I brought to my understanding of what a novel should be my years of reading and a poetic sensibility, but not much more than that! Drafting and revising, reading craft books, attending local SCBWI conferences helped me develop my craft. Perhaps most important was finding critique partners—other aspiring writers—who were willing to read and give me feedback. Without them things would have gone much more slowly!
Enchantée (Flatiron Books, 2019) is my first book, and I wrote it over the course of many revisions. At first it barely had a plot—it was mostly description and mood. Then I learned about four-part story structure, I applied that to the manuscript and kept revising, kept bending the story towards what I dreamed it could be. I wrote a lot of it out of order—apparently my brain isn’t especially linear. This maybe isn’t the most efficient way of working, but over the course of nearly three years, I got the manuscript written and was ready to query agents with it.
When I sold Enchantée in a three-book deal (the second book of which is the sequel), I felt strangely confident that I could write that sequel in a year, even though it’d taken me nearly three to write the first one. No problem! I thought.
But this second book has been much, much harder to write. I’m less free in what I can write, in that I’m limited by what happened to the characters, internally and externally, in the first book. I’m also limited by the historical events of the fall of 1789 that follow the events in Enchantée—whereas in the first book I could begin the story wherever I wanted. In the same way, I’m limited by the magic system I created in the first book. And I’ve had to write it in one-third of the time.
Knowing all of this, I outlined so I could write faster. But once I’d written the outline, I had no desire to write the book! The story felt done and uninteresting to me.
Trying again, I fast-drafted—writing a short draft in a month—because I’d heard writers say that worked for them. I ended up with flat characters and story that was going nowhere.
I tried to polish that version up for my editor, but I realized that until I slowed down, I wasn’t going to be able to figure out what I loved about the story. I needed to take my time with the scenes, allowing myself to write into the characters’ thoughts and actions, to develop the settings fully and vividly—because that’s how the story develops, at least for me.
I’m often surprised by what happens in a scene, and if I’m racing through it, there’s no room for me to be surprised. And then there are the many, many revision passes through which I can first glimpse the themes and story, which I get closer and closer to with each pass.
But from years of teaching writing, I already knew how an idea comes into being with revision. I just didn’t know what a huge gap there would be between the first draft and the final.
This is a long way of saying that I think part of learning to write is paying attention to how you work. Many writers struggle with doubt, and naturally we turn to others for help. Writers love to talk shop. There’s so much good advice out there that you can lose sight of how you work.
Listen for the voice that tells you maybe this isn’t working. Be flexible, but at the same time, trust your intuition. And, if you can, finetune your process while at the same time embracing it, no matter how weird or inefficient you worry it may be.
One day, I hope to be brave enough to own my writing process as much as I own my choice of subject matter.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
I’d been thinking about writing a novel set at the turn of the eighteenth century and had a daydream, in which I saw a girl, setting at a gilt escritoire, writing a letter. She wore a rustling eighteenth-century dress and I could tell, the way you know in dreams, that the ink she was using to write the letter was made from her tears—and that she was writing it at someone else’s request.
When I zoomed out, I could tell the place was Versailles (I lived in Paris after college and had visited the palace a few times). In that tiny moment, I realized that I had several seeds for a story: a magic made from sorrow; a girl in an enchanted dress who is forced to work that magic; and the setting of Versailles, which becomes almost like another character in Enchantée.
For me, both historical fiction and fantasy are full of marvels. When I got the idea for Enchantée, I knew wanted to write a fantasy set in 1789 that felt that way to readers, too: that the tangible details of the past were as enchanting as the magic.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
Read as much as possible. Be voracious! Read in your age group, but also read outside of it—read chapter books and books for adults. Read in the genre that most appeals to you, whether it’s contemporary fantasy or non-fiction or something else, but also read outside that genre.
Don’t let labels about genre or labels like “literary fiction” limit you. You’ll learn a lot from reading other writers’ work, and you’ll also develop your own taste in what you like and what you think makes for a good story.
Then write a draft of the story that most excites you. The one that will, as you’re writing it, change your life just by the fact that you’re bringing this story into being. Give it your all.
Even if you write it quickly and sell it quickly, you will be working on this book for years—make sure it’s something that really excites you. Write the book of your heart, the book only you can write. Want to write about a girl who must fight to win the crown of her country? Great. Then put so much of yourself into that story so that by the end you feel that no one else could possibly have written it. Don’t settle for telling a story someone else could tell.
And when you’re ready to share, find other aspiring writers who will read your work and give you honest and kind feedback. They are out there, and the right ones are looking and hoping to connect with someone just like you.
Be open to what they tell you, be willing to dig deep as you revise, and don’t rush the process. Trust your taste, and keep striving to get your work closer to that.
Jodie Lynn Zdrok
What first inspired you to write for young readers?
I think it stems from a lifelong appreciation for books, storytelling, and language. As a young girl, first grade or so, I wrote poems and short stories, then I tried my hand at a few short stories as a teen. I didn’t think seriously about writing a novel until after graduate school. Somehow I got it into my head that I could write a novel, and the third try, Spectacle (Tor Teen, 2019) was the charm.
Many authors point to a direct inspiration—a certain novel, author, or experience that led them to writing.
I don’t have an illustrative “a-ha” moment, but I really do believe it’s an aggregate of inspiration. I remember my parents reading to me as a child (shout out to Little Golden Books and Pokey Little Puppy, as well as Disney and Dr. Seuss stories).
I loved the idea of “visiting” another place, meeting characters, and going on adventures. My own imagination was (and is) inspired by such literary travels.
Every book is like another stamp on a passport. I love the idea of sharing that with others, at any age.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
Spectacle is set in 1887 Paris, which meant a lot of historical research, including for everyday life details. Fortunately, I have graduate degrees in European history, so I had a good foundation.
That’s just the beginning—there’s so much to it! I did some research on the major Paris landmarks (some I’ve been to, some I haven’t…or they don’t exist anymore) and cultural elements before writing. As I wrote, though, different things popped up regularly: looking up building names to see what they were called in 1887 or checking the etymology of words to see if they were in use back then, and so on.
I love the challenge of revising, but it’s also the most complicated aspect of writing a novel. Anything you change has a ripple effect, so everything relevant to that change—conversations, character reactions, event sequences, reasons the next piece of the plot happen—might also need tweaking. Multiply that by many, many changes throughout the novel and it makes for a difficult (but rewarding) process.
And in terms of bringing the text to life in general: Writing a teen protagonist representative of a different time period, whose frames of reference, worldview, and idea of fun is much different than that of contemporary teens, was itself a challenge.
If you’re writing a YA set in the present day or close to, things like social media, pop culture, cultural norms, leisure activities, and day-to-day life are part of an assumed, collective knowledge among readers.
The task for me was conveying life in 1887 and making the protagonist relatable. I aimed for universal experiences like curiosity, self-discovery, friendship, romantic thoughts, fear, guilt, and the like to connect Nathalie to readers in the modern world.
What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?
The worst moments of my publishing journey? Being on submission! The agony of not knowing whether Spectacle would get published—after all the years of on and off effort, of having to find a new agent, of extensive revisions with my agent—was absolutely all-consuming. My submission journey wasn’t a quick one. It was months and months of that sustained undercurrent of tension.
Not surprisingly, the best was when that uncertainty came to an end: Getting an offer. That’s one of those “frozen in time” moments in my life. If I could bottle that moment, I’d give it to everyone who reads my book so they could feel the joy I felt when I finally got a “yes.”
And a bonus “best”: the experience of seeing my novel through someone else’s lens. Some people read Spectacle and take away exactly what I’d hoped to convey. Others interpret it, or pieces of it, differently and offer a new perspective. It’s fascinating to see how many different ways people respond to the same story.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
Read widely across YA genres and gauge what’s been well-received, by general readers, reviewers, or both. It’s important to stay current and to know what resonates (and on the flip side, what doesn’t). Read to enjoy but also to study the storytelling.
Think about the novels you’ve connected with most and analyze what the authors did especially well. What can you learn, and what can you apply to your own writing? Maybe it’s how to create suspense or the (seemingly) little moments that deepen a scene or character. It may sound strange to advocate for “analyzing” novels but for me, to build art you have to understand what makes other people’s art so good.
How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?
I have a much deeper understanding of the business side of things, for sure. Fortunately I have a background in marketing, so having that knowledge as I moved from unpublished to soon-to-be published to published author has been smooth. I’ve also become more studious about reading books, and by that I mean I’m even more attentive to plot construction and character development in books I admire. I hope to continue growing as a writer, and understanding what made a particular book a critical and/or popular success is part of that process.
My journey was so long that I don’t suffer from overnight-success syndrome, and while luck always plays a role, it’s persistence that’s defined my path the most.
With that came a sort of natural evolution in self-image from writer to author, I think. And I’ve always been “me” on social media, particularly Twitter. Because I’ve been on there for a while and feel comfortable in that space, my author brand isn’t a brand at all—it’s just me.
Gita Trelease is the author of Enchantée, a YA fantasy set on the eve of the French Revolution. Born in Sweden to Indian and Swedish parents, Gita has lived all over, including New York, Paris, and a tiny town in Italy.
Along with her family, Gita divides her time between a village in Massachusetts and the coast of Maine, where she searches for a secret portal to take her back to Versailles.
In addition to being an author, she’s a marketing professional, a freelancer, and an unapologetic Boston sports fan.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.