And now, let’s welcome Nicole Kronzer and Suzanne Park to our stage Cynsations! These YA debut authors do have a background on the stage. Nicole is a former actor and improvisor, and Suzanne was a stand-up comedian.
Both share the influence these former pursuits have had on their work as writers.
Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?
A few serendipitous events made all the difference for me.
First, I was offered the Creative Writing elective when I got my job teaching high school English fourteen years ago. I loved to write and had always wistfully dreamed of being an author, so I gladly accepted. Having to figure out how to help teenagers make their writing better helped me make my writing better, too.
Five or six years into teaching, a postcard arrived in my mailbox at school advertising a low-residency MA at Fairleigh Dickinson University called: “Creative Writing and Literature for Educators.” Even though it was halfway across the country in New Jersey, the program felt like the right fit for me. Indeed—the classes pushed my writing forward in meaningful ways.
Perhaps the most fortuitous event of my publishing life came thanks to my school librarian, Terri Evans.
She invited Nina LaCour to come to our school for an author visit in 2011. Nina and I hit it off from the moment I picked her up at the airport.
When Nina back to the Twin Cities in 2016 on book tour for You Know Me Well (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016), I confessed to her that I’d drafted that novel I’d been talking about all those years before. She generously offered to read it, give me feedback, and help me navigate the querying process.
My first effort didn’t find a home with an agent, but Nina gave me feedback on my next book, too.
That novel became Unscripted (Amulet, 2020). Nina always shakes her head when I tell her Unscripted wouldn’t be in the world without her, but she taught me so much—both about the craft and business sides of this industry. I can’t thank her enough.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
I hate to admit this because it feels like cheating, but I woke up with the idea!
In late winter of 2017, I crawled out of bed at four in the morning and into my living room and basically puked out a synopsis.
The individual parts, however, came from my life. I have an extensive background in improv. I love summer camp. I’ve felt the injustices of the gender double standard in many aspects of my life.
Also, a shocking number of my female students in particular had been coming to me about their terrible relationships. They described boys who didn’t let them hang out with their old friends and who demanded to know their whereabouts at all times.
My very smart students defended these boys, saying things like, “The good times are so good. It’s different when it’s just us together,” and wouldn’t believe me when I told them they were being emotionally abused.
All of it came together in Unscripted.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
Improv is bananas. There’s no script, no pre-planned characters, no set, and no props.
The results can be magical—but only if you’re in the room. When it’s recorded, improv often falls flat.
You’re missing the tension and the crackling energy of “Who knows what might happen?”
Therefore, when I started writing the book, I had a talk with myself: “There will be no improv scenes. You can have characters talk about improv and discuss the rules, but there will be no actual scenes. It’s just too hard.”
Halfway through drafting, I had another talk with myself: “Dude, this book is about improv. You’re going to have to write some scenes.”
Second me was right. But first me was also right—it was really hard. I had to craft jokes that felt like teenagers could come up with them off the top of their heads, but also were funny enough to stand up on the page.
It was a narrow path, and one that I navigated much more successfully thanks to my brilliant editor at Abrams, Maggie Lehrman, who has an improv background of her own.
Another challenge was the location. I loved going to camp growing up, and my favorite was Sky Ranch. It’s at 9,200 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains, two hours from Ft. Collins, Colorado.
In addition to being a camper there for several years, I was a counselor for an entire summer in college.
When I decided to design an improv camp for this book, there wasn’t even a question where I would set it: I would makeover Sky Ranch for my improv purposes.
The only problem was that I live in Minnesota and hadn’t been to Sky Ranch in nearly twenty years. I looked at my photos from my camp days and used Google Maps street view to poke around the best I could.
I also researched the plants and animals that live at that altitude in the Rocky Mountains, but I still didn’t feel like I was doing the setting justice.
In July of 2018, I called up Sky Ranch. “Can I bring my family and hang out for the weekend?” I asked. “I’m writing a book and—”
“Of course!” they said. “We rent out cabins Friday and Saturday nights!”
A few weeks later, my husband and two young daughters and I arrived at my old camp. The counselors were incredibly sweet to us, seeming truly delighted that I had worked there all those years before. We hiked some of the hikes I describe in Unscripted, stayed in a cabin, and ate meals in the Main Lodge.
The setting details for my fictitious camp, Rocky Mountain Theatre Arts, are so much stronger now thanks to that trip and the kindness of the real-live Sky Ranch staff.
What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?
The funniest moment is also one of the best. On Feb. 7, 2018, I was covering a friend’s eleventh grade English class. After I introduced myself and set the students to work on their papers, I sat down to do some grading. But first, I thought, I’ll just quick check my email.
I had started querying my second try at writing a book six days earlier. I knew there was no way anyone would have gotten back to me yet, but then—there was an email from Sara Crowe at Pippin Properties. My heart dropped. Sara had passed on my first novel. This was probably a pass, too.
The beginning of the email started off with all the things she liked about my book. I skimmed it, waiting for the turn—“but, it’s just not quite right for me—” but the turn never came! She wanted to represent me!
I gasped, and all of the kids’ heads popped up.
“What’s wrong?” one of them asked.
“Nothing!” I said, re-reading the email. Had I misread it?
“It sounds like something’s wrong,” the student insisted.
“No, there’s nothing wrong,” I said. I read the email slower this time, and holy cow, Sara really did want to be my agent!
“If nothing’s wrong, why do you look like you’re going to cry?” another student asked.
“I just got amazing news!” I laughed and started to cry for real.
“What is it?” they asked.
“You don’t even know me!” I said.
“So what? We want to know!”
“You just don’t want to work on your papers!” I teased them.
“Accurate!” they said. “Tell us!”
So I did. They cheered and whooped and applauded, which was so lovely. Then I abandoned them for ten minutes to go tell my teacher friends and some of them actually worked on their papers while I was gone. Teenagers are the best people.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
Don’t be timid. I mean, don’t be a demanding jerk face, but it’s okay to tell people what you’re working on and to ask questions.
If I hadn’t been blabbing about this book I was trying write, Kristi Romo wouldn’t have perked up at a meeting we were both at and told me she was looking for a critique partner. She has become one of my closest friends and the midwife to each of my books.
If I hadn’t written Sara Crowe and said I wanted to come out to New York and meet her after I signed with her, she never would have told me about the gala that Pippin Properties was throwing to celebrate their twentieth anniversary. Then I wouldn’t have met other Minnesota Pips including Drew Brockington, Alison McGhee, and Trisha Speed-Shaskan, all of whom have been so supportive to me on this journey.
When we sold the audio rights to Dreamscape, if I hadn’t asked if I could audition to perform my own audio book, they wouldn’t have known that was something I was capable of. I’m so glad they chose me—I absolutely loved narrating it.
I mean, I’ve definitely asked questions and offered myself up for things that haven’t come through, but overall, I recommend being bold!
Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable.
I didn’t start writing my first book until I was far into my adult taxpayer years.
For a decade, I used all of my creative energy performing stand up at clubs and venues in Los Angeles, Seattle and New York. Yet despite all of my time on stage, I never quite felt comfortable with the performance side of stand up.
I loved the writing part though: the rhythm of storytelling, the build-up of the joke—then the release, and perfecting the art of comedic timing was always challenging, but also rewarding when the jokes landed right.
I also hadn’t taken to a comedian’s gig-to-gig lifestyle either. I didn’t like being on the road (usually with male comics who were drunk, hungover, or defying core principles of anatomy and physiology by somehow being both), or the crass locker room talk before and after shows, or that I shouldered a burden to prove over and over again that female comics could be funny.
I can’t even count the number of times I was told after getting off the stage, “Hey, you were actually pretty good.” I knew what they were thinking. For a girl.
I thought about stepping away from stand-up to pursue a career in humor writing, but I’d spent ten whole years working on my comedy craft and I worried that I’d wasted all of that time.
But still, I dialed back little by little to carve out room to write. I took writing classes in university extension programs, took courses online, and even paid for a six-week intensive memoir writing program in the break room at a Best Western in Seattle. Then I blogged, drafted short stories, and wrote TV scripts.
Eventually, I quit stand-up comedy altogether and wrote a collection of essays based on some of my stand-up material. That book is on a USB thumb drive buried in a file cabinet somewhere, but I learned a lot from that experience.
Working on that short first book was good practice for my next book, which was, in hindsight, basically a three-hundred page blog entry.
I spent a few months cleaning it up and submitted the manuscript into a mentorship contest called Pitch Wars in 2016.
In this contest, my mentors helped me with plotting, planting (foreshadowing) and pacing. My mentors called it “the 3 Ps.” After a few rounds of intensive rewrites, my three-hundred page blog post-y novel turned into a real novel.
Learning how to self-edit my own work in Pitch Wars was extremely difficult because all of my books are an extension of me in some way—encompassing stories based on my own experiences, or including characterizations based on real people I knew.
I also learned that editorial critique and feedback shouldn’t be taken personally (especially if you ask a know-it-all to read your work. Please don’t do that). It was hard to stomach at first, but it’s gotten a lot easier over the years.
I think this acceptance of feedback and constructive critiques is what helped get me to a publishable level.
What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?
The funniest thing in my publishing journey actually happened while I was sound asleep.
The morning my agent received an publishing offer for The Perfect Escape (Sourcebooks Fire, 2020), he posted the following tweet because it was 6:30 a.m. where I lived. It caused quite an uproar in the publishing community!
People were horrified that he didn’t wake me up immediately.
“What? You’re kidding, yes? What kind of game are you playing here?”
He called just as the tweet posted, and while we chatted about the offer, my phone buzzed with tons of texts from friends who thought those tweets could be about me.
So, even if he hadn’t woken me up, my friends surely would have!
Honestly, I don’t remember most of what my agent and I talked about on the phone that morning, but after we ended the call I came down to the kitchen to tell my husband the great news and it finally hit me. I burst into tears and couldn’t believe it. My book was going to be published! And the rest, as they say, is history.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
My advice for writers of all levels, especially people starting their writing journey, is to always be reading. Ideally reading books across genres. I’ve learned so much about pacing and plotting from reading mysteries and thrillers. Upmarket fiction and romance titles have helped me deepen characterization and character arcs.
I also recommend that writers check out craft books (books that help you with different aspects of writing, like the art of good dialogue, how to plot, etc) from the library first (if they’re available) to see if the author/instructor’s style works for you.
I have so many of these books that I started reading but abandoned after a few pages because the methods or explanations were confusing or not thorough enough.
At best, I read the book once and focused on one particular thing I was trying to do better, and then unfortunately, never looked at it again. There are a few exceptions of course, but not many.
So save your money and buy something else like cute notebooks and pens, which I also have too many of now that I think more about it…
Nicole Kronzer is a former professional actor and improvisor who now teaches English and creative writing.
She loves to knit and run (usually not at the same time) and has named all the plants in her classroom.
She lives with her family in Minneapolis. Visit her online at nicolekronzer.com.
Suzanne Park is a Korean-American writer who was born and raised in Tennessee.
In her former life as a stand-up comedian, Suzanne was a finalist in the Oxygen Network’s “Girls Behaving Badly” talent search, and appeared on BET’s “Coming to the Stage.” She found this to be the funniest thing in her comedy career because, well, she is not black.
She was also the winner of the Seattle Sierra Mist Comedy Competition, and was a semi-finalist in NBC’s “Stand Up For Diversity” showcase in San Francisco.
She currently resides in Los Angeles with her husband, female offspring, and a sneaky rat that creeps around on her back patio. In her spare time, she procrastinates.
Her YA romantic comedy debut, The Perfect Escape, releases April 7, 2020 and her adult rom-com, Loathe At First Sight, comes out Aug. 4, 2020.
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.