Throwback Thursday: Melissa de la Cruz’s Path to Publication & Writing Page-Turners

Congratulations to Melissa de la Cruz on The (Super Secret) Octagon Valley Society (Disney Hyperion, Sept. 5, 2023), the first book in a new middle grade series. From the promotional copy:

You only get in if you’re Extraordinary….

After passing an intense exam, Edwin Edgefield becomes one of the lucky few to attend an exclusive weekend at the mysterious high-tech institute of the uber-famous-ultrabazillionaire-genius-recluse Onasander Octagon. Edwin hopes he’ll meet other kids like him—kids who will accept him even though he’s got a photographic memory, genius-level math skills, and some very specific personality quirks. But when he meets the other misfits (um, students), he starts to wonder if they’re all in the right place. There’s amateur rapper Li’l Kimmy, violin prodigy Julie, video game–obsessed Anton, teacher’s pet Ting-Ting, mean girl Maureen, and surfer dude Dilip. And we’re not even going to talk about Harold.

Take a look back at Melissa’s 2007 Cynsations post: Author Interview: Melissa de la Cruz on Blue Bloods

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, ever since I can remember. But when I graduated from Columbia, I took a job as a computer consultant because it would allow me to live decently in New York, and I wrote my first novel while working at Bankers Trust. I would write it at work and on the weekends. I felt like I had to “write” my way out of the corporate world, and I felt a huge sense of desperation. I was good at programming computers, but the longer I stayed in the corporate environment, the more depressed I knew I was going to be.

I’d always wanted to write books, so it never really occurred to me to try to get a job in magazines or publishing. I wanted to write books, not edit them. I finished my first novel at 22, and I sent it out to about twenty agencies I found through the Writer’s Market, following their query guidelines.

Three agents responded favorably, and I went with the agent who’d sold Auntie Mame some twenty years before! He was very supportive, but we were unable to sell the novel. But he did get it in the hands of Geoff Kloske, who was then a young editor at Little Brown (he discovered David Sedaris and Dave Eggers and is now the editor-in-chief of Riverhead). Geoff called me, said he was not buying my book, but he saw something in my writing, and wanted to talk to me about my career. I was floored–and extremely excited. He advised me to try to start writing for magazines, because it’s very rare that publishers buy a book from a complete unknown.

I finally published my first essay in the New York Press in 1996, and covered the trendy, fashiony beat for them for years, then I sold my first novel–an adult book called Cat’s Meow (2001), to Simon & Schuster in 1998.

By then. I was writing for a ton of women’s magazines. I still held on to my day job though–I was at Morgan Stanley by then. I got laid off right before Cat’s Meow was published in 2001, and I never looked back. I’ve been writing full-time since then. I published a non-fiction “chic-lit” book, How to become Famous in Two Weeks or Less, and during the book tour for that, I got a call from Simon & Schuster.

The YA market was exploding–and did I want to try my hand at doing a glamorous book for teens? I was a big fan of Gossip Girl, and I jumped on the opportunity. The Au Pairs published in 2004 [reissued as Beach Lane, 2013], and it was the book that changed my life.

Before then, my adult books sold okay, but the Au Pairs sold extremely well, and it opened up all these doors for me. Hyperion asked if I wanted to try my hand at horror, and I’d been kicking around and idea for a while to do a dark fantasy book, and Blue Bloods came to being. For S&S, I also have a new dark series set in LA, called Angels on Sunset Boulevard, and a seventh-grade social-climbing saga, The Ashleys, and a jet-setting series called Social Life. And of course, more Blue Bloods books!

Congratulations on the success of the Blue Bloods series (Hyperion, 2006-)! Could you fill us in on the global story?

Thanks very much! It’s very rewarding that Blue Bloods found an audience. It’s very close to my heart. The story centers around a group of teenagers: Schuyler Van Alen, from a once-great and grand New York family that has fallen on hard times; her best friend Oliver Hazard-Perry, a sweet boy who’d rather go to museums than hit the lacrosse fields; Mimi and Jack Force, the richest and most fabulous twins in Manhattan with a strange and secret bond; and Bliss Llewellyn, a Texan transplant who is experiencing strange episodes of deja vu and dread.

They are the newest generation of Blue Bloods, who trace their ancestry to the Mayflower and are perennially reincarnated fallen angels who were cast out of Heaven with Lucifer and are doomed to live on earth. Just as they are starting to discover their new powers, something or someone is hunting them. They have to figure who or what it is–are the dreaded Silver Bloods, vampires who feed on vampires, back to feed once more?

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I read on the Internet once about how all these prominent Americans, like the Roosevelts and the Bushes, and also famous people like Marilyn Monroe, and even Oprah, are descendants of the people who came over from the Mayflower. And I thought, what if all their power and influence is because they’re immortal? They’re vampires, of course! And of course, I’m a very literal writer (LOL) so the blue bloods actually have blue blood.

For Blue Bloods. What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I believe it took a year between the idea and publication. It took about three months to write, but it took about six months to even think about it. I wrote all the outlines and mythology and character sketches before I wrote the book. The major event for me was discovering the Roanoke mystery–it fit so well with the story, I think I was halfway done writing Blue Bloods when I stumbled upon the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. It was like a light bulb went on. From there it was a race to the finish! I couldn’t write the story fast enough.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

In a way, it was really easy to write because it’s a story that I’ve lived–my best friend Morgan (who is the inspiration for Oliver) and I used to go to this club called The Bank, so the first chapter is just based on all those times we would stand there in line. We used to go to numerous nightclubs, and there was always the “will-we-get-in” worry. So it’s cool to have Schuyler use her vampire powers to gain entrance. Ha!

The research also fit in really well–a lot of people died in the Mayflower voyage and the first year, almost half of them were killed or died of disease. I had a pretty detailed outline, but like I said, it didn’t really click until the Roanoke thing. That’s when the book really came to life for me, when I felt like I was excavating a story instead of making it up.

Even the myth with the angels and Lucifer, it just all seemed so right, that it’s weird to me that the myth that vampires are fallen angels doesn’t exist anywhere but my books. It felt like I was just pulling from the air, like the story was there all along. That felt really awesome. I love Milton’s Paradise Lost, and I love the story of Michael and the archangels and Lucifer. There’s lots of good stuff in the Bible.

Did you always intend for the story to be a series? How did that aspect evolve?

Yes. Hyperion wanted a series, and they bought two books first, then after Blue Bloods pubbed, bought another two. I’d always intended for a nine-book series. (My editor said, let’s hope we get to Blue Bloods 19!) Which I think is a little much. I’m planning to do three three-book arcs for now. There’s tons of stuff in the Blue Bloods world, and I want to stay there for a while.

What about the young adult audience appeals to you?

They’re so enthusiastic! One of my fans started a Blue Bloods message board, and a site devoted to the book, breaking it down by character and chapter. It’s amazing. I get a lot of fan art and fan fiction (which I can’t and don’t read), but which is just so cool. Teens are the best readers–they read closely, and they’re not shy about telling you what they like. I feel like a teen myself, so really, I’m just writing for my peers.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

I was pretty level-headed, practical and determined as a young writer. I don’t think anything I could say now would really change what I did back then.

I always had a single-minded goal: to become a commercial fiction writer. And now I am, and I don’t think I could have gotten here without all the experiences I had in the past.

I was a big club kid, I spent a lot of time in nightclubs, I had tons of fabulous friends, we all had boy drama, and friendship drama. I covered Fashion Week, I went to fashion shoots, I worked at Conde Nast, I summered in the Hamptons, everything in my books is inspired by my life, but I also use my imagination to take it to another level.

I dated and kissed a lot of cute boys before I found my husband, and I don’t regret any of them–even the ones who dumped me or never called after a one-night hookup. I feel like a lot of writers just want to write. But you know, you have to live so you have something to write about.

What would you say specifically on the topic of writing horror/gothic fantasy?

I guess I write about what scares me. Even though Blue Bloods isn’t very scary, or at least, it’s not gory, I am Catholic, and even though I say that I am a “secular Catholic,” the devil still scares me. Evil scares me, and in Angels on Sunset Boulevard, which is a deal-with-the-devil kind of thing, that scares me too. Like, what if you could have everything you want? Fame, Fortune, Rock and Roll Lifestyle, but you had to lose your soul to get it? I mean, would you say no? Or would you succumb to temptation? I mean, I would hope I would say no. But it’s very tempting isn’t it? So I write about it.

Which books would you suggest for study and why?

I got a lot of practice writing cliffhangers because I used to write a serial fiction novel for Gotham magazine, and at the end of every chapter I had to write a cliffhanger so people would ‘tune in’ for the next one. (I also have to add that for the Ashley and Au Pairs books I have all the fun chapter headings because I had to write ‘heds’ and ‘deks’ for magazines -you know, headlines like “Lash Attack” or whatever and that was good practice for that.)

I would suggest reading Michael Crichton‘s novels to understand how to write a page-turner. I can’t put his books down! It’s hard for me to say “study” books because when I can see the blueprint of the book it takes out the pleasure in reading it.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I am taking care of my nine-month-old baby, hanging out with my husband and my family (my parents and my sister’s family live near us), going out to dinner, seeing friends, planning extravagant vacations (it’s the only thing that gets me going to finish a book–knowing I get to have a fabulous vacation at the end of it like a reward), and spending way too much money on clothes, shoes and handbags.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

It’s hard. That’s the hardest actually. Because you can get really bogged down by doing all the PR work, and find you don’t do any of the real work, which is the writing. I love doing the PR work because it’s just part of procrastinating. I’ve hired publicists for some of my books (mostly my adult books) so that takes off some of the work. And I think the best promotion is really to write a good book. It gets the word out.

Of course, you need your publisher to put some backing behind you too–if they don’t do anything, no one will even hear about your book so how can the word be spread? I’m very lucky to be with S&S and Hyperion, both houses have done an excellent job of promoting my books.

Cynsations Notes

Author Melissa de la Cruz, photo by Maria Cina

Melissa de la Cruz is the #1 New York Times, #1 Publisher’s Weekly and #1 IndieBound bestselling author of many critically acclaimed and award-winning novels for readers of all ages. Many of her more than fifty books have also topped USA Today, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists and been published in over twenty countries.

De la Cruz’s novel, The Isle of the Lost, the prequel to the Disney Channel Original Movie Descendants, spent more than fifty weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, fifteen at #1, and has over a million copies in print. Descendants starring Kristen Chenoweth and Dove Cameron was the #1 cable TV movie of 2015, and #5 of all time, and its soundtrack the #1 bestselling album on iTunes. The series’ subsequent books, Return to the Isle of the Lost and Rise of the Isle of the Lost, were also New York Times bestsellers for many weeks.

De la Cruz is also known for the Blue Bloods series (with three million copies in print), and the Witches of East End series. Her recent book releases include New York Times bestsellers The Queen’s Assassin and the Alex & Eliza series, as well as the graphic novel Gotham High and The Birthday Girl.

De la Cruz’s Hallmark Christmas movies, Christmas in Angel Falls and Pride Prejudice and Mistletoe (based on her novel), were both the top-rated movies for their Christmas season on the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. 29 Dates, her YA novel about a Korean exchange student, will soon be a feature-length movie on Disney’s streaming service, Disney+.

Melissa is also the founder and principal of Melissa de la Cruz Studio at Disney Publishing, which will create and package books in every genre and age range but with a focus on middle grade and young adult, from a diverse group of new and established writers that will appeal to all the platforms across the Disney company for a global audience. The projects will reflect Melissa’s humor and taste and range from adventure, romance and fantasy to contemporary stories.

Melissa de la Cruz is the co-director of YALLFEST (Charleston, SC) and the co-founder of YALLWEST (Santa Monica, CA), the two largest and most vibrant young adult book festivals in the country, attracting more than 30,000 readers every year.

Melissa de la Cruz grew up in Manila and moved to San Francisco with her family, where she graduated high school salutatorian from The Convent of the Sacred Heart. At Columbia University, she majored in art history and English. She lives in West Hollywood with her husband and daughter.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is a best-selling, award-winning children’s-YA writer, writing teacher, a NSK Neustadt Laureate, and the author-curator of the Native-centered Heartdrum imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Her 2023 release is the YA novel Harvest House, an Indigenous ghost mystery. Cynthia’s recent releases include her middle grade anthology Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories For Kids and her middle grade novel Sisters of the Neversea.

Ancestor Approved received four starred reviews and is the winner of the Reading the West Young Readers Book Award, a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection, an ALA Children’s Notable Book and a Kids Indie Next List Pick. It also was named to the ILA, Kirkus Reviews, Chicago Public Library, NY Public Library, Shelf Awareness, and Bank Street Best Books of 2021 lists.

Sisters of the Neversea received six starred reviews and was named to summer reading lists by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly. It also was named to the Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Chicago Public Library, American Indians in Children’s Literature; Politics & Prose, and Parents Magazine Best Books of 2021 lists.

She looks forward to the release of Mission One: The Vice Principal Problem (Blue Stars #1), co-authored by Kekla Magoon, illustrated by Molly Murakami (Candlewick, 2024), which is a Junior Library Guild selection.

Her debut picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, is widely considered a modern classic. Her debut tween novel Rain Is Not My Indian Name was named one of the 30 Most Influential Children’s Books of All Time by Book Riot, which in addition listed her among 10 Must-Read Native American Authors. She also was named Writer of the Year by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers for Rain Is Not My Indian Name and won the American Indian Youth Literature Award for Young Adult Books for Hearts Unbroken, which also was named to YALSA’s Amelia Bloomer list and received the Foreword Reviews Silver Medal in Young Adult Fiction. In addition, Cynthia is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestselling YA author of the Tantalize series and Feral trilogy.

Cynthia lives in Austin, Texas, and is a citizen of the Muscogee Nation. The Austin chapter of SCBWI has instituted the Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentor Award in her honor, and Cynthia is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters. She also serves on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, where she was named the inaugural Katherine Paterson Endowed Chair. In addition, Cynthia coordinates and leads the annual We Need Diverse Books Native Writing Intensive.

Cynthia holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas, Lawrence and a J.D. from The University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. She studied law abroad at Paris-Sorbonne University.