Author Interview: Carrie Harris on the Class of 2k11

Carrie Harris is the monster-obsessed, geek-of-all-trades, Excel-spreadsheet-addicted president of the Class of 2k11. Brains are her specialty; she used to work in a lab where they were delivered daily via FedEx. After that, it seemed only natural to write a zombie book: Bad Taste in Boys, which will be published by Delacorte in July.

She lives in Michigan with her ninja-doctor husband and three zombie-obsessed children. And she really likes hyphens.

What is the Class of 2k11?

The 2k concept is pretty simple—we’re a small group of debut middle grade and YA authors who have banded together for marketing and promotion (and also slumber parties, but I’m not sure those are really for public consumption).

There’s been a 2k class every year since 2007, and previous members include Jay Asher, Cassandra Clare, Melissa Marr, Sarah Prineas, Rebecca Stead

I’d better stop before I make myself hyperventilate.

What are its goals and pursuits?

Being a debut author can get overwhelming because there are so many marketing type things to do. It’s much more manageable when you work together to spread the word. But we wanted this group to be more than “Eeeee! Look at us! We sold books!”

Who wants to hear that all the time? We wanted to pay some of our amazing luck forward, so we decided to give a little love to librarians, booksellers, and bloggers.

They told us they’re always looking for ways to draw in readers, so we focused on creating easy, cheap, and fun activities to take the pressure off on those days when you’ve got a book club/class/blog entry/whatever and forgot to plan something! And hopefully you’ll get introduced to some great new voices in kid lit in the process.

How is it organized?

We’ve got some crazy awesome officers that deserve kudos, medals, and showers of sparkles, and we’ve got committees that do the bulk of the actual work.

But really, we’re pretty casual. We all have lives and deadlines and crises. Some days, all you can do is eke out 50 words on the latest book, and you’re lucky to get that!

So we do as much as we can, when we can. I think the reality is that with groups like this, you get what you put into it.

Who are the classmates?

I’m so proud to belong to this group with K. Ryer Breese, Carole Etsby Dagg, Amy Dominy, Trinity Faegen, Alissa Grosso, Kiki Hamilton, Geoff Herbach, Tess Hilmo, Amy Holder, Tara Hudson, Julia Karr, Christina Mandelski, Sheila O’Connor, Gae Polisner, Bettina Restrepo, and Angie Smibert.

What is the interpersonal vibe?

We’re family, plain and simple. We’ve become so much more than marketing buddies; we’ve celebrated and cried together and offered to kiss each other…actually I think the last one is just me.

But seriously, I think the support is just as important if not more so than the snazzy marketing stuff. It’s scary to put that first book out into the big bad world, and it’s so much easier when you know people who don’t look at you funny when you say things like that.

Why did a cooperative promotional group appeal to you?

Years ago, I remember reading about the Class of 2k7 in my Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market and thinking, “Someday, I’m going to join one of those!”

People think of writing as such an isolated profession, but there are so many great support systems out there if you just get the guts to reach out.

And I think the fact is that we’re all good at something. Some marketing stuff makes me all giddy, and some of it makes me want to pretend that I no longer speak English. Promotional groups allow you to exercise your strengths and let other people take over when you get into No hablo Ingles territory.

What are the challenges?

There are so many things to do marketing-wise, and there are no right answers about what you must do if you want to succeed. Imagine putting together 15-20 strangers who write in a variety of genres, and then try to figure out what will work for all those books.

Starting out was hard. It’s hard to know where to put your efforts. I may or may not have used my Magic 8 Ball during this process.

Oh, who am I kidding? I totally used it.

What do you love about it?

How long do you have? Of course I love the people. I couldn’t imagine doing this without them. They’re a great source of info on things you didn’t even realize you needed to be thinking about.

And they’re funny. A lot of us have also noticed a real spike in attention toward our books once the class debuted. It’s so exciting seeing our plans take off and people interested in what we’re doing. So if I had to make the choice again, I would absolutely join, no matter what the cost. Funny and useful?!? Sign me up!

Tell us a little about your upcoming debut.

It’s about a science geek who learns that her high school football team has been dosed with steroids…or maybe not. Whatever’s in those vials is turning hot gridiron hunks into mindless, flesh-eating zombies. Which is bad. But if she doesn’t find a way to cure them, it’ll be even worse.

Dum dum dum.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I remember when I was looking around at groups to join or thinking about creating one of my own, it was all so overwhelming. Author group blogs seemed to be multiplying like hyperactive rabbits for a while there, and How on Earth Are You Supposed to Choose?

(Ahem. Sorry. Got a little carried away.)

If you’re going to join a group, think about what you really need help with and what you can do on your own, and find a group that’ll fit those needs, whether it’s marketing or networking or talking in public without stuttering.

And if what you need is a group for debut authors in 2012, I hear that Class of 2k12 is taking applications…

New Voice: Crystal Allen on How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy

Crystal Allen is the first-time author of How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins). From the promotional copy:

Thirteen-year-old Lamar Washington is the maddest, baddest most spectacular bowler ever at Striker’s Bowling Paradise. But when it comes to girls, he doesn’t have game—not like his older brother Xavier the Basketball Savior. And certainly not like his best friend “Spanish fly guy” Sergio.

So Lamar vows to spend the summer changing his image from dud to stud by finding a way to make money and snag a super fine Honey!

When a crafty teenage thug invites Lamar to use his bowling skills to hustle, he seizes the opportunity. As his judgment blurs, Lamar makes an irreversible error, damaging every relationship in his life.

Now, he must figure out how to mend those broken ties, no matter what it will cost him.

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

I’m so thankful for all of the people who gave advice, support, suggestions, comments and concerns to me as I wrote How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy. In every season of my writing journey, there has been a group of people offering emotional and/or professional support for me. I’d like to mention some of those people and how they helped me.

(2004 – 2007)

Early on, I attended conferences and seminars. During those meetings, I was taken under the wings of a group of incredible women with more knowledge of the publishing business than I could ever imagine. (Bernette G. Ford, Christine Taylor-Butler, Eileen Robinson and Dara Sharif.)

I met Christine Taylor-Butler at a Houston SCBWI conference. I had written a horrible story with nine main characters that I wholeheartedly believed was Newbery worthy. Christine was so friendly and willing to offer advice and friendship. Christine was my first real “writer-friend.” She introduced me to one of the conference speakers, Bernette G. Ford, who provided opportunities for me to hone my craft through written and verbal conversations.

I attended a conference in Missouri were Eileen Robinson, creator of F1rst Pages, taught us the importance of opening lines and especially emphasized the fragment of time we have to capture an editor’s attention. Even after the conference, Eileen stayed in contact with me, answered questions, and encouraged me to stay in the race for publication.

I later met Dara Sharif during a workshop in Kansas City. She heard me read a poem I’d written and several months later, purchased it! That poem, “A Purple Hat For Mom,” was actually my homework for the workshop!

I remember just days before I got that email from Dara, I was down, believing that maybe I was never going to be successful in this business. I had actually contacted Dara about another piece I had written, hoping she’d give me a bit of advice. It was then that she spoke of the poem she heard me read in Kansas City and a day or so later, purchased it.

Dara continues to follow my progress, just like Bernette, Christine and Eileen. That’ s why I will always consider them the Winter and Spring of my writing community.

(2008 – present)

In 2008, during an SCBWI Conference, I joined a critique group made up of writers in my area. (Petula Workman, Carrie Garfield and Jenny Bailey.) My critique partners helped me revise my manuscript and prepare it for another huge workshop, the Big Sur Conference in California.

At the Big Sur Conference in California, author Neal Shusterman and editor Emma Dryden, encouraged me and, to this day, both continue their support of my writing endeavors through written and vocal conversation.

After the Big Sur Conference, three other conference attendees showed interest in starting an online critique group. (Juliet White, Petula Workman, Tim Kane.) They zoned in on the weak areas of my novel, made suggestions on how to make my novel stronger, and provided emotional support as I entered the submission process.

Even after my agent, Jen Rofe, sold my novel to Balzar & Bray, this critique group worked with me to tighten my story and work through my editor’s revisions. This critique group is strong, and I’m very grateful for them.

I think if I counted everyone who helped, it would be enough people to make a village. It did take a village to push me in the right direction. And I’m thankful to all of them.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

At first, I created Lamar for a ghostwriting opportunity where the request was for a multicultural group of children in a school environment. The publisher wanted the story to be humorous with the opportunity to make it a series.

I wasn’t completely focused on Lamar’s voice since there were three other characters in the story at the time. But a bowling alley seemed a natural common place for all of the characters to meet after school.

When I didn’t get the ghostwriting job, I continued to work with my characters but the writing felt forced. I was determined to write their story, but now, as I look back, the story I was writing was not theirs.

Then…while watching an episode of “C.S.I.” (If you’re a “C.S.I.” fan, Grishom was still in the cast) a young, African-American male popped up in my head, walked around my brain like he owned the place, and signaled for me to follow him.

Yes, I’m still staring at “C.S.I.,” but I had no idea what was happening on that show. Mentally, I followed him as he took me inside a bowling alley. I knew it was Lamar.

The scene inside the bowling alley was so vivid. Kids were bowling, eating at the snack bar, talking trash, playing video games, just all kinds of stuff you’d see in a place like that. I’ve bowled since I was very young, so this scene Lamar was showing to me brought back memories.

He was a smart aleck, a prankster, but was liked by everybody because of the confidence that seeped through his voice, his walk and his bowling.

I don’t even remember if “C.S.I.” was still on, but my eyeballs began to burn from the lack of blinking.

So, I dashed to the computer, closed my eyes, and listened. I typed what I heard, whether it made sense or not. And every day after that, I did that same exercise. Lamar’s voice banged so loud in my head that I actually began to take Advil.

Some days my husband would ask, “What’s wrong?”

I’d answer. “It’s Lamar.”

I’m still not sure how my hubby felt about that.

I’ve never had a character beg for a story to be told like Lamar. All I did was listen.

I began watching Nickelodeon shows and eavesdropping on as many teenage conversations as I could, but none of the boys I heard seemed to mimic Lamar’s voice or give me clues about him.

It was then that I realized I was going out on a limb. This boy was going to have his own way of talking. He was going to have a style unlike other boys, yet be a typical thirteen-year-old, trash-talking kid.

So, that’s what I’d tell other authors to do. Listen to you character.

Sometimes it may feel like a daydream when it may be a character trying to push through your thoughts to get noticed. And if you think a character is trying to speak with you, find an episode of “C.S.I.,” space out, and let them walk around your brain like they own the place!

New Voice: Terry Lynn Johnson on Dogsled Dreams

Terry Lynn Johnson is the first-time author of Dogsled Dreams (4RV Publishing, 2011)(teacher’s guide). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Rebecca dreams of becoming a famous sled dog racer.

She’s an inventive but self-doubting musher who tackles blinding blizzards, wild animal attacks, puppy training, and flying poo missiles. All of her challenges though, seem easier than living up to the dogs’ trust in her abilities.

Rebecca runs her huskies along the crisp trails near Thunder Bay, Ontario, where northern lights flare and dangerous beavers lurk.

Through the bond she shares with the dogs, Rebecca learns that hard work, dedication and living in the moment bring their own rewards.

Who has been your most influential teacher and why?

Since I was ten, I have wanted to be an author. I read voraciously. My favourite class in school was English. I even wrote a really cheesy science fiction chapter book.

But, as it does, life happened, and before I knew it, I was almost forty and still hadn’t started on that author thing. I decided to enroll in an online writing course to kick-start me into writing again. Quality of Course based in Ottawa is where I met a wise and generous lady, Joyce White, who would be my tutor for the next three months.

When I started the course, I was set on writing my memoirs about my experiences working as a Park Ranger for twelve years. I also had a dog team for ten years, so I had many stories to share.

The course’s lesson plans began with writing articles for magazines. I researched the markets for outdoor and dog magazines, and wrote many articles as homework for the course.

A few weeks into the course, I was shocked and delighted, checking my email, to find I’d sold my first two articles – on the same day! One of those articles was about a quirky lead dog of mine, entitled “Frozen Turd Wars” published in Dogs in Canada Magazine. I received fan mail from that article, and Joyce began to nudge me toward writing more about my dogs. She told me my passion for sled dogs shines through in the writing and makes it come alive.

I wrote one article for a children’s magazine about racing sled dogs. Joyce saw something there and suggested I should write for middle grade. It’s not something I’d considered before. I don’t have my own kids, and I don’t work with kids. But I do have two step daughters, and watching them develop certainly helps with my writing. Plus, the fact that I also act like a kid sometimes. By the end of the course, every one of my nonfiction articles had been sold to magazines, and a rough draft of my first novel, Dogsled Dreams, was complete.

I felt a little lost after I graduated without a tutor to look over my work. I didn’t believe in my own writing yet. But I revised, and revised again, joined Verla Kay’s Message Board for Children’s Writers and Illustrators, found a crit partner, and revised again. I sent it out to a few editors, but received only rejections.

After nine rejections, I took another look at it, and revised again. It sold to the next publisher I sent it to. One of the first people I emailed was Joyce, and she was almost as thrilled as I was. It felt so wonderful to share the news with her.

Now I have an agent, Caryn Wiseman of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and she gives perceptive suggestions that help make my writing richer.

I think great writing mentors are gold for a writer in any stage of their career. I’ve been very blessed with wise teachers to learn from.

As someone working with a publicist, how did you identify that person? Why did you decide to go with professional help? What steps are the two of you taking to raise awareness of your new release?

I heard about Curious City through my debut group the Elevensies. Kirsten Cappy joined us in a chat one evening, and I was impressed with her free advice for promoting our books as well as our group. Kirsten asks a potential client to send the book for her to read, and then does a free half hour phone consultation to discuss specific ideas suited to that book. At the end, a client may decide to hire her, or just pay for her ideas if you want to use them.

During our call, she tossed out a few ideas that I liked. But mostly, I was sold on her comment, “just call if you want to bounce ideas off me.”

I hired her with the plan to just do one of her ideas – a librarian giveaway of my book on the librarian listserv. I had no idea what a school librarian listserv was. But considering there are 14,000 potential librarian book buyers on it, I thought it sounded like a good idea.

As the release date loomed closer, that one task turned into many more. I started feeling overwhelmed with things to do, and passing them on to Kirsten was very welcome. Not only did she take some tasks off my plate, but she listened whenever I had a meltdown, gave free advice and suggestions whenever I had an idea, and basically helped me feel like I was not alone. There was someone else who knew my book, knew the market and what specific ways to get to that market.

Kirsten came up with two inspired ideas that she eventually talked me into doing, and I’m so glad.

First, she designed and printed a four-page booklet with all book information, reviews, and first chapter. It’s a very clever and inexpensive way to create interest in the book, without sending the actual book to book sellers. I also have something to bring with me to dogsled races to hand out to fans and mushers. As well, I was able to send them to other dogsled races for distribution.

Her second inspired idea – a junior musher video contest to be held on my website. Junior mushers could submit their video outlining their own “dogsled dreams” and visitors to the site could vote on the best video. This created interest in the book, brought traffic to my website, created dogsledding video content, and provided a solid connect between my book and real life junior mushers. I never would have come up with something so brilliant on my own, never mind have the time or expertise to pull it off.

Here is a list of what Kirsten Cappy of Curious City did for me and Dogsled Dreams:

1. Sent out ARCs to a few of her contacts and got two awesome reviews for Dogsled Dreams from a librarian as well as a famous musher and author.

2. Wrote a press release and distributed.

3. Designed a sell-sheet.

4. School library giveaway.

5. Facebook ad campaign.

6. Indie booksellers mail outs and distribution of promotional material.

7. Moral support and calming presence – priceless.

New Voice: Sarah Jamila Stevenson on The Latte Rebellion

Sarah Jamila Stevenson is the first-time author of The Latte Rebellion (Flux, 2011)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Our philosophy is simple: Promote a latte-colored world! —from the Latte Rebellion Manifesto

When high school senior Asha Jamison gets called a “towel head” at a pool party, the racist insult gives Asha and her best friend Carey a great money-making idea for a post-graduation trip. They’ll sell T-shirts promoting the Latte Rebellion, a club that raises awareness of mixed-race students.

Seemingly overnight, their “cause” goes viral and the T-shirts become a nationwide fad.

As new chapters spring up from coast to coast, Asha realizes that her simple marketing plan has taken on a life of its own-and it’s starting to ruin hers. Asha’s once-stellar grades begin to slip, threatening her Ivy League dreams, and her friendship with Carey is hanging by a thread. And when the peaceful underground movement turns militant, Asha’s school launches a disciplinary hearing.

Facing expulsion, Asha must decide how much she’s willing to risk for something she truly believes in.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I guess I’m a combination of plotter and plunger. For me, a story idea could start anywhere. An evocative name or turn of phrase that somehow “sings,” a plot event, a character, a what-if scenario. And just as every story starts from its own unique spark, every project so far has taken shape a little differently for me.

The Latte Rebellion started with just that phrase popping into my head–“latte rebellion”–and that got me speculating pretty quickly. Soon after that, a character started taking shape—Asha, the narrator—and I was off and running.

Usually, a scene will start forming in my head from that seed of an idea, and if it’s the kind of scene that won’t leave me alone, I’ll start writing. At this point in the process, I take a lot of notes, and I might start a very informal outline.

As I start writing, the plot and character and other ideas start to flow in more quickly, so the notes end up getting a bit more detailed. There’s always a fairly long stretch during which I’m writing and outlining and plotting and note-taking all at the same time.

If that sounds messy…yep, it is. In order to organize my thoughts, I often end up drawing a sort of flow chart so I can visualize how the different subplots relate to one another and how they progress in time. My thought process is very visual, so it’s easier for me to keep track of everything that way rather than using a more linear plot outline.

In any case, I almost never have a full outline when I start. Often, I’m halfway through the book before I’ve figured out how it’s going to end. But I almost always get there—I just need to have faith that the story will become more fleshed out in my head the more I work on it, even if I’m not quite sure how I’m going to get from Point A to Point B. As I write, though, it becomes clearer to me where the story should naturally go, how the characters would act and react.

Of course, sometimes I do get stuck, and in that case, it’s great to have my writing group to bounce ideas off of and help me figure things out. I have an amazing writing critique group!

That’s one major piece of advice that I’d offer beginning writers struggling with plot—getting a second (or third, or fourth) opinion on how your story’s progressing can be invaluable, especially if those “beta readers” do a lot of reading and writing themselves and can articulate what isn’t working. They may be able to help you brainstorm solutions, too.

Also, don’t be afraid to take a break from the project, if you’re completely stuck. Sometimes you just need a little time away to let your ideas percolate.

Read a lot, and think about what works or didn’t work in the plot of those books. Think about what kinds of stories you like to read (or watch), and see if you can incorporate elements of those stories into your own book. If you like suspense, for example, try injecting an element of suspense into your project. Do some experimental writing—ask yourself “what if” and see where it takes you. You might not ultimately use the resulting writing, but the process might usher you in a new creative direction.

The creative brain works in mysterious ways. I am still not entirely sure how I get from that tiny starting idea to a full novel, but it’s like pieces of a puzzle slowly falling into place and creating a complete picture. I slide a piece in here, a piece in there, and suddenly I start seeing where the rest of the puzzle pieces are supposed to go.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

I did worry about dating my manuscript—in fact, it’s something I worry about every time I write a story in a contemporary setting, not only because of how quickly technology changes, but also because of how quickly language changes.

In The Latte Rebellion, I tried to deal with this by making the references to technology as general as I could. It was a challenge, because there are events in the story that depend on technology, specifically the Internet. And some of that technology changed in just the couple of years I was working on the book!

I realized that in order to retain a sense of authenticity, I’d have to update some details. Internet printing services became a lot more widespread, for instance—so I had to cut an entire scene that I really liked in which Asha and her artist cousin spend a marathon evening screenprinting T-shirts. It was something that my editors at Flux pointed out to me early on in the revision process, and though I was sorry to cut the scene, it ultimately made the story feel a lot more contemporary, and it fit in much better with the rest of the plot, too.

Ultimately, though—just to be realistic about it—most books are going to become dated at some point. All I can do is try my best to stick with themes and characters that have staying power, write my stories as well as I can, and try to avoid anything that will date the story too rapidly.

And in the end, I guess I’ll just have to keep writing more books to replace the dated ones. And, what do you know, I was planning on doing that anyway.

Cynsational Notes

Check out the book reader guide for The Latte Rebellion.

New Voice: Ashley Hope Pérez on What Can’t Wait

Ashley Hope Pérez is the first-time author of What Can’t Wait (Carolrhoda Lab, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Seventeen-year-old Marisa Moreno has smarts and plenty of promise, but she’s marooned in a broken-down Houston neighborhood—and in a Mexican immigrant family where making ends meet matters more than making it to college.

When her home life becomes unbearable, Marisa looks for comfort in a dangerous place, and suddenly neither her best friend nor her boyfriend can get through to her. Because she has a secret that makes it impossible to walk through the crowded school halls without cringing, a secret that will grow darker until she faces it.

How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level? What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal? What techniques have worked best and why?

Ultimately, this is the single most important piece of the writing puzzle—all the talent in the world doesn’t do a lick of good if we can’t figure out how to get ourselves to put in the time to write.

In 2006, when I first started working on What Can’t Wait, I was teaching high-school English full-time in Houston. I decided that year to set two big goals for myself: to write a YA novel and to complete a marathon. In many ways, writing and long-distance running are forever paired in my mind. In both cases, it’s the training day after day that makes success possible.

Finishing the Houston Marathon in January of 2007 gave a tremendous boost to my writing efforts. Because I’m not a natural athlete, to see that my body could learn to travel such long distances—precisely because I stuck to my training plan—brought home the importance of being faithful in my daily exercise as a writer. The sense of satisfaction I felt crossing the finish line of the marathon gave me a kind of “body knowledge” of success that I used to help myself imagine what it would be like to actually finish the book.

I also turned to many of the same motivational and time-management techniques that I developed working with teenagers to get myself to do the hard work of writing.

(Really, my writer self is very much like a teenager—always trying to get out of work, afraid of failure, and way too concerned with what everyone else will think.)

In the classroom, I worked hard to help my students value every minute and make it productive. I also encouraged them to break large tasks (writing a research paper, developing an original Shakespeare interpretation, applying to college) into manageable chunks.

When I felt tempted to get up and make a snack or otherwise distract myself from writing, I imagined my students collectively crossing their arms and raising their eyebrows. Where would my moral authority go—all that talk of delayed gratification, working toward a goal, knowing that something is hard an doing it anyway—if I couldn’t or wouldn’t do what I asked them to do every time they came to class?

To this day, if I am having a hard time following through on my writing schedule, I break out the teacher timer and lock myself to the desk until it goes off.

For me, the hardest part about writing is getting that crappy first draft out. I’m not a very fluid writer; I tend to agonize over every sentence. Sometimes I set word goals instead of time goals to just generate pages and to try to “get around” the word-Nazi editor I have in my brain.

The fun, in my opinion, starts once I have something with characters, a beginning, a middle, and an end that I can revise and revise and revise. In between drafting and revising, I read lots of books on craft to help myself identify the problems and opportunities in the draft. I do things like writing down the first and last sentences of every chapter so that I can “catch” chapters that aren’t pulling their weight and so that I can get a feel for the larger movements of the novel.

With every draft—and for What Can’t Wait I think there were probably ten substantial revisions—I start typing in a new document rather than just making changes to the old file.

This is very important psychologically because it helps me to get back into a story, both at the level of the sentence and in terms of the characters’ emotions and relationships. At this point, it is sometimes surprisingly easy for me to write new scenes or rewrite ones that aren’t working. I guess I thrive on the freedom that comes with having a clear purpose; once I know a little better what I’m up to, the writing isn’t so scary.

I also switch between using the computer and working longhand. I find it helpful to jot down a problem or question I have on an open page of my notebook; the blank space around it seems to serve as an invitation to solutions. These “solutions” tend to come in little half-thoughts and ideas that sprout up in clumps all over the page.

My other tricks for solving problems in my writing involve reading drafts aloud and “talking” through plotting issues or character concerns with an MP3 recorder. I usually listen to audio books while I exercise, but sometimes I talk my ideas out into the recorder instead (this results in some very breathy brainstorming). I’m sure the people on the trail where I run think I am craaazy. They are probably right.

These are just some of the things that have worked for me. The bottom line, when it comes down to getting published, is for a writer to find whatever strategies she or he needs to keep developing the story and polishing the writing.

With every revision, I distinctly remember thinking, “Okay, now I’ve really done everything I can with this.” And then I’d take time away from the book, come back to it, and discover that I still had real work to do. For me, that was exciting, not discouraging. But now that What Can’t Wait is in print, I have to let it go, and I get to turn to new projects.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

The most important factor in getting quality representation is having a strong manuscript. This seems so obvious that it often doesn’t even get said, but I know firsthand how tempting it can be to look for an agent before your work is ready for that stage.

Back in 2007, early in a very premature agent search, I was fortunate enough to have someone tell me, “Look, you’ve got something here, but you still have work to do on the writing front.” So I put away my query letters and went back to work on my manuscript.

A year later, I made a fresh and more focused effort. In getting the lay of the land, I found Noah Lukeman’s How to Write a Great Query Letter: Inside Tips and Techniques for Success (Kindle, 2009) and Nathan Bransford’s blog very helpful.

I also read The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit by Elizabeth Lyon (Perigree, 2002) and implemented Lyon’s idea of Marketing Mondays. The concept is that you dedicate your writing time on one day to doing all the “business” stuff related to getting published—researching agents, writing query letters, packaging requested manuscripts, mailing packets out.

This compartmentalization helped me to be more strategic in my quest for representation and kept that quest from overshadowing my real work of writing. Once you get an agent, you get that Monday back because she takes over the labor of handling business.

To find agents who might be a good fit for my work, I spent a lot of time reading the acknowledgment pages of books by YA authors I admire. I also read author interviews and looked for mentions of agents.

In a few cases, when I couldn’t find out the information I wanted from standard Internet stalking, I emailed the author to ask about his or her representation. Many agents also provide information about their interests and favorite books on their websites, which in some ways is more helpful than knowing who they are actually representing, since agents may not want to take on a client whose work is too similar to the novels of an author they already represent.

I researched every agent I queried and tailored my letter to that individual. Even when you have an awesome basic query letter worked out with the help of Brandsford, Lyon, and Lukeman’s advice, this personalization takes time. Still, it’s a critical step. Referring to specifics in the agent’s interests, clients she or he represents, or other details relevant to her is one way to signal your genuine interest—not just in securing representation—but in her particular talents as an agent.

Once I started looking for an agent in earnest, I sent out between three and five new query letters each Monday for about two months. By the end of that time, I started hearing back from agents. While I did get some form rejections, I also got a lot of manuscript requests and, eventually, personal responses to my novel.

I attribute this less to any particular awesomeness on my part than to the fact that I handpicked the agents to whom I submitted, so they were more likely to be interested in my work—or at least to wish me well. After about five months, I got to the dating stage with a couple of agents.

I’m thankful to have chosen and been chosen by my wonderful agent, Steven Chudney. One of the things that sold me on his representation is that he is focused almost exclusively on young-adult and children’s books. It was important for me that Steven had a long list of relevant contacts in the world of YA publishing since it was something of a slow process for us to find the right editor for What Can’t Wait.

Thanks to Steven, we eventually did, and I’ve loved working with Andrew Karre and Carolrhoda Lab. In both an agent and an editor, personality does matter. I tend to be a bit obsessive about details, and I’m fortunate that Steven and Andrew have been tremendously patient with my endless requests for clarifications and specifics. They are wonderful colleagues.

Cynsational Notes

Read an excerpt of What Can’t Wait, and check out related teaching resources.