Pub Rants

Category: QandA

This Month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna MacKenzie’s client Sarah Zachrich Jeng, author of upcoming novel The Other Me.

In The Other Me, Kelly is trying to make sense of a life that feels unfamiliar. She finds answers that lead to more questions. What is your process of mapping out a mystery that grows throughout the novel?

I spent some time brainstorming ideas for how Kelly could investigate—what if she interviews a certain character? What if she finds some sort of document?—and tried to figure out what she might discover using each method, what bearing that new information would have on her “case,” and where else it might lead. Since I did a lot of this in revisions, I knew most of what she would ultimately need to find out. It was just a matter of getting her there in a way that didn’t feel like too much of a leap.

Do you write the novel ending first, last, or somewhere in between? How does this help you build suspense?

I usually don’t have the ending written or even outlined too exactly when I start. Though I like to have some idea of where I’m going, the last couple of things I’ve written have ended up in very different places than I thought they would. With The Other Me, I wrote two or three different endings, because the middle of the book had changed in ways that demanded the ending change as well. Generally revisions are where the real attention to pacing and tension gets paid.

Kelly goes through a massive, unexpected jump that tests her own memory. The life she is told she lived does not match the life she thought she lived. What is your method for making two versions of the same character?

Spreadsheets. Really. I had a tab for her Chicago life and a tab for her Michigan life, with dates and key events from birth until the novel’s present. I also made lists of things that might have changed, such as her appearance, and the ripple effects of those differences, like how her brother Nick now has a son and a decent job, because since Kelly didn’t go to an out-of-state school he had no excuse to keep living at home to look after their parents. 

Not everything was super precise. Our memories play tricks on us all the time, and I figured in a parallel universe kind of situation, some things would just be different because a butterfly flapped its wings a thousand years ago. But I tried to include enough plausible anomalies to keep Kelly off balance.

What was your process for writing a different take on a familiar trope? How did you follow the rules of the fictional world as you wrote the story?

I’m going to try really hard to answer this without spoilers. The short answer is “more lists.” (Can you tell I’m a list maker?) I had a list of the way events proceeded linearly, as well as according to each key character’s perception. I had a list of the principles that a certain important piece of technology in the book operates under, and theories that either correspond with or contradict what happens in the novel. I wasn’t too concerned with accurate science (for reasons that will be obvious once you’ve read the book), but I was concerned with consistency.

I also wanted to make sure that by the end, I’d made it clear(ish) to readers why Kelly’s life changes all at once, at the exact moment it does. So I spent a lot of time thinking through the implications of what happens to cause that, and writing and rewriting. I drew this really ugly diagram of [redacted thing that happens] so I could have a graphical representation to refer back to when I forgot what a certain character was supposed to know about at a certain part of the story.

How much did you draw from your own life when creating the characters for The Other Me? Do you believe advice to write what you know is helpful or restrictive?

I played in rock bands in my twenties, but once I got a “real” job and had a child, that lifestyle wasn’t practical anymore. However, I found myself missing both the creativity and the feeling that something exciting could happen at any time. (When you live in the suburbs and go to bed at 10pm, not much happens that’s unexpected, except maybe getting puked on.) So writing The Other Me was both a creative outlet and a way for me to work out my feelings about the ways in which my life had changed.

“Write what you know” can be helpful when you’re feeling your way into a new project or trying to evoke emotions. My writing is always more resonant if I’m trying to capture a feeling or an experience that I myself have had, even if I’m coming at it from a different direction. That said, like any writing guideline it’s not absolute. If you decide you want your main character to have a job you don’t know anything about, that’s what research is for. “Know what you write” might be more apt advice in those situations.

I do think writing is enriched by personal knowledge. As I’ve learned more about the zero-sum nature of publishing, I’ve come to believe that white, privileged writers (who are still the majority of published authors) shouldn’t appropriate the stories of marginalized people, when those stories could be better portrayed by authors from those groups. 

What is the greatest lesson one of your characters has taught you?

That one thing you think you want is probably not the thing that’s going to make you happy.

What is one of your favorite lines from The Other Me?

Kelly: “Everyone has regrets. If you don’t you’re either an a**hole or you’re lying to yourself.”

The Other Me by Sarah Zachrich Jeng releases August 10, 2021. Preorder the book here!

Fan Favorites and Likability

This month, we asked three NLA authors about their fan-favorite characters and what makes them so likable.

Which of your characters is a fan favorite? What makes them likable? Is that important? Why or why not?

Stacey Lee, author of The Downstairs Girl and Luck of the Titanic

Jo Kuan of The Downstairs Girl seems to be a favorite. As an advice columnist, she is principled, and opinionated in a way that real life doesn’t allow her to be. She also has a bit of a wit, and I think that endears her to readers.

Swati Teerdhala, author of The Tiger at Midnight series

One of the fan favorites in my series, The Tiger at Midnight trilogy, is actually a side character. Alok, the best friend of Kunal, one of the main characters, quickly became the character that garnered fan mail and questions. He also got into my heart as well, refusing to let me push him to the side in the later books. Alok is the type of character who is fiercely loyal but isn’t afraid to take Kunal, his best friend, down a peg or two. He’s also the person in the room who often says what everyone’s thinking. We all have a friend like that, or we are that friend! He’s a character that is really easy to understand and root for in all situations and that relatability is what makes him so likable. I don’t think fan favorites have to be likable necessarily, but there needs to be something about that character that makes people connect.

Celesta Rimington, author of The Elephant’s Girl and Tips for Magicians

I’ve had very positive reader responses about the character of Roger in The Elephant’s Girl. He appears to be quite the fan favorite, and he even made some “Favorite Fathers in Middle Grade” lists on Twitter. Roger is the train engineer at the zoo, an aficionado of “old things,” and the rescuer of the little girl he finds after the tornado. He turns his life upside down to become Lexington’s foster father and to protect her.

Roger is likable because he is both strong and gentle, he’s extremely patient with Lexington, and he shows unconditional love for this quirky young girl as though she were his own. He’s also a bit quirky himself as a man in a contemporary world who restores steam trains and believes in ghosts. I think for my young readers, Roger represents support and safety. For my adult readers, he also represents the memorable qualities in beloved father figures they may have known or admired.

I think that in middle-grade books especially, it’s important to include likable characters with whom young readers can feel safe. A book isn’t interesting without conflict, but perhaps it isn’t memorable without characters the readers would wish to know in real life. And if you want your readers to keep reading, you’ll want to write characters who cause your readers to care about what happens to them.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

This month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry excitedly interviewed Quressa Robinson’s client Brittney Morris, author of SLAY and her recently released novel The Cost of Knowing.

How has writing for other platforms, like video games, aided in your writing for novels?

When writing for video games, you have to take the player into account as a second storyteller. It forces you to give the reader (or in this case, player) enough respect to let them decipher and infer things on their own—like tension between characters, etc, which is a great skill to have when writing books too!

How do you go about incorporating supernatural abilities into a character who can still be related to?

Supernatural abilities come with supernatural weaknesses. Mental and emotional ones, not just physical. Relatable characters have strengths, weaknesses, goals, and fears, so I try to make sure those all shine through on the page.

The characters in your books, like Alex, a young Black boy trying to do right by his younger brother, all have a well thought out backstory which many can relate to. How do you map this out before beginning a book?

Thank you! I give myself 24 hours to outline before jumping into drafting, which forces me to listen to my characters as they give me their first impressions. I can’t let myself overthink it, or it won’t feel real. Their backstories, their personalities, even their names, are almost always the very first one I thought of.

What is the impact that you want your books to have?

I want to take a concept my readers have maybe lived with for awhile (one in The Cost of Knowing is “accidental racism,” for example), and show it to them through a different lens, and a different angle, on new terms. I want my readers to think about things in new ways and enjoy the ride along the way!

Follow Brittney online:

This month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna MacKenzie’s client Jonathan Messinger, author of the series The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian, as well as a podcast of the same name.

You established an audience for your stories through a different avenue. Did you find that made it easier to bring words to a page?

It definitely made it easier. I had over 100 episodes to find the personalities and voices of the characters, and to figure out what resonated with kids, and what jokes or plot lines fell flat. It was a little difficult at first to write for a book, rather than a podcast, because with a podcast I have all sorts of crutches I can rely on: music, sound effects, funny voices. Putting the story in a book meant I had to try to evoke those same feelings just with the words.

What parts of your own personality did you use to write for a young audience? 

When I published a book of stories many years ago, a critic said I had written “fiction for aging hipsters.” I was 27! I’ve never forgotten (or forgiven!) that line, probably because it was accurate. As a 40-something dad now, I’ve aged out of hipsterdom. Writing for kids has meant stripping away all pretense, not trying to be “cool” or “interesting,” just trying to tell a good story that connects with the audience. It’s really allowed me to be more myself and have a lot of fun. I try to pack as many jokes as I can into the story, because that is a very dad thing to do.

What writing techniques did you focus on or leave behind to suit your reading audience?

When I submitted my first manuscript, my editor had me shorten or break up almost every sentence. I got rid of all the circuitous phrasing, many commas and loads of parentheticals. It was a humbling and fascinating process. Because I had written stories for a young audience on a podcast, I could make almost anything work by how I paced or paused as I was telling the story. But on the page, I had to be much more direct. The books are way better for it, of course. Not just for the kids, but on a very technical level, the writing is just better because I stopped trying to impress myself.

What advice would you give to an author who wants to write for a younger audience?

Read the work aloud. You can see how sentences drone on or get lost just by reading it out loud. Also, I’d say read it to a kid. I have, with my kids, something I call “the Lego test.” If I’m reading a story to them and they reach over and start picking up the Legos, I know I’ve lost them, and that part needs to be shortened or tossed altogether. It’s instant, ego-bruising feedback, and it’s very helpful.

Follow Jonathan online:
Podcast
Twitter

It’s rare to have a guest interview here at Pub Rants. I am delighted to welcome Viniyanka Prasad to the blog. I’ve known her for years. She has something awesome cookin’ here in the Mile-Hi city, so I’m shining the spotlight on her and The Word, a nonprofit Denver-based writing sanctuary for diverse voices. This terrific organization launched in 2016 and their first programs became available in 2017, and now Viniyanka is launching a new conference called [margins.] this summer. This is a welcome addition to the Denver scene, so welcome, Viniyanka!

You are the founder and executive director of The Word. Tell us when the organization launched and what is your missiYou are the founder and executive director of The Word. Tell us about your mission.

Hello and thank you so much having me to share more about The Word! In a whirlwind few years, we’ve had the privilege to offer dozens of workshops, mentorships, submissions opportunities, and reader events.

We fight for equity and celebrate storytelling from marginalized communities. In the ideal literary world, there is equal access to resources that amplify stories and equal freedom to share with the creator’s own vision. 

You are launching a new conference called [margins.] in 2020. Tell us about this conference. What should readers know about how they can participate in various capacities?

The [margins.] conference (August 1-2) is a space for community and craft building that places writers from the margins at the center. We’ll be talking writing craft, publishing know-how, and literary activism. 

The strength of a space like [margins.] is in its ability to build lasting connection, even in our new 2020 virtual setting. So, it’s not just an array of pre-recorded sessions for consumption. 

We’re creating small group gatherings, one-on-one feedback opportunities, and community roundtables so that attendees will walk away with writing/publishing tools as well as a new family to look to for support. 

Our celebration is for everyone in a number of ways! We’ll be hosting a public virtual bookfair with readings and titles everyone will want to explore. We’re already hosting a series of discussions that are free and open to the public, so please join in throughout the next month!

We also invite potential presenters and publishers who would like to submit titles or presenters to reach out. Finally, everyone can be a part of supporting this vision during our Kickstarter which has just a short time left to meet our goal—that’s also a place to build community, for example with our virtual book club offering! More information can be found here, and our continually updated list of programs and speakers is here.

Why is it important to provide safe spaces for marginalized voices to be heard both by each other and by the world?

Writing from the margins often means explaining the need for your story to be told, the need for greater representation. It is an exhausting way to exist in literary spaces. When a wide range of writers from across marginalized backgrounds gather, everyone can show up as themselves—no majority within which you do not fit. And when we remove the need to explain why we are here, we get to actually do the things that brought us: find our strongest voices, brainstorm the best ways to represent our communities while sharing our truths, and learn how to navigate healthy writing careers.

Creating this space shows our communities, and everyone, what a literary world that embraces a variety of perspectives can be. The incomparable poet and activist Suzi Q. Smith, also [margins.] co-organizer, reminds us often that we have to imagine ourselves in the future we want before we can build the future that we need. With [margins.] we get to do one better: we get to make that future a micro-reality right now.

What would you like to tell agents who are looking for #ownvoices clients? What do agents need to learn most?

A very welcome question, and an agent who is asking this is asking the best one. To answer this thoroughly would probably require an entire conference itself, and certainly a range of voices other than mine (another project for us one of these days)! With hopes of being helpful here, I’ll focus on an important and core consideration: the agent’s questions about their own identity.

In any space where equity and inclusion are challenges, each of us brings our own vulnerabilities, which, yes, come with defenses. To be truly open to other perspectives, we need to clear out our own junk by acknowledging our own internal tapestries of challenges and privileges. It helps us trust in another person’s “unimaginable” experience without feeling that it erases what we each have lived. It helps us balance our gut connection with a humble openness to artforms that we haven’t been primed to understand.

To any agent whose first reaction is skepticism to that suggestion, I ask you a question: is it possible that your skepticism is a defense?

What are the greatest challenges facing writers from marginalized communities today?

I think it’s important to make room in our minds for the universe of interrelated complexities that contribute. From not seeing enough of ourselves in literature so that we internalize the idea that we do not belong, to not having the soft inroads that exist because of insularity that has been perpetuated over time, to the repeated experience of manuscripts reaching publishers who do not know what to do with them. I could go on, and that is why The Word has to engage readers, writers and the publishing industry with its work.

I think at the moment there is a real danger in the idea that publishing is progressing due to “diversity” trending. We’ve been here before; this is not the first time in publishing history with a push for diversity-focused acquisitions or hiring initiatives. We are repeating ourselves because victory was declared based on limited, short-term gains. 

I also believe that we are in a place of unique momentum. To harness that for lasting change, the literary world needs to shift from initiatives to a vision for sustained practice. We also need to continually be aware of the risks for tokenization along this path.

What is your greatest hope for the future of diversity and representation in storytelling and publishing?

Complete equity is the utopian goal we should always stubbornly demand, but I’ll also offer up an interim goal.

Right now, with so little representation, each book from a marginalized writer carries something close to all the hopes and pain for all the people who have ever felt unheard. One book should be that—one story thoughtfully and lovingly created. This weight stacked upon writers from the margins, to heal every hurt within their communities, is of course an impossible one. It will absolutely continue to limit which stories are shared. 

So, my hope is that we do more than just invite new storytellers to the table. My hope is that the literary community acknowledges the unhealed wounds caused by underrepresentation, a first step toward an effective balm. I hope we then see the old table as just that, and trust that there is something better to be built together. 

I think this can be the most debilitating mistake an aspiring writer can make. There be dragons if you start down this mental path.

I recently gave a talk to Regis University’s MFA in Creative Writing students. In the fifteen-minute Q&A, one participant asked why it was so hard to get a literary agent to even look at her project. I could hear the frustration in her voice. I didn’t have a ready reply because the truth is that there is no good answer.

Writing is personal business. And any response and/or rejection can definitely feel like a commentary on your talent and who you are as a person.

But here is the reason you need to start thinking like an agent and less like a writer when it comes to submitting your material. If someone passes on your work, that rejection is not a commentary on your qualities as a human being. In a lot of instances, it’s not even a commentary on your ability or talent as a writer!

Let me repeat that: A rejection is often not a commentary on your writing talent.

I can cite a bundle of different reasons why an agent or publisher may pass on your work, reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with your writing ability. Don’t believe me? Here are a few (and in no particular order):

  • The agent/publisher has seen two-dozen concepts just like that one in the last four weeks.
  • That concept trend was hot, so now the Publisher has bought too many similar projects for their list and will not be acquiring any more.
  • The agent has an aversion to that type of story. I know a well-respected literary agent who personally cannot handle any story in which a child is in danger, and so will pass on any submission containing such scenes.
  • The editor could not get support in-house from the sales/marketing team to acquire the novel.
  • An agent read the story and thought the writer was talented, but for whatever reason, just didn’t connect with it enough to offer representation.
  • Bad timing. The agent was on vacation or at a conference, or just back to the office, and is simply swamped. It’s hard to be excited about taking on someone new if you are buried in work that can’t be accomplished in a 40-hour work week. And, LOL, no good agent works only 40 hours. It’s more like 60+ a week.
  • There’s talent on the page, but the editor or agent might think a significant revision is necessary, and taking the hour to write up an editorial letter isn’t going to happen.
  • The novel just has an element the agent is never enthusiastic about. For example, some agents are never going to take on a fairy-tale retelling or superhero story. It’s just not his or her thing.

I could go on. There are so many reasons that when I spoke at Regis, the best advice I could offer is this: Do not use writing as a means of validating who you are as a person.

No matter what an industry person’s response is to your written work, your writing is only one facet of who you are as a human being. Don’t make it everything, or you may lose your joy of writing and find the whole business very depressing indeed.

Photo Credit: BK

(Just a note, this post is from our archives. Some references and links may be from past years.)

STATUS: Working though 245 emails in the inbox. You can’t hide from me!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now?  DON’T STOP by Foster The People

An yet, writers always have some confusion on what is the difference between a pitch and a query. Seems like a good topic to tackle (as I can already see a myriad list of sub-questions within this topic).

Let’s start with the basics.

A query is a professional business letter that introduces your work to an agent or editor. These days, this letter is sent by email rather than snail mail. In the query letter, you will have something called a pitch paragraph. The query letter will also contain an introduction and the author’s bio or credentials. It will be one-page long.

A pitch is the verbal delivery of the main pitch paragraph from your query letter. In other words, you need to have a quick way to sum up the opening plot catalyst of your novel in a sentence or two while talking to someone. That way your audience gets a clear and immediate gist of what your novel is about.

Here’s a great example from a novel I just sold by David Ramirez called MINCEMEAT. It’s a good example because in this instance, I actually did something unique. I pulled out the pitch from the main pitch paragraph. I don’t always do that but I did so in this instance. Also, when I was in New York in May, I verbally PITCHED this work to editors using the one sentence pitch highlighted in pink.

Here’s my submit letter to editors–which in essence is the agent’s QUERY letter to editors (to draw a comparison to what writers are doing when they approach agents):

Hello XXX,
It’s pretty rare that I send an email about a manuscript submission that I can sum up in a one sentence pitch. Trust me, I tend to be wordier than that!

But here it is:
All that is left of humanity is on a thousand-year journey to a new home aboard one ship, The Noah, and this ship is carrying a dangerous serial killer.

Intrigued? I hope so. At its heart, the concept for this SF novel MINCEMEAT by David Ramirez is quite simple but what unfolds is layer after layer of complexity.

Since most editors prefer I don’t leave it at one sentence, here’s a little bit more about the manuscript:

Priss Dempsey is a City Planning Administrator on the Noah, a vessel carrying the last survivors of Earth on a thousand-year journey to a new home.  She is equal parts psychic, economist, hacker and bureaucrat, a vital part of the mission, but her life seems to lose purpose after she experiences Breeding Duty.  Kept asleep through the impregnation and birthing that all women are obligated to undergo, she still feels a lost connection to the child she will never be permitted to know.

Policeman Leonard Barrens approaches her with a request for hacking support in the unofficial investigation of his mentor’s violent death. Only Barrens knows that a crime has been committed because he came across the mutilated remains before Information Security could cover it up. To everyone else, the missing man was merely “Retired,” nothing unusual.

Their investigation takes them through the lost dataspaces in the Nth Web and deep into the uninhabited regions of the ship, where they discover that the answer may not be as simple as a Mincemeat Killer after all. And what they do with that answer will determine the fate of all humanity.

May I send this novel your way?

All Best,
Kristin

Next up, I’ll tackle the log line versus the pitch.

 

Creative Commons Credit: AJ Cann

Fridays With Agent Kristin: Episode 5: Are There Off-Limit Topics for YA & MG Novels?

STATUS: It’s Friday. Over and out!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? YOU MAKE LOVING FUN by Jewel

In Episode 5, I tackle the #1 question when it comes to young adult and middle grade!

I’d say “enjoy” but technical difficulties are making it impossible to upload!

I’ll try again tomorrow. We might have Fridays With Kristin on Monday. LOL.

It’s really Saturdays with Kristin…. I think I finally got it to work.

Fridays With Agent Kristin: Episode 4 -Talking Middle Grade

STATUS: Looking forward to Monday. Sounds odd, I know, but it’s a holiday in Publishing so it will be nice and quiet. No emails.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? IN THE MOOD by Glenn Miller Orchestra

In Episode 4, I identify what I see as the three different age levels within middle grade and how those levels dictate the appropriate word count and page length for a middle grade work.

This is the first video I filmed in the evening. Boy does that make a difference in lighting! I also need to work on the appropriate length of time for transition stills. *grin*

It’s all a work in process.

Enjoy!

Fridays With Agent Kristin: Episode 4 -Talking Middle Grade

STATUS: Looking forward to Monday. Sounds odd, I know, but it’s a holiday in Publishing so it will be nice and quiet. No emails.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? IN THE MOOD by Glenn Miller Orchestra

In Episode 4, I identify what I see as the three different age levels within middle grade and how those levels dictate the appropriate word count and page length for a middle grade work.

This is the first video I filmed in the evening. Boy does that make a difference in lighting! I also need to work on the appropriate length of time for transition stills. *grin*

It’s all a work in process.

Enjoy!