So when I found out I won a Shrinking Violets contest and would be spending the evening with Mary Hershey and Robin LaFevers, I was over the moon. Literally. They were my date for the Blue Moon Ball at SCBWI-LA.
And what a date it was! Can you imagine spending the evening with these two, asking them questions? Basking in the glow that surrounds them? Fabulous doesn't begin to cover it!
Robin has been busy visiting schools in Texas, writing and editing Nathanial Fludd books and Theodosia books, and dispensing advice at her blog, but she took some time out to answer some questions for me about herself and her writing.
After the Washington Post article that rankled so many SCBWI members, I’d like to point out that you got your big break at an SCBWI-LA conference, right? Could you briefly tell the story?
I was “discovered” at an SCBWI National Conference. It was, needless to say, my best conference ever. I’d submitted a manuscript for the conference’s manuscript critique service, and by the luck of the draw I got Erin Murphy as my critiquer. She was a new agent at the time and liked my manuscript so much that she not only nominated it for the Sue Alexander Award, but offered me representation as well. I cannot even describe that dizzy, heady feeling of having someone else believe in your work enough that they agree to attach their career to yours. Swoon-worthy.
Interestingly enough, I’d had the same manuscript at a publisher for about two years. I’d check in with them every three months or so and they’d assure me they were still interested in it. However, within six weeks after signing with an agent, we’d sumbitted a revised manuscript and had a firm offer in hand. Agents really do speed the process up!
I've heard writers go back and forth about whether it's better to query agents or query publishers. Had you queried other agents before Erin signed you on or were you just going directly to publishers?
I had queried other agents, but not with the book that Erin actually signed. One of the reasons was because I thought I had had a serious expression of interest from the publisher, but it never quite materialized. At that point, I decided to give up on kids books for a while and try my hand at something else. I settled on women’s fiction. So I studied that extensively for a couple of years, went to even more conferences and workshops and learned tons. I then decided to apply everything I’d learned to my children’s manuscript and try submitting one last time before moving on. That’s when the luck of the draw at SCBWI’s mss critique paired me with Erin.
Having said that, I had queried publishers directly on a number of earlier projects, and had received some very nice personalized rejections. However, a lot of those houses I dealt with are now closed houses, so if I were starting out today, I would probably query agents first, unless I had met or heard a particular editor speak at a conference and felt they were the perfect editor for my project.
What was your day job before you got published? How long did it take before you were able to give it up?
I had been working for a wedding accessories company and coordinating their creative and marketing efforts, designing their catalog, and running their (very) small publishing arm. I learned tons about the logistics of publishing from that job. That’s where I learned how important the production schedules were, what happened when someone was late, what co-op dollars were, the concept of actually buying table and end cap placement at the big chains, how hard it was to get into Target, that sort of thing.
I received a three book contract for the Lowthar’s Blade trilogy at about the same time that the company relocated to the Midwest. I decided then to not look for another job so I could focus on meeting the rather tight trilogy deadlines. I think that was about Aug 2003, just before my first book came out. I had sold one other book, Werewolf Rising, to the publisher, and then this trilogy. If it hadn’t been for the three book contract, and my company relocating, I would probably not have quit my day job just yet, but it worked out in the end. So I’d say it was after having sold five books.
You’ve averaged a book a year since The Falconmaster came out in 2003. How long did you work on this novel before it was published?
It took me about nine months to finish my first version of The Falconmaster. Then I revised it a couple of times and sent it out. One publisher held on to it for a long time (see above) but I continued to send it out to a few other places as well. After gathering a healthy number of rejections, I put it aside and decided to turn my attention elsewhere for a while. I decided to try women’s fiction and took a bunch more classes and workshops and attended an RWA National Conference where I learned tons. After about a year and a half, I revised the manuscript one more time, using everything I’d learned, then submitted it to the SCBWI mss critique above.
You mentioned classes and workshops you took. It sounds like you were willing to invest a lot of time and money in yourself to build your craft. Where did you take classes? What do you recommend for beginning writers?
Well, I was willing to do whatever it took to learn the craft of writing, but I didn’t have a ton of money; we were raising a family and I worked part time, so there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room in the family budget. But city college classes were relatively free, as were the adult ed classes. Adult ed, in particular, offered a huge selection of writing classes. In fact, it was at one of those classes, taught by the amazing Lee Wardlaw, that I met Mary Hershey. We tentatively agreed to meet and critique each other’s manuscripts, and then rapidly realized how much we had in common. We’ve been fast friends ever since. I can’t say how wonderful it’s been to have a buddy to take this writing journey with. It has made it a much more rich and rewarding experience, by far!
I also attended a number of SCBWI writer’s days and workshops, and also some RWA conferences and workshops. RWA in particular, provided their attendees with a ton of craft information. I think part of it is because romances are such internally focused books, it was really important for writers to learn how to structure such an inward focused character journey.
You have a lot of tips for beginning writers on your website and you and Mary Hershey offer advice to introverted writers at the Shrinking Violets website. What motivates your generosity to other writers?
I like to reach out to other authors for a lot of reasons. For one, there are so many wonderful people out there who want to be writers and there is really so little I can do for them, so I am only too happy to do what I can. Being nice costs nothing, and it makes the world such a nicer place to live in. Besides, other writers are my tribe! Scratch a writer, find a geek. Or an odd duck. Or someone who was voiceless as a child. Or has a rich detailed inner life. I relate to all of that!
Plus, I remember feeling incredibly shy when I was just starting out. Trying to enter into a conversation with a published author and become a part of the official writing community felt like an insurmountable goal. I’d love to remove that sense of a barrier for other beginning authors. And I’ve met so many generous, giving, supportive writers along my own journey that I want to continue that tradition and be a part of that incredible giving group.
Not long ago on your blog you wrote about all the practice novels hiding under your bed. Do you ever think about pulling one out to work on or are you more enamored with your new ideas?
You know, I have pulled a couple of those practice novels out from under the bed and looked at them again. Most of them are not salvageable. The initial idea is too flawed or doesn’t support a full novel. In fact, that was one of my biggest stumbling blocks in those earliest attempts—I simply didn’t have an idea or premise big enough to sustain an entire novel length arc. And even if that weren’t the case, I do tend to be more enamored of my newer ideas.
With the exception of the Theodosia series, you seem to write a lot of “boy” books. Were you a tomboy growing up? Which of your characters do you most identify with?
I was a tomboy out of necessity. I had up to seven brothers at one time, and being the only girl, there was simply no way NOT to be a tomboy. It was self defense. :-] However, the reason so many of my earlier books were boy books was because I had two sons and I was immersed in their reading world and boy stuff and those were the stories I was drawn to at the time. Their growing up freed me from that focus and allowed me to return to some of my own girlish interests.
Of all my characters to date, I identify most with Theodosia. So many of her problems and challenges and hurdles are the same ones I faced at that age. Everything from having to be responsible for younger siblings and to taking care of the adults around me, to being hyper sensitive and having it dismissed. I was not, however, quite as resourceful as she was and only wish I could have been as confident as Theo!
I know you’re working on a YA along with another Theodosia book and at least two more Beastologist books. How do you keep everything straight in your head?
You know, keeping the characters straight isn’t really even an issue. They are so real to me, and so very separate, that they are pretty much impossible to mix up. The part that can be hard to keep straight is the different plots and twists and arcs, so I usually only work on one of those at a time. And it’s not that I confuse them with each other so much as that it becomes very much like a traffic jam in my head, with all the ideas tangled up and in each others way so that nothing gets through.
Do you plan to write any adult books or are you happily ensconced in kid lit?
Well even though I am very happily ensconced in kid lit, I do have an adult book--women’s fiction--that I wrote. I still love that book, and in spite of the efforts of a hugely successful adult agent, was unable to sell it. The medieval YA I’m working on started out as an adult book, but has now either morphed into a YA or, more likely, finally revealed itself as a YA. I think that at some point I will write some adult stories, but only because I have a couple of ideas that call to me that can’t be written as YA or middle grade. But I don’t foresee that happening for a number of years. I have too many YA and MG books screaming to be written.
What made you decide to write fantasy?
Fantasy feels more true to my inner reality than standard realisitic fiction does. I cut my reading teeth on myths and legends and fairy tales. I found a deeper truth in those books, a resonance, that was missing when I read realistic fiction and when I started writing, I knew that was the world I wanted to work in. Also, since I write kids books I need to stay true to a kid’s world view and for me that incorporates seeing a slightly more magical world than adults. When I was a kid, the world was much more layered and frightening and wonderful than any of the adults around me seemed to notice, so that is simply part of my world view. truth.
You’re an admitted research junkie and I’ve noticed that you like to infuse a lot of historical fact into your fantasies. Have you always been a history buff? What is your favorite historical period? What fascinates you about that time?
I’ve always loved history. Even when I was little I adored walking into libraries or museums because I knew I was in the presence of Knowledge. Answers to the Ancient Mysteries and the Questions of the Ages lay all around me and could be found in history. Also, some fantasy elements feel more real when they happen in the context of a historical setting. There is more of a sense of it could really have happened.
I would have to say that one of the time periods I’m most drawn to is the middle ages. It’s been that way since I can remember, perhaps because that was the setting for so many fairy tales I read. As a writer, the medieval time period fascinates me because the people of that time were so focused on the mystical and spiritual—the after life was always on their minds. Even though Christianity had a firm hold by then, the old beliefs and religions were still close by. Their remnants lingered in the nearby forests, sacred pools, and ancient groves, as well as in the customs of the people and their celebrations. Old and new religion still partially occupied the same time and space and I’m fascinated by those areas where they bumped into each other.
Like my friend Val Hobbs I know you’re not one of those “Write Every Day” authors. How often do you write? Do you have a hard time tearing yourself away from the research to write?
Hm. How often do I write is a surprisingly hard question to answer. I guess part of it depends on how you define “write”. For example, I’ve spent the last ten days story journaling, building backstories and histories for the characters in the next Theodosia book. I’m not producing actual manuscript pages, but I also can’t write the book until I understand all this about my characters. So if that counts, I write most days. When I’m hot in the throes of a book, I go through periods where I write for four to six hours a day, then fill the rest of the time with working on the plot or doing research.
If a book is just starting to form, I go slower, playing with ideas and giving them lots of time to coalesce before trying to capture them. Sometimes you can start working with an idea too soon and kind of derail it. Or if you start too soon you end up spinning your wheels and going nowhere or producing, but the pages are ultimately unusable and have to be torn out later, so I’ve learned to respect the not-writing part of my process as well as well as the page production part. For me, thinking is a big part of writing. Between drafts, I definitely try to give myself a period with no writing as I definitely seem to need fallow periods.
I know you just did a bunch of school visits in Texas. How much time do you spend on promotion? How many states have you visited to promote your books?
Wow, how much time do I spend on promotion...that’s hard to say. I probably spend about an average hour a day in terms of blogs and twitter and Facebook (although not for the past couple of weeks) and answering emails along with various other nebulous promotion tasks. Then of course, there are other times when I spend a lot more of my day on promotion, just before the launch of a new book, for example.
As for school visits, I’ve mostly done them here in California. The only other state I’ve traveled to has been Texas. I heart Texas big time because their librarians are SO engaged and involved.
I sometimes feel like I should spend a lot more time promoting, but I’m one of those authors who believes (hopes?) that the best marketing tool is to write the next book, and make it better in some way, so I confess to spending a lot of my energy toward that goal.
So if writing the next book is the best marketing tool, do you have a good piece of writerly advice to share?
Write the book that only you can write.
Craft can be learned. Plotting mastered. But your vision, your voice, your story is the one thing that only you can bring to the page. And I’m not talking about just an interesting story or the recounting of an actual event. What I’m talking about is the story that your quirks and foibles, your unique combination of strengths and weaknesses combined with your life experiences and personal obsessions make you uniquely qualified to write.
THAT’s the story I’m dying to read. It comes from your private inner landscape and the shadowed corners of your psyche. Write that story. Go on. I’m waiting. The world is waiting.
Thank you, Robin!
As part of the 12 Days of Christmas Giveaway here on the blog, Robin is letting one lucky person choose between three options:
Choice #1 is a copy of Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris.Every follower who leaves a comment is automatically entered to win. I'll be randomly picking a winner at 10pm on Tuesday night, so get your comment in before then.
Choice #2 is a copy of Nathaniel Fludd Beastologist: Flight of the Phoenix.
Choice #3 is a manuscript critique of the first 10 pages of a work in progress.
The winner from the Fifth Day of Christmas is:
Congratulations, Julie! Email me at solvangsherrie at gmail dot com and let me know which prize you'd like me to send from Day Five!