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So you’re no longer a debut author

2012 November 14
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I’ve been writing about debut novelists monthly on The Hub, and I thought I’d offer up something a little different in addition to that regular feature this month: an interview with four former debut authors who’ve published their sophomore efforts in 2012. I asked them a series of questions about what the process of writing that next book was like, how it differed from their first book, and more. The authors I interviewed were:

  • Carrie Harris, author of Bad Taste in Boys (a 2012 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers title) and the just-released Bad Hair Day
  • Elana Johnson, author of Possession and the sequel, Surrender
  • Alissa Grosso, author of Popular and this year’s Ferocity Summer
  • Julia Karr, author of XVI and the companion, Truth

Talk a bit about your experience as a debut author.

Carrie Harris:

I was on the slow and steady track; I signed my contract in 2009, but the book didn’t come out until 2011. And sure, a part of me wanted to get the thing out already, but at the end of the day, I think the wait was probably the best thing for me. It gave me lots of time to see what other debut authors were doing and set up a game plan. I still made plenty of headdesk-worthy mistakes, but I’m sure I would have made more of them if I’d gone to print faster! By the time the book hit the shelves, I felt like I was as prepared as I was going to get, so I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride. I bit books at my signing and had a bunch of friends zombify themselves on the internet, and generally I felt like a rock star.

It faded. Oh, how it faded.

Elana Johnson:

There’s so many shiny things about being a debut author, but the best one? Seeing your name on that cover and realizing, “Holy cow, I wrote that book!” That’s simply smile-making.

Alissa Grosso:

Being a debut author is such a magical experience. It’s so exciting and everything is so new. I was lucky to have found some wonderful support communities being a part of the Class of 2K11 and the Elevensies, where we were all debut authors as well as a local group called the KidLit Authors Club where it was nice to learn the ropes from some seasoned pros.

Julia Karr:

Because one of my critique partners debuted the year before I did, and because I joined an on-line debut authors group, I had a bit of insight into what to expect. Which is good, because otherwise I wouldn’t have had any idea how things would unfold.

First off, I discovered that time in the publishing world bears little or no resemblance to actual time in the real world. From the second you send in your manuscript, the publishing clock starts ticking. It has a rhythm … hurry up! Wait … … … Hurry up! Wait … … … Hurry up! Hurry! Hurry! Wait … … … I pulled the first all-nighter (actually three of them) since my school days!

I learned to write sitting, reclining, lying down, and nearly sleeping. I learned I could wake from a dead sleep and immediately begin typing edits. I learned that my writing was alternately the worst thing I’d ever read — and something so good I couldn’t believe I’d actually written it. I learned that my favorite words, phrases, paragraphs, scenes — could be cut! (Ouch!)

One of the coolest things I found out was just how awesome and supportive the Kid Lit community is! One group in particular, the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is an amazing organization full of information, support, and some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet!

Being a debut author is a feeling like none other. Knowing that after all the hard work you’ve put into writing a salable book, it’s sold and it is going to be “out there” in the real world. Two of the most exciting moments of the entire debut experience were actually seeing my book in a bookstore — and, maybe even more so — seeing it in my local library. That was a thrill I will never forget!

How was writing book two different than book one? How had your process changed or been refined?

Carrie Harris:

I wrote book two before book one was out of edits, so the writing process was pretty much the same for me. But editing? Totally different. I learned so much about revising my work from that first edit letter, and it completely changed my approach. I used to think about editing with the same kind of dutiful determination that I associate with going to the dentist. But now I tear in with relish. (And ketchup.) I feel like I might finally be learning how to write a book that won’t make me want to hide in a closet when I read it post-publication. Maybe.

Elana Johnson:

Writing Surrender (book two) was a completely different experience than writing Possession (book one). I sat down and pounded out Possession with no outline and just a vague idea of what might happen. It took me about 14 months to get it ready to send out. Surrender was completely outlined (25 pages), and complete and ready to send in just four months. So I’m not sure if “refined” is the right word, but it was completely different!

Alissa Grosso:

I tend to do things backwards. So, my second book, Ferocity Summer, was mostly written before my first book, Popular. It took Popular getting accepted for publication for me to finally get my act together and finish Ferocity Summer. It took me until my third book, Shallow Pond, which comes out next year, to do any refining or changing of my process. I discovered this magical thing called an outline, which really does help get a book from Chapter 1 to the end.

Julia Karr:

I wrote book one as a NaNoWriMo novel. NaNoWriMo is short for “>National Novel Writing Month, which takes place during November, when tens of thousands of people around the globe attempt to write [their own] 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Having nothing more than an image of a main character and a location, I dove in and by November 30th had the first draft of XVI.

It was a crazy, but wonderful, way to write a first draft. The only time constraint was my self-imposed deadline of 1,667 words a day. I could change direction mid-chapter, make a good guy bad or vice versa — it was totally free writing and the ideas came almost faster than I could capture them. In contrast, book two was the second book of a two-book contract, and the publisher had already said they wanted a sequel to the first book. So, while I was editing book one, I was trying to write book two, but not really sure exactly what might change during the editing process. It was nowhere near as much fun, and did not feel anything close to as creative, as the first book.

Once book one was ready to go to print, I was able to concentrate on book two knowing that there would be no plot changes from book one that might ambush book two. But, the writing process was completely different.

With the first book, I was writing free and unencumbered; my imagination was my only limit. With the second book, there was already a set cast of characters, there were a few loose ends from book one that needed to be tied up, and additional character growth needed to go in the same direction that was already laid out in book one.

Did you shift gears with your genre or style between book one and book two? Was it more challenging or rewarding?

Carrie Harris:

Nope! I wrote a second book in the series, which was a real gamble since I couldn’t exactly shop it around elsewhere if my editor didn’t want it. But it was the book I wanted to write, and I keep reminding myself that if I force myself to write what I think will sell, it’s going to suck. I’m much more conscious of the market than I was before I sold, so it’s a struggle not to chase the trends in an effort to ride their coattails (or flip-flops, or capes) to publishing success.

Elana Johnson:

Not much shifting in genre or style, though the main characters are different. I had to work really hard to make sure Raine (book two narrator) didn’t sound exactly like Vi (book one narrator).

Alissa Grosso:

Though Popular and Ferocity Summer are both YA contemporary, they are definitely completely different books. Even though Popular deals with some heavy issues, I still tend to think of if as lighter, more fun book. Ferocity Summer is dark and serious and for an older audience. I like to explore new things, so in that way it is definitely more rewarding to try writing different style and genres.

How has the publishing journey been different between books one and two? Any surprises?

Carrie Harris:

My second book comes out exactly one week from the day I’m answering these questions, so I can’t talk much about the aftermath just yet. But I can say that I’m much more choosy about what I’m doing promotion-wise. I still love promotion, and every time I talk to a fan I reach Muppet-flail levels of excitement, but I did a little bit of everything for book one, and then I sat on my couch and drooled for about two months afterward out of sheer exhaustion. Now I’m sticking to the things I really enjoy, and hopefully those things will help get the word out to people who might enjoy book two.

Elana Johnson:

Ah, this is publishing! There are always surprises. The biggest thing for me between book one and book two was the cover redesign. We moved from a glittery white cover on Possession to a color washed look for Surrender.

Alissa Grosso:

Since both Popular and Ferocity Summer were published by Flux, there weren’t too many differences in the publishing journey, other than the fact that I felt slightly more prepared about what to do when my book arrived in the world, but only slightly.

Do you feel wiser about the process of writing and the publishing path now? What — if any — lessons did you learn between book one and book two?

Carrie Harris:

I feel like I know enough to realize I don’t know much! I now know that a lot of the publishing world works on this mysterious hoodoo magic that I will likely never understand. And luckily, I have my agent, who is very used to getting emails from me that say, “Is this normal?” And she’ll soothe me and send me back to the writing gig. Before my first book, I felt like I really needed to “get” publishing to be a success. Now I realize that there are people much more knowledgeable than me about these things, and maybe I should just focus on writing the best books I can possibly write. So my big revelation is that I’m not wise, and maybe that’s okay. It’s okay, right? PLEASE?

Elana Johnson:

Hmm, in some ways I feel like I know how to navigate this business. In others, I feel completely out of my element. This is mostly because the publishing industry is constantly evolving as new things are happening (Kindle Serials, self-publishing, etc.) and as an author, I’m just trying to keep up!

I did learn one important lesson between book one and book two: There will be no book three (or four or five) if I don’t get away from social media, promotions, and other distractions and just sit down and write.

Alissa Grosso:

Here’s a few things I’ve learned between the publication of my first and second books: royalty statements are very confusing; spending too much time looking at sales numbers will drive you crazy; going to a book signing and selling a book is a success — selling eight is like being an author rockstar (I sold eight copies of Popular at the first signing I did at a book festival and had no idea that the was completely awesome); it’s good to spend time on promotion and social networking, but don’t forget to leave yourself some time to work on your next book — if nothing else, it will keep you sane.

Best thing about being a sophomore novelist as opposed to a debut novelist?

Carrie Harris:

I think a lot of the neuroses associated with being a debut are simply that you don’t know what to expect, and you don’t know if your hopes are way too high or low or just right. I don’t deal well with uncertainty — I’m a planner and a spreadsheeter, and now that I have some idea of what to plan for, I feel much more secure. I feel a little more able to focus on the cool parts of the process and the fact that I wrote some words down, and people will have a chance to read them and (hopefully) laugh and (hopefully) escape for a little while. It’s a welcome change from constantly wondering if I’m doing it wrong or missing some essential piece of information that everyone else knows but takes for granted that you do too. It’s such a weird, amorphous business, but it’s never boring. And at the end of the day, I wouldn’t change my experience for the world!

Elana Johnson:

I think at this point, the best thing is knowing that while my books don’t resonate with everyone, there are a lot of people who like them. Before your first book is out, you’re so desperate for everyone to love it. But now? I want people to like my books, but I’m not dying for their approval. I’ve learned that what people like to read is subjective, and I don’t let myself get too caught up in reviews.

Alissa Grosso:

This has happened a few times to me, and I have to say, it’s pretty awesome. I’ve run into readers this year who came out to signings when I was promoting Popular. I don’t exactly have an entourage, but seeing familiar faces, is always a welcome sight.

– Kelly Jensen, currently reading When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney

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