Key points: To break in, first write the book. In fact, write several. Then pay attention to why it is being rejected, and revise effectively. Don't be afraid to admit that a relationship isn't working. Even when you have a first draft, there's a lot of work ahead. Keep plugging, and pay attention to the feedback you are getting.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses season four, episode 20...
[Brandon] Three. How to break into the young adult market.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Rob] Because you're in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we're not that smart. We have asked special guests Rob Wells... Hi, Rob.
[Brandon] And Janci ... what pen name are you using? Are you old?
[Brandon] Patterson. Okay. Janci Patterson. Two very old friends, and in Rob's case, family of podcasters. But both of these are people who just broke into the YA... your's is YA, right? Both of them YA? Or your's is middle grade, or YA? Anyway, into the children's market. We're going to talk about their stories of how they broke in, how they got their book deals. Hopefully that will help you listeners to get your own book deals and break in. Let's go ahead and put the spotlight on Rob. We've been hearing from him on some podcasts recently. Tell us your story. What's going on with you? What's your deal?
[Rob] Just a month ago, maybe even a little less than a month ago, I got a three book deal with Harper Teen. The book is young adult science fiction.
[Brandon] How did you get the deal? What did you do?
[Rob] What I did was... well, I wrote the book. That's actually kind of an interesting story as well. I... and I'll try to be quick. I finished my MBA a year ago. In this economy, that we all know, I could not find a job. I spent seven months unemployed. Dan came to me in August of last year. At the time, I was working on a YA book, but I'd been working on that book for like three years and it wasn't going anywhere. Dan came to me in August, September of last year and he said, "Hey, I'm going to World Fantasy. It is the weekend of Halloween. If you have a book that you can pitch to agents and editors at World Fantasy... so fantasy or science fiction... I'll pay your way to go." So it was two months...
[Dan] Because I am a good brother.
[Rob] He is a fine brother.
[Brandon] Didn't you once plan to register the domain name, "the talented Wells brother dot com?"
[Dan] Yes. Because I am also a talented brother.
[Rob] So, anyway, I wrote the book. I plotted it in like half an hour, and I wrote it in 11 days. Then I did a lot of revision. I went to World Fantasy, met some good agents, and completely bombed chatting with them. Submitted to the agents. I also submitted to Dan's agent, Sarah Crowe, and she picked me up. She started sending the book out in December... end of November, December... and it was summarily rejected. We went back, and we did some revisions. She sent it out for another round, and it was rejected again. So I went back and I basically rewrote it another time. Completely changed the ending, took out one of the main characters. She sent it out, we got four offers on it, and it was grabbed by Harper.
[Brandon] Excellent. Janci, why don't you tell us a little bit about your story? You just recently got an offer, right?
[Janci] Yes. We recently had a sale to... my first novel, it's a stand-alone contemporary YA novel, to Henry Holt, which is McMillan.
[Brandon] How did that come about? You've got a long pathway to this, so kind of the expurgated version, I suppose.
[Janci] I wrote my first novel 10 years ago, and it has accumulated somewhere in the realm of 80 rejections, so, yeah, it was a long, long path. But I wrote... Skip is the name of my book... I wrote it right after I had finished writing this big, sort of depressing, emotional book, and I just wanted to write something fun. I... someone had mentioned something about bounty hunters to me recently at that time. I realized I don't know what a bounty hunter does. I started doing research, and found a lot of interesting things about how they work in the justice system. I decided I was going to write a book with basically three characters and one timeline and one setting and just move through it as fast as I could. So I wrote Skip. I hooked up with my agent in October of last year. So October 2009. My agent is Eddie Schneider with Jabberwocky. And I have a good friend also with Jabberwocky, who helps me with my networking.
[Brandon] Hey, it's me.
[Janci] Very graciously. And he actually requested to see all of the books I had ready. I had three ready at the time. He said that he thought Skip was in the best shape. Which it was. I think having fun with writing again helped me to turn out a really polished draft. I did a revision for him. It took me about three months. He gave me some really solid notes. I had like nine pages of changes to make. I went through that. Then we sent out the book... I believe in February... it took about a month of responses and things before it sold to Henry Holt.
[Rob] Can I jump in on a thing? One thing that she mentioned that I don't want to give the wrong impression by any means. When I mentioned that I wrote the book in 11 days. I started my first book 10 years ago also. I've written seven full novels, and then, four that are halfway done. I just... my point in saying that is I don't want to make it seem like, "I'm so awesome. I wrote a book in 11 days."
[Brandon] Now you had been published in a specialty market, in the LDS market, several times. You had some experience with publishing.
[Rob] I just don't want to make it seem like it's not work.
[Janci] That's pretty much my exact situation. I'd written seven novels, but I wrote Skip in about four weeks when I turned out the draft. Because I just wanted to do something fun and fast.
[Brandon] Janci, I want to dig a little deeper into this, because you had... Eddie was your second agent...
[Janci] That's right.
[Brandon] You don't have to mention names if you don't feel comfortable doing it. But you were with another agent. And it didn't go anywhere. This was a big-name agent. Can you share your story with that? Because a lot of people who are going to be listening have been seeking agents, or been sent to agents... some may have been picked up by an agent, dropped by an agent, things like this. What was your experience, and why did you end up not with that agent?
[Janci] I've heard a lot of horror stories about bad agents. I never had a bad agent. My first agent was excellent, she was very good. What happened was, she picked me up, and she sent around one of my books. I'd done a revision for her, but it had been a pretty small one. She sent it around and we got like 24 rejections, got rejected by just about every house in New York. Which was really hard. I had never had a hard time with rejection before that, but that was just a lot of rejection in a very short space of time. What happened was we realized in the course of that, that the feedback that I needed was not feedback that she was able to give me. We could both tell that there were things that were not working with my manuscript, and I really needed an agent who could give me feedback that would help me to revise appropriately. She was much lighter on the feedback than the agent that I needed. So it was really just a conflict of needs, she needed a client who could get a manuscript much more polished before they sent it to her. So it was a mutual decision, we just decided that this was just not going to work. Sometimes that happens, sometimes things don't work out.
[Brandon] I think that's important to know. I mean, we've talked about it a little bit on the podcast before, but an agent relationship... and an editor relationship in some instances too... different agents provide a different things. There are authors out there who would hate the idea of the agents offering any feedback. I know some of these authors. They don't think that's the agent's job. The agent takes it and sells it. Whereas you looked for somebody who could tell you what you needed to do. Because I know Janci very well, she's an excellent writer and she's a fantastic revisor. But she... you... it seems like you needed somebody to give you that, "this is what you need to do," and then you could do it. That agent wasn't doing that. It's not that the agent was bad, it's just... that agent would be perfect for somebody who just hated the idea of getting revisions from agents, and some people are like that.
[Janci] When I signed my contract with Jabberwocky, I did it with a lot of reservations, because I was worried that... I mean, I had just gotten burned. I mean, not intentionally by her, but things hadn't worked out. But when I got my first set of feedback from Eddie, I knew this was the right agent for me. Because he gives excellent feedback and that's something that he does a lot of and is very good at and is something that he likes to do for his authors. It's a much better fit for me.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's go ahead and do our book of the week. Janci's going to tell us about a book we... that she loves. Which is?
[Janci] An Abundance of Katherines by John Green. If you're writing YA, especially contemporary YA, you really need to read John Green, because he's brilliant. He's won the Prince Medal a couple of times. An Abundance of Katherines is about a kid who only dates girls named Katherine with a K. That's his type. He's a prodigy. It's about him figuring out his life. It's just a really fun, smart read.
[Brandon] Okay. You can go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. They have An Abundance of Katherines on audible. You can download a free copy and start a 15 day free trial to get some audio books. So, thank you very much.
[Brandon] Let's try... I want to ask some more specific questions here. Let's say there are listeners right now who are trying to break into the YA market specifically. We're not just talking science fiction and fantasy, because Skip is mainstream. We're just talking the YA genre. What advice do you have from your experiences of having just broken in, that you could give them? Either one of you. I'll let you think, because I want to give kind of a bracket to this. When I was trying to break in, I got lots of advice from a lot of different authors. I found... I discovered that a lot of them had broken in 20 years before. So their advice... they would say, "Oh, you have to do this." was... in some cases, there was good advice. There was a lot of bad advice that was bad advice only because they hadn't done it in quite a long time. I'm starting to realize... this is getting scary to me... I broke in seven years ago now. Seven years is enough time in this market for things to start changing drastically. Beyond that, I broke into science fiction and fantasy. I've noticed a lot of differences between science fiction and fantasy and the YA market and things like this. So that's why I want to ask you guys for advice. Now that I've talked and given you time, I can put you on the spot. What can you guys give us?
[Janci] This is more on the craft side, and less on the business side. But the biggest thing that I needed to do was to learn to revise effectively. We've talked about needing notes and things. I for a long time resisted revision because it's so much work. You write a draft, and you feel like I've done all this work, I should have produced something that's sellable. And it's not. Writing a first draft for me is a quarter to a third of the work that needs to be done on the draft. That's different for everybody, some people write really clean, some people write even sloppier than I do, there is a continuum. But if I had learned to just hunker down and sometimes fully rewrite the book and sometimes spend months and months revising when I only spent one month writing the draft, then I think I would have broken in a lot sooner. So, not being afraid to put in a lot of work in even after you have a draft, I think is really important.
[Rob] I'll echo that before I talk about other stuff. But, yeah, like I said, with my agent, I did a lot of revisions. They actually weren't revisions that my agent recommended, but... when we sent it out, the first time, it was rejected by I think nine pretty quick. Several of those nine all had the same complaints. So I went back and made them. I think that, as far as advice, I think the biggest thing... Dan and my dad has a phrase that he uses all the time, which is cheerfully flexible. Which means whenever you see a problem, you're just cheerfully flexible, you just adapt to it. I think that agents and editors are so much more willing to work with you if you don't put on some big "I am an artiste" and "I'm better than you" and "I don't revise" and I do whatever. Actually, with my deal, I had been rejected by Harper. She wrote a long letter... my editor there... she wrote a long letter to my agent that she passed on to me that said, "These are the reasons that I'm rejecting it. I love it, but... if you did these revisions, with no guarantees on my part, then I'd be willing to look at it again." So I could have easily just said, "Well, screw that." And we're just going to keep sending it out to other people. But that was something that I wanted, and I really liked the publisher, so I was flexible. I did some things that I had originally been very resistant to, but I made these edits and revisions and it worked.
[Brandon] Janci, did you have something else you were going to add on that?
[Janci] I think Rob said something really key there. I've also been rejected by editors who say that they love my work. That's always kind of frustrating because it's like, "If you love it, why don't you pay me money for it?" But the marketplace really is very, very competitive. It's so competitive that they can afford to turn down things that they love, because they aren't perfect. No book is ever going to be perfect perfect. But paying attention to the reasons that you're being rejected and the feedback that you're receiving so that you can make your book even better is really important because of how competitive things are.
[Dan] One thing that... like Rob said, he and I have the same agent. One thing that she says frequently is that she will turn down stuff that is excellent because it's just not right for her. She's not necessarily the best agent for it, and that author would be ill served if she were to accept the manuscript. So, yeah, paying attention to why you're being rejected... sometimes you're just not a good compatible fit.
[Brandon] Jabberwocky rejected you... kind of mutually, you discussed it?
[Dan] This was back before Eddie. I can't remember the other guy's name...
[Brandon] Steve was his name.
[Dan] Steve! We talked about it, and we said, "You know, this isn't going to work if we try to do this together."
[Rob] And on that note, so much of it is just sticking with it regardless. I think it's kind of interesting, Janci's agent, Eddie, I met at World Fantasy. She was just signing with him at the time. I met him, I pitched very poorly and awkwardly to him, I sent him the thing, and I have never heard back from him. So just because you're rejected by one or not even... I mean, there's no response, it doesn't mean that you are a bad writer. It doesn't mean your writing's bad. And it doesn't mean that it won't be commercially successful that it won't eventually sell, as long as you keep plugging away.
[Janci] That's an important distinction. Just because your writing is not to a point yet where you're receiving acceptances doesn't make you a bad writer. It may make you a writer who has work to do, but not a bad writer.
[Brandon] All right. I'm going to go ahead and give our writing prompt because something just popped into my head. Don't know if this is going to be a good one, but... write a story where two roommates are living together, and one of them sells a book manuscript, and then vanishes. The other roommate decides to go ahead and pretend that it was their manuscript and finish the book. They sold it on proposal. So they have to finish the book. That's going to be our writing prompt, is the roommate pretending to write the book by the other roommate. You're out of excuses. Now go write.