This week again I was lucky enough to have a YA author give me an exclusive interview! The idea behind the “Writer in the Spotlight” feature is that authors are the best source of advice for us, would-be-published writers. So today’s interview is a bit different because Aimee L. Salter is not published yet. However she has an agent and she is awesome, so I couldn’t resist interviewing her any longer!
A Writer in the Spotlight – 14
Author : Aimee L. Salter
Genre : Young Adult, Magical Realism
Location: New Zealand
Bio: Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, but recently sighted in New Zealand, Aimee is a self-proclaimed coffee aficionado. She channels the caffeine buzz to wrangle her young son and write books she hopes his high school girlfriend will read. She is represented byBrittany Howard of Corvisiero Literary. While waiting to see what the future holds, she is still writing, studying the craft, and learning more about the rapidly changing industry every day. Her (great) blog Seeking the Write Life shares the things she learned along the way.
My interview (13/11/2012)
On critiquing other writers’ manuscripts (Aimee is an awesome CP!):
Do you think it’s important for writers to have their work critiqued thoroughly and can you explain why?
Quite honestly, I think it’s the most important part of the writing process. Whether your critiques are “professional” (for a fee), or just feedback from experienced writers, what you’re gaining is a skilled reader’s point of view. You’re getting a heads up about where your manuscript is flawed before paying readers take a look. It isn’t fun, but it is very rewarding when you fix those problems and know your book is better for it.
See, whether you get a publishing contract, or self-publish, the end-point is a reader who doesn’t know you from Jack. They haven’t sat down and listened to you talk about your world. They haven’t had coffee with you while you ground your teeth over a tricky scene. They don’t love you and care about your personal success. They’re just looking for a good read. And if your book doesn’t provide that, they’ll move on.
The best kind of critique comes from a writer who has some technical skill, but is also an avid reader. They can assess your book from a reader’s point of view – but offer advice as a writer. They’ll highlight areas of your plot, characterisation or pacing that a reader may find distracting, implausible, or just plain boring.
If you can’t handle the idea of someone telling you your book isn’t perfect, then you want to think really carefully about whether or not you’re cut out for publishing. Regardless of how you publish, you’ll get feedback from readers. Personally, I feel being critiqued in the safety of the hands of another writer who’s helping me make my book better is a much better option than putting my book out there and having readers tell me they don’t like it.
Did you learn anything from critiquing other writers’ WIP?
I learn tons. And I really mean that. The other side of the critiquing coin is that because we’re all too close to our own books (and we know too much about the world and character thoughts / feelings / backstory) we can’t accurately gauge whether our writing is communicating the story we want to tell.
But when we’re reading other writer’s material, we don’t have that backstory to draw on. We don’t know all the little bits and pieces about the world that never make it into the book. We have to take it at its face value. And in that, we can see flaws.
When I’m critiquing I’m often in a position to identify a problem in the manuscript – be it a technical writing issue, an implausible plot, or an unlikeable character. Because I’m analyzing the text, I get to see not just what is wrong, but how the writer delivered that problem.
I can then look through my own writing for that kind of word choice, or plot development, or narration device. Because I’ve seen it in someone else’s work, it becomes easier to identify in my own.
What mistakes do you most often see in the MS you critique?
There are a lot of common themes in the flaws of unpublished manuscripts. I’ve covered some of them in this post. But lately the thing I’ve seen most often is a tendency to over-explain in the narration, or over-state.
Over-explaining is a result of a talented writer (who knows how to “show”), not trusting the reader to understand what they meant. So they quite rightly give all the right cues (body language, dialogue, etc). But then they round off every paragraph (or sometimes every other sentence!) with a summary of what it all means.
When a writer is over-explaining you’ll get a lot of statements like “I realized he was angry.” Or “If such-and-such was true, then that meant I needed to do this-and-that.”
The solution is to look for any statements that are explaining the progress of the plot or characters and delete them. Just let the character see, hear, smell and (most importantly) react. Your goal is to depict real life. The explaining that’s required in narration is the focal character’s emotions and motivations – not their reaction to the events around them. Those should be shown as a matter of course.
The other common flaw, over-statement, is a result of a writer wanting the reader to understand the impact of something, but not being sure their depiction gets it across. I see it all the time when a heroine meets the hero and insta-love ensues. Suddenly an otherwise succinct manuscript is rife with purple prose describing how gorgeous the guy is, how stunned the heroine is, and how her entire body is consumed with desire / attraction / fear, etc.
My best advice to anyone who thinks they might be falling into that is to pick up a few traditionally published books in their genre and analyze what kind of descriptions are used when the hero / heroine meet (or whatever other gargantuan event occurs). Note that the author rarely (or barely) describes the narrator’s feelings. They focus instead on the stimulus. Be it the strong slant of his shoulders, or the quirk of his eyebrow, the page time is given to the things that create the feelings, not the feelings themselves.
What are your pet peeves as a critical reader?
How much time do you have? Ha! Lately the thing that’s been bothering me is the “causing” sentence structure. You know the one: “He threw an arm out, causing me to stumble back against the wall.” or “The ripple of his muscles caused my heart to stutter.” While these kinds of statements might be true, they lack real finesse. I far, far prefer a solid stimulus structure: “He threw an arm out. I stumbled backwards, coming up hard against the wall.” or “I couldn’t take my eyes off the ripple of his muscles. My heart hammered against my ribs.”
On getting an agent:
Can you tell us “how you got your agent”?
If you want to go right back to 2009 when I first started trying to get published, I’ve been through well over 100 rejections, an agent who was great but didn’t work out, another thirty or so rejections, then wrote a new (different) book.
I revised my new book a dozen times (including getting eight or nine critiques to help guide my rewrites), wrote a query letter, queried about forty or fifty agents, attended an online writer’s conference, had just over a 30% hit rate on my queries for manuscript submissions. In the end I got offered an independent contract (from a digital-only, royalty paying publisher) and an offer of representation from Brittany Howard (my agent). When Brittany offered there were other agents looking at my full manuscript, but after talking to Brittany I knew we’d be a good fit and I withdrew the manuscript from the remaining agents.
Where are you now in your publishing journey?
Right now I’ve been through one, low-level round of edits for Brittany and am just waiting for her next, more detailed round of edits. Once I’ve completed those (and if I do a bang-up job), Brittany will start submitting my manuscript to editors.
As far as the editing process goes, the thing I like about editing with an agent is I’m confident about the changes. When someone critiques me, or if I were to pay an editor, I’d still be the one in control, so to speak.
When my agent asks for changes I know it’s because she believes those changes will make my book more commercially or technically sound. I’m confident about following her advice, and don’t need to second-guess whether or not I’m going to accidentally shoot myself in the foot.
I’m sure at some point in the future there will be moments when I’ll question advice from Brittany or an editor. But so far, I haven’t hit that. To me, it’s a relief to have someone else guiding the process. Someone with some knowledge of what editors want (Brittany has also worked as an Editor for an independent publisher), who can help me understand why changes are important, and where to focus my energy.
On your book:
What is the genre of your book and what is it about?
My book is currently titled LISTEN TO ME. It’s a YA magical realism (or a YA contemporary with a time-twist, depending on which day you ask). It’s about Stacy, an unpopular, bullied seventeen-year-old who can talk to her future, adult self when she looks in a mirror. Stacy’s dealing with unrequited love, bullying, and a mother who just wants her to be “normal”. The problem is, Stacy has learned that her future self has been lying. A lot. She has to figure out if she can trust her future self’s advice when it appears her future self has been steering her away from all the things she wants (specifically, a relationship with her popular best friend Mark, and popularity / acceptance from her peers). It was inspired by the www.dearteenme.com website, wherein authors write letters to their teenage selves. I love those letters!
When I read some early last year I got to wondering how my teenage self would feel about advice I would give her now if I could. What would happen if we sat down and talked? Would she listen to me? Or would she think I was boring? Would she look at me and think she didn’t want to be like me? Or would she trust my judgment? Needless to say I was inspired and started writing almost immediately. Stacy is a character very, very close to my heart.
Why did you choose to write for Young Adult readers?
I would say I didn’t really choose YA, it chose me. My entire life I’ve always been riveted by high school stories. I guess you could say I never grew out of them. I think it’s because high school was a very negative experience for me. I think I kept wanting to go back and do it differently – or imagine it differently, at least.
My books reflect a desire to rewrite history, to a certain degree. They aren’t “my” stories, but they definitely draw on the feelings, experiences and conflicts I encountered at that time in my life.
What do you think it was THE book that got you an agent? (=what made it special?)
I think LISTEN TO ME has two things going for it. It’s “high concept” (easy to explain in a sentence or two) and there isn’t anything else like it out there right now. It isn’t derivative of something that’s already popular. I know Brittany connected with the story on an emotional level, and that’s what I wanted from an agent. She and I feel the story deeply for different reasons, but she “gets it” like I do. I had several agents who rejected it, but also noted that they’d been moved emotionally by the character and the story. So… I guess it makes people feel. That was always my goal, so I’m excited to see if we can find an editor who feels the same.
On your blog:
You’ve got a successful author platform, what is your advice for writers who are just beginning to blog/tweet/etc ?
Successful blogging takes time, commitment and perseverance. If you don’t have a passion for it, don’t do it. If you do have a passion for it, get focused.My advice is twofold: Focus on what you have to offer other people (not just your own story, but something others can use to benefit themselves) and don’t give up if it doesn’t happen quickly.
On a practical level, use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to connect with people. They aren’t just signposts for your blogposts or your books. They are places to get to know people and let them get to know you. The more time you spend just communicating with people, the more loyal your following will be. And when they’re loyal, they’ll do your promotion for you so you don’t have to.
It took me two years to gain over 500 followers (I’m now just cresting 3000 genuine followers on Twitter, too). I don’t think my numbers are anything “special”, but they’re solid enough now to create a sense of community. In order to do that I’ve committed time almost every day for two years to talk with people on twitter, comment on blogs, follow blogs / twitter, offer useful information on my blog, and answer emails, etc that people send to me.
It’s a lot of work. But it’s rewarding when you start getting some traction. So, just keep going!
Thanks for having me, Eve!