Tuesday, January 30, 2018

GUESTOPIA: YA Author Amber Elby

Today, we’re lucky enough to get a fascinating look into the writing world of a new and exciting YA author! You will love this!


Amber Elby was born in Grand Ledge, Michigan but spent much of her childhood in the United Kingdom. She began writing when she was three years old and created miniature books by asking her family how to spell every, single, word. Several years later, she saw her first Shakespearean comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, in London. Many years later, she studied Creative Writing at Michigan State University’s Honors College before earning her Master of Fine Arts degree in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. She currently resides in Texas with her husband and two daughters and spends her time teaching, traveling, and getting lost in imaginary worlds.  

Is this your first published book? 

Yes, but I’ve had short films produced and also published a handful of poems. 

What’s it called?

Cauldron’s Bubble

Which genre?

I call it Shakespearean fan-fiction fantasy for young adults. It takes place within the fiction of Shakespeare’s plays but is written in a fast-paced, modern style that appeals to most YA fans. It also contains magic and time travel and such, hence the fantasy aspect.

Which age group?

Cauldron’s Bubble is intended for young people who are about to begin studying Shakespeare’s plays in school, but most of their parents read and enjoy it, too. My youngest fan that I know is eight years old, and my oldest fan is past eighty. 

Is it a series or standalone?

It is the first in a series called the Netherfeld Trilogy. The second book, Double, Double Toil, will be released later this year (date TBA), and the final book, Trouble Fires Burn, will come out in 2019. 

Are you an agented author?

Not yet, but I emailed my first query letter a week or so ago. I received distribution help from my publisher and only realized that I needed an agent when I started looking into international sales. 

Which publisher snapped up your book?

Verdopolis Press of Austin, Texas. 

How involved have you been in the whole publishing process of your book?

I was, thankfully, incredibly involved with the publication. I worked closely with my cover artist, Brandi Harrison of TypeJar Studio, to create the front and back covers. I even got to choose the font for the book. I wanted an artistic say in this project because I learned from screenwriting how it feels to have someone else take control of your writing, which is why I knew from the beginning that I wanted to go with a smaller press who would let me retain creative control. 

Do you have another job?

Yes, I teach rhetorical writing and British literature at a local community college. I write under a pen name, so my students generally don’t know that I am a published author. 

Did you receive many, if any, rejections prior?

The stars were actually aligned for Cauldron’s Bubble, so I worked with Verdopolis Press from relatively early in the process with the clear intent to publish with them. I actually didn’t submit the manuscript elsewhere. 

What created/what were you doing or watching when the first idea for this book sneaked up on you?

I used to teach ninth grade English at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy in Austin, Texas. This was many years ago, back when the Percy Jackson series first exploded into popular culture. My students had to read The Odyssey, Beowulf, and Macbeth for the class, and they could all relate to The Odyssey because they had read Percy Jackson for pleasure. They had read Grendel the previous year in school, so they were prepared for Beowulf, but they had no prior experience to help them understand Shakespeare. I realized that there needed to be a bridge text that could help students relate to plays like Macbeth, Hamlet, and The Tempest, so that is how Cauldron’s Bubble was first conceived. Actually prior to this, starting when I was in middle or high school, I always wondered what Macbeth’s witches did offstage, how Hamlet escaped from the pirates on his way to England, and what happened on Prospero’s island before the play actually begins, so many of the novel’s elements have been in my mind since I was a teenager.  

How long did you plot/plan until you started writing it?

I thought about Cauldron’s Bubble for about ten years before I started writing what would become the first draft. During that time, I reread and taught many of Shakespeare’s plays, and I wrote extensive notes containing my ideas that I emailed to myself (so I could easily find them later), but I had major life events like births and deaths and building my home that prevented me from focusing on writing. I knew my title at the very beginning of the process, but I didn’t develop the protagonists, Alda and Dreng, until about two years before publication. Once I wrote the first chapter, my notes allowed me to complete the novel relatively quickly. I have some regret for not starting sooner, but I’m not sure I could have written it without everything that happened in the years between inspiration and writing.

Once you started, did the story flow naturally or did you have to step in and wrestle it into submission?

I practice world-building when I write, so I almost feel like I observe the events of the novel rather than create them because I am so imbedded in the fiction. I call this “going down the rabbit hole.” I knew where I was going when I wrote, or at least I thought I did, but the characters seemed to go on their own adventures, so my ideas had the potential to change seemingly without my control.

How many drafts did you write before you let someone read it? Who was that someone?

By the end, I wrote about seventy drafts, but I know that other writers would not count each of these revisions as a draft because they were not all complete page-one rewrites, even though I did make significant changes to at least part of the novel each time. I’m not sure when I let my husband first read it, but I believe I was about halfway through the process before I let him read only the first chapter. I hesitated to share it because it is part of a new fantasy world, and I knew that anyone who read an early, incomplete version would have too many questions and just be confused. I also kept my writing secret from most of my friends and all of my extended family because I was afraid that something would go wrong with publication, so I didn’t tell my mother about it until I handed her a printed copy. 

Did you employ an editor/proofreader or did you have a critique partner/beta readers before you started querying?

I had many readers outside of my publisher. I am lucky to have educated and talented friends who have degrees and backgrounds in creative writing and English, so I called in some favours and got people to read my early full drafts with no pay. I thanked all of them in my acknowledgements, but that doesn’t seem adequate for the time that they gave me, so thanks again, everyone, for all of your help. 

Roughly how many drafts did it take before you sent the manuscript off into the real world?

As I said, I wrote about seventy drafts. I revised as I went, too, so the first draft probably had nearly that many revisions before it was complete. Again, these were not page-one rewrites. Each rewrite fixed a specific problem within the draft or added a new subplot or expanded several scenes or rewrote the dialogue. I know that other writers would probably count this as fewer drafts, but I have over seventy different versions saved on my computer. 

How many drafts until it was published?

Revision was all one long process, and I don’t really know where pre-publisher revisions ended and publisher revisions began. I have many scribbled-on manuscripts on my shelf, and I don’t even know how many times each one was reviewed or in which order they were revised. I think that “many” is a good answer for this question.

Has the book changed dramatically since the first draft?

Yes, of course. The first chapter was significantly longer in the first draft, and it was incredibly wordy. I also wrote part of the first draft as I was reading Frankenstein, and I had to throw out those chapters and completely rewrite them because I became overly verbose and archaic (see, I used big words again just thinking about it). I don’t want to say I’m embarrassed by my first draft, but, well…

Are there any parts you’d like to change even now?

I’m actually scared to read the printed copy because I know I will find things to change! I don’t understand how people actually “finish” writing. I know that if left to my own devices, I would release about ten different editions with minor changes to things that no one else even noticed.

What part of writing do you find the easiest?

I was about to jokingly say typing, but then I accidentally hit the equal sign in the middle: typ=ing. If “easiest” means “the part that you feel the most confident about,” then I suppose that the dialogue comes the most naturally because I studied it for so long when I wrote screenplays. Tomorrow I might say that characterization is easiest, or plotting, or conflict, so it probably just depends on the scene and my mood.

What part do you find hardest?

Physical exhaustion. Really, writing is taxing on me. I lose time when I write, so I think things like, “It’s almost noon. I should stop and eat lunch.” Then it’s suddenly 2:00, and I’m faint with hunger. I also have severe and vivid nightmares when I am in the depths of writing; sometimes these help with ideas, but they are often about things that are “off-stage” in my work, so I usually cannot include them directly. 

Do you push through writing barriers or walk away?

I push through. If I need a little break, I either take a shower, nap briefly, or pet my cat. I have a writing cat who sits next to me when I work (he’s at my feet right now), and I highly suggest the adoption of a similar companion for anyone who needs writing support. 

How many projects do you have on the go at the same time?

I can work on many different projects, but I have trouble writing more than one work of prose-fiction at a time. At the moment, I’m working on a scholarly/research project, writing a travel blog under a different pen name, and working on the sequel to Cauldron’s Bubble. I’ve also been outlining several other novels, but they are essentially on a shelf until I finish the Netherfeld Trilogy. 

Do you think you’re born with the talent to write or do you think it can be learned?

I teach college students how to write, so I know it can be learned. It might be easier for some people to learn, but I always tell my students that everyone is capable of earning an A. Everyone can write well, too, but some have to study longer and work harder than others.  You also have to be humble when you write and take criticism because that is the only way to improve.

How many future novels do you have planned?

I have at least four novels that are seriously under construction, but I plan to write until I die, so I’ll say “many.”

Do you write other things, such as short stories, articles, blogs, etc?

Yes, I write a travel blog under a different pen name (I keep my identities separate for professional purposes), and I have also written many screenplays and have a MFA in screenwriting. When I was an undergraduate, I wrote poetry and studied under a successful Beat poet, but she told me to go into fiction writing because I had “too many characters in my head.” 

What’s the highlight of being published so far?

My fourth grade daughter did a book report and project about Cauldron’s Bubble. She was not allowed to ask me questions because she had to interpret the book herself, but she did a great job visualizing the story and created a poster collage of the different settings. I keep it in my office. 

Give me one writing tip that works for you.

I always try to give an unusual answer for this question: one of my screenwriting professors told us to create a soundtrack to play when we write that includes “theme songs” for the characters. I was reluctant to do this at first, but now I think that it does help. 

And one that doesn't.

I knew a lot of aspiring writers in college who felt like they had to drink or do drugs to write well; a classmate even told me that it was impossible for anyone to write sober. I want every young person reading this to know that such an outlook is not true. The most successful writers I know are clean and sober (of course there are famous, mostly dead, writers who were otherwise). I have never done any illegal drug, and I don’t drink when I write. Trust your imagination, and it will guide you without any stimulus. 

Can you give us a clue or secret about the next book?

My protagonists enter the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but my fairies are much more terrifying than they are usually portrayed on stage. Ophelia is also introduced as a character in the next book, so she actually gets her own voice instead of being subjugated by male characters. 

What question have you always wanted to be asked but never have? What would the answer be?

“If you could write for any other series, which one would you choose?”

My response a year ago would have been the long-cancelled television series Veronica Mars because of my background in screenwriting, but my nine-year-old daughter recently became obsessed with a middle-grade book series called Tales from the Haunted Mansion from Disney Press. I would love to contribute to that series, especially because it has the potential for 999 books, one for each ghost in the Haunted Mansion attraction, so I could remain in that imaginary world for a long time. 

Told you. How cool is Amber? Thank you so much for joining us today, Amber, and we wish you all the success with this and every book that follows.

If you would like to catch up with Amber, learn more about her writing, or purchase a copy of Cauldron’s Bubble, then these links might help!

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