Sunday, July 30, 2017

GUESTOPIA: Author Nikki Sheehan

Nikki Sheehan

I am super excited to welcome the second YAtopia guest for July who is the brilliant author of three moving, touching, and engaging novels. Today she's talking about her latest YA novel.

Nikki Sheehan is a former convent school girl who studied linguistics at university before becoming a subtitler on the Simpsons and then a journalist.

Nikki now lives in Brighton with her husband and three children, and works as a journalist, author, and a story facilitator for the Brighton branch of the Ministry of Stories. She loves dogs, adores reading, and is never happier than when she is talking to kids about stories.

Is this your first published book?
No, astonishingly, it’s my third!

What’s it called?
Goodnight, Boy

Which genre?
Contemporary, slightly literary (in that it’s in poetic prose)

Which age group?
YA/adult crossover

Is it a series or standalone?

Are you an agented author?
Oh, yes. I couldn’t do it without my agent, Julia Churchill at AM Heath in London

Which publisher snapped up your book?
Rock the Boat, the children’s arm of Oneworld.

How involved have you been in the whole publishing process of your book?
I don’t know how to answer that! I’ve had a lot of discussions about cover and layout, and I like to be active around publicity, but beyond that it’s not really my job.

Do you have another job?
I’m a freelance commercial writer and journalist too. But nowadays a lot of my time is taken up with school visits and events.

Did you receive many, if any, rejections prior?
I expect so, but thankfully my agent doesn’t bother telling me bad news if she doesn’t have to!

What created/what were you doing or watching when the first idea for this book sneaked up on you?
I was at home alone with my dogs. The book is set partially in a dog kennel, and, while it explores how the main character, a 13 year old Haitian boy became locked in the kennel, a lot of it is focussed on what it’s like to live with and love a dog.

How long did you plot/plan until you started writing it?
I don’t really plot much beforehand. I know the characters, setting, and ending and then write until I get stuck. Then I plot out what I’ve done, make adjustments, and carry on. It’s only the finding out what happened that keeps me going!

Once you started, did the story flow naturally or did you have to step in and wrestle it into submission?
All of my books have been slightly unruly - but I’ve found that if they’re not it’s because I’m not thinking deeply enough, and trying to overly control the story. My best ideas come from the ‘back of my head’, rather than the more conscious part of my brain.

How many drafts did you write before you let someone read it? Who was that someone?
Probably two or so. Then it went out to four writer friends, who all came up with very similar comments, which made further changes very easy.

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

I used my four friends (above). But I’m also in a crit group. We meet every three weeks, so they also heard parts of it, which was helpful. Because my main character is black, and I’m white, I also used a wonderful sensitivity reader, which was essential.

Roughly how many drafts did it take before you sent the manuscript off into the real world?
Maybe four? But this is my third novel, so I’m a bit more used to what I need to do now.

How many drafts until it was published?
Not many. Unusually for me, the book was in a pretty good state by the time I sent it to my editor. My second book however, took about 20 drafts - but that’s another story!

Has the book changed dramatically since the first draft?
Yes, in format. I rewrote the fragmented text between the boy and the dog in an iambic rhythm because I loved how empty and yet whole it made it feel. I also added in a lot of white space around the text, so some pages only have a few words on, to show the passing of time.

Are there any parts you’d like to change even now?
There are always parts I’d like to change! When I read out from my books I always change something, and, realistically, if it was possible I’d keep on editing all my books forever, but you have to learn lessons, move on and write the next thing.

What part of writing do you find the easiest?
The part where I’m buried so deep inside a story that I forget who I am. Is there a technical term for that? That’s the easiest and also the most weird and wonderful.

What part do you find hardest?
The first read through of an editorial letter. I find that I have to read it and close the document a few times until I can bear to hear what it says. After a few days though, I usually realise that the editor is right.

Do you push through writing barriers or walk away?
Both. Sometimes I need more time to think. And by think, I mean, not actively dwell, but to process. Other times I stop and write a different scene. This often unblocks me, and stops me from losing confidence in myself as a writer.

How many projects do you have on the go at the same time?
I write poetry as well, so usually a story and some poems. And, of course, there’s a ton of half started books languishing on my laptop too. That’s normal.

Do you think you’re born with the talent to write or do you think it can be learned?
That’s a hard one. My instinct is that you have to be a born story teller with a sensitivity to language. But, I’ve known a few people make such astonishing progress as a writer that I’m not sure anymore. Basically I think the only prerequisite is the drive to write. If you can’t not write, then you’re a writer.

How many future novels do you have planned?
Oh, God, none! I’m too busy thinking about the one I’m currently writing.

Do you write other things, such as short stories, articles, blogs, etc?
Yes. It’s part of my job. You have to be versatile.

What’s the highlight of being published so far?
A school recently made one of my books, Swan Boy, into a musical. It’s hard to see how anything will beat sitting watching my words come to life on a stage.

Give me one writing tip that work for you.
Shitty first drafts are supposed to be shitty. You’re doing it right, even when you’re getting it wrong.

And one that doesn’t.
You have to write a certain number of words a day. Discipline is good, yes, but be kind and flexible with yourself too.

Can you give us a clue or secret about the next book?
It’s essentially about fear and I had to stop writing it because it scared me too much. Yes, my own book scared me!

What question have you always wanted to be asked but never have? What would the answer be?
Q: Would you like to do a book tour of Australia?
A: Hell yeah, where do I sign?

Wonderful! Thank you for joining us today, Nikki, and for your words of wisdom. I for one feel better about my shitty drafts and poor plotting! We wish you heaps of luck with Goodnight Boy, as well as your other fantastic novels, and hope to see plenty more novels from you in the future.

If you would like to know more about Nikki and follow her writing journey, the following links might just help!

And if you're keen to get your mucky mitts on a copy of Goodnight Boy, try these!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

GUESTOPIA: Multi-published author Karen King

Karen King

It's Guestopia time for July and our first guest this month comes in the form a prolific and talented author. Please meet Karen King.

Karen King is the author of over 120 children's books and has had two YAs published, Perfect Summer and Sapphire Blue. Perfect Summer was runner up in the Red Telephone Books YA novel competition in 2011 and has just been republished by Accent Press.

Karen is also the author of two romance novels, and has been contracted for three chick lit novels by Accent Press. The first, I do?... or do I? was published in 2016 and the second, The Cornish Hotel by the Sea, has just been released. In addition, Karen has written several short stories for women’s magazine and worked for many years on children’s magazines such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Winnie the Pooh as well as the iconic Jackie magazine.

When she isn’t writing, Karen likes travelling, watching the ‘soaps’ and reading. Give her a good book and a box of chocolates and she thinks she’s in Heaven.

And here's the interview...

Is this your first published book?

No, I’ve had about 120 children’s books published, two YA, two romance novels, two chicklits and there’s another chicklit in the process of publication.

What’s it called?

Perfect Summer

Which genre?


Which age group?

12+ there’s some gritty scenes!

Is it a series or standalone?

It’s a standalone

Are you an agented author?

No – although I have had agents in the past and may again in the future.

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

I’ve been concerned for a long time about the pressure society puts on people to have perfect looks then I read a magazine article about girls as young as four or five worrying that they were too fat or too ugly. I thought that was really sad. I started wondering what would happen if people got so obsessed with physical perfection that it became a ‘crime’ to be different in any way. Another concern of mine is how disabled people are treated, so both these concerns sowed the seeds of this story.

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

I always plan a bit first. I write character profiles to make sure I really know my characters well and don’t change their eye or hair colour halfway through the story. Then I work out a plot outline so I know roughly where the story is going, and then I start writing it up.

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

I started writing the story in third person at first but I felt that it wasn’t flowing right so I changed to the first person and I was away.

Has the book changed dramatically since the first draft?

Not dramatically, the basis of the story is the same. It’s more refined I guess. I rarely change the plot when I’ve revising, but I do change some phrases that I think aren’t flowing right, or make scenes more dramatic/concise.

What part of writing do you find the easiest?

Getting the initial idea. I have notebooks full of ideas.

What part do you find hardest?

Finding the time to write up the ideas. Then getting the story out of your head and onto the screen/page!
Do you push through writing barriers or walk away?

It depends. If I’m on a deadline I’ll write through them. If I’m not I’ll turn to something else for a while then I go back with a fresh mind and can usually find that the story flows okay again.

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

Three or four. I like a variety, and it helps stave off writer’s block if you have another project to turn to.

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

That’s a difficult one. I’m a writing tutor and basically believe that writing is a skill, so like all skills it can be learned or improved – especially article and feature writing. Story writing, however, is different. You need that spark of imagination, that kernel of tale-spinning inside you, the ability to make a story out of thin air. If someone has that they can be helped to improve how they write their story down but that basic storytelling kernel of imagination can’t be taught.

How many future novels do you have planned?

I’m working on three at the moment, and also a couple of short stories.

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

Yes, I write short stories and blog posts. I also run a blog called The Writer’s Surgery, where I post articles and tips to help new writers.

What’s the highlight of being published so far?

Signing a three book contract for chicklits with Accent Press, two of the books, I do?...or do I? and The Cornish Hotel by the Sea are now out. The third will be out next year.

Give me one writing tip that work for you.

Just write. Get your first draft down then go back and revise it afterwards.

And one that doesn't.

Write drunk, edit sober – a famous tip by Ernest Hemingway

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

Can we make your book into a film? The answer would be yes!

Excellent! I imagine most authors want to be asked this, and I expect their answers would be the same too! Thank you so much for joining YAtopia today, Karen. We wish you all the best with your chick lit and YA novels.
Here's a little about Karen's latest YA, with some links to help...

Set in a society obsessed with perfection, 15-year-old Morgan is best friends with the seemingly perfect Summer. But when Morgan’s brother, Josh, who has Down’s syndrome, is kidnapped, they uncover a sinister plot and find themselves in terrible danger.

Can they find Josh before it’s too late? And is Summer’s life as perfect as it seems?

And if you would like to find out more about Karen and her work, these links might help as well!

Twitter: @karen_king

Monday, July 24, 2017

Don't Say It: 15 things that should never be in your query

Before we get down to business, let's stop for a second and celebrate. This is my 100th post at YAtopia!

So we're talking about pitching this month at YAtopia (Just in time for Pitch Wars, too!). Rae Chang and I were just chatting on twitter about what phrases in queries are giant red flags for us. Some of these may seem obvious, but I guarantee anyone who has read slush has seen them more than a few times.

If you find yourself writing any of these phrases into your query, it may be a simple matter of ... you know, not writing them. However, some of these might require some research and maybe an attitude adjustment.

1) "All the YA books out there are poorly written, but mine is different" or some variation thereof

Well. Check out the ego on this guy.

Don't write in a genre/category you don't respect. Period. This may be a matter of you not reading widely enough in your genre, which is easily fixed. Otherwise, it's a lack of respect for the genre/category itself, in which case, why are you bothering? If you believe everything on the shelves in a well-established genre/category is trash, find another genre/category.

2) Putting down literary agents, whether as a group or individuals.

We all know the agent-publisher system is slow and frustrating. However, it's the best we have and we're just all trying to work within it. Why some people think it's okay to complain about literary agents' "greed" or response time or judgement or whatever while also asking those agents to represent them - I will never understand.

3) "There's nothing like this on the market"

Yes there is and I can name ten examples off the top of my head. Again, read more widely in your chosen genre; you don't know your market well enough.

Unless this is literally true, in which case, it's probably unpublishable. Hey, a guy in my first writing group tried to convince me that not having a single piece of punctuation for 9 pages was perfectly fine in commercial fiction (yep, not even literary or experimental).

HOWEVER, every time I've seen this in a query, it's been the former, not the latter.

4) "My book will appeal to readers of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight, and Jane Austen."

Sure it will, Sparky.

If you can't find comp titles that aren't mega-bestsellers, you (say it with me, I'm going to be saying it a lot) don't know your market well enough.

And you really have to love the authors who are just a little bit bolder and say things like "this book is the next Harry Potter, a guaranteed bestseller."

Listen, not even Harry Potter was the next Harry Potter when it was pitched. Nobody knows whether or not a book will take off like that. Keep your expectations reasonable.

5) "I've loved books since I was five years old when..."

This isn't a turn-off so much as it's ... boring. Loving books doesn't make you special in this industry, so saying this in a query is a waste of ink/electrons. If you don't have a lot to put in the "bio" section of the query, that really is totally fine! You can actually leave it out if you don't have anything beneficial to add there. The book is the most important thing.

6) Drop the cliches

As much as you can, eliminate cliches from your query letter. You have such a short space to show how your book is unique, why would you want to use phrases that we see all the time? Things like "so-and-so was just a normal girl until..." and "will never be the same" and "more than he bargained for" and "an incredible journey" and "falls into the wrong hands" and "to make matters worse" and "will change everything" will make experienced query readers roll their eyes.

7) Your age

It doesn't matter and all it can do is create subconscious bias.

8) That your friends/family love the book

Of course they do. My friends loved the first book I wrote. And it was absolute crap. (Not saying yours is, but I'm saying the opinions of your friends/family (or even your old English teacher) will not sway an agent/editor.)

9) Personal information about the agent

Knowing professional information (the agent's clients & the books they've sold) is great. But when you mention anything that doesn't have to do with the agent's professional career, you've crossed a line. Stalking is a real thing that many agents have to worry about, so there's no reason to raise a red flag like this.

10) "Dear Agent"

Write out their name. To the agent, lack of personalization in the greeting, means that you are mass emailing every agent for whom you could find an email address.

11) "Fictional novel"

All novels are, by definition, fictional.

12) "doesn't really fit in a genre"

If your book sells, it's going to have to go on a shelf somewhere. Pick the closest thing so I know roughly what to expect.

And tbh, most of the time this is said, the book fits perfectly into a genre, which tells me you know don't your market very well.

13) First person POV from your character.

It's often creepy, but sometimes it's just confusing and clunky. All book and character descriptions should be in 3rd person present tense, no matter what the book is in.

14) Rhetorical questions

You are not the exception to this rule. Don't do it. Just don't. Please, trust us on this. They don't work.

15) "trend" and "diversity" in the same sentence.

Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.

While we're at it, you didn't write "an LGBT novel" unless you have lesbians, gay people, bisexual people, AND trans people represented in the book. You probably wrote a f/f romance or a novel featuring a trans character, etc. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Comp Titles Are Helpful

The theme of this month’s blog post is pitching. But I’m writing about Twitter pitching for my post. Like with #pitmad, #sffpit, #dvpit. Twitter pitching can be intimidating. You’re only allowed 140 characters a tweet, and it can therefore be difficult to capture the uniqueness of a 200 to 300-page manuscript. Although writers shouldn’t let the challenges of pitching stop them from participating in Twitter pitching contests. It’s important for writers to get used to putting their work out there.

Comp titles are an easy way to convey a premise. Yes.  Comp titles can be difficult because of worrying about a comp title being an outlier. And I’ll be the first to admit how I don’t usually include comp titles in query letters. I struggle with coming up with good comps even though I read current MG and YA fiction. Yet comp titles cover a lot of ground in a short amount of space. It’s also okay to use a television show or movie if it fits. I’ll even give you an example of one of my pitches I’ve used for a YA Fantasy novel that has gotten a few likes in Twitter pitching contests.

This is one pitch using a comp title: “ABC's REVENGE + Contemporary Fantasy setting. 17 yo Darren falls for the enemy's son while avenging his parents' deaths. #YA #LBGTQ #DVpit.” Using ABC’s Revenge is a good example because the novel (CROSSING DESIRES) is revenge driven. Combining the revenge premise with setting also helps. Doing so lets me quickly convey the contemporary fantasy world of CROSSING DESIRES without me worrying about explaining the complicated worldbuilding in a short pitch. My pitch is only one example, but it’s simple, which conveys something a pitch needs. Conciseness and clarity is important (even in a 140-character pitch). Vagueness doesn’t help. There needs to be some hint of conflict. Anyway, no need to stress about pitching. “Good” pitching takes practice like writing, and gets easier.