Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Debut Author Shares Her Journey to Publication

Meet Shelly Sanders, Toronto-based writer whose first novel, published by Second Story Press, comes out this spring!

Your debut novel, Rachel’s Secret, is coming out this spring! What is this story about?

Rachel’s Secret is a historical fiction novel about a Russian pogrom in 1903 that led to the exodus of Jews to the United States and Canada. In fact, my grandmother escap
ed such a pogrom a few years later, and lived in Shanghai before coming to Canada. Rachel’s Secret looks at a fairly unknown place and period, yet many of us have ancestors who can be traced back to the hundreds of pogroms that took place in Russia.

What was your writing process like with your first full-length
It took about a year to research the Russian culture, and this particular pogrom. Then I wrote it the first time in first person, which didn’t work at all. I began again, in third person, and ended up writing about eight drafts, getting valuable criticism in between, before sending it to an agent. The agent gave me more changes, which took me almost a year to do. Then, she read it again and accepted it.

What were your biggest challenges when writing this story, and how did you overcome them?

Getting the characters to be real and authentic was definitely the biggest challenge. I had to get inside their heads, and think like they’d think in 1903 Russia
. I think the turning point was after I read books written during that time period for girls that age. The language, mannerisms, hopes, and challenges all became clear after this.

Writing is re-writing—we all know that. So, how did yo
u revise your manuscript to ensure it was polished and ready to submit?

I sought input from all kids of people—my kids, my aunt, friends, and other writers, and had both a minister and a rabbi read it for accuracy. As a journalist, I know the importance of getting it right so that editors don’t have to spend time fixing mistakes. That was my goal and in the end, after it was picked up by my publisher, the revisions were not that extensive.

Can you describe what the journey was like from querying to eventually getting a publishing deal?

Querying is a test of patience, but again, I’m used to the process as a magazine and newspaper writer. As an unpublished author, it was like starting all over again. My years of published articles in major national publications meant nothing to book agents and pub
lishers. However, I had mastered quite a good query letter which managed to capture the attention of a few agents and publishers. I approached publishers at the same time as agents, as most publishers will take on a few unrepresented writers from time to time. In fact, I actually sold my manuscript to the publisher. They contacted me the day after I was accepted by my agent, who handled the contractual details.

Any helpful tips you wish you knew before getting published?

The whole process takes much longer than you could ever expect! I wish I’d known this as there were many low times when I felt like giving up. I think that perseverance is as important as talent when it comes to getting published.

What’s next for you, Shelly?

I’ve received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council for t
he sequel to Rachel’s Secret, which I’m working on now. It takes place during the Russo-Japanese War, and Bloody Sunday. I also have one adult fiction novel being considered by a few publishers in New York.
You can read the synopsis of Rachel’s Secret on Shelly’s website to get a better idea of the story, which looks at tolerance, the impact of media, and the consequences of discrimination.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Creating Believable Characters

Let’s face it. It’s been a while since we’ve been in middle school, so how can we ensure that we are creating authentic characters in our middle grade novels? In this interview, author Winnie Mack shares some insight!

Do you often start with the character or the story?

It depends on what I’m working on. I used to write “chick lit” for adults, as Wendy French, and most of those novels began with the story. I currently write Middle Grade fiction for boys as W.C. Mack (, and because both my Canadian and American publishers like books involving sports, I tend to start with story there as well. But when it comes to writing for Middle Grade girls, I always start with the character.

How do you “get to know” your main characters?

I kind of let them drift in and out of my head for a bit before I start writing. I think about who their family members are, what kind of friends they have and what they enjoy inside and outside of school. I think about what drives them crazy or makes them happy and I come up with plot points that could create some highs and lows for them within the story. Sometimes I’ll attach a certain actor or actress’s appearance to the character, so I have a mental picture when describing them.

In your novel, After All, You’re Callie Boone, how did you create a realistic and interesting character that tween readers could relate to? What kinds of social markers or language do you find to be prevalent in their lives?

I relied on personal experience, to a degree. I thought about some of the most hurtful things I’d witnessed or felt at that age and decided that the loss of a best friend was near the top of the list. That gave me an opportunity for Callie to feel confused, angry and alone so she could then work her way through all of those emotions. I also relied on my own experience in that Callie has a grandmother at home and my grandparents moved in with us when I was ten years old . Like Callie, I sometimes felt caught between enjoying the fact that they were there and wishing my family was more conventional or “normal”.

As far as language goes, I probably went over the top with Callie’s “Oh, fishsticks” tag line, but I do think kids tend to favour a small handful of phrases and words. I spent the afternoon with an eleven year old boy and couldn’t believe how often he said “awesome”. It had to be at least ten times per hour!

What should writers keep in mind when creating antagonists in their MG or YA novels?

I think it’s important that the character have good intentions. When I was writing about Callie, I knew she needed to have flaws and issues, or there wouldn’t be a story. But I also needed readers to identify with and root for her. She’s a kid who tries to do the right things, but doesn’t always succeed. I think we’re all a bit like that.

How do you know if you’re pushing the boundaries when it comes to drugs, sex, or violence in MG or YA novels?

I haven’t written any YA, but have a couple of novel ideas simmering at the moment. Part of what holds me back is that I’m leery of having to address any of those topics, as it feels like a lot of responsibility.

The appeal of Middle Grade is that there is a clearer line not to cross. The language is clean (I had to remove a “Crap!” from one of my books) and drugs/alcohol/sex/violence aren’t likely to be addressed. When I originally started writing for this age group, I asked my agent about the boundaries and she said an editor had once told her that mentioning a bra strap is too much. I’ve read Middle Grade that goes well beyond that, but I prefer to keep things as clean as possible. For example, Callie is only eleven and so in need of a true friend that it never crossed my mind that Hoot could be a romantic interest for her. I’ve had a number of parents and librarians write to thank me for making him “just a friend”, as they feel girls in that 9-12 age group are being sexualized too soon.

Any “quick tips” you’d like to share with MG writers in terms of creating characters?

Try to give characters something to feel passionate about, whether it’s a sport, a school subject or a dream they’re reaching for. That interest will naturally add dimension to the character and to the story.

An editor pointed out to me that a perk of writing about kids is that they don’t have control over a lot of things. They are limited by rules, schedules and by their age and physical size/abilities. Sometimes figuring out how a character works within or around these limitations helps to develop their personalities, strengths and weaknesses.

Most of all, have fun with the character and make sure it’s someone you care about. You’ll be spending a lot of time together!