History Unboxed: An Interview with YA Author Stacey Lee

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It has been far too long since I featured an author interview, but I think you’ll agree once you read this one that it was worth the wait! Today I’m very excited to share a conversation with Stacey Lee, whose debut YA historical fiction novel UNDER A PAINTED SKY debuted last month from Penguin Putnam. It’s the story of two teenage girls in 1849 who escape their grim circumstances by disguising themselves as boys pursuing the Gold Rush via the Oregon Trail. It’s intense, gorgeously written, and has already garnered some amazing praise, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

I4wfy9XvrOoDnSzWDaZBh8KzeVfGhe9G4qEeAEJ_qKcAbout Stacey: Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys.  She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul.  A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall.  After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain.  She plays classical piano, wrangles children, and writes YA fiction. You can read more about her work at www.staceyhlee.com, on her Facebook page, or on Twitter @staceyleeauthor.

AM: Welcome, Stacey! I first read your novel under a different title (GOLDEN BOYS), in my slush pile days at Nelson Literary Agency. It has been a huge thrill to see it debut, and to garner such well-deserved praise. Congratulations!

To start off, can you tell us a little about where the inspiration for this story and its characters came from?

My parents inspired me!  My mother’s people came to the US in the late 1800’s, but due to the Chinese Exclusion Laws, Chinese people were not allowed to stay permanently.   I always wondered what it would have been like for the first Chinese people in the US.  My main character, Samantha, is born in New York, and has a toe-hold in both cultures, American and Chinese.  I chose the vehicle of the western for my dad, who came to the US in the 1950’s when he was eleven, when the western was at its heyday.  My father loved John Wayne movies, and would often play cowboy music for my sisters and I, so that was essentially the music of our childhood.  I think, like many emigrants of that generation, the western appealed to him because in westerns, the hero is faced with an often-hostile country, and must go it alone.

UAPS_coverAM: What do you feel are the greatest pleasures and challenges of writing YA?

I love both the awkwardness and the extreme-ness of that age.  The teen years offer such a rich well of emotions to draw from, everything from anger and disappointment in parental figures, crushes, heartache, and it all feels SO devastatingly important and immediate.  The challenges are to keep up the pace, not only to hook reluctant readers, but also because teens may not have the patience of adult readers who may stick with a slow starting book because they’ve heard the book got good reviews, etc.

AM: As an editor, one of my favorite challenges is helping writers find the right place to start their story, and to make those opening pages as dynamic and engaging as they can be. Do you have any advice about this based on your own writing experiences?

It’s important to get into the story as soon as possible.  By the first paragraph, we should have a sense of time and place.  By the end of the first chapter, we should have an idea of what the main conflict is (even if turns out to be something different).  When I read, I always pay attention to how the author pulls us into the story, and I shamelessly incorporate those techniques into my own writing.

AM: I love that advice. It’s not shameless, it’s savvy!

You’re one of the team members at the We Need Diverse Books Campaign, which makes me an even bigger fan! Could you give our readers a glimpse of the project’s mission and your role in it?

Absolutely.  WNDB was created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature.  We believe that embracing diversity will lead to more empathy, understanding, and ultimately, equality.  We have a ton of awesome projects we are working on; we’ve established the Walter Award, which will be given to the diverse author of a diverse book every year in honor of visionary Walter Dean Myers, we’ve partnered with major organizations like National Education Association to bring diverse authors to classrooms, we’re establishing an internship program at major publisher for diverse folks who want to go into publishing, we’re planning a huge Diversity Festival in 2016.  So much good stuff ahead.  I am the legal director, as well as the panels director; we all wear many hats at WNDB.

diverselogoAM: What can readers and writers do to help support We Need Diverse Books’ goals?

You can be involved directly by volunteering. If you want to support diverse books and diverse authors, there are lots of ways to do this, including buying diverse books, requesting them at libraries, and telling your friends/families about the diverse books that you love.  If you loved a diverse book, you should absolutely let your bookseller, and even the publisher know.  They value and need this feedback.  Take the time to review the book on Goodreads or Amazon.  It doesn’t take too much time to rate a book, or to add it to your GR list.

AM: Can you give us any teasers about your next project(s)?

My second YA historical fiction will be out in 2016 and is called THE UNSINKABLE MERCY WONG: a spirited Chinese-American girl pretends to be an heiress from China to get entry into an all-white boarding school, but more than her future plans are shaken up when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hits.

AM: That sounds amazing! I’ll be looking forward to it. Thank you for sharing this news and all of your wonderful insight.

Thank you so much for having me, Anita!

An Editor’s Tips for Effective Worldbuilding—in Any Genre

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shutterstock_244945240Earlier this month, I presented a workshop on world building at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Retreat in beautiful Estes Park, Colorado. It was a fantastic event and an honor to spend time with a talented group of writers from many genres. One of the questions that we discussed was this: Which kinds of stories require world building? While the knee-jerk response is usually Sci Fi/Fantasy, everyone in the group quickly agreed on a better answer: “All of them.” Whether you want to set your story on another planet never before heard of, or a startlingly realistic representation of contemporary Detroit, you have to do the work to bring that place to life. Sparse world building can leave readers feeling ungrounded or unable to connect with your story, even if you have complex, engaging characters.

If you’re at the beginning stages of your novel, there are a lot of great resources out there for brainstorming and outlining your world. One of the most common is the world building checklist, an extensive list of questions designed to help you get to know your fictional world inside and out, so that you can begin to work those details into the story. Here are a couple of my favorites:

http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

http://io9.com/5936277/12-questions-to-ask-yourself-about-the-system-of-magic-in-your-fantasy-novel

(Again, these are geared toward SF/F worlds, but many of the questions apply to world building in general.)

Once you have gone a little further with your story, it’s helpful to know what NOT to do. Here are some tips I shared at the workshop based on the most common world building problems I see as an editor:

FIVE COMMON WORLDBUILDING PITFALLS

Lack of rules or breaking the rules—letting things happen in the story “just because.” If you bend your own worldbuilding rules in the middle of the story, it will come across as lazy plotting or too convenient. “But, it’s magic” is no excuse! In non-fantasy stories, this means staying true to the atmosphere you have built from the beginning. If you’re writing a contemporary romance and the setting is a small town that feels cozy and intimate to the main characters, it can’t suddenly morph into a dismal dead-end town without a very compelling reason.

Planting symbolic figures without a foundation. This is a common problem that happens when world building is mostly surface-level. You can’t throw in symbolic figures just for fun. For example: If the characters in your Sci Fi novel (or even historical fiction) frequently invoke “the Goddess,” readers must be given some notion of the underlying religion or mythology.

Data dump. This is where entire sections or pages at the beginning of the novel are devoted to worldbuilding and/or backstory alone; it’s a recipe for losing readers fast. World building should be organic—woven into the fabric of the story itself  as you introduce the main character (show the world through his or her eyes), the inciting incident, etc. It’s not an explanatory section in the opening pages of the novel.

Imbalance of macro and micro. Good world building always includes two layers: the “big picture” and the everyday details. Sometimes there is a clear sense of the macro level (geography, political structure, etc.), but little sensory detail for readers to latch onto. Or, there is an abundance of micro level details (what people wear, the foods they eat for breakfast, how they pray, etc.), but the foundation and infrastructure for these elements remains unclear.

The fantasy world is too similar to the real world. This one is specific to the SF/F genres. If you have a magical or supernatural element in your story, readers will expect to see its effects on the world at large. In other words, the things that set this place apart from the real world cannot exist in a void. Even if your story draws from a real-world referent (e.g. ancient Egypt), readers will be watching for details of what makes the place unique throughout the story, and without enough of this, the story could feel underdeveloped or disappointing.

I hope these tips give you some good food for thought. Go forth and build a world!

AgentSpeak: Four Not-Your-Fault Reasons Behind a Rejection Letter

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shutterstock_200233214Today, let’s talk about a dirty word: rejection. It’s no fun under any circumstances, but the good news is, some rejections sting a little less than others. That’s because sometimes, it’s not really about your writing.

When an agent reads your novel, he or she immediately starts weighing dozens of factors, both conscious and subconscious, to determine whether the response will be a “tell me more” or a “no thanks.” These factors come in two varieties: those that you can control and those that are out of your hands. Naturally, it’s a good idea to focus on the former—honing your craft, expanding your skill set—all the things that help your writing reach the level agents seek. But it’s also important to take into account the things you can’t control. When is an agent’s rejection not a reflection of your work?

Four Not-Your-Fault Reasons an Agent Might Say No to Your Manuscript:

  • It belongs to an overcrowded market. The truth is that sometimes, no matter how strong your writing is, an agent will say no to your project simply because the market for your topic or subgenre is oversaturated—meaning it would be very hard to get publishers to bite. Big hits in the industry spark trends, and agents’ inboxes are then flooded with waves of hopeful successors for months, or even years, after the trend peaks. Eventually the market can no longer support more of a particular type of story. Readers begin to lose interest; sales dip. Unless your novel has something very different to set it apart from the crowd, you’re going to have a very hard time convincing an agent.
  • It’s too similar to a book the agent already represents. This might sound counterintuitive, since writers are often told to query agents who represent projects similar to theirs. I’m certainly not discouraging that—it’s good advice in general. But in some cases, an agent might feel that your story is too much like one or more of his current titles, meaning publishers might feel the niche has already been filled.
  • The agent’s client list is nearly full. Unless an agent makes it clear on her website, blog, Twitter feed, etc. that she is not accepting submissions, she should be fair game, right? The truth is, sometimes agents keep the slush pile open just in case that next mega-bestseller crosses their path—even though their client list is already pretty full. Under those circumstances, even if the quality of your work is good, the agent will be less inclined to take a risk. And in the end, she is doing you a favor: you deserve an agent who is wild about your work and can give you the time and attention you deserve. This is why it often pays to target new agents, who are actively seeking to build their list and may be taking on two or three times as many clients per year as more senior agents. Just be sure to check that they have a good reputation and adequate experience in the industry.
  • It’s just not the agent’s cup of tea. One of the really tough things about an agent’s job is making the choice to let a high quality manuscript slip away. If the agent can’t connect with your protagonist, premise, or writing style on a deep personal level, she won’t be able to be the passionate advocate you need. The best agents are the ones who know when to bow out and let a project go to a colleague who can truly invest their time, talent, and passion in it.

How do you know if your novel fits into one of these frustrating categories? If you’re lucky, agents will come out and say so. For example, you might have queried an agent who represents your genre, but caters to a different subset or taste: “I prefer grittier urban fantasy—yours was a bit cozy for me.” Translation: “Not my cup of tea.” If, instead, you got a form letter or no response, it’s harder to intuit the reason. But if you follow your target agents’ news, you might find a clue or two; agents often post about their specific likes, wishes, and pet peeves on their blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. If you discover that you’ve been barking up the wrong tree, don’t be discouraged. Go to your next tier of target agents (after doing some serious research to make sure they’re a better fit). Then, while you wait for a nibble on your current book, work on the next. You can’t afford to send your creativity on sabbatical. Be relentless. Your dream is worth it.

Want to learn more about what you can control in your submissions process? Find out how to make your opening pages the best they can be. I’m teaching a new session of my 8-week online class “Crafting the Strongest Start: How to Hook an Agent with Your Opening Pages” beginning March 23. For more information, visit www.thenextbigwriter.com.