Critique partners, CPs, buddies, friends, destroyer of the irrelevant plot thread, whatever you want to call them, people whom we allow to read our work are invaluable in shaping the final outcome of our manuscript. In her interview today, Jessica Spotswood shares how important CPs are in her life and how they have shaped both of her novels, BORN WICKED and STAR CURSED. As she points out, these are the people she turns to when she needs honest feedback and constructive direction. In Jessica’s case, her CPs have done an amazing job because her two novels are extraordinary reads.
Many thanks to Jessica for sharing her story today and illustrating how important CPs can be in a writer’s life…
Amy: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Jessica: I’ve been writing since I was in fourth grade. My first stories were about the horses at the stables where I took riding lessons, and I wrote constantly throughout high school. In college and grad school, I took a break from writing to study theatre, specifically new play development and dramaturgy – but I really missed creating my own stories. I started writing again in 2007 and decided to pursue publication in 2009, after I wrote my first YA novel. That’s when I realized that deep down, writing books was what I’d always wanted to do more than anything.
Amy: What inspires you to write YA?
Jessica: I love writing about teens. It’s such an interesting time: you’re figuring out who you are and who you want to be, and having so many firsts. I also love that YA contains such a mishmash of genres. My books are alternate-history and fantasy and romance all in one.
Amy: How many completed manuscripts did you query before one garnered agent interest?
Jessica: Only one. But it took me two years to write and then rewrite that manuscript; it went through several revisions (including rewriting it from third-past to first-present) before I dared query it. Then I got four form rejections and one full manuscript request (which led to an offer), so remember: it’s really subjective.
Amy: Before you sold BORN WICKED you wrote another book called INHERITING GAROLASS. Did you have critique partners or beta readers that helped you polish it? What did they add to the process?
Jessica: Yes! I had several of my friends – all former English majors and voracious readers – beta it. They suggested combining some characters, cutting others entirely, making my protagonist more active, and making the ending more of an actual ending. They were so, so helpful. And some of the things they critiqued were, in retrospect, fundamental flaws with that book, flaws that I didn’t know how to fix – which was probably the reason it never sold. (I recently wrote a whole post about finding critique partners and how I’d be lost without mine here.)
Amy: How long did it take to write the query for INHERITING GAROLASS? Did it come easily or did it go through many drafts?
Jessica: I went through old emails to answer this question, and it turns out that the one-sentence pitch I used in my query was basically the same one I sent to friends six months before, when I was trying to nail down what this book was about: a girl (later I changed it to “a seventeen year old portraitist”) discovers her link to a world where artists are considered dangerous enemies of the state. I got some great feedback from two very kind local YA authors about the pitch paragraph; they helped me write punchier first and last lines and told me not to use so many character names. Overall, though, it came pretty easily.
Amy: Can you give a short summary of your call with your agent, Jim McCarthy? How did you know he was a good fit for you?
Jessica: Honestly, I was so excited that all I remember about that phone call is how I gave my husband such a frantic thumbs-up that I accidentally hung up on Jim. It was a little mortifying and I pretended my phone had dropped the call. I was tempted to say yes right then and there, but first I had a friend in a debut group get feedback from two members who were repped by Jim, and I emailed the two authors whose contact info he’d provided. They all wrote glowing things about his responsiveness, his sense of humor, his editorial insight, his career guidance, and how fiercely he worked on behalf of his clients. I already knew that he represented several authors whose work I loved — and he loved my book. I said yes that night and four years later, I remain SO glad I did.
Amy: Was there ever a time you thought about giving up on your publishing dream? If so, what motivated you to keep writing?
Jessica: There have certainly been times when I’ve flopped down on the floor and whined about how hard publishing is – after INHERITING GAROLASS didn’t sell; when I was revising THRICE BLESSED (later renamed BORN WICKED) for my agent and worried it wouldn’t sell either; when I had to rewrite 75% of STAR CURSED from scratch; when I was having anxiety attacks about going on tour; when I was fretting over what sales numbers mean. But I’ve never really-truly thought of giving up. For one thing, I’m awfully stubborn, and for another, there’s never been anything else I want to do as much as I want to keep writing books.
Amy: The writing process is grueling and querying even more difficult. What one piece of advice can you impart to aspiring writers to encourage them to keep working towards their dream?
Jessica: Find critique partners who will read your work and give you honest, helpful feedback. Ask them to tell you what they loved and want more of as well as what confuses them or what questions they have. Don’t take one person’s feedback as gospel – but if two of them tell you the same thing, it’s definitely worth thinking about it. And if you’re instinctively resistant to a suggestion, ask yourself if they might be right. This kind of relationship is invaluable to your work – and possibly your sanity, because they’ll understand all the ups and downs of this process the way no one else will. They’ll be the friends you can flailmail at midnight.
Everybody knows Cate Cahill and her sisters are eccentric. Too pretty, too reclusive, and far too educated for their own good. But the truth is even worse: they’re witches. And if their secret is discovered by the priests of the Brotherhood, it would mean an asylum, a prison ship—or an early grave.
Before her mother died, Cate promised to protect her sisters. But with only six months left to choose between marriage and the Sisterhood, she might not be able to keep her word… especially after she finds her mother’s diary, uncovering a secret that could spell her family’s destruction. Desperate to find alternatives to their fate, Cate starts scouring banned books and questioning rebellious new friends, all while juggling tea parties, shocking marriage proposals, and a forbidden romance with the completely unsuitable Finn Belastra.
If what her mother wrote is true, the Cahill girls aren’t safe. Not from the Brotherhood, the Sisterhood—not even from each other.
With the Brotherhood persecuting witches like never before, a divided Sisterhood desperately needs Cate to come into her Prophesied powers. And after Cate’s friend Sachi is arrested for using magic, a war-thirsty Sister offers to help her find answers—if Cate is willing to endanger everyone she loves.
Cate doesn’t want to be a weapon, and she doesn’t want to involve her friends and Finn in the Sisterhood’s schemes. But when Maura and Tess join the Sisterhood, Maura makes it clear that she’ll do whatever it takes to lead the witches to victory. Even if it means sacrifices. Even if it means overthrowing Cate. Even if it means all-out war.
In the highly anticipated sequel to Born Wicked, the Cahill Witch Chronicles continue Cate, Maura and Tess’s quest to find love, protect family, and explore their magic against all odds in an alternate history of New England.
Jessica Spotswood is the author of the Cahill Witch Chronicles: BORN WICKED (2012), STAR CURSED (2013), and forthcoming book 3 (summer 2014). She grew up in a tiny, one-stoplight town in Pennsylvania, where she could be found swimming, playing clarinet, memorizing lines for the school play, or – most often – with her nose in a book. Now Jess lives in Washington, DC with her playwright husband and a cuddly cat named Monkey. She can be found doing yoga, teaching writing workshops for teens, or – most often – with her nose in a book. Some things never change. For more information on Jessica check out her website or follow her on Twitter.