When you first start writing a manuscript I think one of the hardest thing to do is find the character’s voice. From the first page it has to be strong and distinctive, and as a writer you may have to get several pages, or chapters, into a first draft before you discover if it’s working or not. In today’s W.O.W., A.L. Sonnichsen shares how her debut, RED BUTTERFLY, started as Young Adult book, but along the way she discovered the story was much better suited to a Middle Grade voice. While it meant rewriting the entire book, it also meant she found the proper voice for her protagonist. A daring and brave choice that eventually paid off!
Many thanks to A.L. for sharing her writing odyssey today…
Amy: When did you first begin seriously writing with the intent of wanting to be published?
A.L.: I grew up writing books and even majored in writing in college, but it wasn’t until I was turning thirty that I decided to get serious. That was seven years ago now, so it took some time. I’ve learned a lot and I’m so grateful for those years of growth.
Amy: When did you complete your first Middle Grade manuscript?
A.L.: I wrote young adult novels for years. In fact, I was sure my passion was young adult. What I couldn’t understand, though, was why all my favorite books to read were middle grade, and yet, I couldn’t come up with a middle grade plot to save my life! One of my critique partners, in reading a young adult manuscript of mine, told me something that would change my life. She said, “I know this might be devastating to you, but the voice in this manuscript feels wrong. She seems way younger than a teenager!” So, I went back to the drawing board and completely rewrote the book as a middle grade novel. That was a couple years ago and the book turned out to be RED BUTTERFLY, my debut novel. The moral of this story is: listen to your critique partners. Another moral might be: if you’re hitting a brick wall with one genre, try another. Now that I’ve written one middle grade, all my ideas are middle grade and I can’t imagine writing anything else. Weird, huh?
Amy: I love that you’ve spent a good deal of your life living in Hong Kong. How has that experience influenced your writing?
A.L.: Growing up in Hong Kong has influenced my writing so much. When I was a kid I kind of hated that I lived there. Not that life was bad—I had a great childhood—but I felt so different from a “real” American kid and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be normal (whatever that is). Now I’m so grateful for my upbringing. My novel, RED BUTTERFLY, is set in mainland China and I’m working on another manuscript that’s set in Hong Kong. My settings aren’t the only aspects effected. Because I grew up in Hong Kong, I was inspired to go back to Asia as an adult, and that’s where I gained the experiences and inspiration I needed to write RED BUTTERFLY.
Amy: When you were writing RED BUTTERFLY did you share it with beta readers and/or critique partners? If so, how did they influence your process?
A.L.: Yes, I have a trusted group of critique partners. I know everyone has a different system when it comes to polishing their work. For me, I finish a draft, hand it off to a critique partner, receive feedback, and then usually rewrite (or make changes if I’ve already written several drafts). If it’s later in the process, I might have several critique partners read at the same time, just to measure their reaction to see if I’m getting close to sending it out into the big world. With these last readers (who I realize are more like beta readers than critique partners), I gauge how long it takes them to get back to me. If it takes a month or more, I figure I need to tighten up the book and make it more interesting before sending it out. If I’m getting feedback that they can’t put it down, that’s a good sign.
Amy: How laborious/frustrating was the query process for you?
A.L.: Querying before I had an agent wasn’t so bad. I was able to develop a tough skin over time. My attitude was that if I was getting a lot of rejections it was because my book (or my query) weren’t ready yet; I tried not to blame the system. This attitude always kept me working hard on my craft and trying to improve. I also queried widely, but not desperately. I didn’t dredge the bottom of the barrel. I always forced myself to shelve the book that wasn’t going anywhere and write something new. In fact, while I was querying, I made it a point to work on something new. This gave me a forward momentum that helped preserve my sanity.
I will say, the toughest querying process I faced was after I signed with one agent and then had to part ways with her. I felt like I was back at square one and that was debilitating. But more on that in the next question….
Amy: How many agents did you query for RED BUTTERFLY?
A.L.: I did not query very many (maybe, five?) because, like I said in my answer to the last question, I was debilitated. I queried a few, received rejections or silence, and was about ready to give up and shelve the book prematurely. I almost made the mistake of listening to my first agent who told me she didn’t think RED BUTTERFLY had a chance. Usually I’m adamant that writers listen to critique (especially from agents!), but in this case, my gut told me she hadn’t actually given my book a good read because she was disappointed my first book hadn’t sold.
Thankfully, one of my critique partners came to my rescue and talked to her agent about me. I had received a previous offer from that agent, and my critique partner asked her if she might be interested in reading my newest books. That agent was willing, and, after reading, enthusiastic about my work. Her confidence in my books helped restore my mojo after that first-agent experience.
Amy: Did you receive instantaneous response or did you have to wait for requests/rejections?
A.L.: Querying is such a roller coaster, such a hurry-up-and-wait game! You can wait for weeks, then be scrambling to send someone a partial or a full that meet their specifications. My experience with RED BUTTERFLY was a little different because I already had my foot in the door, so to speak. But even with a foot in the door, the waiting seemed endless. I tried to fill my waiting time with as much writing as possible!
Amy: What was your call like with your agent, Kate Schafer Testerman? How did you know she was the right fit for you?
A.L.: That call was wonderful! *happy sigh* I felt very comfortable with Kate and was so happy that she loved my books. I also needed the assurance that she was going to stick with me whether my books sold or not. With my past agent experience, that was very important to me.
Amy: As many writers know the publishing world is very hard to break into. What was the one thing you did to help garner agent attention?
A.L.: The first time I heard about Kate, my agent, was when I entered a Miss Snark’s First Victim contest with my very, very first book. Kate was the Secret Agent and liked my writing and wanted to see a partial. This was a book that was getting nothing but rejections from EVERYBODY (because the plot stunk). Of course, she gently rejected me after the partial, but her interest kept me going, and it’s an awesome and ironic thing that she’s now my agent!
Amy: If you were giving a keynote speech at a writers conference, what would be the most important piece of writing advice you would share?
A.L.: Persevere! That means, finish the book you’re in the middle of writing. It also means, when querying, keep querying. And if it’s time to move on, get that new idea down on paper. Keep moving forward. Focus on improvement. You can’t control trends or agent/editor interest, but you can perfect your craft and develop good work habits that will help you so much when you do land a contract.
Kara never met her birth mother. Abandoned as an infant, she was taken in by an elderly American woman living in China. Now eleven, Kara spends most of her time in their apartment, wondering why she and Mama cannot leave the city of Tianjin and go live with Daddy in Montana. Mama tells Kara to be content with what she has … but what if Kara secretly wants more?
Told in lyrical, moving verse, Kara’s story is one of a girl learning to trust her own voice, discovering that love and family are limitless, and finding the wings she needs to reach new heights.
A.L. Sonnichsen is a Hong Kong-raised mom of five, football coach’s wife, and Brussels sprouts-addicted middle grade writer represented by Kate Schafer Testerman of kt literary. Her middle grade verse novel, RED BUTTERFLY (Simon & Schuster BFYR), will be out in February, 2015. You can find her at her blog, The Green Bathtub ( http://alsonnichsen.blogspot.com ), on facebook as A.L. Sonnichsen ( https://www.facebook.com/AuthorALSonnichsen?ref=hl ), and on twitter at @alsonnichsen.