As part of an English assignment, students at Oakbrook Middle School in Summerville South Carolina were asked to interview an author about the publishing process. I was honoured to participate! Brigitta interviewed me by email.
English 1 Honors
6 January 2010
Interview With Shawn Bird Questions and Answers
1. What inspired you to write your first novel?
The very first one I wrote back in 1992. I was doing a teaching practicum in a junior high and I was surrounded by teen hormones. The atmosphere sucked me back in time to my first love, and I needed to write down all the memories that were overwhelming me. I got about 250 pages done on it in less than a month, but sadly, it was far too autobiographical and although there were some funny scenes, it certainly was not publication worthy. However, having exorcised those ghosts, I was able to start thinking about ways to use the experience of the love story as the germ of truth I later built on to create a fictional scenario that worked into a proper story last year.
Another inspiration came when I read the story of how J. K. Rowling came to write Harry Potter, and yet another occurred when a group of BC authors came to my school and spoke to my classes. I thought, “It’s not too late, I can still do this,” but I was still not sure how I could craft the story around the message I wanted to share until last October.
2. Why did you want to write a novel?
I felt that I had a story to tell that kids would enjoy and could learn from; I just needed the right framework to hang it on. October 2008 several of my students recommended that I read Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. I loved the story and the characters. The theme was similar to the one I was working through in my head, and suddenly I realized this was my solution: I could integrate the love story with mythology. In my case it wasn’t vampires and werewolves, it was classical Greek mythology. I began writing that day, and the story was done in 6 months.
3. Have you always wanted to be a writer? Or was writing this book the start of a new development in your life?
I have been a reader my whole life. I started writing stories in grade 3 and sharing them with peers at show and tell. I wrote poetry and received my first poetry prize in grade four. I was on the school newspaper staff, submitted articles to newsletters and newspapers and took courses in Creative Writing in high school and at university, though I excelled in the analysis courses more than the writing classes. In high school I debated choosing a career as a writer or journalist. I decided to earn a BA in English and chose the stability of a teaching career, with the plan to write in my free time. Unfortunately, it’s wasn’t until my children left home that I had much free time!
4. When did you start writing your book?
I began the week after Canadian Thanksgiving, October 2008. I finished it the week before Easter, April 2009. It took just under 6 months, start to finish, at about 25 pages a week. I should perhaps add here that there is a poem in the book that I wrote when I was 12. It expresses the theme and everything in the story links back to it, so you could say that I started this book in 1976 and it took 33 years to write! Of course, I have been editing in the entire 6 months since I finished the book, and see no end to the editing process!
5. How did your book change as you started to write it or did it turn out like you had planed when you first sat down and began to write?
There seems to be a rather common experience with writers that it feels that the characters are telling you the story, rather than you creating it. I started with an idea of where it was going, but as I wrote (and I wrote scenes from all over the book, and organized them much later in the process) the mythology kept changing the significance of things, and the actions kept taking characters into slightly different situations. The basics are similar to my initial plan, but Grace’s story isn’t as much of an autobiography of my experience that started the project. She had to introduce herself and show me how her life was different from mine, and her story just unfolded to me like stories do when you meet any new friend and find out about her while hanging out together.
An example of the story changing: what I envisioned as just a romantic suburban walk in the rain to discuss their relationship ended up with the couple visiting Concordia, the Roman Goddess of Communication and Marriage , who blessed them with telepathy. Huh! I had written scenes in which they were telepathic already, but I hadn’t any idea how the couple had come to become telepathic, nor was I planning to write such a scene that day, but Connie just showed up in the story and did the deed! And- they ended up fighting on their rain walk after their visit with Connie, so it wasn’t romantic at all!
6. How does the fact that you’re an English teacher affect your writing?
My grammar is really good. 😉 Also, I have a strong understanding of story structure and a keen awareness of voice. i.e. I know what teens today sound like, live like, etc because I spend so much time with them. I do ‘fix’ some of the grammar (i.e. there are no adjectives masquerading as adverbs in my novel) but it fits with the reality of Grace’s past. I acknowledge that I require adverbs because of my English teacher urges. I also can not help myself from using who and whom correctly. 😉
7. Why did you decide to become an English teacher instead of a writer?
Pragmatism. I could access university transfer courses more easily than creative writing or journalism courses, so I ended up with a BA. After the BA I was able to attend a teaching program locally. Since I had a husband and babies by this time, this was important! I have been writing all along, however. My husband’s wedding ring was purchased with a writing award, and I wrote articles for Canadian Guider and a variety of genealogy and harp publications across North America through the 1990s.
8. How long was your manuscript?
156,000 words at its longest (Stephenie Meyer says on her website that Twilight was 155,000 words, to give you a physical size comparison)
9. What information do you have to send in with your manuscript?
Before a manuscript is sent, you have to send a query package to see if they want the manuscript. A query package includes a cover letter that introduces you and your project, a summary of the entire book (including the ending) and ten sample pages in hard copy (paper in an envelope). If the query package is successful, they will ask for the next few chapters (usually by e-mail), and if they like those, then they’ll ask to see the manuscript. If a publisher’s acquisitions editor likes the manuscript, s/he has to successfully get the entire publishing house (particularly the marketing team) on board. If the house doesn’t think they can sell the story then it won’t be published. I see that a lot of rights are purchased, but then expire and revert to the author without the book actually being published. That’s sad!
10. How many agents have rejected your book so far?
One rejection, and one ‘we don’t have time to read any queries, please send your package again in a few months’ from a back-logged company.
In Canada one does not require an agent to query publishers, because there are actually far more publishers here than there are literary agencies. There are only THREE agents in the entire country with an interest in Young Adult fiction, for example! (2 of them replied as above, and the third says on his website, “Send me stuff if you must, but don’t expect me to acknowledge it or to ask for more”). I have an interested publisher who is looking at the first four chapters of the manuscript at the moment. (1)
11. What did the publishing agents tell you if they rejected your manuscript?
One literary agent was interested in the project after the initial query, and asked for the first 4 chapters. After reading those, she said that she was still very interested, but thought that it needed to ‘be tightened up’ and to ‘have more sparkle.’ These abstract comments incensed my students, but it made perfect sense to me: it was too wordy and needed a faster pace. In other words, I hadn’t edited adequately before sending it out. Oops. Mea culpa! She said that if I did some major editing, she would like to see it again. I spent the summer re-considering and editing and actually changing some of the structure of the novel to make the allegory more pronounced. This took the form of 27 quatrains in dactylic hexameter to echo Greek metrical poetry. One quatrain now opens each chapter. If a reader ignores them, the story is all modern, if the reader reads them, the story becomes full of characters from Greek mythology. Two stories on one- but it’s very complex, and not something the typical YA author would do.
After reading through this re-write, she decided that although the project still intrigued her, she wasn’t connecting with the writing, and wished me all the best. It was a really nice letter, and it didn’t feel like a rejection at all! One needs one’s agent to buy in completely, and if she doesn’t recognize the brilliance of the prose and the concept behind it, then she can’t market well enough to the publishers.
12. Do you intend on writing a sequel to your first book?
I didn’t plan to, and didn’t see how I could. However, my beta-readers begged for more from the characters that they had grown to love, and so I discussed what they wanted to know, and got some ideas. I think it is more likely that there would be prequels, but at the moment I’m writing a second book that is unrelated to Grace Awakening. I am traveling to Italy in the spring, however, and the idea of exploring Grace’s past life in Italy has intrigued me. We’ll see if that goes anywhere.
13. How have you gone about self-publishing books?
I haven’t. I did bind a few copies of the book for beta-readers and for ease of editing- also because it’s one thing to know there’s 155,000 words of a novel in the computer, and quite another to hold it bound in your hand! I personally photocopied, cut, glued and clamped each of those copies and they’re precious commodities! I have no copies for sale, as I am still looking at professional, traditional publishing.
14. How successful is self-publishing?
I have to be theoretical at this point, because I am not actually self-publishing. What I’m told by others who have chosen this route is that it works if you are willing and able to put the time into marketing the book yourself. The on-line sellers like Amazon tend not to be willing to stock your book and local bookstores don’t like to stock books that aren’t on recommendation lists. So you have to personally sell a store owner on the merit of stocking your book, and generally be willing to take back unsold books like a publishing company will do. I don’t have the time to do that marketing, so I am still working toward obtaining a traditional publishing contract. In addition, self-publishing, at least for a book the size of mine, is prohibitively expensive. Normally, a bookseller takes 20% and the author takes 20%; the remainder is the publisher’s expenses and profit. Most YA books are about $10, so $6 goes to the publisher for printing and marketing, and $2 each for the seller and the author. The least expensive publishing option for me at 1000 copies would be $20 per book (that’s $20,000 I’d have to pay up front in cash). I’d have to sell the book for over $35 a copy in order to provide the seller and me with a 20% profit. That’s not considering any marketing expenses like gas and hotels for promotional tours, stamps and pamphlets, etc. Add another $5 per copy for marketing. How many teens will pay $40 for a soft-cover novel? I don’t think I could be successful self-publishing a 500 page book for teens.
15. Would you recommend self-publishing as an alternative to using a publishing company?
For those with a niche market (church cookbook, family or town history, say) or those who are able to travel to sell the book hand to hand, sure.
16. Why did you want to self-publish?
I don’t. See above!
17. I once read a book about a girl that wrote a book and sent in her manuscript to her mother’s publishing company. It was published very fast. Do you think that it could really be that easy for everyone?
Well, John Travolta recently read a film script and said, “I’ll do this movie if you hire my daughter to play the daughter.” Obviously the daughter needed to be half decent, but the fact is that her famous dad got her in the door without auditioning like the other 5000+ kids who could have played that part as well, or better than she could. Kids get great summer jobs at their parent’s company… Nepotism is useful if you have the connections! Most of us have to grind a little harder than that. Part of the reason there is so much networking in the writing community is to try to get those little advantages with publishers.
18. How many years of university, if any, would you recommend to become a successful writer.
I think it’s more about years of writing and reading than it’s about years of studying. It is definitely wonderful to be in university, exposed to lots of writers who can offer suggestions and strategies, but there are lots of books and workshops around to give you the same information, and mentors are available if you need one on one connection. (I just had a YA author I enjoy offer me a mentorship this week, and I have worked a bit with Gail Anderson-Dargatz who is a Giller nominated writer in small workshops). More important than formal education is the skill of your writing, the value of your tale, and the story you bring as an author. Stephenie Meyer’s dream, J. K. Rowling writing in the café, these tidbits of the background of the story capture the collective imagination and create interest in the works. Interest equals promotion, promotion leads to sales. Sales lead to success. Of course, success to you may mean critical praise rather than sales. Lots of novels receive critical praise but do not sell. (You usually end up studying them – painfully- at university). It seems to be a Canadian ideal to have critical success rather than sales.
19. Would you recommend taking a foreign language to become a successful writer?
I would recommend exploring the world and broadening your experiences. Maybe you live in a microcosm and your story is profound enough to speak to the world (Harper Lee comes to mind) but generally you need to have experienced something of the world before you can address universal themes. I speak 3 languages reasonably fluently, and a smattering of a few more, but I’m not sure linguist facility impacts my writing. My world view, on the other hand, reflected from the cultural awareness that comes from living in another culture and communicating in its language, probably does impact it, at least in the abstract. (2)
20. Is it possible that when you are getting your book published to only have conversations with the publishing company over the phone? Or would you recommend in person meetings?
I would always want to have some meetings face to face, which is why I’ve avoided querying into the US so far. You can tell a lot about someone’s character when you look them in the eyes! I think having spoken to my potential publisher face to face, and addressing her questions with knowledge and enthusiasm, helped sell her on the idea of looking further into my book. I also met the head of the literary agency that had my book, a couple of weeks before it was rejected by her YA agent. I could tell she was terrifyingly brilliant and I would have been very confident having her agency represent me, but she made me feel quite inadequate! (She is a former lawyer and has a huge intellectual presence).
Thanks for the interview Brigitta! It was lovely ‘chatting’ with you! If I can be of any further assistance, please don’t hesitate to ask.
1) at least I’ve only found three literary agencies in Canada that accept YA. I welcome news of others!
2) 11/01/2010 The following article was recently brought to my attention. It suggests that learning other languages has a significant impact on one’s neurological connections while reading in one’s own language. Fascinating stuff!