Sunday, 22 March 2009

Interview with a Début Author: LINDSEY LEAVITT

Hi Lindsey, please tell us a bit about yourself.

I like gummy worms and other chewy delights, but have braces so I just write about them in my bio now. I have two little girls who offer me plenty of princess inspiration and a husband in a periodontology residency (translation: gums and teeth implants and other such gore).
I’m originally from Las Vegas but now live in the less glamorous of Birmingham’s… Alabama.
Oh, and I’m a tween/teen writer. I always forget that part.

(artwork to follow)

A joyously funny, sharp and insightful debut novel for tween girls.

After a humiliating encounter with her long-term crush, ex-best friend, and a groundhog costume, 14-year-old Desi Bascomb finds herself in the pet shop where she works, staring into a fish tank. Her boss claims the tank is magical and Desi sure could use a little magic in her life right now.
That night, as Desi soaks in the bath, Meredith Pouffinski – a no-nonsense agent scouting substitutes for vacationing princesses – pops out of a bubble. Now Desi is about to learn first hand what it feels like to be royalty.
Soon Desi is hanging with mutant insects, dancing in an Amazon tribal festival, and outsmarting a meddling older sister. But nothing can prepare her for the magic of falling for a real prince – a prince who has no idea that back in Hicktown, Idaho, Desi is just a girl in a groundhog costume.

To follow: Two more stories about Desi as she returns to life as a princess sub. Boys, theater try-outs and high school - easy. An off-limits prince, a vengeful agent, and a centuries-old agency in turmoil- not so much!

PRINCESS FOR HIRE is your debut novel. Is it your first attempt at writing a novel or do you have other manuscripts hidden away?

Princess for Hire is actually… well, my 2 ½ novel. The very first one is not so much hidden as it is destroyed. We do not speak of that sad little learning experience.
I started Princess a couple years ago but put it away about 15,000 words in to start another novel. I came back to PRINCESS as my release while agent hunting. Yep, it was my “for fun” novel. Letting go of that desire for publication and just writing for kicks helped me get back in the story and find my voice.

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

I started writing in early 2005. I’d quit teaching to be home with my then eight-month-old, and found I had two hours of free time during her naps. I had wanted to be a writer forever, but never actually WROTE because of a million insecure reasons.
Actually, here’s a blog post I did on that.

Then one day I read a particularly bad Chick Lit novel and thought, Come on, I could do better. Turns out, I couldn’t. Not at first. But once I made that “choice”, I enrolled in SCBWI, signed up for some writer’s boards ( is one of the best), and joined a critique group. I also got to work reading and writing, reading and writing.

I was lucky to receive a scholarship to the Highlights Foundation Chautauqua conference in the summer of 2006, and I think that week took me from newbie to a no-seriously-I-want-to-do-this-writer-thing. After that I continued the reading/writing pattern with market research sprinkled in there until I finished my second novel, which I started shopping in late 2007. And while I went through Query Hell, I kept at the reading/writing thing, working on PRINCESS FOR HIRE.
I signed with my agent in March 2008, who in turn helped land me a three-book-deal with Disney-Hyperion in June 2008. Egmont UK followed shortly after in July.

What was it that made you think 'I want to write for children'? Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I always knew I wanted to write for kids. I read about 5 MG/YA books for every adult one, especially fiction. It’s a wonderful genre, one often overlooked by adults. I’m known as the YA Pusher because I’m constantly trying to get my friends and family to read these books. I mean, Hunger Games? The Giver? These need to be read by all!

Have you changed genre since you first started writing? If so, do you feel your writing suits a specific genre and do you enjoy writing this genre more than any other?

My writing seems to have similar threads—girl coming of age/finding herself. Also, recognizing the good in her life through some adventure.
That can take place in a contemporary, high school setting, or in a high concept whirlwind book such as PRINCESS FOR HIRE. Which is why I love writing for teens and tweens--you can blend genres a bit more and it’s all under that MG/YA umbrella. Walk through your YA section and you’ll see Scott Westerfield on the same shelf as Marcus Zusak. Such a multi-faceted genre.

Have you ever tried writing for adults? Is it a market you'd like to write for in the future?

I tried about a chapter or two of a women’s fiction novel but promptly quit because it wasn’t my thing. At all. I seriously doubt I’ll ever venture into the adult market. I love the kidlit community, love the wonderful books available and I love the readers (well, I WILL love the readers, when I get some!). My voice fits well in the genre, and I love exploring all the themes in that age range.

In the case of, PRINCESS FOR HIRE, how long has it taken you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

I started PRINCESS FOR HIRE in August 2005, but only worked on it for a few weeks before putting it away for almost two years. Once I started up on it again, though, it all went rather fast. Four months of work before Sarah saw a still-messy draft, a month or so of intense revision, and less than a month later, we sold. So almost three years from concept to sale, but I worked on other projects, had a baby and moved across the country in between.

Before finding your agent, Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse, and achieving publication, had you approached any other agents and publishers? Have you had to deal with rejection along the way?

I approached dozens of agents and editors for a couple different projects from picture books to novels-- resulting in many close calls. I revised with one, spoke with a few, but for a variety of reasons, I didn’t find that fit.
So yes! I have a file of rejections. A bulging file, and one of these days I’m going to do something artistic with it like make a collage or use it to wallpaper my bathroom. I imagine there is still a load of my rejection in the future—it’s all a part of the business.
I have found rewarding myself for a rejection always helps (hey! It’s not easy putting your work out there. Give yourself kudos). Most of my rewards came with a sugar coating.
The serendipity of it all was Sarah wasn’t even an agent when I started querying. I’m so glad all those other agents said no so Sarah could get her agency running and find me!

If several agents were interested in working with you, how did you decide which one to choose and did you meet them face-to-face to help you decide?

I was lucky to have another offer, and it was a tough choice. Sarah was in wholly unique situation—she had years of experience as an editor, but her agency was brand spanking new. Before I spoke with her, I thought for sure I’d go with the other agent and her very big agency.
But Sarah had passion. She was smart and hungry. When I hung up with her, I sat down and thought, she just said everything I’ve ever wanted an agent to say. And she meant it.
I also sent a note to another client of Sarah’s, Sarwat Chaddha, who had just that day landed a crazy awesome deal. He gave me an honest insight into how she worked and communicated, and it was all in line with what I was looking for.
I did the same kind of research on the other agent, and really it came down to that gut feeling. Now we’re coming up on our year anniversary, and it’s been a honeymoon of a year.

Would you recommend having an agent and, if so, why?

I would do more than recommend. I would insist.

Look, right before I signed with Sarah, I had a very wonderful editor interested in my work. We revised another novel together and I went to acquisitions and… it didn’t happen. Without Sarah, this would have been devastating. Instead, my new agent stepped in, helped me revise Princess for Hire, and used all her connections and experience to get my manuscript in the right hands. Suddenly, I went from praying this one editor would return my status query to multiple offers, an auction, and a three book deal. While I had to do the work to get there, Sarah made the dream happen.
So although I know finding an agent can be an absolute beast, stick with it. The rewards go beyond the sale—they are your teammate. Revisions, covers, contracts, ideas—Sarah’s there for it all.

Also, I should add this disclaimer: It’s better NOT to have an agent than to have a BAD agent. So do your research. Make sure they are reputable. Talk to their clients. Check that they have sales (or if they are new, experience) in your genre. It’s very exciting to finally get validation from someone in the biz, but don’t just jump in because there is agent interest. Please, please make sure it’s a good fit for you as well.

Do you think there has been any other deciding factor in your success other than simply writing a good novel?

Although I did have some personal turning points along the way, the sale wasn’t the result of a consultant or competition. I think it was the right book at the right time. Yes, I had to write it and write it well, but I also realize there was quite a bit of luck involved. Luck that Sarah picked me out of the slush, luck that she sent it to Hyperion/Egmont and the right editor read it, luck that there wasn’t another book at the time exactly like it. It could have gone so many different ways with so many different results!

You achieved a fantastic three-book deal. Has achieving publication changed the way you approach your writing? Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

Having money in my bank account for books I haven’t even written yet definitely adds some pressure. Good pressure, though. I have to go to “Work” now, so I don’t feel guilty calling in emergency childcare or letting my husband pitch in with meals and housework.
I’m also dedicated to building an author brand, which will hopefully expand as my books are released.
Creatively, I do have my editor’s voice in my head now, which can be a help and a hindrance, specifically when writing a first draft. During those times, I try to go back to that joy of writing just for the fun of it and banish the due-date angst.

Do you think your experience as an elementary school teacher has influenced your writing?

What a great question. Yes, even though I only taught for a couple of years (and subbed for more but I find it’s best to block out some of those experiences!), from the first children’s literature class I took in college, I was hooked. Also, I saw first hand how children select books and discovered which books were universal. The boys loved the Alex Ryder series and the girls loved Shannon Hale/Gail Carson Levine, but every single kid adored Holes. I now look at why all those books were a success in my classroom, and in the book world as a whole.
So although my books are “girl” books, I try to hit upon themes that every one of my female students would have related to. There’s some glam and sparkle, but there are elements the tomboy Lindsey of yesteryears would have liked as well.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children's/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

When I was in grade school, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder and all the Ramona books. Then I went through a Babysitter’s Club phase that led to my own entrepreneurial escapade, which ultimately failed after a heated slumber party fight over who would be the club president. In junior high I devoured thrillers and scary stories—Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine, some Stephen King.
When I was in high school, YA wasn’t the force it is now. I read loads of classics, lots of Kurt Vonnegut and the like. I read YA books now and wish I could have had them as a teenager!
The thing I like about kids of today, yesterday, whatever, is they don’t take B.S. You can’t ramble on with useless back-story or try to shove a moral down their throat. They’ve got better things to do. So although there may be a few current bestsellers that disprove that point, for the most part—get to the point, and make that point worthwhile.

Where do you get your inspiration from and what inspired you to write Princess for Hire?

My ideas come in all different packages: little snippets of conversation, an endless stream of asking what if?, childhood memories, news stories, dreams, on and on. A little bit of Diet Pepsi coursing through my veins never hurts, either.
Like most of my stories, Princess for Hire is a combo of the above. I was at a writer’s conference, listening to one of those editor panels where people ask what they want, and they answer “good books” and everyone gets mad because they’re really hoping the editor would say a mutant bunny love story, because everyone has one of those in the drawer. At the end, an editor made an off-hand comment, “Of course, never hurts to hit a sweet spot, like dinosaurs or princesses or something.”
The comment triggered a daydream I used to have in fifth grade where I was whisked off to a castle in the dead of the night, and a whole bunch of girls would line up, and a prince would pick a dance partner/girlfriend/best friend. The catch, he had to pick based on the girl’s cool personality!
Yeah, I pretty much invented the concept of reality TV dating, but I like to stay humble about it. Anyway, every night, I would switch the particulars… my spandex/tie-dyed outfit, my inhumanly high bangs, but it never mattered. The prince always approached me, the only brunette (yeah, Barbie gave me issues), and said, “You’re the one. You are different. You seem cool.”
OK, that was a bit personal and I guess he wouldn’t really know my personality from a look. But hey, I was ten, and a rather awkward ten at that. But that memory hit a chord with me--what we want in our prince, really, is the recognition we are special for who we are. And if I was lined up with a bunch of princesses, how would I stick out, and how would I fit in? From that, I came up with a teen girl figuring out who she is while constantly pretending to be someone else. And there it was… a substitute princess.

Some authors get themselves into the writing mood by playing music. Do you use such an approach and, if so, what music did you listen to while writing Princess for Hire?

I’ve tried to be cool and create play lists, but seriously, when I’m writing, it just sounds like NOISE. I have my kids in the background all day serenading me with High School Musical or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. When I sit down at night to write, I want peace and dead quiet.

Rewrites and revision: How much have you had to do throughout the writing of Princess for Hire?

Revisions have been a beast. Like I said, we had to expand it from one book into many. So the last half was cut. My editor also pushed me to really flush out the magical aspect of the book, all for the better. In all, I’d say I’ve revised this novel 7 or 8 times. And I still have copy edits to go. And although I got a little angsty along the way (“a little” being a dire understatement), it was time and effort well spent. Revision takes a book from good to great.

Having achieved a three-book deal for Princess for Hire - did you have ideas in mind for the sequels, or have you had to think about them from scratch? Presuming the rewrites have changed the story, what would your advice be for anyone writing sequels without first achieving a deal for book one?

I started writing the book as a stand alone, but when I finished, I thought… hmm, there could be more. Sarah enthusiastically agreed this had sequel potential, so I wrote up a one-page synopsis for a second book. From that, we got an offer for three books. At this point, my second book in no way resembles the one page synopsis we used while pitching.

So my advice? Don’t do it. Don’t write a sequel if your book isn’t sold. My first book is pretty much an entirely different book than the one we sold. They just happen to have the same main character and title. If I’d already started or even finished the second book, I imagine it would be a wash. Instead, start a new story. It can be tough to let go of those characters, but do it. For now. For them. For you!

Titles: How many titles did you work with until settling on Princess for Hire?

It was always Princess for Hire. No, wait. At one point it was Princess 4 Hire. The switch gave the story some street cred, I guess.

Regarding artwork for the book covers. As the author do you have any input into the choices made or is the decision left entirely to others?

I’ve only seen sketches so far on my UK cover, which was a lovely, surreal experience. I CREATED those people and now there they are, in pen and ink. I was lucky to have consultation on that, so I pointed out a few tweaks—hairstyle, clothing, and so on. The book is being pitched to a slightly younger audience there, (or here (UK) for most of you!) so the cover has a very fun, tween look. Can’t wait to see the final product!

I haven’t seen my US cover yet and haven’t had any input except to say, “Please don’t make it look like Barbie threw up on it, K?” I trust it will be great though because I have a great designer and really enjoy other Hyperion covers.

What sort of publicity and marketing will you be undertaking? Will it be arranged for you, or do you have to initiate your own ideas?

I’m not positive at this point what the publishers have in store, but we’ll be discussing that in the upcoming months. The advantage of working with Disney in the US is they have such a stronghold with the tween market already.
As far as what I’m doing, I blog at least once a week and will be including more vlogs closer to publication date. I’m also in the process of designing a author website (just have to choose colors and the like. So many choices… any suggestions welcome!). I also plan on doing some collaborative signings and contests with other debut writers. I co-moderate a group called the Tenners of MG/YA writers with books coming out in 2010.

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Oh, this will sound trite, but keep at it. Seriously, it is a tough, tough business and there were many times I quit. No, took a vacation. A vacation from angst. I could use another one of those, actually.
Don’t let the desire to be published overshadow the joy of writing. Focus on that first. Write what makes YOU laugh and YOU cry and YOU ache. Perfect your craft and the rest will eventually fall into place. Almost-published writer’s honour.

Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Unless it’s my book, and the cover happens to be fabulous.

Agent's comments: SARAH DAVIES of The Greenhouse
Why I chose Lindsey -

Out of the blue, Lindsey popped into my submissions inbox one day last spring – in fact, with another story she was writing. I started to read, and gradually sat up, lowered my boots from the desk, and felt stirrings of excitement. Here was someone who could write – she was funny and articulate, with a strong, commercial voice.
While I loved the story she had sent, I got even more excited when I read the closing lines of her email – that she was writing something else, called PRINCESS FOR HIRE. If there’s one thing I love it’s a commercial tween mini-series, and I knew immediately we had the potential for a great one here.
I rang Lindsey straightaway, we talked for ages – and the rest is history. Though I had to fight off another (major) US agency who also wanted to sign her. It was incredibly exciting for me that Lindsey wanted to entrust herself and her writing future to Greenhouse, which was such a new business.

USA/Canada: Hyperion (Winter 2010)
UK/Commonwealth: Egmont UK (Winter 2010)


Jon M said...

Another top interview Tracy, Don't lose the joy of writing? couldn't agree more! Guess my mutant bunny love story is doomed though...

Tracy said...

You and me both, Jon. :) I thought it was such a good idea ready for Easter.

SusieM said...

I really look forward to these interviews and this one is just what I needed. I'm half way through my second draft and all the insecurities are creeping in. Lindsey's advise, as Jon pointed out, to not lose the joy of writing is spot on. Now, I'll go back to my draft I little more relaxed and with a little more enjoyment.
Thanks Tracy

Tracy said...

Thank you, SusieM
I know exactly what you mean and if these interviews help encourage and inspire it makes me happy.

Maureen Lynas said...

Hi Tracy
This is a great interview. I was very interested in the fact that Sarah jumped at the book pitched at the end of the submission letter. I think one day soon I'll pitch the Jawbreaker and mention Abracadabra and two other books I have in mind on the same - little bit of magic in your lives - theme.
Thanks for this.

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