Authoress: Welcome, Beth! As you know, you've been claimed as one of Miss Snark's First Victim's success stories. Can you share your timeline so readers can see why?
Beth: I started writing the book during Christmas break 2008, and finished it at the end of the spring semester in 2009. I edited and revised over summer break, but kept dithering on whether it was truly done or not. I usually query very fast, but I felt like this work was special, and worried about rejections for the first time. Fortunately, that's about the same time that you had your query contest! I ended up entering, and Jodi requested a partial (the contest is HERE). Jodi gave me some great suggestions, particularly about the first chapter. Critique partners had been telling me for ages that I should start with a different chapter, but it was Jodi's suggestion on it that really put me over the edge. I changed that first chapter and started querying agents in September!
Authoress: This interview is exciting for me, because I've had the privilege to watch your novel move from "Query Contest" entry to agented to sold. So let me start by saying that when I read your excerpt in the contest, I was HOOKED! How did you come up with such a cool story idea? And how long did it take you from concept to completed novel?
Beth: The premise for the novel came from reading a lot of other books in my genre. I read Jeanne du Prau's THE CITY OF EMBER, and it really reminded me a lot of what I loved about Agatha Christie's MOUSETRAP: a contained mystery, where all the suspects and all the victims are trapped together. I wanted to do something similar with a new setting. My original idea was a cruise ship, but that wasn't weird enough for me. I read Mary Pearson's THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX and realized that science fiction can be done without much science--which perfectly appealed to me. So my setting became a space ship. But I still lacked a real plot. I had an idea for a murder mystery, but felt like it lacked oomph. Then I read THE THIEF by Megan Whalen Turner--I won't ruin the plot, but the way she developed the twist through an unreliable narrator was cool, and sparked the idea for my own twist.
And that's a LOT of explanation for what happened in a relatively short amount of time--a few months of germinating those ideas around in my head. From there, I started writing a rough draft over Christmas break 2008, and wrote throughout the spring semester following. I sent to crit partners and revised over the summer, then subbed to your Query Contest in August. I changed the beginning based on Jodi's and the commenter's comments, and queried in September.
Authoress: It's especially interesting to hear how the inspiration for your story came from a variety of other novels (I loved THE CITY OF EMBER!).
I remember LOVING your premise when I read your excerpt in Jodi's Query Contest last year. I also remember that your story was written in first person present tense. What led to that decision? Do you feel that writing in present tense is more challenging?
Beth: It was a complete accident to write in first person present. Not only had I never done it before, but I tended to hate books written in first person present tense (this was before THE HUNGER GAMES, mind). As a matter of fact, if you look at some of my old reviews of books, you'll see me disparaging the use of first person present tense.
But when I started writing the story, it came out as first person present. Although conscious of it being first person, I actually didn't realize I was writing in present tense until I was a good fifty or so pages into the writing. It didn't occur to me that it was present tense until I accidentally typed in "said" instead of "say" and realized that the whole time I was writing in first person present.
Authoress: Sounds like your story made up its own mind about the tense. :)
So in thinking about your time line, it wasn't a particularly long journey from Query Contest to revisions to queries to representation. What was the "take-away" from your feedback on the contest that most strongly impacted your work? How intense was your "season of editing" prior to querying?
Beth: I had already done MAJOR revisions to the work before the Query Contest--I didn't want to waste an entry in one of your awesome contests with a work that wasn't ready. When I entered the Query Contest, I thought it was done, but had reservations about the all-to-crucial beginning. I knew it was OK...but it was just OK, not stellar. Fortunately, because of the contest and the feedback from both Jodi and the other people kind enough to comment, I got the idea needed to completely change my first chapter, and with that final bit, was ready to submit to agents!
Authoress: So, can you talk a little about what it was like to get that coveted "magic phone call"? What made this the "perfect fit" for you?
Beth: It was excruciating! I don't like to tell people "no," or be the bearer of bad news, but I had more than one offer, so I did interviews. And each agent was wonderful, and charming, everything I'd dreamt of. I ended up choosing Merrilee because 1) she reps my literary heroes, 2) she disagreed with me on a point and had no qualms about disagreeing with me (I don't like "yes-men"), and 3) during the interview, she led me into a brainstorm where I came up with a way to write the sequels. Those were the tipping points, and I have to say that I could not possibly be happier with her!
Authoress: I think you've just encapsulated every aspiring author's dream--to have to CHOOSE among several agents slathering at your doorstep! So, you got an agent, sold your book, and now you're on the road to publication. How is your life-as-a-writer different now than it was prior to this whirlwind success?
Beth: The biggest change has been within myself. This is an incredible sense of validation, you know? But other than that, in daily life, no change!
Authoress: So...can you give us a little teaser about your story?
Beth: It's a murder mystery...IN SPACE!!!! (you have to say that last bit in a dramatic voice)
Basically, it's Agatha Christie meets Orson Scott Card. A space ship is the perfect setting for a contained mystery--so I stuck my murderer on the space ship, and all the characters have to figure out whodunnit.
Authoress: I remember reading AND THEN THERE WERE NONE in high school and loving it; ten people on an island and one of them was the murderer. Awesome stuff! :)
So, now that you've entered the realm of Writing To Deadline, what does your daily schedule look like? Are you working on book 2? And I simply must know: are you a plotter or a pantser? :)
Beth: My daily writing work is still hectic--I haven't quit my day job yet! I do plan on becoming a full time writer at the end of this semester, so that's pretty exciting.
I write whenever I have time, usually in snatches on weekends and teacher work days. Right now I'm working on a combo of editing book 1 and writing book 2.
I am totally a pantser. I *hate* outlining with a burning passion. I have a general idea of the end, but getting to that end is a bit of a mystery to me!
Authoress: I join you in your unabashed hatred for outlining. :)
Writing for youngsters is near and dear to my heart. What made you decide to write YA? What do you find inherently satisfying about writing for the under-18 crowd?
Beth: I write YA because it's not boring. Seriously. I love fantasy and sci fi, but adult fantasy and sci fi is waaaaay too long and boring. Do I really need fifty pages of description? No! Blow something up!
Authoress: You're a gal after my own heart!
So tell us about the non-writing part of you (however small). What makes Beth who she is? What else brings you joy in life? And where did you get your wonderful decorating taste? (Oh, yes. I still think you have an awesome house!)
Beth: LOL! My decorating taste comes from leftovers--whatever other people in my family didn't want any more, I bummed! There's not much to me outside of writing. I've got a husband and a dog (the dog's a black Lab named Sirius, so books permeate even my pet's life!) and I love traveling. I really enjoy my job as a teacher, and it's something I'm going to miss when I quit to write full time, but I definitely want to chase this dream.
Authoress: And I say...go for it!
Of course I'm going to ask you to close this interview by imparting your words of wisdom, advice, encouragement, or whatever else you'd like to share with aspiring authors in light of your recent--and breathtaking--success.
Beth: Aw, jeez. You expect words of wisdom! I'm no where near wise!!
But--and I'm not the first to say it, so I can't claim any wisdom here--experience life before you write. Given the choice to experiencing something new and writing, go for the experience. That will make writing better. But there also comes a time when you need to just put your butt in the chair and do the work of writing.
And also: practice. PRACTICE. Don't expect your first novel to get published. I didn't find any success at all until after writing ten practice novels!
Authoress: There is more wisdom in your words than you may know.
THANK YOU, Beth, for a delightful interview. I wish you EVERY SUCCESS with your debut, and a LONG AND PROSPEROUS writing career!
Aw, shucks! Thank YOU! :) And same to you!
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE will be published by Razorbill/Penguin in Spring 2011. Feel free to stalk Beth on her blog at BethRevis.com.