In my opinion, reading is an incredibly HUGE part of being a writer. It helps build your skills for dialogue and worldbuilding, as well as getting a feel for voice in a particular category. Today, my featured author, Jen Malone, shares what an important part reading has become for her as a writer. I love the fact that she considers it part of her job. In fact, I completely agree!
Many thanks to Jen for sharing her writing journey today…
Amy: When did you first begin seriously writing with the intent of wanting to be published?
Jen: I can’t say that I did. In January 2012, my youngest had just started to read and was so crazy excited about her newfound ability that, on a whim, I thought it would be fun to write something just for her. I sat down one afternoon to come up with something short and suddenly it was a month later and I had a middle grade novel I was excited enough about to think, “Hey, could I sell this?” Until then, I’d never even considered writing a book, though I have a background in journalism and PR, so I’ve always been into writing, just in different forms.
Amy: When did you complete your first Middle Grade manuscript?
Jen: February 2012. And it was terrible. Did I know this? Heck no. I could not have been more enthusiastic about it and the bestseller status it was sure to achieve when it was snapped up by a huge publishing house and hit shelves that summer. Um, yeah. I didn’t even know what a literary agent was, much less how to get one. Luckily, I ran into a woman I hadn’t seen in over ten years who I remembered wrote picture books and, in a burst of nerves, I asked if she would look over my novel. And then I formatted it like a real book (with a dedication page and acknowledgments and ever a cover.) Full permission to cringe right now, because I sure am!) Her comments were unbelievably sweet and included such things as, “These four chapters have no dialogue and you might want to think about including some.” More cringing? Yes!! Fortunately, she was also very encouraging about what was underneath that mess and I got the bug hard, so by that point I was gobbling up every blog post, book, etc. on both writing craft and the publishing business and had joined SCBWI.
Amy: I love that you have so many varied life experiences from traveling around the world, to being a past publicist for 20th Century Fox. Do those experiences influence what you write? Have any of those experiences made it into your books?
Jen: Most definitely. In AT YOUR SERVICE, which is about a tween who lives in a hotel and works as a junior concierge assisting all the kids who stay at the hotel, I drew on a few things from my real life. I used to manage a youth hostel, where I lived in an apartment in the basement. It was NOTHING like the fancy schmancy hotel where Chloe lives, but I did sneak in a few details from that time. I drew a TON on my movie publicist experience. When Fox would send a movie star to Boston on a press tour my job was to book all of their TV and radio appearances, plan a screening of the film where they’d do a Q&A, schedule a full day of print interviews, and then escort them to all of those events and make sure everything ran smoothly. Very professional stuff. However, my job was also to pull apart Double Stuff Oreos and create Quadruple Stuff Oreos, if that was something in the star’s contract with the studio (yes, I’ve done this. I can’t tell you who for, but they’re actually pretty delicious.) It was a weird line to walk- dealing with the high-level stuff, but also being the one the star would call at home at two o’clock in the morning when the light bulb in his hotel room burned out. And I couldn’t just say, “Dude! You’re twice my age, have a huge career, and millions of dollars. Pretty sure you can handle dialing zero on the freaking room phone and calling the front desk yourself.” Those experiences really helped me identify with some of the situations Chloe finds herself in and the push/pull of wanting to be seen as a competent professional while being tasked with lots of things that would make most of us roll our eyes. It was kind of fun to torture her.
Amy: How long did it take to write AT YOUR SERVICE? Did you use critique partners to help polish it?
Jen: It took about five weeks. I either write really fast or painfully slow- there’s not much in between. I definitely used critique partners, and could never do any of this without them! It took me another month of revision to polish it before it went to my agent.
Amy: How laborious/frustrating was the query process for you?
Jen: Definitely a roller coaster. I was either very Zen about the process or very moody. There wasn’t much in between- hmm, I’m sensing a pattern here… The more I remembered that this was only a part of my life and not ALL of my life, the more I could relax and compartmentalize the experience. Distraction helped a lot!
Amy: How many agents did you query for AT YOUR SERVICE?
Jen: I had my agent already when I wrote AT YOUR SERVICE, but my previous novel was the one I queried Holly with and I queried seventy-four agents with that. Ugh. Lots of refining my query in between rejections!
Amy: Did you receive instantaneous response or did you have to wait for the requests/rejections?
Jen: I started with only a trickle of requests, and it wasn’t until I put my query out there during WriteOnCon and got feedback from a lurking agent, saying I needed to expand upon the conflicts, that I noticed a HUGE jump in requests. I went from a 5% request rate to 40% and I’d only added seven words to the query. But they were all about the stakes, which I hadn’t illustrated clearly before. From that point, things moved very fast. That was in late August and I signed with Holly in early October.
Amy: What was your call like with your agent, Holly Root? How did you know she was the right fit for you?
Jen: Holly’s nickname is the Ninja agent and she definitely lived up to her reputation in this case. I was very lucky to be weighing four other offers and had given other agents reading a deadline of Friday at three o’clock. I think Holly called at 1:30, literally in the middle of my drafting my acceptance email to another agent. She really sold me with her enthusiasm and her reputation. The deciding factor for me was the list of books she repped- every last one of them was a book I had either read or wanted to and were very much in the vein of what I saw myself writing. I knew she would have the right editor connections for my work. It was also one of those gut feeling things. Talking with one of her clients immediately afterward doubly sealed the deal for me. It was strange though- I had lived with my decision to sign with another agent for a few days by that point and was excited about it, so it was weird to switch at the very last minute! That was a hard email to write. It’s surreal to be on the other side of the table, passing on agents versus the other way around.
Amy: What is one piece of writing advice you got early on in your career that you still use today?
Jen: I still consider this “early in my career,” and I’m a bit wide-eyed about all of this, so there’s that! But I would say the thing that has never ever steered me wrong is this: read. I haven’t written books for long, but I started reading them when I was in nursery school and I haven’t stopped. When I was in 4th grade, I participated in the MS Read-A-Thon and read more in one month than the rest of my class combined and these days I try to read between two and three books a week. I’m fairly calculated when I read- I might focus on a particular imprint to get a sense for what they’re publishing or I might focus on writers who have reputations for being masterful at dialogue or world-building or whatever I’m struggling with at the moment. I approach it as part of my job, but then again, it’s not such a bad day’s work!
Thirteen-year-old Chloe Turner wants nothing more than to follow in Dad’s footsteps as a respected concierge in a posh NYC hotel. After all, living at a hotel is heaven, and perks like free concert tickets and all-access passes to boutiques, restaurants, and attractions aren’t too shabby either.
When the spoiled brat child of an important guest is only placated by some quick thinking on Chloe’s part, Chloe is awarded the role of Junior Concierge. But she might be in over her head when tasked with tending to the every whim of three royal guests: a twelve-year-old princess who can’t stand Chloe, a cute fourteen year-old prince(!), and their ten-year-old sister, who has a nasty knack for getting herself lost. After the youngest princess slips Chloe’s care, Chloe and the remaining royals must embark on an event-filled hunt for her through NYC’s best tourist spots. (Releases August 26, 2014.)
Jen Malone is the author of the middle grade novel AT YOUR SERVICE, which publishes with Simon & Schuster/Aladdin in August 2014. She is a recovering world traveler who now lives in Boston with her husband and three children and (just as soon as she talks her husband into it) a pet hedgehog. For more on Jen, check out her website, follow her on Twitter or Facebook!