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April YA Debut Authors on Tricks and Tips for Writing

Seven new authors make their YA debuts during a global pandemic, with stories of hope, coping, and losses whose lessons may help others to thrive.

Rocky Callen & A Breath Too LateIt's no April Fools' Day—these authors have worked hard and met other obstacles before having their books debut during these days and months of COVID-19. Please keep their books in the front of your minds when collection-building becomes the focus again. Their stories are personal and universal and deserving of our full attention.

A Breath Too Late by Rocky Callen (Holt)

It’s April Fools' Day! What was the trickiest part about getting published?
I think many people would say the querying or submission process, but the trickiest part for me was believing in myself enough to keep at it. The tenacity of hope and self-belief. It can be hard to show up every day for a revision or a story, but that tenacity gets you there. It can be tricky to navigate when there is doubt, but that winding road is worth it.

I happen to be publishing my debut during the COVID-19 outbreak which is disrupting not only our industry but the way people are currently living their lives. Change is tricky, but what we are seeing right now is innovation in how we create engagement and community with our readers. A plot twist of epic proportions, but we are in this together.

What is your writing habit, or where do you write best?
I write best in designated sprints (usually 20 minutes) with a timer and focus music. I need the timer to keep me accountable and focused, and I need the music to blur out the noise around me.

You’re sending a postcard to your 12-year-old self: What do you want you to know?
Let the love in. Let it soak bone-deep. Let it radiate off you like sunbeams. Love yourself and let your heart run wild and wondrous. Be happy. Be you. Be free. Keep going. I’ll be waiting for you with my arms wide open.

Katie Heaney & Girl CrushedGirl Crushed by Katie Heaney (Knopf)

It’s April Fools' Day! What was the trickiest part about getting published?
The trickiest part about getting published is remembering, and forgetting, and reremembering that getting published—in itself—isn't what makes writing worthwhile or satisfying to me.

What is your writing habit, or where do you write best?
When I'm working on a book, I try to write 500 words a day, very early in the morning, before I start my job. I sneak out into the living room at 5:30, feed my dog, and work at the kitchen table for about an hour before my wife gets up.

You’re sending a postcard to your 12-year-old self: What do you want you to know?
Hmmm. Maybe: You are not “just around the corner” from getting a boyfriend. It's never going to happen. When you're ready, if you want, you might want to think about dating girls. Otherwise, you're doing great.

Suzanne Daniel and A Girl in Three PartsA Girl in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel (Knopf)

It’s April Fools' Day! What was the trickiest part about getting published?

Well, this April Fools' Day will be trickier than ever before! With regard to the trickiest part about getting published, I would say it has to be getting the story under the nose of publishers. They are inundated with thousands of ideas and manuscripts every year, and increasingly it’s important for authors to be represented by a good agent because agents are the experts who know which books might be the best fit for particular publishers. I was super lucky that my agent, Catherine Drayton, had a great relationship with Knopf, and because she loved my book, she was able to pitch it to them and thankfully they loved it too!

What is your writing habit, or where do you write best?

My writing habit is to make time for my writing most days and the days when I do write (about four to five days a week), I set myself a word goal (600 words, banked) and I don’t let myself get up from my desk until I hit that mark. On good days when the story is bubbling along and the words are flowing, I write more than my 600, but regardless, the next day, when I sit down back at my desk, I make myself write 600 words again. Of course, to have 600 bankable words, I often have to write many more than that, but I find that having a goal gives my writing momentum and it takes on an energy of its own.

I live in Sydney, Australia, and have a great home office looking out across the harbor, so I often write from there. But it’s a busy house with my husband, three kids, and a dog, so lots of activity, and that can be hard to work around. When I want to dive deep into my writing or have uninterrupted time for editing, I take myself to our little farm a couple of hours south and write at the dining table overlooking the garden. Nature nourishes me there with rainbow lorikeets, cockatoos, and the odd kookaburra checking from gumtree branches as to my progress. It’s green and serene, and we get the most beautiful sunsets. It’s also close to Seven Mile Beach, so when I get to a knotty part in a story line, I get my steps up along the sand, and the waves of the surf seem to wash in ideas and solutions for me. As a writer, you do a lot of sitting, so I need a lot of movement to balance that out.

You’re sending a postcard to your 12-year-old self: What do you want you to know?

My postcard to my 12-year-old self would say, “Start caring for your adult self now.” By that I mean, look after your health, your mind, your body, and your self-respect. What you do when you’re young will lay down the foundations for how great your life will be when you’re older. Make a habit of having good habits because hard and worthwhile things become easy if you make a habit out of them. And take the time to develop self-knowledge. Understand yourself because it’s yourself that you’ll have the longest relationship with throughout your life. You want to make yourself proud to be you and to do that, it’s the little things you do well every day that make up the way you regard yourself. You want to know what makes you tick and what makes you happy and what makes you grow in a good way as a good person. And choose good people as your friends and then treasure them. Good people are those with a good character—buzzy personalities can be fun but sometimes just window dressing. Strong, sturdy, reliable character is gold. And remember, nothing is as cool as kindness.

June Hur & The Silence of BonesThe Silence of Bones by Jane Hur (Feiwel & Friends)

It’s April Fools' Day! What was the trickiest part about getting published?
Landing an agent! It took me a decade.

What is your writing habit?
Cleaning up my space, then making coffee is a writing habit of mine.

You’re sending a postcard to your 12-year-old self: What do you want you to know?
Keep working on that Pride & Prejudice fanfiction of yours! And don't be afraid to tell your dad. I know you think he'll scold you for writing stories all day. But your dad will find out years later and become the greatest supporter of your writing dream!

George M. Johnson & All Boys Aren't Blue

All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson (Farrar)

It’s April Fools' Day! What was the trickiest part about getting published?
The trickiest part about getting published is there isn't one right way to do it. My way won't work for others, and others’ won't work for me. Each agent edits differently, and what one editor at a publisher hates, another may like. So it really is about writing the best story that you feel needs to be in the world and working until you find the right agent and the right publisher to help you tell it.

What is your writing habit, or where do you write best?
Coffee after 10 p.m. I don't know when it started, but it seems my best writing comes between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. This is a luxury of being able to work from home, that I get to make my schedule. I'm also very scheduled, though, so I set a calendar each day with time for eating, gym, writing, meetings, naps, grooming, and anything else I have to do.

You’re sending a postcard to your 12-year-old self: What do you want you to know?
That the feelings you felt as a queer Black boy were valid and you knew you even if the world wasn't ready for it. In times of crisis, remember the 12-year-old you that made it through some of the hardest moments that many unfortunately don't make it through. It will be that strength and courage that will carry you through some of your most trying moments as an adult.

 

Read: Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

 

Marisa Kanter & What I Like About YouWhat I Like About You by Marisa Kanter (S. & S.)

It’s April Fools' Day! What was the trickiest part about getting published?
I am not in control! I am extremely type-A and a planner by nature, so it has been a process accepting that there is so much uncertainty in publishing, even when you’re not debuting in the middle of a global pandemic! Too soon? But truly, I’ll take the uncertainty any day, because I wrote a book that I can now hold in my hands, and that will never not be surreal. Also, it has helped to focus on what I can control—improving my craft and writing the next book.

What is your writing habit, or where do you write best?
In a perfect world, I am sipping on a chai latte in my local coffee shop, inspired by the ambient chatter I’ve surrounded myself with as I’m typing away. In reality, it is 11 p.m. and I am in my pajamas, in bed, with noise-canceling headphones on. I’ve always been a night writer, and I’ll often work into the early hours of the morning when I’m in the thick of a project.

You’re sending a postcard to your 12-year-old self: What do you want you to know?
Dear 12-year-old Marisa,
I’m sorry to inform you that no, you will not star in your own Disney Channel show. But you know the YA books you love to read so much? Someday, you’re going to write one. In fact, you’re going to find and connect with a whole community of people who love books as much as you do. Keep reading. Keep dreaming. Soon, you’re going to open an empty Word document and start writing your first book—and that action is going to change your life.

Liz Lawson & The Lucky OnesThe Lucky Ones by Liz Lawson (Delacorte)

It’s April Fools' Day! What was the trickiest part about getting published?
Keeping myself motivated through rejection and keeping myself patient! Publishing has a LOT of rejection at all stages, and pushing through it is the key to success. Also, it moves very slowly sometimes, so it’s been a lesson in learning patience.

What is your writing habit, or where do you write best?
Writing the second book, I had to develop good writing habits, since I was writing to meet a deadline. They included hitting specific daily word counts (although some days I admit I wrote less, and some days more) and weekly word counts, which turned out to be the most important aspect for me. By looking at my progress as a weekly target and not a daily one, I was able to cut myself a break if I was running into a wall on certain days, instead of beating myself up for it. I highly recommend it!

You’re sending a postcard to your 12-year-old self: What do you want you to know?
I’d want to know that authors aren’t just mythical beings! For some reason, growing up I always thought of writers as otherworldly, and never seriously thought that I could become one. I always wrote, but it was a hobby, never something I took seriously until I was in my 30s. Twelve-year-old me would be thrilled and astonished to learn I am now—one of those mythical beings.

Kimberly Olson Fakih
Kimberly Olson Fakih

Kimberly Olson Fakih (kfakih@mediasourceinc.com) is Senior Editor, Picture Books, at School Library Journal. She previously was the children's book review editor at Kirkus Reviews.

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