Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Final GCC: Kelly Parra and Invisible Touch

For those of you who have been following my blog for a while, you certainly have seen these GCC posts pop up a couple times a month. The GCC is the Girlfriend Cyber Circuit, and what that means is it's a fabulous group of supportive authors who help spread the word about each other's books. Well, I've been privileged enough to be part of this group for about two years now, and truly, you guys know how much I value collaborative, encouraging writer friends, and thus, I truly value and valued my fellow members of the GCC. But, given how hectic my life has gotten, I have to bow out of the tour for now, and thus, today's post will be the last GCC post. I hope you guys continue to follow these authors on their various blogs because whether or not you love their genres or their books, they are top-notch people who share the same belief in camaraderie that I do, and it's been an honor to tour them all for the past few years!

So, with that, I'm thrilled to tour Kelly Parra, who is the author of Graffiti Girl, and her new book, Invisible Touch! Here's the scoop:

Do you believe in fate?

Kara Martinez has been trying to be "normal" ever since the accident that took her father's life when she was eleven years old. She's buried the caliente side of her Mexican heritage with her father and tried to be the girl her rigid mother wants her to be -- compliant and dressed in pink, and certainly not acting out like her older brother Jason. Not even Danielle, her best friend at Valdez High, has seen the real Kara; only those who read her anonymous blog know the deepest secrets of the Sign Seer.

Because Kara has a gift -- one that often feels like a curse. She sees signs, visions that are clues to a person's fate, if she can put together the pieces of the puzzle in time. So far, she's been able to solve the clues and avert disaster for those she's been warned about -- until she sees the flash of a gun on a fellow classmate, and the stakes are raised higher than ever before. Kara does her best to follow the signs, but it's her heart that wanders into new territory when she falls for a mysterious guy from the wrong side of town, taking her closer to answers she may not be able to handle. Will her forbidden romance help her solve the deadly puzzle before it's too late...or lead her even further into danger?

And here, she stops by to answer my usual questions.

1) What's the backstory behind your book?
K: I've always believed in intuitive vibes and repetitive signs and thought wouldn't it be cool to have a girl who really saw visions and have to piece the signs together to help others? I wrote up a proposal and I was so glad MTV Books thought Kara's story was worthy of publication.

2) It seems that a lot of readers confuse fiction with real life, assuming that a novel must be an autobiography of the author as well. How many elements of your real life are reflected in your book?
K: My first novel was about a girl who loved graffiti art in GRAFFITI GIRL. Everyone asked if I was that girl. There were aspects of me, but I was never a real graffiti artist and many people still don't believe me. In INVISIBLE TOUCH, Kara sees psychic images and I surely don't! But she lives in a town based on my hometown and she also lost her father abruptly as I did. I don't write about my life, but I can't help adding a few characteristics of myself in my books.

3) A lot of my blog readers are aspiring or new authors. How did you land your first book deal?
K: Most of my life had been about art and graphic design. But about six years ago, I became an avid reader of fiction. Two years later, I read a bio about a local author who made a living at writing books, and that day I sat down to begin my first book. I started out writing Romantic Suspense, which I did sell. Unfortunately the line closed before that book could be published. A few months after my first sale, I sold GRAFFITI GIRL to MTV Pocket Books--and now I'm excited to be going in a new direction in my writing career.

4) I have a serious procrastination problem when it comes to tackling my fiction. What's your routine? How do you dive it? Do you have any rituals or necessary to-dos before or while you write?
K: It's the same for me. The Internet is my procrastination addiction. I usually check email and favorite sites in the morning, then I close up the Net and try and write for a couple of hours before it's time to pick up the kids. Then I edit in the evening or write some more.

5) Clearly, your book will be optioned for a multi-million dollar film deal! Who would you cast as the leads, if you were given creative control?
K: The actors I like are too old, but here is the make-believe scenario: Kara would be possibly be Vanessa Hudgens. Anthony would be a younger Milo Ventimiglia.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thinking Long Term, Part 2

Okay, so we already discussed the fact that this career is about taking small steps that add up to bigger ones, but how can you maximize making those steps as big as possible?

Well, this was something that I'd never really considered, to be honest. I'm pretty savvy at marketing (minored in it in college! - hee), but though I've definitely considered how I market myself as a magazine writer (always meet my deadlines, supportive of whatever an editor asks, etc), I hadn't really considered how to market myself as a novelist.

So...rewind to a few weeks ago. Once Time of My Life hit the New York Times list, my agent started asking me about my next book. Actually, she had been asking me about it for a while, but as I've said here before, I really need to be struck by inspiration, and while I was toying with some ideas, nothing had given me that electric jolt that I need. I considered a sort-of mystery/thriller idea, an idea focused on female friendships, and a few others along the way. But I realized that I really liked the magical, mystical element of ToML, so started to hone in on that. As luck would have it, this played into what my agent was hoping for.

So back to when the book hit the list. My agent and I had a chat again about my long-term strategy, and she mentioned that "branding" me as the women's fiction writer who deals with wish fulfillment could be really really smart. We talked about other writers whose models have worked really well for them: Emily Giffin who writes about modern women's romantic/relationship perils, Elin Hilderbrand who writes stories about Nantucket, Jennifer Weiner who also covers modern women's real life entanglements. I'd never really thought about this before - about the package that you can create with your work. But think about: their covers are similar (for example, Emily Giffin's covers are all pastels), their themes are similar, sometimes their title are similar. (Not to each other, I should clarify, but to each author's other books.) Another great example of this is my pal, Jen Lancaster. You think of her, and you immediately think of her similar covers, her tone, her subject matter, etc. And readers gravitate toward this because they have a general idea of what to expect. When you pick up an Emily Giffin book, you're picking it up because you loved her other ones and want something similar.

And I don't mean this in a bad way. At all. In fact, I think it's genius. Part of being a successful writer is writing for your audience. Does that sell you out? Not in my mind. Writing is a business. Your books are a commodity. You are a commodity. And if you want to succeed, you have to make yourself as valuable to your audience as possible.

So. Though I'd never considered this before, I thought this strategy made a lot, a lot of sense. Yes, I thought, I happen to do "wish fulfillment" very well, and I enjoy writing about it, so it's not like I feel like I'm under duress to please my readers. And it's also not like I have to write the same thing over and over again. Tom Clancy has written a million thrillers and Stephen King has written a million horror books and John Grisham has written a million legal page-turners, and that doesn't make them boring. There are dozens of ways of exploring the same themes, and once I realized that, I really freed up my brain to conceive the concept behind The Happiest Days of My Life.

Before my agent mentioned this strategy, I was sort of all over the map with ideas. But doesn't this make so much more sense? I know that readers responded to this sort of idea from me, why confuse them with something so entirely different? Look, some of you might be shaking your heads thinking that this really fences in a writer as to what he or she can write. And to that I'll say, maybe. Sort of. But think of so many of the best-selling writers whom you can name: many of them adhere to this strategy. And when you DO have a big enough audience, certainly, you can stretch your wings, just as Grisham did or even Jennifer Weiner did when she branched into short stories. Writing for the love of writing is a wonderful thing. But that alone probably won't pay the bills. You have to be strategic and consider the overall package. And the plus side of this is that I'm very, very excited about writing this next book - there's no compromise in it at all. I'm happy writing it, and hopefully, readers who enjoyed ToML will be happy to read it.

Anyone else out there ever considered this branding idea? Or is it as new to you as it was to me?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Thinking Long Term

Thanks so much to everyone for your well-wishes and congrats! I sincerely appreciate it so much.

Okay, so I promised a little behind-the-scenes detail from the book sale and some other stuff, so here goes. Warning: I'm extremely zonked right now, so I might split this post in half - part today, part tomorrow. But I'll get you all the info, I promise!

So, what was most gratifying about the sale of The Happiest Days of My Life was that it validated everything that I have placed my faith in over the past few years. Let me rewind and explain because I think this might give some of you a bit of inspiration too.

When I sold The Department, we sold it for what Pub Mktplace would "a very nice" deal. In non-PM terms, this means that the pub house has some faith in you, that you'll likely get some co-op/promo budget, and that expectations are that you'll sell a decent amount of books. So...what happened with the Department is that it sold...a decent amount of books. Not great. Not terrible. Adequate. Cancer books, I realized even though plenty of people told me this and I didn't believe them because I'm apt not to believe negative things, are very, very hard sells. It doesn't matter that it gets great reviews or is mentioned in a variety of huge magazines. People don't want to read about cancer (often - not always) or other harrowing situations that they've faced in their real lives (like, I would never pick up a book that deals with a sick child because it's just something that, though I've never been it through personally, I could not stomach at all), and...well, lesson learned. No cancer. Nothing that will turn potential readers away.

I also learned to think BIG CONCEPT, which is something we've been chatting about here on the blog. A good book isn't enough these days to set it apart from the other good books that are out there. Not for midlist authors who have to fight for attention. So I started thinking BIG CONCEPT, came up with Time of My Life, drafted the first 100 pages, and voila, my agent was ready to sell them. (Actually - tangent, I forgot. Before this BIG CONCEPT thing dawned on me, I wrote 150 pages of a different book. We shopped it around and got middling offers. Offers, yes, 4 of them if I recall, but they were lower than my original advance, and truth told, I knew I could write a better book. BUT. This is when my agent said something very wise, very pivotal, and something that I had to believe, just because I believed in her. She said that the third book was when we should expect my advance to explode. That these first two books were stepping stones to prove myself and to build my audience, and that the money we got now wasn't the money we were really chasing. It was a long-term strategy that wasn't necessarily easy to accept because who knew if it would pay off, but we didn't have much of a choice. Ultimately, we walked away from these 4 tepid offers because not only did I want to write a better book, but I also knew that these lower advances would mean a smaller print run and less promotion/co-op...which meant that this third-book advance strategy that we were aiming for would backfire. Advances are all built off of how well your previous book sold, and if my second one sold poorly, I was screwed.)

Anyway, back to those 100 pages. So, my agent shopped them around to very, very positive responses. BUT. As with that other ms, the advances, while higher - generally around what I earned for The Department - were, well, disappointing. Not because by any objective terms they were disappointing, but because you hope to build and build and build, and in this case, I'd flat-lined. Why? Because The Department's sales were only okay. My sales track record spoke for itself, and even though everyone who read these 100 pages of Time of My Life agreed that it was a bigger, more universal, break-out book, no one wanted to literally bet on it. My agent said - and I agree, to this day - that had ToML been my debut, I would have been paid huge money for it. But it wasn't, and I was swimming against the current of my previous sales, and that was that.

Ultimately, we did all that we could with our situation: we went with the best editor, the best imprint, the team I'd been dying to work with, and yes, they also offered the most money. But I was prepared to go with them for less because I knew that I was at a critical juncture: crappy sales and crappy promotional game-plan and crappy art, etc, meant that my future as a novelist would be in jeopardy. Because I couldn't stomach banging out novel after novel for dwindling advances and lackluster sales. It's hard to explain until you've been through it, but it's like your heart gets crushed when your book doesn't perform to your expectations (forget the industry's), and I just knew that I wouldn't want to go through it over and over again.

So, through all of this, my agent kept reminding me about book #3. That that would be our big one. I didn't focus on this while I worked on ToML, but certainly, I aspired to it. I trusted my agent's instincts, and while I'm sure that I would have worked just as hard on every aspect of ToML regardless of the prospect of an even bigger book the next time around, it was nice to know that I could swim upstream and possibly overcome the sales record of The Department. My agent thought I could, my editor thought I could, and most importantly, I thought I could.

The news this week of the sale of The Happiest Days of My Life was, of course, incredibly exciting and gratifying. But not because of the $$$ behind it. (Though that's great too.) Really, it's because I've worked very, very hard to get to where I am. I tried to be as smart as I possibly could be in an industry that isn't always forgiving or easy to understand. When things didn't go as well as I hoped, and certainly, I could have settled for different options, I didn't. I didn't settle. And it was tough. I'll be honest. It required a lot of optimism and false confidence when I didn't feel too chipper about the news that was coming in. But it worked. My agent was right. I do feel incredibly lucky to have achieved what I've achieved, but I also feel like I've earned it, you know? Not everyone will love what I write, and that's okay. But no one can say that I haven't earned it. And to me, that's what matters.

And I hope that in sharing this (there is plenty more to share, but that's tomorrow, as I'm about to collapse on my keyboard), you guys might see just what I'm talking about in terms of thinking long-term in your careers. Forget the instant gratification of landing that fat advance and think of your career in a larger scale.

Tomorrow: branding and strategy behind book #3.