Today’s guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is J. Anderson Coats, author of The Wicked and the Just, one of Kirkus’s Best Teen Books of 2012. It also won the 2013 Washington State Book Award for Young Adults.
Her newest book is R Is for Rebel (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2018), a middle-grade novel about coercion and resistance in a reform school in a fictional occupied country.
Are you a Planner or Pantster?
Once upon a time I was a dedicated pantser, but now that my deadlines are less flexible, I’ve evolved into a hybrid of the two. Before I start drafting a project, I create a narrative outline in which I write down what will happen from start to finish, with as much detail as I currently know. “Outline” is a strong word, as there is no scene-level or even chapter-level details, but creating this document involves pantsing because I’m deciding (albeit in broad strokes) what is going to happen.
Having this document is helpful because the big choices have already been made into the backbone of the narrative arc, and there’s a lot of creative room to make small choices to get from big choice to big choice.
How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?
It took me six years to write The Wicked and the Just, my first published book. For my second, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, I got six months. There’s a book I’ve been working on since 2003 that I’d still like to see out in the world. There is no typically. The story takes as long as it takes.
Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?
I like working on one project at a time, but there have been times when I wrote new words in the morning and revised a different project in the afternoon.
Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?
I wrote my first book when I was thirteen. It was one hundred pages, single-spaced, hammered out on my family’s first clunky desktop PC. I had precisely zero fears because I was thirteen. Today I have firmly embraced the mantra don’t worry; you can fix that in the next revision.
How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?
I wrote and trunked eleven books before I wrote and sold The Wicked and the Just. Never give up!
Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?
A few. There’s one in particular that I had to give up on because I hadn’t done enough research and a key plot point was completely historically inaccurate. I was seventeen or so. I really loved the character and I tried every which way to write around the inaccuracy.
Ultimately, though, I had to let it go. I was torturing the story into something it wasn’t, and couldn’t be, so I reluctantly said goodbye and focused on something new.
Who is your agent and how did you get that “Yes!” out of them?
My agent is Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literacy Agency, who I love to tiny little bits. I have to say I earned my “yes.” The EMLA agents are only open to queries if you meet them at a conference or via referrals, so when Joan said she’d read queries sent by readers of the blog Miss Snark’s First Victim till the end of that month, I leaped at the chance.
In February 2010, Joan loved my query and asked to read the whole manuscript of a historical I was this close to trunking. She liked it, but asked whether I could make some changes. I made the changes and sent back the manuscript. She liked those changes, but asked if I didn’t mind making a few more. I made those changes, too, figuring when she said no, I’d finally have closure on this project and be able to focus on something else.
In November 2010, I was at my day job when an email from Joan popped into my inbox. Ah yes, I thought, this is when I get the inevitable thanks but no thanks email. Only it wasn’t. It was the I want to sign you email. The ink wasn’t quite dry on my agency contract before I had an offer from an editor.
For the book I was about to trunk, that was published as The Wicked and the Just. I went from having no agent to having a book contract in less than ten days. #unreal
How long did you query before landing your agent?
I queried over two hundred agents for The Wicked and the Just. Before that, I queried four different books over ten years. I have shoeboxes of no-thanks letters. Folders full of them in my email. If I counted them all up, I probably have close to a thousand of these letters.
Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?
Retire the term “rejection letter.” People are not rejecting your work. They are indifferent to it. So if you reframe rejection letters as “indifference mail,” it’s a bit of a psychological cushion.
Always have a handful of queries out at any given time. When one comes back, send another that same day. The only time to pause the querying is if/when you get some feedback you want to implement before you begin again. Unless you’re revising, crank that query mill. It keeps you moving forward and makes it harder to dwell on any one no-thanks.
Be patient. It’s way better to wait for the right agent and have a book out in the world that you’re proud of than to make bad choices because you absolutely cannot wait another minute to be published. This is hard. This is very hard, but you will be glad you did it. While you wait, keep writing.
How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?
Seeing it on the shelves at the bookstore was pure uncut joy, but if I’m honest, finding it at my public library was downright magical. It’s this tiny brush with immortality that still takes my breath away.
How much input do you have on cover art?
My mileage has definitely varied on this one. For The Wicked and the Just, my editor sent me a more or less finished cover, but I was able to request some tweaks and adjustments. For The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, my editor let me know what their ideas were and asked what I thought before the cover artist started work. (While I thought their ideas were good, I got the sense that they would have been open to mine.) For R is for Rebel, my editor asked *me* what I thought the cover should look like. I made a few crappy sketches, and the cover artist absolutely blew me away with what she came up with.
What’s something you learned from the process that surprised you?
I was surprised to learn how many people at the publishing house have an active hand in making a book happen. I appreciate every single one of those hard-working folks behind the scenes who I’ve never had a chance to thank personally. Thank you!
How much of your own marketing do you?
I tweet pictures of cats and talk about books. Sometimes they’re mine. Seriously, I don’t know how effective “marketing” is on social media. I use the platforms I enjoy to meet interesting people and build relationships, but the most effective way I’ve found to promote my work is in person. There’s nothing quite like show-up time, shaking a librarian’s or bookseller’s hand and chatting with them to make a genuine connection. I do as many events as I can because I think relationships are what make people invested in any book. I hope it makes them invested in mine.
If you’re interested in seeing my cat in various boxes, follow me on Twitter. If you like nerdy historical articles, check out my Facebook. If you’re curious what I’m reading, follow me on Instagram. If you want actual updates on my books, check my site.
When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?
Honestly, I think it’s best to focus on your craft and produce the best book you can. A great book will find its audience, and the writing is something you can control. Meet people, make connections, and build relationships, because these are things that will help you develop a career. Platform can come later.
Do you think social media helps build your readership?
Perhaps it helps, but I look at social media as a way to develop relationships. I’ve met some wonderful, fascinating people online who I never would have met otherwise, and because I’ve come to like and admire them, I’m interested in knowing more about their work. Those people have brought me into their readership simply by being themselves.