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Monday, February 6, 2012

Jessica Brody: On Novel Ideas and Commercial Success

By Erin Auerbach

Jessica Brody will be the first to tell you that her “overnight success” took at least five years. Instead of letting rejection letters from her first attempts at book publishing discourage her, she took agents’ comments and used them to improve her writing. Now in her early 30s, Jessica has sold nine books!

St. Martin's Press published her adult novels "The Fidelity Files" and "Love Under Cover". Currently, Jessica is focusing primarily on young adult fiction. She has published "The Karma Club" and "My Life Undecided", and recently sold five more YA titles to Macmillan children's publishing group, including "52 Reasons to Hate My Father", which will be released in summer 2012, and "Unremembered", the first book in a new science fiction series for teens, set to come out in 2013. 

Aspiring novelists will have the unique opportunity of studying with Jessica when she teaches at Writing Pad's Mountain Retreat in Idyllwild the weekend of March 9th. Until then, Jessica talks about landing an agent, developing characters, organizing a story, and how to stay motivated.

1. You have an impressive number of book deals.  How did you get your first book deal?  Do you have an agent?

I had gotten rejection after rejection on "The Fidelity Files" (because agents couldn’t identify with the main character), but one agent who initially said no made some suggestions to improve the story. She suggested that my main character be a kick ass sex pot. I told her I loved the idea and asked if she would be willing to look at the first 50 pages of a rewrite. She said yes. I was so inspired that I sent the first 50 rewritten pages in about a week. She loved the partial rewrite and asked me for more. The agency signed me based on 100 pages of the new angle. My agent knew a publisher would be pleased to work with an writer who could embrace critiques and make changes. Once I completed the manuscript, my agent got it sold in 10 days. My overnight success story took five years.

2. How did you learn your craft?  How much of it did you teach yourself (and how did you teach yourself) and how much did you learn from people you worked with?

With "The Fidelity Files", I had to teach myself. I wrote the 400-page manuscript three times. In the first draft of the novel, my main character hated her job and was cynical. The rejection letters said, “Why is she doing her job if she hates it so much?” So I made changes and turned her into someone who loved her job and wanted to help people, and that’s what made the manuscript successful.

I also discovered a book called "Save the Cat!", and it basically broke down how to write any good story. And it made it sound so simple so I realized I had been struggling for nothing. I use the "Save the Cat!" method to outline my novels.

3. What are the qualities of a good novel, and how did you try to apply this to your own books?

I say that, for me, the qualities of a good novel are a concept that you can pitch in one sentence and a strong voice. I like to think that when someone reads an opening of a book they will know that it’s me who wrote it without looking at the cover. A strong opening that pulls people in to the story is also important, as well as a fast pace. There should never be a point where the reader doesn’t want to know what happens next. Unpredictability is good, too.

4. How important is it for writers to know how to package their materials when seeking an agent or publisher?

No matter what you write, you have to come up with something that's publishable. Your first novel has to have a concept that hooks you. It starts with one sentence. If you can’t sell the book in one sentence, you won’t be able to sell it in a paragraph or page. It will save you so much agony to have a pitch-able concept which you can articulately state from your query letter to the manuscript.
5. Your books are almost impossible to put down.  What are some of the techniques you use to keep your readers hooked in?

Short chapters help. I can’t say that I coined the concept. (James Patterson, an idol of mine, does this.) I also use cliffhangers or zingers. I want the final sentence of each chapter to resonate with the reader. Sometimes I have the character reflect on something big that happens that’s going to change the course of the story. Or I’ll cut in the middle of the scene and end on one line of inner of outer dialogue. Or I'll end with a character's dilemma or a character figuring something out.  I put suspense and mystery in everything. For instance in "My Life Undecided", I have a grumpy old woman in a home where my main character is doing community service. The protagonist has to find out why the old lady is so mean. She discovers something about the old lady’s past which helps the main character shed some light on her own life. You never want your main character to know everything. Otherwise, there’s no reason to have a story about her.

6. You are a very prolific writer.  How long does it take you to write your first draft of each manuscript? How do you keep yourself from not getting overwhelmed by your writing deadlines and stay motivated to finish your books?

It takes me about three to four months to finish a first draft of YA (about five months for adult) I try to write at least five days a week. (It doesn’t have to be Monday through Friday, either.) I give myself one or two “cheat” days a week.  But I get overwhelmed with every deadline! I like to say writing a book is like taking a road trip from New York to LA. You have to say, “Today, I only have to drive from New York to Pennsylvania. And I had to stop for gas and snacks at a convenience store on the way.”  With writing, you can say, "now I have to get to the part with the character does this or that." Staying motivated can be hard. I have lots of ways to trick to myself into writing. I always write outside of my house. I go to a coffee shop. It helps me get into writing mode. I don’t bring my power chord (artificial ticking time bomb). It gives me a finite time to write. These are things I’ve developed over the last five years and they work.

7. What advice do you have for aspiring authors of YA or adult fiction?

I have a lot of advice. Write often and try to write everyday even if it’s not part of your manuscript: a blog, a letter and email, etc.  Good writing takes practice. It’s like learning a sport or musical instrument. You have to do it often to get good. You can’t become a classical pianist in only a month. I’ve been publishing books now for about five years and with every book, I learn more about myself as a writer.

Thanks, Jessica for sharing this helpful advice with us.  Don't forget to sign up for the Mountain Retreat for your chance to study with Jessica. We can't wait to see you in Idyllwild in March!


Martha Ramirez said...

This was an AWESOME interview! I really enjoyed reading. Thank you, Jess and Marilyn!

Simone Says... said...

Amazing interview. Thanks!

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