Welcome to the 2nd Edition of Debut Details with author Elizabeth Richards.
Black City, the first book in her dystopian YA trilogy from Putnam, Black City Chronicles (that sounds so bad-ass) hits the street fall of 2012. She is represented by Ayesha Pande of Ayesha Pande Literary.
Deep in the heartland of the United Sentry States are the burning ruins of the Black City, a melting pot simmering with hostility as humans and Darklings struggle to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of a brutal and bloody war. A wall now divides the city separating the two races. Trapped on the wrong side of the wall is 16-year old hustler ASH FISHER, a half-blood Darkling who'll do whatever it takes to survive, including selling his addictive venom ‘Haze’ to help support his dying mother...
Read on for more!
Thanks for taking the time to do this, Elizabeth.
You’re welcome! Thanks for asking me.
You used to review video games. Do you see any connection between a great video game and a great book? As you were reviewing, did you look at it from a story point of view, or was it all about the mechanics of the game?
There’s definitely a connection between great video games and great books, as both rely on tight plotting and good characterization to get people hooked and wanting to continue to play/read. A video game can’t just be about mechanics, and while kick-ass game play is very important, you also need to see how the story hangs together and whether you feel invested in the protagonist’s journey to want to keep playing.
The reason games like Tomb Raider were so successful wasn’t just because the gameplay was good or because Lara had giganto-boobs (although I’m sure that helped somewhat), it’s because she was a fascinating character, and the story was filled with twists and turns, and giant man-eating T-Rexes.
I know you’re a journalist by trade. But when did you start writing fiction with the goal of being published?
I started writing fiction about three/four years ago (sorry, I’m getting to the age where years start slipping into each other). It was always something I wanted to do though. I remember being a nine-year old kid in middle school and my English teacher told us to write a 250 word short story about a desert island. That moment had such a profound effect on me, because it was the first time I ever really attempted any sort of creative writing and I knew right then that this is what I wanted to do. I felt awakened. I’m sure every author has that moment, and that was mine.
During my high school years I also wrote a number of terrible novels, including one frightfully awful Mills & Boon called ‘Love on a Ranch’ (don’t ask, I was a lonely, horny teenager needing an outlet for my unrequited lust), several short stories about a ‘misunderstood black-haired vamp girl’- I wonder what my inspiration was for that? - and a movie script, which secured me a place on my university course.
My best friend still has a copy of Love on the Ranch and keeps threatening to put it on eBay. *shudders*
(I have a feeling Love on the Ranch is going to become quite the collector’s item! Mills & Boon? I’m a yank, so I had to look it up. Ok, it’s a publisher of romance novels.)
I always knew I wanted to write, it just took me a long time to really work out what it was I wanted to specialize in.
Did you set out saying, “I’m going to write a dystopian novel,” or did it just organically come to define itself?
It happened organically. I’ve always been drawn to dystopian novels and it filtered through in my writing. But funnily enough, Black City was originally a straight up-and-down paranormal romance when I first queried it. It got a lot of positive feedback, but agents were uncertain about taking it on because of the vampire aspect, as the Twilight Saga was still dominating the market at the time.
So I took it back to the drawing-board and ramped up the dystopian element of the book, based on a friend’s recommendation, and I’m so glad I did. The story just came to life. The world Ash and Natalie inhabited had more peril, it was darker, more twisted, and it just worked. And it was more ‘me’. These are the types of books I like to read, so it made sense I should write them too.
Was Black City Chronicles the first book you submitted to agents?
No. Oh Lord, no. It was my second attempt. My first book was a YA contemporary novel called RAISING LAZARUS, about a boy who used music as a means of getting over his mother’s death.
I really loved that book and the characters, but it was very rough around the edges and there were a lot of rookie mistakes in it.
When I had to trunk it, I was gutted. It’s so hard letting go of characters you’ve spent a year of your life with, but sometimes you just have to accept it’s not going to happen.
Still, I took all that experience and put it into my second book, Black City, and the rest is history.
Why do you write YA?
I think it’s partly because I’m still a teenager at heart, and partly because it’s a period in a person’s life that’s full of so much dramatic potential. It’s a time where we first fall in love, where we have to break free from our parents’ control, where we have to define ourselves and our path in life.
Emotions are high and so are the stakes. When you’re a teenager, everything feels like life or death, and in my novels they often are!
Being a teenager is so hard but it’s also an amazing, wonderful, exciting time, and I love exploring that in my writing.
Are you a pantster or an obsessive plot outliner?
Obsessive plotter. I trained as a scriptwriter at university, and part of that training was to write detailed outlines, 3-act structures with all your key turning points mapped out, character bibles etc. So I’ve carried a lot of that through in my writing career, because it really helps me to get to know the characters and to know where my story is going.
Of course, after about fifty pages I tend to throw all this work out the window and just let the characters tell their story, but I still like to put the effort in and do the prep work as it’s a great reference to fall back on.
Are you now a full-time novelist? Or do you have another day job?
I’m still working full-time as I wait for my advance, but once that’s through I’m looking to go part-time, woo! I know it’s the fantasy of every author to write full-time, and that’s certainly my end goal, but very few authors have this luxury, even if they sign a three-book deal!
So you have to be prepared for it. Getting a book deal doesn’t mean you’ll be able to quit your day job the very next day, and it’s a lot of hard work trying to do revisions and write the sequels when you’re working a full time day job. But thems the breaks. I don’t consider my day job as my career though. When people ask what I do for a living, I tell them I’m a YA author, who also works on websites.
You are a Brit, and live in London, but you have an agent based in the U.S. What’s up with that?
I knew the U.S had a strong YA market, especially for paranormal romance and dystopian fantasy, the two genres I’m most interested in writing. We’re still developing our YA market here in Blighty, and the majority of books that are on our shelves are imports from the U.S, or contemporary fiction, so I wasn’t certain I’d be giving Black City the best chance possible by approaching UK agents.
So it made sense to me to approach an agent in New York. I was so lucky to find Ayesha, she really is amazing!
How many agents did you query for Black City Chronicles?
Gosh, that’s a good one. Well, I did two rounds of queries (as mentioned earlier), so in total I approached around 35 agents. Ayesha was the first agent I queried in my second phase. It was fate!
What was your first response when you got the call?
Well, because of the time difference Ayesha actually sent me an email saying she loved my novel and wanted to arrange a phone call, as she wanted to make an offer of representation. I have to admit my first response to receiving the email was mild confusion.
I’d gotten so used to rejections I’d convinced myself it would never happen, so when I saw that email I was like ‘Huh? What?’ I re-read it twenty times, emailed Ayesha back to arrange the phone call and then called my writer friend to tell her what had happened. She was so thrilled and happy for me, it was at that point that it finally sunk home what had happened and I had a little ‘Squeeeeee!’ moment.
You never react the way you think you will!
This is so awesome to hear!
How long was it between signing with your agent and getting a deal?
I signed with Ayesha in mid-March 2011, we went on sub in June, and got my offer from Putnam on 2nd August, so just over five months. It was the most exciting time of my life, I can assure you! Nothing is more thrilling than having your book on submission and then getting the offer.
How much did the book change with your agent’s input?
It didn’t change much. Everything she suggested was about developing the universe and characterization rather than changing aspects of the plot. I did tweak a few subplots on her recommendation, because they were sort of hanging around not doing much, but really we spent the revision stage just enhancing what was already there.
She’s a fantastic agent, and spends a lot of time and effort editing your work before putting it on submission, and for that I’m super grateful. I just knew the book we were putting out there was in really good shape, and all the feedback we got from editors was incredibly positive; they all loved the writing, and that’s exactly what you want to hear as an author.
What about your editor?
Squeee! Oh I simply love my editor, Stacey Barney. She’s absolutely AWESOME. She’s so fun and enthusiastic and she’s completely in love with Nat and Ash (she calls them ‘Nash’. Love it!). You really need a cheerleader on your side, and that’s exactly what she is to me. She’s just so passionate about the book, and it gives me so much encouragement.
I’m so lucky, as she keeps me informed every step of the way, and she’s really interested in my opinion on things like cover art, even asking me to supply examples of my favorite covers so she could gauge my tastes. I can’t wait to see it!
I love the idea of being able to give opinions on covers. That sounds like a lot of fun.
Plus, she’s just an amazing editor. The notes she’s made on my MS are so detailed and she digs in deep and asks a lot of questions and makes you think much harder about things than you probably otherwise would. I’m on deadline actually, and my revisions are due tomorrow, so I better crack on with those in a minute.
Do you mind sharing the query that got you signed?
No problem, although I have to confess my query writing isn’t my strong point! The best responses I got were to queries with a writing sample attached. It’s a real skill, and something you absolutely must keep practicing and fixing, depending on feedback.
I think the key thing about writing a successful query letter is to make sure you tailor it as much as possible to that agent you’re approaching. Find out their personal tastes and highlight aspects of your novel you know they might be more interested in hearing about (this means doing a bit of cyber-stalking and reading interviews and blog posts with them to see if they mention anything).
Totally agree with this point.
Here’s the query, for my sins (P.S. The novel was originally called CRAVING):
I'm getting in touch to see if you would be interested in CRAVING, my 98,000-word dystopian novel targeted at young adults. It will appeal to fans of Suzanne Collins and Malorie Blackman.
Deep in the heartland of the United Sentry States are the burning ruins of the Black City, a melting pot simmering with hostility as humans and Darklings struggle to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of a brutal and bloody war. A wall now divides the city separating the two races. Trapped on the wrong side of the wall is 16-year old hustler ASH FISHER, a half-blood Darkling who'll do whatever it takes to survive, including selling his addictive venom ‘Haze’ to help support his dying mother.
Then there’s NATALIE BUCHANAN, the daughter of the Sentry Emissary, who feels imprisoned by her life of privilege and fame. When their paths cross, Ash is shocked when his once still heart starts to beat. Bonded by a mysterious connection, Ash and Natalie struggle to fight their forbidden feelings for each other, knowing if they’re caught, they’ll be executed. Then Haze users start dying all over the city and Ash discovers the terrible truth behind his and Natalie’s mystical connection. Suddenly, city walls and the threat of execution become the least of their problems...
I’m an experienced editor and journalist from the UK, and have written for a number of entertainment magazines aimed at teenagers including CUBE, P2 and PLAY, during which time I won the Jane Hayward Young Journalist of the Year Award. I have a BA Hons in Scriptwriting for TV and Film and am an active member of SCBWI.
This sounds really fascinating! What is your writing schedule like?
Bonkers! Currently, I finish work at 4.30pm every day, and by 4.45pm I’m on my laptop working on Black City. I finish most days around 1am, or at 3am at weekends. I write seven-days a week, and spend my lunch hours working on marketing and responding to emails.
That’s really remarkable and makes my writing sessions seem so lightweight. You are dedicated!
The hours are insane at the moment, but that’s because I’m on deadline and working full time.
I’ve then got until March to get the next book in the trilogy, so I don’t foresee the hours getting shorter anytime soon. It’s a lot of hard work, but seriously it’s SO worth it. This is my dream and nothing worth having comes easy.
I can't wait to blow off my friends by saying, "Sorry Frank. I'm on deadline."(But I know that brings a whole new set of issues.)
So many of us are out in the trenches, waiting to get signed, speculating and wondering in a very obsessive manner what it must be like to have an agent and actually have a book coming out. What is something you’ve learned now that you’re on the “inside?”
I’ve learnt that the pain of rejection is nothing compared to the elation of getting a deal. It’s like child birth; you completely forget the trauma of querying.
It makes you more confident about your writing skills, but also very humble because you know that a lot of people are putting a lot of faith in you and your book to make them money, so there is that added pressure.
But most of its just so much fun! Dealing with agents and editors, learning about the publishing industry, working on edits and getting interviewed by lovely people such as your kind self, really is wonderful!
It’s my pleasure. One of your Fun Facts on your blog is that you have an identical twin. Did you ever think about a story having to do with twins? I would think that having an identical twin would lead to some interesting concepts for writing. Or are you over the whole “twin thing.”
I don’t think I’d ever write about twins, they’re proper freaky ;-p
I do get frustrated when I read books or watch films with twins in them, as it’s always the same thing: one twin is good, the other is evil; one twin is a super hoe-bag, the other is purer than a Disney princess. And, most annoyingly, the twins are nearly always psychic. *gags*
Funnily enough, I was watching the Parent Trap this afternoon and it bugged the crap out of me that the twins’ parents were so monumentally negligent that they didn’t notice when a completely different child turned up on their doorstep. Grrr. It does irrationally anger me, but I do have to gently remind myself it’s a movie.
Saying that, I do love Fred and George in Harry Potter. They’re fab.
Being a writer, I know ideas can come from anywhere: a picture, a dream, a flash of inspiration. Do you recall what the seed was that became Black City Chronicles?
Honestly? It was a movie called Charlie Bartlett. The protagonist really appealed to me. He was funny and charming and just on the right side of naughty, a bit of a Ferris Bueller type. Shortly after watching that, the character of Ash formed in my mind. I knew I wanted him to be a supernatural being and a drug dealer; I wanted him to be charming and to have some swagger, but also be damaged and vulnerable. So that was the seed of Black City. It’s a bit of a leap going from an indie teen movie to a dystopian fantasy, but inspiration can strike anywhere!
You’re a member of the Apocalypsies, a group of authors whose books debut in 2012. How important is it to have some sort of online presence, or to be involved in a group like this?
It’s soooo important. People pretty much use the internet for everything these days, and if you don’t have an online presence you might as well be invisible. Having the support of the Apocalysies is great, because we’re all debut authors trying to find our feet in the publishing industry, and we give each other so much support and encouragement. It’s vital to have a strong support group around you, as they can help answer your questions, give you advice and assist with marketing. It’s fab!
What is the one TV show you cannot miss?
QI. It’s a British quiz show by the BBC, hosted by Stephen Fry who is my hero. It’s absolutely brilliant. It’s so funny and informative and just a brilliant piece of entertainment, mixing the right blend of sophistication with bum jokes to really appeal to me. I’ve watched every episode about ten times thus far.
(I like Stephen Fry. He’s filming the Hobbit right now! And he was great in a lot of films --from V for Vendetta to Oscar Wilde.)
Last great book you read? Or what you’re reading now?
I finished reading The Help last week. Oh my word, that was wonderful. The story is so heartwarming and the characters are just perfection. It makes you really think about civil rights issues without ever being preachy and it’s just a beautiful tale.
What is your favorite volcano?
Of the ones I’ve seen thus far, Stromboli! When I was editing travel magazines, I had the privilege of going on a 16-day cruise around the Med. The ship sailed around the volcano at night time and the memory of it still gives me chills. I’ve never seen anything like it – watching a volcano erupt makes you feel very small, but also part of something truly amazing.
(I wish I could claim the credit for tossing such a non sequitur of a question out there, but during my research for this interview, I came across Elizabeth’s volcano passion on her website.)
How can I get my American friends to pause during the day and start participating in tea-time rituals?
Ha ha! Well, I guess it’s about making sure you tempt them with a proper English Afternoon Tea, accept no substitutions. My friends and I often pop to Fortnum & Masons for their afternoon teas, and seriously, it’s the best meal of the day. It’s just so decadent and it’s also a very social meal; the purpose of it is to have a leisurely gossip as you nibble on sandwiches, scones and cakes. It’s so civilized and one of the best parts of English culture! I love them.
Thanks, Elizabeth, for staying up so late to do this interview!
There you have it folks. Make sure to look for Elizabeth's debut Black City, the first of three--three! Wow! --in her Black City Chronicles due from Putnam fall 2012. Check out her blog here and the Apocalypsies.