Debut Details with Lee Kelly

Happy Monday.

I did a few of these Debut Details a while back, and wanted to revive it. It’s always interesting to hear how writers went from query letter to Getting the Call to selling a book.

You can find a Debut Details featuring Elizabeth Richards, author of the Black City Series here
And Kate Walton, author of Cracked and Empty here

I’ve always devoured these posts whenever I’ve come across them, and hope visitors enjoy reading this one. Today we have Lee Kelly, a fellow Wolf Literary writer, repped by the super-awesome Adriann Ranta. She is also a member of a new group blog for 2015 debut authors I’m proud to be associated with called the Fearless Fifteeners.

Lee’s debut, City of Savages, is published by Simon & Schuster's new imprint, Saga Press, and drops Spring 2015 (I just said “drops.”) My short post-interview responses are in red. 

Hi Lee, thanks for agreeing to do a Debut Details. Can you give us a blurb for City of Savages? 

Thank you for having me!  And sure -- here’s the short blurb from Simon & Schuster:

CITY OF SAVAGES. Lee Kelly’s startling debut novel, a taut drama set in a post-World War III POW-camp Manhattan, in which two sisters must learn the truth about the city’s past in order to take hold of their own future.
Their words, not mine J! Sounds unique and fantastic!

Why YA?

While City of Savages started out as YA with S&S Books for Young Readers, we’ve actually moved over to my editor’s new imprint, Saga Press, which will be using the adult and young adult sales forces to market books that fall somewhere in between.  I’m beyond excited to be part of this new venture (and humbled by the company I’m keeping!)  City of Savages has a significant adult subplot, which parallels and compliments the story of the two sisters, so Saga feels like the perfect home.
Pretty cool to debut with a new imprint. How wonderful.

When did you start writing with the goal of being published?

If I’m honest, I think I’ve always written with the goal of being published, at least secretly – even when I was seven and scribbled down poems in my journal.  But I didn’t conduct myself like I was hoping to make a real go of it, if that makes sense, until after I was practicing law in New York.  So about three or four years ago, I’d say, I started writing nearly every day and trying to learn and understand the business.

Was City of Savages the first book you submitted to agents? 

Pretty much.  The first “book” I wrote (a 130,000 word semi-autobiographical clunker that read like a 14 year-old’s journal written by an adult -- YES), I sent to an agent friend-of-a-friend.  I still blush when I think about that.  I hope that doesn’t count.
I think we all have one of these, Lee!

Are you a pantster or an obsessive plot outliner?

I’m somewhere in between.  Since that 130K mess, I have a process.  I always start with a brainstorming session where I gather notes and inspiration into a word document, and flesh it out with research and notes on things big and small: snippets of scenes, thoughts on characters, thematic considerations, that sort of thing.  After a while of this, when I feel like I’m antsy to jump into a story, I’ll write the synopsis.  Then I’ll write a super messy first draft that generally follows the synopsis for the beginning and the end.  Often the middle goes totally rogue.
Uh, I think I’m going to steal your process.

How many agents did you query for City of Savages?

I believe somewhere around 30, in batches of 5-10 at a time – I came across Adriann’s name somewhere in the middle of this effort.  It’s odd, I actually had this weird premonition that things might work out with her purely based on her bio on wolflit’s website.  (Which you know as well as I… “edgy, dark, quirky voices, unique settings, and everyman stories told with a new spin…”)

What was your first response when you got the call for an offer or rep?  Did you get an email to set it up?

I was on vacation, laying with my husband by the pool our first Saturday up in Maine, and I got Adriann’s email saying she loved the book, and would I have time to talk soon about it?  I FLIPPED OUT!  We planned on chatting that Monday, and I spent the next two days of vacation in knots talking my husband’s ear off about what her email might mean – do you think she’ll offer?  Is this a test run to see if we click?  Will I get revisions?  I drove him crazy.
Yes, it takes a special kind of person to be the spouse of a writer.

I took the call in my hotel room after two to three hours of research on every book deal and tweet Adriann made in the past few years, and talked to her for an hour.  I was so nervous I didn’t realize it was a definite offer call until the end.
I didn’t realize it was an offer either! I had to ask her at the end of our call! What’s up with that Adriann?!! Making writers all crazy…

Where were you when you got the call that S&S was buying your book?

Again, while away, which is weird!  I was down with my in-laws in Philadelphia for a long weekend, and Adriann had told me we were going to auction that day.  I’d been fine at 10 a.m., nervous at noon, visibly sweating by 3 p.m…. and completely ignoring my mother-in-law by 4 p.m.  My hands were actually shaking when Adriann’s number flashed on my iPhone.

When you heard the word “Auction,” every writer’s dream, actually associated with your work, what did you think? When did it really hit you, if ever? 

It still hasn't! I think the whole process for me was very surreal. Sometimes I still need to remind myself that this book is actually going to be out in the world :-)

How long was it between signing with Adriann and getting an editor to say, “Hey, I want this?”

I believe it was eight months, start to finish – though I had an R&R with one editor before Simon & Schuster, which prolonged the process (for those of you who don’t know what an R&R is – I didn’t – it’s when an editor likes it enough to set up a phone call and talk through revisions they think will elevate the book, but makes no commitment until they read the finished product based on their feedback).  That R&R process took six months. 
That must have been a stressful time!

How much did the book change with Adriann’s input?

On this book, we didn’t do substantial edits – just a few nits and tweaks before rolling out.

What about your editor?

Oh, it massively changed haha.  I’ve been working with Navah Wolfe, and we’ve gone through one serious rewrite as well as a smaller revision and a line edit.  Backstory fleshed out, whole chapters discarded and rewritten, characters combined, that sort of thing.  And all for the better.  I’m so excited about the new version.

 You’ve got a new addition in your home. How do you find time to write with a little one running or crawling around all over your laptop? (Isn’t that what kids do? Like cats or something? Obviously I don’t have kids.)

God, I’d get nothing done if my son crawled around in my lap ;).  But he is running – EVERYWHERE.  I get no writing done when he’s awake.  My daily writing time is his nap, about an hour-and-a-half every afternoon after chores and such.  My parents also help out a few days a week, and I log a ton of hours then, and usually write for a good three-hour stretch on the weekend when my husband hangs with the little guy.  It’s tough for me to do actual writing at night – that’s for emails and critiquing.  My writing brain seems to shut off around 5 or so.
Now, that is dedication, people. No excuses! Just write!

What is something you’ve learned now about publishing/writing now that you’re on the “inside?”

Hmmm, I don’t know if I’m on the “inside” haha!  But one thing you do learn through the submission process to agents and editors is how subjective everything is.  One person will love another’s deal-breaker.  One finds something “fresh and original” while another will find it totally weird.  Even though it’s so tough to internalize this, you do eventually.  You have to.

You’re a member of a new group blog titled the Freshman Fifteens. I’ve seen a lot of these blogs over the years. But yours has a different twist. Can you tell us a little about it?

Sure!  We’re actually going on a retreat next week to hammer out details, but our goal is to work with young writers through various efforts, most of which are hopefully done in-person.  I believe all of us have wanted to write since we were little, so the idea of working with young writing hopefuls is something that’s important to all of our members.
That is fantastic and very admirable.

Do you plan on delving into other genres with subsequent books? Fantasy? Paranormal? Mystery? What are you working on now?

YES!  A writer friend of mine said if you aren’t trying something new – style-wise, genre-wise or voice-wise – with every book, you aren’t pushing yourself to become better.  I totally agree.  So right now I’m working on a historical fantasy, again YA-crossover, and I’m also (slowly) revising a middle grade fantasy/contemporary hybrid.

What is the one TV show you cannot miss?

Oh, tough question -- depends on the season: 
Spring – Game of Thrones
Summer – used to be Breaking Bad, now I suppose Mad Men
Fall – Homeland

Last great book you read?

I was equal parts enamored and disturbed by CHARM AND STRANGE by Stephanie Keuhn.  It’s tightly written, evocative, haunting -- absolutely loved it.

Thanks, Lee.

Everyone make sure to check out Lee's blog and Twitter!

*After eight years on Blogger, I still can't get my hyperlinks to be a consistent color*


Ruth Schiffmann said...

I love reading these kinds of posts. They're always inspiring.Thanks Ronald and Lee.

Ronald L. Smith said...

Hi Ruth! Thanks for stopping by and thanks for reading! Glad you found it inspiring.