Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Debut Author Andrew S. Chilton On Writing The Ending First

Welcome to another SAT (Successful Author Talk). Today's guest is Andrew S. Chilton. Andrew is a member of The Class of 2k16, and his MG fantasy novel, The Goblin's Puzzle: Being the Adventures of a Boy With No Name and Two Girls Called Alice was released on Jan 19th by Knopf.

Are you a Planner or Pantser?

I'm definitely a pantser, though I usually have a rough idea of what the story is in my head. Some pantsers will tell you that when they start, they have absolutely no idea what is going to happen. I'm not that extreme. I think it's important to have a general idea how the story ends. In fact, I usually write the ending first.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

It depends. I can do a first draft in thirty days, but that means setting aside thirty days to do no other kind of work. Getting that much uninterrupted time is a challenge, and if I have to stop and start up again, that adds a lot of time. And even if I get my thirty days, what I have is a very rough first draft. I'd say it takes a minimum of six drafts to get something into any kind of decent shape. Allowing for cooling off time between drafts and beta reading, I'd say that 18 months is the minimum for going from writing “Once upon a time” to hitting send on the email to my editor.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

I do better work if I stick to one project at a time, so that's what I try to do. My brain, however, feels differently about this. (“Ooo, look! Shiny!”)

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

Like a lot of writers, I have this part of my brain that's constantly telling me, “This is dumb. You can't write. You're an idiot. And not a funny one, either.” But that doesn't feel like fear to me. It's just negative self-talk, the kind of stuff you have to learn to ignore if you're going to do anything at all. But fear? No, I didn't really feel afraid. What is there to fear? Failing? Making an ass of yourself in public? I've done both of those enough times to have learned that they're no big deal (not fun, but not that bad.) There are things worth fearing in this life, but none of them will happen to you because you wrote a book.

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

The Goblin's Puzzle was the first book I ever finished, but if we include projects that I worked on but did not finish, the answer is several dozen. I just peeked in my writing folder. There's about twenty abandoned titles in there, and I only keep the ones I think there's some kind of chance I might go back to.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

Yes, but it was never a conscious decision. They all just slowly dribbled away.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?

My agent is Pam Howell with D4EO. Basically, I just sent her a query, but there's a little more to the story than that. A friend of mine is a middle grade author with a couple of books published. He'd read The Goblin's Puzzle and really liked it. (Well, he really liked it after I redid the opening scene—twice.) Anyway, he was kind enough to pass it on to his agent (who ultimately passed on it). While looking for other possible agents, I ran across Pam's book review blog. On it, she said that my author friend's latest book was her favorite middle grade of the year. So, with his permission, I included his endorsement in my query to her. 

How long did you query before landing your agent?  How many queries did you send?  

I kept pretty good records. Pam was the forty-first agent that I formally queried. I sent my first query on September 26, 2011. Pam called me to offer representation on July 8, 2013. So it took just over twenty-one months to land an agent. (Answering this question is the first time I ever actually worked out how long it took. It was a surprise how much shorter it was than I remember. At the time, it seemed like it took forever.)

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Try not to think of it as Hell. It's hard because our books are so much a part of who we are that having them rejected—especially having them rejected for no obvious reason—can be painful. It's best to try to get over that as fast as possible. Sure, some people land an agent the first time out. Or the second. But most don't. I know one author who queried 140 agents before finding representation for a book that went on to be a New York Times bestseller. Every individual query is a longshot. Think of it as rolling a pair of dice looking for double sixes. What happens if you don't? You pick the dice up and throw them again.

Of course, it's all going to be a lot easier if your book is good enough...

How much input do you have on cover art?

More than I knew what to do with. I don't have a very visual imagination. When Katherine Harrison (my wonderful, wonderful editor) asked me for ideas about the cover, I think I said something like, “Uh, maybe we should have the main characters on it?” She went out and found the amazingly talented Jensine Eckwall to do the cover and interior illustrations, which are beautiful. Hire her if you get the chance.

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

You hear a lot about how publishing isn't like it used to be and no one really edits anymore and so on. This was not my experience at all. We went through several rounds of editing, and Katherine worked very closely with me on the book.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I do some of my own marketing but probably not as much as some other authors. I do have a Twitter account and an author page on Facebook, but I mostly use them to announce upcoming appearances.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I'm probably not the best person to ask this, but my inclination is to say that you shouldn't worry about this too much. If you enjoy having a blog, then you should have a blog. But if it you don't, I wouldn't bother. Every agent I've talked to will say that platform doesn't really matter to them. (At least not in fiction. Non-fiction, I understand, is another story entirely.) That said, every agent I know is a total social media monster. So, there's that.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I think it helps more with young adult than middle grade. Your middle grade readership isn't on social media (or isn't supposed to be, anyway), so you have to be indirect. It's about building relationships with people like librarians and booksellers, people who will put your books in kids hands.

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