Valerie Thomas is a former member of the Paper Wait critique group whose debut MG novel, Karma Bites, co-written by Stacy Kramer, was recently published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Valerie and Stacy just sold their second book, a YA novel, to Disney/Hyperion (see below). Valerie took time out from working on her latest manuscript to do this Q&A. Thanks, Valerie, and a huge congrats to you and Stacy on sale number 2!!
1. The two books you've sold were co-written by Stacy Kramer. Could you explain the process of creating a manuscript with a partner? What does it take to make the partnership work?
It’s a lot like a marriage in that we try to treat each other with respect and trust. We’ve worked together for a long time now and we have established a great foundation. We start a project by brainstorming together about ideas. Once we’ve hit on an idea that we want to pursue we then talk, a lot, about the structure of the story, and working up an outline together. When we feel we have enough scaffolding to begin writing, one of us begins to write, and then passes that chunk of writing back to the other, who rewrites it. After a while we switch places so that the other person is out front. We pass things back and forth so many times over the course of a book that each chapter is probably rewritten 20 to 30 times before we are ready to hand it in. Then we get notes from our agent and then our editor, and we rewrite again. It’s a long process!
2. How hard was it for you and Stacey to land an agent and sell your first novel?
We were very lucky in that I knew someone who works at WME (William Morris Endeavor). I called her and asked her if I could send her the partial manuscript of our first book and she said yes. She is not a book agent, but she agreed to look at it, and once she did, she liked it enough to pass it on to two book agents at the agency. One of them, Erin Malone, loved it, and signed us. She gave us notes on the partial manuscript and outline that we had, we rewrote it, and then she went out with it to 10 publishers. One of them bit, and we sold it to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
3. After the sale, were you able to make a living as a writer?
No. We received a lot more for our second book, so we are on our way, but it’s still not enough to be entirely sufficient. Obviously, we are hoping that with time, it will be. We always have at least one or two projects in the works so we are never idle; that way if and when we sell a book we can get to work on the next one right away.
4 What have you learned about process of writing and pitching/selling your manuscripts since you started?
I have learned so much from writing these two books. I feel like my instincts for plot and character are much sharper now. I know what’s necessary for character motivation, for example, better than I used to. I know when something is too cliché, or when it’s okay if it’s a little cliché. I also feel like I have a better grip on what’s out there and thus have a better idea of which ideas to pursue. In terms of pitching/selling, our agent does that for us, thank God. It’s one aspect of the business that I am not great at. We do a fair amount of networking and self-promotion on the web, because it’s necessary, but it’s not my favorite activity.
5. How hard was it to switch your voice from MG, in your first book, to YA, in your second book?
It was easy for me. I found the MG voice a little harder. It was easier for me to tap into what it’s like to be a teenager, maybe because I remember it more vividly. The YA voice is also a bit more sophisticated, which is closer to how I think and feel as an adult.
6. Before you turned to writing kidlit, you and Stacy co-wrote a screenplay. Do you think your background as a screenwriter helped you in the kidlit market, both as a writer and in finding an agent and selling your manuscripts?
I produced Ulee’s Gold, but I did write a screenplay (with Stacy) and I was a development executive and producer in film for ten years before I started writing. I learned a tremendous amount from working with other screenplay writers. I learned how to structure a story, the importance of getting things moving quickly, and the difficult but imperative job of creating a good plot. Movies have propulsive plots, generally, and many books don’t, which can sometimes work, but I find that often books drag because of a lack of plot. Working in film did help me find an agent because the friend I contacted at WME is a woman I got to know during my time in the film industry.
7. What’s your typical writing routine?
I like to write first thing in the morning for a couple of hours. Then I putter around and clean up the house and eat a little something. I write for another couple of hours. Then I go to the gym, my daughter comes home from school and I spend time with her. I usually fit in another hour in the late afternoon and often an hour at night.
8. What do you like most about the way your agent, Erin Malone at WME, represents you?
I like the effectiveness with which she sells our books. I also think her notes are fantastic. She’s very straightforward, and we don’t actually talk with her much unless we are going out with a book or she’s in the process of reading something of ours.
9. What do you love most about writing books for children?
I love the openness of kids’ books. They are far less cynical and mannered, I find. And I love that my audience is made up of teenagers, people I can really have some influence over. They are such passionate readers and really take in what they love, so it’s a real privilege.
10. What's the most challenging aspect of writing books for children?
I think the challenges must be the same for all fiction writers – finding a story that is fresh, creating characters who feel real, finding a natural voice.
11. Do you have any books in the pipeline now?
We just turned in a draft of our second book, From What I Remember, which is a YA novel for Disney/Hyperion. It’s a romantic adventure that takes place mostly in Mexico. It will be coming out in the summer of 2012. And we are currently writing our next novel, a thriller set in Berlin.
12. What's the best piece of advice you ever got as a writer?
Just keep writing, and rewriting, and it will get better.