What drew you to write Middle-Grade stories?
I started to find the idea of writing for amiddle grade appealing while reading to my own daughters, who are now 8 and 13. Specifically, reading Junonia by Kevin Henkes made me think about how it's possible to write a story for ten-year-olds with enough emotional depth to be satisfying as an adult author.
How do you find the voice for your young age characters without writing down to them?
I feel very connected to my younger self-- Iremember very much how it feels to be that age, but I think that writing smart characters that feel and understand more than adults might realize is just a matter of being respectful to the audience.
How long did it take you to write your first book? How many rewrites did you do on it? Who helped you with the editing? Who encouraged you along the way? The first book I wrote, the grown-up Breakfast At Tuli's, I coughed up for NaNoWriMo in November of 2011. Obviously, that took one month, but then I spent the next 9 months revising and adding to it. Next, I paid an editor to help clean it up, and in backward fashion, then brought it to a writer's group a couple of times per week until it was completely workshopped.
Those people became my comrades, my colleagues, and helped me get it to its final form. They also provided me with encouragement in their enjoyment of it. I continue attending that workshop, as often as four times per week, and see it as an indispensable part of my development and of the process. As I tend to be economical, my novels have always grown during the editing process!
Your first two books were indie-published Did you go through the normal process of pitching your book to agents and traditional publishers? What feedback did you get?
I tried to get representation for my first three books, two of which I have self-published. I'm quite proud of them, though no doubt they could benefit from a high-level edit such as Train I Ride has received. I got more than 100 rejection letters from agents for Breakfast At Tuli's, but also a fair amount of encouragement, which I think was very important for feeding my persistence.
A few Big League agents said they loved my voice, but that my story wasn't right for their list, which I heard so many times. But it's true. That novel is a bit of a freak show, and the agents didn't think they had relationships that would acquire it. It's hard to imagine selling it.
Ultimately I turned to Createspace. It was pretty easy to use, there was no investment required, I'm an artist so I could paint my own cover art, and produce and find a limited audience for my labor of love. Which is what it is all about, first and foremost. Those books still get new readers, and I think my big five book deal may expand their reach.
I’ve often heard at writing conferences from agents and editors that if you go the indie route you will never get a contract with a legacy publisher such as Harper Collins. How did you do that? What made your book stand out?
My contract with Harper Collins came via my amazing agent, Wendy Schmalz. The first time I queried her was for Train I Ride, and she offered representation, then took 15 days to find two of the majors wanting it. I think it's true that with few exceptions a publisher such as HC won't want something you already self-published and sold to your 100 closest friends, but I think that having a few books under your belt actually makes you look more appealing. If they love your novel, they hope there's more where it came from.
If you've already written and self-published a few, it's more likely that you can keep doing it. And it's understandable and expected that your work will get better as you keep writing and develop your talents as a writer. As to what makes Train I Ride stand out, I cannot say, but it isn't a book that is trying to follow any trend, which I think would tend to work against a book standing out. The story makes me feel a lot, and that seems to be the case with lots of readers.
We have all experienced rejection. Give me an example of one you’ve had, and how you learned to write past it.
As previously stated, I had well over a hundred rejections for my first three novels, and I've also had my editor say no to what I hoped would become the second book of my contract, twice. They view the second book on the big stage as the most important of your career, so they choose very carefully on that one. But having had it demonstrated to me that there are lots of stories where the earlier ones came from, and having personally risen from the ashes many times already, writing is always what feels best. It is its own reward.
What is some of the best writing advice that you’ve received or could give?
My best advice about writing-- what has worked for me-- is that one doesn't need to see the whole story, or even more than the first line-- to begin. I think that planning too much in advance can prevent one from hearing your muse, and the muse never stops whispering. So many times I have been surprised by my own stories, and that's about as good as it gets. Planning in advance can't give you that. I try to put on paper the scene playing in my head, even if it's out of order. And it usually is-- I tend not to write chronologically.
What is the next book that will be coming out? Can you give me a short synopsis?
It looks likely that the next book to come out from Harper Collins will be one called Echo's Sister, which is a departure for me in that it's informed by my own experience, or rather my 8-year-old daughter's experience fighting cancer, as told by her big sister. It has a happy ending. But my editor and I are still rather far apart on it, so there is a chance that it will not be published.
The next book they would consider would be Summer and July, about a gothic girl filled with fake phobias who meets a prototypical, adventurous California Girl while living(reluctantly) in Santa Monica for a month. As my contract is middle-grade, the protagonist and her friend are nearly thirteen. I guess I'd say it's about two friends helping each other through emotionally difficult times. It's also a summer crush story set in a seaside town, with skateboarding and boogie boarding and surfing, etc. It was inspired by the sense of place of the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, where my family stayed for a week last summer.
What message would you like parents and children to take away from your stories?Generally, I don't have a message or an agenda that I want to present. Instead, I think that exploring a story teaches me something, and if I've done my job well, that will be visible to the reader, too. I think any legitimate artistic experience teaches the artist something she wasn't asking to be taught, and the product is a roadmap of that discovery.
I can't see past the hood ornament of the car I'm driving, but I trust that if I listen to the muse things will work out. But I would say my stories are evidence of my respect and affection for the female gender, my love for humanity in all it's flawed glory, especially marginalized characters, and-- as it becomes apparent the more you read of me-- that I like bebop jazz, opera, vegetarian food, and Beat Poets in particular. I also tend to embed beloved lyrics in my work! Everything I do is an homage to something else.
That's all for today's interview. If you would like to know more about Paul's current books and future works, here are some options for you. Click to open in new hyperlink.
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