Linda Holmes

First Draft Episode #197: Linda Holmes Transcript

Date: June 21, 2019


Linda Holmes, pop-culture critic at NPR and host of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, is out with her debut author of Evvie Drake Starts Over. I loved what Linda had to say about how practicing appellate law helped hone her critical writing; getting used to listening to her own voice; how she manages anxiety and depression, and the difficulty in even acknowledging that she wanted to write a novel.

The original post for this episode can be found here.


[Theme music plays}

Sarah Enni Okay. Hi Linda. How are you?

Linda Holmes I'm good, thank you. I'm so glad that you could come and we can chat here, at my wonderful office.

Sarah Enni Oh my gosh. I couldn't be more excited to be at NPR right now. Lifelong public radio nerd, as the t-shirt I just purchased indicates [laughs].

Linda Holmes Oh, you got the good one!

Sarah Enni And I got the mug, which is like soup-sized. So on my podcast, I like to start at the very beginning, which is, where were you born and raised?

Linda Holmes I was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware. Our house was in Pennsylvania, which is right over the state line, but my school and my friends were mostly in Wilmington. So essentially, outside Philadelphia and more specifically outside Wilmington.

Sarah Enni So how was growing up? How was reading and writing a part of your life?

Linda Holmes I loved reading when I was really little. I think I was a person who got a little bit of the idea of novels being work when I was in middle school and high school. I didn't read a ton of heavy novels for quite a long time. I read a ton of popular fiction starting when I was a teenager. I read, on the one hand, a lot of Jackie Collins and stuff like that, but also on the other hand, a lot of Stephen King. I read a ton of Stephen King as a kid. Writing, I always wanted to do. I started writing stories when I was six or seven or eight and I would just write little bits of things and very often they didn't get finished, but I would at least make a shot at writing them. And then when I went to college I kind of went away from writing.

Sarah Enni Yeah, well, and we're going to get to that because you went in a very different non creative writing direction.

Linda Holmes Yeah. I'm going out of order.

Sarah Enni No, that's okay. That's okay. So I listened to an interview that you did on The Hilarious World of Depression, which is a wonderful podcast, in which you described a teacher who wrote to you. I'm just going to tell the story to you then you can explain it in more detail. The teacher who wrote on an assignment that you turned in, "You may feel like your feet are in cement, but you're writing."

Linda Holmes Yeah. I was struggling with depression as a teenager, which I would not have described that way at the time, but I think now I recognize what it was. And there was a teacher who said to me basically, who was making the point to me that, you may feel like you can't do anything, and everything is kind of, you know, your gears are grinding and everything, but that I was still able to write. And she felt, I think, that would reassure me that I was still myself. And that I think is probably exactly what that did for me.

Sarah Enni Yeah. Which is a really early age to feel so explicitly reassured that writing can be a safe haven, a little bit.

Linda Holmes Yes, I think that's right. I think that's right. And the funny thing is, a lot of my writing for a long time wasn't necessarily fiction. It was just writing. It was just writing anything, whether it was writing people long letters or writing little short stories about my life. I started writing my memoirs when I was in 11th grade. And I would just write little stories about embarrassing things that had happened to me pretty much.

Sarah Enni Do you think you were processing?

Linda Holmes That's a great question. I think that I was figuring out a way. Yeah, probably. I was probably figuring out a way to live with embarrassing things that had happened in my life, none of which worked. [Not] the traumatic kind of embarrassing, but they were difficult to think about. And so for example, I wrote a piece when I was, I think I originally wrote it when I was in early high school, about going to a banquet and accidentally dropping my plate in my lap. And that was sort of my first funny humor essay and I probably wrote it, like I said, it was probably 15 or 16

Sarah Enni Wow! You described on the podcast of having anxious thoughts. And I think anybody who is even anywhere near anxiety has the embarrassing moments [that] sort of pop up unexpectedly or unwelcomed.

Linda Holmes Oh yeah. And I would, I think everybody with "anxiety brain" as I always call it, kind of funnels all of their bad feelings and all of their bad memories. So everything really embarrassing that I've ever done, I still can cringe. And really it's painful to think about the most embarrassing things I've done. But you know, none of them are terribly serious and I survived all of them and made it into whatever it was for me.

Sarah Enni It strikes me that writing them out though might have been sort of like sometimes looking right at a thing can take some of the power out of it.

Linda Holmes I think that's right. I think for me it felt like I was getting a little distance from those stories by telling them in a way that was funny and it was a primitive coping mechanism. I would not say that the fact that I was doing that meant that I was dealing well with my social place in the world necessarily. But I do think that telling my embarrassing stories was a big part of me figuring out how to fit into the world in a way that I felt comfortable with.

Sarah Enni Was anyone reading that writing?

Linda Holmes I would pass them around in class. Some of my classmates I remember we're reading these little, like I said, my memoirs that I started. And I went to a really small school so people knew me, and they knew my family, and so they would read them. And some of them would be in them and it was a very informal thing, but not other than that, no.

Sarah Enni Okay. And when you went to school, what did you embark on? How did you begin your studies?

Linda Holmes I went to Oberlin wanting to be a music teacher and then I did not get into their music school, which was correct because I was not nearly good enough and also would not have wanted to spend my life practicing as much as the people in that music school do.

Linda Holmes But I went there anyway. And I was in the college and I didn't do any creative writing classes because you had to submit writing to a professor to be admitted to a creative writing class. And I was too shy, I guess, to do that. I was too nervous about my writing to submit it to anyone. So I did a lot of social studies eventually. First I did a lot of math and science my first year. That was weird. I don't know why I did that. In retrospect my parents were like, "Why are you doing this? You don't like this stuff." So then I got into social science and that's what I really wound up doing in college was government and pre-law and sociology and things like that, which still allowed me to do a ton of writing. Those are really, really writing and reading and analysis and argument, heavy topics.

Sarah Enni Critical thought, a lot of that. So then what did you do after undergrad?

Linda Holmes I ended undergrad pretty sure that I wanted to go to law school, but I wasn't ready to go the first year. I hadn't thought about it soon enough. So I took a year and I temped, I was like an office temp. I answered phones and filed and things. And then I went to law school. I went to Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon. And graduated [and] became an attorney. Took the bar exam in Minnesota where my family lived by then. They had moved from the Philadelphia area to the Twin Cities. So since I didn't really know anybody out in Portland who was staying in Portland, and I didn't really know anybody back where I had grown up, I went to Minnesota and I took the bar there. I had a kind of a government type job, a couple of government type jobs there.

Sarah Enni I want to talk about that work, legal work, but I want to talk about it in conjunction with TV Without Pity. So if you don't mind setting us up, how did the TV Without Pity writing come about?

Linda Holmes So in probably 1999 ish, 2000, something like that, I was reading a site that was then called Dawson's Rap, which was a Dawson's Creek recap site. And I loved it and I thought it was genius and funny. I shared it with everyone that I knew and then eventually they changed the name of it to Mighty Big TV, which was a site that did different shows. I loved it and I talked about it with people, and then I eventually pitched them that maybe I could write for them and I still had, I was still an attorney full time at that time. It was just a side thing to do.

Linda Holmes Then I recapped a couple of reality shows for them. And you would just sit and write down everything that happened and they weren't recaps, like recaps are now where it posts on the same night and it's maybe a page and a half. They were like 15 pages that would take several days to write and post. It was a form that doesn't really exist anymore. I'm not sure it was a born moneymaker, but it was extremely beloved by the people who loved it. But I'm not sure it was ever gonna scale.

Sarah Enni Right. I mean they were like essays. And it was also, like you said, the sort of nascent period of time of just the recap as a concept of writing and then also of this application of very dedicated, critical thought to this kind of high/low mix to The Amazing Race.

Linda Holmes I think that's exactly right. I think that's exactly what it was. It was also kind of a blank slate where you could take what was going on in the show and you could talk about [it]. And we wouldn't have said it this way at the time, but you could talk about kind of sociological aspects and gender politics, and what stereotypes are they employing about race? What kinds of tropes are they employing? And they still have the people who ran Television Without Pity, which at that time, Mighty Big TV had changed its name to Television Without Pity, by the time I started, or around the time I started writing for them a little after. And I think they still have a site it's called Previously Dot TV. They have a new site and I was listening to them do a podcast about episodes of Beverly Hills 90210, which they have been doing an episode-by-episode podcast about.

Linda Holmes And I realized that a lot of what they do, even though it seems weird like, "Why are you talking about these people like they're real people." Like "What a jerk this person is being." It's because they are taking apart - the show [and] treating this person in a heroic way. But actually, if you think about it, he's being possessive and awful and they don't necessarily say that explicitly, but that's why you're there. That's the conversation that you're having is, "How are they using tropes in a way that doesn't really hold up if you think about it as a human being."

Sarah Enni Right? Which is so interesting and kind of ushered in this whole level of talk that now we are kind of steeped in of enjoying cultural things. But also at the same time really bringing ourselves to it and talking explicitly about what that means. It's blurred lines that we now live in. It struck me that I think at that point you were doing appellate law or you were writing a lot?

Linda Holmes Yes, I was. I was doing appeals which are mostly [pauses] or by the time I got out of lawyering, so toward the end of the time that I was lawyering, I was writing appeals. Which means you're mostly doing briefs. You're just writing legal arguments and then doing oral argument from time to time. But mostly it's a lot of argument writing.

Sarah Enni And like persuasive writing, right?

Linda Holmes Yes, absolutely.

Sarah Enni Which to me seems like that would help with your critical writing?

Linda Holmes 100%. You know, when I sit down now and I'm writing something where I'm trying to explain a critical opinion about a movie or particularly an analytical point about a cultural issue, you're still doing essentially the same thing, which is present a bunch of of facts. And then you're making an argument and you're explaining how those facts that you've laid out support the argument that you made and you're also doing things that I learned to do as an attorney. Like you're trying to close... you're trying to explain why the possible counter arguments are not convincing. And it's absolutely the same thing as good essay writing, and a lot of good critical writing. They're all connected. All these things are connected.

Sarah Enni Yeah. Which I loved seeing and I mean still to this day, when you post like the longer writing on Monkey See blog [pauses] I was going back and looking at some of the ones that I've enjoyed the most and I was like, oh yeah, you can kind of see bullet points and flushing it out. And it makes it something that you can bring into like a classroom and study or something like that.

Linda Holmes Yeah. I mean learning to express yourself in critical writing is a really helpful skill to have. And that's why sometimes people say, because I didn't stay in law, they say, "Well, do you wish you hadn't gone to law school?" And I say, "Well, I wish I hadn't spent the money on law school, but I don't regret going to law school." I mean, because mostly what it does is make you a good critical thinker. You do learn a lot of law, which I don't use very often anymore. But it also teaches you a lot about how government works and how cases, legal cases work. And it helps me navigate my understanding of the news and the world and things like that.

Sarah Enni So I'd love to hear you tell me how TV Without Pity then leads to NPR?

Linda Holmes Yeah, in a direct sense it led to it because my friend Stephen Thompson who works here at NPR and is on the podcast with me, had just left his position at The Onion and he still lived in Madison, Wisconsin at that time. I lived in the Twin Cities still at that time. And he was looking for a job and we became friends because he had been reading the Television Without Pity stuff and he liked it and he wrote to me and we kind of struck up a correspondence and became friends in that way. And then he got a job at NPR and almost immediately started telling them, "I think this would be somebody that would be great for you to have to cover stuff for you." And then they were looking for somebody to do a pop culture blog project and that's how I got here. He mentioned it to me and mentioned me to them. I wrote a long blog proposal for them and did a bunch of tryout writing for them and that's how I wound up here.

Sarah Enni It's cool. I think on the Monkey See blog, or somewhere in your website , you described it as the first and only culture blog and you're the first and only editor of that blog.

Linda Holmes At NPR, yeah. It was really the first pop culture project that they undertook, that I know of, that was sort of explicitly labeled that way because I think for a lot of people what pop culture is is not entirely clear. And there are people who I think associated with, you know, stuff like celebrity gossip and obviously it's not going to be that at NPR. So I think there was a lot of, "What exactly does it mean to do a pop culture project?" And that wound up really being defined by what the blog was and what my editors and the people that I worked with thought that it should be.

Sarah Enni  Which is such a cool project. I'd love to just hear a little bit about your thinking about shifting from TV Without Pity [which] is sort of people who are unapologetically obsessed with whatever it is you're talking about, and you can make all kinds of assumptions about knowledge and all that kind of stuff. And then transitioning to actually determining how NPR approaches pop culture is a big task. I would love to hear how you approached that.

Linda Holmes Fortunately I think I didn't think about it in those terms or it probably would have been too daunting at the beginning. I think that I thought about it in terms of, "What are they missing that I can do?" And so at that time, this was before they hired a full-time television critic, [and] this was before they opened up certain avenues, I think they cover pop culture more than they did when I first got here. And so at that time there was a ton of open space where I think they had not yet decided, or kind of gotten a handle on, what was the tone where you could cover, for example, Dancing with the Stars in a way that would still seem at home on NPR.

Linda Holmes And I think a lot of what went on in the first couple of years that I was writing the blog, was trying to figure out what does that look like? And what is fun enough to be really fun and to still feel like me and feel like my writing? But that also feels like it belongs at NPR? I never wanted to be somebody who was upsetting anybody's idea of, "NPR is supposed to be good. This is stupid!" I never wanted that to be the feeling of who I was or what I was doing.

Sarah Enni Right. At the same time, I'm sure there's some NPR die-hards who just would rather it not be covered at all.

Linda Holmes Absolutely that's true. And you get to a point where, it never hurts my feelings when people say, "This is not what I tune into NPR for." Cause that's fine. There are things that I don't tune in to, any show, or no radio show or whatever. There are very few podcasts that I listen to where I don't skip some episodes. You don't have to be a completist. It's okay as long as you're not insulting me for doing it. I don't mind that people say, "Hey, you know, this essay about this Amy Schumer movie isn't what I come to NPR for." It's like, "That's fine. That's okay.

Sarah Enni Click away.

Linda Holmes "That's okay. Not hurt"

Sarah Enni Yeah. How does it develop? Were you hired as only a writer? And when did, actually you as a voice for Pop Culture on NPR start?

Linda Holmes So I was hired to write. And NPR at that time, you know podcasting, this was 2008 when I started the blog. Podcasting was in a really different space. What had happened at that time was the iPod had kind of brought up the idea of podcasts and then they hadn't really gone. They had sort of flared up, but it was hard getting people on board. So this was in between the iPod part and the smartphone part a little bit. So NPR, at that time, was mostly using podcasts to re-distribute radio stories. They weren't doing a lot of original stuff in podcasting at that time. Not none, but not a lot. And so I definitely started within the first couple of years. I had started to occasionally be on the radio shows. Like I would do something on All Things Considered very occasionally. And then at some point, Steven, who I mentioned earlier, Stephen and I decided that we thought you could do a kind of a round table, a podcast conversation.

Linda Holmes Which for us was inspired by some of the round table discussions that they did on All Songs Considered, which was a music show that still exists that he is sometimes on, and was sometimes on then. We thought you could do one that was more broad about pop culture in general, television and movies and things. And we knew exactly who we wanted on it and we knew exactly who we thought would produce it for us. And it was a very, very under the table kind of informal project at first. We really just snuck into studios at the end of the day when nobody was using them. And that's how we launched a podcast.

Sarah Enni Which is really great. What's it been like to see the response to it? And also you are becoming a voice rather than a writer and you're sort of becoming a more public figure. How did all that play out?

Linda Holmes Weird. It was weird. I definitely think it took me awhile to get used to hearing my own voice. I think everybody, and it's still true now as you hear your own voice, you become very conscious of all of your verbal ticks and you're constantly trying to fight them. Um, you hear every time you say, um, I just heard myself do it! So I think it can make you very self conscious. At the same time, people at NPR talk about and it's really true that there's an intimacy to audio that's unlike anything else. And although I was lucky enough to have a lot of people who were enthusiastic about my writing, who were really kind to me about my writing. There is something about people who have heard you speak, that gives them a more personal sense of you, and that gives them a much more intense sense that they know you. Which can be a little intimidating when people really feel like you are their friend. But for the most part is really lovely because people feel like you're their friend, which is great.

Sarah Enni Right. So did you feel intimidated by, I mean, hosting the round table and speaking extemporaneously about stuff is really different than being able to go over several drafts and have an editor look at something. Were you intimidated by that?

Linda Holmes Sure is. I was intimidated by it, although I have always really liked live radio. And when I used to be on NPR shows, my favorite one to go on was Talk of the Nation, which isn't on anymore but was a live call-in show. And every once in awhile I would get to guest on that. And I always really liked the fact that it was live and you really didn't know what was gonna happen. But NPR is a place where everybody is so experienced with things like that, that they know how to make them work well.

Linda Holmes And it's the same thing with our audio producers. We always had a show that was edited. We always had a show where you could say, "Hey, I shouldn't have said this." And, "I don't think that came out the way that I intended it." And it could be cut. It was never a show that was just as live. But it is definitely true that what you say on a podcast is always gonna be less fussed over than what you can say with writing.

Sarah Enni That's true. You don't get to edit yourself as intensely, but it's also not inherently...you aren't [pauses] I don't know. Is that true? Were you reaching fewer people with your writing than podcasting?

Linda Holmes I don't know. It would really depend on the piece. I would say there are some pieces that I've written that have been read by more people than the podcast and many that haven't. But I think that for us, the value of the podcast, as opposed to writing, is that you're in conversation with other people.

Linda Holmes So the really wonderful parts for me are the moments where somebody says something and it makes you think a different thing and maybe something comes up that you weren't anticipating. That really happens to us every week because we don't sit down in advance and say, "I'm gonna say this and you're gonna say this." We just don't do that. We will have usually some bullet points of things we want to hit, but they're usually very general. So it is basically what it appears to be, which is people sitting down who have all seen the same thing and talking about it.

Sarah Enni Having a genuine conversation, which is very, very cool. I enjoy it a lot. On the other podcast episode that you did, you said that you had always wanted to write a book.

Linda Holmes Yes. I think that's right. And I think it took me a really long time to acknowledge to myself that I had always wanted to write a book because like I said, I started writing stories when I was a little little kid, but then I abandoned it at some point and I started doing a lot more analytical writing.

Linda Holmes And I have a ton of respect for people who write fiction. And I didn't want to be one of those people who says, "Well, I can just do whatever I want. I'll just pick up something and make something up." So I think I didn't, it was hard for me to presume that I could do that. But yeah, I think I had always wanted to write a novel. I think it was a goal that it was really hard for me to acknowledge that I had, cause I thought the odds of making that happen, we're so remote that I didn't particularly want to spend a lot of time thinking about it. So what I would do, is I would just write five pages of something and put it down. And write five pages of something else and put it down. Literally five pages, not a lot. And I did that for many years. That was how I approached this kind of stuff.

Sarah Enni Wow. But you had ideas, you kind of gave yourself permission to try a little bit and then walked away.

Linda Holmes It was just like a little, I don't want to say game, but it was a little thing that I was too afraid to take seriously, but I really enjoyed doing.

Sarah Enni Yeah. That's so interesting. And for many years you now have steeped yourself in narrative and applying critical thought to narrative and breaking story down and thinking in that way. Kind of giving yourself this MFA in some ways.

Linda Holmes Yes. So the trick was, and I said this when I was first getting serious about launching into this book, one of the things that I said to people who asked me about it was, "Look, you know, I'm pretty confident. I know how to write good sentences. I'm pretty confident about how my writing sounds. I'm pretty confident about my use of language." But there is something to be said for the training that you get when you spend a lot of time studying literature. The training that you get in pacing and story construction and things like that.

Linda Holmes And so as much as I would like to say, "I don't have an MFA and it was fine!" It was fine, but those were the points where I was the most open to,"Tell me where it needs to be cut. Tell me where what I'm doing isn't making sense." And in fact the more complicated things like, "Tell me where not everything that I'm envisioning as what's going on in this scene, is making it out of my brain and onto the page."There are places where it mattered a lot that I didn't have the training in fiction that some people have through academics and things like that. It just meant that I had to rely really heavily on people who have spent more time with those things.

Sarah Enni But it's not necessary. And then you have so much more, or you have a great deal of experience, thinking about other parts of it. You know what I mean?

Linda Holmes Absolutely. I think everybody has, "These are the things that I feel confident about. These are the things that I don't feel confident about." I felt really, like I said, I felt really confident that I liked how my writing sounded. And so I didn't feel like I needed a lot - and in fact I didn't get a lot - of editing. That was on the level of, "This is an unpretty sentence. Let me make it a prettier sentence." And I think there are people who are really good at story construction who rely more on people to kind of adjust the tone and that kind of melodic nature of your writing.

Linda Holmes That's the stuff I felt good about, but there were places where it was like, you know, this whole thing gets very bogged down in the middle and I don't spot those things as well as I would if I had spent a million years talking about really impeccably made novels. It's not that I don't read, I don't want to make it sound like I don't read, but I had a different background. And it was important to me to respect the things that were missing from maybe my experience. Not just because I hadn't studied fiction, but because I hadn't been a big literary novel reader for a long time for exactly the reasons that I was talking about.

Sarah Enni Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. So what, after spending much of your life, knowing you wanted to write a book, what made you want to take the leap?

Linda Holmes I think that I knew for awhile. What became this book has roots that go back to 2008 or nine. I wrote a little flash fiction thing that I posted to a blog that I had, that I didn't even think was part of a novel at that time. But it was. I realize now when I go back, that I was writing a bunch of things that were sort of all around these same pieces. And I think it took that long for it to percolate. And then in 2012 I decided that I was going to try to write something for National Novel Writing Month. But then my apartment flooded on like the 6th of November. So that was not happening. I was sort of into this little, well I had written a few thousand words that I really liked, but then it kind of all got derailed.

Linda Holmes So those few thousand words would sit there and I would pick them up and put them down and pick them up and put them down. And fortunately, I had a friend or two who I would send them to and say, "Here's the thing." And I had exactly the right people who would say, "This is fun! I would read more of this." And eventually, I probably wrote close to 25,000 words between 2012 and 2016. That's a long time to write. But late in 2016 - and I talked about this on The Hilarious World of Depression also - but I was having sort of a depressive episode and I needed something to put energy into that would feel positive and good. And I picked up this thing and I started to write it. And there was a moment when I was about a third of the way done with the book, there was a moment or I felt like, "Well, now I've written enough of this that I think I have to finish it because I don't want to leave these characters in this situation that I have created."

Sarah Enni You don't want to leave them hanging.

Linda Holmes Yeah. Which is a really weird, really weird feeling. But that's sort of what happened. And so I wrote and wrote and wrote. And then after being really slow for a long time, it was really fast. And the first draft was done by March of 2017.

Sarah Enni I want to examine a couple of elements of that. First we should say the book is called Headcase.

Linda Holmes  No.

Sarah Enni [Gasps] It's not? What's it called?

Linda Holmes  So the book is called, Evie Drake Starts Over. Her name is Evie Drake. It's short for Eveleth, which is a town in Minnesota that she's named after.

Sarah Enni Before we talk too much more about it. Do you want to give the quick pitch for the book?

Linda Holmes Yeah. So the book is about a young widow who has lost her husband and rents out the apartment in the back of her house. She lives in Maine. She rents out the apartment in the back of her house to a recently washed up baseball pitcher.

Sarah Enni Okay. So a couple things I want to examine about the impetus to really give it a full go... writing the book. On the other interview, you talked a little bit about getting medicated for anxiety and also the election happened. Was that a part of a whole storm of inspiration to actually go for it?

Linda Holmes I think for a lot of people that whole summer and fall just felt very big, and hard to kind of get your arms around. It felt like a lot of things were happening. A Lot of things were changing. Some of it felt scary, some of it might not have been whatever. For me it just accumulated as that the world around everybody was really tumultuous.

Linda Holmes So yeah, it was definitely around there that I got on anxiety medication. And after I was on anxiety medication, it was much easier for me to slow down and concentrate on something. So it's a combination of the fact that anxiety meds made me more able to write, but also the situation that had gotten me into anxiety meds - this sort of depressive episode which might have been somewhat situational - that it was that time in world history. But it was also just, I am chemically predisposed to periods of depression and anxiety,. So I don't want to blame any particular thing for that. But it's partly that the meds made it easier to write, and partly that the same circumstances that got me on meds also caused me to need something else to do.

Sarah Enni Right, right. Which is a very motivating, creative thing to be able to escape into your own work. I think that's something a lot of people can relate to. And I'm going to come back to that [in] a little bit because you've spoken recently about writing things that are light and fun, in the midst of a very intense period of time that we're living in. But I want to dive into a little bit more of the details of this book. And especially the writing of it. It strikes me that your job requires an enormous amount of time to watch all the movies and all the TV and listen to all the podcasts. You have a job that's kind of constant. So how did you carve out time to write?

Linda Holmes I don't have a great answer to that cause it's really just that I stayed home a lot and I was lucky enough to be able to occasionally take a few days, get away from work, go away. And then when I was working on the second draft, I was lucky enough to be able to take the time and go up to Maine, actually sort of where this book is set. And spend some time up there and do writing up there. So sometimes I was able to squeeze it in around work and sometimes I just had to use my vacation.

Sarah Enni Yeah. Get out of town. Well let's talk about the setting really quick cause I think I read somewhere that it's a place you... that choosing Maine was a personal setting for you.

Linda Holmes Yeah. So when I was younger, my family used to vacation around Rockland, Maine, which is what they would call mid-coast. Which is a combination of touristy but also really nice and friendly and charming. And it's just a place that I'm extremely fond of personally because we spent time there when I was younger.

Sarah Enni Did the setting come right away? Did you know?

Linda Holmes Yeah, the setting was always really central to the book. My family went back and stayed there again in like 2003 -ish when we were all [older]. My sister was grown [and] with kids. And we all went and my parents and me and my sister and her kids and all that in 2003. So I think that's probably what kicked in again, that maybe I would write about this part of the country. And it didn't wind up happening for a few years. But yeah.

Sarah Enni Okay. Well I want to talk a little more about the characters and then come back. Because you talk about the washed up baseball player he had the Yips.

Linda Holmes Yes.

Sarah Enni Can you describe what that is?

Linda Holmes Okay, so the Yips, if you're not familiar with the Yips, the term originally was used more in golf. But now they use it for any sport. What happens is athletes, and it can happen to people who do other kind of fine motor movements, but it's best known with athletes. You just wake up one day and you cannot do the thing that you used to do and they do not know why. And very often it manifests. It's not one of those things where you used to be a great pitcher and then you just kind of lose your stuff a little bit. It'll be like you throw into the stands.

Linda Holmes The saddest [chuckles] one of the stories that I think is the most painfully funny, but also terrible, is Chuck Knoblauch who actually had played for the Minnesota twins. He's the second baseman. And then he went to the Yankees and he was playing second base and he completely lost the ability to just throw from second base to first base, just like a regular ordinary play. Like you can make in little league. He would throw it into the stands or he would throw it wildly past the first baseman. So that he couldn't just throw a normal throw. He wasn't trying to do a particularly hard thing and he could do other things, but he couldn't do that. And that's like the most important second baseman thing that you have to be able to do. And on one occasion he threw the ball into the stands and he hit Keith Olbermann's mother.

Sarah Enni [Guffaws]

Linda Holmes Now Keith Olbermann, if you're not familiar with sports casting, [is a] very familiar, very famous sportscaster. Now also a news commentator and things, but at the time,best known [as a] very famous sportscaster. [He] threw it into the stands, hit Olbermann's mother. That's bad luck. That just seems like a curse. And if you've ever watched somebody with the Yips, it's like they're cursed. It doesn't seem like it can be happening.

Linda Holmes And I think as a writer, I always really related to it cause I think writers have that same fear that, "What if I just get up and I'd never have another idea?" And so to me it was a kind of terrifying thing. What if you all of a sudden, cannot do the thing that you've done your whole life? So the Yips are this point of, as you can tell, this point of fascination for me. Cause they're terrifying.

Sarah Enni You wrote, it's on your website, it says, "It's so awful that I find it irresistibly compelling."

Linda Holmes Yes, that's exactly right. Because they continue to do research into it. And there are people who say, "Well, maybe there's some kind of trauma." And other people say, "Not really necessarily." Sometimes it just happens. Sometimes, some people think it's physical, neurological. There's one guy in one documentary that I watched who calls it a potentially career ending injury. They're not sure yet. They say yes, they say no, they say maybe, they're not sure. And meanwhile you just really, really have to hope it never happens to you.

Sarah Enni Yeah. That's so wild. And then the other character, I'm sorry, her name is?

Linda Holmes Evvie.

Sarah Enni Evvie is a young widow. Was that a part of the character from the beginning for you?

Linda Holmes Yes, actually this was originally in my head, two stories. It was originally a story of this young widow who had kind of complicated feelings about her marriage and [she] didn't know how much to explain to people. After someone has died, it's very difficult to be honest about what your marriage was like.

Linda Holmes And then I had this idea for the story about a baseball player who got the Yips. At some point it occurred to me that they were both sort of stuck. And they were both feeling a little bit busted in a way. And that it might be interesting to have them meet and become friends. And perhaps have some kind of relationship. But also just work through all this stuff. So it was originally two stories. But yes, the fact that she was a widow was always part of it. It was always part of the story that it complicated grief.

Sarah Enni Yeah. And that's part of what, when I was thinking about Maine as a setting for this, it does feel very secluded. Like a place where one might go to collect oneself.

Linda Holmes And she is somebody who grew up there. She's somebody who, this is where she comes from. He is somebody who lives in New York, lived in New York, played for the Yankees and leaves New York. Because when you are an incredibly famous washout, it is nice to get away from that. If you know anything that has ever happened to famously washed out athletes and people who have gotten the Yips, crowds and fans are not terribly sympathetic about it. Even if most are [pauses] a small number who aren't, will kind of ruin your life. So, he is there essentially to hide out. And because he is friends with the guy who is her best friend, her best friend comes to her and says, "I have this buddy. He just washed out of baseball. Can he come rent the apartment that you have in the back of your house?"

Sarah Enni I love that. So would you call the book a love story?

Linda Holmes I always call the book several love stories. Because it has a romantic love story. it also has a friendship love story. That friendship that she's in is very intense and important. It also has a story about her and her family, her parents, and her own history. So I think of it as several love stories. You can stretch it far enough to say it's also a little bit about how much he loves baseball and misses it, and wants to figure out how to deal with that loss.

Sarah Enni I was gonna say that's not to, I don't want to overstate it, but all of a sudden waking up and not being able to do that thing, especially when it's your livelihood, that is a kind of a death.

Linda Holmes Yes, they're both dealing with unusual grieving experiences that they're having trouble talking about. That's probably part of what makes them a compelling relationship to me.

Sarah Enni And it reminds me also of, and I'm just [sound of papers rustling] quoting you to you all day, but you had this really wonderful... you were writing about rom-coms I think, and you had this great quote that I'm going to read to you. "Love stories are best when the people exist outside of the relationship with each other. If the only things that have happened to you are One; having relationships and Two; not having relationships. How interesting can you really be? What have you been doing?" Which I loved.

Linda Holmes Yeah. I mean for me, you can't be a person who exists solely for the purpose of being in relationships. And if you think about your great romantic stories, a lot of times they do have other relationships that are meaningful. Whether it's relationships with parents, or relationships with friends, or work that's really important and meaningful to them. I think that sometimes people forget if you come into a love story with two people who have no lives except being in the love story, it's very hard to care about them because either they're in it or they're not in it. But you don't develop a kind of an attachment to a complete person.

Linda Holmes And so for me, that's one of the reasons why I really liked the fact that they also both had friendships, and they both had family relationships, and they both have friendships and family relationships that are complicated by their circumstances. So it was really important to me that even though the setting, as you said, kind of loans itself to seclusion a little bit, it was very important to me to not have it be just two people shut in a house, talking to each other. As much as I have kind of a fondness for those "Before Sunrise" kinds of just people talking. I wanted it to feel fuller than that.

Sarah Enni Yeah, there's room for fanfiction of that version of Evvie's story.

Linda Holmes For sure.

Sarah Enni want to ask about just telling love stories right now. You wrote a tweet recently, so it's not explicitly related to this book, but you have a two book deal. So there's a second book and you tweeted, "I was about to ask whether it was immoral for me to write a next book that would be really fun. And then I realized I'm watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine at the moment and really appreciating it."

Linda Holmes This is something that I've wrestled with a ton, right? Not just over writing novels, but in general talking about things I love. Talking about TV I love, talking about movies I love. Posting pictures of my dog. Because I never want to seem like an unserious person. And I never want to seem like a person who doesn't understand the stakes of what is going on in the world. At the same time, I don't think people are built to think constantly about disasters. I don't actually think that the human mind is well wired to be in a state of emergency all the time. So I think that when people are upset and they feel frightened, whether it's something out of politics or whether it's climate change, or whatever. I actually think that if you have things that you can step back [from] and take a breath, I think it actually helps you then recover enough to go on with what you're trying to do. That you feel is maybe higher stakes.

Linda Holmes And I've spent a lot of time thinking about, "But is it moral to be the person who provides the break as opposed to the person who is setting up the nonprofit or whatever." I don't know the answer to that. And I worry about it a lot. But for me, this is what I'm doing and I do think that there's some value. And I feel this way about Brooklyn-Nine-Nine too actually. It's good if the thing that you're escaping to is humane and diverse and supportive of a lot of different kinds of people, and is based around ideas that to me feel compassionate. Like, it's not a time when I would feel good about writing something that felt mostly mean, but funny. Maybe that's my compromise.

Sarah Enni Yeah. Well, I mean for a lot of people this question is sort of abstract, but you literally do your job in NPR.

Linda Holmes Right. Exactly.

Sarah Enni In Washington DC.

Linda Holmes Exactly. So I think I have come to terms, a long time ago, with the fact that if somebody comes to me and says, "I don't think what you do at NPR is as important as what other people do at NPR." My answer is pretty much like, "You're probably right.I agree with that." If you say, "I don't think you're contributing as much to the world as people who report on Syria or, immigration issues, or health." That's probably true. I don't know what the answer is to that. I'm not trained to do that kind of reporting. It's not something for which I've ever demonstrated any ability. So I think the thing for me is I don't really fight it. I have to try to be the best version of me and not the alternative person.

Linda Holmes But it's not important to me to be the most important. To be doing the most important work in the building or the world. It's important to me to be doing something that I feel good about and that I am good at.

Sarah Enni And at the same time you are in the building with people doing that work and you see that they are not that work all the time.

Linda Holmes Right. Exactly. And I do think that they, and audiences both, really value the opportunity to take a breath. And so there are times when we have people on the podcast who work in very, very hard news. We've joked with Audie Cornish about this all the time. She comes on the show and she will have been talking about war, war, war, and then she comes up and talks to us about something much lighter. Sometimes people need that, that breath.

Sarah Enni Right. Oh, and you had another thing where you wrote, I don't think it was you writing about your own book, but you coined the term "defiantly frivolous", which I loved.

Linda Holmes Mm-hm. Yeah. Yeah. I think that there are times you just have to be accepting of the fact that nothing is serious all the time

Sarah Enni Which is good.

Linda Holmes Yeah. I mean, I have made this comparison a couple of different times, but I have talked about Matt Damon in The Martian. In the Martian he, if you haven't seen the movie, he is stranded on Mars. Logically enough he's trying to get home to earth. And one of the things that he has to figure out how to do is grow potatoes on Mars. And that's actually one of the big things that they spend time on in the book and movie. And figuring out how to grow potatoes does not actually solve his problem. But he will not live long enough to solve his problem if he doesn't figure out how to grow potatoes.

Linda Holmes So I always tell people, you know, your books, your music, the things that you love are the potatoes that you need in order to keep going long enough to undertake whatever more vast and serious plans you may have.

Sarah Enni Yeah, I love that. That's really well said. I want to talk about this book and sort of your expectations for it. And then also what you are thinking about for the next book?

Linda Holmes Okay.

Sarah Enni You set out to write a book, a lifelong dream. Now you've done it. How are you feeling about it becoming a real thing in the world?

Linda Holmes I am feeling amazing about it becoming a real thing in the world. I am sure that between the time that I write it and the time that it goes out into the world, I will go through massive cycles of being extremely excited about it and extremely terrified. Right now I feel really happy. I think that my editing process was actually really easy and pleasurable. Not Everybody has fun being edited. I loved being edited. And I have so few expectations.

Linda Holmes I will say, I think one thing that's really helpful about having covered a lot of culture when you write a novel, is that I have seen so many things that are wonderful that just never get any traction. So in no way does that mean that I am prepared for the disappointment of nobody reads it... If that happens. But I understand, intellectually at least which is a start, that there are a million books that come across my desk. There are a million TV shows. There are a million films that people have poured their hearts into. That the most they ever get out of it is that the thing is good. And sometimes that has to be satisfying enough.

Sarah Enni Right. That's a very selfish question because my book is coming out in February, my first book, so I've been telling people that I'm like, "Intellectually I know where I'm at. And emotionally I'm not ready at all."

Linda Holmes No, I won't be either. I'm saying this with a good amount of advanced warning and as it gets closer, I'm sure that I will feel less this way. And the problem is occasionally things are gonna happen that are going to make me really optimistic and excited about externalities that I can't actually do anything about. Like, "Oh my gosh, what if a lot of people buy it?" That probably won't happen statistically. Even though I love the book. All that I really want is for a lot of people to love the book.

Linda Holmes That's my goal. That's what my aspiration is. And hopefully it's one of the reasons why I really like having a deal to write another one. One of the things that's great about that is, that doesn't have to be what the stakes are. The stakes don't have to be, "I hope this isn't the only time I ever get to do this."

Sarah Enni Right. Yeah, that's huge. That's really huge. And have you been thinking about you, Linda Holmes, NPR, Pop Culture Happy Hour versus Linda Holmes, the author. How much do you think those people are going to...?

Linda Holmes Great question. Don't know. I've talked to a couple people about the fact that this book had come out. This book could come out and not change my life that much. It will be exactly like my freelancing was when I was an attorney and then it will be a separate thing.

Linda Holmes It will add enormously to my life. It will not change my life that much and it will be essentially like it is now. It will be another thing I'm doing. There's always the possibility that it will change my life more than that. But there is just so much that is so far out of my control that I just don't know. I mean, could I someday be so fascinated by the idea of fiction that I don't want to do this anymore? I suppose in theory. But that is not the goal and I was lucky in that regard. I think that's another way in which I was really lucky about stakes was that the stakes were never like, "I hope to quit my job."

Sarah Enni Yeah. That's such a good point. And if you're quote unquote worst case scenario is that your life continues on pretty much as it is.

Linda Holmes Exactly.

Sarah Enni And you feel completely happy about that. That's the best place to be.

Linda Holmes And of course, that's not true. Because the worst case scenario is that nobody likes it and nobody reads it and somebody says something devastating who I really respect and it makes me feel terrible. Those things are all completely within range, but I did not go into this thinking, "I want to become a person who writes novels and I want to quit my job." Because honestly, when people write to me, which they sometimes do, and say, "I'm a lawyer and I want to quit my job and become a writer." One of the things that I tell them is you can't do it that way. You can't quit your job and become a writer. You have to become a writer and then maybe someday you can quit your job.

Linda Holmes So if you really want to do something, you have to just go do it. And it has to be okay however it turns out. And that's how I started writing about television. And that's how I started writing fiction. So I'm lucky in that regard because if my life stays the same, and I keep my same job, and I keep doing this on the side, that's fine. If something else happens, which I can't imagine what it would be, but if it did, that's also fine.

Sarah Enni So then how are... second books are notoriously difficult. And you, it sounds like ,we're stewing on this first book for quite some time and letting it coalesce. So how have you been approaching thinking about the next?

Linda Holmes I mean, it probably is not gonna work for me to take another 10 years to write another one, given contractual obligations. But, I think the big question is to what degree do you want to do something really different? And to what degree do you want to continue to do what you're good at? I think about this a lot.

Linda Holmes I have ideas. I have things that I'm thinking about and perhaps they will come together quickly once I settle on something. There's definitely a feeling of maybe I want to write something that, particularly something that contains no love story because I don't want people to necessarily think that that's the entire... and that has nothing to do with the identity of writing romance. That has to do with me not wanting to narrow what I get to do. But there are also parts of me that think I really enjoyed writing this book. Maybe I should write a book that has similar elements cause I feel like it went well and I feel like I was good at writing this kind of book. It's really difficult. This is all just me thinking completely out loud because this is exactly what I'm spending a lot of time on right now.

Sarah Enni So when you wrapped it or sold this project, you didn't have necessarily five other ideas swimming around?

Linda Holmes I did. And I talked about them with the editor who bought the books. I don't know for sure whether those will be what I actually go with. They are among the ideas that are still kicking around. I don't know whether any of those will be what I go with. It's funny, sometimes you have an idea and it sounds like something you would write, and then with the experience of having sold and edited another one, you might think differently about what you want to write.

Sarah Enni Yeah. Or then you kind of get weighed into it and you're like, "Oh no, no, no."

Linda Holmes Yeah, that's the other thing. As with this one, it was so much a part of the creation of this book, that I became in love with it as I wrote it. And I would hope to have that experience. You know, like I said, I don't want to mess around for another 10 years. I want to write it faster than that. But I want to have that same experience of starting to write it and not being able to stop. Which is sort of what happened with this one once it got to a certain point.

Sarah Enni That feeling of not wanting to abandon your characters to their adverse circumstances. That's a pretty lovely feeling to care that much about your characters.

Linda Holmes Yeah.

Sarah Enni Well that's awesome. Was there anything else about the book that you wanted to make sure we got to?

Linda Holmes I don't think so. Like I said, it's been a really good experience. I was really lucky.

Sarah Enni Do you mind telling us a little about how you found your agent?

Linda Holmes So, my agent is actually somebody who was recommended to me years ago when I was fussing around with the idea of writing books. And somebody said, "Oh, you should get in touch with Sarah Burns. I think you'd really like her." I didn't pursue it at that time. And then this time I was fortunate, obviously, because I had a platform existing. It was easier for me to get an agent, there's no question, than if I hadn't. But I spoke on the phone with several possible agents and I have to tell you I had nothing but great choices. I was spoiled in the sense that I had nothing but good choices.

Linda Holmes But eventually, I think an agent is somebody where you go with the person that you want to, that you feel like you can stand to be on the phone with all the time. Just because you feel like you're gonna have to deal with them a lot. You want to feel like this is somebody that you will always be happy to hear from. Not that the other ones wouldn't have been. It's also just a thing where you just have to jump, you just have to pick somebody.

Linda Holmes  And one of the things that was really... I talked to some other people who write novels and I kind of said, "Should I be thinking about an agent super strategically?" Like, "Cause it's the person who's got the exact right kind of... " And, almost everyone's [response was] exactly the same thing, which was, "No, pick somebody that you like. Pick somebody that you feel really comfortable with. That you feel gets you and gets the book. Don't worry too much about the business positioning." And that's what I did.

Sarah Enni Yeah. It's a gut thing.

Linda Holmes It really is. It really is.

Sarah Enni And in a lot of good cases, it's because people said, I just went with my gut.

Linda Holmes Yeah. That's exactly what it was. And it was in a way refreshing that I had no idea what I was doing. I had basically finished writing the first draft and then I went to people I knew who wrote novels and I said, "What am I supposed to do?" And you know, there were a couple of agents. The agent I ultimately went with, actually wasn't one of them, but there are a couple of agents who had emailed me over the years and said, "If you're ever thinking about writing a book..." So I had it easier than a lot of people do.

Linda Holmes But I think the process in some ways is similar, which is that you just have to find somebody who's first willing to consider it. Then you have to find somebody who's willing to read it. And then you have to find somebody who likes you. And then you have to find somebody that you like.

Sarah Enni It's the same process we all go through in some way, shape or form.

Linda Holmes And if you do, honestly, it will save you so much heartache because you will not have to do all the things that make you feel mean. Someone else will do them for you.

Sarah Enni Yes, it's very true. It's a big selling point for agents. So this has been amazing! Thank you so much. I like to wrap up with advice. So I would love to hear advice for writers. But I'd also love to hear your advice for people who are writing things like you do for your day job for a critical critique.

Linda Holmes I think the most important thing is to write things that you would want to read. Now that is sometimes controversial because when you're writing for money you have to write for the people that you're writing for. And I understand that. But I think within that, within those parameters, make sure that you are writing something that you would want to read. Because if you are trying to do it for any kind of personal satisfaction or anything like that, and I am sympathetic to people who say "I'm writing manuals and I don't care." But if you're writing from personal satisfaction, write something you'd want to read. Cause I think you can always tell when people aren't doing that.

Linda Holmes Don't try to write a novel that you think is what the current market for novels is. Unless you can do that in a way that is also a novel that you would read. I wrote a novel that I would read, absolutely did. And I think that is one of the reasons why I like it. And I think it is one of the reasons other people like it. I wrote something that I really care about and wanted to be good. So I would recommend that.

Linda Holmes And I would also recommend if you're writing criticism, read a lot of criticism. Read a lot of different kinds of critics and don't fall into the trap of trying to draw attention to your writing by reaching for contrarian takes. I think there's a lot of that going around. Some things are just mostly good and there's nothing wrong. There's nothing wrong with being the person who says, "Hey, everybody likes this thing. Here's my problem with it." But make sure that that comes from... that that goes in the right order, which is, "This is my opinion. It might be interesting if I published it." As opposed to, "What would be an interesting opinion to publish? Wouldn't it be interesting if I hated Mr. Rogers?" Like, no, it actually isn't that interesting unless you really do, and you can make a case for it. But again, I think people can usually tell when you're just...

Sarah Enni Just going for a hot take?

Linda Holmes Yeah. Yeah.

Sarah Enni Well this has been such a joy. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

Linda Holmes Of course. Thank you.

[background music plays]


SUBSCRIBE TO FIRST DRAFT WITH SARAH ENNI

Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender, or John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.

Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. It’s free!

RATE, REVIEW, AND RECOMMEND

How do you like the show?

Please take a moment to rate and review First Draft with Sarah Enni in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Your honest and positive review helps others discover the show -- so thank you!

Is there someone you think would love this podcast as much as you do?

Please share this episode on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or via carrier pigeon (maybe try a text or e-mail, come to think of it). Just click the Share button at the bottom of this post!

Thanks again!

 

Amanda Maciel

First Draft Episode #178: Amanda Maciel - Transcript

Date: February 19, 2019


Amanda Maciel, executive editor at Scholastic as well as author of YA novels Tease and Lucky Girl, talks about how writing books made her an author-friendly editor, staying emotionally available during revisions, and the trouble with accepting that you have an impact on other people.

The original post for this episode can be found here.


[Theme music plays]

Sarah Enni Hey friends, before we start the show I wanted to let you know my debut novel Tell Me Everything is going to be in stores on February 26th , and I will be doing a launch event at The Ripped Bodice in Culver City, California on March 3rd. I’ll be in conversation with the incredible Tahereh Mafi, New York Times Bestselling author of The Shatter Me Series, as well as the National Book Award long-listed A Very Large Expanse of Sea. That’s March 3rd, 4 pm at The Ripped Bodice. Don’t miss it. I have a few other events coming up as well. San Francisco on March 8th at Books Inc. with Nina LaCour and Jennifer E. Smith. Seattle on March 9 at the University Book Store in the U District with Kendare Blake and Somaiya Daud. Ashville, North Carolina on March 27 at Malaprop’s Bookstore with Stephanie Perkins, and Boston on April 2nd at Trident’s Books Café with Katie Cotugno and Sara Farizan. Check out the events page at SarahEnni.com, or FirstDraftPod.com to find more details and to see the other festivals I’ll be hitting up this spring as well. I hope I see you there!

Okay, now on with the show.

[Theme music plays]

Sarah Enni Welcome to First Draft with me, Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Amanda Maciel, executive editor at Scholastic, as well as an author of YA novels Tease and Lucky Girl. Amanda and I talk about the process of developing and working on my debut novel TELL ME EVERYTHING. We get into the emotional work of thorough revising, and some nuts-and-bolts talk about the publishing process which, at Scholastic, includes fun extra stuff with books and fairs.  So please, sit back, relax, and enjoy the conversation.

[End of Introduction]

Sarah Enni Hi Amanda, how are you?

Amanda Maciel Hi! I’m good. Thank you for having me.

Sarah Enni Oh my gosh, thank you so much for chatting with me. As we talked about, this is gonna be a little bit of a different episode because it’s you and me talking about TELL ME EVERYTHING.

Amanda Maciel Yes.

Sarah Enni Hooray! I just want to give the listener the chance to hear what the relationship between one author and editor is like, and what our process was like. I am super curious to hear a little bit behind-the-scenes of what you were thinking throughout the whole process and all that good stuff.

Amanda Maciel Yeah!

Sarah Enni So, let’s start with a little bit of background.  I would love to hear you catch listeners up on who you are at Scholastic, and your career as an editor to date.

Amanda Maciel I am an executive editor at Scholastic. I mostly edit middle grade fiction but I also do some YA. And the through line is basically “commercial fiction” which means books that have a big hook. A lot of series fiction, which sort of intertwined with the big hook thing, if it can be extended over a longer story.

I started in children’s publishing in 2001 at Harper Collins and there I mostly worked on YA. So actually, my background is much more YA. I did a lot of, what we called their “beach reads”. They were those little rack size paperbacks, like romance novels.

Sarah Enni Mass market kind?

Amanda Maciel Yes. And we would do a few every summer and they would be fun books you took to the beach and they were the best things to work on. I really loved those. And then when I came to Scholastic I shifted my focus a little bit more to middle grade. It just is a big part of our business and sort of became my focus.

But I love working on a few young adult novels that are really passion projects, and also that work well for our particular business. Cause every house is a little different, and what works best for each house is a little different. And Scholastic does particularly well with issue-driven but maybe what you might called “cleaner” YA. And they particularly like a social media cautionary tale [laughs].

Sarah Enni Really?

Amanda Maciel Which is a funny term but we find that there is a lot of appetite for that. Not only in trade but in the school channels in book clubs and book fairs. Kids are really interested in reading about…

Sarah Enni How people flail.

[Both laughing]

Amanda Maciel Yes, and interact on-line. And it’s nice, it can be super timely. So, it was actually in a conversation with them, cause we try to work really closely with clubs and fairs and their managers, which is sort of editorial/sales role for them, about what they were looking for. And they mentioned that they wanted something in this social media vein. And I sat down to think about an idea and it came out a little bit lighter and maybe with some opportunities for humor and not quite a cautionary tale, I don’t think. But then I needed to find an author to actually take it on and turn it into a “thing”.

Sarah Enni Yes. Okay, well let’s take one brief side-step and then come right back to that.

Amanda Maciel Yes. Jumping ahead.

Sarah Enni Cause I want to make sure we don’t miss the fact that you are a writer also. Can you give us the update on your books?

Amanda Maciel Sure. I have two YA novels that came out. The first one called Tease in 2014 and the second one was just last year, which feels like a long time ago already [laughs], called Lucky Girl. And those are legit problem novels. They are older YA, that deal with sort of darker issues. And they’re actually in - it’s sort of a coincidence - they’re published by Harper Collins. So part of my life, I guess, will always be owned by Harper.

Sarah Enni I did the swap.

Amanda Maciel Yes, exactly. So, I’d really always wanted to write more and I’d written for newspapers when I was in college and just out of college. And when I finally sat down to try to write fiction it taught me so much about… I always thought I was a very author-focused editor, if that makes sense? But there’s definitely a different level of empathy that you reach when you are on the side of getting the editorial letter that’s like, “I love it! Change everything.”

Sarah Enni Or, “I hate it. Change everything!”

[Both laughing]

Amanda Maciel Right! And a deadline that is for you to own, is just like the entire inside of your body liquifies. And there’s no way to fully understand that until it’s happened to you.

Sarah Enni Yeah, it’s true. It’s true. Okay, so let’s go back to the genesis for TELL ME EVERYTHING. I’m so interested in this meeting and then you sitting down to generate something based on what they were saying. Is there any more detail you can give? You’re in a room. You’re talking to these marketing folk and they’re like… what exactly did they give you to go on for how to come up with something?

Amanda Maciel  It was the woman in charge of the YA section of the book fairs. And book fairs and clubs get to see every houses list. They go and present, and we do too. But with us, they can work with us from the beginning and come up with an idea. And they had been doing really well with some books that were about social media, or about technology intersecting with kid’s lives.

And this woman was saying that, “Post Secret and…” What is it? I think it’s Whisper Net? Those anonymous sites where people share secrets, seemed really compelling and maybe a good jumping off place for a story.

So, I tried to – I think the original working title was something like, “Post Your Secret Below”, which is super clunky [laughs]. But at least it was like, “This is what this is.” You know, which you kind of need in a working title.  But yeah, it was about a girl who is on an anonymous secret sharing site and figures out – or thinks she figures out – the identities of some of her friends.

But, it was just a couple of paragraphs.

Sarah Enni It was pretty short.

Amanda Maciel Yeah. And every house, at this point, does in-house ideas. Usually called IP [intellectual property]. And I love the way that we work, or certainly the way that I work, is to come up with a very loose idea that tries to capture the tone at least, and what you really want out of the story. And then immediately find an author who can bring it to life. Because the more ownership an author has of an idea of a story, the better it is - every time. In my mind.

I think any amount of me micro-managing is going to flatten it. And I’m not that clever and I don’t have that much time.

Sarah Enni I was gonna say, it seems like a lot of energy spent for something that could blow up if the writer isn’t…

Amanda Maciel Right. And if I felt that passionate about it then I’d start to feel weird that I wasn’t writing it, I think? And I don’t want to overreach either. I really respect what writers do and bring to the table. But it was a lucky moment where I was talking to our, turns out, mutual friend Michelle Schusterman. And said, “I have this thing and I’m looking for somebody.” And she was like, “Oh my god! Talk to Sarah Enni.”

Sarah Enni Cause I think you described it to her a little bit, right?

Amanda Maciel Yes.

Sarah Enni And I think tone is such an important thing and we’ll probably come back to in talking about developing this idea because that was…

Amanda Maciel I had a specific tone in mind for sure.

Sarah Enni And I think that’s what Michelle responded to because Michelle had been my beta reader for three books. She definitely knew my voice and I think she heard what you were going for and kind of played matchmaker with us.

Amanda Maciel Yes.

Sarah Enni So then we got put in touch. Gosh, now I’m forgetting the exact steps.

Amanda Maciel I think I called your agent and pitched it to her and then sent her the one page of idea and you cooked up a full synopsis and a couple of chapters?

Sarah Enni A couple chapters. I think first I sent you my other book.

Amanda Maciel Right.

Sarah Enni My original book. Just to say like, “This is what I sound like when I write contemporary.” So, it was a book that preexisted and based on that you said, “This looks good. Let’s do some synopsis and chapters.” And it was then that I feel like I really got the sense of how this was gonna work because I said, “I really want to go forward only if I can make some pretty big changes to the structure that’s in these couple of paragraphs.”

Amanda Maciel And I think I was like, “Please do.”

Sarah Enni You were like, “I literally am never gonna try to tell you what to do with this book. I just want to make sure this is gonna work together, and then it’s like you on your own.” Which was great to hear.

I forgot that I did that, the whole synopsis and chapters thing.

Amanda Maciel Yeah, I think you had to do that a couple of times actually, cause we were working out even how this secret sharing app would work… what it was exactly. And then you have to retrofit your POV character to need something, and have a story of her own, and then fill out the cast of characters. It’s deceptively complicated. Or, at least, I’m taken by surprise every time like, “Oh yeah no, now there’s a whole plot and story to come up with.”

Sarah Enni It was a little wild. I’m gonna try to walk through like what they say when giving birth, I’m like, “I don’t remember it.” And now we’re going back into it and I’m like…

Amanda Maciel “I think it was painful? But then it was over.”

Sarah Enni “Oh, it was very intense?” But I remember that we got to talk on the phone, and I was so happy. And it seemed like it was gonna work great for just the chance to write this story. I thought it was so interesting.

I signed the contract, I know, in May 2016. And then, god help me, I don’t remember when I turned in the first draft, but it was really rough. It actually was a little bit more challenging than I had anticipated it was gonna be, to take on an idea and do the work of fleshing it out, and finding a way into it… on a deadline. Which I had never done before.

Amanda Maciel Yes. The only thing worse than not having a book contract, is having a book contract [chuckles]. That’s a terrible thing to say but it’s so true. It really can make those organic processes of letting something… cause even when it’s your idea out of the clear blue, it still has to settle, and sort of… what’s the word I’m looking for? Maybe germinate? If I gardened then I would have the right metaphor here, you know? [Both laughing] You have to add fertilizer and time.

And not only do you not have that, once you’re under contract, you don’t feel like you have it. The anxiety of a deadline sort of deadens a lot of those creative abilities. It takes a lot of energy to even recognized that that’s happening, and then to also overcome it somehow is a lot of work.

Sarah Enni Yeah. It was interesting. You’ve always been incredibly patient with me, which I appreciate.

Amanda Maciel Yeah. And contemporary, I also think, deserves to take some time. And we’ll get to this too, but if you’re writing about something that’s really relevant, things change fast these days. When you’re talking about social media in particular, with my second novel it took me much longer to write than my first novel. Partly because it was already under contract, and partly because – yeah, no mostly because it was already [under contract]. No, because it hadn’t been an idea that was with me for a long time, so it took a long time to come out.

But I was so grateful for every one of the major/complete rewrites that I did because with every month that went by, I was like, “Oh, okay. Now I know better than I did a month ago.” The last five years, I want to say, it’s really been intense. A lot of intense social change that has made everybody’s writing, hopefully, better and more self-aware. That is not to say that where you started with this book needed that kind of improvement, but I think we both saw as we were working on it, that each time we went back to it we saw something new in a way that only time can give you that.

Sarah Enni We did, to be clear, do two complete rewrites [laughing].

Amanda Maciel [Laughing] That’s right!

Sarah Enni So, I remember when…

Amanda Maciel “We” [laughing]

Sarah Enni Well, so this is kind of what I want to talk about because it was such a unique process… I feel like. I think I sent you a draft, and I think probably my lead was like, “Hi Amanda, this is garbage.” I think I turned in my first draft and was like, “I’m not sure where to go with this.” Or, it was something like, “This needs to be a jumping off point for us.” And then I actually got to come to New York and see you. I think both times we sat down were the major drafts.

You were kind enough to take me to breakfast and we just talked for two hours. Mostly what this book wasn’t. Cause I think what was on the page was a lot of what it wasn’t gonna be.

Amanda Maciel Right, right.

Sarah Enni That’s kind of how I tend to remember it.

Amanda Maciel Which is an important thing to figure out too.

Sarah Enni Yeah. I definitely hadn’t figured out Ivy yet. And I remember, especially the first conversation I think, this is where I feel you being a writer yourself was so evident to me. Cause we talked a lot about… and you were gracious enough to share a lot of personal connection to Ivy’s story that you felt. And threw in some anecdotes from your life that you thought related to Ivy’s challenges.

We sort of just talked out her emotional stakes, cause they hadn’t really been firmed up yet. And that was enormously helpful for me. All of those chats. And then I think I went to the Housing Works after and sat there and scribbled for couple more hours and then got back into it.

But was that a process that you’d done before?  Is that similar or different from how you’ve helped other writers?

Amanda Maciel You know honestly, I don’t usually have the luxury of doing that. Partly because when you edit a lot of series like I do, you always end up a little behind the ball. And behind schedule. And so it’s just a little like, “just get the next book out” kind of thing.  But, it was a complete delight. I’m an editor largely because I’m better if there’s already something on the page. And so your ability to try things and bring a lot of… you brought so many ideas to this. And so much sense of place and story and so many cool characters and details that there was just a tremendous amount to work with. And that made it really fun to get in and talk about like, “Where could this go?” And, “Where does it logically go emotionally?” Cause that is one of my favorite things as an editor is to have the time to sit down and really talk about motivation and ask those psychological questions.

And I don’t know if this was an anecdote that I shared at the time, but I remember growing up, my mom and I were sort of partners-in-crime looking at various family members and dissecting their psychological like, “What are they thinking?” And, “Why are they doing that?” For some reason we clung to each other in a sea of insanity, or whatever [laughs]. Not to throw the entire rest of my family under the bus, but it was like our favorite pastime. For good or bad, you know? To talk about other people and try to figure them out. And I think I’ve really carried that with me as far as like, “Well, maybe it’s this? And maybe it’s that?

To be fair, I think everybody does that to a certain degree with the people around them. Trying to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Sarah Enni But I like that you were like, “Let’s examine them as a character. What’s their arc? What’s their motivation?”  That’s so funny. Yeah, there was a lot of that. We talked a lot about your family and my family because this books really feels like… it took a long time to figure Ivy’s parents out, and Ivy’s home out.

But I think that’s because there was so much there. The third and final draft was like Harold, her best friend, clicked into place. And her parents really clicked into place. And Ivy clicked into place. And those three relationships were sort of the triangle that made everything work in a real way. And it definitely took a lot of bouncing ideas off of you, and hearing your input, and thinking about what someone in that emotional state would go for.

Amanda Maciel I love YA because the characters are largely able to act in the world without their parents constantly being there, but the risk is that you don’t really carefully examine the parents. And especially Ivy who has this really loving couple in her house. And then she’s an only child, and that’s a really specific experience and it creates a specific kind of person.

I love telling people to think about where the parents were when they had the kid, and thinking about naming your characters. It’s always good to think, to go back about sixteen years from when you’re writing, and think what did they want for this person? What were their dreams and aspirations? It helps you to lock into what their launchpad was like. So, what they expect of themselves in high school is probably still pretty closely related to that.

And I think that really, you brought that out. As the story went on it’s really evident, without it being the focus, but it helps direct her story in a way that feels real.

Sarah Enni Yeah, she’s very much comparing herself to their expectations, or what she thinks that they envisioned for her life. And Harold is maybe the kid they would have conjured if they could have [laughs].

Amanda Maciel Yes, I think every set of parents would conjure the kid who is super involved and smart and motivated. He’s great. But yeah, especially in high school as you’re nearing that idea of college, and going out in the world, I think the weight of your parents expectations is actually really heavy. Whether you’re aware of it or not cause that’s when it’s your turn to go and do all the great things that they expected of you.

And maybe that’s true now more than ever.

Sarah Enni I think it is.

Amanda Maciel Now that college isn’t even optional for anyone.

Sarah Enni And that you have to be on a waiting list from the time you’re born for kindergarten, or whatever.

Amanda Maciel Yes!

Sarah Enni But actually one thing that was interesting was when we started working together my previous YA’s were older. I love writing senior year. So, it was interesting, earlier you mentioned “clean YA”, and really it sort of means younger. So we were talking about how Ivy was gonna be about fifteen, she’s fifteen in the book, and that was my first time writing that age group which is so different.

And then Harold is so involved, and I sort of used him as this way to bring the challenges of the future to her, even though she’s still only a sophomore. Her best friend Harold gets really freaked out about college. And so he’s acting like it’s happening tomorrow and all of a sudden that’s being put in her face, and she’s realizing like, “I’m not ready for this. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know where I want to go.”

It’s like a false crisis.

Amanda Maciel Right, yeah, cause you’re still relatively protected sophomore year. Although all of that PSAT stuff starts then and some of the prep stuff. I think you’re supposed to start getting college pitches then… I don’t know. But Ivy also has a nice amount of independence in that you set it in this idyllic, small town by the ocean. And she’s got a bike that she’s able to transport herself with, and then also having friends with cars. That is a good turning point – fifteen, sixteen – when suddenly the world does open up to you. And of course she’s got her art, and her secrets. And she feels individualized in a very real way. But also in a way that challenges her to figure out how to act.

Sarah Enni Kind of what you’re talking about are some of the details, right? You mentioned in the first draft… that makes me happy cause that was my thing. I turned in a draft that was mostly weird, random ideas. I knew the town pretty well cause I based it on a book – I based it on Santa Cruz – and I’ve written about Santa Cruz before in another book. So, I was super excited to jump back into that setting and bring that to life again.

But then the social media app, I think was the first thing that just worked. I think I was able to find something that was gonna function in the story pretty well. And then had a lot of fun coming up with what the posts would be. So there were just a hundred posts in there that were so random. So basically, I just gave you a lot of chaff. Just a bunch of random stuff and it was not necessarily connected with an emotional through-line yet.

Is that typical of a first draft that you see? Or is this a typical editing experience?

Amanda Maciel Um, you know, it depends. I would say it’s more typical of something like this where it’s in-house idea driven. Because that does take a minute to pull out the story. Often the in-house idea is like this one where it’s like, “We want social media. And problems.” And I think the main idea said that Ivy didn’t want anybody to notice her, and so that’s the secret sharing app kind of thing. But other than that, there wasn’t a lot there.

So, it depends on the author. Sometimes people will write a lot of dialogue and not a lot else. I love talking about the emotional stuff and the relationships so much that I really loved working with you bringing all of the setting and details in. Because that’s not something that I’m particularly… and it’s also not something that as an editor I can do for somebody else.

That takes a lot of concentration and a quiet room [laughs] which I don’t have at work. So, I would say that there is not typical way to work on any novel. But it certainly was not [pauses], let me put it on the official record that there was never a moment of being like, “Oh my god! I can’t believe…!”

[Both laughing]

Sarah Enni Oh! Thank god.

Amanda Maciel It was not unusually anything. It was unusually creative! And you brought a lot, but I was not concerned at any point. And frankly, as soon as Michelle was like, “It’s Sarah Enni.” I was like, “Done! She’s signed up.”

Sarah Enni That makes me happy.

Amanda Maciel I had faith from the jump. But that said, I think revising is its own skill, utterly apart from writing. And it does not always come with somebody who can get a draft down that’s good. But maybe could be better. Not everybody is able to do that. And to watch the revisions come in, and some of them were re-writes, and some of them were revisions. And they were all better and deeper and everything that had been there in the beginning that was good, was still there.

To the point where sometimes I would have to do a check for a character name or something. Cause I’m like, “Well they’ve been there all along.” It didn’t feel like anything was ever missing, it just felt like things came into sharper focus over and over. It was just really, really remarkable.

Sarah Enni Oh, thanks!

Amanda Maciel I have to say, that is a truly distinct quality in certain writers that I’ve worked with and it’s a pleasure to work on books like that. I really love it. It’s like, “Oh my god, look at this! Look at what she can do!”

Sarah Enni Well, thank you so much. It was a really challenging writing process but I only mean that in that it was… being on deadline and it was just a new experience. Once I found it, it was satisfying in a really, really intense way. Cause it was like, “Oh, this was such a mountain to climb, but we did it.” It was like probably two major rewrites, I remember. And we did have to bump a deadline I think.

Amanda Maciel Yeah. We moved seasons but that’s the thing I know from your end, it was like there was always a deadline hanging over your head. Which is just, again, having a book under contract. It’s that Sunday afternoon feeling when your homework isn’t done… but always.

Sarah Enni Yes, it’s so real.

Amanda Maciel Which is hard. But it wasn’t a problem to shift it in-house and give it a minute to come into focus. But it’s also one of those things where on the editor’s side of the desk I’m like, “Oh yeah we just move seasons.” And I know on the author’s side of the desk it’s like, “But that’s so far away. I just want to finish this and put it into the world.”

Sarah Enni I’ve had other friends have to do that, and sometimes it’s really devastating to get moved a season, especially if you had your heart set on one time. Or, if you have a real preference for what season you’re out in. I just know for me, I think it was bearing down on that second re-write and when you were able to give me that time, I was so relived. It was truly a gift. And it really did give me the space to actually find her real story, and to get much more acquainted with these characters. And your support the whole time was incredible.

Amanda Maciel Well you were the one who kept the enthusiasm level at like a nine or ten the entire time. Which was amazing given how much work you put in on it, and it taking that time. Cause that’s the really hard part is staying emotionally available for this story. And I’m so glad that we managed to find something that kept you engaged and happy to be working on it. Cause there’s a lot of just keeping yourself going back to the desk, and interested, and not losing faith in the process. And that it will work out eventually.

Sarah Enni Right, right.  Well, and it’s like I don’t want to make you say that you’ve read that before, but I’m sure that when you read [takes in a breath] I feel like sometimes I read friend’s drafts and I’m like, “You didn’t enjoy this round.” [Laughs] You know what I mean? Sometimes the words don’t have that zing of joy. If you’re working on one thing, that’s fine. But yeah, if you’re wearing down on a story you can really feel that, I think, sometimes in the writing.

Amanda Maciel Yeah, I always notice when I get around… what is it? I would say the fifty-thousand-word mark? All of a sudden, the main character is tired all the time.

[Both laughing]

Sarah Enni She just goes to get ice cream often.

Amanda Maciel No wait! I’m tired all the time. It’s also that moment where you’re like, “Maybe this is all terrible and I have to re-write the whole thing.”

Sarah Enni Yeah, fifty-thousand is a mark. And the middle is never fun.

Amanda Maciel No. Somewhere between forty and fifty. I don’t want to give the impression that YA novels should be longer than seventy if they’re contemporary. But yeah, somewhere around that point you’re like, “Oh, maybe this is all crap. And also, why won’t my main character get out of bed?”

[Both laughing]

Sarah Enni “I think I’m concerned!” In editing it and fine-tuning it, it’s funny because I felt like you had this really personal connection to this story.

Amanda Maciel Yeah.

Sarah Enni And I don’t know how much that’s true or not, but when we did sit down and talk… it was funny because I felt like writing IP was a challenge for me to think like, “It’s my idea – it’s not my idea. Who cares about it? Who doesn’t care about it?” And that was a lot of me making myself anxious, brain stuff.But then when we would sit down, it felt like you were so personally vested in the story, and you were rooting for Ivy in this personal way which was so useful to me.

Amanda Maciel Good.

Sarah Enni Did you feel like you were growing with it? Or, were you just trying to be there for my process? How did you think about it?

Amanda Maciel I think the more we talked about her and what she was going through, and what would be the natural result of her situation, I think it was really easy to identify with her, honestly. And I don’t think that’s just me, I think that she’s a good character that you put into a lot of interesting situations, and then helping her figure out how to get out.

On the one hand, she’s the star of the show. And on the other hand, she’s got a lot of interesting stuff going on around her. And a lot of people who aren’t afraid to be themselves in the way that she is, so you end up with that Alice in Wonderland problem of everybody else is interesting except for [the main character].

So trying to keep coming back to her and make sure that she’s got a satisfying story arc of her own, even though part of her story is that she’s having trouble being the star. I think it was easy to just get into that, honestly.

Sarah Enni It was an interesting challenge to write a character who doesn’t want something to happen.

Amanda Maciel [Laughing] Right, yes!

Sarah Enni She desperately doesn’t want to be seen or judged at school. She’s actively trying to fade into the background. Though I think she’s probably less successful at that than she thinks she is.

Amanda Maciel Yes. She definitely thinks she’s more incognito than she actually is, which is great.

Sarah Enni So there’s a little bit of the unreliable narrator aspect to it, cause its first person present [pauses], I’m like, “Is it?” I’m messing up my own… oh my god… yes. And just from her point of view. So, it was a really funny thing to have to then have other characters be mirrors for her, and show her that she’s actually more involved in her own life than she even has realized. And more obvious to the people around her than she thinks she’s being.

Amanda Maciel I’ve said this a lot about being an editor, there is a certain amount of… it’s nice to be the invisible one, but you really have to remember how much responsibility you have and how much you are affecting  people around you. And that was another thing that I noticed when I was on the author side of things of your relationship with your editor. I think that I’ve gone through a lot of my career being like, “I’m important but not that important” kind of thing. And I’m like, “No. You’ve got to step up and be there.”

And I’m also a parent now. And in romantic relationships, there’s a certain amount of, “If you think you don’t really affect the people around you, it kind of lets you off the hook.” In this way that’s not okay basically. And I think that has been something I definitely self-selected both writing and editing for that invisibility cloak a little bit, in a way that I’ve come to terms with as I’ve gotten older.

I’ve been like, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah!” You’ve got to also be seen and also have vulnerability stuff. Let people see you. And also accept that you have an impact on other people cause you can feel like, “Oh… I don’t.” But it can go both ways. It can be like, “I don’t matter.” But also, “Nobody can blame me!”

Sarah Enni Yes! It’s very playing it safe. These are feelings I’m having coming towards release day. It’s like standing up in front of people and taking ownership of this book and knowing a lot of people aren’t gonna like it. But that that’s just what it is.

Amanda Maciel This book? Everybody’s gonna like this book!

Sarah Enni Well, thank you so much! That’s so true. I’m actually getting more empathy with Ivy as the year goes along. That’s such an interesting point. And also an interesting point… someone actually brought this up at BEA (Book Expo America) – gosh I wish I could remember who it was – but one of the authors from one of the big panels was talking about how editors should get noticed more in publishing.  That it’s really hard to figure out who edited what book.

Amanda Maciel Yes, yeah.

Sarah Enni Why is that?

Amanda Maciel I don’t know exactly. I feel like now that acknowledgement pages have become more of a thing, transparency has also. And social media has brought a lot of transparency to publishing. I’m pretty sure that it’s tradition, though, to stay out of the limelight and make sure that it is the author’s… you know, your name is on the cover.

And also, the editor’s influence and participation is different from book-to-book and house-to-house. So, I think that there is a certain amount of just making sure that the important and appealing people are out in front [laughing] which is the authors.

Sarah Enni [Laughing] The appealing people!

Amanda Maciel I don’t think the people are trying to shirk their responsibilities by hanging back and being in the background. And then you certainly have editors throughout history who have been celebrity editors themselves. Which is kind of its own job in itself.

Sarah Enni Well, you work here with David Levithan (author of Every Day and Boy Meets Boy) who is a big deal on many levels.

Amanda Maciel Exactly, exactly.  That’s like a whole different career path almost. I think, certainly early in my career, it was a little bit like, “Well, now I’m just gonna get more slush mail if people tell people my name.” [Both laugh] But now with Twitter and everything, I think it’s a little bit more open in a way that is kind of fun.

Sarah Enni I don’t know, to me it was funny to even realize that it wasn’t on – what’s that called – the opening page, with the designer and the ISBN number.  It’s like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely to have everyone who worked on it be officially listed somewhere?”

Amanda Maciel And some imprints do that. I feel like the graphic novels that I’ve worked on do that. With the graphics imprint here at Scholastic. And I want to say the Arthur A. Levin books maybe does that too. So, my impression has been that if it’s a fancy imprint… 

Sarah Enni Then they’ll go for it.

Amanda Maciel Then they list everybody.

Sarah Enni That is so interesting. Okay, the other thing I want to talk about is writing social media on the page, cause that was kind of wild, to try to make that interesting. And right before we started recording we were talking about Emergency Contact, the book by Mary H.K. Choi, which is so lovely and I thought did a really good job of incorporating… I mean, the cover is the two kids texting. Which is most of the story is falling in love over text message, but it was so engaging and funny. Thankfully, I read that after because I would have been so intimidated writing Veil.

Veil is what we called the social media app. It was really funny to set out and be like, “How am I gonna make this something that… she’s just looking at her phone a lot of the time. But what does it mean to her? What is it making her feel? How is it making her think about the kids around her?

Amanda Maciel It was also very prescient because you picked a scenario that’s basically anonymous, local, Instagram. In the couple of years that we were working on the book Instagram has definitely risen to the top with the youth. 

Sarah Enni Yes, it is the preferred thing.

Amanda Maciel And also with myself. I’m off Facebook now and Instagram is so much more relaxing in so many ways. But it being a visual place for kids to go, I thought, was really good. It’s not kids sharing articles about [unintelligible], or events or whatever. 

Sarah Enni And it’s not even people responding with emoticons. There’s almost no interaction on it, which maybe was aspirational for me. I was like, “Wouldn’t it be a joy to just put something up and then not have to like everyone else’s posts?” There’s not threaded comments, there’s nothing like that. It’s just putting something out there and not having your name attached. 

Amanda Maciel And it’s kind of nice that it’s geographically specific too. I almost wonder if that would be the cure for everything that’s wrong with social media in general. Because there’s a sort of built in “be nice” level because these people are all around you… right now!

Sarah Enni In the book, it’s within five miles. Which is why Ivy is so certain when she loves the images that people are posting. She’s like, “Well, these artists are people who are around me and they probably go to my school.” Hence, the hunt to find out who they are. Which was a fun element to it.

Amanda Maciel Yes because, of course, that would be tempting.

Sarah Enni Of course! And then of course what everyone’s posting is stuff that’s around you. Or they’re interacting with your world. It makes a lot of sense. And then she got to see her high school through other people’s eyes. Which was fun. 

But the most fun part was in the final draft where everything clicked. I think, I truly believe this, it really clicked because of Rake Burmkezerg.

[Both laughing] 

Amanda Maciel The creator of Veil. And his missives about it. He’s so spot on Silicon Valley mogul type. There’s so many – I’m hesitating – because there’s so many words. I’m like, “Don’t use that word!”

Sarah Enni I think in our last talk where I was about to engage in the biggest revision. Coming up with the final thing that was really gonna stick, we had talked about how to incorporate Veil more into her every day. So, it had to start having impact on her life, and the parents had to start getting involved, and the school had to start getting involved. How are we gonna make this feel real?

I think we walked away without the solution and then I came back and said, “I came up with a villain.” And he’s not on the page, he’s just this twenty-eight year old tech guy in Silicon Valley who is just a blow-hard [laughing].

Amanda Maciel [Laughing] Yes, exactly. “You created something and why don’t you understand it?”

Sarah Enni And, “How could I have known that anyone would use it for ill? This is on you! Not my utopian vision.” And that, for some reason, just unlocked a lot for me. And was such a joy.

Amanda Maciel Yes, those parts are hilarious. I love that aspect. I think that challenge of writing about somebody looking at their phone all the time, I got that question a lot – particularly when my first book came out – people were asking, “But how did you know how teenagers talk?” And I’m like, “Well, I know how I talk. And we all live in the same world.” 

And I think people think that if you’re writing YA you are going to naturally harken back to your own teen years. I don’t know about anybody else, but I blocked those out! Like a healthy adult! [Both laughing] but I still act like a teenager, like a not very healthy adult. 

But I’m constantly on my phone and on social media, and I know how it affects me. And I know it would affect me much more, probably negatively, if I were younger and more sensitive. But it’s still pretty intense and I think the level of FOMO that you can incur very quickly is tough. And it makes it a little easier to write about, I think. And to channel those feelings because we’re all living in that world together. 

Sarah Enni And it’s all new for all of us at the same time. I think kids are better at adapting to it because they’re younger and they adapt to everything pretty quickly. But we’re all new at the internet. It’s truly not old.

Amanda Maciel Not all of us over thirty are walking around like, “This is different than it was.” You just roll with it and then it becomes your world. And iPhones are what? Ten years old now, so… which is a long time and no time at all. Honestly, I get more irritated with stories where somebody conveniently loses their phone, or throws it away. I mean, sometimes I really enjoy that, but… [laughs]. That can be good.

 But sometimes it feels like it’s just done for convenience of the story so that it doesn’t have to be dealt with. And I think, like anything else, having parameters can help shape a story. You gotta use the fences that you have and too much freedom is actually not the best thing for narrative.

 Sarah Enni Yeah, you need a fence of some kind to build. 

Amanda Maciel Especially in contemporary, I think. It seems like there’s no world building cause it’s not fantasy. But, in fact, there is plenty of world building.

Sarah Enni There’s so much! My book has a lot of world building. And a lot of random silliness about where she lives. The last draft I was like, “Do we need this? Yeah, no… we need it. Just cause it’s fun for me!” 

Amanda Maciel Exactly! Also, you do a great job of… I feel like there are a few author’s I know – not necessarily all people that I edit – but people I really enjoy reading because their characters go out and do stuff. And I really like that. It just always feels like, “Oh yeah! You could go to a place, and there’d be things to do there.”

I think maybe I just don’t have any hobbies other than reading and watching TV. I’m always impressed when the characters get out of the house and go do a thing! This is fun!

 Sarah Enni Isn’t that funny? Cause I’m insta-carting my yogurt to my door. My LaCroix directly to me while I’m like, “Ivy hops on her bike and goes down to the pier and takes pictures of mariners!” And it’s like, “Well, I’m not doing that!” That’s so true. Aspirational imagination!

Amanda Maciel [Laughing] Exactly!

Sarah Enni As a matter of interest, cause this is a conversation that not a lot of people get to have with editors, or a little bit behind the curtain kind of stuff. Once I turned in that last draft, then we did copy edits. And my copy edits were actually pretty intense. I sort of treated that as another revision, but it was, I felt like, really got it where it needed to be. It sort of crossed the finish line at that stage.

Amanda Maciel Yes, totally. I mean… your copy edit changes weren’t that crazy..

Sarah Enni Okay, good.

Amanda Maciel You took it seriously, which is good because that is the last chance to make extensive changes cause it’s still a word doc with track changes, and it’s easy. But it wasn’t, again, this was not like… I didn’t sit back like, “I’ve never seen the likes of…!”

Sarah Enni And throw your computer. Well, that’s good. That was copy edits, then we had first-pass pages.

Amanda Maciel Right. Which is when it gets put into the typeset font and starts to look like a book. And the design of the interior pages is created, or in the process of being created.

Sarah Enni Yes, and this was around the time when the cover… when at least I was getting to look at the cover. Which was so exciting! You guys did the best job ever 

Amanda Maciel It was a marathon.

Sarah Enni And the first-pass pages were stunning too. It was so cool to see how someone else had already put so much thought into how the reader was going to interact with the book.

Amanda Maciel Yeah, the designer Nina Goffi, has brought so much to this project. And so much care, and love, and detail. It’s really incredible.

Sarah Enni It’s amazing. I am beyond psyched to see the final version. We’re not there yet as of this recording, but…

Amanda Maciel Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned of… write about artists if you want your book designer to be really into it [laughs].

Sarah Enni That’s actually not bad, cause Nina did tell me she was like, “I related to her so much!” And it’s like, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense!” Then where does the process go from here? We’re about eight months away, as we’re recording this, from publication day. So, what’s your relationship with this book gonna be for the next few months.

Amanda Maciel So now it’s with at least one proofreader. And while you were looking at typeset pages, a proofreader was also looking at them at the same time. So I got the proofreader’s set back, and I got your changes back, and I wrote them into what we call the master set. So, that’s a good moment for me to respond. Unfortunately, it’s a moment as an editor,, that I just do on my own sometimes and forget to loop the author back in. And the author will be like, “What do you think of this?” And I’ll be like, “I like it.” And I’ll make the change. It’s like a closed loop.

But it is a good moment for me. And then I look over the proofreader changes and if they’ve got queries… I think they actually queried something that I then came back and asked you about. But generally it’s stuff that I can answer. And then it goes to another proofreader while those changes get incorporated. And at that point, I collect any loose ends from you like acknowledgements, or whatever.

We continue to work on the cover. The designer will route mechanical, which is just the flat printout of what the cover – what the jacket – will look like. I actually was just looking at the bound galley mechanical, which looks different than the jacket. Partly because it’s paperback and the copy has to be a little shorter. There’s just minor things that are a little different.

And so I’ll get the full jacket mechanical, at which point I’ll probably be like, “I need to rewrite half of this flap copy.” Because it’s never real until it’s actually printed out like that, which is annoying for everybody else involved because then it has to be re-copy edited.

But yeah, it’s a lot of going over the same materials a bunch of times and making sure that changes that you wanted made, that I want made, actually get made. And don’t introduce any new errors. And we’ll probably get arcs – advanced reading copies, or bound galleys – in a month or so. I want to say hopefully July/August-ish 

Sarah Enni Amazing!

Amanda Maciel And we’ll send those out to everybody who wants to read one. Well, not everybody, everybody, but as many people as we can. And then the cover will get closer and closer to going off to the printer and so will the interior.

Sarah Enni And it starts wrapping up.

Amanda Maciel Yeah. And it’s called first-pass cause it’s the first set of typeset pages and then from then on it becomes second-pass, third-pass… you don’t usually go past fifth-pass. And then it goes to proofs, which is the printer has it. And this is what it looks like at the printers, so just make sure everybody’s name is spelled right kind of thing. 

Sarah Enni Yeah, ugh, intense!

 Amanda Maciel So then it becomes a physical thing!

Sarah Enni Yeah!

Amanda Maciel And that is the most exciting.

Sarah Enni Wild! And you touched on this a little bit, but to whatever extent you feel comfortable talking about it, I’d love hear a little bit about… I know Scholastic has a unique interface with book clubs and fairs. Because all along this process, you’ve been talking about there are set meetings for, every publishing house has sales meetings and stuff like that, but you also have other meetings where you are pitching this book, and they get to decide what they’re want to carry. Can you talk a little bit more about that process. 

Amanda Maciel So yeah, every house has their seasonal launch where they talk about every single book, and then some houses have a pre-sales conference where they talk about a few. And then sales conference, I don’t even go to most of the time, it’s like all of the sales reps and usually the editorial directors presenting. And by that time we usually have cover art, so people are thinking about how to sell it to Barnes and Noble and Amazon and that kind of thing. And then on the other side, as an editor, we have small group meetings with clubs and fairs.

So, book fairs were entirely their own company up until maybe not too long before I got here. And they’re based in Florida so we talk to them over the phone. And then they come into town several times a year, so we try to meet with them too. And book clubs are in the building, so we see them a little bit more often. But their businesses are very different.

Clubs is a little bit more like an on-line retailer situation. The covers are really small, they’re in those flyers that you used to get in elementary school and middle school. But the way that they sell books, they have to them based on a tiny image and one line of description.

Whereas book fairs come to schools and set up in a variety of locations and the books are face out. And so they have a different interaction with kids and educators and parents that is really instructive and interesting because on the trade side we kind of only have to care about, or worry about I should say, what the retail stores look like. And increasingly, of course, what Amazon looks like. But, that business model is a shade different.

So it’s cool learning all three of these. It means that each book that I work on is basically three books. But it’s fun and I’m glad that I know this part of the business because in children’s it’s still a very relevant part of the business. And then twice a year there’s a big presentation at fairs in Florida which, again, I don’t usually got to, or I have not been to. Where all the publishers line up and show their list and everything.

But the fact that we get in on the ground floor and really try to work together is really cool. It’s obviously a bit of an advantage. But it’s also, again, because it’s a different kind of business, informs what we do in a way that speaking of putting fences around things, I find it really fun to be like, “What works at this house? And how can I work on things that I really love that will also work for my publisher?”

Sarah Enni I’ve been describing to some people that you have this in-house Barnes and Nobel. That is in the back of your mind sometimes with thinking about how it should look, or what’s the right way to pitch this? Or, you have someone to bounce that against and see what makes people interested. Which is great! 

Amanda Maciel And book publishing is in this weird middle space corporate-wise, because we don’t do market research really. We just don’t have the overhead to do anything on the scale that Hollywood is doing. We don’t have “pilot season”, although sometimes you will publish one book and then do a sequel. 

But even that, because we’re such a long lead business, we can’t really do that. We have to place our bets and then see how it goes. And, obviously, if we could figure out what exactly works and why… we’d do it all the time! 

Sarah Enni Right.

Amanda Maciel But it’s very personal. And I love that about it. I love that it can be very subjective and creative and that I feel like I just said the word overhead. But the overhead is relatively low, so you can try new things.

Sarah Enni Yeah, and books that blow-up are not always what you’d think.

Amanda Maciel No.

Sarah Enni Some of the strangest books are the ones that become huge, mega things.

Amanda Maciel Exactly.

Sarah Enni Which is nice to see that still be. Even Hollywood, for all their data, they can’t always predict when something is gonna just connect.

Amanda Maciel Exactly. And a lot of times it’s something that when you read it, you understand why. But if somebody described it to you… like if you described the Hunger Games to me, I probably would be like, “You know, I don’t really want to read about reality TV.” You know? There’s that element to it that you don’t even think about when you think about those books anymore, because it’s so much bigger than that.

Or even something like Eleanor and Park [by Rainbow Rowell] is technically kind of quiet, but it just is so good. That just took over. The timing and, I don’t know, it’s a weird alchemy that is magical to watch but again, sends me scurrying back to my editor roll like, “I don’t want to have to try to…” [laughs], “I’m just over here reading. I don’t know how that works!”

Sarah Enni Exactly. That’s amazing. This was so useful, I feel like, it’s so interesting just to get your perspective on it. Was there anything else that you wanted to talk about?

Amanda Maciel This was so interesting and I feel like I talked too much maybe? So, but thank you so much and honestly, thank you for the incredible level of energy that you brought to this particular project. It is truly stunning, and I think I was trying to be aware of how much I was asking you to do along the way [laughs], but it’s hard to really know. Especially when you’re working with somebody for the first time, how much is asking too much?  And especially when it’s like, “Hey, I had this idea.” 

You did exactly… you fulfilled the dream completely in taking it on and really making sure that it was good. And I think that your standard of quality is fantastic! And you met it, which is really amazing.

Sarah Enni Eventually! You never put too much on me, all you did was help me. I was so grateful for your patience the whole time because I do have this perfectionist streak. So you helped me. There was a point where I was like, “If the book has to go out like this I will be so upset.” And you helped me to not have to deal with that. Which was a huge lifting of the weight for me.

Amanda Maciel Yeah, and again, your name is on the cover and you have good taste! And you achieved so much with this story that is so readable and fun.

Sarah Enni Well, thank you for everything Amanda, and thank you for helping my listeners understand this process a little bit better.

Amanda Maciel Thank you.

[background music plays]


SUBSCRIBE TO FIRST DRAFT WITH SARAH ENNI

Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender, or John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.

Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. It’s free!

RATE, REVIEW, AND RECOMMEND

How do you like the show?

Please take a moment to rate and review First Draft with Sarah Enni in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Your honest and positive review helps others discover the show -- so thank you!

Is there someone you think would love this podcast as much as you do?

Please share this episode on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or via carrier pigeon (maybe try a text or e-mail, come to think of it). Just click the Share button at the bottom of this post!

Thanks again!





Sarah Enni (WriteOnCon Interview)

 

WriteOnCon: Sarah Enni - Transcript #197

Date: February 8, 2019

The original post for this episode can be found here.


Sue Stanley Welcome! You’re listening to a 2019 WriteOnCon podcast. This is Sue Stanley from the WriteOnCon team. I’m thrilled to chat today with Young Adult author Sarah Enni about long roads to publication. Sarah, thank you so much for joining me.

Sarah Enni Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Sue Stanley For those of you who may not know, Sarah is the author of the Young Adult novel Tell Me Everything which is coming out on February 26th – very exciting! Less than a month to go for you… of this year, obviously… from Scholastic and a short story in the New York Times Bestselling Anthology Because You Love to Hate Me.

She is also the creator and host of the FIRST DRAFT PODCAST. So Sarah, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Sarah Enni Well, everything you just said is correct. I’ve been writing Young Adult books for about ten years. And for about four of those years I’ve also been doing the First Draft Podcast where I interview other writers, mostly it has been Young Adult to this point. A whole lot of people like Leigh Bardugo, Veronica Roth, Victoria Aveyard and learning a lot about writing as I am going on the journey myself.

I started writing in Washington D.C. but have moved to Los Angeles where I live with my cat.

Sue Stanley [laughing] It’s a nice warm place to live. Much warmer this week, especially than Washington D.C.

Sarah Enni Oh yes, very much.

Sue Stanley So, you mentioned your publishing journey, that you’ve been writing for ten years. And our topic today is “The Long Road to Publication”. So, can you tell us about that journey – your personal journey to publication?

Sarah Enni  Honestly, in preparation for this interview [chuckles], in preparation for this interview, I made a publishing timeline like a google doc, where I went through all of my emails, went to the internet archive to go through my blog posts. I started a blog in 2009 and I was going through my posts in 2010. Boy, I gotta tell ya, I don’t recommend that. It was really tough to go back – all the way back – to track that. Both because it’s a long time, and because it was a really personal journey that was marked by, you know, the progress of a life.

So, I’ll just start with… basically, I started writing in 2009 in the wake of my dad passing away. He died suddenly in December 2008. And at the time I was a journalist, and I was studying English, and had always thought about writing. I knew I was a strong writer and I loved books, but I never thought about being an author.

When my dad died, I kind of had a reckoning about what I was doing and decided that I wanted to give it a try. If not now, when? So, I started writing my very first book in January 2009. I finished that in about a year and it was just an epic, sprawling, wild… you know? I think a lot of people, with their first books, bite off more than they can chew and that was certainly the case with me. But it taught me how to write a book, and it taught me how to finish a book, which is a very important lesson.

So then in 2010, I started writing I guess “quote-unquote” real books. Books that had a more legitimate chance of being published and I pursed traditional publication. Since then I’ve written seven books and it just took a long time.

I got an agent in 2013, who is still my agent today. Sarah Burns at The Gernert Company. She’s wonderful, and she’s been hugely supportive, even though since 2013, it took a long time for my debut book TELL ME EVERYTHING to come about.

Again, honestly, making this publishing timeline right before talking to you kind of threw me for a loop, because I’m not someone who looks back very often. When I think about it on a larger scale, spending ten years writing seven books, it was worth that time. I think I was basically doing an apprenticeship for myself. I read so much, I made so many writer friends, I started the podcast. I just needed that time to gestate and become a better writer. And I couldn’t be more thrilled to have TELL ME EVERYTHING be the book that is my first book. I’m extremely proud of it. And I absolutely could not have written TELL ME EVERYTHING any sooner. I think that it is the best book I could write, right now. And I’m really proud of that.

Sue Stanley So TELL ME EVERYTHING is the seventh book you wrote? Or does it fall earlier?

Sarah Enni Yes.

Sue Stanley It is the seventh book that you wrote?

Sarah Enni Yes.

Sue Stanley Is that the one that got representation in 2013? Or was there something else that got representation in 2013?

Sarah Enni It was something else. It was the third book that I wrote which is – colloquially, to me and my friends – called BRIGHT LIGHTS at this point.  My agent was and is so supportive of that. I’m actually re-writing that project right now, which is exciting. So those seven books haven’t gone away, there’s a couple that I would like to revisit and possibly seek publication for. But no, the book that got me my agent is not TELL ME EVERYTHING.

And actually, BRIGHT LIGHTS, the book that got me my agent, it went all the way to acquisitions. So, it went to an editor who was hugely supportive of it in her house. She was so excited and brought it to acquisitions and her publisher told her no. So it was a really tough moment. It got very far, but ultimately came up short. In the wake of that disappointment is when I started the FIRST DRAFT PODCAST because I was really looking to other writers to say like, “Hey, have you been through this experience? What have you learned? What’s good advice you have? Can I get inspired by you?”

And it was really inspiring. I talked to a lot of authors through that about their own long publishing journeys, and I found it to be really helpful in motivating me to keep going.

Sue Stanley That must have been awful.

Sarah Enni [laughing] It was. It was intense. The worst part was that that happened in March. I got the call saying, “Unfortunately, no.” And then a couple of months later I got divorced. So, that was another thing that added to starting the podcast.

Sue Stanley Huh… what a great year for new beginnings.

Sarah Enni 2014 was a real [pauses], it was a real time for me personally which, again, contributes to going back and talking about a publishing journey – a long publishing journey – you really can’t separate that from your personal journey, you know? We can’t separate writing from ourselves personally anyway. I don’t think we would even try to. But looking back over the last ten years… yeah, it’s been a lot of trials. But all of those things made me a better writer.

Sue Stanley So, there’s that story [both laugh]. What is the most important piece… okay, this question seems really cliché… but what is the most important piece of advice or guidance that you can give to an author just starting the publication journey?

Sarah Enni Well, a couple of things. You sent me a few questions ahead of time that I had time to look at, and they’re such good ones. I’m really excited to chat about these. When I was thinking about the most important piece of advice, I really am thinking about having patience. Not only with the publishing process, which as well all know is very convoluted, and takes time, and it’s completely out of our control… a lot of elements of it.  But also have patience with yourself.

A lot of people start writing, and get very excited about the idea of being published. And that is exciting and it’s worth working towards passionately, but you also need to take time to reflect on your writing. Writing a good book takes time. Letting it rest takes time. Revising it takes time. And all of those elements you just can’t rush them if you want to do your best possible work. So, patience is a huge thing.

And I was thinking about being curious. I think that’s my advice to almost everybody in life in general, be curious. And in this context what I mean is be curious about writing. Read books about writing. Read widely in the genre that you are writing in. Read widely in general. Be curious about your industry. Learn about how it works. Learn about how people get paid. Learn about how people make a sustainable living. Learn about everybody that goes into the process of making a book happen because it’s not just editors. There’s a lot of people that go through the process of bringing your book into the world. Learn about your co-workers. Be curious about other writers. Be curious about their process. Be curious about their lives and how they care for themselves. I think curiosity is an undervalued trait. And it’s something that got me through… absolutely.

Sue Stanley That’s great advice. Actually, that’s very good advice. So, this is obviously in your opinion, or in your experience, what do you think it is that causes some publishing journeys to be short, sweet, fast, and others to take a long time?

Sarah Enni [Chuckles] This is such an interesting question because the true answer is like a big old shrug emoji [both laugh]. Serendipity? Zeitgeist? You absolutely cannot know what your publishing journey is going to be and it is not reflective of how hard you work. Or sometimes even the quality of your words. And I’m saying this as an effort to say, “Don’t blame yourself. If it takes a long time, it takes a long time.” And that can be a gift, honestly. If I had published anything before TELL ME EVERYTHING I think I’d be embarrassed by the book that was out in the world. So I’m very grateful that it took this long because I just needed to be a better writer.

But going back to your question, what takes so long? Let’s be honest about what some things are. Some things are writing goals. Some people just want to write for fun and if that’s how you start then you’re probably not going to write as fast or in the same way as someone who really is focused on publication. So your goals, obviously, shape your journey to publication Also what type of publication. You might write faster if you’re looking to self-publish or to put things out in the world in that way, or maybe short stories versus novels.

So, your goals for what kind of things you want to write will also determine your journey. And people’s time. Your personal time. What else do you have going on in your life? What is your style of writing? Do you slowly piece together sentences? Or, are you someone who fast drafts and just wants to vomit something out and then get a lot of feedback on it.  All of those things are gonna determine how long it takes for you. But they’re also things that you can’t, or shouldn’t, or should be hesitant to change. Because I think everyone needs to respect their personal process. Once you find what works for you, if it takes a long time, that’s just what it is. And you should settle in and make peace with that so that you have that happy time when you are writing.

And then, yes, zeitgeist, trends, serendipity. There are just things you just can’t control. And it takes time to find the right agent for you. It takes time to find the right editor for you, and the right publishing house for you, and the right story for you.

Sometimes we want to write vampires and the world is sick of vampires, so we can’t control that. I still think you should write what you’re passionate about. But, the world doesn’t always agree with us.

Sue Stanley So, let’s talk about a very simple question. Define long.

Sarah Enni [Chuckles] You know, I [Pauses as a motorcycle revs past]. Sorry, motorcycles. This is a good question, but I’m not sure that it’s really useful to define long. I don’t know that thinking about it that way is entirely useful because it depends on the person. And it depends on how they have thought about the time that they’ve spent pursuing publication and what you were able to achieve in that time.

For example, I would certainly look back on my ten years and say that that was a long time. But it also was a time that I moved, I got married and divorced, I grieved, I relocated my life, I got a cat! I started the podcast. I changed careers. I did a lot of things in that ten years. So, it is a long time but it was a productive, useful, wonderful time. I don’t have a metric. I think that we can certainly say that short is anything less than a year and beyond that it’s kind of up to you and your perspective.

Sue Stanley Yeah. That’s very true. The reason I ask the question is because I was thinking about authors coming in with an expectation that they’re gonna write a book, they’re gonna do something like NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] in November and they’re gonna put out a book, and they’re gonna get an editor a month after that, and they’re gonna have a publishing contract a month after that.

If you are a new writer that might be an expectation, when in reality that does not happen. I mean, I guess it could, it’s probably happened to a few people, but…

Sarah Enni It’s very unlikely, right? I would say if someone started writing… if someone on day one said, “Okay. I’m gonna write seriously.” If they published a book within five years, I would be incredibly impressed. That is just not common. And that’s okay! It’s hard to tell someone who’s just a starting writer that, but honestly that’s the way it goes. I signed the contract for TELL ME EVERYTHING in May 2016 and it comes out in February 2019. We did have to delay a little bit because I had to burn down a couple of drafts and start all over again, but it also isn’t that unusual.

Sue Stanley Right, and I think people don’t, if they haven’t been in the publishing industry, they don’t necessarily realize how long it is. The editing process is done and the book is ready to go, how long it takes to actually get it into production and get it out in the stores.

Sarah Enni Oh man, so long. Friends who aren’t in the publishing industry have been asking me, “When is your... ? Isn’t your book already out?” And I was like, “No. It just sold three years ago.” Now there’s a date on the calendar and we just have to wait.

Sue Stanley And it’s an exciting wait though and you’re almost through it! You are almost done.

Sarah Enni My god, now I finally can… yes. And all my friends in email being like, “Here’s the book. It’s real. Buy it on this day.”

Sue Stanley Now go buy it!

Sarah Enni Yes, exactly.

Sue Stanley At this time, on this day, from this venue. Please! [laughing] Okay, you’ve talked about this a little bit, but what did you do to keep your morale up during this long process? This ten years. Especially, I would think, between 2013, or 2014 when your book did not get picked up after having an editor. To when you actually did sign and you knew that it was actually gonna happen for you. How did you keep your morale up during that time?

Sarah Enni This is a really good question and it’s gonna be different for everybody, but for me making friends with other writers was, and has been, a pivotal thing in my life.  I joined Twitter in 2009 and I met an enormous number of other Young Adult writers and those, largely women, have contributed to my life in innumerable ways. They’ve completely reshaped me as a person. They shared my passions, they shared my interests, they were supportive at all times and they got to know this nascent part of me – this writer part of me – that still other people who are in my life in other capacities don’t totally understand.

So, finding writer friends, people who are there in the trenches with you is unbelievably important. They are the ones who will understand the ups and downs of this industry the way no one can.  My mom doesn’t need to know what sub write drama is going on in my life. That isn’t something you need other people in your life to know or care about. In fact, you should have non-writer friends too who can put things in perspective. But your writer friends are the ones who are gonna say, “No, you need to write this book because I want to read it.” Like, “I don’t care what happens with it eventually, but what you’ve shared is so good, I really want you to finish this draft.” That’s hugely important.

And then I think the other thing that kept my morale up was pursing hobbies and activities outside of writing, having the podcast even though we talk about writing a bunch, it’s really just an excuse to have fun conversations with people and to learn. As you know, learning how to put a podcast together - very cool. Very not related to books. Very challenging. Involves a bunch of cool equipment and stuff like that and so I really enjoyed having that on the side.

I exercise a bunch. I started boxing, you know? Things like that were very separate. I’ve been doing improv for the last year. It works my creative brain but wow it couldn’t be more different from writing a book. So those things are huge. And the last thing that I’m gonna say that is also incredibly important, what kept my morale up was that I was writing books I was proud of. I wanted to go back to those books because they meant something to me. I was interested in the ideas that I was exploring through those books and that’s what kept me passionate about going back to the projects and writing them over and over again.

I saw myself improve because I was committed to it and when you take a month off of a book and you go back and read it and you’re like, “Wow! This is not crap!” That is a really heartening moment and those moments really, really would buoy me for a long time.

Sue Stanley That’s great. And taking a break is a really good idea too. Sometimes it takes that to realize that you are writing something that’s worthwhile.

Sarah Enni Yes, and honestly a month minimum. The longer you can take away from your book the better you’re gonna be at tackling the problems it has when you finally get back to it. Take that seriously, please!

Sue Stanley Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, you’re experience is not this one, but I know you talk to a lot of different authors so I’m wondering if you have any insight into what happens when an author winds up going through single agents where a project an agent picks up doesn’t sell, the relationship begins to deteriorate over time because it’s not selling, or because the fit isn’t right. And the same with an editor. You had that experience where the editorial relationship had to end. Not because of the editor but because of the publishing house. When do you think it’s time to move on? When do you know, or what can you recommend for making that kind of a difficult decision about moving on from an agent or an editor?

Sarah Enni That’s a great question and like you said, it is a very difficult decision. Let’s talk about agents first because they’re so personal. When you have an agent, you are in a relationship with that person. This isn’t true for all industries that have agents. I actually know people in Los Angeles who have an agent for film or television and that relationship is very different. But for us, in books, you agent is your advocate. They are someone who is your first point of contact. The person who’s there to support you and encourage you and help you achieve your goals. And I would say that if you are in that kind of a relationship and your needs aren’t being met, then you need to be very serious about whether that is the right relationship for you.

Like a romantic relationship, an agent has to cater to your specific needs and if that isn’t happening you need to have a really serious conversation with your agent about what your needs are. Communicate what you want to see and how they can improve, and if things don’t change, I think then you have to move on. And move on with gratitude and not a sense of loss. I think people really beat themselves up over lost time and that isn’t… I just wish I could erase that. Because that creates you from making good, bold, necessary changes in your life including leaving an agent that is just not meeting your needs and is not right for you. There’s a lot of agents out there now. They’re all on-line. You can research them. You can find a lot of people who are going to be great for you. So, that’s what I would say. If you’re needs aren’t being met and after a serious discussion they don’t change and adjust to meet your needs, then yeah, you need to move on.

An editor is kind of a whole different barrel of worms, or whatever the idiom I’m looking for is. Once you sell to an editor that’s it. And if you are having trouble with them, that’s when you need an agent who’s gonna step in and help things work smoothly and adjust. Before you sell your book, often you’ll get the chance to hop on the phone with an editor… that’s huge… get on the phone with them. Don’t be shy. Don’t let a fear of being on the phone prevent you from having that kind of intimate conversation with someone before you sign on to work with them with your precious book. You want to hear their voice. You want to hear their enthusiasm. You want to get a sense of their ideas and see if you guys are gonna be a good match. Because that’s another year-and-a-half or two years of your life working with this person on something very important to you.

So, protect yourself up-front and get a sense if this is a person you want to work with and then if it isn’t working, having your agent step in… you know, those are really tough relationships but it’s hard to say – pick up and leave an editor. That’s a challenge, because then you can sell another project elsewhere, or things like that, but that’s when contracts get involved. So, it’s very case-by-case basis kind of stuff.

Sue Stanley What I was thinking of… that’s true, and once you’re under contract, I think you’re just gonna have to suck it up and deal with whoever it is that you have and hopefully that works really well. What I was thinking about when I wrote that question, was really how to deal with the revise and resubmit requests.

Sarah Enni Oh yes, right.

Sue Stanley So, when you are working with an editor and they’re saying, “Hey, do this and then I’ll read it again.” And then, “Do this and I’ll read it again.” When is it time to say, “No. I’m not gonna revise anymore because I don’t believe that you’re actually gonna go through with a contract. This is just taking a lot of my time. I’m not sure that it’s gonna work.”

Sarah Enni Yes, yes. Such an important distinction. I think it’s so important to emphasize that when you’re talking about revising and resubmitting for an editor… please keep in mind that is free work. They are asking you to take a lot of time and energy and apply changes without paying you first.  Without giving you an advance. So that’s something to really keep in mind. Is it worth it for you? Also, it depends on their notes. If you get an “R&R” note from an editor… if those notes feel off to you, or are not the right thing for the book, that’s right there your sign. Walk away. Be at peace and leave and find another opportunity.

If you’re excited by their notes, if you think they really get the book and you want to implement those changes, by all means do it. I had this experience and when they came back and asked me for a second pass of revision, my agent stepped in and said, “This is free work and it’s not worth it at this point. I think we need to move on and find either someone else who wants this book, or you need to work on something else.” Cause exhaustion is real too at that point. I’d been working on the same project for three years and my agent, very wisely, said, “You’re getting burned out. And I know that your potential is such that we can bravely move on to something new.”

And I was really happy to have her step in at that point because I was ready to run myself into the ground and she saw that and said, “Let’s just take a breather and come back to it at another time.” And that was really smart.

Sue Stanley So, it sounds like the over-arching relationship that matters the most is the one that you have with your agent, when you get to that point, so that your agent is the one who can help you to make the best decision about an R&R request.

Sarah Enni Absolutely. They’re clear-eyed and they’ve seen this many more times than any of us. So they have a thirty thousand foot view of things and we are so tied in to our personal work that it can be very hard to get perspective. So, that is definitely where your agent is very pivotal.

Sue Stanley So, if you receive an R&R request from an agent, in other words, I know some authors who submitted work and an agent will come back and say, “Well, I’m interested but I’d like to see if you can do this, that, or the other thing. And make this, that, or the other change.” What do you think is the… are there guidelines or do you have suggestions for how to make that decision? Because author’s can be very desperate, and sometimes agents, editors, and anyone in the publishing industry – just like any other industry – are not super ethical. So, what’s the best way to know whether that is a good decision for an author to try to make those changes to get the representation. And when is it time to say, “No thank you, I’m gonna keep looking.”

Sarah Enni This is a great thing to talk about. First and foremost, it is so important – just like I said – it’s important to frame an R&R as free work. It’s important too, when you are seeking representation, to recognize that you have created something out of thin air. Writers are magical people. We create things that other people want. And we often spin that around in our own minds and think, “Ah, who’s going to give me the gift of putting my work out into the world?” And that is just a massive miscalculation of how this works.

The power starts with us. We created this thing. We have worlds. And other people need to prove to us that they are the right people to help bring those worlds to other people. So, I really implore everyone listening to keep in mind that power dynamic when they are moving forward with making professional decisions. Because I think the other way of coming from a place of need, of want, of willing to do anything to have your work out in the world… that leads you to devalue yourself and to engage in relationships that are not fruitful for you and to put up with relationships and treatment that is not acceptable.

So, going forward, thinking about who is the best person to be at my side while I bring my best work into the world – that’s the way to move forward and think about it, I think. [Chuckles] I wanted to make sure I said that at first, and now I’m losing my train for the rest of it. Um, the agent R&R, that was it?

Sue Stanley Yes.

Sarah Enni Because the other thing that I wanted to say is that I had this experience in not the book that got me my agent, but the one before. I queried and I had a lovely agent be very interested and give me an R&R. I thought her notes were fantastic. So I went through the manuscript and implemented her notes and then I sent the revised version back to her and she ghosted me. I never heard back.

So, that was a really upsetting experience, but not an uncommon one, right? So, I would say if you get notes from anyone and they just feel right then, of course, take those notes. That’s your prerogative. Do what you would like with them. It’s worth it. Most other R&R’s, I think, do get a response. Are engaged with by the other party. But if someone wants you to do multiple rounds of R&R before they have signed you, before they have shown… I would just be hesitant about that.

One R&R and then either they’re willing to sign you because they’ve seen that you can work hard. They’ve seen that you can revise. They’ve seen that your visions match. Or, it’s time to move on to someone else. I think there’s not a lot of benefit to being strung along for months, or years, on the hopes of one person signing you when you could be finding representation elsewhere, working with other people, and moving on in more  constructive ways.

Sue Stanley So, that brings me to the most painful question of all, and that is, after the R&R requests, after the rejections or the waiting, or however long it is, when is it time to pull the plug on a project? At least for the time being and submit something new?

Sarah Enni Yeah, that is such a hard one and I’ve had to do it and it’s, um [pauses], and you can feel very defeated sometimes by projects. But man, also sometimes letting go of a project feels like being set free. So, be open to that possibility too. Sometimes a book only serves you to help get you to another place. Keep in mind, that’s always a possibility.

When I was thinking about this question, it’s a tough one because it’s different for every author, of course, I would say often I’ve seen friends… if you’re stuck and you can’t get unstuck. If you’re like a Jeep in the mud and the tires just keep flinging stuff back and you can’t seem to get anywhere even when you try different approaches, or different styles of writing, or you switch up your routine, and you still can’t move forward with it, at least take a month off and see where you come back to. At least give yourself a little mini-vacation to think about other things or something like that. And if you just can’t get unstuck… don’t force it.

There’s something to be said for it. And you don’t always have to think about leaving a project as abandoning it forever. We like to say, “Put it in a drawer.” Right? Put it in a drawer. It will be there. And if you feel like you need to come back to it, trust that you will know when the right time for that is.

The other thing I was thinking of is if you’re sick of it. And by sick of it I mean sick of the project itself and not the process – and those are two really different things – if you’re sick of the process, then maybe it’s time to try writing at night instead, or try writing on your phone for a little bit, or mixing up the process and how you go about it. Maybe try outlining. There’s a lot of different things you can do to reinvigorate your creative mind to tackle the project the way it deserves.

But if you’re sick of these characters. If you’re sick of this book. If you’re sick of this world. If you’re sick of this setting. Oh my gosh. Life is too short, you know? I look back at the books that I’ve written and I’m still not sick of any of them. I still love the people that are in those books. I still love the setting, I still love what I was trying to say, I love the ideas that are in there. Man, sometimes I got sick of the process with it. And I got sick of being in the same thing and needed to move on and try something new to gain perspective.

But if you are sick of the book itself… definitely move on [chuckles]. Because life is too short.

Sue Stanley If you never want to talk to those people again, right?

Sarah Enni Yeah, right.

Sue Stanley Time to let them go.

Sarah Enni Right. I think we’ve all probably had relationships like that or friendships like that, where it’s like sometimes books just serve you for who you are at that time. And they don’t need to follow you forever. So, you don’t have to pledge allegiance to any one project for the rest of your life. Please don’t!

Sue Stanley Excellent advice. So, our time is about up and I want to remind everyone that Sarah has the podcast, the First Draft Podcast, which you can find. And Sarah, I want to give you the opportunity to talk about your website and any other places where people can find you and your book coming out in about a month. Exactly a month, actually, from today.

Sarah Enni Exactly a month. Isn’t that exciting? So, Tell Me Everything comes out February 26th. The quick pitch for it is, what if Amelie had Instagram? It’s a contemporary YA. Kind of a quirky one. If that sounds fun to you, you should check out more about it at sarahenni.com. And sarahenni.com is where you can sign up for my newsletter and all that stuff. I’m @sarahenni on Twitter and Instagram and the First Draft Podcast has, as of today, one-hundred-and-seventy-five other episodes with writers who have gone through the gamut of all kinds of experiences. So, if your listeners want to get a little bit more perspective maybe from some other favorite YA writers, definitely go to firstdraftpod.com. You can look at the archives. I’ve talked to so many different people. There’s so much to learn at the podcast. You can also sign up for the newsletter for the podcast and find it at  firstdraftpod on Twitter and Instagram as well.

Sue Stanley Thank you very much. That’s fantastic. A lot of information available and I really appreciate your time today Sarah.

Sarah Enni Yeah, your questions were so good, thank you for all that you’re providing for the community. This is a huge resource so I’m excited for it to be in the world.

Sue Stanley Thank you.


SUBSCRIBE TO FIRST DRAFT WITH SARAH ENNI

Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent; Michael Dante  DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender; John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; or Rhett Miller, musician and frontman for The Old 97s. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.

Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. It’s free!

RATE, REVIEW, AND RECOMMEND

How do you like the show?

Please take a moment to rate and review First Draft with Sarah Enni in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Your honest and positive review helps others discover the show -- so thank you!

Is there someone you think would love this podcast as much as you do? Please share this episode on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or via carrier pigeon (maybe try a text or e-mail, come to think of it). Just click the Share button at the bottom of this post!

Thanks again!




Sarah Burnes

First Draft Episode #177: Sarah Burnes - Transcript

Date: February 12, 2019


Sarah Burnes, literary agent with The Gernert Company. She has been my agent since 2013. I loved what Sarah had to say about her approach to the slush pile, the myth of work-life balance, and her “no assholes” rule.

The original post for this episode can be found here.


Sarah ENNI Hey friends, before we start the show today, I wanted to let you know that my debut novel Tell Me Everything is going to be in stores on February 26th, and I will be doing a launch event at The Ripped Bodice in Culver City, California on March 3rd. I will be in conversation with the incredible Tahereh Mafi, New York Times Bestselling author of the Shatter Me Series as well as the National Book Award long-listed A Very Large Expanse of Sea. That’s March 3rd, 4 pm at The Ripped Bodice. Don’t miss it.

I have a few other events coming up as well. San Francisco on March 8th at Books, Inc. with Nina  LaCour and Jennifer E. Smith. Seattle on March 9th at The University Book Store in The U District  with Kendare Blake and Somaiya Duad. Ashville, North Carolina on March 27th at Malaprop’s Bookstore with Stephanie Perkins, and Boston on April 2nd at Trident Books Café with Katie Cotugno and Sara Farizan. Check out the events page at sarahenni.com or firstdraftpod.com to find out more details and to see what other festivals I’ll be hitting up this spring also. I hope I see you there.

Okay, now on with the show.

[Theme music plays]

Sarah ENNI Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Sarah Burnes, literary agent with The Gernert Company. She represents Linda Holmes, Heather Havrilesky, Margaret Stohl, Zan Romanoff, Alexa Donne, and Alex Marr among many others. And has been my agent since 2013. In the lead up to the release of TELL ME EVERYTHING I wanted to share conversations with my agent and my editor. A kind of rare, behind-the-scenes look at the relationships that make a book work.

I hope you’ll find the conversation illuminating, and because Sarah’s is the best, I know you’ll find it entertaining. Just a heads-up, I messed up the levels on Sarah’s microphone while we recorded this, so her voice is much quieter than mine in this episode. So, you might want to step away from leaf blowers or aggressive heaters to listen to this one.  Okay, let’s get to it.

Please, sit back, relax, and enjoy the conversation.

ENNI Hello Sarah Burnes, how are you?

Sarah BURNES I’m good Sarah Enni, how are you?

ENNI I’m doing very well. I’m so happy we could chat in your office. This is a little bit of a different interview than what I usually do because you are not an author yourself, you are an agent. You are my agent [laughs].

BURNES I’m your agent.

ENNI So, I want to talk about our process, our working relationship, how we got to having my first book come out, but before we get too far into that, I would love to start with a little background for you. I’d love to hear your background of how you came to be an agent.

BURNES Ah-ha, okay, so I was on the publishing side before I became an agent, and I was actually in Adult publishing. I was an assistant at Houghton Mifflin and then in the Knopf Group, where I got promoted. And then I got a job as an acquiring fiction editor at Little Brown. I was clawing my way up the corporate ladder, and the higher I got the more unhappy I was. I just realized that… well two things happened. One, I realized that the higher I was getting in the hierarchy, the more unhappy I was. But then I also had a baby. At the time – she’s about to be nineteen – corporate America and corporate publishing was not that friendly to working motherhood. And I really wanted some flexibility in my schedule.

So, I started thinking, “Okay, I’ve been in publishing for ten years. What do I do now?” So, I decided to switch sides of the transaction, basically.

ENNI That is wild, and very cool that, obviously, agenting appears to be working out for you [both laughing]. And you have more flexibility. It’s great to see you be able to still be with your family and spend time and you can be around when they have important things going on. And I can’t speak for all of your clients, but when you tell me that you have a kids thing to go to, I’m like, “Great. That’s awesome. You have a life!” That’s very important.

BURNES Yeah. I’m leaving here to go take my son to the doctor… so.

ENNI There you go! What was that like? Agenting is a very specific job with a skill set that I don’t have. But it’s very different from editing. So, what was the transition like to that side of the equation?

BURNES It’s interesting, because I felt that my way into my work – any of the work that I do – is still very editorial. So, I read something, I think it through, I think through what could be done better. What the author’s intention is, all these kinds of editorial questions. But then when I go to sell that work, I have thought the material through really deeply and that really helps me position it in the marketplace also, which then helps me communicate to the editors, which helps me do the deals.

So, it’s very much of a piece, actually, kind of editorial work.

ENNI And then you know, you can anticipate the questions or what the editor’s job is in-house, cause editors have to sell it their team as well.

BURNES Absolutely, absolutely. And I still, when I’m working on something, I can say to an author like, “This is what goes on in an editorial meeting. This is the response.” I never want to go out with something that I think like, “Well, we could work on this piece of it, but let’s see what they say.” I don’t do that.

ENNI And you also had a lot of relationships because of ten years of building co-worker relationships.

BURNES That’s exactly right.

ENNI Which I feel like every time we chat you’re like, “I know this person!” It’s like you know the whole city of New York! Which is great!

BURNES [Laughs] But what’s interesting is that I didn’t really know anyone on the children’s side. I mean, I knew the people at Little Brown, I knew a few people here and there, but really didn’t know anybody on the children’s side because I hadn’t come up on the children’s side.

ENNI Right, when you first made the leap to agenting, were you doing adult at first? How did children’s get in the mix for you?

BURNES Children’s came in the mix because Ann Brashares is a friend. Really, a friend of a friend. And I always really enjoyed talking to her so much. I saw her somewhere and they were having a conversation and she said, “A friend of mine is looking for an agent, her book is about to be published, and I think it’s going to do well.” And that was Cecily von Ziegesar, right before the publication of the first Gossip Girl, which I read and I was like, “Whoa! This is gonna be big!”

ENNI Yeah, that was a good prediction by that person! That’s exciting, was that one of your first clients?

BURNES She was one of my very first clients.

ENNI That’s amazing. And then what about kids, especially YA, made you want to continue to represent that kind of work?

BURNES A couple of things. One was that… so that was in 2001, something like that? I think I was pregnant with my son – my middle child who was born in September of 2001 – so it was right after the publication of the first Harry Potter. So, that market was just exploding. I mean, literally the shelf space in Barnes & Nobel was expanding. Cecily was actually… those books came out of Alloy, which was the packager, and the head of Alloy told me that because of Ann and Gossip Girl, the YA section of Barnes & Noble had doubled. That’s probably historical hyperbole [laughs].

ENNI I don’t know though. I remember not being able to find it at all, and then in D.C., my Bethesda Barnes & Nobel, the whole bottom floor, essentially, was halved and it was just shelves and shelves of YA.

BURNES It was this amazing moment where publisher’s lists were expanding and the retail environment was expanding for children’s. So, it was an amazing moment to step in there. As it turned out I wasn’t that good at doing the packaged stuff, I’m much better as – I hope you have experienced – reading directly to the writer.

ENNI You are very editorial, you are. You want to be in there.

BURNES I want to be in there, exactly.

ENNI Helping bring it to life. Your list is still very varied. You do non-fiction, you do adult as well, you do some middle-grade, so you’re still representing a lot of different writers but you also have Beautiful Creatures  [by Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia]– so YA has continued to be something that you seem to be very passionate about.

BURNES Yeah, well I just sold Zan Romanoff’s [listen to her First Draft episode here] new book, yeah!

ENNI Yeah! A friend of the pod, Zan Romanoff, very excited about that. It’s cool to see that opportunity have come in and your notes on my books were so great, you clearly understand what the YA markets about, I think.

BURNES Historically, I was reading for pleasure, children’s and YA. As a reader, when I was in adult editorial, I was just keeping up with what was going on in the children’s side. At the time, the adult market was – as it is now – pretty clogged. So, as a new agent trying to figure out what I was good at, what kind of material I understood, what markets I understood, when the children’s material started coming in, I was like, “Well I love this. Let me see if I can make it work.” And then I did get extremely lucky with the material that came my way.

ENNI Exciting, yeah, The Gossip Girl and then Beautiful Creatures. You have Pseudonymous Bosch is one of your writers. A lot of really, really cool stuff. Well, thank you for that background, that’s very useful. Now I want to talk a little bit about when we started working together. And some of these questions run the risk of digging for compliments but…

BURNES [Laughs out loud!]

ENNI This is not my intention. I do just want to hear your perspective on, for example just to start with, my query was just a slush pile query. I just sent an email. I was querying widely and Logan Garrison, who was your assistant at the time, and was an agent in her own right, read my book. I was just re-looking at emails this morning and she sort of frantically emailed me like, “We are currently reading this. What is going on with you?”

I think it’s a heartening story. I was just a person who emailed you cold. When you are looking through submissions like that, what’s traditionally been your process? When do you read it? What are you looking for?

BURNES My process is that we read everything that comes in. We read all the queries that come in because you never know where something completely great is going to come from. You just absolutely don’t. And we’re very responsive to the words on the page. I think that it’s also true in children’s publishing as opposed to adult publishing, it doesn’t matter who you are. Nobody’s really looking for a platform.

ENNI Yeah, it’s different that way.

BURNES It’s very different that way. Even though I hate the “P” word…

ENNI The “P” word being platform [both laughing].

BURNES The “P” word being platform. I remember very distinctly, because I was on vacation. I was visiting my college roommate in California with my kids, and Logan emailed and she said – I bet I read it on the plane on the way out – but I remember talking to you from my friend’s house in San Francisco. Because Logan had read it and she loved it and I really trusted her taste. And I remember having that conversation with you, “Please, please, please sign with me!”

ENNI It was wild! Is that still how [it works]? Are you still reading what your assistant passes up to you? How much are you in there?

BURNES Yes. I really am. The way I think about that is that my primary responsibility is to my clients. Before you got here I was sending very last notes for a novel I’m going out with this week, and literally just doing like, “I think you need a hyphen here” kind of notes, getting it ready. And so that’s the responsibility – it’s now Julia – it’s now her responsibility to read through things and flag the things that are of interest.

ENNI I’m curious about this for you personally, Julia is your assistant and she’s been with you maybe about a year or so?

BURNES Not quite, but yeah.

ENNI How did you prep her about what you are looking for? What was the primer on, “This is the kind of thing I want to see.”

BURNES That’s such a good question. I think that because my list is so varied, when I was working at Knopf, there was an editor there who used to say [drops voice lower and more masculine], “We don’t take on books, we take on writers!” And I always thought that was really pretentious.  But now that I’m building my own list, I understand what he means because I am interested in interesting people who are doing interesting work, and I think have the possibility of growing. I always think, “Okay, well they’re working on this project, but then what will the next one be? And what will the next one be?”

So, for what my assistant is vetting for, there are certain things that I am looking for generally and I will say like a lot of agents who represent children’s work right now, I’m more interested in diverse voices than anything else. Particularly as my list gets really full, I want to privilege writers from diverse backgrounds, and diverse stories, and own voices things. Because I think, “Well, I’m a gatekeeper and I want to use that privilege for people who don’t have it.” Basically.

ENNI When it comes to work, you are so diverse, but I do think [pauses] I guess I’m wondering how you would phrase it, but I see your books and I think they all have really distinctive voices.

BURNES Yes.

ENNI Is that something that you look for particularly?

BURNES Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, that’s the most important thing, which is the voice on the page. And then I construct my decision making around that. “This is an amazing voice, but is there a viable project after that?” And if there is a viable project then where should it go.

ENNI That’s what I noticed looking across all of the books that I know that you’ve represented. So let’s talk slightly granularly about our working together. Because, seriously, looking through these emails was bananas. It was 2013, year of our lord – 2013!

BURNES That’s amazing! Really?

ENNI Isn’t that wild? Yeah.

BURNES That was five years ago! Whoa.

ENNI I know! March 2013 is when Logan emailed me and you let me know you were reading it. I had one other agent who offered rep, so I got on the phone with you while you were on vacation and talked to you for an hour, or longer, and I asked you all manner of questions – which you were very patiently answering - which was great. 

So, that project, just for the sake of this conversation, that project was called BRIGHT LIGHTS. It’s a YA contemporary story, it’s still out in the mix, but that was the project you really responded to.

BURNES Right.

ENNI I want to bring it up and talk about it because that is a project that, as of yet, has not sold. But, you are still so supportive of it which is like a boon to me and helps me.

BURNES It’s good!

ENNI [Laughing] Thank you so much. I still love it, but it also means the world to know that you still care and are still thinking about it.

BURNES But I have to say, I don’t take on things unless I feel really strongly about them, and it’s not worth it. And so, I’m not going to take on something that if a couple of people turned it down I’m like, “Oh well, I guess that won’t work.” For me to do my work, I feel more strongly about things than that.

ENNI Cause it went through – we’re not gonna get too bogged down in the weeds – but 2013 we then revised together for the rest of 2013. Then it got to an acquisitions meeting at a house and it was after an R&R [revise and resubmit] already. So, this was sort of this long, tortured process. Then the R&R came in and we did another round of revisions – you, me, and Logan – and finally the editor suggested a revision that was very extreme.

BURNES Right.

ENNI Kind of a really big shift in what the story would have been, and I think that was around April 2014, and you were wise enough to say, “Let’s pause on this, and actually step back from it. I don’t want you to keep working for free basically.” And all these great pieces of advice that I was grateful for. Then [pauses] I threw a lot at you [laughs] over the next couple of years.

BURNES Right.

ENNI And that’s what I want to talk about, is that every client/agent relationship is so different, and you as an agent have to adjust to all of your different clients and their needs. I would love to hear your prospective on this because after we weren’t able to sell the book you signed me for, I then got divorced, moved across the country, started a podcast, had you set me up with a couple of ghost writing projects. Wrote one book that went nowhere, wrote another book that still in the middle of “We’ll get back to it at some point.” And then, eventually, we go hooked up with Scholastic and we’re writing TELL ME EVERYTHING.

So, it’s been a very wild situation. I want to hear how you think about these unusual bumps and how you were looking at me as a client. Is this common, or uncommon? What was your side of this whole thing?

BURNES But I’m so impressed with what you have done! I know I’ve said that to you before, I’m not just saying it for the podcast. You were in one situation when we met and then the book didn’t sell and instead of throwing in the towel you completely remade your life.

ENNI Kind of double-downed [chuckles].

BURNES Right! In this incredibly inspiring way. I literally couldn’t be prouder of the work that you’ve done. 

ENNI Thank you.

BURNES I’ve actually said that to her before, and that I really believed in you as a writer. One of the other things interesting about the children’s market is that a couple of years ago I sold a book – a ten-year-old book – that a writer of mine had written. I hadn’t even been her agent and she said, “Oh, I’d like to try this again.” And then we sold it. It was something like the market had caught up, or the wheel had turned again, or something.

I really believe in that. If you have something that is really good, that one of those strategies - if it hasn’t sold - is to hold onto it. Figure out what the next thing is, what the publishing relationship is going to be and look, I’ve just read the first revised fifty pages and it’s so much better! And I loved it before, but those five years that you have spent growing as a person show on the page.

ENNI I would agree with that. And that’s one of those moments, when books don’t sell, and people are like, “I’m so happy it didn’t sell.” You know what I mean? I’m grateful for the added time. And the fact that you’ve told me to shelve a project before… and when you said that I was so relieved. It’s a project that I won’t go back to because it doesn’t feel the same way. But BRIGHT LIGHTS feels like a very special unique thing, where I’m not done with it and neither are you. And I think it’s great that we were on the same page with that.

BURNES Yeah, and look, it’s so painful when it’s not the case – let me say. I have been in the situation where a writer has been working on something and I express reservations, “I think this is what you need to accomplish.” And then they get to the end of it and they haven’t done that and I have to say, “I’m just not the right person for it.” But a writer’s commitment is to the work it’s not to me. I feel so grateful that we still - you and I both – BRIGHT LIGHTS is the book of our hearts.

ENNI Yeah, it does feel like that. Just to make this a broader question that’s not necessarily about me specifically, I would love to hear how you think about your client relationships, and when there are needs to pivot or change, or situations develop, how you approach those changes?

BURNES The first person who I worked for in publishing was a guy called Sam Lawrence, who had his own imprint at Houghton Mifflin. He was a horrible sexist, but he was incredibly committed to his writers, and into making the things that they wanted to happen for their careers, happen for them. And while it’s a little bit like that thing in Broadcast News, I didn’t want to be like him personally, but professionally that’s the kind of intense commitment that I would like to have with my writers.

I do think that one of the things I’m better at now, certainly than when I was on the editorial side and even then, when I was first an agent, is understanding what any given market looks like and either how to circumvent its exigencies, or plow into it. So, when Beautiful Creatures came in, I remember thinking, “The market may think this is too close to other books that are out there.” Whereas, I really felt like what they were doing was making something that was both really new, but very classic. So, it was super exciting to have all of that go extremely well.

And I think part of my job is to not just champion a writer’s work, but to understand what is going on out in the marketplace. That’s also always shifting because a bookstore chain will go out of business, or it will be the rise of, “It’s all e-books.” Or, something really surprising will work.

ENNI Right, trends are hard to predict. Which I am gonna come back and ask you a broad view of the market, but in a minute. So, it sounds like you see part of your job of cultivating an artist, but also helping them contextualize what they want to accomplish within what’s truly happening on the ground. Cause that’s the kind of thing an author is just not gonna know.

BURNES Exactly. A journalist who I represent, Jon Gertner, once commented to me that journalists, generally, are often a couple steps ahead of the culture because they are going out into the world and reporting back. And sometimes when he was pitching stories to magazines they would say, “That’s not interesting.” Or, “That’s not going to become anything.” And in fact often it is because they’re sort of the seers in some way.

I remember when I was working with Alex Marr on her Witches of America book.

ENNI Which is wonderful. I love that book so much.

BURNES Yeah, it’s such a fantastic book. One editor said to me, “Are witches a thing?” And I was like [sputtering], “Where? What? Of…” I was totally gobsmacked.  Like, “How couldn’t you know that witches are a thing?” And in some ways, again on the adult side, Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson [A Rather Haunted Life], she created the whole Shirley Jackson phenomena.

So, I also think part of my work is letting the writers lead me too, and sort of understanding where they’re going is and helping them beat that path.

ENNI That’s such an interesting point and I was just having drinks with an editor, Vicki Lame, who works at St. Martin’s - she’s a wonderful editor – super fun to chat with. And she was talking about how she is really looking for diverse rom-coms. She was like, “I just want smart fluff.” She was like, “We used to call it fluff, and now it’s a whole different kind of fluff cause it’s really smart too.” She was saying that’s really what she just wants to be reading at this moment. And I was like, “I’m with you. I’m ready for rom-coms of all kinds to come back movie, TV, and otherwise.”

But then I was thinking, you know it’s so interesting, right in the aftermath of the election, it felt like we had this six months of books come out that were… that felt like omnisciently timed. It seemed like there was then a lot of dark feeling books that came out right after Trump was elected and everyone was like, “Oh, this is a book for the moment” or whatever. But we all know as professionals, those books were written years ago. And in the foment of Trumpism and now we are getting, I think, the first books that have been written since all of that went down, and truly a lot of them are like, “Let’s talk about royals, and let’s have weddings.” Like respite books. And she and I were talking about how either things went really dark or really light and we’re in this strange extreme moment.

BURNES You know I work with Linda Holmes and I read her book last spring [Evvie Drake Starts Over] which is this wonderful… I mean, speaking of smart, fluffy rom-coms…

ENNI Yeah! Pitch it.

BURNES It’s a story of recently widowed woman and the former baseball player who moves into her back apartment. I called her and said, “This is the first book that I’ve read since the election that makes me feel better.” And she said, “Well, I wrote it to make myself feel better.”

Part of the reason why the book is so great is that it’s in a world without Trump [giggles]. There’s no politics… I mean, there’s only small-town Maine politics.

ENNI It is sort of funny to take note of that and think these are quickly shifting tides.

BURNES But to the trends question… we publishing professionals always say this on panels, or podcasts, “You cannot chase the trends. You can’t do it.” Because it takes – Linda’s book won’t be out for another year! The work has to exist on its own. I think publishers, they can’t chase trends, but certainly Vicki… she’s trying to fill out her list for fall ’19. But for a writer embarking on a project, who knows what the world is going to look like. You really have to write the thing that you really care about.

ENNI The trends are organic groundswells that are sort of zeitgeist-ing us. It’s not worth trying to pre-map that. You have to hold on for dear life and see what happens.

BURNES I actually think one of the things that’s interesting about the children’s market also, if you look at the phenomenon… you had Harry Potter, and then you had Wimpy Kid [Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney], and then you had Hunger Games, those books don’t necessarily relate to each other. You wouldn’t have thought… so they were like the huge phenomenon. And then you had Twilight [by Stephenie Meyer]… you know, Twilight and Wimpy Kid!

It’s so fascinating. In some ways that’s why you really cannot pay attention to the trends cause you don’t know what’s going to be next.

ENNI Right. That’s such a good point. And yeah… don’t try! It never works out right. I’ve had so many friends waste a year doing that. So, we were talking about adjusting to maybe tumultuous career paths for writers, but you’ve also had to adjust to your personal life. We don’t have to get into details, but you had stuff happen in the last few years. You have kids, it’s a crazy world.

How do you think about balancing your personal life with… you know, your job is really demanding on focusing on other people. And artists aren’t always the easiest people to work with [she says with a bit of abashment]! So how do you think about that?

BURNES [Laughing]  When my daughter was first born I was still at Little Brown. I went to a big women in media lunch, and there was an editor of People who was honored. This was a lunch full of women professionals, mostly magazines, but some book publishing people too. And this woman said something along the lines of, “Everybody talked about work/life balance. But everybody in this room knows there’s no such thing.” And I felt this sense of relief like, “Oh my god, you mean I actually don’t have to keep everything in balance all of the time?”

So, a lot of it is just being able to accept that if somebody is sick, well you gotta stay home with them. That’s what’s required. Or, if you’re running an auction, well you have to show up for that. By realizing being able to… as I’m looking at Heather Havrilesky’s new book here, What If This Were Enough Which is about accepting the imperfections of the everyday.  That’s my new mantra. Accept the imperfections of the everyday.

ENNI I feel like I’ve possibly been saying this on the podcast lately, but I also said it just at BookCon that I had a moment with my therapist where I was like, “There’s this, and this, and this, and I know I need to be more balanced, and I need to be more…whatever.” And she was like, “Well, but… why?” It was such a lovely moment of her being like the Oscar Wilde quote, right? “Everything in moderation including moderation.” She was like, “We don’t need to be all things, all the time, every day. That’s such a waste of time.”

And it was such a big relief to me, because especially as writers, I just have to know that sometimes I’m gonna be working really hard for two months, then I have the month off… or whatever it is… and that’s fine. Literally trying to do everything every day is exhausting [and adds as a quiet aside] and not necessary! I appreciate that.

So, okay, just to talk about TELL ME EVERYTHING specifically for just for a second, because this was an unusual thing. And I interviewed Amanda Maciel, my editor for that book, about how that came to be. How it was a kernel of her idea and she really let me run with it. But it was kind of a rough writing process, and it’s an unusual [one] … unusual for me. I didn’t expect to be doing the IP [Intellectual Property] thing, it kind of fell into our lap. How are you thinking about that project, even now.

BURNES Well, that’s a good question cause as I said, I don’t love the IP process cause I’m not a part of it and I don’t have a way of getting into the work. But I really like Amanda and as you say, this is a business of relationships. And she called me and said, “I love Sarah Enni and I would really like to do a project with her.” And actually she’s, I think she’s read a draft of BRIGHT LIGHTS.

ENNI Yes, she did.

BURNES So, she just seemed like somebody who we wanted to be in business with, and that that was a relationship that I wanted you to have. So, the IP work flow – I kind of feel alienated from it – but I know that it’s the right thing for you.

ENNI It was funny rehashing the emails and being like, “Oh my gosh, that’s right. I did four rounds of revision for you before we went on sub.” TELL ME EVERYTHING was such a wild thing and there was no time because I was having such a hard time with it, I just wasn’t able to give you time to look at it before. Which was crazy.

BURNES Right exactly. But I do trust Amanda and she seemed liked somebody who understands the market. But it’s also very writer driven and so that was… that was gonna be a really good [experience]. I hope that was a really good experience.

ENNI It was! It was a really good [experience]. I feel like the reason I’m talking about it so much is cause I’m breaking it down. I’m processing it a little bit before it comes out. And I’m excited to talk about it and I really love the book. But to me, more than anything, I’m so happy I went through that process and I think I learned a lot from it. And I’m excited now to turn to the stuff that I’ve been wanting to work on. And has been put on pause for the last year or two.

BURNES I think that you… the thing I always think about is that all the work that you do, is the work you do along the way to the thing that will work [both laugh]… that was very articulate! But, I think TELL ME EVERYTHING will be… what’s apparent to me, reading the new pages of BRIGHT LIGHTS, is that you have grown so much as a writer through that process. And you have the kind of joie de vivre, and humor, and emotional connectiveness is still very much on the page. But there’s a kind of assuredness which is really apparent to me know. Which was really gratifying to read.

ENNI Well, thank you so much. Again, not digging for compliments… but I will take them. I will take them. So, a couple of broad questions and then I will end with asking for advice. But a broad question – very broad – what do you wish authors understood better about the agenting process. Or, your job as an agent?

BURNES Oh, that’s such a good question. It’s funny, I was at a conference once, and I said, “Just remember that agents are people too.” And there was like a gasp from the audience [laughs].

ENNI [Laughs] Oh my god, like, “What?”

BURNES So, I think I would remember that. I think the thing to remember about agents is that there are so many different kinds of agents and agencies. There are big agencies and small agencies and sole proprietorships. I’m a sole proprietor in a boutique agency. Everybody does it a little bit differently and as a writer the thing to think about is what is it that you, as a writer, need? And there will be a good match for you out there. And when you find that match, trust that. Because you don’t have to be somewhere really famous or… just go with the person who you think is gonna be able to literally represent your work in the way you want it represented.

ENNI It is kind of wild too… it’s not only finding a match for someone who responds to your work. That was so gratifying to see that you responded to your work, but then the first year of being like, “Oh my gosh, she’s having conversations with people, that I don’t know, about me.” And I just had such an innate trust in how you were gonna do that, it was so clear to me that you were gonna be great and be [pauses] all those little things that you don’t [think about]. Like showing up on time. Being courteous. Being someone who’s going to look out for my interests… stuff like that. You’ve always been professional with me. There were levels of trust about how you were gonna interact on my behalf in the world. And that’s a really important thing for people to think about.

BURNES Thank you!

ENNI I wouldn’t even name the agent if I could remember, but I did have friends go to a conference many years ago, and there was a young agent who showed up in pajamas – basically.

BURNES [busts out laughing]

ENNI And it was like, “Well, you know, there’s casual and then there’s unprofessional.” It was a thing where everyone was taking note. It matters.

BURNES Right. That’s interesting, cause for a long time I thought like, “It’s not about me. It’s not about me. I am representing my writer’s work.” And the only thing that’s slightly shifted with that is… Twitter. Because I find that there are things that I need to say, “That Sarah Burnes!”

ENNI [Laughing] Your Twitter name is still the number of the difference between the number of Hillary Clinton voters and Trump voters – which I appreciate.

BURNES Which is a positive number!

ENNI Uh-huh! Uh-huh, it is.  A quite large number. And that agents are people, and that agents are gonna have lives and needs as well. And are on the other side of any email. You know, frantic emails that you send – take the time to be thoughtful and gracious at the same time! That’s a good thing to keep in mind.

BURNES I don’t know if I can say this on the podcast, but I have a “No-Asshole” rule.

ENNI [Chuckles] Yes! You absolutely can say that.

BURNES Cause I love all my clients and I feel so proud to represent them.

ENNI Yeah, can you imagine dreading the person that you have to work for? That would not be fun. Then a last question before advice is a broad market thing. So, this is not going to come out until closer to when TELL ME EVERYTHING comes out, so we’re about six months out as of this recording. But even on a year-to-year level, what are you seeing with the YA market right now even from a year-to-year level, what are you seeing? How are you thinking about YA right now?

BURNES When I first started representing children’s fiction, the market was expanding as I said. The retail environment was expanding, publishers were expanding their lists, and that’s just not the case anymore. The publisher’s lists are clogged, the retail environment is extremely hard, and what I hear is that there’s kind of a tilt now towards middle grade, because those books tend to stick in the marketplace for longer.  

As Don Weisberg, who is now the head of McMillan, says “You’ve got a new crop of fourth and fifth graders every year to sell those books too.” But the market will turn again, and I just try to represent work that I really believe in… wherever it is. That I think I can make it work.

ENNI And then there was the spate of really big deals for books that may or may not get the support that was going along with those numbers. And I felt like that was a scary thing to me as a writer, cause you want to sell. You want to get paid,  but you also want it to be someplace where they’re actually gonna follow through with you and believe in your work.

BURNES That’s right.

ENNI That felt scary for a while.

BURNES Yeah, yeah. I think that because of the consolidation all over the place. The children’s market used to be less hit-driven than the adult side, and it’s because of these huge phenomenon it is much more hit-driven now. But the bread and butter of any publisher’s list are the books that will endure.

ENNI Stick around.

BURNES Yeah, stick around.

ENNI Well, that’s heartening. Just write really good books guys!

BURNES Yeah, write really good books!

ENNI That’s the deal. So, last thing is just advice. How about advice for authors who are querying? Or, who are looking for agents?

BURNES My biggest piece of advice is, hold onto your work for as long as you can. Use your network to have other people, your peers, read it and give you notes. Join a writing group. You want to keep that book out of the professional realm for as long as you can. Because, and I will say, sometimes I think that people use the querying process as a kind of writers group. Which is not a good idea, not a good idea. You want to use your writers group as your writers group. Really polish the work as much as you can before you go out with it. Because you only really get that one shot at that one time.

ENNI That’s really great advice and that’s not actually what people hear all of the time.

BURNES Really?

ENNI [Takes a big breath] Well, just to have it ready but I actually think it’s important to say like, “Give it time.”

BURNES: Give it time, oh absolutely.

ENNI Well, this has been such a joy. Thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with me.

BURNES Thank you so much. This was really fun. I’m so proud of you.

ENNI Thank you so much Sarah.

[background music plays]


SUBSCRIBE TO FIRST DRAFT WITH SARAH ENNI

Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender, or John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.

Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. It’s free!

RATE, REVIEW, AND RECOMMEND

How do you like the show?

Please take a moment to rate and review First Draft with Sarah Enni in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Your honest and positive review helps others discover the show -- so thank you!

Is there someone you think would love this podcast as much as you do?

Please share this episode on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or via carrier pigeon (maybe try a text or e-mail, come to think of it). Just click the Share button at the bottom of this post!

Thanks again!

Sarah Enni Q&A

First Draft Episode #180: Sarah Enni Q&A- Transcript

Date: March 1, 2019


Sarah Enni, debut author of Tell Me Everything and usually the host of the First Draft podcast, answers questions from past First Draft interviewees about craft and ego, staying on schedule, Bob Costas’ pink-eye story, the evolution of her interview style, Hammer the cat’s origin story.

The original post for this episode can be found here.


[Theme music plays]

Maurene Goo [Listen to her First Draft episode here] Okay, Sarah put a call out to everybody who has been interviewed on First Draft, which is a lot, and she asked people to send questions for her, if they had any, so that we could do a little Q&A.

So, I’m gonna read some of them here.

Sarah Enni I have not read most of these.

Maurene Goo Yeah, you haven’t cause she quickly sent them to me. Okay, so this is in no particular order. First one is from Nic Stone [listen to her First Draft episode here] the author of Dear Martin and Odd One Out, “How did hosting the First Draft Podcast influence the writing of your debut novel?”

Sarah Enni Ooh, that is a really interesting question. I don’t know yet. I think it didn’t have as much influence on the writing of my book, I think it’s having a huge influence on me, as a person, going through the release of my book. Because talking to all of these writers, hearing about their experiences, seeing that they are whole and complete people outside of their books, was such a good and persistent reminder for me to not make me and my books a one-to-one.

I am worth the world without my books. And that is something that…

Maurene Goo That’s very important for people to remember going through this.

Sarah Enni It’s super easy to lose sight of that, you know?

Maurene Goo Because our craft and ego is all wrapped up in this product that we are selling which, you know, is really hard for us to control that.

Sarah Enni Yeah.

Maurene Goo Okay, the next question is from Kristen Kittscher [listen to her First Draft episode here] the middle grade author of Wig In The Window and Tiara On The Terrace. She says, “I’m in awe of how you balance such a full schedule of travel, and podcast production with writing. What strategies have you developed to help you manage time, and shift between the different mindsets?”

Sarah Enni Um, thank you for that question Kristen! That’s so sweet of you to say. I am religious about google calendar and bullet journal. And listen, I’m not here posting pictures of drawings in my bullet journal, though if that’s how you bullet journal – more power to you!

I have a black and white checkmark system that I’ve cultivated over time that works for me. I’ve kept this type of a to-do list in my notebook for four years. If I write it down, I’ll remember to do it. So, I open the thing to both sides and I have “real life”, “author life”, “podcast life”, and I should do improve, or whatever [chuckles]. But all the different facets of my life. I try to write down every single thing that I need to do. I’m better at mono-tasking because multi-tasking really throws me off [pauses] in a big way.

So, I will then know what I need to do on a certain day. I will set the task and go through it in blocks of time. But the answer is, it’s hard. And stuff falls through the cracks more often than you’d think – certainly. And also, I don’t travel… I travel a lot, but not as much as I think people think, or Instagram makes it seem.

Maurene Goo You do travel a lot, but you take long breaks too. I feel like you have concentrated times of travel. But also, you’re journal is actually a work of art. It’s the neatest handwriting! I admire very much that you keep to the schedule. I always feel like, “Oh, you’re on top of shit.” You’re not wildly procrastinating which, I feel, I have a tendency to do. So, I can tell when other people are more in control of their lives.

[Both laugh]

Sarah Enni I think everybody has the urge to procrastinate. And what I got a handle on, which partly I learned by listening Allie Brosh who did Hyperbole and a Half. She has this great, great – I mean devastating  - web comic about procrastination and how it plays into depression. And how if you procrastinate, it adds to the anxiety, right? It’s sort of like picking your scab.

So, I keep that in mind when I’m avoiding an email, I’ll often just take a deep breath and dive into it and just do it. It feels so intimidating, but it’s actually always – almost always – easier than I thought it was gonna be.

Maurene Goo Yeah, I’ve also worked on my procrastination over the years and gotten a lot better at it. And it’s like [huffs], “Why don’t I just do it?” It literally relieves weeks of anxiety about this one thing.

Sarah Enni Exactly.

Maurene Goo Next question is from Shane Pangburn [listen to his First Draft episode here] producer of YallWest Book Fest and illustrator. His question is, “As an interviewer and an author, do you ever use interview techniques on your own characters? And if so, have any of their answers surprised you?”

Sarah Enni Oooh, that’s so interesting! Okay, I will say, Kate Hart has this incredible character worksheet on her website which is katehart.net. It is this long excel spreadsheet full of details about your main character. And for quite a few books, I would go through and answer all of those questions for my characters.

But interview techniques… I guess the technique is… you know, sometimes people answer a question and they are dancing around the answer. And often the way to get to it is to ask it again, and again, and again, and break people down until they’re ready to talk about the emotional heart of what they’re trying to say. I think that’s something that I learned a lot also through improv, and brought to the page. And learned a lot over the last year, especially, was like, “Just make your character say what they mean sometimes. “ And get into the heart of it.

Maurene Goo Right. That’s really good advice because sometimes you’re like… you feel like you have to be vague. Or, you have to be mysterious. But it’s like, “No dude.”

Sarah Enni And especially in YA! We get a lot of latitude about characters just saying what they feel. I think we both come from reading a lot of literary fiction which is a lot of hinting, and feeling, and atmosphere. And in YA, people get mad and they can just yell and say hurtful things.

Maurene Goo Right.

Sarah Enni So, embrace it.

Maurene Goo  Or, just talk about their feelings for three paragraphs.

Sarah Enni Yes!

Maurene Goo Okay. So, the next question is from Kate Hart, author of After The Fall [listen to her First Draft episode here]. She has a really hard hitting question here.

Sarah Enni Oh! I think I got a glimpse of this one, but go for it.

Maurene Goo She says, “Hello! Yes please. Address your feelings for Bob Costas.” Signed, “Your admiring public.”

Sarah Enni [Guffaws] Kate Hart knows good and well that I hate Bob Costas!

[Both laughing]

Maurene Goo Oh my god!

Sarah Enni So, if you don’t know who Bob Costas is, you know him cause if you’ve ever watched the Olympics he’s been the short, brunette man who is a sportscaster who’s been doing it for forty years. I can’t frickin stand this guy. He just looks condescending. I feel talked down to when he speaks. I hate how they are so overly emotional and maudlin about the Olympics. I can’t stand it.

Maurene Goo [Continually laughing in background] Did you enjoy his eye infection?

Sarah Enni One year he was the main NBC guy during the Olympics and he had pink eye so extreme that the producers were finally like, “Bob, you’ve been working for us for like fifty frickin years, but your eyeballs are disgusting and you can’t be on screen anymore.”

Maurene Goo Didn’t you felt sorry for him.

Sarah Enni I did not! I was laughing my ass off. [Humphs] I had so much joy for that moment. And Kate was there to laugh along with me.

Maurene Goo Oh my god, hilarious. I’m glad we all got to hear the Bob Costas rant. Um… next question is from Tochi Onyebuchi author of Beasts Made of Night and Crown of Thunder [listen to his First Draft episode here] another hard-hitting question.

Sarah Enni Ooh!

Maurene Goo “Favorite Deftones album and why?”

Sarah Enni [Laughs] Um, this is an excellent question from Tochi. It could only come from Tochi who has excellent musical taste. I am a big Deftones fan. Were you ever a big fan of theirs?

Maurene Goo Um, I wasn’t a big fan, but I enjoy them. They kind of get lumped into the specific era of music I listened to in college.

Sarah Enni Yeah. You and I, I think, have really similar – they diverge of course – but we have really similar music tastes and we were in the indie stuff. But in high school I was obsessed with the Deftones. And I recognize that White Pony was their best album, but I have to say that the one before that with Drive on it was the one I listened to the most.

I went to a concert once with my then boyfriend, and the lead singer – whose name is, I believe, Chino Moreno – I got to touch his stomach because he was crowd surfing. It was a big moment for me.

Maurene Goo [Laughing] I got to touch the butt of the lead singer of The Darkness, crowd surfing.

Sarah Enni Oh my god! The Darkness? That’s incredible!

Maurene Goo I don’t even remember his name.

Sarah Enni Uh, well no, but you obviously…

Maurene Goo A one-hit-wonder.

Sarah Enni You obviously remembered the title! I Believe in a Thing Called Love.

Maurene Goo Yeah, I do remember the title. That song brings me joy.

Sarah Enni If anyone listening to this hasn’t watched the music video for I Believe in a Thing Called Love by the Darkness.

Maurene Goo Oh my god. Do yourself a favor!

Sarah Enni Do yourself a favor. Have the best three minutes of your life and watch that music video.

Maurene Goo And if any of you guys have a time travel machine, go back in time and go to one of their concerts. It was the best concert I’ve ever been to.

Sarah Enni I’m so mad that I didn’t go.

Maurene Goo [Laughing] Oh my gosh. That’s a good question Tochi.

Sarah Enni Yeah!

Maurene Goo Um, next question is from Victoria Aveyard, author of the Red Queen series [listen to her First Draft episodes here and here]. “Can you talk a little bit about ghostwriting?”

Sarah Enni I sure can. So, I love that Victoria asked this question, because she knows that I did a little bit of ghostwriting. When I moved to LA, the boo didn’t …

Maurene Goo Yes! I remember now! Okay, yes.

Sarah Enni Yeah, yeah, it was a while ago. But when I moved to LA, Margaret Stohl, who is a wonderful writer of the Beautiful Creatures Series – coauthor of The Beautiful Creature Series – and many other awesome books [Cats Vs. Robots. Listen to her First Draft episode here]. Hooked me up with an agent who does a lot of ghostwriting stuff.

I ghostwrote a middle grade book for a YouTube star, and I co-ghostwrote a [story] loosely based on the life of a Vine star. Listeners… neither of those books made it to the shelves for various reasons. But I got paid for them. They did not take up an enormous amount of time. And just for the sake of transparency, this middle grade book I wrote was thirty thousand words, and I got paid ten thousand dollars, and I wrote it in three weeks.

So, that’s not bad. It really helped when I was having a financial crunch and I had fun doing it. Ultimately I felt, because I already had the podcast, and writing my own books, and at the time I was full-time being a journalist also… I felt like that wasn’t sustainable for me.

But we have a bunch of friends that do ghostwriting on the side, and one of them just re-did her bathroom because she got a ghostwriting gig. So, ghostwriting is awesome. And also we know a lot of writers who work with book packaging companies and who work on IP projects. They are really – I hope that we can move forward and be more transparent about these opportunities – because they are ways that writers can actually make a living. And it’s a way to hone your craft.

Writing that book, thirty-thousand words in three weeks on a story that wasn’t mine? Getting into someone else’s voice, telling someone else’s story? It was a great exercise. And Tell Me Everything started as an IP project. It’s completely my own, and I love it with all of my heart, it will always be my debut book, but that’s how the opportunity came to me and I was really excited for it.

Maurene Goo Okay, next question is from Jasmine Warga, author of Here We Are Now [listen to her First Draft episode here]. “I’d love to know, after interviewing so many different writers, is there any piece of advice you heard that’s particularly stuck with you and has really had an impact on your own craft or routine?”

Sarah Enni That is such a good question Jasmine. I think Jasmine’s so great, everyone should read her books. I think, after talking to all these writers, still one of the interviews that stands out to me the most, most, most, most… was sitting down with Libba Bray [author of The Diviners] really early on in the whole podcast experience. This is like an OG episode [listen to her First Draft episodes here and here].

Maurene Goo Mm-hm. I listened to that one.

Sarah Enni It just… some part of me feels indulgent having that episode out there cause it just felt like such a personal conversation to me. And she was so wonderful. But she, in that episode, had this whole thing about writers being… she called it “a particular head-tilt”. That was her way of talking about point-of-view.

Every writer has a particular way of seeing the world and processing what goes on in their lives. And the way that you write about that? She called that your “head-tilt”. And I just thought it was the first time that something connected with me so viscerally about… your book doesn’t need to be for everyone. It is truly just expressing your world.

Let me give an example in my book. I’m not a quick emotional responder. When things happen to me, I need time to process. So, in my books, emotional things happen to my characters and they aren’t in their feelings right away. They’re stunned, and trying to back out of the situation. At first, I was like, “This is a bad book! They need to be feeling stuff right away.” And then after going to therapy and listening to Libba, I was like, “You know, all I can talk about is how I process and experience the world.” So, yeah. Maybe this isn’t direct and it won’t work in all situations. But I can’t be shy about the fact that this is also a legitimate way to respond in a situation in a characters life.

Maurene Goo Right, and it’s not even a question of right or wrong. That exists as a way that some people process emotions, and your understanding of it makes it authentic. That’s something that really, to me, what sticks out in good books versus not so quote “good books”… the authenticity of the writing.

Sarah Enni Yeah. If you’re a listener to Pod Save America you’ve been hearing them talk relentlessly about how people running for president in 2020 need to be authentic, and need to be able to connect with people in a realistic way. And I think books need to pass the same test.

Maurene Goo I agree. Okay, next question is from Danielle Paige, author of Dorothy Must Die and Stealing Snow [listen to her First Draft episode here]. I’m just gonna read it because it’s very cute and very Danielle like. “Sarah, we talked so much about me. Me, me, me. And I realized that there are things I didn’t get to ask you. Where did the art connection come from in your book? Were, or are you, an artist on top of your other gifts?”

Sarah Enni Oh, okay first of all, what a sweet question. I do want to say, just as a side note like a peak behind the curtain, literally every single time I interview someone for this podcast, at the end they’re like, “I talked so much!” Every single person I’ve interviewed has said that to me. And, they’re not wrong, right? But I’m also asking you to sit down and talk about yourself for an hour to two hours. So, it’s so funny to me, still.

So, Danielle, this is such a good question. And I think, yes, when I look back on my especially pre-novel writing life, for a while in college I got really into acrylic paints. I was a photographer in high school. I took photography with a darkroom and all that stuff. So, that’s definitely in Tell Me Everything. That is exactly from my high school experience. Very anachronistic and I’m sure a lot of teenagers will bump up against that and not dig the darkroom stuff.

But I was like, as a teen - even though we had digital cameras - I thought that was so cool. So I wanted to include it for that reason. I always wished I was a musician and never could really get the hang of that. So, I think I’ve been trying out what expression was right for me my whole life. And then got lucky enough to figure out, relatively young, that writing non-fiction was my ultimate expression point.

Maurene Goo Well then Danielle has a further question which is, “How much from your real teen experience did you draw from to write this book?”

Sarah Enni Ooh. Quite a bit. So, this book is set in a place called Sudden Cove, which is a blatant rip-off of an Arrested Development joke. So, sorry about that! Sudden Valley is the name of that housing development that their building [laughing].

Maurene Goo Sudden Valley, oh my god.

Sarah Enni So, it’s possibly a deep cut, but other people will find it very obvious. Sudden Cove, though, is based on Santa Cruz, California. And when I was in high school, when we would do cut days, or whenever we had a free day on the weekend, we would all go to Santa Cruz. We were in San Jose, so it was just over the hill.

So, I associate a lot of magical moments, and a lot of really important friendship moments, with Santa Cruz. And also, Santa Cruz is a deeply strange city. Our friend, Steph Kuehn – who is a fabulous writer – went to the University… [Author of Charm & Strange. Listen to her First Draft episode here].

Maurene Goo One of my favorite writers. For real. Of all time.

Sarah Enni Writing some of the best… just books. Flat out. But, of course, YA books out there. She went to the University of California Santa Cruz and she once described that city to me as, “A place where a piano could fall out of the sky, and it wouldn’t be out of place.” And I just love it for that and I love all of the potential that that gives to a city.

And I truthfully wanted to make the city that they live in in Tell Me Everything, kind of a Stars Hollow for the West Coast. So, that was my goal with it, and that was certainly born out of my love of Santa Cruz as an actual teenager. And I think I wish I’d had Ivy’s trajectory as a young person. I wish I’d known what was the right expression artistically for me. Or, I wish I’d come to grips with myself as an artist when I was younger. Instead of not thinking that it was worth my time.

Maurene Goo I think a lot of us project what we wish we had learned as teens into our books.

Sarah Enni Yes, all the time. Totally.

Maurene Goo And you wrote Northern California well because I actually enjoyed it in your books. And even though Northern California sucks!

Sarah Enni [Laughs] Hey! NORCAL!

Maurene Goo Just kidding! I actually like Northern California, I just have to pretend to hate it cause I’m from here.

Sarah Enni I will say for the record, that you and Kirsten Hubbard, who are born and are true-blue Southern California people, I think I’ve influenced you to both start saying “Hella”.

Maurene Goo Oh my god! You have, actually. I used to make fun of hella so much and I’ve said it as least a few times.

Sarah Enni Yes!

Maurene Goo She has a silly question. Danielle. One last silly question.

Sarah Enni Love it.

Maurene Goo “Is that Taylor Swift on the cover?”

Sarah Enni [gasps] Danielle, this is such a good question!

Maurene Goo Also, “Are you a Swift-y?”

Sarah Enni Ahhhh! Okay, great. I’ll tackle these one at a time. It is not Taylor Swift, but it is a beautiful model who lives in New York. So, it’s not Taylor Swift, but it is a gorgeous, young woman. My grandmother thought it was me.

[Both laughing]

Maurene Goo I love it. I’m glad your grandma thought it was you because we all get like, “Is that you on the cover?” And I’m always like, “Is it kind of racist that everyone’s asking me?” But sometimes it’s just…

Sarah Enni No. It’s just…

Maurene Goo It’s just, “It kinda looks like you, and it’s your own book, why wouldn’t you be on your own book cover?”

Sarah Enni I know. But also, my grandma being like, “Is this you?” And it’s some stunning eighteen-year-old model. I was like, “You know what Grandma, bless you.” I love you.

Maurene Goo I know, that’s how I feel too. Like, “Thank you!”

Sarah Enni And I am a Swift-y, I’m a huge Taylor Swift… well, okay. Here’s what I’ll say. 1989 is a massively important album for me. I listened to it on loop when I was going through my divorce in New York City. Just walking that island up and down, I listened to Taylor Swift that whole summer, and it was really important to me. So I will always be grateful to her for that.

Maurene Goo Were you listening to…[starts singing] “Welcome to New York, welcome to New York!”

Sarah Enni Yes! That album makes me so emotional and I listen to that song and I think about mid-town, subway grates, smoke coming up out of it, the sun breaking out of clouds while I walk by the Flatiron. I had that whole experience that she, I’m sure, imagined people would have with that song.

Maurene Goo Taylor Swift; she is the inspiration for a lot of YA, I think.

Sarah Enni For sure.

Maurene Goo Okay. Next question is from Peter Stone, author of The Perfect Candidate [listen to his First Draft episode here]. “Why this book? And why now? How does this story connect to your life? And why is this the story you want to tell at this point in your life?”

Sarah Enni Ooh, such a good question. Peter Stone, by the way that book is so interesting and is really of-the-moment, so I think he knows what he’s talking about. He wrote a political thriller, and this is a good time to be writing about politics. I would say, one of the most timely elements about this book is social media, right? That is a big emphasis in this book and, honestly, I didn’t set out to write a critique of Silicon Valley the way that I think it ultimately ended up reading. And tell me if you got this feeling from reading the book.

But I felt like at the end I had a lot to say about… I don’t want to condemn social media, because it’s been a big part and is a big part of our lives and how we connect. And it’s done an enormous amount of social good. But I remain really critical of Silicon Valley and that culture, and their lack of self-awareness, and their lack of foresight. And the fact that young, white men are so responsible for this huge surge… it needs to be examined. And it needs to be really critically analyzed.

So, that element of my book ended up being really important.

Maurene Goo I definitely felt that. And I felt like you were saying something about when you create something like this, you can’t just wash your hands of the responsibility that comes with it. And you were writing this, I think, during the whole… when Mark “Burmkezerg” was being called to congress, right? And having those hearings and stuff. So, I could definitely see all of that in there.

Sarah Enni I created Rake Burmkezerg in June 2016. So, the whole time writing and re-writing this book. And actually, I did tell you in our longer interview that putting myself into the character really broke the book open for me. But honestly, part of unlocking the draft that worked for me, was I was looking at the book and there wasn’t a clear villain. Because no one in the book is a villain. If anything, Ivy would be the villain because she’s the one that does the “bad” thing.

So, I realized we needed an external force to be bringing in the tension in the story. And working that in made it so much better, unlocked it for me, and Rake Burmkezerg was that thing. He became the villain. And as soon as I saw that as the way the story worked, everything was smoother.

And it also was perfect because we were literally, yeah, watching Mark Zuckerberg go in front of congress and that whole embarrassing display.

Maurene Goo And especially in post-election, you know? Him saying it’s not important.

Sarah Enni “I can’t imagine that we’re part of the problem.” And now we know how unbelievably…just ludicrous that statement is.

Maurene Goo Silicon Valley, all of these geniuses – these youthful geniuses – they do have great ideas that are changing the world, right? But you can’t just take that as your like, “I did it! Anyways moving on.” Yeah, cool bro’ you made this car, but people are getting beheaded because the tech isn’t there yet. You know what I mean?

Sarah Enni  Kumail Nanjiani, who is a brilliant actor who was on the TV show Silicon Valley, they do a great job of sending up Silicon Valley. I love that show even though it’s tough to watch sometimes. He had this tweet thread at some point, where it was talking about the people who write and create that show went on this tour interviewing people in Silicon Valley, and that they would be in the room with them when they were describing the stuff that they were developing and Kumail said, “We would ask them about the potential downsides of what they were creating.” And he said, “They didn’t have a good answer. They didn’t have canned answers.” It had clearly been the first time they’d ever considered the downside.

Maurene Goo I read that too. It was a bunch of tweets. He did a thread and it was really alarming.

Sarah Enni It was so alarming and also, not surprising at all. That is the culture out there and that’s what I think is the most insidious part of this is like, “Your optimistic view of the world just isn’t the real one. And you can’t assume everyone else on this planet…” Facebook now has a billion users. There not all going into this with good intentions! Of course there’s some bad actors. Are you kidding me? You never put in a fail safe? Give me a break.

Maurene Goo I know. And have the shame to own up to your own part in it and your mistakes [sighs]. Anyways…back to YA related questions. Sabaa Tahir, author of Ember In The Ashes series [listen to her First Draft episode here].

Sarah Enni And former journalist herself.

Maurene Goo Yes, she’s the best. She has a couple of questions. “I’m always so impressed by your interview questions. How has your interviewing process evolved over the years?” So, this is a podcast specific question.

Sarah Enni I love that! Thank you Sabaa for this question. It totally has evolved and in different ways over different stages. So, at the beginning I would really let interviews go on long. I would talk to people for two, to two-and-a-half hours. Now I really try to keep it between an hour to an hour-and-a-half. And honestly a good interview is forty minutes.

If I can keep it succinct then that’s probably for the better. I was listening to two-hour podcasts back then, but not everyone needs to sit down for an hour-and-a-half. I try to make them more succinct.

I had help achieving that goal because I hired a producer to help me put this podcast together. She is so much more skilled at that than I ever was. So being more to the point in my questions and cutting off people who… I think I started with total deference to the interviewee. Assuming this person knows exactly what they want to say and how they want to say it. And truthfully, that’s actually not the case.

An interviewee is the only one who has access to what I’m interested in which is their internal life. But it’s my job to keep them on track and to help them shape this interview so that they get across what they want to get across. And sounding the best that they can.

So, it is my job to redirect if things are going off the rails, and push people on questions if they’re not answering them. And then to edit it out later and make sure that it all is really interesting to the listener and putting the listener first.

So, that’s all changed over time. Yeah, I think that’s all [laughs].

Maurene Goo So, this is Sabaa’s next question, “What’s been your most memorable writing experience? Like a retreat, or a chapter you finished, or a reaction you had?”

Sarah Enni Wow, oh interesting. When I went to LA and my super, super talented friends here started reading my books and having emotional reactions to them? The first couple of times that someone told me that I made them cry when I wrote a book? You know, you can’t replace that feeling.

Maurene Goo Yeah, you always want to make people laugh or cry [emphatically] nothing in between! Boring!

Sarah Enni No. They’re both at the same time would be the ideal.

Maurene Goo Next question is from Sam Maggs author of Girl Squads [listen to her First Draft episode here]. “We all know writing means killing your darlings. Anything you had to cut that really stung?”

Sarah Enni Ooh! [pauses] Wow, that’s a really great question. I’ve rewritten this book so many times that that is a tough one. The second chapter of this book features a truly ridiculous, self-made boat competition…

[Both laugh]

Sarah Enni It’s so weird to even describe. A bunch of people who made their own boats are competing to see who could not sink. Trying to challenge the ocean I guess. And that scene I added at the very last minute. So I kind of rescued my darling because I realized the second chapter was boring. They were just chatting in her living room or something. I was like, “What we want to do as far as establishing the scene, getting Veil out there, and seeing our main character in her world, needs to be done in that world. It actually needs to be more interesting.”

And this weird boat race was totally my darling. It had a very different beginning. The original scene was really different, but I went and rescued that premise for that chapter.

Maurene Goo And now everybody has to read the book so they can read this boat scene.

Sarah Enni Yes, it features one of my favorite characters who has no lines. Henrick? I think? The Swedish TA.

[Both laughing]

Maurene Goo I think I imagined him as hot.

Sarah Enni Yeah, oh I describe him as violently blonde. A tall Swede. That was all for me [laughing].

Maurene Goo Awesome. So, the next question is from Alison Cherry, author of The Pros of Cons [and Red] and many more [listen to her First Draft episodes here and here]. And she asks, “Do you have any Podcast recommendations?”

Sarah Enni Oh boy, do I ever. I love podcasts. I listen to tons of them. If you ever meet me in person, you can always ask me what I’m listening to and it will probably be different all the time. Ones that I keep up on really regularly are Pod Save America, and the NPR Politics podcast. I listen to The Daily almost every single morning. I love Keep It also, which is like a pop culture podcast. And I love the narrative, what’s the one I’m trying to think of… [not] Serial, but… S-Town.

Maurene Goo Oh, S-Town. Mm-hm, mm-hm. The best.

Sarah Enni Transcendent one. But also, if you want to, I’m always giving new podcast recommendations in my newsletter, which you can sign up for at SarahEnni.com or FirstDraftPod.com. It’s a great place to keep up with what I’m listening to.

Maurene Goo Okay, next question is fromBeth Revis, author of the Across The Universe series and the Give The Dark My Love series [listen to her First Draft podcast here]. “Was there a bit of research that was fascinating, that was barely there on the page, but helped you write the story?”

Sarah Enni This is a really interesting question because I know as writers, we often go down rabbit holes about little things. There’s a bunch of stuff that’s not in the book hardcore, that was still really inspiring to me. I went on several research trips to Santa Cruz, but one in particular that was very explicitly going to a bunch of different sites in Santa Cruz and checking them out. And that time I definitely went to the Big Foot Museum which is in Felton, California just outside of Santa Cruz.

It’s the Big Foot Discovery Museum and I describe it in Tell Me Everything pretty accurately.

Maurene Goo [Chuckles] Very wacky.

Sarah Enni It was very wacky. And then Elbows Kitchen in Tell Me Everything is a really funky place that’s based on a real place that’s called Kitchen’s Temple, which is in Santa Cruz. And then the Jeff Goldblum stuff, right? I watched all those movies. I watched Independence Day and Jurassic Park on loop while I was doing revisions for this book.

So, it’s kind of a big part of even marketing and promoting for the book, but it’s not in there that much.

Maurene Goo Just the spirit of Jeff.

Sarah Enni [Giggles] Exactly.

Maurene Goo Also, your book takes place in a town like Santa Cruz? Or in Santa Cruz?

Sarah Enni It’s in a town that is based on Santa Cruz.

Maurene Goo So hence, all the Santa Cruz research.

Sarah Enni Yeah.

Maurene Goo Next question is from Leigh Bardugo, author of the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows series, and her upcoming book, Ninth House [listen to her First Draft interviews here and here]. “I always find it hard to transition between talking about writing and actually writing. How do you manage this transition since you have to do it so frequently?”

Sarah Enni Yeah, that’s a really good question. It is interesting. I guess when I look at it, days on which I do podcast interviews I typically don’t write also. And that’s a timing issue as well. So, I think that is how it breaks down.

But also, it’s interesting to hear her say that, cause when I do the podcast interviews. I don’t think about them as talking about writing. I mean, you are talking about writing for sure, but it’s about ideas, and concepts, and some of life. I kind of think about it more of getting to know somebody as opposed to with the explicit purpose of talking about the nuts and bolts of writing.

So, I think on days when I am able to write and do podcast stuff, it doesn’t actually trip me up that much.

Maurene Goo Right, I feel like it’s maybe also just low-key, giving you a lot of inspiration without it being explicitly writing related.

Sarah Enni Totally, I agree with that.

Maurene Goo Okay, next question is from Kaitlin Ward, author of Where She Fell [listen to her First Draft podcast interview here]. “What was your favorite scene to write in Tell Me Everything?”

Sarah Enni Oh, good question Kaitlin! My favorite scene was – now I don’t remember which chapter it is in the book – but it’s the chapter when Ivy meets this guy Nate for the first time.

Maurene Goo I like that scene.

Sarah Enni Yeah! He’s such a cutie, and she totally has a crush on him. And what’s funny is that that scene stayed the same. That was one of the first things I wrote. Actually, it might have been the scene I wrote to send Amanda as like a, “Here’s a sample of my writing and my tone.” And it just stayed almost completely untouched through three massive rewrites of this book.

It felt like her voice right away. It felt funny. It was very spontaneous when I wrote it. And that was kind of the chapter I kept going back to, to be like, “This is Ivy. This is Ivy’s voice. Let’s remember this.”

Maurene Goo Mm, interesting. That scene does stick out for me so that makes sense. Okay, next question is from Brandy Colbert, author of Little And Lion and The Revolution of Birdie Randolph [listen to her First Draft interviews here and here]. “What is the most surprising thing about your reading life?”

Sarah Enni Oh, interesting. You and I in our interview talked about how much we liked to read adult contemporary – or adult writing, adult novels – and non-fiction.  Some people have been surprised by, I guess, how broadly I read. And then some people are also surprised that I’m not able to read every single book from everyone I interview on this podcast.

Maurene Goo Oh, my gosh. That would be impossible.

Sarah Enni It definitely is impossible. Especially with it being weekly and people who are on this podcast having written so many books. So, I haven’t read  the books of every single person that’s been on the podcast, although I try to keep up with a lot of them.

And I wish I read more graphic novels. I don’t read any graphic novels.

Maurene Goo You should because they’re fast.

Sarah Enni I know, right?

Maurene Goo That’s the best part of graphic novels. You’re like, “Oh, I finished this wonderful story in literally one hour. It took the artist seven years to make.”

Sarah Enni [Laughing] I know.

Maurene Goo It always makes me feel bad. Well Brandy had a real important follow-up question.

Sarah Enni Mm.

Maurene Goo “What is Hammer the cats origin story?”

Sarah Enni Oh, my gosh! For anyone who doesn’t know, I have a cat – a tuxedo cat – named Hammer. He is about eight-years-old, and he is the best cat in the world. Brandy was able to live with him for a while. When I first moved to LA, I lived with Brandy, so she knows Hammer quite well.

He was originally born in West Virginia. So, he was like a street cat, even though it’s impossible to imagine now because he is a very spoiled indoor cat. But he had a brother named Chico I think.

Maurene Goo [giggles] What?

Sarah Enni He came with the name Hammer. It was Hammer and Chico.

Maurene Goo Hammer is a really good name.

Sarah Enni It’s pretty great. So, he is my writing buddy and my best friend.

Maurene Goo He is also what I like to call, he’s a classic “scamp”, right?

Sarah Enni He is a scamp!

Maurene Goo When I think of the word scamp, it’s Hammer.

Sarah Enni Aminah [Mae Safi], calls him a rake [laughing]. [Author of the upcoming Tell Me How You Really Feel (listen to her First Draft interview here)

Maurene Goo Oh, my god! He is a rake too! That’s very accurate. He’s a hero in a romance novel. Next question is from Kayla Cagan, author of Piper Perish and Art Boss [listen to her First Draft interview here]. She says, “Okay, a silly-ish question, but I’m genuinely interested. Do you have uniforms, or looks, for when you podcast or write? Like, do you have certain rules, or habits, or rituals that change when you are using one part of your skill set versus another? For example, I know a writer who insists that she will never write in yoga pants, or sweat pants, because she thinks they are too unstructured. And says,  ‘sloppy pants, sloppy thoughts.’ When you were writing Tell Me Everything, did you notice a change in your wardrobe? Were you drawn to certain colors more? Or, did you stay away from certain things?”

Sarah Enni I love this question!

Maurene Goo Such a fun question.

Sarah Enni This is such a fun question. This is one I might steal and ask some people on the podcast cause it’s such a good one. I don’t differentiate with what I wear when I do the podcast versus writing. But I would say I don’t wear yoga pants.

Maurene Goo Yeah, I’ve never seen you in yoga pants in my life.

Sarah Enni Oh, that’s great! I’m gonna keep that going. I write in coffee shops and I always do First Draft podcast interviews in person with my subject. So, I want to look like a professional, so I at least have jeans on. You are a clothing… what is it? Clothes Horse? Is that what it is called? You are a clothing aficionado.

Maurene Goo You bet. Mm-hm.

Sarah Enni So, I’m sure you notice this even more than I probably notice it, but I do tend to have uniforms. But it’s not writing based, or work based, it’s more like… I think about shopping once every three months. And then I want to buy what I wear for the next three months, all in one go. And it’s usually the same thing. And then I wear versions of the same thing for months, until there’s holes in them.

Maurene Goo It goes back to what you said in your interview which is, you want to eliminate choice.

Sarah Enni Exactly.

Maurene Goo So, I think maybe that’s what you do. To prepare, like that’s how you prepare your clothes for making it optimal for thinking.

Sarah Enni I totally do that, yeah.

Maurene Goo Yes.

Sarah Enni So, that’s a really good question Kayla. I wouldn’t say as a rule, [but] I pretty much wear black, gray, red or jewel tones.

Maurene Goo Yeah, you do. You do wear jewel tones very well.

Sarah Enni Thank you so much.

Maurene Goo They’re universally flattering.

Sarah Enni They are universally flattering.

Maurene Goo Too bad I don’t wear colors.

Sarah Enni And then I will say, when we go to festivals and stuff, when we do author events, obviously I wear dresses and dress up for that.

Maurene Goo Right, right. Public facing.

Sarah Enni Exactly.

Maurene Goo So, Susan Dennard[listen to her First Draft episode here] author of the Witchlands series asks, “But I’d love to know what keeps you going, keeps you writing, keeps you focused even when the going is tough? I know everyone has a different reason for committing to this tough biz and I’d love to know yours.”

Sarah Enni This is a really good question. I kind of wish I had a more clear answer. But I will say that I just had the experience, which we talked about a little bit, of doing a rewrite of a book. And going through a drafting process. I had been kind of in a funk for maybe a couple of months and then I really dove into drafting and was writing about two thousand words every day. Taking two or more hours every day to just really be present, focus, be in the draft. Write a bunch. And man, I just felt good. I felt better. For that two months I was calmer and happier.

So, I think that though being an author can have a lot of other distracting elements to it, that it was a good reminder that when I’m writing, I’m a happier person. And that’s the heart of all of it, right? It makes me happy to do it. So that was a good reminder of what keeps me going. And also, I think I just love my ideas. I really like my stories. I really like my characters. And I want to get in there and figure them out like puzzle pieces, you know?

I find it enormously satisfying, just as a mental game to want to solve the puzzle. So, those keep me going and, like I said, the podcast does too. I think talking to other writers keeps me engaged and aware of the exciting parts of it in a more regular way. So that keeps me going back to it.

Maurene Goo You’re never isolated from it. You’re around the industry and it keeps you on top of things.

Sarah Enni I really don’t know. It took me so long to write this book. If I didn’t have the podcast… I don’t know.

Maurene Goo Yeah, you never know.

Sarah Enni If I would have been able to stay so motivated.

Maurene Goo Well, let’s not imagine such nightmares.

Sarah Enni [Laughs]

Maurene Goo Next question is from Amerie, editor of the Because You Love to Hate Me. The anthology that you were a part of. And everyone should by her new albums 4 AM MULHOLLAND and AFTER 4 AM.

Sarah Enni In addition to being an amazing pop star, Ameriie is a really talented writer.

Maurene Goo And she just had a baby.

Sarah Enni She just had a baby. She’s like the woman doing everything.

Maurene Goo Yeah, she’s a boss. So, she asks, “You’ve had a ten year path to publication, what’s your greatest lesson learned about yourself and your writing process?”

Sarah Enni I am a stubborn, stubborn person. I don’t think I needed the writing process to teach me that, but it is a good illustration of that. And stubborn, maybe that sounds negative to some people, but I definitely see it as a positive. I’m pretty persistent. And I’m ambitious. And those things all come together and have served me well to do it.

Maurene Goo A lot of people have talent but they don’t have any of that. And it doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t finish.

Sarah Enni You can grow your talent. You can develop talent. I mean, to some extent you’re born feeling like you can write or not, but you can always get better at something that you have an innate skill at. You can’t always teach yourself to be stubborn or persistent.

Maurene Goo I don’t think of you as a stubborn person, but I do think of you as persistent.

Sarah Enni My mom’s gonna laugh really hard when she hears you say that!

[Both laughing]

Maurene Goo And then our last question is from Sara Farizan [author of Here to Stay. Listen to her First Draft interview here] and she asks, “I guess this is selfish, but I usually ask writers what they do when they feel stuck? Because I often feel stuck and want advice on that. For example, there’s a time you’ve carved out for your writing/you must make word count and nothing is happening.”

“Also, you can have Maurene ask how’d you get so wonderful. Good luck.”

Sarah Enni Aww.

[Both laughing]

Sarah Enni Sara’s such a sweetie. That’s a really good question and I’m glad that she asks other people that. I would love to hear what other people say. But I think when I get stuck, I recognize that it’s probably a problem in the book, or a plot, or the scene isn’t working. Something’s not being served. Something that I do, and I don’t know if you do this, I’m a very visual person in my own mind. How I picture what the story is. I think about my books as like Tetris kind of pieces coming together.

So, often I will want to step back and go back to my outline and reread that and see like, “Okay, if I’m really stuck and something’s not working, what is meant to happen now? Something else should be going on.” So, I kind of step back and look at the bigger picture. And sometimes I just need a break honestly. Sometimes I will just give myself a week off to do other stuff.

I’m lucky to have the podcast in that way cause sometimes I can be like, “I can still be productive this week.” But I do need to give my mind a break.

Maurene Goo Right. It’s such an important thing even if you’re not writing you still want to feel like you’re doing something towards something that actually helps you in life, or as part of your bigger goals.

Sarah Enni It’s true. What do you do when you’re stuck Maurene?

Maurene Goo Oh? I’m very generous with taking breaks because I learned the hard way I can’t force myself. So yeah, I take breaks for almost as long as I want. I know that’s not a luxury everybody has but even when I’m on deadline I do that and I just push myself like crazy at the end.

But I just have an innate sense of how long it’s gonna take me to do things and my body’s like, “We’re gonna use every last second!”

Sarah Enni You know what? I was just reading a book that was talking about how different people’s work process is, and if you’re someone who wants to stay up all night to do the thing right before it’s due…she was like, just go with it.

Maurene Goo That’s been me my whole life. And I’m like, “Why am I doing this?” But it’s like, “You know what? I think if I started this three weeks ago, it wouldn’t even be good!” To be honest. I don’t have that panic pushing me.

But anyways, those were a bunch of lovely questions. Thank you everybody who sent one.

Sarah Enni Yeah, thank you everyone for the questions and thank you everybody who is listening to this. And thank you, Maurene, for taking the time to do this.

Maurene Goo You’re welcome.

Both: Bye!

[Theme music plays]


SUBSCRIBE TO FIRST DRAFT WITH SARAH ENNI

Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender, or John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.

Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. It’s free!

RATE, REVIEW, AND RECOMMEND

How do you like the show?

Please take a moment to rate and review First Draft with Sarah Enni in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Your honest and positive review helps others discover the show -- so thank you!

Is there someone you think would love this podcast as much as you do?

Please share this episode on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or via carrier pigeon (maybe try a text or e-mail, come to think of it). Just click the Share button at the bottom of this post!

Thanks again!

Sarah Enni

First Draft Episode #170: Sarah Enni - Transcript

Date: February 28, 2019


Sarah Enni, debut author of Tell Me Everything and usually the host of the First Draft podcast, answers questions from fellow YA writer Maurene Goo! Sarah shares her lengthy path to publishing, the role of humor and tone in contemporary fiction, her outlining process, and the one cross-country flight that changed everything.

The original post for this episode can be found here.


[Theme music plays]

Maurene Goo Welcome to First Draft with me Maurene Goo. Today I’m talking to Sarah Enni, debut author of Tell Me Everything and, well, the host of this podcast FIRST DRAFT. I loved what she had to say about what it means to debut as a seasoned pro, finding home in books no matter where you are, and how one life-changing, cross-country flight turned her into a YA author. So please, sit back, relax, and enjoy the conversation.

Maurene Goo This is a momentous day. Hi Sarah!

Sarah Enni Hi Maurene.

Maurene Goo How are you?

Sarah Enni I’m doing great. How are you doing?

Maurene Goo Good. Well, this is very awkward. I’m [pauses] nervous about asking you questions [giggling]. So, let’s start where you always start.

Sarah Enni Okay.

Maurene Goo Where were you born and raised?

Sarah Enni So, this question for me is a little complicated. I’m not going to repeatedly say “People who listen to this podcast know…”

Maurene Goo Honestly, I feel like this episode is gonna be a good test. Like, “How loyal of a First Draft listener are you? Can you cobble together Sarah’s history from the billions of episodes in the past?”

Sarah Enni I know. I think people could know a lot about me if they culled the episodes, but…

Maurene Goo They could, but you know what? I was thinking about this as I was preparing your questions, even though I’ve known you for a long time, and we’ve talked about everything, and I think I know a lot about your life, I’ve never heard you sit here and answer these questions as directly as all of our friends have.

Sarah Enni I know. And every time I do an episode with one of our friends I feel like I learn something new.

Maurene Goo Yeah. I feel like I’m gonna learn a lot of new stuff today.

Sarah Enni Oh, alright, well, let’s see! So, where was I born and raised is kind of a complicated question because I lived all over the place. I was born in Tacoma, Washington. When I was five I moved to Arizona for a year or so… my brother was born there. And then we moved to Texas, in Arlington, between Dallas and Fort Worth. I lived there all through elementary school. When I was twelve I moved to California and went all through school in San Jose. And then I went back to Seattle for college.

Right after college I moved to D.C. and then from D.C. I lived at home with my mom for about six months to save up money and move to Los Angeles in 2015.

Maurene Goo Ooh, which is when we met.

Sarah Enni Yes.

Maurene Goo So, you moved around a lot. And I feel like when I met you I’m always like, “Oh Sarah’s…” for some reason I’m like, “You’re so Seattle!”  Because you like football and you care about your Seattle teams, so I’m always like, “Sarah’s from Seattle.” And then I was like, “No, she’s actually [from] Northern California.” That’s why I bond with you. You grew up with a lot of Asian girlfriends.

Sarah Enni It’s true, it’s true.

Maurene Goo [Laughing] I can tell, I can tell. But in actuality, you’ve hopped around a lot. And I kind of feel like there’s no way that doesn’t inform you as a writer.

Sarah Enni Yeah.

Maurene Goo I was wondering, we usually ask, “How was reading and writing a part of all of that?” I’d be interested to see how that fit into your nomadic childhood?

Sarah Enni For sure. It was definitely a big… my mom talks about… you know when you look back, there’s only some things you remember, but recently my mom was like, “Oh no, when we moved to a new house, the first thing we did was find the library.” We’d go to the library and check out dozens and dozens of books and go back every week. So, I know I was definitely using books to feel comfortable while we were doing all of this moving around and adjusting.

I was the oldest kid too, so when you move and you’re the oldest kid – at least for me in my experience – it was like I felt the need to put on this brave face and prove to my parents over and over that, “I was doing fine!” And like, “I was gonna be okay!” Cause we were moving for my dad’s job and it was important for the family and all this stuff.

So, I think that books [were] a place where I could go to escape, and have feelings expressed that I wasn’t able to, or didn’t feel comfortable doing. And just get lost in these stories of other worlds. Moving around a whole bunch also made me less scared about new things, which I think made me a pretty adventurous reader, also.

But yeah, you are really a lot better at remembering all the stuff you read when you were younger. I definitely also read Babysitter’s Club and all those books – devoured them. But I got into, like The Giver was a big turning point for me and opened my world up. And then, on my own, I was reading Hamlet… for some reason [chuckles]. And the Lord of the Flies I read on my own first, which was so interesting. And then my mom was a sci-fi fantasy reader, so I got really into Lord of the Rings and all kinds of epic fantasy too.

Maurene Goo How old were you when you were reading those? Lord of the Flies, Lord of the Rings – all the lords.

Sarah Enni All the lords!

Maurene Goo All of the lords were written by men.

[both laughing]

Sarah Enni I know, right?

Maurene Goo They love lords.

Sarah Enni They do love their lords.  I was definitely in California when those were coming around, so probably middle grade and early high school. I don’t know if you feel this way, but I still read a whole lot after I got my driver’s license, but I think sixteen and getting your driver’s license is a big shift. I became more social and was doing more out-of-the-house stuff. But when I was at home, lonely, bored, I was definitely reading a lot of books and listening to a lot of music, and kind of staring into space.

Maurene Goo Same. I mean that’s how I escaped what I thought was a hellish childhood. Which, obviously, I did not have a hellish childhood. But, you know?

So, you said your driver’s license and you got to do things… I did not get my license till college.

Sarah Enni Really?

Maurene Goo I was just a late bloomer. I tried in high school and I failed the driver’s test twice. I’m going to defend myself and say that the California driving test is notoriously hard. A lot of people failed it. Maybe people are gonna make fun of me after this, but it’s true.

Sarah Enni I just love that you’re an LA baby and you’re like, “No, I was not in a hurry to get a driver’s license.”

Maurene Goo My friend Chris, always drove me around in his Honda Civic. So, you always had a friend that drove.

Sarah Enni Yes.

Maurene Goo Maybe you could talk about that. What happened to… cause this, I think, all is important to you being a YA author. This shift in your adolescence.

Sarah Enni Yeah, you know, I can remember a conversation that changed me a lot in high school with a teacher. This is a long story for off-mic, but this teacher ended up not being a good person, but he had a great impact on my life. After freshman year of high school, I was really hiding my feelings. I was ironic and sarcastic, super-scared to be earnest about stuff, and scared to succeed in a lot of ways. Though I was getting good grades, I was into my shell, I think.

And this teacher at some point, I was working with him on yearbook actually, this was my yearbook advisor, and he was like, “You know, you’re capable of so much more, if you just let yourself care about it.” And whatever he said, and whatever the timing was, it just hit me in the right way. And that was a really big shift for me mentally.

I consciously decided to change my attitude. I opened up to a lot more people. I joined things. I was part of this – we didn’t have Spirit Week – the football team wasn’t important in my high school. My high school was the number one Speech and Debate school in the country. And people were just too cool for sports and it was a really weird  - like the ASB kids were the cool kids. And I was on ASB to be clear.

Maurene Goo That was like my high school, I think.

Sarah Enni Yeah, yeah. I think there’s a lot more schools like that than we think. But, I was part of this crew of kids who were like, “No, let’s have spirit and be proud of where we are.” Like, “If we’re here, why not be proud of it.” So, I had this revival of earnestness in that stage of life. And I really flourished, actually, in high school. So, I have good memories of that time. Which actually, is different I think, than a lot of YA writers.

Maurene Goo Actually, you sound like you’d be a character in one of my books.

Sarah Enni [Chuckles loudly] I relate!

Maurene Goo Except your teacher solved all of your problems, your character arc, in one conversation.

Sarah Enni In one, I know. It’s not even worth a book. But when I read in I Believe in a Thing Called Love, I was like, “Yeah, Desi, I get you!” A grade A person, or a type A person who sees what she wants and goes after it. That’s kind of what I became by the end of school.

Maurene Goo Yeah, you’re pretty driven. So, we’re gonna get to that. I actually want to know then how writing, talk about reading and how it fit into all of this. When did you start writing? And when did it actually become something that you were aware of as a skill that you had?

Sarah Enni That’s a really good question, and it’s evolved for me over the course of doing this podcast. Cause I always look back and was like, “No, I was never really writing.” I don’t know. I would discount my past experience, for some reason. And then over the course of doing this podcast, my mom started sending me stuff that she got out of her attic. I was actually writing a family newsletter when I was a kid. They got me a typewriter, and I wrote this like “Page Six” family newsletter. It was like, “Dad’s been gone on a quote “business trip”.”  I was like, “What?!”

Maurene Goo Remember Little Women? That’s what they did. That’s what Jo did. She made a little newspaper. I don’t know if it was just their family, or they made it up.

Sarah Enni Maybe that’s where I got it. I don’t know, but that was so funny. And I also wrote for school. I wrote a bunch of poems and illustrated them. And actually, I remember in third grade I won… the whole third grade had a competition for a short story, and they read mine out loud. I don’t know if I won anything, but they chose to read one of mine out loud. But they did make a note before they read it like, “Not every story needs conflict.” Cause it was a story about three bears that just had a picnic, and it was just a nice day.

[Both laugh]

Sarah Enni But I remember being super, super proud. And then when I moved to California, I got really into [pauses]. I was writing, me and my group of – and when I say “misfits”- I mean for real. They were so kind and sweet, but we were all just clinging to each other because we felt like we were so out of place. And I would write all of us being in high school on a ship like Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. And then I would share it with them. It was a way to connect with them and to put ourselves out of the real world that we were in.

Then as I got more comfortable in California, and got a group of friends, I was still writing poetry because I had “deep feelings”, especially about boys. So, I was writing poetry that were kind of based on song lyrics. And then what I realized recently when I went back to do Juvinalia for YallWest, I looked back at my old poetry journals - and I don’t remember this-  but I was going back and editing them, actually. So, I was not only writing poetry, but I was editing the poems and making them better. Which is something I totally forgot that I’d done.

So, it was in the back of my mind. I remember always thinking I’d be disappointed if I didn’t write a book one day. I had a dream in college, that I still think is a good idea for a book, or maybe a movie. But, that was the first time when I was like, “Maybe I’ll start writing this down.” When I went to college, I knew that writing was a skill I had. I actually got a five on the AP Writing test.

Maurene Goo Oh my god! So did I!

Sarah Enni I was super proud of that.

Maurene Goo So nerdy! Can I get a fist bump right now?

[Fist bumping ensues]

Sarah Enni And I truly went into college being like, “Here’s what I’m good at – writing. What can I do with it?” I did not at all think about writing books or non-fiction. I went to journalism. Then I had that dream and was like, “Maybe I can write something.” But it died off and it didn’t come back again until my dad passed away.  And that was when I was twenty-three.

Maurene Goo So, after you graduated college.

Sarah Enni After I graduated, it was 2008. I moved to D.C. with my then boyfriend, for him to go to medical school. Super lonely. Didn’t have any friends out there. My dad died within months of us moving there. And I found Twilight.

I was taking an overnight, red-eye plane, home from his memorial service. From San Francisco to D.C. and I read Twilight.

Maurene Goo The whole flight?

Sarah Enni The whole flight. So, I finished it by the time we landed and I got off the plane and was like, “I need to buy the rest of these three books.” And also, “I think I can do this.” And I immediately started writing it.

Maurene Goo Then in between that, when you wanted to do journalism, but then you decided you didn’t want to. So, when you graduated, what were your plans?

Sarah Enni I stuck with journalism.

Maurene Goo Oh, you did? Okay.

Sarah Enni Yeah, yeah. So, I got a Journalism and English degree and I really still love journalism a lot. I still want to write non-fiction in a journalistic way at some point. Our friend Zan Romanoff [listen to her First Draft podcast here] is also a freelance writer.

Maurene Goo She’s excellent.

Sarah Enni She’s so, so good. She’s such a talented writer. And some of the featured type of stuff she writes I would love to do stuff like that at some point. So, my first job out of college was an internship at Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, I worked at Washington Business Journal for a while. Then I had a couple of journalism jobs writing about nuclear waste and the legal industry. So, that paid the bills for a long time until I could focus on writing full-time.

Maurene Goo I really want to get to the Twilight part of your life, but you just flew over this journalism stuff. But you have this podcast, and this is a journalism outlet for you. I want to hear more about the stuff that you have covered as a journalist. Because you’ve told me that you would go see Supreme Court cases, right?

Sarah Enni Yes. I went to one Supreme Court case.

Maurene Goo That’s amazing!

Sarah Enni Life highlight! Okay, I’ll tell one story from college that actually didn’t, at the time, feel important. But looking back I’m like, “Oh!” We had this cool class in journalism that was about interviewing. And they set up this big room in the communications department, they had actors come in groups. They were like, “Okay. Here’s the scene. You are the first to arrive at an apartment fire. These are all actors playing different people who are affected by that.” The manager, the super, people who live in the building, neighbors. Your job is to deal with people who are at the height of emotion, and try to get the story.

And we would go around the room, and these actors were really great. It’s also the first time that someone’s crying in my face while I’m still trying to ask them questions. It was super intense. But they had planted that there was a story to get to, right? By the end of it… and I was intimidated at that journalism program. I had friends that were in that program, and they were really talented. But by the end of the session, the woman running it turned to me and was like, “You got the closest.”

She was like, “The way you structured your questions, and the way that you built on the story you heard from every other person, you were the one that got the closest.” And basically, that I have interview skills. And then moving forward into my professional life, I did get to cover congress. I got to cover Supreme Court cases. I got to travel for my job, and go to conferences, and talk to lawyers, and scientists. Nuclear waste is completely fascinating, actually.

Maurene Goo Yeah, I’m sure it is.

Sarah Enni It is.

Maurene Goo Nobody knows anything about it.

Sarah Enni No. And I know a lot about it still, which is wild. TLDR – I am in support of nuclear power. But it was all a challenge of not only asking good questions, but making connections. Because you have sources. People… you need to treat them well, and quote them respectfully. And conduct your interviews respectfully in order for them to want to talk to you again. And I got pretty good at that.

Maurene Goo It’s essentially story telling.

Sarah Enni Yes.

Maurene Goo I think about that a lot too because I too, like you, knew I was a writer when I graduated high school. And I didn’t know what to do, so I wanted to pursue journalism. I was editor-in chief of my high school newspaper, blah blah.

Sarah Enni You should read Maurene’s book Since You Asked which is about a high school newspaper.

Maurene Goo Yes, it is.

Sarah Enni My mom’s favorite book [laughing].

Maurene Goo [Laughing] It is your mom’s favorite book! Ah, I love Julz. But I feel like at the time, and it’s only now as a writer of fiction, and someone who listens to a lot of podcasts, and a lot of non-fiction - I read non-fiction. I’ve had a subscription to the New Yorker for however long - that I’m like, “Oh. That was all storytelling.” It just wasn’t the format that I wanted. I thought like, “Oh, news is boring. I’m not interested in current events.” But that’s not what it is. If you’re good at it you’re telling a story.

Sarah Enni Yes. I couldn’t agree more. And every once-in-a-while you’ll read a story that, all of a sudden by the end of that article, you’re like, “I get this. I get this issue now.” And that’s because reporters have so much information. They have so much knowledge. They’re so smart about these issues. And when you get someone who’s a skilled reporter, and also a skilled storyteller, then you get – in my opinion – the best writing that’s possible to do as a human on this earth right now is narrative non-fiction.

I just think that that’s the most impressive thing. So, I love reading narrative non-fiction books, and long feature articles. And when people do that skillfully, to me it’s the most effective type of writing.

Maurene Goo I have an appreciation for it now and I still love the non-fiction form and essay form. I love reading Zan’s stuff. So, I want to put a pin on that because that goes into other things you might be interested in.

Sarah Enni The last thing I do want to say about that, just for people who are listening who are newer writers, is that journalism is such a good thing too. When you find an article that reads like fiction, but it’s non-fiction, notice how they set the scene. You and I have been talking lately about contemporary writers, and setting, and an immersive feeling while you are reading books. I think that’s what I learned from journalism. Is context is everything. And your characters being two talking heads in a scene with no context, or smells, or feelings or textures… is boring. Really good non-fiction writers completely put you in the room.

Maurene Goo Right, because they’re observing. And we as fiction writers, some people – obviously a lot of people do this well, but I include myself - you forget to fill in those details. Four books in [and] that is what I’m learning like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got to describe stuff a little bit more.”

Sarah Enni I think some people write contemporary thinking it’s gonna be easier because you can make assumptions. Everyone lives in this world so we can skip over some of those descriptions. And I would argue, everyone sees our world in different ways. The things you notice aren’t what other people notice. And the details that you would bring to a scene. Or, when you imagine someone’s beach house, what does that mean. It’s different for everyone in their own mind. So, guiding the reader a little bit goes a long way.

Maurene Goo Yeah, totally agree. I’m glad you mention that. But I want to backtrack to when you realized you wanted to write YA when you read Twilight. And it’s very interesting you brought that up, cause Twilight was not the book for me, but it was one of the books when I read [it] I was like, “This is achievable.” Which is not an insult to Twilight.

Sarah Enni Uh-uh. No.

Maurene Goo I think you realize like, “Oh, the simple story of a girl who feels like an outsider, and then finds a way to find her own family or group of people.”

That’s essentially what that [is]. It’s about love, and vampires, whatever.  But that’s what it is, and you’re like, “Oh yeah.” And you can do it in so many different ways… like a vampire story.

So, let’s hear about your journey to YA. People… you may think that Sarah is new to YA, but she is not. Like a lot of YA authors out there who are technically debuts, they have been in this game for a long time. We have seen all the drama. And all of this new drama that people are bringing, it’s like old news. Sarah’s seen a lot of drama through her YA journey. So, let’s talk about your YA journey.

Sarah Enni Well that’s an awesome way to start. Twilight was… I think it was just before the movie came out and it was blowing up. It had been out for a while, but it was really blowing up. So, I was in this situation of having this red-eye flight and literally in my bag I had the biography of Andrew Jackson by what’s-his-name? [Pauses] American Lion.  And I don’t want to be maudlin on this, but it was also the book that I had gotten my dad for Christmas, and then he died.

It was the only book in my bag and I was like, “I’m not gonna sleep on this flight. What, am I gonna read this book?” Like, “No!” So, I was in the Hudson News and I saw Twilight and I was like, “Why don’t I just do myself a kindness and buy this mass-market… let’s see what this is about.” By the end of the flight I was at baggage claim waiting for my bag, and this woman came over and was like, “It was good, wasn’t it?”

Maurene Goo Oh my gosh, that’s amazing.

Sarah Enni And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, Twilight? Yeah!” She was like, “I watched you reading and I was so happy.” She was like, “I was so envious that you were reading it for the first time.” And she had just been watching me read it non-stop for six hours.

Maurene Goo Oh my gosh. That’s so cute and like creepy! [Laughs]

Sarah Enni I know! I know. But that’s a hundred percent something that I would do.

Maurene Goo It’s true. It’s true.

Sarah Enni So, that was this big moment and it totally electrified me. I bought the rest of the books, and go to my job, and I would take my lunch break later than everyone so I could sit there and read them without being interrupted.

Maurene Goo I did that too! Oh, my god.

Sarah Enni Yes! It was such a necessary escape for me at that time in my life. And the writing - we can argue about the quality of the writing – but the storytelling was amazing. I was completely absorbed. And I cared. And that’s all that you can really ask of a reader. I then went on and was like, “What’s going on in this sphere? What’s happening with this?” Cause I was sort of ready to rediscover books after having an English degree sort of beat some love out of me a little bit.

And then I read the The Hunger Games. I read Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere which was and remains one of my favorite books ever. It just tore me apart. And a bunch of other incredible… Sara Zarr [listen to her First Draft interview here]. I read so many books that just completely opened me up to this new world. And I couldn’t read enough. I was back to those middle school, early high school days, of just devouring books. And it felt so good. And it felt like, “Okay, this is a place where I can find people of like mind.”

Maurene Goo That’s so interesting. Was that around 2007, 2008?

Sarah Enni 2008 and 2009.

Maurene Goo Yeah. Same exact time period for me when I discovered “YA” YA.  I feel like what you say is so right. That it tapped into that love of reading that you had as a kid. And honestly, like a lot of us, went into writing YA because that is what we want to give to readers. I love reading literary fiction. You love reading non [fiction]. We like reading all sorts of books, but it is that specific spot - that feeling - that when you grew up loving books. And you can reignite that feeling? It’s really special. I feel like that is what a lot of kid lit people… we feel it.  And so that’s what we’re projecting out there.

Sarah Enni Yeah, for sure.

Maurene Goo I feel like in all of the interviews I’ve heard, nobody’s actually expressed that.

Sarah Enni Oooh! Well, you heard it here first! I think that’s a hundred percent true. And it’s also… I felt so [pauses] you know, I think about this a lot. Why do I write YA? Because there’s other options. And now that we’re growing as writers we could tackle other stories. But I also think that my goal, especially when I’m writing for contemporary YA, my goal is always to get to these moments of transcendent feeling.

I want nothing more than to make a reader laugh, or cry. And those moments are so like moments of personal epiphany. And moments of feeling a part of the universe, or above the universe even. They happen often when you are a teenager. And when you get older, sort of that magical liminal state is harder to achieve.

Maurene Goo Let’s talk about that because you just said writing contemporary. And your debut novel, TELL ME EVERYTHING, is contemporary. And we’re gonna talk about TELL ME EVERYTHING. But, your mini-debut was a short story and it was fantastical, I would say. Or had fantasy elements.

Sarah Enni It had magic.

Maurene Goo It was in a short story collection, Because You Love to Hate Me, which is edited by Ameriie. And your story, The Blessing of Little Wands… which I freaking loved! Everyone should read it! Actually, the whole collection is so good.

Sarah Enni It was a really strong collection.

Maurene Goo I don’t often read YA anthologies. And that one was really excellent. But your story has a bit of, I feel like it’s grown up Harry Potter, in a way.

Sarah Enni Thanks.

Maurene Goo I wasn’t expecting a fantasy from you. I think about you, just knowing you as a person, you’re a very versatile person. And you have a lot of interests. A lot of writers, and this is so not a criticism, are very single minded about their one passion. And you can see it in their work and they’re like masters. But I feel like you and I are kind of different. We have a lot of things that we like to do and we think we’re pretty good at.

Sarah Enni We do a lot of things we think we’re good at. [Laughing]

Maurene Goo Yeah. We’re like, “We’re good at this!” Honestly, I think writing is my number one skill.

Sarah Enni Agreed.

Maurene Goo That’s why I do it with such confidence. So I think for you, the versatility is there in your ability to jump between genres. You’re working on another contemporary right now, but you’re also working on other stuff.

Sarah Enni I am.

Maurene Goo Which you can’t talk about.

Sarah Enni I can’t.

Maurene Goo But you are. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? About genre hopping?

Sarah Enni Thank you so much for the compliment. The reason the short story is in the shape that it got to be in is cause you were so helpful as a beta reader for it. So, I appreciate that.

Maurene Goo Barely, it was really good.

Sarah Enni But it was funny to have that opportunity to write in that series cause Ameriie sent our little prompts… the way the anthology worked was every writer got three prompts to choose between, and it was supposed to be a villain. So, automatically, there’s some genre element to, “Okay. You’re writing about a villain.”

She sent me this one prompt that was sort of about Voldemort, I think, in a vague way. This world totally leaped into my head. I was writing it while I was listening to the Interstellar soundtrack. Which is so good!

Maurene Goo Mm, I can see that.

Sarah Enni So good, and dark, and weird. Tahereh Mafi [listen to her First Draft interview here] talks about how much she loves reading contemporary, and that she felt she had to write fantasy until she got good enough to write contemporary. And I love that. I think that’s so interesting. I kind of think I’m doing it the other way. I love fantasy!

Maurene Goo You love reading it.

Sarah Enni Grew up with it. That’s definitely my comfort literature. I would say… my first book out of the gate that I wrote in 2009, that is horrible and will never see the light of day, was a time-travel, weird fantasy, genre hopping thing. And then I went to contemporary all the way through till now, with the exception of this short story, because I think I was just getting more skilled. I’m really looking forward to… I have a couple of ideas for things that are not straight contemp. And I’m really excited to hopefully get to them.

Maurene Goo Right, but also maybe contemporary is a natural fit for you. I don’t think it means that you have less respect for it, or love for it. We all naturally have a voice that is easiest for us. I don’t know many authors who don’t start off in that space. Right?

Sarah Enni Yeah.

Maurene Goo I think about my first book, Since You Asked, had [chuckles] had no plot. It was episodic and it was very voice-y and almost like personal essays. Because that was my comfort zone. Let’s talk about how you got into from loving YA and reading it, to becoming a published author.

Sarah Enni The long and storied tale! So, the first book I wrote started in 2009 and around that time I got on Twitter. For me, I hate when people disparage Twitter. Not now. Because we can all agree it’s kind of a cesspool now. But as a thing in existence… it changed my life.

I went on there and met Kate Hart [listen to her First Draft interview here], Kaitlin Ward [listen to her First Draft interview here], Stephanie Kuehn [listen to her First Draft interview here]. At the risk of not naming so many people.

Maurene Goo The YA Highway crew.

Sarah Enni The YA Highway crew. And Kirsten Hubbard [listen to her First Draft interview here] who co-founded YA Highway. I met all of them and became really good friends with people. I started a blog about writing. I was writing constantly. And the YA Highway girls invited me to join that site. That was a really huge deal for me.

Running my blog and being a part of YA Highway was a really huge deal. They were beta readers. They were so supportive. Between 2009 and now, I’ve written seven books.

Maurene Goo Wow.

Sarah Enni Yeah. So, as you mentioned earlier, it’s funny to say my “debut” because I don’t really feel like one. Whether that’s fair or not… I don’t know. It’s been this long, long, arduous process of writing and rewriting, and drafting. The book I just finished drafting was something I started in 2012.

In getting ready for this book to come out, I’ve been going back and looking at a lot of stuff. I made my own publishing timeline in a document. It was a really emotional process because I was looking at all of these old emails from looking for agents, to then having one who was so supportive of a book that ended up not selling. All of these highs and lows. My divorce. All of this stuff. Definitely gone through a lot in the ten years that I’ve been writing.

Maurene Goo I do feel like your publishing journey was parallel to all the crazy things that happened to your life in a certain amount of time. Between getting your agent though, and selling TELL ME EVERYTHING, it wasn’t a straight path, right?

Sarah Enni Not at all. I got my agent in 2013, Sarah Burnes [listen to her First Draft interview here]… she’s awesome! She agreed to represent me based on this other contemporary book. A version of which I just finished rewriting and hopefully…

Maurene Goo Whoohoo!

Sarah Enni Hopefully there will be news about that soon. But she represented me for that book and loved that book. Really nurtured it, and me. It got super, super, super close to selling in 2014. But went to acquisitions and didn’t sell. Even though the people supporting it were super confident. It then ended up getting shot down. Which was really sad.

That happened in March 2014 and I split up with my husband in May 2014. So it was pretty quick. And May 2014 was also when I got the idea for First Draft. I spent June planning it. And then I started First Draft in July while I was on a road trip leaving D.C.; leaving my marriage. And driving across the country down the southern way and then back up to Seattle.

So, I did a bunch of the first interviews were on that road trip. Ended in Seattle. In Seattle I wrote a whole other book, saved up money, and moved to LA six months later.

Maurene Goo How long was your road trip? And how many people did you interview?

Sarah Enni  Two months long.

Maurene Goo My gosh!

Sarah Enni Six thousand six hundred something miles. And I think forty-five or so interviews.

Maurene Goo Holy crap! You kind of did something similar though recently?

Sarah Enni I did. In June I did an East Coast trip where I interviewed twenty-eight authors in one month.

Maurene Goo Right, oh my gosh.

Sarah Enni Pretty wild.

Maurene Goo Yeah. You’re nuts.

Sarah Enni [Laughs] I am.

Maurene Goo Good nuts! I want to talk about the podcast too. The podcast is part of the reason why I don’t consider you a debut author either. At this point, you know how the sausage is made. You are not a starry-eyed debut. You are very pragmatic, I think, going into this. Obviously, you have hopes and dreams like everybody else. But I think you have a very unique position as someone who’s interviewed… you’ve had how many interviews now?

Sarah Enni When this comes out there will be around one-hundred-and-seventy-five or one-hundred-and-eighty interviews out.

Maurene Goo  Essentially a hundred-and-eighty authors, right? You’ve heard about every iteration of this journey and all of our failures and disappointments. And all of the good things that have happened. And everybody’s creative process is so… How do you feel about your debut?

Sarah Enni Here’s the thing that I will say about myself. I think I’m lucky in that I don’t have to learn the hard way by doing things on my own. I’m actually pretty good at learning from other people’s stories. And that’s something that’s served me really well. In going into this book… which, by the way, I didn’t finish answering your last question. But after starting the podcast and moving to LA, I signed the contract to write TELL ME EVERYTHING in May 2016 and it was based on a kernel of an idea that my editor had that I flushed out and wrote.

So, it’s an IP project but it definitely is mine. I signed the contract for that in May 2016 and its out now in February of 2019.

Maurene Goo It felt like a long journey just witnessing it. And by-the-way, it’s being published by Scholastic.

Sarah Enni It is. And my editor, Amanda Maciel [listen to her First Draft interview here], is so wonderful. I’ve had a great experience with them. But it also isn’t perfect, right? No debut experience is perfect. It is not like this big, splashy, six figure, fantasy series type of debut. But ultimately, from knowing so many authors, and from hearing their experiences, and from really listening to them… I had my panic attacks over the summer. So, I got that out of the way. I’ve been seeing a therapist. So, I got that out of the way. And I wrote another book. And finished it before my book came out.

And have a couple of other projects that are in the works. And, over the last year, I started doing improv. Which has been a total brain saver because it’s just not even related to our industry at all.

Maurene Goo Yet, I think it nourishes and works that muscle too and makes you a better storyteller.

Sarah Enni It does.

Maurene Goo Do you want to talk about improv now?

Sarah Enni Let’s finish this question and then yes.

Maurene Goo Yeah, yeah. I like how I’m still deferring to Sarah like, “You’re in charge of this interview. I don’t know.”

[Both laughing]

Sarah Enni Oh, that’s so funny. So I would say that the debut experience has been made better, and I’ve been able to set realistic expectations, not be as flustered by unexpected things coming up. And I think, yeah, I was better able to contextualize and set correct expectations for myself over this experience.

So, I do not expect for it to come out and everything on the planet to stop, and everyone to throw confetti.

Maurene Goo But they better!

Sarah Enni [Laughs]

Maurene Goo Just saying, everybody who listens to this podcast better buy the book.

Sarah Enni I love you for saying that. But honestly, I’m so grateful to my friends for talking me through it, for being really rational, reasonable, supportive people. And helping me have a really just completely satisfying debut experience. You know what I mean?

Maurene Goo Yeah. I think you are probably the most functional debut to have entered YA.

Sarah Enni I feel incredibly lucky that I got to… honestly, now looking back, yeah ten years is a long time. And it was full of a lot of disappointments and I talked about this with Nina LaCour [listen to her First Draft interview here]. If I could go back and tell 2009 Sarah that it was gonna take ten years, she’d be like, “F that!” You know what I mean? No one wants to hear that. But, I’m super happy that I’m starting this publishing journey when I have a handle on who I am, and I’m not super young anymore. I’m old enough to know what I’m about and I think that helps a lot.

Maurene Goo We’re talking about your experiences making you different from other debuts, but what are you still excited about?

Sarah Enni And also, I think it’s important to note, every debut is different, and everyone has different expectations. So, we’re not saying that anyone is doing it right or wrong. But I do feel a little bit like a seasoned old hag coming into this, but in a way that makes me kind of gratified. So, there’s that.

But you’re right. I am still super excited. I have been lucky enough through First Draft to be invited to go to a lot of events and to moderate a lot of panels and to be in this community. And it’s pretty exciting to think about actually having a book and being on panels instead of just moderating them.

Maurene Goo Yes, being the author. Part of me is very defensive for you sometimes where I’m like, “She’s an author too!” I think it will be awesome that you finally get your moment to talk about your book, and your craft.

Actually, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk a little bit about your creative practice, which you always want to with other authors. Let’s talk about your writing routine.

Sarah Enni Yeah, okay, and actually you’ve seen this over the last year.

Maurene Goo I already know this answer.

Sarah Enni I am not someone who necessarily writes every day. It changes all the time, truly. But I’ve been rewriting this book for a year. But it just didn’t settle in, it didn’t finalize until about a month ago, or a month-and-a-half ago, maybe. I needed to rewrite this book. I’ll just use this as an example. I needed to rewrite this book. So I reread it and I took a bunch of notes. Then I made a new synopsis. And then I sat on it cause I was busy for a few months. And kind of poked at it a little bit, but this and that and the other.

I don’t know, then just inspiration struck. And when I get into drafting mode, then I sort of become the most boring person… ever. I just need to eliminate choice from my life in order to really focus on writing. So, I’ll get up at the same time. I’ll do the same things. I’ll go to the same coffee shop. I’ll see my same friends. And I’ll write two thousand words a day… until it’s done. And that’s what I did this last time.

Maurene Goo You need a routine.

Sarah Enni I need a routine. I need ritual. I listen to the same song when I write, whatever the song is for that project.

Maurene Goo One song?

Sarah Enni One. On repeat.

Maurene Goo Oh my god. Are you kidding me?

Sarah Enni No. So, my Spotify stats are ridiculous.

[Both laughing]

Sarah Enni At the end of the year they’re like, “You listen to one artist and one song.” Yeah, one.

Maurene Goo I mean, I listen to a playlist a lot, but one song?

Sarah Enni Yeah.

Maurene Goo Interesting.

Sarah Enni And it changes. Sometimes I’ll be like, “This isn’t working.” And I have to go into my catalog and find a new song.

Maurene Goo Wait, is it a song with lyrics?

Sarah Enni Yeah, usually it is. But it is always the right vibe. One book that I wrote, that hopefully will get rewritten and published, was all Lorde, right? I mean, she has such a vibe. This last time it was this Local Natives song. And they’re usually songs that are a little bit like they have a rhythm. They’re kind of like workout songs. It’s like when you’re running and you just need something with a tempo to keep you going.

Maurene Goo What was your song for TELL ME EVERYTHING?

Sarah Enni Tell Me Everything? Um, it switched up a little bit. I’m looking for my copy, which I didn’t bring. There was a song, I’ll link to it in the show notes cause I’m not able to think about the correct name for the song right now, but it was called “Trees On Fire” [DJDS]. I can’t think of the name of the band right now, but if you listen to it you’d be like, “What?” It doesn’t relate to the book at all, but for whatever reason, this song was the right mood and I listened to it constantly while I went to the same coffee shop. And, TELL ME EVERYTHING by-the-way, I had to write, burn down. Rewrite, burn down. Rewrite.

Maurene Goo I mean, that was part of the reason why it was a longer process for you. You totally rewrote that a couple times.

Sarah Enni It took me a long time to get into it. My editor, Amanda, was so great. And I got the chance to actually send her a copy, and then go to New York and talk to her about it. It timed out that way. And she was so great in person about sharing personal stories from her own life that she thought might be useful to frame Ivy’s story.

She really put her own heart and soul into it. Which is super helpful to me. But then part of what – this is so goofy – but part of what unlocked Ivy in TELL ME EVERYTHING was I ended up making her obsessed with Jeff Goldblum. I gave her my nighttime skin routine. I ended up throwing so much of my personal self into the book, that that’s what it took to really lock into the draft that stuck.

Maurene Goo I think that when you connect to your characters in some way, even if it’s just her habits or interest, it really brings the character to life. That’s always been my… that’s the moment where things really happen for me.

I feel like… okay, should we do a little summary of TELL ME EVERYTHING?

Sarah Enni Oh yeah, yes, let’s do that. So, TELL ME EVERYTHING is a story of Ivy who is a fifteen-year-old girl who is a really shy artist. She’s so shy that she doesn’t show anybody, really, her art. And she gets obsessed with this social media, this new app, that kind of takes over her school. It’s called Veil, and it allows you to post things anonymously.

People are posting a lot of really beautiful art, and interesting poems, and stuff that she really connects to. And she really wants to reach out to these people that are posting stuff that she feels so drawn to. She wants to do nice things for them. But she sort of discovers, over time, that her assumptions and… people post things anonymously for a reason. And her trying to seek them out… she’s gets tangled up in a bunch of boundaries. And she crosses a few of them. Hijinks ensue. She learns a lot about what it means for her to step forward out of the light, and take ownership of her own art and herself as an artist.

And then there’s a lot of not so subtle digs at Silicon Valley as well.

Maurene Goo You have to share the name of the app creator, which is just literally… when I read that name, I laughed so hard I couldn’t keep reading the book.

Sarah Enni [Laughing] That makes me really happy. The guy who created Veil in my book, his name is Rake Burmkezerg.

[Both laughing]

Sarah Enni It is an anagram of Mark Zukerberg, which is so thinly veiled.

Maurene Goo Yes! And even reading Burmkezerg… I was like, “I don’t even know how to pronounce this!” It was just like a jumble of Mark Zukerberg’s name.

Sarah Enni I was at a writing retreat with Veronica Roth [listen to her First Draft podcasts here and here], and we just went to town on anagrams of his name. We came up with so many, but Rake Burmkezerg really took the cake [laughing].

Maurene Goo [Laughing] Oh my gosh, I love it. And actually, there’s a lot of humor in your book. And you and I love to talk about humor. Let’s take a moment to talk about humor.

Sarah Enni Yeah! We can also talk about improv while we’re doing it.

Maurene Goo Yeah, cause I wanted to weave in your improv.

Sarah Enni Totally.

Maurene Goo That’s my plan Sarah.

Sarah Enni You’re on it!

Maurene Goo That was like my improvisational plan.

Sarah Enni [Laughing] You’re ahead of it.

Maurene Goo So, you started improv.

Sarah Enni Mm-hm.

Maurene Goo We live in LA, so improv… it’s a thing.

Sarah Enni Mm-hm.

Maurene Goo But you’ve always liked comedy, even before moving here.

Sarah Enni Yeah. And you know what doing improv has done for me? Kind of a similar thing that writing books has done for me, which it made me go think about me as a kid. And realize that I’ve always been more into comedy than maybe necessarily the average casual comedy fan. I would seek out Monty Python, and old sketches, and SCTV stuff. Listen to so many stand-up specials walking around campus in college, that I have Eddie Izard’s entire catalog memorized. He’s so funny.

Maurene Goo Like on your iPod?

Sarah Enni Yes.

Maurene Goo Was it iPod?

Sarah Enni Oh, it was iPod for sure.

Maurene Goo I was gonna say, mine was probably a Discman.

Sarah Enni [Laughing] Back in the day. So, I’ve always loved comedy. I got really into podcasts primarily through comedy podcasts and podcasts that interviewed comedians. So, I always looked up to these people as storytellers. I always thought… and when I was a kid I always used to say, “I’m gonna marry the guy that makes me laugh the hardest.”

So, I’ve always prioritized humor as… it’s important to me, to be honest. So, yeah, you and I talk about humor a lot in books because…

Maurene Goo It’s hard to do in fiction without it being satire or… what’s the word? Slap stick.

Sarah Enni Yeah.

Maurene Goo Cause when you go that way, it can feel like middle grade.

Sarah Enni Mm-hm. Tone, right? Comedy is all about tone. And to be honest, the kind of contemporary we right is all about tone. You can write contemporary a bunch of different ways, but I think you and I are really voice-y, and we are really going for a rhythm. And that’s what comedy is too. And it’s about then disrupting the rhythm, and surprising the reader.

Maurene Goo Right.

Sarah Enni So, I started improv a year-and-a-half ago, or so, and I just got really into it.  And I will say doing improve and building scenes like that, has been hugely helpful in writing books and in sort of freeing up my mind from, “You have to do this. Three act structure. This, and this, and this.” It’s like, “Just get into a scene and feel it out and have fun with it and be spontaneous. And see where that takes you.”

A lot of structure stuff and character stuff and detail. In comedy, the specific is universal. And that goes back to what we were saying about when you’re writing contemporary, just throw in as many details. That makes the reader really feel like they’re there and they’ll relate to it more. Even if it feels to you like it’s so specific that no one else could get it… it’ll make your reader connect.

Maurene Goo I think that’s our equivalent of world building.

Sarah Enni Totally.

Maurene Goo Making it feel real. Do you think that improv has changed you as a writer, when you compare your writing process for TELL ME EVERYTHING to this new project that is not yet named?

Sarah Enni Not yet named? Yeah, that’s such a good question. I honestly think – yeah - I think it has made it easier for me. And I think it made me less hard on myself when I slipped up. Or when things weren’t going the way… and I’ll tell you what, something I did for this project that I just rewrote that I’ve never done before was, I did a scene-by-scene [written] synopsis. And then I wrote a scene-by-scene breakdown. And then I did a scene-by-scene breakdown and I mapped the relationships. There [were] five main relationships in my book.

So, the main character to her mom, the main character to her best friend, to her other best friend, to her love interest. And every scene I went and tracked like, “What’s happening in all of these relationships in this one scene?” And I think improv has made me realize it’s all about the connections. It’s about the two people in that scene. Never have it be about someone off-screen. Whoever is involved in that conversation, or that issue, put them in a scene together. Find a way to do that. And then have it be in someplace unexpected, or have them having to do something together that is at odds with what they’re talking about.

If they’re talking about a fight that they’re having, but they are clowns having to perform at a kid’s birthday show at the same time, that’s what comedy is. And that’s so much more fun to read, and so interesting, and it has so much inherent conflict. So, tracking the emotional journeys through every single chapter – this for people who are “pantsers” sounds like hell, I know – but it helped me. I’m sure it saved me two drafts.

Maurene Goo Even if you’re a “pantser” you can review what you wrote and when you’re trying to figure out what wasn’t working, you can do that little exercise. It’s so interesting, I used to be so resistant to writing advice cause I’m like [in kind of a snotty tone], “Everybody’s different. We’re all special.” But I’m like, “You know what?” When you can define what makes something interesting, then it’s like a very difficult task. It is something that most of us who write for a living, we have instincts for that. But when you can actually break it down and define it, it’s really valuable. It’s fucking valuable.

Sarah Enni Yeah, it is. And I agree. After writing about writing for so long with YA Highway and on my blog, I too was like, “I don’t want to hear about it anymore.” I think that’s part of what improv did for me was, it let me talk about writing and storytelling – indirectly. And it has brought me back around to being like, “Oh, you know? It is important to be thoughtful about this stuff.” And to be able to identify what we’re talking about when we are talking about really good stories, and absorbing stories.

I think you and I care a lot about having people not be able to put our books down.

Maurene Goo Yeah [sighs]. I’m like, “I’m not gonna win the Nobel Prize here, so I might as well make a fun book.” [Laughs].

Sarah Enni Exactly!

Maurene Goo Well… you never know!

Sarah Enni [Laughs]

Maurene Goo Okay. This is a question inspired by the fine film Never Been Kissed.

Sarah Enni [Gasps] Amazing!

Maurene Goo Do you remember when she’s undercover and she goes to the table of popular girls and she asks, “What are your hopes and dreams?” But I honestly… that is a good question. We never get asked that question as adults.

Sarah Enni That is true!

Maurene Goo So, what are your hopes and dreams for your writing career?

Sarah Enni Maurene! This is such a good question! I’m gonna steal this a hundred percent.

Maurene Goo [Laughing] Okay!

Sarah Enni Wow. You know? Okay, so this relates to the debut experience and my gratitude towards the very specific debut experience that I’m having, is that it feeds into my actual goal, which is to have a career. I want to build a career. It doesn’t need to be splashy. I just want it to continue and you don’t have to be a mega, New York Times Bestseller in order to build a strong, lengthy career in publishing. And that is what I want. I want to be able to continue telling stories.

I’m the kind of person that has too many ideas. I want the opportunity to try all of them out and hopefully get them on shelves. I have gotten sick of writing advice in the past. But I don’t get sick of talking to people about what themes they think are important, and what ideas they want to share through their writing. And I have a lot of themes and ideas that I think are important that I want to share.

I want my books to start conversations and make people laugh. So, is that a hope or a dream? I don’t know.

Maurene Goo That’s both I think. In a way it wraps up your writing advice too, right? Cause that’s what you aim to do.

Sarah Enni Yeah, I think if you’re stuck in a book… I would look at the emotions, the emotional arc of your character, and whether you’ve really pinned that down. And I would also look at… what are you trying to say? Think about what, ultimately, your character learns and whether you have anything more to say about that. And that can help guide you, I think.

I personally connect more to books where, at the end, you get a sense of how the author feels about something.

Maurene Goo Right. And sometimes, I think this is the case, you think you have a theme and then you finish writing the book you’re like, “Oh. That’s not the theme.”

Sarah Enni Right!

Maurene Goo “That’s actually this.”

Sarah Enni Right, and you need to be able to have the flexibility to go with that. Cause honestly, that’s so, so true. And at the end of a draft you’ll be like, “Oh crap! This is what I actually needed to tell myself.” And that makes it like the organic theme that comes up through your writing… that’s what you have to pay attention to. That’s what your brain is mulching over, right?

Maurene Goo Right. Well Sarah… I’m very excited for your many books ahead.

Sarah Enni Yeah, thanks!

Maurene Goo And especially TELL ME EVERYTHING cause it’s such a great book. I loved it, I blurbed it. I loved it so much. But it’s so funny. It’s got such a great voice. It’s really inventive and clever with the use of Veil and social media. I love the themes that you tackle about like goodness and what it means to be a friend, and intentions versus… you know, actually helping people. So, I think you should read it. It’s so, so good. If you like contemporary, if you like to read, if you are a person… you should read it.

Sarah Enni [Laughing] That… I’m gonna take that and put that on the cover! “If you are a person, you should read this book!”

Maurene Goo Yes, you should. A person who can read though, right?

Sarah Enni That’s true.

Maurene Goo Okay Sarah!

Sarah Enni Thank you so much Maurene, this is so fun.

Maurene Goo Yeah! Talk to you later.

Both Bye!

[theme music plays]


SUBSCRIBE TO FIRST DRAFT WITH SARAH ENNI

Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender, or John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.

Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. It’s free!

RATE, REVIEW, AND RECOMMEND

How do you like the show?

Please take a moment to rate and review First Draft with Sarah Enni in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Your honest and positive review helps others discover the show -- so thank you!

Is there someone you think would love this podcast as much as you do?

Please share this episode on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or via carrier pigeon (maybe try a text or e-mail, come to think of it). Just click the Share button at the bottom of this post!

Thanks again!