Sat 15 Sep 2012
There’s nothing like seeing your first book go out into the world.
And this week, E.M. Kokie saw her young adult novel Personal Effects (Candlewick, 2012) debut.
I have a feeling you’re going to be hearing a lot about the book and its author.
What’s the book about? Normally, I’d try to write some witty or moving synopsis, but this book has some of the most effective promotional copy I’ve seen. So why tamper with perfection?
One letter: 876 miles.
Five days to find his brother’s past and his own future.
Ever since his brother, T.J., was killed in Iraq, seventeen-year-old Matt Foster feels like he’s been sleepwalking through life — failing classes, getting into fights, and avoiding his dad’s lectures about following in his brother’s footsteps.
T.J.’s gone, and the worst part is, there’s nothing left of him to hold on to.
Matt can’t shake the feeling that if only he could get his hands on T.J.’s stuff from Iraq, he’d be able to make sense of his death. He wasn’t expecting T.J.’s personal effects to raise even more questions about his life.
Now, even if it means pushing his dad over the edge … even if it means losing his best friend … even if it means getting expelled from school … Matt will do whatever it takes to find out the truth about his brother’s past.
I’m thrilled to have E.M. Kokie stop by the blog and tell us more about how Personal Effects came to be.
How did you first get the idea for Personal Effects?
I was doing some free-writing exercises — sitting down and writing whatever came to mind, looking for a novel-length story idea to run with. In one of those sessions I wrote parts of what is now chapter two of Personal Effects.
For a long time it was the first chapter of the story. I had this scene with this amazingly angry kid, sitting in an office after a fight, waiting for his father. He was reliving and almost relishing the fight, but what he had done was also starting to sink in. He was so viscerally angry, and vulnerable, and he seemed so real. I wanted to know why he was so angry. I wrote the first draft to find out, and to get to know him.
What process did you follow to turn that idea into a fully completed novel? How long did it take?
I just started writing, pretty much chronologically, without any idea where the story was going. And I joined a novel writing group to push me to write regularly and so I could get critique while I was writing. Once I had a few chapters, the plot began to take form, and the need for research kicked in. At some point I had to start making authorial decisions about what would happen. But for a good portion of that first draft I was learning about Matt and his life and experiencing the story as he experienced it.
In fact, I had to cut a lot of scenes in later drafts because I had not fully understood Matt in the early drafts. For example, in that first draft I thought Matt wanted to go to college, and the story was going to be about his efforts to make that happen. I’m not sure if I realized in drafts two or three that he actually wanted to avoid college at nearly all costs.
I wrote the first draft in about ten months. I then spent another five months or so researching, revising, getting critique from other writers and trusted readers, and then revising some more. In late 2008 I started querying agents. I queried slowly, a few agents at a time, and I did at least one more revision in between query rounds. In the fall of 2009 I felt my manuscript and my query were both working (getting interest from agents) and I decided to query in larger batches. I ended up signing with one of the agents I queried in that first large batch of queries in August or September 2009.
What was your biggest learning along the way?
I learned a lot about the industry, and about agents and publishers, so that I could best arm myself for approaching the business side of writing. But I think what I learned the most during the writing and revision of Personal Effects is to trust my reader.
The mechanics of my writing improved in so many ways once I started to trust my reader to understand and connect with my characters, and to read the nuance and implications of their words and actions. Once I started to trust my reader more, multiple aspects of my writing improved, including pacing and the authenticity of dialogue.
How did the sale come about?
The way I think many debut authors break in. I signed with an agent (Chris Richman of Upstart Crow Literary). He and I revised and polished the manuscript, and then he pitched it to a number of editors. Ultimately we accepted an offer from Andrea Tompa at Candlewick Press. It has been amazing to work with Andrea and everyone at Candlewick.
Was Personal Effects the first book you wrote? Or do you have previous “starter” novels that you did not sell?
Personal Effects is the first novel I finished. I had been writing for years, but I had never finished a novel before.
What’s the most common question you’ve been asked since your book sale was announced?
It’s a toss up between where the idea came from and how I got published. Both are common topics of interest to writers and to non-writers.
You’ve led seminars on finding the agent who’s right for you. What advice would you give to someone looking for an agent?
Educate yourself. Do your research. It’s not enough to merely look for agents who represent your genre. You need to go deeper to have a better chance of connecting with an agent who is best situated to sell your particular book and to work with your needs and expectations. Also, the concept of “dream agents” has led many writers astray. You want the agent who is best for you, and not all agents, even all agents who represent your genre, are right for all writers.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a contemporary, realistic novel. This one with a female POV character.
And at this point, I just want to say that the book is crazily, amazingly good. It’s suspenseful. It’s sad. It’s surprising. It’s real. I think you should read it as soon as possible.
You can learn more about E.M. and Personal Effects by:
Visiting her website.
Reading her blog, Attractive Nuisance.
Checking out this interview on the Cynsations blog.