Courtney Alameda, one of our participants in 2013, signed with agent John Cusick (of the Greenhouse Literary Agency) after connecting with him at WIFYR last year. Since then she has sold her first book, SHUTTER, to Feiwel & Friends, coming out in fall 2014. She took some time to talk to us about her recent success.
Tell us a little about yourself. Did you always want to write?
I live a larger life inside my imagination than outside of it, certainly! From a very young age, perhaps as young as six, I began following characters around in my head. They made me into a child insomniac, because their stories were far more interesting to me than sleep. As I got older and read wider, those stories started flowing out and onto the page. I have always been a storyteller; however, it didn’t occur to me to pursue writing professionally until I hit college.
What does your schedule look like nowadays? Is it hard to find time to write?
I cannot believe how busy I’ve become in the last four weeks! Everything is so overwhelming, especially as I work to build a solid foundation for a future marketing campaign, network with other kidlit authors and those who are in my debut year, keep pace with my critique partners, and prepare mentally and emotionally for my editorial letter (which will arrive any day now). I’m still working full-time, too, which eats up almost 50 hours of my week. I’m in survival mode eighteen to twenty hours a day and mainline caffeine like a junkie. Are we having fun yet? Yes we are!
Insofar as finding time to write is concerned, I believe the best advice I ever got was from best-selling author Markus Zusak (and I paraphrase greatly): “To succeed, writing must always be your first priority. If it cannot be your first, then it must be your second.” For me, that means writing in the wee hours, losing sleep and free time. It means not seeing all the television programs and movies that people buzz about, and saving any scraps of free time for the books I should be reading. It means turning off the internet when I’m writing, and squeezing as much productivity out of each hour. It means I live to work, in the eventual hope that I will write to live.
Nothing worth doing is ever easy, surely.
When did you first get involved with WIFYR? Can you tell us about your experience at the conference?
My first year at WIFYR was in 2010 with Alane Ferguson. It was truly a watershed week for me: it gave me the confidence I needed to continue with my work, the right tools to treat it as a professional endeavor, and a good grip on what to expect from the industry. Moreover, I met many wonderful people and made friends, many of whom I am still working and critiquing for today.
Now that I think on it, SHUTTER was born in Alane’s workshop during a quick exercise. She assigned us to write a short, eerie scene using a handful of paint chip colors we’d chosen earlier. I don’t remember what paint chip colors were, but I certainly remember writing a scene about a girl armed with a camera. I was so enamored with the character, I started developing her story the very next week. So I suppose you can say SHUTTER is a WIFYR success story from start to finish!
Did it help to have your writing reviewed by published authors?
I cannot express how deep my gratitude is to the authors I have had the opportunity to work with! After Alane, I was an assistant to Holly Black in 2011. Not only was Holly a delight, but she identified a couple of problematic elements with SHUTTER and the world therein. Thanks to her feedback—plus her great lecture on building magic systems—I threw my old manuscript out and began afresh. The novel I produced over the next year was entirely unlike anything I’d written before in terms of its depth and creativity, and I have Holly’s input to thank for it!
In 2012, I had the great pleasure of assisting Cynthia Leitich Smith, who taught me more about the craft of writing (and of a writer’s life) than any other. She turned me on to SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS, which was immensely helpful into learning how to hone many of the finer points in my writing. I am currently re-reading the book in preparation for my editorial letter, and will probably make it an annual tradition until it’s branded on my brain. Also, Cynthia played a vital role in connecting me to John, for which I will be forever grateful to her.
In short, the morning workshops were integral to my development as a writer. I would not be where I am now without the scaffolding and education I received annually at WIFYR. It’s important to remember that WIFYR is so much more than words on the page, too—it’s learning to critique and be critiqued, developing an understanding of the industry, and networking with fellow writers. I cannot underscore how crucial networking at WIFYR has been for me; some of my richest friendships have been developed during the conference, and I treasure my friends above all else.
You met your agent, John Cusick, at our conference last year. How and why did you decide to work together?
Simple. I recognized something of myself in John, a certain hunger for and dedication to excellence. He had polish, class, eloquence, and a self-possession that I knew would equate to great success in the future. He’s also one of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever met, which are requisite skills for anyone I’m going to trust with my work. Moreover, I wanted to find a younger agent whom I could build a long-term career with, rather than someone with an established list and career. John is a marvel, a talented writer in his own right, and cares deeply about his clients. I have no doubt that it was these qualities (and many more) that landed him a spot as an agent at the prestigious Greenhouse Literary agency this year.
And there might have been a conversation or two that went something like this:
Me: “I like weird monsters. Really messed-up stuff.”
John: “Ever played SILENT HILL?”*
So when he offered representation, the first word out of my mouth was yes. I didn’t even have to think about it (even though he made me consider it about it for twenty-four hours). I honestly couldn’t have made a better decision if I’d tried, and I’m grateful I met John before starting the query process.
*For those of you who are not acquainted with video games, SILENT HILL is a survival-horror franchise famous for its deeply symbolic, nightmarish monsters.
You recently sold your first novel. Was this the first novel you wrote, or have there been others?
SHUTTER is not my first novel, not by a long shot. In the last ten years, I’ve written approximately 1.5 million words toward various projects, all of which were important learning experiences. As I never really thought I was any good (and still don’t), I never bothered to query agents. I was shocked when John was interested in the novel. SHOCKED. I think I’m still shocked and awed, but am pleased to say I have nary a rejection letter to my name. Writers can make their own luck through hard work and patience.
In short, I believe pre-published writers should focus on improving their craft, rather than on finding an agent. (I know, I hated hearing that too, but it’s true!) Attend conferences. Put your work in front of professionals. Read voraciously. Write every day. Query only when you feel ready. And when the time is right, industry cogs will start turning for you.
Can you tell us about finding a publisher? How did you find a home for your book?
The submissions process is harrowing, even if all the author has to do is be patient and check her email every 2.5 minutes. Thank heaven for the current industry model, and for agents who stand between writers and publishers! Any peace of mind I had stemmed from the knowledge that John would take excellent care of my work.
Luckily for my nerves, we were only out two weeks before Liz Szabla at Feiwel & Friends wanted to take SHUTTER to acquisitions. I couldn’t believe we’d gotten so far, so quickly; nor could I believe that it was with Feiwel & Friends, the publisher I most wanted to be with. I’d had the good fortune to host Jean Feiwel in January of 2012 when she toured with Marissa Meyer (author of CINDER), and had the greatest respect and admiration for her and her imprint.
So John and I spent another ten days waiting to hear the acquisition board’s decision. Then on a Wednesday afternoon, John’s name popped up on my caller ID and my life changed forever. It is a great honor to be on Feiwel & Friends’ list, and to be working with Liz Szabla, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the way things turned out!
What’s the book about and when can we see it in print?
The basic synopsis for SHUTTER goes like this:
Seventeen-year-old Micheline Helsing sees dead people. . . in Technicolor. As a tetrachromat, Micheline sees the auras of the undead in a spectrum: reanimated corpses ooze crimson light, vampire veins glow cobalt blue, and specters rage in ultraviolet ghostlight. Only a tetrachromat like Micheline can see and reap a ghost, and nobody captures them on film like she does.
But when a routine exorcism goes awry, Micheline winds up soulchained to the very entity she sought to capture. As tattoo-like chains spread under her skin, she learns that if she can’t exorcise her captor in seven days or less, she and the boys in her reaping cohort are dead. With the clock ticking and Helsing agents hunting them through the streets of San Francisco, Micheline must find a way to capture her entity on film. . . or else.
Micheline & co. should be hitting shelves in Fall 2014!
What advice do you have for aspiring writers and conference-goers? Is there anything you wish you knew earlier, or anything you would have done differently?
When attending conferences, work and write hard. Meet new people with an open heart. Do things that frighten you. Done right, you will leave the conference with a wealth of new skills, new information, and new friends.
All writers should write, read, and live voraciously—the best way to create a dynamic character is to be dynamic yourself. In terms of writing, I find that I don’t so much regret whatever I do, but those things I don’t do that I should. As I mature as a writer and a person, I get better at identifying experiences that will force me to grow and chase them down…no matter how frightening or challenging they may be.
Thanks for talking with us! We’re excited to have you as an assistant this year. Good luck!