Tuesday, September 21, 2010

SCBWI Success Story: Debut YA Author Steve Brezenoff, |-1|

Steve Brezenoff wouldn't advise other writers to use his tactics when approaching an editor (more on that below), but his methods worked and he got the interest of Andrew Karre at a Minnesota SCBWI event. Steve's first book  |-1| [The Absolute Value of -1] was released this month from Carolrhoda Lab, the new YA imprint of the Lerner Publishing Group.

Read on for the whole story of how Steve connected with Andrew and hear more about his book, his promotional efforts, his online presence and what draws him to YA.

You can chat with Steve during a Twitterview tomorrow at 1 PM central time using the hashtag #absolutevalue. He'll be answering questions and giving away copies of |-1|.

An SCBWI event played a part in you getting your book deal for |-1|. Tell us about meeting Andrew Karre. And how long had you been writing and pursuing publication?

Ah, time for my embarrassing story. I do so hate to spread this around, lest SCBWI members get the wrong impression of how to go about meeting editors, getting published, or writing a novel. But here 'goes.

I had written a middle-grade novel several years prior to joining SCBWI, and had shopped it out to an agent or two, very half-heartedly. It wasn’t very good. But as for the YA that eventually became |-1|, I'd shown it to a couple of editor friends at S&S (where I worked for five years) in an unfinished state. Though I'd been writing short stories (and the beginnings of several never-finished novels) since high school, that was the extent of my efforts to publish before I attended the MN SCBWI conference in fall of 2008.

When I arrived at the conference, I looked through the seminar options and spotted Andrew's. I knew of his work at Flux, and knew he was a hot brain of YA, so I attended his talk. It was brilliant, naturally--he compared good YA voice to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and, well, everything else to "Jack and Diane"--and afterward I approached him, introduced myself, and handed him my . . . um . . . resume.

Flashback to the day before the conference. I don't remember which of us gets the credit/blame for this idea, but at some point my wife and I decided I should have a resume of sorts. I had some strong publishing experience already--work-for-hire stuff, that is--and we agreed it gave me some kind of upper hand. I also had a few in-progress manuscripts I wanted to pitch. (Yes, in-progress. I know.) Anyway, I created this resume: on one side was my experience as a writer, and on the other were blurbs pitching my WIPs. I printed off 10 or 15 copies to bring to the conference.

So, back to Andrew. I handed him this . . . thing. To his credit, he accepted it without making a face like it was a bag of poo, which I would have totally forgiven in hindsight. And not only that, he contacted me on Monday morning to ask for "whatever I had." Which you'll have guessed, if you have been reading closely, was essentially nothing. I told Andrew I'd send him my YA manuscript in a few days, then set about finishing it.

(I really hope no one is reading this and thinking it's a good plan.)

So, I banged out the last few thousand words and sent it to Andrew. I guess I did a decent job, because he liked what he saw, but he said--and I agreed--that it really wasn’t a novel. It was hardly a novella. So it was back to the drawing board with the question: how do I make this into a novel?

With help from my wife, as usual, I solved the problem, and six months later, Andrew bought it.

Would you tell my readers what your book is about and explain the title?

|-1| is about three high school sophomores, Lily, Noah, and Simon. Each gets their own part to narrate, and each tells the story a little differently, highlighting certain pockets in time, leaving others out entirely, changing events to suit their perspectives. As tenth grade plods on, the friends drift apart in fits and starts, thanks to difficulties each is having, but not sharing with the others.

The title (my wife's idea, and perfect) reflects Lily’s obsession with math, of course, but also represents the central question: What is the value of absence? Each narrator loses someone, and that loss colors the character in a powerful way. I don’t think the question is necessarily answered, per se, but it is examined.

Your debut book is on Carolrhoda Lab's debut list. Do you feel any pressure for your book to do well to get the momentum going for the imprint?

Um, yes! I definitely have had a lot of fear that the debut list would flop so bad that I’ll never sell another book, and that Andrew will be out of a job, and that Lerner will close its doors and leave a big abandoned building in Minneapolis' warehouse district. But that's of course ridiculous. Also, with Blythe's and Ilsa's amazing titles on the list too, it can’t fail, really. [Other titles on the debut list are Blythe Woolston's THE FREAK OBSERVER and Ilsa J. Bick's DRAW THE DARK.]

Your book has been out for about two weeks. What have you been and will you be doing to promote it?

I’ve done a whole bunch of blog interviews, and I have an official blog tour about to happen, too. In the real world, I’m doing a reading at Magers & Quinn her in the Twin Cities. It’s the biggest independent bookstore out here, I think, and is the go-to stop for big-time authors to do in-store appearances. They haven’t hosted much YA (maybe ever? I don’t know), so it’s especially exciting for me that I’ll be reading there. It will also be my first reading ever, so I’m awfully nervous.

I also made a trailer, which I like and some other people have liked too.

How long have you been blogging? What kind of posts will visitors find on Exile in Goyville?

I started my first blog in around 2003. It wasn’t very interesting. I remember one post I wrote about Manhattan Specials (an espresso soda you really can’t find anywhere outside of Brooklyn and Manhattan) and the spicy chicken sandwich at Wendy’s. Those were the days, right, bloggers? It eventually became a place to keep track of the mileage I was putting on my bike here in the Twin Cities before I abandoned it completely. (Don’t look for it, by the way. It’s all locked up.)

Ever since moving out here from NY in 2006, though, I’d been saying I’d launch a blog called Exile in Goyville, considering myself the only Jew for 1200 miles. (Obviously not actually the case.) Anyway, I made the thing but never posted anything until the weekend of that MN SCBWI conference in 2008, inspired to enter the YA blogosphere by (probably) something Andrew said. I intended to focus on the fish-out-of-water aspect of being a NY Jew in Minnesota. However, if you go there now you’ll find far more about writing, YA lit., the journey from MS to publication, and the day-to-day naval gazing I really excel at.

Your character Lily offers three reasons she became "a cigarette-smoking bad girl." Give me three reasons you write YA fiction.

1. I CAN'T HELP IT. I really can't, either. No era of a single human life is as interesting and worthy of examination--to me--than adolescence. I've written middle-grade (both work-for-hire and abandoned manuscripts), but it doesn't come as naturally, and it doesn't feel nearly as satisfying. I know--I'm totally just saying '"I write YA because I write YA" with that response. I'll try to do better with number.

2. IT'S REALLY IMPORTANT. Not to be self-aggrandizing or anything, but writing YA certainly feels important. Sure, writing for youth of any age is crazy important, because everyone knows we want kids to read, so we'll have adults who read and think creatively and critically. But I feel like as a teen, a lot of us begin to think of reading as a chore. We encounter Shakespeare and Hawthorne and Hesse and Hemingway and suddenly books are thick, foreign, and a struggle to comprehend. "When the hell did this happen?" we say. Well, good YA lit is suited to teen readers, and is bound to hold their interest in a way that our canon cannot.

3. IT'S FUN! Sure, if I wanted to I could sit down and write something for adults, but writing YA characters allows me to drop all kinds of snark and first kisses and first rock concerts and first cars et cetera, et cetera. This is fun stuff! And I can be--in my role as author and sometimes narrator, that is--as adolescent as I want without fear of being called immature. Much.

Tell us about book number two, TWO SUMMERS AROUND THE FIRE. (And will the number three be in the title of your third book?) 

Am I allowed to say this is my favorite thing I've ever written? It's short and the most experimental writing I've done, and I'm immensely proud of it. Andrew recently called it a young adult A MOVEABLE FEAST for Brooklyn, which is perfectly okay with me. TWO SUMMERS is a mystery, sort of, centered on three homeless teens in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in 2005. It's also a love story. It's also about gentrification and waterfront property. Obviously I'm still working out the kinks of my elevator spiel.

I had not even thought of that numbers thing. Now I'm going to have to try figure out a way to get 'three' into my next title. Ack!

What's your advice to the unpublished YA writers out there?

Stay true to the voice and the characters. For some writers, this will come naturally; for others, it'll take some work. The best advice I can give is to tap into the adolescent in yourself, or you're bound to come across like an adult trying to sound teen-friendly and slangy and junk, and that's not only a chore to read, but sort of creepy. For me, it's something akin to Method acting, I think (and also for Swati Avasthi, who--at a reading this year--compared her work on narrator Jace in SPLIT to Method as well). You need to occupy that character and become them, especially if you're writing realistic fiction, probably in first person or a close third. Beyond that, don't rush (you won't catch up to trends and they're not important anyway), get a workshop or a critiquing buddy, and--of course--BIC (butt in chair). From a more pragmatic point of view, um, ignore my publication story, because that method will never work for anyone again.

1 comment:

Blythe Woolston said...

Steve is like his book, inimitable. I've been watching his success unfold this year and I'd have to say it all makes sense. He's a pro when it comes to writing, but he's also several kinds of genius. Just look at that trailer; it's astonishing and dead right for |-1|.