Thursday, October 14, 2010

SCBWI Success Story: Sara Wilson Etienne

Author Sara Wilson Etienne had not heard of SCBWI until she moved to LA in 2003. "In fact, it'd never even occurred to me that writing was anything but a solitary activity," she says. "Then I went to LA Writer's Day and got the chance to hear the marvelous and hilarious Paula Danziger speak. And if that wasn't enough, I got to hear editors and writers describe their collaborative process. And, of course, I met new writer friends. It was a revelation."

Below Sara talks more about how SCBWI helped her writing career, tells how she found her agent, gives the scoop on her debut novel (coming from Putnam in Spring 2012), talks about her editorial process, offers advice to writers working toward publication, and more.

Find Sara online at
How did SCBWI help your career move forward? When did you join? When did you attend your first SCBWI event? Why would you recommend SCBWI to other writers?

A few months [after I joined SCBWI], I went to the Annual Summer Conference, I was blown away again. I went from isolation to community in one long weekend. There were hundreds of people doing the same thing I was doing. Wonderful, successful writers struggling with the same challenges I had. Real life editors walking among us mere mortals! I was in heaven and I never wanted to leave. So I didn't.

From then on, I went to the Westside Schmooze (which I later co-coordinated), availed myself of Critique Connections where I found a writers' group, and signed up for consultations at the yearly Summer Conference. Joining SCBWI was like opening a door to the kidlit world and realizing that I didn't have to wander through the forest alone. In fact, someone had already packed me a picnic lunch, some good books to read, and put up 'Beware of Wolf' signs where appropriate.

Tell us about meeting your agent Michael Bourret. How did that come about and how long until he signed you?

Meeting Michael was a series of connected events that unfolded over a couple of years. I'd already been writing for a while, but I hadn't looked into agents because my book wasn't ready yet. One year at the Summer Conference, I was matched with Jennifer Hunt at Little, Brown for my consultation. Now, she's a very smart editor and was able to explain things in a way that made me see immediately how to fix them. At the end of our consultations, she asked me if there was anything else I wanted to ask her about writing or the industry. A little voice in my head, the one I'm not used to listening to, said 'Ask her! Ask her!!" And so I opened my mouth and forced myself to ask the awkward question, "Can you think of any agents that might be a good match for my story?" And she said, "Michael Bourret."

Fast forward, one year. I've been working away to my manuscript and I see that Michael is going to be at the upcoming Summer Conference. And that little voice kicked in again. "Write it! Write it!!!" So I wrote Michael an email telling him about my consultation with Jennifer Hunt and ask if he'd like to meet. Minutes later, I had an email from him saying 'yes.'

And I must admit, I pitched my book horribly to Michael. And I'm sure the espresso I'd just swigged didn't help either. But Wonder Woman saved the day. I'd written backup, emergency questions in my notebook to give me some confidence and as soon as I pulled it out, Michael took one look at the cover and said, "I love Wonder Woman!" That moment of bonding gave me the courage I needed to regroup and repitch... this time doing a much better job.

It was actually another 6 months until I was ready to submit to Michael, but when I did, he got my story right away. His insightful, smart comments about what he loved and what still needed work made me sure this was a great match. He knew exactly the story I was trying to tell and knew how to help me get there. That is what you want in an agent (and an editor for that matter.) Well, that and a love of Wonder Woman.

Sara and her agent Michael Bourret at the recent SCBWI 
Annual Summer Conference (Photo: Rita Crayon Huang)
Your debut novel THE HARBINGER will be released by Putnam in the spring 2012. Tell us a little about it.

The 'likely-to-be-renamed' HARBINGER is a supernatural thriller set in a very near future... a place of oil embargoes and rioting cities. Faye just wants to live the normal life of a 16 year-old girl. Unfortunately, she’s far from normal. Disembodied voices whisper in her ears. Rooms dissolve into ocean waves. Drums pound in her mind.

Her questionable sanity lands her on an island in Maine, at Holbrook Academy. There, hemmed in by razor wire and locked in solitary confinement, Faye is left to drown in her own hallucinations. Only the low, quiet voice of Kel, the guy in the next cell, is able to reach through Faye’s nightmare and pull her back to reality.

But despite their undeniable connection, Faye’s world continues crumble around her. She begins to lose time, waking up in strange places surrounded by crudely drawn symbols. As Faye’s life unravels, Kel and her assigned ‘Family’ group get tangled up in the madness. Now Faye must uncover the secrets that brought her to Holbrook. Before the past destroys them all.

Where are you in the editorial process? How has it been for you? Any surprises?

I'm most of the way through my first revision with Stacey Barney. It's been terrifying and thrilling and very exciting as I get to towards the end. I'm starting to see all of the little changes coming together in a big way.

The one thing that shouldn't surprise me anymore (but always does anyway) is how important another set of eyes can be. And not just any eyes... Stacey is a deep and detailed reader, pushing me to develop my world, my characters, and my story as far as they can go. It's hard to have someone challenging you that way, it's even a little threatening... I won't deny that I yelled at my manuscript a few times while reading line notes. But Stacey was spot on in her editorial letter and even asked new questions that I'd never managed to ask myself.

Despite all this, there were still some problems I didn't know how to fix. In one of our phone conversations I went on and on, hopelessly, about one of these problems, saying "If I fix it this way it causes these problems, but if I fix it that way it causes these other problems." I was about to tear my hair out when she said, "Well then, why don't you fix it this other way."

Light bulbs went on and bells rung and the crowd went wild! Why hadn't I thought of that? Because, having spent years on this book, I was stuck in a little box of my own making. Often it takes another person to help you find a solution. Lesson learned... at least until the next time.

What do you have planned in the way of promotion of your debut novel?

Well, I'm still very much in the brainstorming stage, but I am hoping to get a little creative. I'm excited to create a book trailer that really intrigues and entices people. And I already have some very talented friends involved in the process. This is one of those times when it's great to live in a movie town.

I'm also going to redesign my website... or I should say, have my wonderful artist husband redesign it. But I definitely plan on taking all the credit. And, of course, I'll get the news out on Facebook, Twitter, and a revolutionary new thing I just heard about... in-person book signings!

I have a few other ideas up my sleeve, but you'll have to wait till 2012 to find out.

You signed a two-book deal with Putnam. Is there anything you can tell us about your second book (or is it too soon)?

Unfortunately no. Mostly cause I haven't written it yet...

What are some of your favorite books (or who are some of your favorite authors)? Are you drawn to the paranormal?

Growing up, I was definitely drawn to fantasy, sci-fi, and paranormal. I was particularly fascinated by Madeleine L'Engle's mix of magic and science, especially in  A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT. I mean what's better than telepathic dolphins? But I also loved mysteries, like the WESTING GAME. And I devoured Lois Duncan's books, which often had a bit of both.

Over the years, as kids and YA books have thrived, I've found so many other favorites. TRICKSTER'S CHOICE by Tamora Pierce, any book by Diana Wynne Jones, FEED by M.T. Anderson. But I also have a soft spot for ridiculous and bizarre middle grade, like Daniel Pinkwater's LIZARD MUSIC, any book by Roald Dahl, WHALES ON STILTS by M.T. Anderson, and THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY by Adam Rex.

What advice would you offer the pre-published?

Well first of all I would say, your path is not the same as other people's paths. So many times we hear writers say that this or that was the key to their success. Like me and my Wonder Women connection with Michael. What? You like the Green Lantern instead? No book deal for you!

It can be super stressful to think you're not doing all the right things to get published. But the truth is that some people find exposure in blogging, others at conferences, still others are keeping their heads down and working diligently on their own. At some point you have to stop looking around at what other people are doing and find out what works for you. You need to seek out things that feed you creatively and play to your strengths, not other people's.

That said, my other piece of advice is: Push yourself out of your comfort zone.
You need to be an advocate for your book and yourself as a writer. Every bit of movement I've had towards publishing has been because I listened to that little voice in my head and forced myself to ask the question, write the email, or send out the manuscript.

Think of how parents are with their children. They are willing to put themselves on the line to help their child have the opportunities they deserve and become the best people they can be. You have to think of your book this way. You've created this lovely/funny/thrilling/whatever-ing story and it needs you to be fearless so that it can get out and live in the world.


Tracy Clark said...

A wonderful interview! It's exciting to watch someone's progress on this journey. (I remember participating together in the Revision Master Class at that Summer Conference) and look at you now! I agree that joining SCBWI is so beneficial. Congratulations! I look forward to reading HARBINGER!

Lee Wind said...

What a great interview - I learned so much. Your description of HARBINGER gave me goosebumps!!! Thanks to you both,
Namaste and Hugs,

SWK said...

A great interview and a wonderful story. I had dinner with the amazing Michael Bourret at an SCBWI event in WA and I must credit him for giving me both good advice and the "kick in the pants" that led me to submitting my ms, signing with an agent, and getting a book deal--my debut novel will be published by Viking in Fall 2011. SCBWI (and Michael B.) totally rock! Congrats to Sara. I can't wait to read HARBINGER - Stasia

Sara said...

Thanks guys:) And thanks Alice for great questions and a chance to tell my tale!

Dan Shanley said...

I am so excited! How can I ever wait til 2012!!!


Laurie L Young said...

Great questions and amazing answers! Sara, your story is so inspiring and encouraging, but I love what you said about each writer finding their own path. I think we sometimes look for the magic key, but it's good to be reminded that we all have our own key. Cannot wait to read your book!

Allison said...

I'm with Megan - can't wait til 2012!

Megan Frances said...

An insightful, inspiring interview - thank you Alice and Sara. There are so many ingredients that contributed to Sara's success story - aside from Wonder Woman, a visionary idea, hard work, and perseverance - Sara's remark about being your own advocate really resonated with me. SO happy for you, Sara! I look forward to reading both books!

Jay Asher said...

Great Q&A. I'm so happy for you, Sara!!!

So are you dedicating your book to Wonder Woman?

Sara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sara said...

Only if she shows up and finishes my revision for me!

Rita said...

DELIGHTFUL interview!!!!!! You're a wonder, Sara . . . Woman!!

Stephanie Blake said...

Go Sara! Can't wait to read this one.

Samantha Davis said...

This is such a great interview. Not only did I love seeing some of my favorite books on Sara's list, but her advice about finding your own individual road to publication is inspiring, just what I needed to read right now. Thanks Alice and Sara.

Julie Hedlund said...

Fantastic interview! I love the analogy of treating your manuscript like a child - stand up for it and do whatever you need to do to make sure it grows into the best it can be. Great advice!