Book journeys are all unique. From plot bunny to manuscript, from query letter to author copies – every book has its own story. So what’s the story behind Listen Up, my verse novel newly released from West 44 Books?
In early 2018, while I anxiously awaited the launch of my debut novel, Second in Command, my editor called for the next round of pitches. A pitch is one sentence that describes the general plot of a book, but in this case, she was looking for a query and first 500 words. Fiction queries, letters of about 250 words designed to give an agent and editor an idea of the who, what, when, where, why of your book, are typically written when a book is complete. Writers often complain about them, but I’m actually one of those weird types who enjoy writing query letters. Maybe it’s all those writing conference sessions, or the satisfaction of being able to sum up the major players and conflict of a book in 250 words or less. Maybe it’s because I once got to hang out and pick the brain of literary agent and query guru Janet Reid, better known as the Query Shark, and she gave my query her stamp of approval. (It may have helped that my friend Dee introduced Janet to sponge candy the day we met.)
Whatever the reason, I wrote a query, sent it to Dee, who helped me clean it up, and wrote my 500 words. Hit submit.
Wait, back up. Where did the idea come from? you ask. My intent at the time was to do a modern retelling of Pump up the Volume, an awesome 90’s movie staring my teen heartthrob, Christian Slater. If you’ve never seen the film, you should watch it because, well, because Christian Slater. With no shirt on. Also it’s a pretty good movie. It’s about a super-shy kid who moves to a new town and uses the radio his parents got him, intended to keep in touch with his old friends, to start an underground radio station. He starts out using it to push boundaries but ends up tackling serious issues and uncovering a plot to remove “bad” students from the school. I knew I couldn’t take on something so huge in 10k words (and wanted my book to be inspired by, not a copy of the movie), so I kept the key elements: shy character, wants to speak out but struggles in real life so finds a way to do it anonymously. In the movie, it’s radio. In my book, he starts a video channel.
So I pitched the book idea in January 2018. Pitched another idea shortly after, about two friends who try to solve the mystery of a missing girl in their neighborhood. Neither were approved. But they weren’t outright rejected either. I started working on the second idea, wrote a few poems, read them to some of my writer friends, who promptly told me they were terrible. Which they were. So I worked on other projects. I wrote several short stories for another imprint, blogged a bit, and changed tenses and major plot lines in my YA historical fiction novel after an unsuccessful round of queries. Forgot all about Listen Up.
Then in October of 2019 my editor wrote to ask if I’d like to write the book. That she’d been thinking about it since I sent the pitch in nearly two years earlier. Oh, and could I write it in a month?
Queue excitement, followed swiftly by panic. Sure! I could write a book in a month. People do that all the time during NaNoWriMo. I made myself a schedule and spent nearly every soccer practice camped out with my laptop. Thankfully, the characters were very cooperative, telling me who they were and what they wanted. The plot was a bit more elusive, and as I approached the end, I realized there was a major hole that needed to be fixed. With a deadline fast approaching, I locked myself in my writing room one weekend and brainstormed until I figured out how to untwist the mess I had made and give the book a proper ending.
Wanna know a secret? That is not easy when your book consists of nothing but poetry. You have to figure out a way to move or rewrite in chunks while keeping the story flowing and the poems intact. When I finished the first draft, I brought it to my husband and asked him to, “Please tell me if this sucks.” He’s a no BS kinda guy, so I knew he’d be honest. And he was. He told me it didn’t suck and helped me fix the parts that were confusing or unclear. I’m deeply thankful for his insight and for my other three beta readers: Adrienne, Alexis, and Carla, who were able to quickly give me notes before I turned it into my editor. And for the random student I met during an instant admit session who answered my questions about Autobody classes. I think his name was Joe. Thank you.
I’m also deeply indebted to my editor, Caitie. Her notes are always kind and helpful, and my favorite part of the process was when I turned in my first draft and she called me a “writing superhero”. Her faith in me has been a huge confidence boost.
Sadly, the journey from acceptance to release day hasn’t been sunshine and rainbows. The pandemic caused a lot of problems in the publishing industry, especially in educational publishing. I originally wrote and planned to publish this post on October 1, but on that day there were no books available to order. I haven’t gotten my author copies yet, and the library rejected the request to carry it because their supplier didn’t have any copies. But my friends, family, and coworkers have been encouraging – sending me texts, pre-ordering the book, letting me read some of the poems at our weekly meeting. And my mom called to say her friends were all excited to get their copies. I’m thankful for all of that, truly.
There is so much I love about writing – I love creating characters and stories, of letting my mind wander into all the what-if’s. I love the way it feels like therapy sometimes, like it’s this free, easy way to work through the garbage in my head. But I mostly love when someone reads something I’ve written and tells me how it made them feel. When a student admits my book is the first he’s ever finished and another sends me the poem she felt inspired to write.
I went into a few classrooms to talk about Second in Command, and I am hopeful that I’ll be able to do that again someday. In the meantime, if I can get my procrastinator’s butt into gear, I’ll put together some video clips of me reading the book and would love to find ways to interact virtually with my readers. Stay tuned.
And if you read the book, please leave a review. Thank you all, for the support. ❤