Welcome to the latest installment of Breaking In, where I interview authors about their experiences breaking in as writers — how they did it, what it felt like to get there, and how it differed from what they were expecting.
Today, I’m very excited to have the chance to interview YA fantasy author Lena Coakley.
As she explains on her website, Lena’s first novel, Witchlanders, was published by Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in 2011. It was called “one stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews and won the SCBWI Crystal Kite award for the Americas. Her forthcoming novel, Worlds of Ink and Shadow, a portal fantasy about the young Brontë siblings and the worlds they created, will be out on January 5, 2016.
Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. The Brontë siblings have always been inseparable. After all, nothing can bond four siblings quite like life in an isolated parsonage out on the moors. Their vivid imaginations lend them escape from their strict upbringing, actually transporting them into their created worlds: the glittering Verdopolis and the romantic and melancholy Gondal. But at what price? As Branwell begins to slip into madness and the sisters feel their real lives slipping away, they must weigh the cost of their powerful imaginations, even as their characters—the brooding Rogue and dashing Duke of Zamorna—refuse to let them go.
Gorgeously written and based on the Brontës’ juvenilia, Worlds of Ink & Shadow brings to life one of history’s most celebrated literary families.
Worlds of Ink and Shadow will be available January 5, 2016 in Canada and the US from your preferred bookseller. For more information on Lena’s books, and how to find them, visit her website.
[SGM] Welcome to the blog, Lena! To begin, when did you feel like you’d broken in as a writer?
[LC] Oh my goodness, I think I’m still breaking in. There’s always a new hurdle—isn’t there?—and the finish line is always receding. I feel like I’ve had a very stop and start career. Writing novels was always my goal, but it took me a very long time to finish my first one, Witchlanders—so long, in fact, that I wrote two picture books, published them, and saw them go out of print in the ten years it took to complete it.
I’d have to say that finding my agent, Steven Malk, was my big break, though. He was very interested in Witchlanders, but it needed some major revisions. He ended up working with me for almost two years to get it ready for publication. We didn’t have a contract, and the whole time I was afraid I was going to fail, afraid that he wouldn’t end up signing me. When I sent my final revision to him I had tears streaming down my face. The book was so far from perfect in my mind—but Steve ended up loving it, and he did finally sign me. After all those years of work, the book sold very quickly in a preempt to Simon and Schuster. Things seemed to move like lightning after that.
What was your path to breaking in? Did you have a strategy? Did it work, or did you end up getting there another way?
I worked at both the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and CANSCAIP and I thought that the contacts I made there might help me get published, but that’s not how things worked out. I did what most people do. I queried. I researched agents and polished a query letter and got rejections. I believe that networking and going to conferences and meeting people are all important, but in the end I broke in with a good query letter and a good manuscript—no matter how many contacts you have, if you don’t have those two things, you won’t get published.
And following up on that, knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?
So many things! I think I would have enjoyed getting an MFA, and the things I learned there might have helped me finish my first novel more quickly. Also, because all my experience is in the children’s book world, I didn’t really know how many short story markets are available to fantasy and science fiction writers. I’m intrigued by the way authors like Leah Bobet and Claire Humphrey built audiences for their work with short stories before their first novels even came out. Years ago I published short stories in educational anthologies, but when that market dried up, I stopped writing them. If I had things to do over again, I’d probably try to break into the adult spec fic market, something I’m belatedly doing now. Not only do I think this would have introduced my work to different audiences, I also love short stories and miss writing them.
Now that you’ve broken in, is it like or unlike what you expected? How?
Completing a novel is a life achievement that I’m really proud of. I do feel like I’ve done something that can go on my tombstone, but there are always new challenges. I’m always thinking about the next novel and hoping it will be better than the one before.
What are you working on now?
I was lucky enough to sell my second book, Worlds of Ink and Shadow, on 60 pages and an outline, but that situation came with some pitfalls. Once I had a pub date and a deadline, I felt I could only work on that one novel. Now that it’s finished, I’ve decided that I work better when I have many projects on the go. I’ve got two YA fantasy novels that I go back and forth between that take up most of my time, but I’ve also got a few short stories and even a middle grade novel simmering on back burners. This is probably way too much! I think it’s a reaction to working on one project more than was natural for me.
How can people keep up with you online?
Thank you to Lena for the informative and thought-provoking responses to my questions! I’m excited to read Worlds of Ink and Shadow — I love portal fantasies, and it seems to be a subgenre that’s in the midst of a long-overdue resurgence.
Coming up next on the blog: 2015 – threat or menace? The year in review.