Thursday 21 July 2011

That'll be the Debut - third of a series - YA debutantes!

By Candy Gourlay

Featuring Angela Cerrito, Sara Grant and Paula Rawsthorne

On Notes from the Slushpile, many of us are chasing down the dream of getting published. So when that dream comes true, it's time to celebrate! This is the third of our new series That’ll Be The Debut, where we meet debut authors who are finally leaving the Slushpile behind. Today's three have all written Young Adult novels. View the list of other debuts we've featured so far

Paula Rawsthorne

Paula Rawsthorne spent her time on the Slushpile well - winning the 2004 BBC Get Writing Competition with her comedy The Sermon on the Mount - which was ready by no less than Bill Nighy on BBC Radio 4 and chosen Pick of the Week. Her YA thriller, The Truth About Celia Frost (great title!) was one of the 2010 winners of the Undiscovered Voices competition. She lives in Nottingham with her husband and children.

Angela Cerrito

I first met Angela Cerrito at a critique session at one of the SCBWI Conferences in Bologna and I was totally bowled over by the chapter she read for critique. I was absolutely convinced that Angela was on the right track to publication ... she did in fact win SCBWI's coveted Work-in-Progress Grant one year, but it was still a while before she was discovered. That impressive chapter I first heard in Bologna is  now available in book form as The End of the Line. So happy for you, Angela! She lives in Germany with her husband and two daughters.

Sara Grant
Sara Grant had a direct hand in changing my own fortunes on the Slushpile - she was the brains behind the Undiscovered Voices competition which I won in 2008. I designed her website and had the unusual request to make her author photo look dirtier to suit the edgy, graffiti look. She's a senior commissioning editor at Working Partners and an ardent volunteer at SCBWI and I can't wait to read her YA novel Dark Parties.

Candy Gourlay I asked the previous lot what it was like to have a dream come true - what was it like for you guys when you were on the Slushpile and how did it feel when you got a book deal?

Sara Grant I still find it unbelievable to be honest. When my agent sent me the initial email that said she was expecting an offer from Little, Brown, I forwarded the message to my husband so he could confirm that I wasn't dreaming. The first moment I started to believe was when I saw the initial designs for the book cover. I suppose until then I expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me it was a cruel joke.

Angela Cerrito I agree Sara, sometimes I still can't believe it! The best part is getting emails or FB messages from readers. That's when it hits me. "My book is out there! And people are reading it!"

Paula Rawsthorne It feels incredible. I don't think that I'll ever get to a stage were I take for granted that I'm getting paid to do the thing I love and that the story that rattled around in my head is in print for anyone to read (officially, from the first of August). There's no denying that it's hard work and the very nature of creating a story means it's always occupying some part of your brain but it's all worth it.

Angela Paula, I really like that vision of staying hooked into (and in love with) your story through the long process!

Candy What was your life like as an unpublished author?

Angela Slushpile = STRESS, constant research, constantly wondering if I should re-write every word of my query letter and sample pages …or even the entire novel.

Agent submissions to publishing houses = STRESS, some very close rejections, and a lot of wondering if I should rewrite the whole dang novel.

Candy What worked in the end? What opened the door?

Angela Patience - and an amazing agent who didn't give up.

Candy Well done. But even getting a deal can be frustrating. When I got my deal I was struck by what a series of anticlimaxes it was - a series of long waits before you could announce anything.

Angela There are so many stages including a long beginning stage of telling only a few people so that when I could finally announce the “news” it didn’t feel so new anymore. Working with my editor was pure happiness…the novel changed so much – though I didn’t have to rewrite ALL of it!

Thirteen year old Robbie has reached the end of the line. At Great Oaks Schools there’s no  time off for good behavior.  His story is at times hilarious, at times horrifying - but if Robbie is to survive, he must confront the truth: he is a murderer.

Sara I agree with Angela. Working with my editors has a been a dream. It's exciting and overwhelming to suddenly have an experienced and amazing editorial team working with you to improve your novel. Dark Parties is a much, much better book thanks to the insights and feedback of my editors at Little, Brown (US), Orion (UK) and my German pubisher, Droemer Knauf.

Candy You all write edgy YA - how edgy can the YA readership take? where did your edginess come from?

Sara For me, it's not about being edgy; it's about being honest. I'm interested in issues and ideas as well as story and character. I like writing about issues that will continue to intrigue me. I may write dark stories but I prefer issues that aren't black and white. I think I can write about dark topics, in part, because I'm an optimist. I can write from a dark place, but I don't live there.

Angela Well, aside from death of a student and forced solitary confinement with restricted food and other privileges for the main character my novel isn’t really edgy at all!

Candy Yeah, right.

Angela In fact I first marketed it as a “dark middle grade / tween novel". Shows what I know! The edginess didn’t come from personal experience, but a few small episodes in the novel did. You can see the interview in the teacher’s guide on my website.

Paula I certainly didn't start off with any conscious decision to be edgy. I just set out to write something I hoped was entertaining, gripping and hopefully thought provoking. Everyone has their different boundaries- so one person's edgy is another's "family friendly".

It's interesting to see how Angela perceived her story and how others, in the business, viewed it! In life, the issues that require the most debate and thought are usually the most uncomfortable so we shouldn't be afraid of YA novels that get readers thinking about issues that may touch their lives now or in the future.

We shouldn't be afraid of YA novels that get readers thinking about issues that may touch their lives now or in the future. Paula Rawsthorne

Candy There's been quite a big hoo-hah over one author's comments about YA being too dark. Megan Cox Gurdon said YA books invited "teenagers to wallow in ugliness, barbarity, dysfunction and cruelty" and got an angry response from other authors including Judy Blume and Libba Bray (Read Jackie Marchant's report on the debate Is Young Adult Fiction Safe for Young Adults to Read?).

Teen and YA readers are a very particular market. do you write for your readers or do you write for yourself? do you think there is a universality in the teen experience that transcends time?

Angela I think I write for my characters not my readers or myself. But at every stage I find myself thinking about the future readers and I’m very fortunate to have a group of first readers who I trust completely. No, I do not think there is a universal teen experience.

Sixteen-year-old Neva was born and raised in an isolated nation ruled by fear, lies, and xenophobia. Hundreds of years ago, her country constructed an electrified dome to protect itself from the outside world. What once might have protected, now imprisons. Her country is decaying and its citizens are dying. Neva and her friends dream of freedom.
Dark Parties will be published in the U.S. by Little, Brown on 3rd August 2011 and in the U.K. by Orion on 20th October 2011.

Sara At first I wrote for myself because as far as I knew I could have been the only one to ever read Dark Parties. I had to stay engaged in my story if I ever expect any future readers to stay interested to the final page. Then once I had a first draft, I started to consider future readers.

Paula Teenagers are all individuals (Yes, I'm stating the bleedin' obvious) but I think there are certain experiences that transcend time, fashion etc. No matter if you were a teen in the 1970s or present day you can't get through those years without collecting cringy, self conscious moments and hormonally driven actions, or incidents of great melodrama because "nobody understands you"! It's all part of life's cruel journey- try and enjoy it!

Sara I agree with Paula, there's not a universal teen experience but there certainly are many things about being a teen that transcend time.

Candy How far are you prepared to go to tell your story?  Would you censor yourself to say, lift some of the darkness? My next book (working title: Shine) is slightly older and a lot darker than my debut novel Tall Story but I really worked hard to hold back on swear words.

I write for my characters not my readers or myself ... I don't believe there's a universal teen experience. Angela Cerrito

Angela I’d like to say I go where my characters take me, but that hasn’t always worked out so well in the past. I should say, I try to go where the main character takes me in a way that is best to tell his or her story.

Paula I thought long and hard about the nature of the ethical question and situation that The Truth About Celia Frost addresses and ultimately I decided that I had to be true to myself and write what I wanted in a responsible manner. YA books are much more open about dealing with issues of sex and drugs, to me, engaging Ya readers in thinking about ethics is just as important.

Sara I've discarded a lot of ideas because I didn't think I would be comfortable writing about certain topics or writing what was necessary to tell that story. I will also admit that initially I held back on a few of the most difficult scenes in Dark Parties and left more to the reader’s imagination, but my editor encouraged me to push myself and not hold back as much. It was great advice and I’m glad I listened to her. But it can be a delicate balance sometimes being true to your story and true to yourself.

Candy Will you always write for this age group or do you aspire for others?

Sara As an editor at Working Partners, I get to dabble in other genres and younger and older markets. I've worked on sparkly stories for young girls and action-adventure stories for tween boys and a bit of everything in between. I'm lucky that I can experiment with all types of fiction in my 'day job'.

But my personal projects tend to be for teens. It's a great market and I don't have any immediate plans to change -- but never say never.

Celia's strange illness brands her the school ‘freak’. Then she discovers her mother's been lying about it all along. In trying to break her mother's control on her life, Celia discovers strengths she didn't know she had - but does she have the strength the face the shocking truth about her birth? A roller coaster thriller.

Paula I've written short stories for adults in the past and they have ranged from dark and twisted to outright comedy but I knew I wanted my first novel to be for YA as I felt what teenagers want is a good story- well told. And that's what I love in a book too, so attempting to write such a story has been very enjoyable and I hope to continue writing for Ya for some time.

Angela Writing for teens is my dream but I do have a middle grade novel that I’m working on (and it is the one both of my daughters like the most, so I can’t give up on that project!)

Sara The stories I feel compelled to write fit nicely in this market. I think there's an added energy in writing for teens. I remember the passion I felt for the books I read as a teen -- experiencing so much in the pages of a book for the first time. I think I tap into some of that same excitement all over again when I write.

Candy Recently there was a flurry of tweeting under the hashtag #YAsaves. This was in response to that Gurdon article. But if YA saves, there is also a danger of viewing teen books as self help as explained in this article ... It seems to me there's a serious lack of respect for YA in the non-YA-loving world. Why is that?

Angela I have no idea. And it doesn't really matter what "other people think" it's the readers who matter. Teens are good at finding what they like and reading it. I expect that regardless of what anyone else says teens will find their way to books for many years to come!

Sara I don't worry too much about what non-YA readers say about YA books. Most of them are looking at a handfull of books not the entire market. I read almost exclusively YA fiction. It's not self help; it's not all dark and depressing. It's not less that any other type of ficton.

It's great stories of all genres -- yes, some dark and edgy - and some really incredible writing, characters and ideas. I think any time something becomes successful -- Harry Potter or Twilight, for example -- it's an easy target.

I also think some of these critics don't give teen readers enough credit. Shouldn't your teen years -- wait, your whole life really -- be about exploring new ideas? Some of which you reject and some you consider but ultimately you decide for yourself. Young adults are picking up books and reading. Isn't that something to celebrate?

I think some of these critics don't give teen readers enough credit. Sara Grant

Paula I agree with both Angela and Sara. Teenage readers are the harshest critics. They don't feel any obligation to finish a book if it isn't engaging them so YA books are usually compelling in their story-telling- more so than many adult books. Great storytelling in YA books doesn't mean that they can't be thought- provoking or deal with big ideas. Books don't have to be ponderous and self indulgent to be worthy of respect.

Candy Can you all talk about your current WIPS? Any plans for the future? Publication dates even?

Paula I was lucky enough to get a two-book deal with Usborne so I'm busy writing another stand-alone thriller for young adults. I loved writing Celia Frost and I'm feeling the same about my current novel. Writing for YAs seems to make me happy but I've also had short stories for adults published that have ranged from comedy to dark and twisted.

I'm having a bit of an out of body experience week as I've just had the book launch for Celia Frost which made me giddy with excess happiness! It was fantastic to see lots of very lovely, very happy people joining me to celebrate. If you want to see some pics just go to the website.

Usborne, my publishers were amazing as ever and the next evening I got to have dinner in a posh, trendy hotel with some lovely reviewers, booksellers and the wonderful Usborne team. I wish I'd bought a doggy bag!!

Angela I'm currently writing a middle grade novel about a girl with an unusual talent and an impossible dream.

Sara My second book will come out in the fall of 2012. It’s another dystopian novel. Its working title is Half Lives. It’s very much a work in progress, but here’s what I know so far:

Half Lives chronicles the journey of two unlikely heroes – Icie and Beckett. Both struggle to keep themselves alive and protect future generations from the terrible fate that awaits any who dare to climb the mountain. Even though they live hundreds of years apart, Icie and Beckett’s lives are mysteriously linked. Half Lives is a race against time and the battle to save future generations. It’s about the nature of faith and power of miscommunication – and above all the strength of the human spirit to adapt and survive.

Angela Sounds wonderful!!!

Candy Wow, she knows how to sell it!

Paula I'm looking forward to reading your second book already, Sara. Hurry up and finish it and Angela, your novel sounds right up my street.

My WIP is another psychological thriller for YAs. I'm hoping it's gripping, intense, twisting but has moments of real humour. It opens with a terrible shocker and I'm already getting too emotionally involved with my meaty cast of characters (I think I might require therapy after finishing this one).

Candy Thank you, ladies. Congratulations again -- it must be a thrill to be a part of one of the fastest growing genres in fiction world-wide!

Read the rest of our That'll be the Debut series:

Candy Gourlay's debut novel Tall Story was published in June last year. Her second novel Shine will be published by David Fickling Books in March 2012.


  1. When I wrote 'so happy for you, Angela' what I really meant was 'so happy for ME' ... because now I get to read the entire book! Congrats gals!

  2. Ah - great stuff and the stuff of greatness from our debutantes. Oh my piles (of books) are growing!

  3. Candy,
    Thank you...that's exactly how I felt when TALL STORY was in my hands ... *Happy!*
    It was so much fun to have a group online interview. Waiting to see what you will invent next!!!

  4. it's a pleaure! Angela, would you say that the published version of your book is a lot different from the chapter I saw at that critique session so long ago?

  5. Candy,
    The novel changed a lot along the way to publication, but the first chapter is almost exactly as you heard it...except for one word -more about how I edited the "hell" out of my manucript here

  6. Really enjoyed tne interview -thanks. As someone who spends loads of time reading picture books and little time reading anything else, it's always great to hear about new books that look really exciting. I've wanted to read Sara's Dark Parties since I read the chapter in UV and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy. And now, I'm really looking forward to reading the other two, too. Almost all of the non-picture books I've read since having children (and discovering SCBWI) have been by SCBWIers (and plenty of the PBs too). Thanks again and can't wait to read them all. Clare.

  7. Hi Candy and Teri: Enjoying this series - so much so that I shared it and the link in a recent blog post! Cheers, jan

  8. Paula, I was in Waterstone's in Birmingham today and the guy in charge of children's told me that The Truth About Celia Frost is the best novel he's read in a very long time. He loves it. If you fancied doing a reading/signing at the High Street Waterstone's, he'd love it, you'd be welcome to stay at mine and we'd gather the local SCBWI crowds for it -there are a lot of us... (and I bought it to read on holiday).


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