With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Nicole J. Persun
Nicole J. Persun started her professional writing career at the age of sixteen with her young adult novel, A Kingdom’s Possession, which later became an Amazon Bestseller. Her second novel, Dead of Knight, was recently awarded Gold in Foreword Magazine’s 2013 Indiefab Book of the Year Award competition, and has also seen Amazon’s Bestseller rankings. Aside from novels, Nicole has had short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and essays published in a handful of literary journals. She often speaks at libraries, writer’s groups, and writer’s conferences across the country. Nicole has a degree in Creative Writing from Goddard College and is currently working on her Master’s at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. For more information, visit Nicole’s website at www.nicolejpersun.com or visit her publisher’s website at www.booktrope.com.
What first got you interested in writing? Considering that publishing can be a tough business, why do you choose to write?
For someone with a big imagination who is interested in everything—new findings in history, the latest leaps in science, boundary-pushing art—writing is great. It can encompass anything, which is why I love it so much. As a writer, I don’t have to choose whether I want to become an historian or a biologist, I can be both, through my characters and the stories I craft.
I’ve made up stories since before I can remember. My parents encouraged that side of me from the beginning. However, I started writing my first novel when I was thirteen. In part, writing was an escape; it also allowed me to think about life from a safe distance, removed from the awkwardness of adolescence. Of course, I continued writing through high school and am still writing now, in graduate school, so obviously it stuck. Having a creative outlet is so important. It keeps me sane. And, I think, in a lot of ways, I still address questions about life in general through my characters. It’s a strange habit, trying to figure out the world through imaginary people.
As far as publishing being a tough business, I write despite that. So, yes, it’s not the most stable occupation, but it’s certainly the most personally fulfilling. I’d rather do what makes me happy and deal with a challenging and ever-changing business than do something boring and easy.
What attracts you to the fantasy genre in particular?
I suppose, really, what I love about fantasy is its ability to make hard truths easier to stomach. I started writing fantasy as an escape, but as I delved deeper into the genre, I realized that fantasy isn’t removed from reality. In a lot of ways, it is reality, just taken out of context. For example: lets say you’d like to write a book about the devastation of pollution on an environment. Abandoned and trash-ridden beaches, washed-up whale corpses, birds strangled by plastic—this could be difficult for you, the writer, and your readers, to stomach. A work of fiction about this kind of thing could also come off as preachy. So instead you write a story about a dystopian world that was ravaged by a force of magic. Now, the idea of devastating pollution is taken out of this world’s context. All solutions—even those impossible for our Earth—are on the table. But it’s still abstract and impersonal. So, in the story, we explore the impact of such a thing on a character who carries with her a goldfish in a bag. She cares deeply for her goldfish and, upon Bubbles’ death, she decides to go on a quest to battle the magical force and restore her planet’s natural world.
So, sure, this example is fairly transparent, but you see what I mean. By taking something relevant to our society out of this context and placing it in a different world, with a different set of rules, we’re able to explore the issue in a new way. We have the potential to grow and perhaps draw new conclusions about our own reality by thinking about it on a different plane. I might argue that fiction in general does this—we learn about ourselves through considering new ideas in our reading. Fantasy just requires a bit more suspension of belief than other genres.
Plus, fantasy is also just really fun. Making up worlds, creatures, societies. For someone interested in history and how things come to be, world building is an incredible thing.
And, for the record, I write in all genres. My published novels, so far, are all fantasy, but that doesn’t mean that I limit myself to fantasy as a writer. Every genre is attractive in some way, and I love exploring them.
Your first novel, A Kingdom’s Possession, was accepted by Booktrope Editions when you were sixteen. In your experience, has the age of an author ever been seen as a challenge in the publishing field?
Something I love about this business is that the work must speak for itself. It’s about the quality of the book. When you send out work, your age typically isn’t mentioned. It came up during contracts, of course, because when you’re a minor your parents have to sign the contract as well, but that was the only hiccup as far as getting published.
Broadcasting my age in the marketing of the published product, however, made a difference. In some ways, it was a good marketing tool, because I was somewhat of an anomaly. This meant that it was easy to get newspaper articles and interviews—headlines like, “Local High School Student Gets Publishing Contract” were common. It created buzz, which was good for sales, for getting my name out there. But then it also generated a lot of reviews that read, “This book is great, considering it was written by a kid,” which made it hard to be taken seriously. My age changed the way readers read my work—for better or for worse. Some reviews were overly critical because I was young. In this case, my work didn’t have a chance to speak for itself—those who were aware of my age took that into the story with them, and I think it changed the way they read it.
Age has been a huge challenge regarding my career as a speaker and teacher of writing. I love being involved in writing conferences and am getting an MFA in Creative Writing with Methods of Teaching Creative Writing. I want to teach. But, for some reason, adults have a very hard time taking writing advice from, say, an eighteen-year-old (ha). I’ve taught more writing classes than I can count, with success. I get compliments, I get invited back. But I’ve also had people walk out when they see how young I am. I have been challenged, in the middle of speaking or teaching a class, to debates where adults throw out examples too dated for me to have heard of or ask about my life experience as a way of diminishing my message. Now that I’m a bit older and have been validated by winning a couple awards, I run into this problem less and less. Still, it was perhaps the most difficult part of the establishment of my career as an author and speaker. And it is something I take very seriously. This experience brought me to becoming involved in helping other young writers navigate this business fearlessly. Young people have so much to offer and I love interacting with them—whenever I get the chance to speak to a group of young writers, I strive to be a source of encouragement.
What are some of your tricks for balancing writing, college, and life in general?
Ha! I’ll let you know when I have some!
In all seriousness, I’ve come to think of writing as a necessity—I have to eat, I have to bathe, I have to write. Treating writing as a necessity gives me the permission to maintain the habit. I never feel guilty for writing—I can’t, as it wouldn’t be healthy for my process. Unhealthy for my life, as writing is firmly linked to my sanity. Does this mean that I manage to balance everything flawlessly? No. Just like some days you skip breakfast, or don’t have time to shower, I don’t write. But most often, I carve out time.
I was just talking about this very thing with an author friend from school. So often I think people wait until they think they’ll have more time—when my career is more stable, when I have more money, when I get an office to myself—that they end up putting off their writing. Life never grants you time like that—you always get caught up in other things. So it’s important to prioritize and make time.
Lately, I’ve also been enjoying finally being in a program that requires you to write what you want. I spent most of high school getting up at 4:30am to write before class. Now that class is writing, I have more time. Which is great, because waking up at 4:30am sucks.
In addition to writing, you also teach other writers! What kinds of insights do you hope your students come away with after taking one of your courses?
Really, I teach with the goal of stretching writers’ ideas about writing. After all, it’s an art. There are no real rules. I love to discuss. To present ideas with the caveat that there is no right way or wrong way to write a story. I want to motivate writers to explore and play. I want them to walk away from a class inspired. I also strive to help writers feel as though they’re not alone—writing is such a solitary thing that sometimes it can become scary or discouraging. Something I learned from my favorite teachers of writing: there’s comfort in knowing that other writers are going through the same thing.
How can younger writers become more confident in their skills?
Something that was really important to me when I first started writing was meeting other writers. Having friends who are writers—and writers of different levels, from beginning to bestselling—can be a great way to stay excited about your work. Ensure that even your critique groups, if you participate in any, stay positive. Along with telling each other what could be improved, remember to mention what worked. Surround yourself with cheerleaders, and be a cheerleader for others.
Confidence also comes from practice. Write every day. Challenge yourself by writing in second person, or future tense, or doing other writing exercises that seem outside your skill set. That’s how you grow as a writer (plus, it’s fun!). Hone your skills, and you’ll begin to see some progress in yourself. Reading is also important. I make it a point to read fiction and books on the craft of writing on a regular basis. The more you learn, the better you get.
I struggle with confidence a lot, as I think many authors do. While publication, awards, and praise from others can validate my writing, confidence in my work primarily comes from within. I do what I can to celebrate my success, even if it’s small. Finish a first draft? Go out to dinner. Hear back from an agent? Treat yourself to a pedicure. Honor your progress. I’m a perfectionist, and that can become discouraging. While writing requires commitment and discipline, it’s important to cut yourself some slack sometimes, or it’ll become a chore. By continually learning and recognizing my progress, I stay confident in my work. And confident in myself.
What recommendations do you have for new writers trying to get their work out there? What are some things you wish you had known when you first got into publishing?
I did a lot of research before seeking publication and I think that’s still very important for beginning writers to do. The publishing world is ever-changing and it’s important to know what’s best for you and your book. Attend a few conferences so you can talk to experts about the pros and cons of different publication routes. And don’t be impatient. Technology allows for instant gratification, and I see many authors picking self-publication not because they think it’s the best option, but because they think it’ll be the fastest. It takes time to produce a really good book. I’m pleased with my publisher and am extremely glad that I took the time to research publication before entering the business.
Can you tell us a little about your role as Student Liaison with the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association?
I’m there for the young writers in any way possible. In terms of yearly things, I’m constantly trying to come up with more student benefits within the organization. Our latest and greatest is our young authors’ day at the conference. I participated a lot in it during the 2014 conference, from teaching to volunteer positions like taking tickets and moderating classes. My conference role is the best, because any young writer who has a question or concern is sent to me. I meet a lot of inspiring young people and love the opportunity to help them get the most out of their PNWA experience.
What kinds of marketing strategies do you employ? Do you do anything with social media?
I’m up for pretty much anything, from press releases in local papers to blog tours. In the past, I’ve done radio interviews, guest blogs, and of course lots of promotions where we offer discounts. Booktrope (my publisher) is big into social media, so that’s an important part of my marketing. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, which is fun, because it keeps me connected to readers and friends in a way unlike anything else. I love doing readings and signings, too. Anything that allows me to actually connect with people, rather than just shoving my book titles into Internet ads. Word of mouth is such a key aspect of marketing books, so while it’s not the most aggressive strategy to make actual connections with people, I like to think that it’s effective because it’ll get them talking to their friends about me and my work.
How much time to you spend on plotting and outlining before you sit down to actually write a novel? Can you talk a bit about your self-editing process? Also, how much time do you spend on your work before you share it with others?
I don’t outline at all, but that doesn’t mean that the book doesn’t roll around in my head for a few months before I actually sit down to write it. My stories come from all sorts of things—whatever feels the strongest in my mind is usually the one written next. Typically, I know the characters, setting, beginning scene, and climax when I start a book. The rest I try to keep as organic as possible.
That being said, when I start a book, I get an empty corkboard and a stack of index cards, and post up notes as I go. These notes can be anything from the names of minor characters, to thoughts about what might happen in upcoming scenes. I also take editing notes, such as, “First scene in chapter 4 feels awkward—fix in later draft.” This keeps me writing forward, rather than obsessing over smaller details, which can make me feel stuck. I like to get it all down, then go back through and edit. So, once I have a first draft, then I go through all my corkboard notes and edit to those. It’s a lot of feeling out scenes, questioning flow and pacing and consistency of character. I don’t let anyone see anything from a new book until I feel as though I have done all the editing I can do. This way, I stay true to the story and characters, without outside influence. Having someone read it too early can hurt your process, I think. So, I keep it to myself until it feels as “done” as I can get it on my own.
What book has had the greatest influence on you as a writer? Who is your favorite author? What do you admire about his/her work?
I’m influenced by so many writers, but I think the first was Sharon Shinn, who writes romantic fantasy stories. I read her Twelve Houses series early on and her writing really stuck with me. Her female characters are well-developed and without stereotypes. The adventures in her stories made me want to travel through my own fantastical worlds. Another author who sticks out is Chris Humphreys, an historical fiction author whom I met at one of my first conferences. I read his book Vlad and still revisit it to this day, because of the incredible character development. His ability to take a character and disintegrate them into madness certainly influenced my writing of Dead of Knight, which focused on that kind of darker character as well.
My favorite author is probably Lily Tuck, who writes literary fiction. Her book I Married You for Happiness changed the way I viewed writing. The structure, the emotion, the spanning of time, the language—all her stories (and I’ve read many) impress me in one way or another. I aspire to write with the kind of simplicity and beauty that she employs. She makes me want to be a better writer every time I read her. And I love that.
What’s next on the horizon for you? When should we start looking out for your next novel?
I don’t have anything with my publisher right now, so I can’t give you an exact date, however do expect to see the second book in my Dead of Knight series on the horizon. But I love to experiment. As I mentioned before, I write in all genres, so don’t expect to see me writing fantasy forever. I’m working on my master’s now, and for that I’m writing a literary novella that has forced me to re-imagine my entire writing process. So who knows! I’m having fun with it. That’s the point anyway, isn’t it?
Thanks so much for interview with us, Nicole!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Cherise Hensley is currently pursuing her M.A. in English at the University of Idaho. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in English and marketing and also has a copy editing certification from UC San Diego. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.