I recently had a chance to spend some time with Alan when we were teaching at the same writers conference. After just five minutes with him, I knew I wanted to introduce him to you.
Alan's first novel, Samurai Shortstop, was named one of the ALA's 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults. His teen mystery Something Rotten was a 2008 ALA Quick Pick for Young Adult Readers, and a sequel, Something Wicked, hit shelves in October 2008. His first true middle grade novel, The Brooklyn Nine, was among Booklist's Top Ten Sports Books and Top Ten Historical Books for Youth, and was followed in 2011 by the fantasy/sports mash-up Fantasy Baseball. His latest novel is Starfleet Academy: The Assassination Game, a novel set in the world of the recent Star Trek movie reboot. His short fiction has appeared in Knoxville's Metropulse magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and in the anthologies Half-Minute Horrors and Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction, benefiting victims of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. A Knoxville, Tennessee native, Alan is now a full-time writer living in Western North Carolina with his wife and daughter. Visit Alan’s website here.
So many aspiring writers think there is a set path to getting published, would you tell us about your journey to publication?
Right. So, obviously, there is no one path to publication. And mine is probably very different than most who will sell their first book in the coming weeks, months, and years. I started writing specifically for the middle grade and young adult markets in 1999. In the meantime, I did a variety of jobs that had to do with books and writing: I worked in the marketing department of a group of bookstores, wrote radio commercials for a group of radio stations, taught eighth grade English, and worked as a shelver at a public library. I read a lot of writing books, wrote a lot of bad pages, and went to a lot of writing conferences, including everything my local SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) chapter had to offer.
From 1999 to 2002 I wrote and submitted two novels unsuccessfully before selling my third attempt, Samurai Shortstop, through the slush pile to an editor at Dial Books in 2003. Samurai Shortstop came out in 2006, and I've been lucky enough to sell about a book a year since then. I was unagented when I sold Samurai. I got an agent through that sale, but things didn't work out between us and I parted ways before selling another two books on my own to my editor at Dial. I later got another agent whom I'm still with and with whom I'm very happy, and I've since sold books to two other publishers.
I love your books, can you give me an idea of your process for mapping out the story? Are you a full-on plotter or more of an intuitive writer?
I'm a full-on plotter. I spend a lot of time on an outline before I ever write the first word. I have a big board in my office where I pin up note cards, and I plot out every single chapter and plot turn. Things change a little as I write the books, of course, but for me those are like little side trips I can take knowing I have a road map to follow to get back on track. Once I have the story plotted out on note cards, I type those up on the computer in more detail, filling in the little unknown parts I've left for myself like "Nate fights some kind of Math-inspired demon here." My outlines are typically anywhere from 30-50 pages long, depending on whether I have historical research notes to attach to each chapter or not. I print out the pages and put them in a notebook, and then when I'm ready to write the first draft I open my notebook to Chapter One, and I know exactly what I'm supposed to write. Separating WHAT I write from HOW I write was a big step forward for me.
What are some of the major changes you’ve seen in the industry since you began and how have they affected you as an author?
The biggest thing has to be the rise of the Children's Book Agents. When I began to submit, I sent my manuscripts to both agents and editors. Most of the agent responses I got were photocopied rejections, and more than a few of them said, "The Writers Market listed us wrong; we aren't interested in children's books." It was the editorial rejection letters that were more helpful. Every now and I then I would get one that told me what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong, and inviting me to resubmit or send them whatever I wrote next. I eventually stopped subbing to agents altogether, and for years my advice to unpublished writers was to skip agents and go right to editors. I now tell unpublished writers the exact opposite. It's nothing the editors have done, it's all about the rise of the children's book agent. There are so many more agents who specialize in children's books now, and the market is different too. If you're writing what's hot (which right now, for example, is paranormal YA) you definitely will want (and can get) an agent.
How have the changes affected me? Well, not a ton, as I have an agent and I'm not a new author. But more agents means more books sold for bigger advances, and bigger advances mean publishers are always looking for bigger books. That's a good thing for the industry, but it makes smaller books harder to sell and makes it more difficult for those books to find their audience.
If you had a crystal ball, give us your predictions on how readers will enjoy books ten years from now.
E-readers are here to stay. I don't think the print book will ever go away entirely, but as children are trained to consume media on PDAs, ebooks will become the major way generations to come read books. In the short term, I think ebooks will take the place of a lot of trade paper sales--that is, those medium-sized books that are a little smaller than hardcovers, but still paperback. Most people don't buy those to collect them; they just buy them to read them. I think that part of the market will be hit the most. Eventually, I think we'll see much smaller print runs on hardcovers too, and hardcovers will be more like "collector's editions," possibly with a higher production quality, like a McSweeney's or Chronicle hardcover is now.
If you could share anything with an aspiring author what would it be?
Read the kind of books you want to write. Write lots of pages. Go to conferences. Submit. Then submit again. And submit again. If you do all those things over and over again, if you get to know your field, and how to be professional, and last but not least, if you are able to advance your craft and become a good writer, you will sell a book. It's just a matter of persistence. But it's not just persistence in submitting. It's all of it, all the time. And it doesn't stop once you sell your first book either.