Monday, April 9, 2012

The Most Remarkable Interview

Today, as promised, I bring you my interview with Lizzie K. Foley (and another chance to win following the interview).

How long have you been writing?

Oh, somewhere in the neighborhood of 23 years.  But don't tell anyone because that makes me feel really, really old.  The most I’ll ever confess to is two months. 

Anway, I always loved the idea of storytelling as a career, but I’d never really actually committed words to paper until I started college.  I was lucky enough to get to go to the screenwriting program at the University of Southern California, which was a lot of fun as a program. 

But once I graduated, I got a job in story development, which is basically a job where you read lots of scripts and then write reports on what’s wrong with them. This is a hard, hard job to have if you want to be a writer yourself.  The job requires that you become super critical of every script put in front of you – which I was.  But it is really hard to go work on your own stuff at the end of the day and turn off the super critical voice inside your head.  I couldn’t write a sentence without telling myself that the sentence was dumb and sloppy, and that the story I was working on was trite.  Finally, I left the job, left Hollywood, went to work for a labor union, and started grad school in sociology and then in education. 

Now I loved being in graduate school.  Truly.  I learned some amazing things and it really transformed how I see the world.  But as I wrote all of my grad school papers, I got the urge to start writing fiction again. And I remembered why I loved it so much.  

How did the idea for Remarkable come about?

Once I went to listen to a lecture on writing children’s fiction, and during this lecture, I was told that main characters in children’s books need to be super heroic and special and could never ever be ordinary.

Now, this made me kind of mad, because I am a deeply ordinary person and was an extremely ordinary child with two extremely gorgeous, talented, and wonderfully kind older sisters (who, through no fault of their own, may have given me a bit of an inferiority complex).  But it didn’t seem fair to me that ordinary people should be excluded from main characterdom in stories.  And so I spent some time thinking about what a story starring a deeply ordinary character would be like.  And then one day, a few lines of REMARKABLE popped into my head, and I suddenly had a clear image of who I wanted the main character to be.  It was a girl – a deeply ordinary girl – who was living in a town where everyone else was super special.  And the town would be named Remarkable.  And the girl would not discover some secret talent by the end of the story.  Instead, she’d learn she liked being ordinary.  And because I am sometimes slow on the uptake, it took me a while to realize that the character I was writing about was me as a child.

No one else was fooled though.  Every time I told someone I was writing a book about a girl who was deeply ordinary and had no discernable talents, that person would inevitably say, “Oh, this is a story about you, isn’t it?” (and yes, it always stung just a little bit).

How long did it take you to write it? 

On an off, I'd say six years.  But there was a lot of “off” to this on and off period.  I was working on more “serious” fiction too – for some reason, I decided my natural writing genre should be literary mysteries.  Um…it turns out this is not true. But I spent A LOT of time writing many many subpar drafts of subpar manuscripts before I figured that out. 

Do you have a set writing schedule?

Don’t I wish!  I have a kid and four dogs and I live in way to much chaos to set a schedule.  I write when my kid is in school – and sometimes in the evening with the TV on.

Where do you write - at home, at coffee shops?

I write at home.  I have a lovely office in a semi-converted attic space.  This way my dogs can help me with the story by barking at everything and occasionally crashing into my desk when they stage impromptu wrestling matches. 

Also, I tend to play the same song over and over again and sing along (badly) when I write, and I’ve found that people at coffee shops really seem to find this annoying (the dogs, on the other hand, don’t seem to mind at all). And in case you are interested, this month’s song is “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine.  And I completely mangle the chorus (whoa-oooh-ah) every single time.

Pajamas or sweat pants?

Pajamas pants.  I have red monkey pajama pants as everyday wear, and grey pirate pajama pants for more formal occasions.

Who would rather have go shopping with - Lady Gaga or Gwenyth Paltrow?

Lady Gaga for sure.  Seriously, I would love to have her advise me on my style.  And I would love to talk to her about what it is like to live like performance art.  With Gwenyth, I’m pretty sure she would just let me know that pirate pajama pants are not actually stylish and put me in a pair of lovely yoga pants.  Then I would start fretting about how I really need to take up yoga but never do. 

What is the last book that you read?

Oh, such a good question.  It’s LEGEND by Marie Lu.  It’s really good. Well-written, thoughtful, and completely entertaining. And I’m also gonna toss out a huge, huge endorsement for THE MAPMAKER AND THE GHOST by Sarvenaz Tash, which is the middle grade book I read most recently.  I loved it.  My son (a very avid middle-grade reader) loved it too.  He’s read it about four times.  It’s just one of those very perfect middle grade adventure reads.  Oh wait!  The middle grade book I read most recently was THE SINISTER SWEETNESS OF SPLENDID ACADEMY by Nikki Loftin.  It’s a crazy, modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel with a really sweet discussion about losing a parent and gaining a stepparent in it.  It’s excellent.  And I’m getting ready to read THE CABINET OF EARTHS by Anne Nesbet, which is supposed to be wonderful, but my kid just swiped it from me and won’t give it back. 

Beaches or Mountains?

Mountains.  I was born and raised in the mountains – and I get the worst sunburns at the beach, no matter how much sunscreen I put on. 

Favorite writing snack?

Coca-cola.  The kind with calories. 

What is the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

Oh…this is another good question.  I have two pieces: the first is focus on what’s working in a draft – not on what isn’t.  This is a way to keep yourself from getting discouraged and well as a way to really let yourself build on your own strengths.  And if you are in a writing group, or have critique partners, always try to solicit from them the parts they liked the most.  If they tell you they didn’t like any of it, then you really must ignore everything else they said, because they aren’t trying to help you improve what you’re writing, but rather, they are trying to rewrite you, which is doing neither one of you a favor.

The second piece of advice is for those who are submitting to agents, etc.  And this is it: Do not get discouraged.  Do not read too much into rejection.  And do not let rejection drive you away from the business end of getting published.  There are so many good writers in the world who send there manuscript off to 5 or so agents, then either don’t hear back or get rejections, and then walk away from the industry because the rejections hurt too much.  These are people who totally could have been published but didn’t keep submitting until they put their manuscript in front of the right person at the right time (and getting to that point often does require patience and persistence.)

Anyway to illustrate this point, go to a bookstore – preferably a big bookstore that’s busy – and look at the shelves in the section that you want to be published in.  Now all of these books have been published, and the vast, vast majority of them have agent representation.  Now ask yourself – given limited time and resources, how many of those books are you actually willing to grab off the shelves at look at?  It’s not all of them, right? And of the ones you pull off the shelves, how many of them are you going to look at and then put back?  And if you do find some books that you’re willing to take home and read, how many of those books are you going to rave about and try to convince other people to read?  It’s not many, I bet.  So see, you’ve just rejected a huge pile of publishable books yourself. 

And the books you left on the shelves, or put back, or didn’t rave about probably aren’t terrible books.  These particular books just didn’t jump out at you for reasons that have almost nothing to do with the writing itself, but has everything to do with the complexities that have created your personal tastes.  And the books that didn’t interest you are very likely going to be picked out by someone else, and someone else may flip through the pages, decided to read the whole thing, and then rave about it to a friend.  In fact, this is likely. 

Anyway, to get to the analogy part – if you really feel (or even suspect) that your book is publishable, then think about it in these terms.  Sending a query letter is the equivalent of having a book on the shelf at a large bookstore, and agents are the customers looking at a vast selection of query letters to see what appeals to them.  The few letters they “take off the shelf” are the ones where they are willing to read a partial.  The even fewer of those that they “purchase to read” are where they ask to see the complete manuscript.  And they are only going to offer representation to the manuscripts that they are willing to rave about to friends, because this is essentially what their job entails.

As a querying writer – your job is to keep your book on the “query shelf” for as long as it takes for the right agent to come along, snap it up, and start raving.  And if need be, go to the bookstore for an entire day and watch how often bestsellers, award-winners, classics, etc. are ignored by perfectly reasonable customers with perfectly reasonable tastes. 

And the remarkable picture I promised you....

That's Lizzie K. Foley on the left, Keith Blocker in the center (with his hat off in respect for the dearly departed in the cemetery behind us) and me on the right with my ever present bottle of water.  We took a day away from USC to play at Disneyland!

For an extra entry in the contest, post something remarkable about yourself (or something you found remarkable about Lizzie) in the comments!

Winner will be chosen (and announced) on the release day - April 12th!


  1. Can't wait to read this! I love good YA lit. and things that get kids reading!

  2. Great interview! And I LOVE that picture. :)

    I love reading how an author got her idea. And I, too, would pick Lady Gaga. AND I always write in pajama pants!

  3. Super interview--I really enjoyed getting some background about the book.

    And I found it remarkable that Lizzie worked on the book on and off for 6 years, since I can make the same claim about mine! =)