The next big thing in YA fiction reveals her writing secrets!
Debut author Lee Kelly’s exciting new YA novel, City of Savages, is set to take the world by storm next year. This dystopian read follows two sisters in a post-WW3 POW camp in Manhattan as they seek to discover the truth about the city’s past.
Lee Kelly, joined by her editor, Navah Wolfe, reveals what drove her to write the book, her writing process, and their shared love of YA fiction.
Navah (Lee’s editor): What was your writing process for CITY OF SAVAGES, and what’s your drafting style in general?
Lee (Author): Before writing CITY OF SAVAGES, I was a perfectionist, needed each chapter to read complete and final before I moved on to the next. But then after the first twenty pages of the manuscript, I'd clam up and start worrying that I’d make a mistake.
I eventually realized that the only way to overcome the fear of imperfection was just to submit to it: my first drafts were going to be messy. So I write them “with a spit and a polish” -- I'll initially draft quick and dirty, sometimes with just sketches of ideas. Then the next day, I usually iron out the previous day's installment a bit so it's readable, then I dive back into the story without second-guessing.
When I have a completed first draft, I step away from it for a week. Only then do I let that “perfectionist” sit down at the computer for draft two. Draft two is more rewriting than revising, but that's okay, as it's much less scary when I have 85,000 or so words under my belt (even if they're the wrong words). My third draft involves input from beta readers and critique partners, and then another fairly full-scale revision of a different sort.
Navah: You're a new mom-- has your writing style and attitudes towards writing changed since your son arrived?
Lee: ABSOLUTELY. Before I was a mom, I picked when I wanted to write -- sometimes I'd sit down in the morning and work for half an hour before work if I was feeling the juices flowing... other times I wouldn't touch my manuscript until the weekend. But waiting for inspiration to line up with childcare and naptime is an exercise in futility. I knew I had to get used to the idea of writing when writing time presented itself, or else I might not get to write.
So sometemes when I sit down, the writing feels electric, and there's this natural hum and I know I've tapped into my groove and can't get the words down fast enough. There are other days when it's just WORK. Either way, I sit down. I write. If I throw the words away, I throw them away -- but often every session results in something useful, whether a passage or a story breakthrough.... something.
SO many submissions must cross your desk… and you spend so much time on each book you acquire. So I’m dying to know -- what differentiates your "like" pile from your "love and want to spend 100+ hours working on it" pile? And how soon do you know that you’ve fallen for a submission?
Navah: It’s sort of a gut instinct thing. I know I love a manuscript when I can't get it out of my mind, when the characters burrow their way into my heart, and when I find myself babbling about it to all my coworkers and friends. The books I end up working on, I'll spend an astonishing amount of time on --so they have to be something I really love. I think the important takeaway from this is that it's SO subjective--the books that I love, another editor may be lukewarm on, and a project another editor adores may be “eh” for me. My hardest rejections are books that are well-written and good--but I just don't love them enough to go to bat for them and fight for them the way they deserve. It's a total “it's not you, it's me” rejection letter.
Lee: You’ve got such a strong list of young adult fiction – what drew you to this market in the first place?
Navah: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that when I was a teenager, books saved me. I know there are many of us, both book professionals and book fans, who can look back at the books we read and clung to in high school, and know that those books helped us get through things that might have been too much otherwise. So it feels important to me, to work on YA fiction. I know that not every book we publish will resonate with every reader—and many of our books are just good plain fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the idea of having a hand in a book that just might reach a struggling teen at the right moment—that’s a powerful notion.
I also think that these are the years when teens are learning about their world, and books offer an opportunity to explore different viewpoints that they might not have otherwise. Being able to open a window into another way of life, another way of thinking, can help shape a teen’s worldview in an important way—and that’s exciting.
But beyond that, there’s something really compelling about this time in a teenager’s life, the coming-of-age experience. It’s such a formative moment, and it’s exciting to explore it, across the spectrum of YA lit—from the contemporary love story to the epic fantasy. The emotions of YA feel immediate and real, which I love—it makes it easy to dive headfirst into the character’s experiences.
Lee: I kind of want to borrow that answer and share it with anyone who ever asks why I write for teens. So… the books that you hold closest to your heart, can we get some recommendations?!
Navah: That’s like asking me to choose between my children! But I’ll try—here’s one in each category:
One of my favorite books of all time is Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, which is a fascinating, gorgeous YA novel that’s pretending to be a book about territory wars at a boarding school, but is actually about the ties that bind, and found family, and the way that loving the right people helps us love ourselves.
Another favorite is The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, a middle-grade novel that is 100% character-driven—and oh, what characters! I reread it every few years just to have the chance to hang out with Holling Hoodhood and the remarkable Mrs. Baker—and every time, it makes me laugh and cry.
When it comes to picture books, one of my all-time favorites is Hooray for Amanda and her Alligator by Mo Willems—it’s a fun, funny read-aloud, with pitch-perfect humor that resonates with kids and adults. And in the adult category, I have trouble choosing between The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis—two connected novels that run the gamut from heartbreaking to hilarious, with some of the smartest writing I’ve ever read.
Remember to follow Lee on Twitter: @LeeyKelly