As promised, today Jennifer R. Hubbard joins us to answer questions about her writing experience and her debut YA novel, THE SECRET YEAR, which is being released today by Viking Press (Penquin). Jenn is represented by agent Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown Ltd.
Jenn lives and writes near Philadelphia. She is a night person who believes that mornings were meant to be slept through, a chocolate lover, and a hiker. She has been writing since the age of six, when she used to write and illustrate her own picture books. She will read almost anything, but prefers to write short stories and young-adult novels.
THE SECRET YEAR may be Jenn’s first published novel but she’s no stranger to online readers and writers who follow her blog, writerjenn.
CG: Welcome, Jenn. Thanks for doing this interview. THE SECRET YEAR is your debut novel. Your publisher describes it as ‘Romeo and Juliet’ mixed with ‘The Outsiders’. Please tell us a bit about the story.
JH: Seventeen-year-old Colt has been sneaking out at night to meet Julia, a girl from an upper-class neighborhood unlike his own. They’ve never told anyone else about their relationship: not their family or friends, and especially not Julia’s boyfriend. When Julia dies suddenly, Colt tries to cope with her death while pretending that he never even knew her. He discovers a journal Julia left behind. But he isn’t prepared for the truths he discovers about their intense relationship, nor to pay the price for the secrets he’s kept.
CG: Everyone has a story about “the call” and “how I found my agent/editor/publisher.” Can you share a bit of the journey that led you to your agent, Nathan Bransford, and Viking Press?
JH: I first found Nathan Bransford through his blog—although of course I’d heard of the agency, Curtis Brown. At that point I wasn’t looking for more blogs to read, but Nathan had good information, presented in a very entertaining manner, and I became a regular reader. I was researching agents then, and more and more he began to seem like someone I wanted to work with. I read some of his clients’ books and did additional research, and then queried him. He asked to see the manuscript and called me when he’d finished it. We discussed the manuscript and my writing in general, and asked each other questions. When he offered representation, I had a good feeling about it already, but I gave myself a little more time to make sure. I would encourage any writer looking for an agent to do those things: research, ask questions, and at least sleep on the decision. Good agents will welcome your questions and won’t demand an on-the-spot decision. Because an agent has an ongoing financial stake in any project he sells for you, you want that relationship to be as solid as possible.
I’ve been very happy both with my agent and with the home he found for my book at Viking (Penguin).
CG: How long did it take you to write THE SECRET YEAR? Was the first draft close to the finished product or did it go through multiple revision transformations?
JH: I work on multiple projects and I wasn’t really keeping track, but I worked on this book for at least a couple of years. Your second question makes me laugh, because I rarely produce a first draft that’s nearly finished. Once in a great while, I write a short story that needs very little revision, but 99% of my work goes through many, many drafts. The Secret Year went through many, many drafts before my agent saw it. It went through two more revisions after that.
CG: Are you a writer who plots and outlines first, or do you dive in and figure things out as you go?
JH: I start with an idea and a voice. I usually do a very sketchy “outline” that consists of ten phrases roughing out where I think the book is going. I typically deviate a lot from that plan, and I just write whatever comes out. After a couple of drafts, I often do a scene-by-scene outline to help me with the pacing and plot. So for me, outlining is mainly a revision tool.
CG: Give us a glimpse of where you do most of your writing.
JH: My writing room is a spare bedroom in our house. My desk faces a window through which I can see the top of a birch tree and some white pines. The desk is covered with my computer, phone, water glass, empty chocolate wrappers, and scraps of paper on which I’ve written story ideas and notes to myself. Also in this room: a bed (because this room started out as a spare bedroom; but the bed is now used for reading, or a place to store things); a dresser (also used for storage); file cabinets; two bookcases; piles of books; and piles of papers.
CG: Were there doubts, low times or obstacles for you along the way? How did you overcome them?
JH: I’ve never doubted that I wanted to write, and that I would write, no matter what. However, I sometimes thought about giving up on the publishing angle. I actually sold a short story when I was seventeen—it was something like the fifth piece I’d ever submitted for publication. But I didn’t sell another story for a long time, and I did get discouraged during that dry spell. Ultimately, though, it was exciting to have stories out there on submission, being read by someone, with always the chance—slim as it was—of an acceptance. Sometimes when I would wonder if I was kidding myself about my ability to write anything that other people would want to read, I pulled out my “acceptance letters and nice rejection letters” file. After reading encouraging letters from several different editors, none of whom were related to me, I would decide that maybe my work did have a place in the market, and I could keep submitting. And while I’m on that topic, I want to thank the editors, editorial assistants, and readers who take the time to write those encouraging notes. They really help.
CG: Do you have any advice for writers who are a step behind you in their pursuit of publication? Anything that you wish you’d known before you waded in yourself?
JH: The first essential for any writer is to read a lot, and write a lot. Revise like crazy. In the publishing world: do your research. Go to conferences, use the internet, read multiple sources of information. When approaching anyone professionally, be professional. Be polite to people and don’t act from a sense of entitlement. Simple courtesy and doing your homework will get you a long way.
One thing that’s been invaluable for me is getting to know other writers, through conferences and the internet. The debut author communities of Debut2009, Tenners, and the Classes of 2k9 and 2k10 have helped me prepare for my book’s release. Sometimes it’s because we share practical tips and learn what to expect from the publishing process, but much of the time it’s just nice to know others who are going through the same emotional ups and downs at the same time.
CG: As THE SECRET YEAR is released what are your marketing and promotion plans or will your agent and publisher coordinate these?
JH: It’s a team effort. Everyone does something. Writers hear a lot about this through the grapevine, about how we have to promote ourselves. I’m very active online, with blogging and social networks such as Twitter. The good news is that there are so many opportunities—school visits, social media, conferences, and so forth—that I think people can focus on those that come naturally. If you’re just forcing yourself to do something for the sake of trying to sell a book, I think that comes through and isn’t effective. I honestly enjoy the networking I do, and I like it to be a true interaction, not a one-sided sales job.
CG: Where can people buy copies of THE SECRET YEAR?
JH: It’s available online at the major sites: IndieBound, Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, and so on. In January you can get it at your local bookstore. I have a post with the links here.
CG: What’s next? Do you have another story in the wings?
JH: I always have projects in the works. I can’t be specific yet, but I see myself staying with contemporary young-adult fiction for a good while.
Thanks, Jenn. I’ve really enjoyed having you here to share your story with my readers. I wish you heaps of success with THE SECRET YEAR. For those who would like to follow Jenn, here is her contact info:
- Website: http://www.jenniferhubbard.com/
- Blog: http://writerjenn.livejournal.com/
- Twitter: http://twitter.com/JennRHubbard/