I was fortunate to interview the delightful RJ Anderson recently.
R.J. Anderson (known to her friends as Rebecca) was born in Uganda to missionary parents, raised in Ontario as the daughter of an itinerant lay minister, went to Bible school in New Jersey, and has spent much of her life dreaming of other worlds entirely. As a child she immersed herself in fairy tales, mythology, and the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit; later she found inspiration in books by Ursula LeGuin, Patricia A. McKillip and Robin McKinley, among others. Now married and a mother of three, Rebecca reads to her sons the classic works of fantasy and science fiction that enlivened her own childhood, and tries to bring a similar sense of adventure and timeless wonder to the novels she writes for children and young adults. She currently lives in the beautiful theatre town of Stratford, Ontario.
Welcome to Novel Rocket, Rebecca! Tell me about your latest release.
Rebecca: Once upon a time there was a girl who was special. This is not her story. Unless you count the part where I killed her…
Ultraviolet is the story of a 16-year-old girl named Alison who hears colours and sees sounds, and ends up in psychiatric care after confessing to the murder of the most popular girl in her high school. But no body has been found, and nobody is willing to believe Alison’s claim that she disintegrated the missing girl with nothing but the power of her mind…until a charmingly eccentric young researcher shows up to help her solve the mystery.
The book is a psychological mystery-thriller with SF elements–I like to describe it as Girl, Interrupted meets The X-Files by way of Doctor Who. Christianity isn’t explicitly discussed in the book, but the climax of the book in particular reflects a Christian view of the sovereignty and mercy of God, and I hope that comes through to my readers.
Wow! That is a great hook and short synopsis! You got some great reviews on the book from Kirkus, PW, and SLJ, too. I’m looking forward to reading it!
I was also looking forward to the third book in your Faery Rebels series. What happened to that? It was released in the UK, right? Can we get it as an e-published book, maybe?
Rebecca: Arrow was released in the UK in January 2011, and is doing very well over there. But my North American publisher decided to hold off on continuing the series for the present, so there’s really no telling when or whether it’ll be published on this side of the pond. However, the UK paperback of Arrow can be obtained fairly easily through UK booksellers online, and even with postage included it’s not any more expensive than the US hardback would be. So if my American readers really want it (and I hope they do!) it’s not wholly out of reach.
(I searched for Arrow before and wasn’t able to find it. This time I went searching at Amazon’s UK site and ended up finding it in the Kindle store for US $6.66. Yes! I bought it just like that. Paperback copies are also available in the US through the new and used sellers at Amazon.)
The second book in the series, Wayfarer, had a missionary-kid protagonist and dealt openly with matters of faith. Did you have any negative reactions to that?
Rebecca: A few, yes. A couple of reviewers complained about it–“awkwardly out of place Christian doctrine will distract some readers” was the phrase I recall most vividly. But other reviewers said the faith aspect was handled well. So I try not to take the criticisms too much to heart or let them discourage me from writing.
Do you purposely weave in Christian pictures or do you just let your worldview seep into the story?
Rebecca: I try never to shoehorn Christian ideas or themes into my books, but I also try never to hold back from including them where it seems natural and right to do so. I don’t ask myself, “Hm, how can I teach Christian Doctrine X in this story?” but I do pray regularly that the Lord will help me write in a way which reflects His truth and brings glory to Him. And since Biblical doctrines and ideas are deeply ingrained in me from a lifetime of reading Scripture and being involved in my local church, it would be strange if those ideas didn’t come out in my writing somewhere. I think–or at least I hope and pray–that the kinds of stories I tell, the types of characters that interest me, and the overall themes that emerge in my storytelling will always be a reflection of what I as a Christian believe to be true and important, whether the characters themselves are Christians or not.
“Shoehorning Christian ideas” is a great description. If you want to write a preachy book, shoehorn Christianity into it. I love that! I try to put some Christian thought into my stories when I outline, though. I try to get it in underneath the story, rather than shoehorning it in later. I don’t know if what I’m doing works or not. Do you outline your plots?
Rebecca: I wrote an outline for Wayfarer, since I sold that one as part of a two-book deal with my first novel and my publisher needed to see that I had some kind of coherent plot in mind for the sequel. But usually I don’t outline much at all. Instead I like to begin with a character–their name and appearance, their personality, their setting and situation–and follow them into the story. If I wrote detailed outlines, I wouldn’t get much pleasure out of writing at all–half the joy for me is discovering the story as I go along, and being surprised by the way it develops. After thirty-five years of voracious reading I’ve internalized a lot about story structure, so usually my instincts turn out to be pretty sound. And I also write slowly and edit as I go, so I’m constantly thinking over the ramifications of every narrative choice I make. That usually keeps me from going too badly off track.
You have not hidden your faith on your blog. Do you think this sets you at a disadvantage in the children’s publishing world?
Rebecca: If it does, I haven’t seen any direct evidence of it. Perhaps there are people who read my articles or tweets on Christianity and decide not to read my books as a result, but they haven’t seen fit to tell me so. And it’s never been an issue with my agent or any of my editors–UK or US–yet.
Will you ever consider publishing with an ECPA publisher?
Rebecca: I’m not against it, but at the moment I can’t envision myself writing a story that was geared toward that market. Not that I don’t believe there’s a legitimate place for fiction explicitly aimed at Christian readers, but I don’t feel personally burdened or called to write it. Non-fiction, maybe…
What advice can you give to unpublished writers that will help us understand what elements make an editor fall for a story?
Rebecca: One big thing that many unpublished writers lack is a confident storytelling voice. It’s something that develops from lots of reading and lots of writing practice–it’s not enough just to string words together coherently; you have to write in such a way that the reader will not only be interested in the idea or the character you’re introducing, but will also have confidence in your ability as the storyteller. And it has to be your own authentic voice, a style and approach that comes from your unique background and interests and the books you’ve read and loved, not a laboured attempt to mimic another author’s style. Lots of editors are willing to work with a story that has plot issues or even character issues if the narrative voice is strong, but if the voice isn’t there then the editor probably isn’t going to keep reading beyond the first few pages.
The other big thing is character. Your character has to be interesting enough to carry the story and make the reader want to follow him or her. If we don’t know what the character wants or what kind of person they are, if the first few things we see them doing and saying at the beginning of the story make the character seem bland or whiny or obnoxious, then there’s a problem.
Cheryl Klein, an editor with Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic, has a very helpful set of notes about what makes an editor or publisher fall in love with a manuscript–I’d recommend checking out her thoughts as well.
Thanks! I love that piece you linked to. I’ve heard Cheryl speak, too. She’s very smart. She has a book on writing out, too.
Voice is such a hard thing to define, and yet, you know when you’ve found it, don’t you? You suddenly stop looking for it and you simply write in a way that’s comfortable to you. But then you have to find an editor who loves your voice, as Cheryl points out in the piece you linked to. Someone who is enamored with Gary Paulsen’s voice, for instance, won’t necessarily like Patricia MacLachlan’s.
What do you think is most important–conflict, characters, or voice/prose? What should we work on first, or can they not be separated?
Rebecca: I think all three are essential and have to be developed concurrently. But the key is plenty of practice, and also seeking out and welcoming critical feedback and putting it to work in improving your writing. I think a lot of it comes down to mindfulness: if you know you’re particularly weak in one area of storytelling, then you’re going to be thinking about how to strengthen that area in your writing, and eventually you’ll succeed. But you have to be ready to acknowledge and admit your weakness before you can deal with it–if all you want to hear is praise, you’ll never develop as a writer.
So where do you get this critical feedback that you welcome? Do you have a critique group that comments on line by line issues? Or do you have readers who will read and comment on the whole novel? Both? Neither?
Rebecca: I use critique partners at nearly every stage of the process. During the first draft, I have a couple of trusted readers who read each chapter as soon as I’ve finished it–that gives me a sense that I’m telling the story to an audience, and a reason to keep going so I don’t keep them waiting too long for the next bit. I know I can trust them to let me know if something I’ve written really doesn’t make sense or comes out of left field, but by and large their job is to keep my spirits up and reassure me that it’s worth it to keep slogging through the hard bits.
Once the draft is complete, I send it out to a different set of critiquers who will look at the whole thing and tell me frankly where it drags or gets confusing or otherwise needs improvement. When they’ve all weighed in, I revise the book accordingly and then send the finished product to my editor.
And then what happens? Do you go back and forth a few times with your editor?
Rebecca: Every book is different; some need more editing and others need less. But I think–I hope–the process is getting more streamlined and predictable as I go along. Usually my UK editor and I have a little brainstorming session before I go into writing the first draft, and then I write it completely (which takes me 4-5 months) and send her the full manuscript when I feel I’ve done all I can with it. She spends a few weeks looking it over and marking it up, and then writes me an extremely gracious but scrupulously detailed letter about all the things that seem unclear or contradictory or weak or otherwise in need of attention. Inevitably I open the letter with pounding heart, and then I read it over and realize that she is right about all of it, and then I go into mourning for a couple of days and feel sorry for myself because clearly I fail as a writer. But usually I come out of that self-pitying phase with a renewed determination to Fix All The Things. I read and re-read her letter and look over the notes on the manuscript until I’ve internalized all her suggestions, and then I print out the manuscript and spend a couple of weeks marking it up with savage abandon. Finally I retype the entire book from scratch, making whatever major or minor changes seem necessary as I go along. That usually takes me 7-8 weeks. And after that, it’s usually in pretty good shape and anything more is just tweaking and copyedits.
Oh, good. Sorry for rejoicing in your pain, but hearing about your self-pitying phase is such a relief to me. I always read good books and tend to believe that the authors of said books have some talent that allows them to write easily, and I think that since I struggle, I must be a terrible writer.
What was your favorite book when you were a teen?
Rebecca: I can’t say I had a single favourite, because there were so many that I loved. But probably the earliest and strongest influence on my development as a budding fantasy author, after Lewis and Tolkien and the other classic fantasy authors I read as a child, was Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle-Master trilogy. I fell head over heels for her prose, and the sheer scope of the world and the characters she created, and the unbelievably cruel cliffhanger she left me on at the end of the first book. I don’t expect every teen would love those books the way I did, but they worked like gangbusters for me.
When did you decide to write for teens and why did you decide that?
Rebecca: When I first started trying to get published, there wasn’t much of a teen book market at all except for a few contemporary, quasi-realistic “problem novels”. As a fantasy and SF geek I didn’t want to write anything of that sort, but I did want to write something a little more mature and romantic than the so-called “juvenile” F&SF novels that were popular at the time. So I assumed that meant I must be writing fantasy for adults…but I never really fit comfortably into that category either. It wasn’t until the Harry Potter books broke the market open and YA started exploding as a genre, that I realized there was another option. And once I figured out that I actually was writing for early-to-mid teens it made perfect sense to me, because most of my favourite books–the ones that influenced me most powerfully as a developing writer–are the ones I read between the ages of eight and fourteen.
And now so many of the kids in that age range are reading their books on their smart phones. What about you? Do you own an e-reader?
Rebecca: Not yet, but I’d like to get one eventually. I read a friend’s manuscript on her Sony Reader last summer and found it quite pleasant and handy to use (though it frustrated and confused me that I couldn’t read in the dark–I kept expecting the screen to be backlit!).
The good thing about no backlight is that you can read those e-readers in the sun. I like my iPhone too, though. It’s always with me and I can read in bed without a light.
Well, thanks for the dropping by, Rebecca. I was so happy to discover you a couple of years ago. The ending of Spell Hunter (Knife, in the UK) is one of the most satisfying story endings I’ve ever read. Keep up the good work. Our girls need more such stories!
Rebecca: Thanks for the interview, Sally!
Sally Apokedak had Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter sitting on her shelf for months before she read it, because she’s not into faery books and she didn’t think she’d like it. Don’t make the same mistake.
Sally is represented by Reclaim Management. Her short works have been published in various magazines,including Highlights for Children, she blogs about young adult novels at sally-apokedak.com., and she’d be thrilled if you would go over there and check out a sample of one of her YA manuscripts The Button Girl.