To prove to herself that becoming a mother and entering parenthood wouldn’t zap her creativity, Yale University, Berkeley law grad, and author, Lauren Miller set out to write a novel in the first 100 days of her child’s life. She blogged about it in an experiment called “Embrace the Detour” and ended up with a two-book deal from Harper Teen and her very first script sale.
Today we bring you our third and final keynote Q&A, featuring her answers to your (and our) questions.
Q: How do you keep ideas fresh for your books and keep from veering into the pitfall of writing to a trend?
LM: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing to a trend as long as it’s your idea, not the trend, that’s driving your story. My best advice to writers is to write the truest story you can – true to your experience, true to your view of the world, true to what you care most deeply about. If that happens to be completely on trend at the moment, so be it — by the time your book is published, it won’t be anymore! The time we spend obsessing over whether our story will sell, or whether it’s what agents or editors are looking for, is wasted time, because ultimately, voice is what will set you apart. Your voice as a writer and your characters voices on the page.
My first novel, PARALLEL, started as a TV pilot, and when I was out pitching it, there was nothing out there like it. Then, suddenly a couple years later, when I’d turned it into a novel, parallel universe stories were everywhere! I couldn’t have predicted it, and so what if I had? My job as a writer isn’t to predict where the market is going, or even to write books that are easy to sell. My job as a writer is to tell the truest story I can as beautifully as I can.
Name the one thing that happened that turned your publishing career around/brought it to the next level.
I wrote PARALLEL with no plan for how it might sell. I was on maternity leave from my law firm job, writing my very first book and blogging about it. When I finished the first draft, I wrote a blog post about the process of writing a query letter. Before I’d actually sent that letter to agents, I got an email from an agent who’d read my blog, and she asked to read my manuscript. I sent it to her, and that agent, Kristyn Keene at ICM, became my agent a few weeks later. That was the tipping point for me. Not only did I have an agent, I had the best agent in the world (and still do!).
What top three marketing strategies would you say helped your sales the most?
I hope this isn’t discouraging to aspiring writers, but I’m not sure any of my own marketing strategies helped sales enough to matter. Publishers put a lot of pressure on authors to be on social media, but such a small fraction of teen readers find their books that way. Word of mouth is what sells copies, and there’s no way to force word of mouth. That said, the fact that FREE TO FALL made YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults this year has definitely helped, because it’s meant that more librarians have read it, and librarians are key to word of mouth (thank you, all you librarians who have recommended my books to your teen readers!).
Do you think it’s getting harder or easier to publish books and get discovered by readers…and why?
I think it’s getting easier to publish books but harder to get discovered by readers for the same reason — the more books that are out there, the more difficult it is to stand out. But though that may be true, I think the effect is positive overall. When the major publishing houses controlled everything, there was such a tremendous barrier to entry, and a handful of editors were dictating what the rest of the world read. It’s not like that anymore, and I think our world is a better place because of it. Stories connect people.
Is there another genre out there you’d like to try your hand at writing?
I think I answer this question differently every time it’s asked! There are so many genres I’d like to try. At the top of my list is adult literary fiction. I absolutely adore writing YA but I think I have a sprawling Southern adult saga in me somewhere . . . I blame my grandparents and dozens of cousins in Georgia and Tennessee for that!
What has been your favorite thing to research?
How can I possibly choose just one thing! Research is my favorite part of the process, I think. I love all the discovery, but also it’s super inspiring! Researching one thing always gives me ideas for some completely unrelated aspect of my story. But if I had to choose, I guess I’d say I most enjoyed all the research I did into the brain’s decision making process and the neurological nature of happiness when I was writing FREE TO FALL.
Since utopYA’s theme this year is time travel, if you could only go back and see/re-live one day or event in your lifetime, what/when would it be and why?
Such a hard question! I’ve thought through all the usual suspects – my engagement day, my wedding day, the birth of my kids, etc – but I don’t think I’d want to go back to those moments because I liked them the way they were, and I’d be afraid that re-living them would change them. So I guess I’d have to say the day I saw my Granny for the last time. She was in the hospital, but she was getting better. I had no idea she would be gone just a few days later.
What author from the past has inspired you the most in your career and what would you say to them if you were to come face to face in the future (if you could)?
This is an awesome question because I actually got this very opportunity last year at the Southern Festival of Books — in Nashville, how fitting! — when I met my author idol Pat Conroy (come to think of it, I should probably blame HIM for that Southern saga inside me!). I read his novel THE PRINCE OF TIDES against my parents wishes when I was 11 (if you’ve read the book, you know how inappropriate it is for a young reader – lots of heavy adult content), and it changed me. His story took me somewhere I had never been, introduced me to characters unlike people I had ever met in real life, and even though I was only 11, it moved me. I remember thinking I want to do that. Fortunately, I got to tell Pat this very thing and have him sign my copy of THE PRINCE OF TIDES when I met him last year! Such a cool moment.
What would you say to someone whose dream is to start writing, but hasn’t yet done so?
Don’t put pressure on yourself. You’ll write when you’re ready. Because that’s the thing about the urge to write — it starts with a flicker but eventually explodes into a forest fire you can’t contain. When that happens — and it will happen — you won’t be able not to write.
Big thank you to Lauren Miller, and all our keynote speakers for lending their experience and time to these posts.
You can watch the trailer for Lauren Miller’s book and read the first 50 pages free at freetofallbook.com