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An Interview with Catherine Ryan Hyde

April 27, 2012

Back in March, I attended a writers’ conference hosted by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency ( experience was extremely valuable and I highly recommend attending one of these conferences if you have the time and money. Andrea Brown and her staff are true professionals, and you will walk away having learned a great deal about your writing, and hopefully with many new friends, as I did. Many of the writers attending the conference are repeat customers. I hope to be one myself.

During the conference, I was lucky enough to have the author, Catherine Ryan Hyde, as one of my mentors. You may have heard of her, she’s written several novels (18, I think? And the number is growing!), including Pay It Forward, which was made into a feature film. You can learn more about her here:

Catherine was kind, but tough. She let you know what worked, what didn’t, and why. She took the time to critique, while also encouraging us to hold onto our own voices in our storytelling. Since the conference, I have kept in touch with Catherine, and she graciously agreed to be interviewed for my blog. While there are probably 1000 questions I would like to ask her, I tried to think about what would be helpful to all aspiring authors. I have kept her answers as she wrote them. Please let me know if you’d like me to ask any follow up questions, and remember to check out her blog and read her books!!! She’s a wonderful human being.

What is the most significant change you’ve seen in the publishing industry since you were first published?

Without a doubt, the ebook revolution. It’s changed the entire landscape. Used to be, you could only make money as an author if Big New York Publishing said you could. Now anybody with a really good book to sell can get in on the game. I’m not saying it’s easy, or even a lot easier. But it’s possible. Reminds me of what happened to film when we all gained access to computers, video editing software, and good quality video cameras for not much money. All of a sudden you didn’t have to be a big corporation. You could get in the game and make a great film for just a few thousand dollars. It leveled the playing field. I like a level playing field, so, in spite of the fact that there’s a downside to the ebook revolution, I’m still a fan of it. I’d rather have ten crappy, badly-edited books go up on Amazon than see one really talented writer get locked out of the process.

What was your first published novel?

Funerals for Horses, a (very) small press novel that came out in 1997. The publisher went belly up less than a year later, but it got great reviews, which helped set things in motion.

How did you get the attention of a publisher?

I wrote short fiction, and marketed it myself to literary and small circulation magazines. It helped a lot. Before I had any short stories published, I queried more than 25 agents with my first novel. Not a single one wanted to see another thing from me. After I had published three short stories and received an honorable mention in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, I queried five more agents. By now I had two novels to sell. All five wrote back immediately and said, “Send both complete manuscripts.” I know it might not be what many writers want to hear, but I highly recommend that process for hammering out your own early publication credits.  

Have you ever had to write a query letter?

Many times. More times than I care to recall. It may be hard to imagine, but it gets easier with time.

How did you choose your book agent?

I’ve had three. The first, who didn’t pan out, I met at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. We connected there, and I gave her a literary magazine containing one of my stories (see what I mean?). Later in the conference, I asked if I could send 30 pages, which is the way she suggests writers approach her. She said, “No, send the whole manuscript, because I already know I like the way you write.” The second, who later left the business, solicited me. That’s a terrific experience. She read my work in a small literary magazine (picking up a pattern here?) and wrote me a letter, forwarded through the editor, asking if I was seeking representation. The third, and current, I met when we were both on staff at the La Jolla Writers Conference. I was just going into YA fiction, and her agency is the best in the business for juvenile. And she was, and is, one of the top agents there, and once I knew she was willing to take me on, there was no choice to be made. I knew I couldn’t do much better. Fortunately, it’s seven or eight years later, and that still seems to be true.

What are your thoughts on having to self-promote as an author? Do you enjoy the process, and do you find it rewarding?

Nobody really likes blatant self-promotion, so I just think of it as “social networking.” I love my Facebook and Twitter friends. We’re very supportive with one another. We share each others’ news and other cool stuff. I’m so in the habit of telling my online friends what’s going on with me that it feels very natural to share good career news some of the time. And that’s the way it should be. You want to build relationships, not just tweet links to your book and not much else. And I really do love the relationships I’ve built. An amazing number of those people mean as much or more to me than my in-person friends.

Which of your novels is your favorite?

Becoming Chloe. Although I also like the adult novels I’ve been writing for the UK, and which we are now bringing out in US editions. More so with each one, it seems. They are Second Hand Heart, When I Found You, Don’t Let Me Go…later this year When You Were Older. But somehow I still have that heart connection with Chloe.

I once asked you which book of yours I should purchase as a good starting point for getting to know your work. You immediately said ‘Becoming Chloe’. Why did you choose that one?

Well. It’s my personal emotional favorite. And if I know someone is interested in Young Adult fiction, then that makes it a slam dunk choice. I can’t really quantify why. I can say I think it’s an important topic that few people write about: whether or not we can love the world, and our lives, unconditionally—that is to say, even knowing they are completely unpredictable and dangerous. But I’m not sure that’s why I have that heart connection. I think it might just be what I start talking about when people ask why.

What is your opinion on self-publishing?

I used to be very down on it. I thought it put one of two stamps on the work. It either made it look like no publisher would buy it, or like the author couldn’t hack the submission process. But then Barry Eisler walked away from half a million at St Martin’s because he could do better on his own. That was a game-changer. If big authors are choosing self-publishing, then no one really has to know your motivation for going that route. I have two now that are self-published (in the US—they started with a traditional UK publisher) with a third in the works. My agency helped me put them out in a form that’s nearly indistinguishable from a traditionally published book. They are finally beginning to sell well, but, I have to say, it’s hard to get them noticed, and it’s hit or miss. You hear these stories of indie authors making millions, but many more books are just sitting there, hardly moving. I’m not trying to be discouraging, I’m only making the point that it is not the fast, easy shortcut to anything. Like any publishing model, it involves hard work and a willingness to acquire knowledge about the business. It’s also not for everybody. For a first-time author, I still think the stamp of a big publisher will help you. But if you can’t find one who’ll take a chance on you, then you have nothing to lose. And you just might find success. It’s happening.

If you were trying to get your first novel published today, what route would you take?

I’d start by trying as hard as I could to get an agent and a traditional publisher. If I couldn’t get a big publisher, I’d try to go with a small press. If I truly felt I had exhausted that process, I’d learn as much as I could about the world of indie.

I recently completed my first novel, The Energy Crusades, and the hardest part of the whole process for me has been writing a query letter. This task alone has paralyzed me for weeks on end. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors who are struggling with this same issue?

I swear I don’t mean this as an advertisement, but my friend, fellow author, and book industry blogger Anne R. Allen and I have collaborated on a book for writers that helps demystify topics like this one. It’s called How to be a Writer in the E-Age and Keep Your E-Sanity. The book will be released in June, but until then, you might want to check out her blog, Writing About Writing—Mostly. There’s a lot of nuts and bolts advice out there for the ins and outs of the submission process. If I could tell you how to write one in less than 5,000 words, I’d try. But I used to teach a workshop on “submission tools” that involved six sessions, two and a half hours each. Probably one-third of that time was devoted to queries.

Did you experience rejection when you were first starting out? If so, how did you handle it?

I started out trying to place short fiction. And I received 122 rejections before receiving my first acceptance. But then five days later I got another acceptance, and nine days after that, a third. And the stories that were accepted had been rejected many times, and I had not revised them during the submission process. So I learned early on that rejection doesn’t mean what we think it means. I developed some confidence that I’d go on to find a home for the work anyway. I also had some more experienced authors in my local critique group, and their mentorship was invaluable. They would say, “This happens to all writers.” And, “It’s right around the corner for you.” I’m not sure what I would have done otherwise. I might have concluded I was wrong to quit my day job.

Do you still have to deal with rejection at this stage of your career?

Absolutely. My young adult editor at Knopf has passed on the last two things I showed her. There’s this misconception that once you’ve been on the bestseller list, or had a book adapted for film, that the industry just rolls over for you, and you get everything you want. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you’re starting out, it’s hard to get to the top, and once you get there it’s hard to stay there. It’s just a hard business. The only reason I can think of to be a writer is if you know you’ll never be happy doing anything else. If that’s you, then try to ignore the odds and the rejections. You can’t not feel them, but you can not let them stop you. The only writers I’m sure will never go anywhere in this business are the ones who give up and go home.   



From → Miscellaneous

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