Writing What You Don’t Know: Inside the Mind of P. J. Converse
Posted by inkpopbecki on February 24, 2011
Sure you can look out of your window and write about what a summer day looks like in your own back yard. As a teen, you probably don’t have to stretch that far to create an authentic voice for young adults. What if you don’t want to write about the things around you? We caught up with author P.J. Converse to discuss his experience writing about a foreign country through the eyes of a Chinese teenage boy. If you like what he has to say, join us for a live chat today at 6 p.m. EST in the inkpop forums events.
What was the experience like getting your first novel published?
Getting my novel published involved a lot of photocopying and letter writing and a crazy amount of waiting. Then there’d be one note after months, “Pls send first 3 chaps w/ SASE” and it was the greatest thing ever.
If you’re like me, you’ll start out at the bottom, sending unsolicited submissions to publishers or agents you’ve found in some book. Then you send out a query letter and 3 chapters or first fifty pages or just a query or the whole thing—whatever the particular publisher or agent wants—and wait for someone to get back to you. Several weeks is the shortest turnaround period in this process; often it can be several months.
I started out with sending to publishers because I thought I wasn’t going to give 20% to an agent just for making a call to a publisher, which is all I thought they did. So I sent out to lots of publishers.
A lot of the time I got a form letter saying no thanks. Other times I got an actual letter saying no and why. A positive response was major, especially the first one. When I got my first “send three chaps” I thought destiny had arrived.
I think I had eight publishers ask me for pages. One process went all the way up to a senior editor / panel who decided not to move forward—that took a year and half with an average of 5 months between correspondence.
After two years of writing queries and sending out pages to publishers, I’d gotten nowhere. That’s when I thought about finding an agent. Luckily there were still publishers I hadn’t sent Subway Girl to, so that once an agent helped me get Subway Girl in better shape, there would still be places to send it—you don’t typically get a second chance with the same book with a publisher, so be careful about sending it out to too many places first off.
Also, and this was big for me too, an agent can get your book to someone much quicker and it will probably be to a head editor instead of to the person who has to go through unsolicited manuscripts – so, you won’t have to wait maybe years before your book is read by someone who can actually buy it.
No way Subway Girl would have got published without George Nicholson and Emily Hazel (who are now at Lee & Low Books) at Sterling Lord Literistic. The best site I know for finding a list of agents to query is www.agentquery.com
One last thing, it was actually harder to get an agent interested in reading pages so don’t get discouraged if that takes a while. Try not to send out your book to too many agents first up, so that you’ll still have places to send it later if you decide you need to do some more editing.
Your protagonist, Simon Chan, is a Chinese boy living in Hong Kong. What does it take to for you, an American author, to write from the perspective of a sixteen year old Chinese boy? What do you have to do to bring a foreign city like Hong Kong alive for a teen American reading audience?
I spent a couple of years teaching English in Hong Kong at a high school. You could tell almost immediately that the teenagers were thinking and worrying about the same things that teenagers think and worry about in other countries. Then after being around HK for a couple of years, I learned some of the specific things a HK teenager has to deal with growing up in a crappy part of Kowloon and going to a so-so high school.
It helped me to have lived and worked in HK for a couple of years because you go through all the emotions when you live in a place (versus just visiting there.) The store of memories I have definitely helped me describe how the places felt and not just how they looked.
What was it like to write Amy?
It was fun! She seemed very real to me very quickly and then it was a case of letting that voice come out in the different situations as they came up. The tough part I guess is to get to the point where you hear your character’s voice.
Amy’s voice comes from the girls and women that I’ve known and from myself as a teenager. I didn’t worry so much about getting ‘the female perspective’ right, but about expressing in detail the perspective of a beautiful, sensitive teenager who is thrown into a different city and culture and school with only her little brother and mom—and making that voice interesting (at least), and sometimes humorous or moving (at best).
Want to hear more from P.J. Converse? Join us for a live chat today at 6 p.m. EST in the inkpop forums events.