I’m beyond excited and honored to interview YA writer extraordinaire and all-around incredible person, Sarah Ockler, for my post today. Sarah is the author of Twenty Boy Summer, Fixing Delilah, and most recently, Bittersweet, and on top of being a talented and successful novelist, she’s really, really nice. So if you’re an aspiring writer, you’re not allowed to hate her for picking up an über-agent immediately after finishing her first novel, selling it within weeks, and polishing novel number four as this blog posts. She’s the living, breathing, hormone-channeling, textbook case of how to do everything right in young adult fiction, plus she’ll actually answer any non-creepy questions you ask below!
Speaking of questions, the great thing about pretending to be an interviewer is that I can ask the most ridiculous ones imaginable and pass them off as real. Technically, they don’t even have to make sense, so that’s pretty fun. The amazing thing about being Sarah Ockler, YALSA Teens’ Top Teen Nominee, Girls’ Life Top 100 Must Reads pick, and a New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association Book Award nominee, is that she’s Sarah Ockler. Plus she has the option of ignoring all of my stupid questions and chatting via Skype with impressively famous literary people instead. Or watching Toddlers and Tiaras. The choice is hers, which in my world is the definition of P-O-W-E-R.
Anyway, the fantastic thing about following my blog is that I’m only on the hook for twenty questions, and you get the chance to ask number twenty-one in the comments section. Not only will Sarah pick her favorite and answer it, she’ll sign a copy of Bittersweet and send it to you for being so smart, creative, witty, reflective, or weird.
So here goes.
SC: In Bittersweet, you open each chapter with irresistible, carb-loaded descriptions of super-yummy cupcakes. Women my age like to smell cupcakes, but not necessarily eat them. Unless we’re stalking them in a serious battle with PMS, and then we inhale them by the baker’s dozen, but only in the dark. Did you ever consider using another hook, like organic vegetables, to better connect with the fortyish, lactose-free, lululemon, YA mom market?
SO: Of course! But my buttercream-frosted beets were kind of a bust. The chocolate cherry Brussels sprouts faired only slightly better, but carrot cake aside, organic veggie desserts garnered meh reviews across the cutting board.
Confession: I had to Google lululemon. But I did not have to Google cupcake or carb-loaded. Draw your own conclusions!
SC: Speaking of baking, what non-writing activities, like music, inspire your writing? The entirety of Muse would be waiting tables at an overpriced restaurant in Brentwood and running from OJ Simpson right now if it wasn’t for Stephanie Meyer, so I’m just curious.
SO: Crying. Really. Tragedy is the best muse. Sometimes I listen to Pandora in search of music to help me reconnect with my inner emo. I also like to go outside. But it’s harder to get your emo on when you’re panting for oxygen on a high-altitude hike, so, you know, it’s all about balance.
By the way, I love Muse. But not so much for writing.
SC: Now that we’re on the topic of L.A., as a YA insider, you’re connected to agents, publishers, and Hollywood Royalty in ways that people like me can only dream of, and often do. Do you have any super-secret tips on querying that you’ve never shared before and are guaranteed to get my book published?
SO: People are always looking for the magic bullet here, but really, it’s not a one-stop shopping kind of deal. Most people aren’t willing to put in the work. It’s really a combination of strategies, including but not limited to:
- Letting them know how much your mother and Aunt Bea adored your book, and how they’ve already signed up to buy at least 25 copies for their bridge club.
- Reminding them that you’re the next Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, or Stephenie Meyer, and that if they pass up on this once in a lifetime opportunity to represent you, they’ll be sorry when those big bucks start rolling in.
- Enclosing chocolates, wine, gift cards, and other bribes.
- Enclosing nude photos of yourself*
- See also **
* This is the tricky one, because people’s tastes in nude photos are sooooo subjective! Seriously. One agent’s Lindsay Lohan is another’s Anthony Weiner. Do you really want to take that chance?
** Okay, in all seriousness, don’t do any of those things. There is actually a magic bullet, and here it is: write a kickass book. Query agents who represent your genre and subject matter. Don’t give up. That’s all there is to it! Much easier than posing for those tricky photos!
SC: Another important question since you’re so in the loop. Any chance of resurrecting Friday Night Lights for a sixth season? Either way, is it totally inappropriate for me to be crushing on Taylor Kitsch? If so, do I need to see a therapist? I realize these last questions may qualify as more “personal” than “interview-oriented,” but I’m new at this, so please don’t judge me.
SO: As someone who owns a pink Dillon Panthers t-shirt, and as someone who just dropped a few Tim Riggins references in her latest manuscript, and as someone who refused to see the John Carter movie because I never want my image of Tim Riggins to stray from that last moment in Friday Night Lights… I forgot the question. Oh! What I meant to say was, I really am not qualified to answer this question. Texas Forever, Stacie. Texas Forever.
SC: Since your first novel, you’ve maintained the amazing pace of producing a book a year. How do you do this? Do you have poor personal hygiene? I ask because I haven’t even finished the first draft of my first novel, and sometimes pick at the dirt that’s now shellacked under my fingernails and just cry.
SO: Stacie, I do have separate “sleeping pajamas” and “working pajamas,” for your information. And really, how many showers does a person need in a year? You say poor personal hygiene, I say… an eco-friendly personal care policy.
I won’t sugar coat it—the pace is insane, and sometimes I do wish I had a bit more time between deadlines. But I’ve been writing full time for about four years now, and I’ve gotten much better at discipline. Writing every day (even if it’s just for a few minutes), outlining first, cutting down on television time—all of that helps. When writing is how you pay your bills, it becomes both an art and a business. If I don’t find ways to stay on track, I can’t afford cupcakes. It’s really that simple.
SC: Now that we’re on the subject of pain, what’s the biggest obstacle you had to overcome in getting your first novel finished, I mean, did you have to fight real zombies or anything?
SO: I did, actually! Corporate zombies! That was my biggest challenge—spending all day in gray, windowless cubicleland, desperately trying to protect my creative soul from utter annihilation. Committee meetings, Blackberries, the office cafeteria, the shared refrigerator, team building activities, gah! It was all I could do not to fwump on the couch in a pile of boneless nothing when I got home at night. But still, I knew I wanted to write, and I had to find a way. Once I got through it, the opportunities opened up like paths lit by the angels. And by angels I mean the company that acquired mine and laid me off two months after I sold my first novel. Sweet, sweet serendipity!
SC: How do you deal with writer’s block? You know, that feeling that no matter what you write it will suck and that you are doomed to live in the stifling confines of Suckville dressed in a sucky, white, linen clown suit that’s impossible to iron for the rest of your life?
SO: Writer’s block is not the same thing as that feeling about sucking and clown suit-wearing. I deal with writer’s block by working on other stuff—free writes, blog posts, journal entries, anything to keep those words flowing on the page, even if they’re not part of my current manuscript.
The sucking feeling, on the other hand? That actually doesn’t go away. You just learn to live with it, to accept it as part of the package that comes with putting your work out there for public consumption and review. Even the most traditionally successful authors (what we’d consider traditionally successful—big book sales, making the bestseller lists, movie deals, rabid fan base, “Team whatever” t-shirts, SNL skits based on the characters) struggle with that fear, that little voice inside that tells us we’re frauds, that this is all just temporary success, that eventually everyone will figure out how much we suck. That feeling can be crippling, and it can derail an otherwise promising writing career before it even gets of the ground. It’s still with me, but now I just try to see it, accept it, and move on without giving it too much attention. Like, yeah, I see you, you useless little imp. Why don’t you just go on over there in the corner and play with your little Sauron action figure and leave me the hell alone!
SC: Speaking of clowns, how do you feel about mimes? Have you ever considered using a mime as a protagonist? Do you miss the era of silent film?
SO: I’m ambivalent on mimes. I think it’s the suspenders. I don’t know, I always picture mimes with suspenders, and that reminds me of these Mork and Mindy rainbow suspenders I had as a kid, and that reminds me of all the ways in which my mother let me mortify myself during the awkward middle school years, like when she let me Sun-In my hair without supervision and it turned orange, and that reminds me why I know have to write YA to deal with my own traumatic adolescence, and… can you pass the gin? Wait, what was the question?
SC: Are you comfortable in your role as teen (and fortyish, lactose-free, lululemon, YA mom) romance Goddess, or do you see yourself branching out? If so, where do you want to go (another BOGO question!)?
SO: YA Forever, Stacie. YA Forever.
SC: As an avid Sarah Ockler reader and carnivore of all three (soon to be four!) of your novels, I would like to paraphrase your definition of true love. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not….wait a second. That’s the bible reading my dad recited at my wedding. Let me try again. Love is a slow burn. It’s something that teases and taunts and tests and tantalizes all the while growing, often against incredible odds, to become the most intensely gorgeous feeling in the ROYGBIV range of emotions. Right? Do I so get you? Can we be BFFs?
SO: Wait… are we talking about Tim Riggins again?
SC: Have you personally felt the beautifully portrayed Sarah Ockler definition of love, and if so, how does it manifest itself in your work? In other words, who is your muse (ignore this question if, like Stephanie Meyer, your muse is Muse)?
SO: You’ll have to read the book(s) to find out. No, seriously. The acknowledgements say it all!
SC: You’ve alluded to the difference between writing as a hobby with no external expectations and writing as a profession with very clear expectations from your publisher and agent. Can you expand on the differences? Do you ever feel like George Foreman now that you have deadlines?
SO: I just spent seven minutes trying to figure out the George Foreman reference. I mean, I don’t have kids, I don’t eat meat, I’ve never been TKOd, so… is it because I’m an adorably bald black man? Wait, that’s not it either. Stacie, this question is hard!
The difference is that once you sell your novel to a traditional publisher (and eventually, to bookstores and libraries, and then ultimately to readers), your “art” becomes a “commodity.” It’s still your story, but you give up certain creative control, like the packaging (title, cover, jacket copy) and how it’s marketed and positioned. Then, once you start getting reviewed, your baby gets kicked around by total strangers, and that’s harder to deal with than when you’re meeting with your friendly (and hopefully supportive) critique group. There’s a lot of pressure to be “on” and “out there,” particularly with social media.
And I still don’t get the Foreman thing, but yeah, you’ve got deadlines to meet, and you don’t have the luxury of letting ideas marinate between revisions. You can’t just sit around and wait for inspiration anymore. You have to stalk it and hunt it down and stake it to a tree, and then you have to skin it and gut it and make something out of the bones. Not a cupcake or anything. A story.
And I’m a vegetarian, so that’s saying a lot.
But it’s still writing. It’s still telling stories. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
SC: Thank you, Sarah Ockler, for agreeing to answer my take on twenty questions. I have every expectation that the twenty-first will be much tighter, with proper pacing, amazing tension, and an immediate hook, and I’ll be out of a job. But that’s O.K., Toddlers and Tiaras comes on in about twenty minutes, and even though I should take a shower, I have a little time to spare.
SO: But… I want my ni-ni!
If you’re in Denver, Sarah will be signing and reading from her latest novel, Bittersweet, on Monday, April 2 at the Castle Pines library, at 6:00 p.m. Rumor has it that super-yummy cupcakes will be served.
You can find more great information about Sarah Ockler on her blog www.sarahockler.com, including some amazing, witty writing advice from posts such as Just Make the Bed: Overcoming the Problem of Writers’ Resolutions and How To Query Lit Agents: 6 Overlooked Steps.