Anne O'Brien Carelli On Allowing Time to Pass Before Editing

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!


Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Anne O'Brien Carelli, who developed the Welcome to Our Schools program for the New York State Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance. Her book Skylark and Wallcreeper follows the story of Lily, who is helping her grandmother Collette evacuate to a makeshift shelter in Brooklyn during Superstorm Sandy, Lily uncovers secrets of her grandmother's past as a member of the French Resistance during WWII..

Are you a Planner or Pantser?

In all other aspects of my life I am the quintessential planner, but when I write for children I definitely fly by the seat of my pants. I get an idea or a good opening line and start writing, writing, writing to see where the story will go. The characters show up and lead the way. In between writing I do a lot of thinking about how to work out details in the story, but those solutions usually end up being jumping-off points for creating as I go. It’s fun! When the book is done, then I get down to the hard work of organizing and revising.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

I hate to be vague, but it depends upon the book. Historical fiction generally takes longer.  I can draft a complete book in a few weeks, but that’s in spurts, not non-stop. The research, rewrites, restructuring, and multiple revisions can take a few months. I have learned that letting the book “marinate” at least a couple of weeks between revisions is well worth the time. I’m always surprised at what I missed when I was deep in revision.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

Again, in life in general, I am a multi-tasker and prefer to operate that way. But when I’m working on a novel I like to give it my undivided attention. I’ve had occasions when my agent has asked me to switch gears temporarily, but I never stop thinking about the novel I’m working on. I’m a firm believer in incubation, especially if I define a story problem in my mind before I go to sleep. I often have a solution in the morning (and a pad a pen beside my bed)!

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

I was lucky enough to be woefully ignorant about the ups and downs of publishing in children’s literature. I knew it was extremely difficult to get published, but I had no idea how complicated the process is, so I barged ahead with an idea, a pen, and no fear. Now I have the occasional twinge of doubt because when you are immersed in writing you are the only judge of the quality of your work. I try not to view the work from the perspective of what an editor might think, but it’s hard if you see what’s being published, what’s hot on Twitter, etc. I take a break the minute the writing stops being fun – and I define “fun” to include challenging problems and dilemmas to think about.

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

I have one gargantuan novel that I trunked, but I keep stealing from it for other books. So maybe it’s in a trunk that’s not locked.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I did quit on one – temporarily. It deals with a unique angle on a very sensitive subject, and my initial conversations with editors/agents at conferences revealed that it was going to be a hard sell. In fact, one editor didn’t understand at all what I was trying to do and it made me think long and hard about whether it was worth the trouble to work on it. I need to figure out how to describe the concept. It’s not dead in the water yet!

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them? 

My agent is Carrie Pestritto of Laura Dail Literary Agency. I never understood why authors mentioned their agents with many exclamation points, but now I get it and can only say positive things about Carrie. I signed with her by chance – which seems to be the theme of this publishing business. So much of it is serendipity! I was actually planning on sending a manuscript to an agent I heard on a panel at an SCBWI conference. When I went to her agency’s site, I started reading about Carrie and her Wish List. She seemed like a much better fit, so I submitted to her. A few weeks later she wrote me a long email, critiquing the book. At the very end she offered to represent me. I wasn’t sure I was reading it right and had to consult with a writer friend to make sure it was true!

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

Let’s just say I have a spreadsheet that I used to keep track of the queries for 3 different books. It’s 8 pages long. It was a ton of work to keep up-to-date, but a system is absolutely necessary since responses are so erratic and take forever. It also included details about the submission (e.g., first page, first 10 pages, query only, etc.)

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

I really think the best advice is to take a look at my agent’s blog Literary Carrie. She does monthly query critiques and they are extremely helpful. Writers can go back through the history and get invaluable advice. 

How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?

I just received the ARCs and I’m not really sure I have comprehended it yet. I tend to be very practical, so I am focused on correcting the typos, preparing for marketing, etc. When I see a kid deep into reading the book, then it will seem real. Maybe.

How much input do you have on cover art?

The cover was designed without my input, but I did not expect to have a say in the artwork. I have to admit that I had mentally pictured a variety of possibilities for the cover of Skylark and Wallcreeper, and was confused when I saw what was designed. It does not look at all like I expected, but I absolutely love it. The designer and editor captured the feel of the book in a unique look, and I really appreciate that.

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

I knew that authors are expected to participate in marketing, but I didn’t realize to what extent some authors will go to promote their books (e.g., videos, dramatic cover reveals, giveaways, etc.). I am being very careful to limit my marketing contribution based on what my editor advises and what I can reasonably manage. It can get pretty insane.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I have a website for a picture book I previously published, and am active on Twitter. I’m constructing an author website and will also create a separate author presence on Facebook.    

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I would recommend slowly building a platform as you are writing. You can tweak it when (WHEN!) you get an agent and/or published. It is my understanding that agents will check your online presence (wouldn’t you?) so even if you use an easy platform like Wix or Weebly, you can get something up that provides a profile.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I have no idea at this point. It’s probably hard to measure, but I do know that I have developed on-line connections on Twitter and FB with authors, bloggers, reviewers, librarians, teachers, and Middle Grade fans. I have started to tweet about my book but mostly I like to support other authors when they publish. That has been a lot of fun.