Traci Chee On Whittling Down The Word Count

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 Traci Chee, author of the NYT bestselling YA fantasy THE READER. An all-around word geek, she loves book arts and art books, poetry and paper crafts, though she also dabbles at piano playing, egg painting, and hosting potluck game nights for family and friends. She studied literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and earned a master of arts degree from San Francisco State University. Traci grew up in a small town with more cows than people, and now feels most at home in the mountains, scaling switchbacks and happening upon hidden highland lakes. She lives in California with her fast-fast dog.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I’m a natural pantser—I love the discovery of writing, luxuriating in a detail, chasing down a surprising development, or finding out what’s going to happen at the same time as my characters. (It all gets cleaned up and smoothed in revision, after all.) But I’m always looking for new ways to improve, and I’m trying to learn some plotting techniques to help me become a better writer.

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

The only two novels I’ve ever finished are The Reader and its sequel. I worked on The Reader for 18 months before I signed with my agent, but I worked on its sequel for only 6 before I turned it in to my editor! That draft was rough. But at least I got to the end!

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

I wish I could work on more than one project at a time, and hopefully that will change in the future, but for now, it’s all I can do to inhabit (or to be inhabited by?) one story, one world at a time!

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

I think I wrote my first story (about a dragon and a princess) when I was seven or eight, and I definitely had no fear then. But I really sat down to give myself a shot at being an author when I was twenty-eight, and by that time I’d learned to fear all sorts of things (derision, shame, financial ruin, etc.).

However, I also had this stubborn belief that I could learn to do almost anything if I worked hard enough. And I knew that at that point, just me at my desk with my computer, the only way to fail was to quit.

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

I was really lucky to sign with an agent with the first novel I ever completed, but there was over a decade of creative writing courses, workshops, short stories, and half-written manuscripts behind it!

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

I have this one short story that I really love the idea of. (It’s about a girl with a brother made of metal who talks to God. Or about a boy who talks to God. The details kept changing.) I rewrote it at least seventeen times, and while it’s readable, none of those revisions ever got it right. There was no spark to it. No resonance. No shine. That’s something you learn to spot the more you read, I think, as you find the novels or stories or poems that really sing to you. And as much as I loved the idea of that story, I could not figure out how to fix it. So I’ve left it behind—at least for now, until I gain some more insight or skill that will help me tear it apart and build it back up again.

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

I finished revising The Reader in the spring of 2014. It was 121,000 words long, and I thought, That’s a little long, but the writing is solid so that’s okay right?

Spoiler: No, it is not okay.

I started querying, and as rejection after rejection after rejection rolled in, I realized that The Reader was not ready, not ready at all. So I stopped sending out new queries and resolved to cut 21,000 words from the manuscript before trying again.

By mid-summer I’d gotten it down to 114,000, and through the awesome kidlit community on Twitter (more on that later), I discovered that Pitch Wars was coming up. (For those who aren’t familiar, Pitch Wars is this incredible online contest run by the inimitable Brenda Drake. Thousands of writers submit their manuscripts to mentors, publishing pros like agented authors and editors, who pick one “mentee” to work with. Then for two months, they hack, slash, revise, rebuild, and otherwise improve the mentee’s manuscript for the agent round, when Brenda enlists a parade of excellent literary agents to check out everyone’s pitches and first pages and make requests.) I’d heard amazing things about this contest, so I cut another 7,000 words by the submission deadline and entered.

And I got in! The phenomenal talent that is Renée Ahdieh, author of The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger, picked me for her mentee, and she helped me cut another 10,000 words, sharpen The Reader’s hooks, and polish my prose to a high shine. A week after the agent round, I had a handful of offers, and one of them was from agent/warrior, Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, by whom I’m now represented.

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

Try to keep your creative spark. I’m fairly confident when it comes to craft, but all those rejections were demoralizing. I doubted my work, my passion, myself. I couldn’t write. Really, it was all I could do not to sit there, full of dread, refreshing my inbox. Who would reject me next? How quickly? What else could I do wrong?

So I decided to get my spark back. And what better way than to summon up my arts-and-craftiness and make some rejection book art? It didn’t change my rejections (only a brutal look at my manuscript and months of revision did that), but it helped me to believe in myself again. You can check out the results of that little project here!

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

I haven’t actually seen The Reader in stores in person yet, but someone just tweeted me a photo of it on the shelves at a Barnes & Noble in Southern California, and it really struck me, for the first time, that my book is going to be out there. In the world. My words, read by strangers. It is thrilling and humbling and nerve-wracking all at once!

How much input do you have on cover art?

I was very fortunate in that I’ve gotten a peek at a ton of the cover design process, from bouncing around ideas with my editor to checking out the initial sketches to seeing variations on what became the final. I did give some feedback here and there, but that beautiful cover is absolutely due to the brilliance of art director Deborah Kaplan, designer Kristin Smith, and illustrator Yohey Horishita. Truly, the best thing has been learning about the process and watching such extraordinary talents at work!

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

You know what’s weird? I am such a Type-A personality—I love making plans and organizing schedules and ensuring that everything goes off without a hitch—but I’ve learned over the course of this year, there’s so much that’s beyond my control when it comes to my book (sales, publicity, marketing, to name a few), that the less I know, the better I can focus on the one thing that I really do control: my words. I think in part this is because if I knew all the things that were happening I’d be able to do nothing but stand there wringing my hands, alternately fretting and screaming at my own impotence. The other part is that I’m really lucky to have an extraordinary team in my agent, editor, and publisher, who I can absolutely trust are working behind the scenes doing the making and organizing and ensuring so I can just write.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I’m fortunate in that I get to leave most of the marketing to my publisher, but I do try to stay active on social media. I have a website (it’s also a Tumblr), Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, which are platforms I enjoy using anyway, so that makes it easy to check in consistently and keep updated with what’s going on. I also have a newsletter that goes out once a month (ish) so readers can get news, bonus content, and exclusive giveaways delivered right to their inbox!

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

For me, I think in general “platform” is less important than “making friends and staying updated with the community.” That was definitely true before I got an agent, when I used Twitter to learn more about Pitch Wars, what agents were looking for (especially via #mswl), and watch what was happening in the online kidlit community. I didn’t set up my website or Facebook page until after I had a book deal, and I didn’t discover Pinterest until my edits on The Reader were almost finished, but again, I participate in these platforms because they’re fun and interesting and educational. Probably your most essential online presence is your website, which you should keep updated, but everything else? I’d say do what you like and leave the rest!

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I hope so! I spend quite a lot of time on it anyway, haha. I haven’t found a way to really measure the impact my social media presence has on book sales, so for the time being I think I’ll just keep doing what’s fun and save the work work for writing!