Pen Friends ~ We are delighted to have Tracey Neithercott, debut author of Gray Wolf Island and an Author Mentor Match mentor, here with us today!
SP: Hi Tracey! Thanks for joining us. First, will you please tell us a bit of who are you and how long have you have been writing?
Hi! Thank you so much for having me.
I’m a magazine journalist and the author of the YA novel Gray Wolf Island. I’ve always written in some way or another: There was my sixth grade The Princess and the Mean Genie, which really made me aware of my inability to draw but had me feeling pretty proud of my talent for coloring within the lines.
In high school, I started (but never finished) a bunch of books in the voice of whatever I’d last read. I somehow ended up sounding like both Pip from Great Expectations and Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. This was not a good thing.
As I began thinking about college, I shifted my focus. It’s weird looking back at how my brain worked back then, but I was convinced authors were these super-special people who were, I don’t know, given their super-special talents from the heavens or something. I figured journalism was a more realistic career. And in a way, I was right: I did become a journalist.
Only after I began reading YA writer blogs—watching them go from unagented writers to agented writers to published authors—did I start to believe writing a novel was something I could actually do. And in 2010, I finished a novel for the first time.
SP: Your debut novel, Gray Wolf Island, is out so soon! (It releases next Tuesday, October 10th!) How did this idea develop? How long did it take for you to write it?
The idea came pretty quickly. The words, not so much.
I knew in my mind that I wanted to write a friendship novel one day, but it was one of those abstract ideas I kept tucked away in my head for some time in the future. At the time, I’d just begun querying agents with my YA sci-fi novel.
Two things happened within a week or two of one another. First, I watched Stand by Me. There’s a scene where Gordie and Chris have a heart-to-heart, and it’s raw and full of emotion. It reminded me of that friendship idea, and I knew I wanted that novel to have a life-changing friendship, too.
I’d decided to send my group of soon-to-be-friends on a treasure hunt. Around that time, my husband began watching The Curse of Oak Island on the History channel. It follows two brothers digging for a treasure on Oak Island—a real-life island off the coast of Nova Scotia rumored to hold a treasure. It all clicked. The island in the book is fictional, but it’s definitely inspired by Oak Island.
The writing took longer. It was, at that point, the slowest-written of all my books (my current WIP tops it, though). I think I began writing at the very beginning of 2015 and sent the finished version to my agent on Oct. 11, 2015—almost exactly two years to the date before Gray Wolf Island releases.
SP: Will you tell us the story of your journey to finding an agent and getting your first contract?
Yes, and I will title this story In Which I Give Up on Things and/or Trust My Gut.
I first started trying to get an agent with the first book I ever wrote. I sent it out to about 10 agents, and actually got a lot of requests for fulls. (I say “actually” because, looking back, it wasn’t that great.)
To keep myself busy while querying, I started a new book. After the first few chapters, I knew this second book was a million times better than the first. And when I thought about it, I didn’t want to debut with the first when I knew it wasn’t my best work. So when I got rejections from all of the agents I’d queried with the first, I decided not to send to more. Instead, I focused on writing and revising that second book, a YA sci-fi.
When it was time to query, I sent out a batch of 10 again, including one to Sarah LaPolla. I’d met Sarah through a contest I’d entered my first book into at the same time as querying. She had passed on the book, but said she liked my writing and wanted to see whatever I wrote next.
When Sarah offered on that second book, I’d already begun plotting Gray Wolf Island. And as the YA sci-fi went out to a batch of editors, I continued writing. You can probably guess what happened next…
After a few of chapters, I knew Gray Wolf Island was a million times better than the book on submission. This book, I thought, was the one I wanted to debut with. When Sarah mentioned sending my YA sci-fi to a second round of editors, I asked if we could put it on hold. Instead, I wanted to go out with Gray Wolf Island.
I revised that, and it went out to editors at the end of January 2016. Gray Wolf Island sold at the beginning of March. I felt, finally, like maybe I wasn’t such a quitter. Maybe I just have a good gut?
SP: What are some books that have inspired you along the way?
Pretty much every book I read as a child inspired me. I think that’s a time in our lives when books are so incredibly meaningful. More recently, I find I’m constantly inspired by what I read. Probably the most significant of those is Jellicoe Road. It’s my absolute favorite book, and each time I read it, I’m struck by Melina Marchetta’s storytelling and how she pieced together all of the elements in a way that’s surprising but feels natural.
I’m also inspired by books with understated humor. I love stumbling upon unexpected and small (as opposed to in-your-face) humor. Some that instantly come to mind are Chime by Franny Billingsley, These Vicious Masks by Kelly Zekas and Tarun Shanker, and anything by Maggie Stiefvater. On the adult side, I found The Hating Game by Sally Thorne absolutely hilarious (and compulsively readable).
SP: What kind of a writer are you? Do you start with a scene? A big picture? Are you plotter? Gut feelings?
I’m a writer who likes being in control all the time, so I’m definitely a plotter. I do a lot of character exploration before I begin writing, plus world-building (even when the book takes place in our world), and general plotting. Then, before I begin drafting a new chapter, I write a mini outline that helps me brainstorm what’s supposed to happen in terms of character development and plot. That helps kick off my writing session. Otherwise, I get a bit stuck and spend my time staring at a blank screen.
SP: One of the things we love most about the writing community is seeing authors help other writers coming up after them. We know you’re a mentor with Author Mentor Match. What has your experience been with that program? What other contests/mentor opportunities have you participated in (if any), either as a mentor or mentee? Would you recommend these to newer writers?
Oh it’s been horrible—my mentee is a nightmare. Just kidding! Dana from this blog is one of my mentees and all-around amazing.
Author Mentor Match is the first mentoring I’ve done. And it’s been such an amazing experience. For one, it was really great getting to read submissions and see all of the phenomenal writers out there. It was so hard picking a mentee that I ended up nabbing two!
You’ll have to ask Dana if you want to know how useful I am, but I find on my end it’s nice to be able to give back. This is exactly the sort of thing I wish existed when I was querying agents. It’s not just about manuscript critiques, though I would’ve welcomed those for sure. (Edit from Dana: Tracey is a PHENOMENAL mentor!)
It’s about finding someone who’s been in your shoes. Who has gone through the query trenches and understands why it’s the Worst Ever. It’s also about finding someone who’s at a place you want to be, who can answer questions and give advice and talk you off a ledge, when needed.
I would definitely recommend one of these mentor opportunities to writers, whether that’s Author Mentor Match or #PitchMadness or something else. I think they’re great for the reasons I just stated, but also because the mentees form a community outside their author mentors, and I think that’s so valuable.
Even if you don’t join a mentor program, do connect with other writers. That, I think, is one of the best things I did when I first decided to try for publication years ago.
SP: If you could pick the brain of any author, who would you want to hang out with, and why?
Oh man. This is a hard one because there are so many authors who I admire as both people and writers. As much as I think I’d want to hang out with J.K. Rowling, I probably wouldn’t in reality. I’d be too star-struck and nervous, and I’d end up having a heart attack or something.
I think I’d like to sit down with Leigh Bardugo to pick her brain, pick out makeup, and do other Leigh Bardugo things, which are definitely much cooler than Tracey Neithercott things. She’s such a brilliant writer, but she also seems like such an incredibly kind, fun, and smart person, too.
SP: What’s your advice for tackling difficult themes in fiction for teens?
You know, this isn’t something I set out to do when I first thought up Gray Wolf Island. It wasn’t until the end of the prologue, when Ruby does something that ends up being the secret she hides for most of the novel, that I realized—oh—this was going to be a bit darker than I imagined.
I think writers sometimes worry when writing for teens that there are certain topics too scary or tough for teens to handle. I don’t think that’s the case. Teens are capable of understanding and thinking critically about these difficult issues, so I think as writers it’s our job to tackle them with honesty and care—and to not add them simply for shock value.
SP: Nosy question time–what’s your writing vice?
My greatest writing vice is fear. It sounds silly, but it’s true. I’m not the most confident drafter—I get much surer of my abilities as a writer while revising, which is by far my favorite stage of the process.
While drafting, I’m full of doubts: that my plot is boring, my characters flat, my twists predictable, my prose dry. And so on.
I have a hard time shutting off my Inner Editor, and she’s pretty amazing at cutting me down: You have no idea what this story is about. You’re meandering in the wrong direction. This character is so boring. Your publisher only bought your first book because they were all held at gunpoint, simultaneously, by an evil villain bent on numbing the minds of the masses with terrible books like yours.
It doesn’t have to make sense. I believe it.
That first draft is all fear of failure. And all of that fear can make it hard to write (and make distractions extra…distracting). The only way I know to push through is to remember that all of my finished novels started with such uncertainty. And the books I love so much? They too started as messy first drafts. There’s a quote I love that really gets at it: Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s finished novel.
SP: Yes to all of that. What a great reminder for our writing. Thank you so much for hanging out with us! We are so excited about Gray Wolf Island! Where can we learn more about you and your books?
More ways to connect:
By the way, Tracey’s got a bunch of awesome pre-order goodies she’s giving away to everyone who orders GWI before Tuesday’s release. Check it out by clicking here.
Dana, signing off.