Pen Friends ~ Get ready for a stream of amazing interviews this coming week. We’ve got Agents, Editors, and a bunch of mega talented debut authors!
Next up is Middle Grade Author, Sarah Allen, my dear friend and fellow 2016 Pitchwars Alumni. Her book, What Stars are Made of, will come out with Macmillan in March, fyi, its open for preorder now. (link above!)
SP: Hi Sarah! I’m so excited to have you on the Spinning Pen to talk about your debut, What Stars are Made Of! Before we get to all the book questions, can you tell us a bit about yourself and writing journey?
Thank you so much for having me here, it’s such an exciting honor! STARS is my fourth book, so it’s been quite the long journey! I grew up in Utah, and have known I wanted to be a writer basically my whole life. I majored in English in college, and started writing my first novel around that time. I started querying agents with that first novel in 2012, and it was (very deservedly) never picked up. I moved around a bit, went back to BYU for a masters degree in creative writing, all the while writing new books and querying agents. Hundreds of rejections and several books later, I signed with my incredible agent in early 2018, and then after even more revisions, we sold the book later that fall.
SP: Now, about this lovely Middle Grade book, What Stars are Made Of. It will come out March 31st 2020, and you can preorder now. For those in the Seattle area, there will be a book launch at the University bookstore, 6pm. Here is a blurb:
Twelve-year-old Libby Monroe is great at science, being optimistic, and talking to her famous, accomplished friends (okay, maybe that last one is only in her head). She’s not great at playing piano, sitting still, or figuring out how to say the right thing at the right time in real life. Libby was born with Turner Syndrome, and that makes some things hard. But she has lots of people who love her, and that makes her pretty lucky.
When her big sister Nonny tells her she’s pregnant, Libby is thrilled—but worried. Nonny and her husband are in a financial black hole, and Libby knows that babies aren’t always born healthy. So she strikes a deal with the universe: She’ll enter a contest with a project about Cecelia Payne, the first person to discover what stars are made of. If she wins the grand prize and gives all that money to Nonny’s family, then the baby will be perfect. Does she have what it takes to care for the sister that has always cared for her? And what will it take for the universe to notice?
SP: How did this idea come about?
Like Libby, I was also born with Turner syndrome. Obviously I never saw this experience represented in any of the books I read, or movies I saw. I always new I wanted to write a character with Turner syndrome, but didn’t quite know how to get a handle on it, and didn’t feel confident in my abilities. When I went back for an MFA, I was working with the incredible Martine Leavitt, and thought, if there’s anyone who can help me get this right, it’s her. So I jumped in to this idea that had been floating around in my mind for years, and finally had the tools to tell the story of my heart!
SP: Was this your first book? How long did it take you to write?
STARS is my fourth book! I’d tried writing adult and YA before this, and hope to keep writing all kinds of things, but once I started STARS the voice just flowed, and it felt like I’d finally figured out where I really fit, and what I really wanted to say. I wrote the first half of STARS in my last semester in my MFA and then finished it about three or four months after that.
SP: You mentioned once you LOVE sister stories. Can you tell us why?
Yes indeed! My 2021 book is also a sister’s story. I’m the oldest of eight kids, so I have four younger sisters myself and that probably has something to do with it! Really though, I just think sibling relationships and family dynamics are such fascinating areas to explore, because it’s such an all-encompassing aspect of a kid’s life, with people who may or may not be like you. You don’t choose your siblings, and yet you love them so completely, and would do anything for them. It’s such a colorful kind of love, and a palette I just find so interesting to paint with.
SP: Why do you write Middle Grade?
Honestly, I can answer this question in one word: voice. I absolutely adore middle grade voice, and always have. You can deal with any situation, any difficulty or hardship in middle grade, but somewhere in that voice there always seems to be hope. Even effervescence. You never (or at least I haven’t so far) leave a middle grade novel feeling existential dread, that the universe is cold and heartless. Quite the opposite. I think if everyone was more middle grade at heart, the world would be a happier place.
SP: Your instagram stories have a TON of witty, beautiful poetry…can you tell us more about that?
Oh gosh, thank you! I was obsessed with Shel Silverstein as a kid, and have always loved poetry. I started a weekly poetry prompt simply as a way to keep those cogs turning in my mind, and just keep myself motivated to write poems on the regular, and keep them flowing, and hopefully to maybe help other poetry-minded folks keep those words flowing too. It’s all in good fun, for anyone to join in, because I don’t believe poetry is a stuffy, exclusive thing. It’s a party!
SP: Since we met via PitchWars class of 2016 (yeah, go team ’16!) why don’t you tell us about your experience?
Woohoo Pitchwars! I entered PitchWars in 2016 with a different novel. I actually got in by the skin of my teeth, because all the mentors had picked their mentees, and the PitchWars head honchos did a drawing where a small handful of mentors could pick one additional person, and the incredible Ellie Terry (who wrote Forget-Me-Not, go read it now!) got picked, and then picked me! She was so incredible to work with, and I still use what I learned from her. Agent round came, and I got ten requests. Not the most by any means (this was the year of Tomi Adayemi, if you’ll recall!) but I was absolutely thrilled. And then responses to those requests came in, and they were rejections, every one. So I didn’t get my agent through PitchWars, but I still wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Like you pointed out, WE met because of PitchWars, and I met tons of other incredible mentors and mentees who I still am close friends with today. I still bug Amanda Rawson Hill and Cindy Baldwin with newbie author questions all the time. What I learned from being mentored, and the incredible community that was built up, all absolutely worth the experience.
SP: Let’s talk agents. How did you end up with Brianne Johnson of Writers House?
After all the online contests I entered (like Pitchwars), after all the conferences I’d attended and live pitch sessions I’d done, it was the good old fashioned slush pile that finally did it for me. After writing STARS I kept it on query rotation like a good girl, but wasn’t getting much traction. Several months after I sent my initial query, Brianne emailed to ask for the full. A few weeks later she emailed and said she was in the middle of reading, and was really loving the book, and hinted she would likely want to talk soon. I about had an aneurism! We had an absolutely amazing phone call and I could just tell how savvy and whip-smart she was. I let the other agents who had the book know I had an offer, and I ended up having three more phone calls! It was insane, finally it all seemed to be happening! Every agent I talked with was incredible, and so smart, and cared so much about the book. In the end, I just felt I really clicked with Brianne, and could tell how passionate she was, and wanted to get this powerhouse woman on my team. I still feel so incredibly lucky!
SP: Being on submission to publishers. What was it like for you?
I went through several rounds of revisions with Brianne before we sent the book out on submission, and that was a really interesting process. It was the first time I’d worked with an industry professional, and absolutely loved getting that take on how work was pitched and presented. Once we had it sent out, I definitely got into the whole refreshing my email every five seconds phase! I also tried to keep working on new things, to keep myself occupied! I was out grocery shopping with my mom when I got the email from Bri saying we had an offer. It was late Friday night, but she told me to call her anyway and while she told me the details I just sat in the Fred Meyer parking lot and cried.
SP: What is it like working with a major Big Five Publisher like Macmillan? And what have you learned about the writing/publishing journey so far?
Honestly, I’ve felt so ridiculously lucky about this whole thing! I’ve had such an incredible experience with Macmillan, and they’ve been so supportive. It’s been so phenomenal to see how much these people care about sharing Libby’s story, too. And one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that professional editors are professional for a reason. Man are they good! Honestly I’ve had edit letters that make me sit back in awe. I’ve also learned how many aspects of this an author doesn’t have control over, and I feel even more lucky at the support I’ve gotten from my publisher. But the thing is, I’ve also learned how positively publishing responds to kind enthusiasm! When I’ve pitched them marketing ideas or told them things I wanted to do from a promotional standpoint, they’ve wantedto work with me, and were excited at the things I was doing!
SP: What’s your philosophy on revision?
I just turned in edits for my second book, so right now my philosophy is “the editor was right!” For real, though, I think writing is so much putting ourselves on the page, and because it’s so much ourselves, we need other people to mirror back to us what is beautiful, and what is a mess. I think if you really dig down, an author knows what the heart of a story is, and it’s good to fight for that heart. But a good reader/editor alsoknows and can see what that heart is, and their notes are there to pinpoint that heart even more, and take away distracting randomeness, or moments where your attempts at cleverness are only obscuring that heart. Know where that line is, where the heart things are, and listen when editors tell you which things are getting in the way.
SP: Months before you got your book deal, you picked up your life and moved to Seattle (to my and Seattle’s delight). Where did this dream come from???
Good question! It was kind of a random move (though I’ve been a Frasierfan for years and always loved the idea of trying out a Seattle life!). Essentially, one of my best friends from college lives in the area and since my goal was writing, it didn’t necessarily matter where I got a job. So I moved up here with her, ready for an adventure!
SP: Now to lighten things up:
SP: Sarah is a — plotter/pantster? Early bird/night owl? Last minute / week early? Loves/dreads feedback?
Something that is always in your fridge? Yogurt and berries
Cat or dog? Dog, though I love both!!
Lion or Ant? Lion
Camel or Zebra? Camel
Last book you read? Currently reading Beginners Welcome by Cindy Baldwin that comes out next month and it’s PHENOMENAL.
Current dream vacation spot? Finally visited London, so next dream spot would be Kenya or Botswana!
Favorite childhood book? Witches by Road Dahl, the Narnia books by CS Lewis, or the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary.
Gardener or Fisherwoman?
Would you rather fight with FIRE or ICE?
SP: Thanks so much for sharing with us, Sarah! We are eagerly anticipating your book!
You can pre-order What Stars Are Made Of here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374313197
ADD STARS on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/44222238-what-stars-are-made-of
You can find Sarah here:
Signing off, Nova McBee YA Author, Film writer, and Interviewer of amazing people 🙂