I’m very happy to have the brilliant Philip Siegel on the blog today for another Newly Agented Writers Series interview! Phil is a YA writer represented by Becky Vinter of FinePrint Literary. Be sure to check out Phil’s blog, and if you would like to follow him on Twitter, you can do that here (do it!).
First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself? What do you like to do for fun when you aren’t writing?
By day, I work in downtown Chicago in advertising. And by night (or early morning, or weekend, or days off), I write YA. I studied film and TV in college and worked in TV briefly after college, so I approach writing books very visually. That also means I'm a movie buff. Going to the movies is one of my favorite things to do, and not just for the popcorn. (ok...that's a large part of it) I find myself referencing a movie or TV show pretty much every time I open my mouth. For instance, I managed to quote a line from Will & Grace in this paragraph.
What inspired you to start writing? Was it always a dream, or did a certain even get you going?
In every writer interview I read, the author always talks about they've been writing for as long as they can remember and how they wrote a play and 5 novellas in crayon when they were in first grade. I hate to be a cliche, but I have to follow suit. I have been writing forever. Writing was always my thing. I have zero athletic or musical ability, so writing was what I was known for. I'd write fake SNL skits with friends (the Mike Myers/Chris Farley era), I'd write funny birthday card messages, I wrote a play at summer camp that nobody wanted to put on. I wrote lots of random things, but I was never disciplined enough to sit down and write regularly. Truth is, I was lazy. A huge couch potato. Lots and lots of squandered time and potential. It wasn't until college when I began seriously writing.
What is it that drew you to write YA contemporary?
I had never considered writing a book until halfway through college, and then I didn't get serious about it until a few years later. I was dead set on writing for television or movies. Books just had so many words, and they describe things in so much detail. Scripts never had more than two sentences of description at a time and lots of dialogue. That was more my style!
Sophomore year of college, I went to England on spring break with friends. On our return flight, I needed a book to read, so I went to the airport bookstore and wound up buying THE A-LIST, a trashy YA book series in the vein of Gossip Girl, which was all the rage back then. I read the book on the flight and was hooked. It matched the type of scripts I wrote, tone-wise. (I always wanted to write for a WB drama like Dawson's Creek or Popular) I read the next few books in the series, then I moved onto Gossip Girl. The books were TV series in book form (this was pre-Gossip Girl, the TV show) -- fast-paced, a snarky and sassy narrator, ongoing storylines. They weren't stuffed with flowery description. They weren't 400 pages long. When I mentioned this to my screenwriting professor, she said I should consider writing one myself. A light bulb went off, but I did nothing about it.
Fast forward two years. I was out of college, and after working on a TV show as a production assistant, I was suddenly fired. The writer's strike was about to happen, so job prospects were dim. I couldn't find anything, and I got pessimistic about the industry. I didn't even want to watch TV. So I turned to books. I fell in love with reading again, and decided to try my hand at writing a Gossip Girl-type book. By that time, I was temping at an insurance company. I would do all my work in the morning, and write in the afternoon. My typing was so loud that another temp ratted me out.
I write contemporary because it's what I love to read and watch. I never got into fantasy or science fiction. I feel asleep in Lord of the Rings, never read Harry Potter, never watched Star Trek. I have nothing about those genres at all; they just weren't for me.
Do you have a particular writing routine? A way to get yourself focused?
Since I work full-time, my writing time is limited. I try to keep myself on a daily routine, but I can never stay with it. Usually, I get up before work to write, then I'll write in a notebook during my morning commute. If I'm deep into a project, then I'll also write at night, but I try to save that time to relax. I'll also write on weekends, but I never get as much done as I hope. The more hours I have to write, the more ways I can think of to procrastinate.
It takes me some time to get focused when I sit down. I used to be frustrated that nothing was coming, but I learned to be patient. At first, I'll be blocked or convinced that this is crap. I can barely write one sentence. But if I keep writing, soon enough, I get into a groove. Words are flowing, ideas are churning, and -- wow it's an hour later! Now I think of that starting time as a warm up.
What would you say is the hardest aspect of writing? The easiest?
The hardest part is revising. And I'm not talking about grammar. It's those times when I have to take a manuscript that on the surface is fine -- it has a beginning, middle, and end and tells a story -- and rip it apart to make it better. Taking your writing from fine to good to better is tough, but ultimately the most rewarding part.
The easiest part for me is plotting. I love building the story, getting the puzzle pieces to fit together.
I know you have a background in screenwriting. Do you think that has had an influence on your writing of YA fiction?
Definitely. Screenwriting is all about structure. Plot structure was ground into my brain. Movies follow a rigid 3-act structure. The first act has to end by page 25. The midpoint of a movie has to come at the 1-hr mark. The third act has to start around the 90-minute mark. When I write my books, I follow the same structure. I get the plot and character arcs as solid as possible before I write a single word. If I set something up, I make sure it's paid off later. Plotting is so important. Readers want a good story. They want to keep turning pages. Nobody wants to be bored reading a book. Especially for YA.
Also, working in the TV industry made me appreciate the importance of writing on deadline and always generating product. Writers write. If you write for a TV show, you will be writing 13-22 episodes per season. It doesn't matter if you are inspired, or if you're tired, or if you're having trouble figuring out that pesky plot point. That TV episode still has to air. You are generating a new episode every week. Can you imagine writing for a show like CSI? They've been on the air for 13 years. Hundreds of episodes. How many different ways can you solve a murder? How many different ways can you write about analyzing DNA on a toothbrush? What do you do when your two main cast members leave the show? And yet no matter what, those writers have to generate scripts. 22 episodes of CSI will air this year, whether they're ready for them or not. That's what separates professional writers from wannabes.
What is one unique thing that happened to you during the querying process?
I had never written a query before entering the Xmas in July query contest. I wrote and revised it over a week before sending it in. I guess that's unique -- and incredibly, incredibly lucky.
What were your reactions when you received The Call, and how did you know that Becky was the perfect fit for you and your novel?
I received an email from Becky after a 5-hour training I had at work, so it was a very pleasant and welcome surprise! Even though Becky was a newer agent, I'd done my research and was impressed with her publishing background and Fineprint's reputation within the industry. When we spoke on the phone, she seemed to 'get' THE BREAK-UP ARTIST. She said she pictured Emma Stone as the main character, which sealed the deal for me.
Based on personal experience, what advice would you give to querying writers?
Remember that your query is meant to SELL your book, first and foremost. Don't try to summarize your book -- pitch it. You are trying to get an agent's attention. Agents receive dozens of query letters per day. You need to make your story stand out. Think of your query as book jacket copy. It's not 100% accurate or clear. It's used to get you to buy the book, to choose it out of the hundreds on the shelf. It's a SELLING tool. It's meant to whet your appetite. I'll leave you with another movie quote: The key is always leave them wanting more.
So…you recently got a BOOK DEAL! Congrats!! Could you give us a brief summary of the book that sold?
Here is my query from the Xmas in July contest:
Some sixteen-year-olds babysit for extra cash. Some work at the Gap. Becca Williamson breaks up couples.
After watching her sister get left at the altar, Becca knows the true damage that comes when people utter the dreaded L-word. For just $100 via paypal, she can trick and manipulate any couple into smithereens. With relationship zombies overrunning her school, and treating single girls like second class citizens, business is unfortunately booming. Even her best friend Val has resorted to outright lies to snag a boyfriend.
One night, she receives a mysterious offer to break up the homecoming king and queen, the one zombie couple to rule them all: Steve and Huxley. They are a JFK and Jackie O in training, masters of sweeping faux-mantic gestures, but if Becca can split them up, then school will be safe again for singletons. To succeed, she'll have to plan her most elaborate scheme to date and wiggle her way back into her former BFF Huxley’s life – not to mention start a few rumors, sabotage some cell phones, break into a car, and fend off the inappropriate feelings she’s having about Val’s new boyfriend. All while avoiding a past victim out to expose her true identity.
No one said being the Break-Up Artist was easy.
What was it like being out on submission? What advice would you give to agented writers who are going through (or getting ready to go through) that process?
Every writer is different. I wanted to know as little as possible from my agent. I didn't want live updates of who got back to us. If Becky had good news, she wouldn't sit on it. We had a system where she gave me bi-monthly updates, and that helped me keep my sanity.
It's easy to get obsessed and crazy when you're on sub, but you have to realize that a) Your book is not a $100 dollar bill. Not everyone's going to like it. b) At this point, it's completely out of your hands. You've written the best book possible. There's nothing more you can do. c) You need to trust your agent and trust her strategy. If you don't, then that needs to be addressed immediately. and d) Lots of authors don't sell their first book, but then go on to sell their next one. So just keep writing!
Just for fun short answers
Favorite book/s or series?
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe; anything by Malcolm Gladwell, Caroline B. Cooney, and Lois Duncan; The DUFF by Kody Keplinger,
Kit Kat bar, Reese's, generic brand Ice Cream, anything. I have such a sweet tooth! Fat kid for life.
Clueless. (no contest)
And one step further, what is your favorite example of a book that was turned into a movie?
The Devil Wears Prada. It's the rare example of a movie being better than the book. I blogged about that here.
And a runner-up, I will give a shout-out to movies that are clever, modern takeoffs on classic lit, like Clueless, Bridget Jones's Diary, and 10 Things I Hate About You
If you could be any fictional character, who would you pick?
Diane Keaton from Something's Gotta Give (minus 40 years). She's a wildly successful writer who lives in the most beautiful beach house I've ever seen. Seriously, Nancy Meyers films are total interior design porn (see also It's Complicated and The Holiday).
Music or silence while writing?
Silence, usually. Though sometimes I'll put on classical music. I can't listen to music with words. Too distracting.
Are you a day writer or a night writer?
Day. I hate staying up late to write. It makes me feel like I'm back in college, and it screws me up the following day.
What is something about you that might surprise readers?
My first job out of college was an NBC page, just like Kenneth. I have a picture with Al Roker, too!
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me! I wish you the best of luck with all your writing endeavors. :)