Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An interview with Kate Coursey, winner of Scholastic's 2010 PUSH Novel Contest

I'm super excited to introduce you guys to Kate Coursey! Kate won the 2010 PUSH Novel Contest, and her novel is currently undergoing revisions at Scholastic Press. She is represented by Edward Necarsulmer IV of McIntosh & Otis. In addition to having extensive experience as a freelance editor, Kate worked as an intern at Scholastic Press where she read many (agented and unagented) submissions. She is 19 years old and lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In short, Kate is really awesome. And she wasn't scared away by my exuberant emails asking her to please-pretty-please hang out on Go Teen Writers for a day.

Kate, I'm so glad you're here! First, tell us what kind of stories you write.

I write character-driven YA fantasy, with some MG thrown in the mix. Historical fantasy has always been one of my favorite genres. I enjoy exploring non-Western cultures, particularly those not typically featured in fantasy fiction, because there’s such a wealth of rich cultural information that can be used to enhance characters and plot. Currently, I’m working on my first contemporary fantasy set in modern day Islamic Cairo.

Oh, wow. What a great setting. When did you begin writing? And at what age did you realize this was more than just a hobby?

I started writing seriously at the age of eight. My parents are absolutely wonderful, and from the start they encouraged me to pursue whatever career I desired, no matter how obscure or competitive it might’ve been. I honestly can’t remember a time when I considered writing merely a hobby. When we first got dial-up Internet at our house, I’d spend hours Googling publishing companies and reading submission guidelines.

Ah, dial-up. And the wonderful days of AOL spontaneously kicking me off line.

And good for your parents. Mine were similar, and it made a huge difference.

So many of us (me included!) think, "If I could just have all the time I want to write, this story would finally work!" During your internship, you were able to write for 7 hours a day. What did you learn from that experience? What advantages were there and what disadvantages?

Oh my, it was an amazing experience. There are definitely advantages and disadvantages to having so much writing time. I’m a very social person, so spending a month in New York, where I knew absolutely nobody besides my agent, really helped me get down to work and focus on revisions. I got so much writing done, and being able to ask my editor questions whenever I wanted proved invaluable.

I did, however, get incredibly tired of my manuscript. Trying to focus on a single project for seven hours a day is quite draining. By the end of the internship I was ready to move on, and I had to put the book aside for a few months before I could look at it objectively again.

I'm sure. It's wonderful to be able to immerse yourself in a project, but that time away is critical for gaining perspective.

Now that your internship is over, tell us what your writing schedule is like now and how it fits into your day-to-day life.

My writing schedule varies from day to day, but I try to fit in three hours. On weekdays I have class until 11:30 a.m., at which point I go to the gym for an hour and a half, then write from 1:00 until my final class at 4:00. I get back to my dorm room at 5:15, giving me plenty of time to eat dinner, do homework, and hang out with friends. I think the key is self discipline. When it’s writing time, you write. I use Freedom (a computer app you can download online) to turn off my Internet so I don’t get distracted. Do what you have to, but make sure to write!

That self-discipline is the biggest difference I see between people who talk about writing novels and people who actually do it. What has been most surprising to you as your book goes through submissions at Scholastic and you work with an editor?

Revisions. Starting out, I didn’t really understand the true extent of the editorial process. When your agent or editor gives you a letter with suggestions, it’s not as simple as making a checklist, going through the manuscript, and fixing all the errors they point out. Revising is about looking at the manuscript as a whole. Rather than fixing symptoms, you have to get to the cause of the problem.

If, for instance, your agent feels a certain section of the book drags on too long, you may have to rearrange your entire story structure instead of just cutting that particular section. I had to teach myself to view my manuscript in a different light. Remember the ripple effect: changing one thing changes everything else, and seemingly superficial problems may run deeper in the manuscript than you’d like to admit. Your agent and editor will point out issues, but as a writer it’s your job to find the source, and to come up with a solution that fits within your creative vision. 

Kate, that's such a great explanation of revisions. And it's a part of the process that so many writers - published and unpublished alike - want to breeze through.

What advantages do you think you have as a teen writer? What disadvantages?

I think one of the definite advantages to being a teen author is authenticity. I can slip effortlessly into the voice of my teen characters, and it’s easy for me to describe high school parties, slang, etc, because I’ve so recently experienced life at an American public school. Many adult authors struggle with capturing that authentic voice.

On the other hand, I know that with each passing year my perception and insight will deepen. I’ll have a broader, more objective world view, which in turn will inform my writing and make it easier to develop older characters. In writing years, I’m already (somewhat) old. I’m finishing up my ninth manuscript and I’ve been working towards publication for ten years. But the goal, of course, is to get better with each book, so a decade from now I have no doubt my writing will be much stronger than it is today. Not to go all Psych-101 on everyone reading this, but the frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25. Like all young adults, I’m constantly changing. With each year I gain more wisdom and insight.

Name three authors, dead or alive, whom you would like to have dinner with.

Oh that’s difficult. I’d have to say JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, and Lois Lowry.

Oh, Lois Lowry ... I've been itching to read The Giver again.

Kate, you have a critique business with a friend of yours. Could you please share a bit about that?

Of course! My friend Taryn and I run an editorial business called Teen Eyes, aimed at critiquing YA manuscripts. We’re both agented and have extensive experience doing freelance work. As teenagers, we critique from the point of view of the YA target audience, in an effort to help older authors capture the often-elusive “high school” quality. Taryn and I are also quite knowledgable about slush (I read slush at Scholastic, and Taryn works as a literary agent intern) so we know the qualities agents and publishers are looking for. You can learn more at the Teen Eyes website:

Thank you so much for being here, Kate! I can't wait to read your debut when it hits shelves ... which I have no doubt of it doing.


  1. Wow! A lot of that helps me! Thanks! The part about managing your time really got at me because I really only write when I feel like it. Thanks!

  2. Wow. Yeah, I am graduated, not currently in college, and don't have a job, right now (not for lack of trying), so I have a ton of time on my hands, so I can totally identify. Sometimes I get so tired of my WIP that I have to work on something else. Right now I'm working on a main WIP, trading between that and the backstory of an interesting SC. That helps me by giving me a break, because I write in completely different styles in the two books (both are in first, but one is in MMC POV, while the other is in FMC POV, one is in past, the other in present, etc.), while keeping my mind partially on my main WIP. Thanks for coming, Kate!!! :)

  3. How interesting! And, Kate, such an inspiring and encouraging story... congrats on winning that competition, however long ago it may of been -- that is so very awesome and I simply will have to read your book!

  4. This is an extraordinary informative and yet I didn't feel as if you were talking down to us, Kate (though your experience shines through as loads of insight). Thanks so much for sharing with us today! Congratulations on your book!

  5. I can identify with the getting tired of your manuscript... if I'm writing for a couple of hours nonstop I get bored and I'm itching to play video games or watch TV. Or SOMETHING to take my mind off my manuscript.