In celebration of Sara Kocek’s debut YA novel Promise Me Something, we managed to grab a couple of minutes with her to do a short interview about her novel and her writing process.
Promise Me Something is considered a young adult novel. It seems most debut novelists with your level of credentials immediately attempt the Great American Novel (aka literary fiction). What was your motivation for writing in this genre?
Sara Kocek: I think high school makes for an incredibly compelling backdrop on which to project all sorts of stories of human struggle and triumph. Recently, I was shopping at a grocery store when I heard a woman say into her cell phone, “I knew a girl in high school who was absolutely perfect. Perfect grades. Perfect hair. Everybody loved her. But this one day—” and then the woman disappeared around the corner. Without a second thought, I followed her around the corner to eavesdrop on her conversation. I pretended to be picking out bananas just so I could get close enough to listen. Looking back, I know what hooked me. It was the words “I knew this girl in high school…” I guess I’m just a YA author at heart.
How long did you spend writing and editing Promise Me Something?
SK: I have been writing this book—or little pieces of it, anyway—since I was in high school. For a long time, Olive and Reyna were just wisps of characters in my head. I would jot down lines of dialogue whenever they spoke to me, but that didn’t amount to much of a plot. It wasn’t until 2009 that I began drafting in earnest and figuring out the real story I wanted to tell. From there, it took about two years to draft the book and another year to edit it. That said, I tend to do a lot of editing and revising while I draft, so there wasn’t necessarily a clear-cut line between the drafting process and the editing process.
Could you share some information about your process? Do you outline? How many hours a day do you write? Do you have a particular space you write in?
SK: I write anywhere and everywhere, as long as there’s an outlet for my laptop. It also helps to have a heaping pile of Hershey’s kisses next to me. I’d like to say I get up every morning and write five pages before breakfast, but in truth, my output varies enormously from week to week depending how heavily booked I am with freelance editing projects (and also whether my 18-month-old daughter lets me sleep in past 6 AM). As for plotting and outlining, I have learned to embrace the plan-ahead method. (I didn’t always. I used to think outlining was for boring people.) But when my plots started getting too complicated to hold in my head at once, I realized I needed to create a map of the key events if I wanted any prayer of finishing the manuscript. That outline became my lifeline.
What advice can you give to aspiring authors?
SK: Be the most you that you can possibly be. Listen to the songs that make you feel alive. Read the books that make you feel less alone. Observe yourself from afar. Go to parties and pretend that you are floating above the room, looking down at yourself as you talk to people. What do you see? That is your material.
Describe how you felt on release day and did it go as planned?
SK: Release day was a bit anti-climactic, to tell you the truth! My publisher actually released the book about a week early, before the official launch date of September 1. I’ve since learned that this is a fairly common practice, but it came as a surprise to me. During the last week of August, friends who had pre-ordered the book started posting pictures and tagging me on Facebook with notes like, “Look what arrived in the mail today!” By the time September 1st rolled around, almost all of my close friends had already gotten their hands on a copy. Still, that didn’t stop me from buying myself a celebratory cupcake on launch day!
I understand you are an independent editor by day, writer by night. How does editing others’ work influence your own writing?
SK: In my work as an independent editor, I get to help people see their book with a fresh set of eyes. It absolutely makes me a better writer myself. The same flaws pop up again and again, in many different forms. Now I’m able to recognize those same flaws in my own writing, and I’m faster about fixing them. The act of editing also forces me to articulate what’s wrong with a piece of writing in a way that I wouldn’t have to when editing my own work. That process—the process of articulating a complex idea—actually helps me understand the idea better in the first place. I’m then able to take those principles and apply them to my own stories.
Could you tease us with a preview of your next project?
SK: I’m working on a contemporary YA mystery tentatively titled THE CHESHIRE CHRONICLE. It’s about girl named Jude who wants to be Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper. Every month, with each new issue of the paper, an article is published sabotaging one of the newspaper staffers in a very public and humiliating way. The saboteur is someone on staff—someone who wants to destroy the reputation of the newspaper and everyone involved. Jude has to solve the mystery and expose the saboteur—otherwise she’s next in line.
Sara Kocek is the author of Promise Me Something (Albert Whitman & Co., 2013). She received her BA in English from Yale University and her MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, where she taught fiction and poetry to undergraduates. A freelance editor and college essay coach, Sara has served as the Program Director at the Writers’ League of Texas, a literary nonprofit. She is also the founder of Yellow Bird Editors, a team of freelance editors and writing coaches based in Austin, Texas. For more information about Sara and her work, visit www.sarakocek.com