Beauty of the Broken, a coming-of-age novel due out this summer, was written by a dear friend of mine, the talented and beautiful Tawni Waters. In this interview, Tawni talks about writing a YA book on a controversial topic and her whirlwind experience in the world of publishing.
#1 We writers often hear about needing a “one-sentence summary” for our novels. What is the one-sentence summary for Beauty of the Broken?
This is the summary the Simon and Schuster team came up with, and I think it’s lovely:
In this lyrical, heartwrenching story about a forbidden first love, a teen seeks the courage to care for another girl despite her small town’s bigotry and her father’s violent threats.
It’s not the one I originally gave my agent. I met [agent] Andy [Ross] at the San Miguel Writers Conference in February 2013, and I sent him [my adult novel] the minute I got home. Much to my dismay, he rejected it but asked if I had anything else I was working on. My dear friend, Merridith Allen, ordered me to send him Beauty of the Broken, even though I’d pretty much given up on it. I think my introductory sentence said something like, “I have this coming of age lesbian thing, but it sucks.” Andy disagreed.
#2 You have mentioned some concerns about how your family will react to the novel. Were you having those worries while you were writing it? If so, how did you overcome the fear and find the courage to write what you wanted to write?
My family is the most loving family in the world, but they are very conservative. My father was a preacher. My brother is a preacher. My mother is a preacher. I was worried what their reaction to a lesbian novel might be. I didn’t really worry too much while I was writing it because I was living in a “never published a book” bubble. I wrote whatever I wanted because I had no notion that anyone would ever actually read it. You don’t really confront the fear of having your work read by a large audience until it is about to be read by a large audience.
I came to terms with it in a pretty final way last month. I teach college creative writing, and one of my students said to me, “You are a grown up now. You have to live your truth. Your family sounds very loving and amazing. I bet they will surprise you with how accepting they will be of your work.”
She was right. The book hasn’t come out yet, but some of the pre-publishing material has, and every time I post a link to any of it on Facebook, my big brother and his wife “like” it. I don’t know why I’m surprised. I wasn’t giving them enough credit.
#3 Can you describe your relationship with your agent? With your editor?
I’ll start with Andy Ross, my agent. I love talking to Andy, not just about writing, but about everything. He’s brilliant and kind. He has been incredibly hands-on during the entire process of editing and selling and publishing my novel. Selling a book is stressful and confusing and scary, and you need someone you trust.
As for my editor, I’ve actually had two editors since I sold Beauty of the Broken. My first editor, Annette Porlett, was the one who fell in love with the novel and acquired it. She was so hands-on during the editing process. She’d draw little hearts all over my manuscript. It meant so much to see these characters that I thought would live in my desk drawer forever being so loved and cherished by another human being. She was also really understanding of the fact that I was a new writer, and I needed my hand held much of the time.
So you can imagine my freak out when she called me at Christmas to tell me she’d accepted a position with another house and would be leaving Simon and Schuster before Beauty of the Broken was released. I thought there was no way I could get an editor as good as she was, someone who cared about me, and my little literary love child, so much.
But then, I met my new editor, Sara Sargent, and she is just as wonderful as Annette. We clicked immediately. She took me to lunch, and we talked about my next project.
I am obsessed with myth, particularly the myth of Isis and Osiris, and on the way to New York to meet Sara, I started writing a modern retelling of that myth. When I went to lunch with Sara, she said, “You know what I’d love to see? A retelling of a myth. Do you have any myths you’d be interested in retelling?” I told her the story of Isis and Osiris, and she said, “Oh, my God. I have chills. Give me thirty pages and an outline.” So that’s what I’m working on now. It felt like the universe tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “See, kid. I got you another perfect editor.”
#4 You were recently signed with an agent, and then got your first book deal shortly thereafter. What are some things that have most surprised you about the process of getting an agent and a book deal?
I wasn’t surprised by the good things that came with this process. Those heady, “oh my god, this is really happening” feelings do come, and they are mind blowing. It’s like falling in love. It’s like flying. I think most writers expect to feel like that when their dreams come true, and you do. You really do.
But what shocked me was this weird literary postpartum depression thing that happened to me. I found out I was absolutely terrified at the prospect of having the world read my work, particularly because I’ve always made a practice of writing very raw, real, honest stuff. It’s like putting your heart on a plate in the plaza for public consumption.
Also, there is way more work than I had ever dreamed possible involved in publishing a book with a major house. You think you know what editing is? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Your life will become a long and very intense string of editing intervals that will leave you wanting to hack your literary love child to pieces.
#5 Do you plan to write more YA books?
Yes. I’m a YA author now, by accident. I never meant for Beauty of the Broken to be YA. I thought it was way too gritty and dark to be YA, but Andy said it was YA, and the publishing world agreed.
#6 What advice do you have for writers who are still working on getting a novel published?
The three C’s: Commitment, contests, and conferences.
First, commitment. A lot of people want to be writers, but they don’t want to write. If you want to be a writer, you must write. A lot. When I was in grad school, I found out that 1 out of 10,000 novels completed and submitted for publication gets published by a major house. That’s a pretty daunting statistic. I’m crazy and stubborn though, and I refuse to believe there is anything in this world I cannot accomplish. So I thought, “Ok, that means I have to be better than 9,999 other people.” And I worked my ass off. I write for hours every single day. I never stop writing. That is the only way to be a truly good writer. Write.
Then enter contests. Go to conferences. If you win contests, editors and agents notice you. And making personal contact with someone at a conference usually means they are more likely to want to help you, especially if you’re a nice person.
Almost every major step forward I’ve taken in my writing career has been due to either a conference, a contest or both. In 1998, I had been trying to break the “major magazine” barrier for years, sending work out to big magazines and almost-but-not-quite getting published. I won third place in the short fiction portion of the Southwest Writers Conference contest, which was a pretty big deal at the time. The editor of Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel was at the conference awards dinner, and he approached me to write travel for him. That started my career.
And of course I met Andy at the San Miguel Writer’s Conference. So, yeah. Commitment, contests, and conferences. I’ll throw in two more C’s. College and coffee. Take classes whenever you can. No matter where you are in your writing career, you still have a lot to learn. God knows I do. Get an MFA if you can. And stock up on the coffee. You’re gonna need it.
#7 Last thoughts?
I’ve written a very controversial book because the issue is important to me. Some of the most important, precious people in my life are gay, but beyond the gay rights issues, which are huge to me, I’m also very concerned as a human being with the ongoing battle between love and dogma. I always say, “If your dogma is more powerful than your love, you are in danger of atrocity.” So for me, this book is really a treatise about dogma versus love.