How They Got Here: 2009 Debut Author Deva Fagan

This post is part of a year-long series of blog interviews I’ll be hosting with my fellow 2009 Debut Authors, called "How They Got Here." 

It should be an especially helpful series for teens who write, teachers, and anyone who wants to write for kids.  2009 debut authors will be dropping by to talk about how their writing in school shaped the authors they are today, what teachers can do to make a difference, how they revise, and how they found their agents and editors.  (You’ll even be able to read some successful query letters!)  If you know a teacher or two who might be interested, please share the link!

Today…Deva Fagan, author of FORTUNE’S FOLLY!

I had the good fortune (no pun intended) to read an early copy of Deva’s book, and I SO wish this book had been around when I was ten years old.   FORTUNE’S FOLLY is the kind of book that made me a reader — the kind of book I would have disappeared with into my room for hours on end, until I knew everything would be okay, because these characters from another time and place feel so very, very real.

Thankfully, I haven’t grown up all that much.  I still love stories like this, and most of all, reading this ARC, I was excited for my students and my daughter because they’re just going to love Fortunata, a heroine who doesn’t wait around waiting to get saved.  This book has an enchanting romance, to be sure, but in no way does Fortunata compromise her sense of self or forget where she came from.  In fact, she’s the one who does the rescuing, with bravery, cleverness, humor, and pure will that will leave kids cheering. 

Welcome, Deva! Tell us about the first thing you ever wrote that made you think maybe you were a writer.

When I was in the fourth grade we did a unit on mythology, and had to come up with our own myths. I wrote a story about a bard who gives his lyre to a toothless whale so it can strain the krill from the ocean and get enough food to eat (thus bringing baleen into the world). What was even better, though, was that our teacher printed up a collection of stories, poems, essays and book reviews from everyone in the class (including my whale myth) and then we bound them into little books. I was so excited to have a story in a "real book"!

What books did you love when you were a kid?

I particularly loved (and still love!)  L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, Laura Ingles Wilder’s Little House books, the Mrs Piggle-Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald, the All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sidney Taylor, the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, Dragonsong and Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffery, The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, C.S.Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Dogsbody and Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones, So You Want to be a Wizard? and Deep Wizardry by Diane Duane, and The Darkangel by Meredith Ann Pierce.

Is there a particular teacher or librarian who was a mentor for you in your reading and writing life?

When I was in High School, we had this excellent program in which some of us got matched up with students from nearby Princeton University, who served as mentors for whatever field we were interested. I worked with a young woman named Cara Garofalo, who was studying creative writing and English. She (very very kindly, I recognize in retrospect) encouraged me on my first novel (which is horrible, full of purple prose and a girl with silver eyes and an anti-hero who looked like my favorite pop star at the time). She also introduced me to the wonderful musical Into The Woods, which was really inspiring. And just going to visit her in the old gray stone towers of the wisteria-covered dorms was a really positive experience, seeing how much people valued education and literature and talking about ideas and books. I wish I knew how to find her now, so I could thank her for everything!

Moving on to the here and now, most writers admit that making time to write can sometimes be a challenge.  When and where do you write?   Do you have any special rituals?  Music?  Food & beverages?

I write in the early morning, usually. Since my day job involves sitting at a computer too, I like to do my creative work before I get burned out. I usually turn on the computer, make a cup of hot black tea with milk (the first of many!), and sit down. If I am in the groove, I sometimes just start writing. Other times I re-read what I wrote the day before, or turn on inspirational music, or spend some time playing out a little mental movie of the current scene.

Do you have a favorite strategy for revision?

If I am working on my own first revision of the rough draft and there is substantial work to do, I usually create a brand new document and cut and paste everything  I want to keep into it, with big "TO DO: " notes in bold red sprinkled throughout. I also like to redo my outlines when I am doing a major revision, to get a mental framework in place. If I am working from an editorial letter or feedback from critique partners, I generally do the smaller things first, then tackle the bigger issues.

What’s your best advice for young writers?

To read broadly, and think about WHY you love the books you love.

What’s special about your debut novel?

It’s the kind of book I particularly enjoyed when I was about 10 or 12: mixing adventure, romance, humor and fantastical settings. Also, it has some really horribly ugly shoes in it.

What were the best and worst parts of writing it?

The worst part was struggling to fix the ending. I knew something was wrong, and for a long time I was trying to just tweak it and coax it into something I liked. Finally I had an epiphany and realized I needed to rework it more substantially, by adding a new chapter and making the main character more proactive. But once I made those changes I knew it was better. Hopefully readers will agree!

The best part was writing it all in a madcap dash for NaNoWriMo. I started the first draft November 1 and finished it about 5 weeks later. I’ve never written so fast, and it was very thrilling! I would love to try writing like that again but I am not sure my schedule nowdays will allow for it.

How did you find your agent and/or editor?

I found my agent first, by researching (mostly online) to find agents who represented books like mine and mailing out lots and lots of queries. Eventually, I started getting positive responses, and ultimately an offer of representation. I had no connections or anything like that! There were definitely points where I thought about giving up and struggled with the hundreds of rejections, but I knew I had to stay determined and keep trying.

And here’s the pitch from Deva’s successful query letter:

All Prince Leonato needs to do to find a bride is to ride off on a snow-white steed, secure a magic sword, vanquish the wicked witch, recover the enchanted slipper, and rescue the princess who fits it. That is the prophecy Fortunata makes for the queen. The problem is: it’s not true!

Ever since her mother died and her father lost his shoemaking skills, Fortunata has survived by telling sham fortunes. Now, if her prophecy for the queen does not come true, her father’s life will be forfeit. To make matters worse, Prince Leonato is handsome, brave and kind, and Fortunata is falling in love with him.

(Deva had more great query letter material here, but it was spoilery…so that’s all you get for today!)

Thanks for joining us, Deva!

You can read more about Deva at her website.  You can pick up your copy of FORTUNE’S FOLLY at your local independent bookseller, order it through one of my favorite indies, Flying Pig Bookstore (they ship!), or find an indie near you by checking out IndieBound!

Up next in the "How They Got Here" Debut 2009 series… Leigh Brescia, author of ONE WISH, will be stopping by on Tuesday, May 19.