I’m thrilled to be hosting a guest post from author Jill Mackenzie. Her debut YA novel Spin the Sky released on November 1st, 2016, and today she’s on The Young Folks to talk about her journey to publication. With that being said, I’ll let Jill take it from here!
Unlike other authors I know, I never really set out writing Spin the Sky with publication in mind. Though I’d been writing my entire life, I was very new to the Young Adult circuit and was really trying to get my feet wet with it. Spin the Sky was an experiment for me and to be quite honest, I never expected it to turn into this complete story; one that I’d love and, as it seems, others would love too.
For me, the road to publication began more with reading books than it did writing them. Growing up, I read all day, every day. As I got older, I tried writing a bunch of different things like short stories and poetry. I loved it all but nothing felt quite right. So I decided to turn back to the stories I’d grown up reading. That’s when it hit me: I might be an adult, but these Middle Grade and teen stories really still move me.
Once I realized I was interested in writing for children, specifically YA, I went to Barnes and Nobles and literally emptied my bank account by purchasing a bunch of YA books that looked like the genre I was most drawn to: Contemporary. I knew I had to buy the books rather than borrow them from the library because I had planned on studying each one, marking specific lines and noting how the author told each story. It makes me smile now when I think about the books I came home with that day: Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Matt de la Pena’s, I Will Save You, and John Green’s Looking for Alaska. That was 2007.
So I read them all, but it did little for me other than made me feel like I’d never be able to write like these greats could. Since I’ve always been good at school and excelled in the Creative Writing classes I took in high school and during my undergrad degree, I decided to research some online courses focusing specifically on writing for Young Adults. I didn’t know if I’d find something to fit my needs, but I did! A company called Media Bistro popped up in my search engine pretty quickly, and through it I found a course actually called Writing for Young Adults. An editor of YA literature named Kendra Levin taught the course. I signed up for the six-week program immediately.
The course was hard. We had to begin working on a novel and, until that point, I’d written pretty much everything but a novel. Kendra was awesome and quickly taught us how to evaluate stories with craft elements in mind: plot, character, voice, setting, arc, and resolution. She quickly but gently pointed out all the ways (there were thousands) in which my writing could improve. She pointed me toward Rachel Cohn’s book, Gingerbread as way to teach voice, and teach me voice it did. She told me that the story I was working on back then didn’t feel authentic, that I needed to write something that did. She advised me to join this little old thing called SCBWI and urged the importance of attending conferences and joining a critique group. It was a whole new world to me. A world that terrified me. A world where I knew I would, somehow, fit in.
Around the same time the course ended, I started writing a new book about a dancer. Inspired by the TV show So You Think You Can Dance, paired with my own dance experience growing up, I thought of the idea of Magnolia, a dancer from a real-life small Oregon town, who’d do anything to be on the show. Kendra was very supportive of my new project. By then I had joined SCBWI Florida and had contacted a critique group listed on their page. Nervous as to what they would think of me—the very green newcomer—I arranged to meet the current members of this critique group at a coffee shop.
The members of this new critique group (still my critique group today!) were amazing and encouraging, even though they knew so much about the industry of writing, while I knew nothing. My Media Bistro course had ended; this support group, who would help my skills develop and help me navigate the muddy waters of writing, had quickly become important to me.
But I kept in touch with Kendra, and when I finished writing what would eventually become Spin the Sky, I asked her to read it. She happily said she would and then said that she was impressed by how much I had grown, and changed, and learned through the course. She told me that, after I had done about ten or so more drafts on the book, I should contact an agent friend of hers, Michelle Humphrey. And after ten or so more drafts, I did.
At the same time, I was cold querying agents on my own like crazy, with little to no response. Those who requested partials quickly came back saying it wasn’t for them. I guess I was about thirty queries in when Michelle finally wrote me back. She enjoyed the story. She wanted to see a revision based on her notes. I was so happy that she liked my story that I worked day and night on making it into the kind of story she’d want to take on. I sent it to her and waited weeks and weeks before I heard back from her. When I finally did receive her email back, I was crushed to hear that it still wasn’t right; I needed to do another revision. So I did that one. And then the one after that. Finally, a year and several Michelle Humphrey revisions later, she wrote back saying that the project just wasn’t for her. I felt incredibly dejected and just…worn. Until I read the final line of her rejection, which said, “I do have an agent friend, however, that I think would really love this.” She pointed me toward an associate agent who, at the time, was with an agency called Gelfman Schneider. The agent’s name was Victoria Marini.
I queried Victoria almost immediately. And almost immediately she wrote back saying she’d love to read it, and to send the full manuscript to her. Of course, by that point, I had queried nearly forty agents. Many of them had wonderful, encouraging things to say about my writing, but ultimately none of them wanted to represent my story. I was quickly becoming a seasoned expert at facing rejections. I knew better than to get my hopes up with Victoria
A couple of months later, Victoria wrote me an email asking me to revise the story once again, based on the six pages of notes she was attaching. She told me not to rush it, which was a good lesson for me because, back then, I tended to rush things and then felt mad at myself that I had rushed things. So I slowed down. I did a lot of thinking before I started the revision. I did a lot of reaching into the universe to ask it what, exactly, my story was about. Then I dug in, and I didn’t stop until my story was everything I never knew it could be.
Two weeks later, Victoria wrote me an email asking if we could have a phone conversation at some point that week. I knew what could be potentially happening—that most agents didn’t want to talk to you unless they wanted you. I felt like I was going to die. But the good kind of feeling like you’re going to die.
The next night, Victoria and I spoke for over an hour. We laughed so hard realizing we loved the same movies and sort of had the same life philosophies. The best part of all was that she loved my story. More than loved it. She believed in it. After asking me if I had other story ideas in mind for after this book, and after listening to my ten or more future ideas, Victoria made it quite clear that she didn’t want to just represent this one book, she wanted to represent my future body of work; something I hadn’t even considered until that point. She asked if I’d consider being represented by her. And I died a second time.
Victoria’s always been a wonderful agent to me. She’s strong, and I need that strength in my life because I’m not always that strong. She’s blunt in telling me when something isn’t working, and truthful when she tells me that a book has had it’s time, that it won’t sell, even though we’d both hoped it would. I’m so grateful for her, every day.
And my little dance book had a bit of a rough go of it at the beginning, too. The rejections I had faced from agents felt like nothing in comparison to the ones I was getting from editors. Their comments were much more thorough. I cried often and heavily. But then one editor, Julie Matysik from Sky Pony, finally did want it. She said that she felt very strongly about my main character, Magnolia’s plight and though the story itself needed work, she wanted to have it on her list.
It really was a dream come true. I knew I still had a long road ahead of me (Spin the Sky underwent a grand total of thirty-seven revisions.) But I also knew that I was going to, one day, see my story in print. Holding my book in my hands, now, feels surreal. Years have passed since I took that fateful Media Bistro course. I’m not the same kind of writer today that I was back then, but I wouldn’t change the journey I went on to get there for anything.
About the Book: Magnolia Woodson wants nothing more than to get her and her sister, Rose, out of the pitifully small, clamming-obsessed Oregon town that hates them—she just doesn’t know how. Forced to put up with the snide comments and hateful looks the townspeople throw at them, Mags thinks she’s destined to pay for the horrible, awful thing her mom did—and that she’s left her and Rose to deal with—until the day she dies.
But when a nationwide televised dance competition posts tryouts in nearby Portland, Mags’s best friend, George, says they have to go and audition. Not only have they spent the past fourteen years of their lives dancing side-by-side, dreaming of a day just like this, but also it could be Mags’s chance of a lifetime—a chance to win the grand-prize money and get her and Rose out of Summerland, a chance to do the thing she loves most with everyone watching, a chance to show the town that she’s not—and has never been—a “no-good Woodson girl,” like her mother. But will the competition prove too steep? And will Mags be able to retain her friendship with George as they go head-to-head in tryouts? Mags will have to learn that following her dreams may mean changing her life forever.
About the Author: Jill Mackenzie, a Vancouver native, is an ex-ballerina and contemporary dancer. Now working toward her MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Jill chasses between roles as part-time student, full-time mom, and always-writer. Though Jill no longer studies dance, she still tries to dance herself clean whenever she can. Currently she lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she spends her free time beach-bound with her husband and two beautiful daughters.