Discovering and Editing Divergent | Middle Grade Ninja: Literary Agent Molly O'Neill

Discovering and Editing Divergent | Middle Grade Ninja: Literary Agent Molly O'Neill



to me one more question about divergent we'll leave it alone but you know that's that's that's the book that I'm sure everybody's heard of some MOOCs have watched the movie I have one of my most embarrassing stories is involves divergent because I lead a fiction workshop here and you know I help authors that that are soon to be authors critique each other's work and I would start off by saying that one art is subjective so everything we're talking about is a matter of opinion there are some opinions that are probably better than others but at all when you come right down to it it's art it's got to be subjective and I've been colossal II wrong before and I will be wrong again so anytime you you hear me say anything about your writing just bear in mind that I've been wrong before the example I use as I met Veronica Roth here and she was at a conference the Midwest Writers Workshop here in in Muncie Indiana and I met her and I met Joanna bolt bag of course became her agent and we we both wanted to talk to Joanna the whole conference and she shared with me kind of her query for divergent we were talking about her books and I was working on a a different book about aliens but she thought was ridiculous and she told me about her book I said well that just sounds like Harry Potter and so every time I started work shuffling bear in mind I gave Veronica Roth the harshest shutdown ever and I have been eating my words for years ever since oh how could you have been so wrong so you you had the insight what is that experience than that when that book comes across your desk that's this destined for great things despite what what what ninjas and Indiana might think about it and you talk I'm assuming you talked with Joanna Volpe who we know was a very successful literary agent and in our own wonderful person to communicate with what does that experience like and is there something about that particular book that stands out amongst the other books where you say yes this must be the one or there's none of that and you're surprised afterward or is it somewhere in between so I'll talk about divergent but also sort of how it extrapolates larger because I mean I mean zooming some of the folks watching this are curious not only about other people's books but their own and/or that whole thing so let's see um I'm trying to think where to begin with this with with divergent so in terms of why it worked for me um it's funny because publishing moves very slowly and it takes several years from the moment you sign a book up to it being on the shelves so some people looked at that book and thought oh it's you know basically Harry or Harry Potter or Hunger Games you know that there were pieces of DNA have other things in it but in fact the moment that I signed it up we were still in the paranormal thing that happened post twilight and for me as an editor I didn't raise myself reading paranormal books they weren't something that I was drawn to I when I first started editing it I tried very hard to like care about them or understand them or get into them because that's what was hot and what I realized with the help of some of my mentors and also just you know some soul searching was that like those aren't kind of stories that I'm good at they're not the kind of stories that I ever personally connected to or cared about and that you know I could fight really hard to learn how to do something and maybe be okay at it but there were already people at HarperCollins doing that kind of book really well really successfully and so the conversation I've had with myself is like okay figure out what you actually can be good about figure out what you what you care about and go after that because like friends don't last forever I think we knew a lot less about trends in y-a because the market was so much younger then but even then we knew you know this won't last forever and so I thought about the books that were intriguing to me which were actually somewhat different than the books that I grew up reading but I realized that was really like chewy to me as an editor and sort of like interesting to get my claws into were things that took the world as we knew it and did something unexpected and skewed it and you know whether you skew it 30 degrees like that's a very different story than if you skew it 163 degrees is different than if you skew it 240 degrees like each of those is a very different whereas for me and people who understand the nuances of paranormal romance might very much disagree with me so I mean no disrespect but to me the arc of a paranormal romance pretty much always looked the same and I realized I want more unexpectedness in the stories that I'm working on so I started telling agents when I was meeting with them uh you know send your your fairies and your werewolves and your sparkly everything to all the editors and HarperCollins who do that really well send me you're sort of we weren't even using the term dystopia it wasn't even a thing yet it send me your speculative things that are that are doing interesting unexpected things and I saw a lot of books you know as a result of those conversations some of which did go on to be published very successfully that were kind of ye versions of The Handmaid's Tale and to me that wasn't quite the thing that because I thought you know I understand why this storytelling is interesting you know futuristic unpacking of questions about female sexuality and reproduction you know high-pressure world like I understand why that's appealing to 20 and 30-somethings in New York City I'm less convinced and I think I might feel differently about it today in the climate that we're in but at the time I felt like I don't know if that's what 14 and 15 year olds in you know Idaho or California or North Dakota are really paying as much attention to so when divergent came to me I had a very like in the core of me reaction of this is a story that's going to resonate so widely because the premise at the heart of it was this idea that you make a choice and and we put it everywhere I mean we turn it into the tagline we put the marketing copy this idea one choice can transform you and to me that's the heart of this story is you make a choice in that everything after that you're changed forever the world is changed forever I think two teenagers that's an empowering message that you know that their choices matter but I also think it's something that everyone can relate to you know you are familiar with making choices that feel monumental whether you're a teenager yourself you know like that question doesn't go away whether it's who do I go to a high school prom with or who do I marry or what is my college degree or you know where should I live or who should I be like those big questions continues so to me that was the thing that really triggered in my brain was how how far-reaching and how sweeping of an audience there could be for this idea you're not wrong that it had some shades of Harry Potter in it no I should clarify miss Roth should you be watching all these years later the jerk in Indiana who made the mean comment apologizes a thousand times over I've read the book and the sequels they're great stuff it was very different from just reading the query in your description to reading the actual novel great stuff what was interesting with that book is we saw it was actually one of the most fascinating parts to me as it was gaining attention and prominence and reader you know once it was all the editorial and marketing and everything was done it was out in the world finding its way we started seeing that and again we didn't quite have the words for this in the same way in 2011 and whatever it was that we did now but we saw all the fandoms come to it for different reasons and so Harry Potter fans who of course at that point I think all of the books are out and all the movies were out and the newer Harry Potter stuff that JK Rowling did hadn't bubbled up yet so they were seeing something that's familiar to them the sort of sorting hat mechanism and the identity personality things and gravitating toward that Twilight fans we're seeing a little bit of like the the romance and the yearning that they had really connected to in Twilight and we're coming to it for that reason Harry Potter or Hunger Games fans were a little more divided because they were still waiting on some of their movies so I always said like they didn't need a new fandom in quite the same way that the the fans from other properties had but so we really kind of collected them all and and they all found what they were looking for in the divergent series which i think was absolutely some of its power so I don't know if that answers your question or if there's a follow up about the specifics of that good overview of the strategy and why it would be appealing to you again having having read the full book um but was there ever feeling like well holy light shine down on the manuscript when you heard a choir singing like yes this is the one I mean for me that was the experience of reading it the first time so Jo Volpe and I had had lunch we talked about my interest she called she pitched the book to me I started reading it that same night on the train on my Sony eReader my first-generation Sony eReader and and I remember so at the time our offices were at 55th Street and I started reading him by 33rd Street I had basically gotten through the first scene and the writing was kind of making me tingle and you know it was sort of like like I was like a very attentive you know awake to this story and I kept reading and to me there is such a strength and control in Veronica's writing those first few scenes of divergent are when she has lived her whole life and abnegation that's very controlled clipped version of herself and the cadence of the writing absolutely matches that short sentences very little emotion and as she makes her choice which I won't spoil it for anyone although you're behind the times if you haven't read it no but you might be 15 so it's fine all the good thing but as her world starts to get bigger and more daring the language starts to get bigger the sentence structure starts to get more complex and so initially I was noticing some of the artistic things she was doing as well as being pretty swept up in the story because again there there hadn't been certainly there had been speculative fiction and dystopian books especially in the adult market there had the first Hunger Games book I think had come out very recently before but we didn't have the depth and the breadth of it that we do now so it was a less familiar story in a way this idea of a girl rising up against you know society gone wrong and trying to figure out how to save it we hadn't quite seen so much of that in 2009 or whenever it came to me so so within the first 20 blocks on my subway ride home I I was noticing it that it felt like a different reading experience than most things that I come into my inbox at the time my subway ride so cellphones didn't work on subways until very recently and even now it still sort of spotty but definitely back in 2009 they didn't work at all but my subway ride had this like 2-minute thing where it went above ground and so you'd watch out everyone pull out their phone and like do their texting or their calling or their messaging before it went back underground and so I was one of them that night I called and texted right I texted my friend that I was supposed to have dinner with canceled my dinner plans because I wanted to keep reading and I went and sat in this little coffee wine sort of shop in my neighborhood and I read until they closed which I think was like midnight or 1:00 a.m. I kept reading and I kept reading until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning when I finished it and I stumbled in and was completely inarticulate about what was so amazing but like and it's a complicated story they're like some up but I knew it would had been electrifying as a reading experience and I knew that if I had had that reading experience probably other people were going to have that reading experience which I think you

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