The Whole Megillah (TWM): Amy, how did you come up with the idea for the novel?
Amy Fellner Dominy (AFD): I knew I wanted to write about Ellie, a Jewish girl who is challenged about her religion. This was something I could relate to because I grew up as one of the only Jewish kids in my school. I knew what it felt like to be different.
The idea of winning a high school scholarship came to life as I was researching scholarships for my own daughter. Private donors can make their own rules—what if one of those stipulated no Jews? How far would Ellie go to conform? How much would she be willing to hide and at what cost? From those questions, OyMG came to life.
TWM: How long did it take you to draft the novel?
AFD: I wrote the first page in November 2006. I remember, because I wanted to submit something for the First Page Panel at our local SCBWI conference. Along with a group of editors, an agent was attending. And not just any agent, but Caryn Wiseman, whom I’d already researched and identified as a “Dream Agent.” When the first page of OyMG was read, the panel asked to see more—including Caryn. I give credit to that first page for the fact that I signed with Caryn a month later! Unfortunately, the other 255 pages didn’t come so quickly. It was a long process of stops and starts. I didn’t finish a full draft of the book until March 2008.
TWM: What was your revision and review process like?
AFD: I have my own personal process for revisions. Mainly, it consists of three rules:
- Do not stop for anything. Once I begin a first draft, I don’t pause to do research or write character bios or craft beautiful settings. I just write to get the story down. When I don’t know something, I leave a blank.
- No going back and rewriting until I type “The End.” In the past, I’ve spent so much time rewriting the first half of the book that I never finished the second half.
- No judgments allowed. First drafts are meant to be a mess, so I try to let go of that “perfectionist” within and just write. The goal is to finish a book. Once I do, then I can begin the real work: rewriting. I’m in three critique groups, plus Caryn reads everything before it goes to Stacy.
Once the manuscript goes to Stacy, we handle everything by email. I have to admit my first revision letter from her was a shock. Four pages, single spaced! I’ve learned to put away the revision letter for a few days, and then I can respond more objectively. I tend to start with her letter and address each point with my comments, questions or concerns. From there, I map out what I need to do. I do the easy fixes first—just to feel like I’m making progress. Then, I move on to the larger issues. When I’m happy with the changes, I read the entire manuscript out loud (so important!), make any tweaks, then send it back. On OyMG, we went through one more smaller set of revisions, and then copy edits.
TWM: At what point did you seek an agent?
AFD: Once I’d completed my first teen novel, I started looking for agents. This was in 2006. I’d submitted some things on my own, but it seemed as if it was getting harder (and took longer) to reach editors. I first discovered Caryn through Agentquery.com.
TWM: Caryn,what attracted you to Amy’s novel?
Caryn Wiseman (CW): I met Amy at the SCBWI AZ Writer’s Conference several years ago. She read the first page of OyMG, and I loved it (as did the other First Page panelists). It was really a standout. Unfortunately, that manuscript wasn’t finished, so she sent me another one which I was excited about and I offered her representation. We didn’t sell that first manuscript, but I knew that she was a very talented writer and had a great teen voice, and the next one WOULD sell. When she showed me the completed manuscript for OyMG, I knew that it was The One. I loved the characters in this story; I loved the relationship between Ellie and Zayde; and, I loved that it was a story with a Jewish focus that any teen/tween could relate to.
TWM: How did you develop a submission strategy?
CW: All of the agents at our agency (there are nine of us) have a very good idea of what individual editors are currently looking for. I targeted editors who I thought might have an interest in the Jewish angle of the story (whether Jewish or not) and editors who I thought would appreciate Amy’s humorous voice and layered story; editors who like contemporary novels, not just the latest paranormal romance.
TWM: How did the deal with Walker/Bloomsbury come about?
CW: I submitted the book to Stacy because I thought that the Jewish angle would appeal to her. I knew that she liked contemporary MG and YA novels. She loved it and made an offer fairly quickly. She was very enthusiastic and shared Amy’s vision for the book, so we decided to accept her offer.
TWM: Stacy, what attracted you to Amy’s novel?
Stacy Cantor Abrams (SCA): First and foremost, I loved Amy’s voice. I do most of my reading on my subway ride to and from the office, and it’s rare that I choose to keep reading once I get home or to my desk. Amy’s manuscript kept me reading long after my commute was over—I loved the characters and related to the issues being raised. It was also extremely funny! I knew teen readers would love Ellie, Zayde, and Devon. And there were lots of angles to pitch the book, besides the strong writing: religion, first love, summer drama camp, finding your true identity.
TWM: Please describe how the three of you worked together.
AFD: From the time Stacy first expressed interest in OyMG to the final deal memo, Caryn handled everything. I paced around my office and waited for email updates. Stacy and I didn’t directly email each other until the deal that been finalized. Then she and I began working together on the revisions. I have to say, it’s very nice to separate the business aspects from the creative ones. It allows Stacy and me to focus just on the writing. From my perspective, it’s been a great three-way partnership.
CW: Once we decided to accept the offer from Stacy, it was my job to negotiate the contract, making sure that I got the best deal possible for Amy. Negotiating is a two-step process (with many iterations). First I negotiated the major deal points with Stacy and reviewed them with Amy. Once those were finalized, I negotiated the points of the actual contract with the Contracts Department at Bloomsbury/Walker, and reviewed the contract with Amy. Once the contract was done, I stepped out of the process, and let Stacy and Amy do their editorial work together.
SCA: Caryn and I were in direct contact through all the early stages—submission, contract negotiations, acceptance. As soon as she let me know the offer was accepted (yay!) I got in direct touch with Amy and we began working on the edits together. I do almost all of my correspondence via email, but luckily have had the chance to meet both Caryn and Amy in person when their travels brought them to New York for BEA. This is such a personal business and it’s crazy to me that I’ve worked for years with authors who I’ve never met! So getting to have that face-to-face time is so wonderful.
TWM: Please describe the editing process for OyMG.
SCA: Once the manuscript was accepted, I worked up an editorial letter for Amy, detailing some of the larger-ticket issues I wanted her to address—things like working on the motivation for the characters, making the age/issues of the characters in line with the intended audience, fine-tuning the ending, etc. At the same time, I marked up the manuscript with questions or small line edits for Amy and sent the two together. The second draft came in very clean—Amy did an excellent job addressing my issues—and so the second round was a more in-depth line edit only, finessing the dialogue, grammar, etc. to make sure the book was perfect. Amy got a few more chances to tweak, too, since she reviews the book again after it’s been professionally copyedited and proofread. All in all, it was a very seamless edit on my end! Probably the hardest part of the whole process was working up a cover. We went through about 16 iterations before the final product, which I’m very pleased with. We also changed the title, which had originally been Honestly Ellie.
TWM: Why do you think Walker/Bloomsbury was the right publisher for OyMG?
SCA: Well, I think a lot of what makes a publisher right for a book is the editor who works on it—we are the advocate for the book’s success from day one, and so having an editor who is passionate about your story and will get people excited about it is key. But beyond that, I think Walker/Bloomsbury was the right place for OyMG because contemporary stories continue to be our bread and butter, and are what we’re known for within the industry. Our history as a S&L publisher means our reach is wide within that market, which was an important one for OyMG, plus our small, targeted Marketing department gave individualized attention and helped bring a wider audience to the book. Everyone loved the story—from the first acquisitions meeting through final Sales Conference presentations!
Thanks, all! Now for some specific questions for each of you, somewhat unrelated to OyMG. Amy, why did you write about Jewish values?
AFD: It’s an interesting question because I didn’t consciously set out to write about Jewish values. I wanted to write about a girl with a problem. But even when I write about characters who are not Jewish, those values have a way of turning up. The importance of family. Of arguing and questioning. Of striving to learn and be true to yourself. Those values are a part of me and in some organic way, a part of what I write.
TWM: What was your favorite book growing up?
AFD: Are you There God, It’s Me Margaret. Sadly enough, I think I learned more about puberty and growing up from Judy Blume than I did from my parents.
TWM: What’s up next for you?
AFD: My next book is Audition and Subtraction. (I’m finishing up Stacy’s final revision notes right now!) It’s about fourteen-year-old Tatum whose world is turned upside down when a new boy moves to town and threatens to take her spot in District Honor Band as well as her best friend. How much is she willing to give up in order to hold on to what she has?
TWM: Thanks, Amy. Now, Caryn, it’s your turn. What do you look for in a client?
CW: I look for a client who has an authentic voice, who understands the age group for whom she is writing, who is an excellent writer with commercial appeal, and whose work resonates with me emotionally. I look for a client who is in it for the long haul, and who is going to treat her work and our relationship as a professional, whether or not she is a full-time writer. She or he needs to have a thick skin, and be open to revising.
TWM: How do you like to work with a client?
CW: I work with my clients primarily via email, although we often spend time on the phone brainstorming ideas for new books, or working out editorial issues in manuscripts that I’m currently reading. My favorite question, when brainstorming about story issues is “But, why?”
TWM: What attracted you to become an agent?
CW: I have always been a voracious and critical reader (I still am!). I have an MBA, and worked in Market Research and Consulting for 15 years, but my heart was never in it. It was always in books. After my children were born, I was looking for a new career. I was in a book club with my now-colleague, Laura Rennert, and I thought that she had the best job in the world. She introduced me to Andrea Brown, and the rest is history! My experience included sales, negotiation, client management, and business writing and editing, all of which are important skills for an agent. There is still no bigger thrill for me than telling an author that I have an offer (or two or five) for her book, and then walking into a bookstore and seeing books that I helped bring to fruition!
TWM: Thanks! And Stacy, we turn to you. What kinds of books do you like to edit?
SCA: I love that my job allows me to work on a wide range of books—anything from sweet picture books through hard-hitting teen novels. I particularly love to work on books that I relate to and would have personally loved as a kid, which was part of why OyMG spoke to me. I love contemporary stories with feisty main characters, issue novels, romances, and coming-of-age stories. I’m always looking for a book that can appeal to both the commercial markets (stores like B&N) and to gatekeepers at the school and library level.
TWM: What attracted you to become an editor?
SCA: Simply put, I love to read! It’s funny, though, because now that I’m an editor I realize there is so much more to it than just reading. Much of my day is spent in meetings, making presentations, writing copy, forming thoughtful rejections, emailing, doing comparative title research, writing design memos, and the like. As I said, almost all of my actual reading is done on my own time, in places like the NYC subway system. But the challenge of the varied tasks of this job is part of the appeal. I’m certainly never bored!
Thanks again, Amy, Caryn, and Stacy for a great conversation!