I've been absolutely desperate to read Josin McQuein's YA contemporary novel Premeditated ever since seeing this amazing query letter over at QueryShark. The announcement earlier this year that Random House's Delacorte imprint had bought it was hugely welcome news. Before that, there's also sci-fi thriller Arclight being published by HarperCollins via their Greenwillow imprint. Neither appears to have a UK release confirmed yet - but I'm definitely hoping for one! (Edit - the news gets even better! Just after I tweeted this interview, an Egmont editor got in touch to let me know that their brilliant Electric Monkey imprint (who've brought out two of my very favourite books this year, Skin Deep by Laura Jarratt and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein), will be releasing Arclight over here!)
Clearly, next year will be a rather busy time for Josin - so I was thrilled when she agreed to give me an interview.
1. For those people who haven't heard of your novels Arclight and Premeditated yet, could you give us a little bit of information about each of them?
When it first sold, ARCLIGHT was labeled "dystopian," but it's really more of a science fiction story. Thankfully, now that the dystopian wave is passing by, the original label seems to be going with it.
The plot centers on a teen girl (doesn't nearly everything in YA) named Marina who has been brought into a pseudo-military facility known as the Arclight. The name comes from a ring of sunlamps that surround the facility to make sure that night never falls on the people who live there, because nightfall and darkness bring out a race of creatures known as the Fade (for their ability to blend into their surroundings). Marina has escaped Fade territory, and with her rescue the decades-long cease-fire between the humans and the Fade is shattered; the Fade begin a series of nightly attacks on the Arclight. Everyone assumes it's this girl the Fade are after, so the Arclight's citizens are torn between the idea that she might know enough to help them defeat the Fade forever and the fear that keeping her will continue to entice the Fade to attack. But, stubbornly curious thing that she is, Marina starts poking around places she's not supposed to go and discovers that there's a live Fade being held captive by the people who run the facility. This starts her on a quest to find out exactly what happened to her inside Fade territory and decide who her real friends and enemies are.
PREMEDITATED is a contemporary story - no magic, no machines, just a grieving girl's thirst for revenge.
In this case, Dinah (the main character) is in a bad place. She doesn't have the best home life, and things only get worse when her younger cousin Claire apparently tries to commit suicide. It makes no sense because Claire's family had recently come into a large sum of money and she was excited about starting a posh new private school. Tired of feeling helpless, Dinah opens her cousin's diary and discovers that Claire was being used by one of the boys in her new school. So Dinah convinces her aunt and uncle to let her stay with them, and attend Claire's school, while Claire is recovering. She sheds her Goth image and turns herself into a near copy of Claire hoping to find this boy and destroy his life from the inside out the way he destroyed Claire. Unfortunately, things don't always go as smoothly as she has planned, causing a few complications along the way.
As regular readers of my blog will know, I'm significantly more interested in contemporary than sci-fi - but both of these books sound fantastic!
2. Arclight and Premeditated both look fabulous but they also look incredibly different. What made you decide to write two books in such different genres?
I never really considered writing contemporary before I got the idea for Premeditated. In that case, it really did start with a clear image in my head (there's a drawing of it on my blog, under the header "There is Method to my Madness") I saw, very clearly, this girl hiding behind a set of stone steps and wearing the uniform of a private school student. She was fascinating and no matter what else I wrote I couldn't get her out of my head, so I had to figure out her story.
With Arclight, science fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. I wanted something mysterious and a bit creepy, and I think that's what I ended up with. That story also began with an image, but not of the same sort. In Arclight's case, it came from listening to a hiker recount a harrowing account of a trip through South America where they had a run-in with a swarm of army ants. The ants were crawling over furniture and down walls, but it all happened in the middle of the night when the hikers could hardly see anything, and that idea stuck with me for years until it became Arclight.
3. You first came to my attention on Query Shark, with a query for Premeditated which got the response "oh hell yes. Send pages, send the entire manuscript NOW." It's a stunning query which made my jaw drop when I read it. How difficult was it to write that query letter?
I was stunned when she gave that response.
That query was something I wrote in a break from Arclight when I needed something to divert my mind. I was playing around, really, and came up with the beginnings of the count down structure. The rhythm seemed to work, so I asked the fine folks at Absolute Write for their opinions. They helped me tweak it a bit, but I still wasn't sure that an agent wouldn't take one look at the weirdness of it and declare it an improper query that belonged in the trash bin, so I sent it to La Shark (on Christmas Day of all things). You saw the answer on her blog, but you didn't see the one she sent me back which was a very colorfully worded request for the book accompanied by the very intimidating image of a snarling wolf she promised to send to my house if the novel wasn't finished, yet. That's one email I've never deleted.
The AW forums are one of my favourite places on the internet - a fantastic place full of helpful people.
4. In addition to one of the best query letters I've ever seen, Premeditated has an absolutely awesome cover! How much input did you have into the cover design?
Delacorte did everything and then sent me the final image. I've asked them for a couple of small changes (like adding the "L" to my name), but other than that, it's all them.
5. You have an awesome blog - I really enjoyed reading your 'Wordle as a Tool and a Toy' post and thought your 'Stalking Is Not Perseverance' post was great. Do you think blogging has helped you succeed as an author?
Bleh. I don't think I'm very good at blogging; it feels too much like giving a speech to a room full of people. I'm certainly not a consistent blogger, but it's one of those things that we're told we need to do in order to have an "online presence." (That sounds nearly paranormal, doesn't it?) However, I can't deny that having the blog, and the connections I've made through it, have had an impact. I've met agents and other writers via my blog, and those initial contact points have made things easier down the line.
6. You've blogged in the past about NaNoWriMo. What would be the best advice you could give to someone new to NaNo, or who'd tried for 7 years without ever getting past the halfway mark? (That last bit certainly isn't referring to anyone specific, honestly!)
Don't beat yourself up if you don't make your word goals. Seriously. People aren't computers; we're not actually wired to consistently produce a set amount of material in a given time span. If you need more time to phrase things a certain way, then take that time. Rushing down a road you're not ready to travel might mean you miss out on something fabulous because you didn't wait for it.
Great advice - thanks!
7. What are you most looking forward to about being a published author?
Having others share the worlds I've created. Writing is the only profession in the world where you can create entire universes and realities full of people and beings who have never existed, talk about them, and still not be considered crazy.
8. Is there anything you're not looking forward to?
Public speaking. I've not had speak in public for a long time and I'm sort of rusty.
I can definitely agree with you there!
9. If you were throwing a literary dinner party, which six authors or characters would you invite?
I could cheat and fill up the slots with my own characters. (Don't give me that look. You know they'd be easier to write about if I could sit them down and ask them questions.) But, I won't.
I'd like to sit down with Stephen King because he seems like an intelligent person who would have some interesting stories to tell.
Neil Gaiman because - well, because he's Neil Gaiman and everything I said about Mr. King applies to him, too. Both can create totally immerse worlds that leave you wondering if reading their books didn't actually pull you into the pages for a while.
I'd have to include J.K. Rowling because you can't have a literary dinner, write for children and teens, and not include her. You just can't. It should be a law. I'd want to ask her how much of the series she actually had plotted from the beginning and whether or not some of the details threaded through the books were intentional or happy accidents.
Since you asked about characters, too. I'd invite Harry Potter, and not because I'm a fan of the series. I'd invite him to see how much of Ms. Rowling comes through in his character and how many of his mannerisms come from her own. It's a commonly held belief that writers pass along some of their traits to the characters, like parents to children, and I'd like to see it first hand.
In the same way, I'd invite both Suzanne Collins and Katniss Everdeen. I wonder if Katniss would find our world similar to the Capitol or she'd see the things we call entertainment as too close to the overly-stylized, hyper-violent spectacles they used to amuse the citizens.
I'm adding one more, even though it makes seven. This has turned into a collection of heavy-weights, so I have to add Stephenie Meyer. (and not just because I'd like to see a conversation between her and Stephen King) She seems like a sweet and genuine person. Plus, as a long-time vampire fiction fan, I'd like to ask her why she decided to write vampires without fangs. In her case, the characters don't get an invite. As much as I'd like to see how one of her vampires actually looked (I'd be more likely to invite Carlisle or Alice than Edward), they don't eat, so it would be awkward.
Sounds like an awesome collection of people!
10. What are you reading at the moment?
Revision notes for a series that's going out on submission at the first of October.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Josin - very best of luck for both your releases next year, and for the future.