The past few months have exposed me to more and more young adult fiction. And while some of my favorite books are those in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, I still am far from an expert. But I had the chance to talk with YA author Leigh Statham and it definitely helped broaden my horizons even further. So let’s jump in and say hi!
Hello there! I’m Gwen Holt. I write everything from creative nonfiction to poetry and essays but I write YA speculative fiction as Leigh Statham. I have a steampunk series and a dystopian novel, Daughter4254, out now with Owl Hollow Press.
The sequel to that novel, Imani Unravelled, will be out this fall. I’ve spent quite a bit of time working for literary magazines, both online and print. Most recently I was the co-founder and editor and chief of a speculative webzine, Quantum Fairy Tales, and I am currently a fiction editor for South85, an online literary journal.
You’ve spent time on both sides of the table, as both an editor and a writer, can you tell us a little about how each of these roles influenced the other? Does it make it even more difficult to turn the editor hat off during your own writing or is revision just super easy at that point?
As far as editing my own work goes, I think everyone needs outside eyes. Working as an editor has made me more sensitive to common mistakes and pitfalls, but I still miss a ton of things in my own work. There really is a blindness we experience between our brains and the page. You can read something over and over again and still miss passive voice or a typo. Our brains fill in the gaps and gloss over things without us even knowing. Having reliable, smart critique partners and editors is invaluable if you want to be a professional writer. As a writer I think I appreciate the hard work that goes into each submission and I always try to give personalized rejections and encourage others to keep working at it. Writing is one of those things you can always improve at and if you don’t give up, you will get published.
When working as an editor, what did you look for in a piece? Was there anything that would immediately disqualify a submission for you?
I’m pretty sure every editor says the same thing: VOICE. I want your words to come off the page and introduce the characters to me. I want to feel like I’m immersed in a new friend, or enemy, that I can remember long after the story is done. However, I’ve read a lot of submissions that were dripping with voice and that was all. There’s a formula that is necessary to make a successful story (or novel) that starts with voice, for me, but also includes an interesting plot with a decent pace (I get so bored!) three dimensional characters, and of course proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
I work with a lot of teenagers and middle schoolers and they always groan when I tell them how important it is that they understand and master the English language with all its silly rules. Yes, we all make mistakes, but if I get a submission riddled with typos and obvious misspellings, I’m not going to take it seriously. The writer has to work twice as hard to be seen as talented and worth investing time in if they haven’t spent time carefully editing their work. Plus it gives a really bad first impression. If you don’t care enough to make sure your work is professional, then why should I invest any time reading it?
So, yes. There are a few things that I immediately reject a submission for: too many easily corrected or obvious mistakes, gratuitous violence or sex in the first couple of pages (some authors think this is a great hook or use it for shock value. I don’t buy it. I think it’s lazy writing), and if I’m too bored to read past the first page. The first lines and paragraphs are so crucial. That’s why we end up writing and rewriting them so many times. If you aren’t working hardest on your first page, you probably aren’t doing it right.
The first page is always the hardest though! What is your writing process like for tackling the blanking page?
I spend a lot of time thinking about my stories and characters. I love to be outside and enjoy long distance running and hiking. I’ll spend that time listening to audio books for inspiration, or planning my own. Sometimes I make notes on my phone if it’s something I know I’ll forget, but more often than not, I let all the information stew in my brain until it feels like it’s going to burst. Then I carve out some time over a few weeks and I start to dump it all onto the page. I’ve been able to write a novel in a month several times. It’s usually a hot mess, but at least it’s out of my head and I can edit it at a leisurely pace from there. After I’ve finished the rough draft and gone through it at least twice, I send it off to my beta readers. They send me notes and that process repeats until I feel like it’s ready to send to my agent. Then she sends more notes, more editing happens and eventually we get to the point where it’s ready to go out on sub. Once the book is acquired, there are more edits to do, hopefully not a ton by now, but there are always, always edits! In the mean time, while my beta readers have the book, I start a new project. Either mentally, or on the page. Because there’s nothing worse than sitting around waiting for edits! And I love to write every day. If I can’t get to work on a story, I keep a notebook in my purse and I write poetry at stoplights. Not sure that’s such a great idea. I have been honked at.
Your work is very art-focused and amplifies the needs for this area in our lives. Is there a specific kind of art that influences or inspires you?
I have an undergraduate degree in Fine Art with an emphasis on photography and design, a minor in music and history. I also grew up in an art and music filled home. I love pretty much anything that another person has taken the time to create, however, I do have my favorites. If it’s a painting, it’s got to be seen in person. The Mulberry Tree by Van Gough is a small, not well known piece in a museum in LA. I could sit in front of that painting for days. Also, Giotto, one of the first renaissance painters in Italy is amazing and I’m inspired by his work and his life story. I’ve only had the pleasure to see one of his paintings in person. I really do love all art though, and more than that, I love music. Just like a painting, it’s best experienced live, but I feel like it’s much more portable and closer to the actual experience than a painting or drawing.
Then there’s the written word. Where can I start for that? At least it’s something that’s the same no matter how you read/hear it. Poetry, essays, novels, short stories— good writing is good writing and it feeds the soul.
Have I mentioned sculpture? Architecture? Landscaping? Sewing? I’m going to stop now. I think you get the point.
Hey, they’re all great. Any form of expression is something to celebrate. At this stage of your career, what is something that you’ve learned that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I’d formed the habit of writing every day earlier in my life. I let other things get in the way, and honestly, I was very insecure. I hated most of the things I wrote even though I felt compelled to write. But writing crap is necessary to get to the good stuff. I’m a lot more forgiving of my first drafts now. I just write what I need to write and worry about if it’s good or not later. There’s always more where that came from.
Something I ask everyone, do you have a tradition for when you finish a project or have a piece accepted for publication? If so, how do you celebrate?
Oh yes. I’m so glad you asked. My tradition is a bit unorthodox. When I was querying my first novel and the rejections started pouring in (as they always do) I realized pretty quickly that I had to do something to cope with the depression that was also pouring in. Someone told me that rejection was almost as good as an acceptance because at least it meant you were doing the work. I decided to jump on that bandwagon and instead of waiting to celebrate selling a book, I was going to celebrate every single step of the way with the greatest food in the world: tacos.
Whenever I got a rejection email I loaded my kids up and we went to our favorite Mexican restaurant for tacos. Sometimes I cried through the dinner, sometimes I didn’t even eat, but I saw them celebrating my hard work, and even the waiters came to know us and our weird tradition. So when the day finally came that I sold my first book, the whole restaurant celebrated with us and it was so amazing. When I go to eat there now, they still ask me how my books are, have I sold anything, or am I celebrating defeat. It’s kind of a beautiful thing.
That is absolutely fantastic, and it raises a really good point - doing the work is something to celebrate. I've heard so many people who never have the chance, or simply don't ever put pen to page, and it does reaffirm exactly what you said. That's great, and I think it's a great tradition. Any projects currently in the works?
I always have SO MANY PROJECTS! It’s probably a fault I should work on correcting. Here’s the short list:
MG novel about a boy who can’t read
Novel in verse co-written with a friend
A collection of poems based on the work of Raymond Carver
A few short stories
Two YA novels out with betas
That made me tired. I should probably pick one and finish it.
Okay, so rapid fire time. Try to answer these without thinking. First thing that comes to mind.
Well, thank you for hanging out and talking. Where can people get in touch or find out more about your work?
I would love to hear from any and all of you with questions or comments.
facebook: Gwen Holt (Leigh Statham)
Wattpad: Leigh Statham