Term 4 2021
- Feature article
- Regular features
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Author Spotlight: Vanessa Len
SCIS speaks to Australian author Vanessa Len about why she wrote her first novel, Only a Monster – and what happened next.
Tell us a bit about your journey towards becoming a published writer.
Only a Monster is a young adult novel about a monster girl whose summer is ruined when the cute guy at work turns out to be a monster slayer! It’s my first novel, and the journey to its publication has been exciting, surreal, and sometimes just a lot of work.
The book began at a dinner with some friends. It turned out that we had all been thinking about writing novels, and we made a pact to do it. So far, three published novels have come out of that dinner, and I’m sure there’ll be many more. It really helped to have a support network of friends on the same journey – writing a book can be a solitary endeavour, but it doesn’t have to be.
I wanted to try publishing the book ‘traditionally’, which means selling the rights to publishers rather than publishing the book yourself. One way to do that is to find a literary agent to represent you. I was lucky that my amazing agent, Tracey, read the manuscript and liked it. She is based in the US, but she and her husband Josh represent lots of young adult novelists in Melbourne, so they have a great understanding of working with international authors.
Tracey took the manuscript ‘on submission’ – which means that she sent the manuscript to editors at various US publishers. At the same time, her co-agents overseas sent the manuscript to publishers in other countries. For me, it was a whirlwind time of nerves and excitement and sleeplessness (everything was happening in the middle of the night for me). For the first week, I woke up each morning to ‘rejection letters’ (emails from editors saying that they had decided not to buy the book). I got very sick of seeing my own name, because it was in the subject line of all the rejection emails!
But then, a week into the submission process, everything started to get very surreal – a German publisher bought the book! And then a few days later, a Spanish publisher bought it. Two weeks after that, the book went to auction in the US. And a couple of weeks after that, a Hollywood production company bought the film and TV rights. Then it sold to my amazing Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin, and then to Serbia, Russia and the UK … Sometimes, I still can’t believe it all really happened (is happening!).
The most exciting thing is that my friends from that dinner have had very similar experiences with their own books. I think that there’s a lot of opportunities for Australian novelists to publish here and internationally – you just have to finish that book!
What were the biggest challenges along the way?
I’d written short stories, but nothing novel length, so at the beginning the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to write a novel. I found myself googling things like ‘How long is a chapter?’ and ‘How do you create a character?’ and ‘What happens next in my plot?’ (Sadly, Google didn’t have an answer for that last one!)
It was a steep learning curve. I read a lot of craft books about how to write a novel, but in the end I found that the best way to learn how to write was to read and to watch TV shows and movies – to see how other people tell stories. I analysed ways to create characters, set up twists, structure scenes, and more. And I wanted to write a book that was fun to read, so I was also really interested in the mechanics of ‘page-turniness’.
Where did the idea for Only a Monster come from?
When I was growing up, the heroes of stories didn’t often look and sound like me, but the ‘bad guys’ sometimes did. I wanted to write about what it feels like when the hero of the story isn’t necessarily the hero of your story: what it feels like to be the ‘monster’ of the book.
At the same time, I wanted to write the kind of book that I would want to read, so I put in all the things I like – twists and turns, a fast pace, magical powers, time travel, heists!
How do you find a creative voice that will speak to the most diverse range of children possible?
That’s a really interesting question! We all have our own likes and dislikes when it comes to stories, and we all come to books with different perspectives (I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of loving a book that someone else doesn’t like). I’d love to see lots and lots of diverse voices published so that children have lots of books to choose from. That way each child might find something that speaks to them from among those many voices.
Images supplied by Vanessa Len.