For the first time ever on this blog, I’m pleased to welcome author Courtney Vail! Her book Kings & Queens just released this year and the sequel, Sapphire Reign, is in the works. Courtney graciously stopped by long enough to answer some questions about her book, her writing style, and advice all would-be authors need to hear.
Thank you, Courtney!
Seventeen-year-old Majesty Alistair wants police to look further into her father’s fatal car wreck, hopes the baseball team she manages can reclaim the state crown, aches for Derek…or, no…maybe Alec…maybe. And she mostly wishes to retract the hateful words she said to her dad right before slamming the door in his face, only to never see him again.
All her desires get sidelined, though, when she overhears two fellow students planning a church massacre. She doubts cops will follow up on her tip since they’re sick of her coming around with notions of possible crimes-in-the-works. And it’s not like she cries wolf. Not really. They’d be freaked too, but they’re not the ones suffering from bloody dreams that hint at disaster like some crazy, street guy forecasting the Apocalypse.
So, she does what any habitual winner with zero cred would do…try to I.D. the nutjobs before they act. But, when their agenda turns out to be far bigger than she ever assumed, and even friends start looking suspect, the truth and her actions threaten to haunt her forever, especially since she’s left with blood on her hands, the blood of someone she loves.
1) Can you tell us how you got the idea for Kings & Queens? You mention a dream on your website, but was that the moment where it all came together or did the story fall into place in bits and pieces?
I had this idea for a love triangle of sorts but no plot to plunk it into. All I knew was this girl named Majesty was the manager for her high school’s baseball team, on which her two guy best friends played. Then one night I dreamed I overheard a plot for mass murder and escaped the conspirators in this little town. I knew as soon as I woke up that that was the seed I needed to bring my book to fruition. However, I had no idea at all that it would end up so complex, twisted and dark.
The deeper part of the conspiracy totally took me by surprise. If you haven’t read it, I’ll just say it involves Derek and leave it at that. That whole thing was not planned. It emerged as I wrote it. He’s way more than some guy who’s curt with his friends and out for a quick lay. I knew when I finished it, that the complexity would make K&Q one of those love-it or hate-it type of reads because not everyone likes that much depth and intricacy. YA tends to be more linear and straightforward and Kings & Queens is one shocking twist after another and it doesn’t let up until the epilogue.
2) What was your favorite part of writing this particular book? A character, someone you met doing research, or something else entirely?
My favorite part was meeting my characters. That’s always my favorite thing with every book I work on. And my books always have one or two characters that people absolutely love. Most people I’ve heard from say they like all my characters, but especially Warren and Derek. I get the most feedback about them. The research was fun too. Although, because I had to research explosions and gun firing skills, I’m sure I’m now on a watch list of some sort. I interviewed a Richmond cop on police procedure and learned they don’t need parental consent to interrogate a minor, which I wouldn’t have thought. I made it optional. And I spoke with a bike expert about sabotage. Fun, fun, fun trying to explain that one. Maybe when I earn enough cash, I’ll get to travel around for my research.
3) When approaching a new project, do you outline or let the story develop as it will? Why do you think that technique works for you?
I am what’s called a pantser, but I’m not crazy about that word. Instead I call myself a Just-Wing-It Girl. I usually have an initial concept, and I create character sketches, maybe I’ll jot down some bullet points for the beginning or along the arch, but it’s loose, just an idea about direction really. This is usually done with pen and paper. And then I get on the keyboard, and just wing it and fly to wherever my characters and story take me. I love when I end up surprised and affected, where I’m shouting at the screen–yeah, I’ve done that. I’ve also cracked up at some of the things I’ve written and I’ve broken down and cried. This free-flying style works for me because my story’s always grow and expand beyond my wildest dreams, and I can never predict which way they’ll go until I’m writing, so it’s hard to plot out for that.
4) How well do you know your characters? Do you decide before you start writing every detail of their lives down to the type of snack foods they prefer or do you let the details come into play as the story develops?
It depends on the story. For Kings & Queens, yes, I knew most of this intricate stuff before I ever started. I don’t info dump at all, but backstory plays a big part in how my characters think and act within the story’s present time.
Like, Majesty is a very strong character, and she’s quick witted and likes to verbally spar, and all that was originally spawned from her having to grow up with a weird name. Some people would cave and sink into themselves, but Majesty turned it into a positive thing and turned herself into a victor instead of a victim. She lives life as though she has a scepter in hand and always strives to win. Authors sometimes give their characters weird names, and there are no ramifications for that. But that’s not me. In my book, I take every little thing into consideration.
Another example , Derek grew up without a mom for most of his life and he has a crap relationship with his dad, so he doesn’t eat right, have any fashion sense or moral center. He’s all over the map along the debauchery path since he’s had no one to look up to and no one to live for except himself. His actions are birthed out of a need for self-preservation rather than outright rudeness. He’s not a jerk, just an insensitive, wounded, guarded teen.
All that thought that I put in to character psychology is how my characters end up feeling real, like they’re jumping off the pages.
5) What’s better, in your opinion: writing a first draft or going back and rewriting it?
Definitely writing the first draft. It’s so much fun. I’ve done a ton of editing, but I’ve never really completely rewritten anything. I ended up blessed with great critters who helped me get my novel into publishable shape. I’m a tweaker, so the editing process can be a tedious pain.
6) What can you tell us about the editorial process after you turn in your first draft? Any advice for hope-to-be-debut authors?
I definitely seek out the opinions of multiple people because you can never spot the holes and glaring mistakes in your own work, beyond grammar and such. I caught two big mistakes on my own, but it was during the editing process after I’d given myself some time away from the work. For one, I had a major mistake in my timeline and ended up with 6 school days in a week. And in chapter 4 I forgot to have Derek give Majesty money before she headed off to buy flowers for him. Those issues were in there even after at least ten pairs of eyes had combed through it. So definitely, finding some distance and then going back to it helps immensely. And reading books on craft is very important. When you know your stuff and what’s best for your story, then you can have the confidence to know what advice to apply and what to discard. Writing and reading is subjective and not everyone is going to have the same opinion, not everyone is going to like your work, and not every piece of advice you get is right for your work. You need to know what’s story-enhancing and you can only do that by listening to your gut and knowing what’s correct. Listening to too many people can have you over-editing, and I made that mistake and stripped out too much voice and some of the rawness. I had to go back and reshape the narrative so it held my quirkiness again. Not everyone likes or gets quirky. So I learned to not care and to just be myself with a pen, regardless of the outcome. Voice is everything. And mine happens to be weird. And I’m proud to own that.
7) You chose a company in between self-publication and an independent press to produce Kings & Queens. Can you tell us anything about your experience with Little Prince Publishing so far?
LPP is an indie publishing company, it’s just very small right now. It does things differently than other companies though. For instance, I get all my royalties. Usually a publisher pays for everything up front, and only gives you 4-15%, maybe 20% of the royalties. A small press usually won’t pay an advance, and I really needed the flexibility of a small press in order to be able to publish my split-market series. I knew I’d make the most money with Little Prince and have options no other publisher could give me. I paid for the Lightning Source set up fee and an LPP ISBN and did my own formatting and cover, so $152. (I am one of the book formatters and designers for LPP now as well as another small publishing company.) Because bookstores can buy directly from the Publisher’s Bookstore with a sliding-scale, short sale discount that starts at 40% off the listing price, I can set my own wholesale discount as low as 20% at Lightning Source, which I did. So I make $6.15 per book for paperback sales anywhere online or when customers order it in brick-and-mortar stores. With any other publisher, I’d earn change. I’ve long since earned back my set up fee but am just waiting for the check, since it’s paid out quarterly.
Originally, I was shopping Kings & Queens and had every intention of going traditional. I was getting some helpful feedback from agents, though no bites, but I ended up pulling myself out of the hunt because of the sequel I had written for fun. Early readers kept asking me how my characters were doing and I wanted to know too, so I opened the story ten years after the events in Kings & Queens. In Sapphire Reign I have an 11-year-old POV, a 15-year-old, and 3 people in their 20’s. It’s weird to have ages across the spectrum like that but it is what it is. However, my early readers fell in love with it and my characters, especially the young girl, Crystal. All this feedback made me fall in love with it too and see its potential, and my vision changed. I didn’t want to risk the sequel getting shut out because series just don’t do that. They don’t split markets. If you get a 2 or 3 book deal from a bigger house, it’s for one market. That’s a fan base building strategy. It makes sense. But I just don’t care about categories. It’s my series. I figure if people like my writing and my characters, they won’t care that the series has shelving confusion. Now, I can put out both books out and have them look congruent. Sapphire Reign is a twisted, weird, dark book, so not everyone will like it, but I can’t wait to hear from those who LOVE it because there’s absolutely nothing like it. It is a wild, wild ride.
The Kings & Queens paperback just came out in January, but I’ve loved my experience with LPP so far because I’ve gotten to make my own decisions. I also get to collect ALL my own royalties, not just a small portion, the same as if I’d gone solo, but I have a group of authors and a little house to support me in my endeavors. I can even write a third book in the series, or not, it’s my call. I love the flexibility I have.
8) What’s the hardest part for you to write? Beginning, middle, or end?
I sometimes write out of sequence. For Kings & Queens, I wrote the first two chapters and then the last two so I’d have my end game. It’s such a twisty plot and I needed to keep focus on how it would end. But all the middle guts in getting there totally surprised me. The hardest part for me was the climax, the rest of it was easy. I really had to wrestle to get everyone to be where I wanted them to be and to act like they needed to act within the scene. I love the way it came out. But I would say endings usually give me the most trouble, just because I want everything to end on the perfect note. I not only want to give readers a satisfactory conclusion, I want to leave them with some resonation.
9) Do you listen to music as you write? Have TV on in the background? Require absolute silence and solitude?
I like music in the beginning stages, when I’m constructing my ideas, I find it inspirational actually. The song Field of Innocence by Evanescence, for instance, really captures the story, feel and tone of Sapphire Reign. I wish I could use it for my book trailer, but since it was on a limited release album and the band is split, it would likely be impossible to pay for the rights, which I would because it is just that awesome. I’m not even sure if the publisher/producer is in existence anymore.
But I don’t like music or any major noise once I get deeply into my story. I used to, but I’m easily distracted, so this has changed. And I definitely prefer to be alone. I can’t write at all if someone is too close or staring over my shoulder.
10) Last, but definitely not least, what advice do you believe is crucial for anyone who wants to have a career as a writer to hear?
To take the time to develop your characters fully, to know the different narrative options backwards and forwards so that you can just fly with your plot idea and know how to execute it properly, to understand the importance of a story question and to always write with passion, putting forth your best effort. If you take care in all these areas, you will be on the path to success. Someone, somewhere, is going to be moved and hooked by what you’ve written.
COURTNEY VAIL writes totally twisted YA and adult suspense. She enjoys braiding mystery, suspense & romance with some kind of weirdness. Her addictions to crazy coffee concoctions, Funny Bones, Ben & Jerry’s, and bacon keep her running and writing. She currently lives in New England with a comedian stud and a wild gang of kidlets.