Today I’m hosting an interview with Robison Wells, author of Variant and the forthcoming sequel, Feedback. Rob and I share both an agent AND an editor. I’m not sure how popular this is in publishing (I’m guessing very rare), so I’m gonna call us Super Special Agent-Publisher-Editor siblings. Even cooler than that, are Rob’s YA novels.
Both follow Benson Fischer who heads to Maxwell Academy only to find his every move monitored by cameras, the halls teaming with students split into various gangs, and barbed-wire fences surrounding the grounds. When he stumbles upon a hideous secret the school’s been hiding, he realizes escape may be impossible.
Variant was essentially written on a dare. I’d finished grad school in the spring of 2009, getting an MBA in marketing, and it was about the lowest point of the recession—no one was hiring. I was 30-something years old and had to move out of student housing (with my wife and three kids) and back into my parents house. It sucked. I was depressed and unemployed, with mounting debt.
My brother, fellow author Dan Wells, came to me in August with a proposition: if I had a book ready to pitch, he’d pay my way to the World Fantasy Convention. There were only two catches: first, the book needed to be science fiction or fantasy (which I’d never written before), and second, the convention was only two months away.
So, I brainstormed for literally about half an hour. The only real idea I had was that I wanted to write a book where there were no adults whatsoever. I built a very loose story around that, and then spent the next eleven days pounding out the first draft. (I only wish I could write that fast again!)
How cool! (Although I know what you mean about writing speeds—I seem to get slower with each new novel I take on.) So your first draft was speedy. What about the road to publication?
Well, after spending the next six weeks polishing the manuscript I went to World Fantasy, and I made an utter fool of myself trying to pitch to agents. I had no idea what I was doing. I left the conference with one agent who requested a partial, and that was it. Fortunately, Dan came to my rescue again, introducing me to his agent, Sara Crowe. I sent the manuscript to her, she loved it, and she signed me about a week later!
Then came the submission process, which was painful. The first round was all rejections, all for the same reason—everybody hated the ending. So, I rewrote the ending. The second round was good and bad. One editor wrote a big email saying how much they loved it, but it needed a new plot and new characters. (Awesome.) But Erica Sussman at Harper really liked it, and said that if I made some revisions that she’d be willing to take a second look at it. I rewrote almost the entire second half of the book, removing one of the central characters and shifting some things around (and cutting 10k words), and we sent it out for a third round of submissions. This time we got four offers, and went with Harper.
And I lived happily ever after. 🙂
What a journey! Variant has now been out for a year and Feedback comes out in a few days. Sequels seem to give many writers a hard time. Did you hit any snags writing it? What was your biggest challenge?
There was one big story challenge, which was that I injured a character at the end of Variant really severely—much too severely—without really thinking about the consequences. So I had to do some major revisions to my Feedback outline to accommodate that. But it all worked out.
The bigger challenge was that it was while writing Feedback that I was diagnosed with not just one, but a great big ball of mental illnesses. The main one was a severe panic disorder (which led to agoraphobia, which led to OCD, which led to depression). It was really the hardest year of my life, and it made writing nearly impossible. Fortunately, I have an amazing, supportive wife who helped me through it, and a great set of doctors. I’m still sick—I’ll probably be sick for a long time—but I’m WAY better than I was a year ago.
I’ve found your honesty about this topic (via your blog/Twitter) both brave and inspiring. I can’t imagine the challenges it poses on the writing front. Speaking of writing, what’s a typical day like for you?
I rent a small office in a building full of lawyers. I usually go into the office as soon as I wake up (usually around 7:00am), and I’ll stay there until about six or seven at night. Part of this long schedule is due to the mental illness; I always have to keep my mind occupied, so I’m healthier when I work than when I “relax.”
I used to have a home office (I still do) but I find that I’m much more productive when I have a place to go that feels like a job. It’s easier to stay focused.
Totally know what you mean. So what happens when you’ve got an ms in good shape? Do you use critique partners or betas?
I technically have a writing group, but in the last year I moved an hour and a half away from them. They’re all fantastic, but I don’t get to go to the weekly meetings as much anymore.
I also have a handful of online critique partners: Ally Condie and Krista Jensen both critique everything I write and I critique everything they write.
Thank goodness for critique partners! (I’d be lost without mine.) Switching gears entirely: If you could spend a night at the pub with any three authors (alive or dead) who would you pick?
First, I’d have to pick Samuel Clemens. Partly because Huckleberry Finn is one of my favorite books, but mostly because he’d probably be a hilarious drunk. I’d also take Ray Bradbury, because he was always opinionated, and I’m sure a little liquor would help to get the complaints flowing. Finally, JD Salinger, because we agoraphobes need to stick together.
Hilarious drunks, opinionated drunks, and fellow agoraphobes. Nice. Now what if this pub you’re at was yours? What would you name it?
The Slush Pile.
Ooh, I love a good literary joke 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by, Rob!
And now, to celebrate the release of Feedback this coming Tuesday (October 2), I’m giving away a finished copy! (The winner will have to option to request a paperback copy of Variant instead of Feedback if they haven’t yet read the first installment of the series.)
To enter to win a copy of Feedback, just use the handy form below. We’ll announce a winner a week from today, but please note: this giveaway is US only.