Monday, July 25, 2011

The Near Witch Author Victoria Schwab on Self-Marketing, the Editorial Process, and Her First Novels

I first met author Victoria Schwab in 2009, when she had just gotten a book deal with Disney*Hyperion for The Near Witch. She and I were the same age, and setting off on parallel paths (she as an author traveling towards her novel's debut, and I as an intern finding my way to a career in publishing) at just about the same time. So as I've been learning all about the publishing industry, so has Victoriabut in a much different way. Now, one week before her debut novel's release, she's been kind enough to share her perspective on the industry here. For some great insights on how to market your debut novel, what makes a great agent or editor, and how that first book deal will change your writing habits, read on! You might even get to learn a bit more about The Near Witch and Victoria's work in progress, The Archived.

Rachel: What were your writing habits like in college, when you wrote your first novel?

Victoria: Oh, man. Well, I started my very first book as a junior, and had no earthly idea what I was doing. It landed me an agent the summer before senior year, and it went on sub, but didn't sell. I started writing The Near Witch as a second semester senior while also writing an interdisciplinary thesis in a studio major (roughly 12 hours in studio a day) so my method became one of not sleeping. Or at least, not sleeping much. I blocked out 9:00-11:00 pm each night, and forced myself to go to Kayak's, this awesome coffee shop half a mile from my apartment, and a block from campus (I could reach it easily from either place). Most nights I returned to studio around 11:00 pm (when the coffee shop closed). But The Near Witch was written entirely in Kayak's. Small, steady bites over the course of the semester. I finished the draft a week before my thesis presentation. I probably looked like a zombie.

R: How did your writing and revision habits change when you started working with your agent (Holly Root)? How about when you started working with your editor (Abby Ranger)?

V: My habits changed when I graduated, in that I suddenly had TIME to write. Most days I don't actually believe they changed for the better. But having an agent (Holly is actually my second) helped in that it gave my non-paying, full-time hobby both a dose of validity and a dose of accountability.

My habits changed A LOT when I got an editor. And not just ANY editor. I landed Abby the summer after I graduated, and she is terrifying. And brilliant. She taught me the meaning of discipline, but also of patience. I was never patient with anything before I started working with her. I'd been taught to power through, to finish and to do it as expediently as possible. But Abby taught me the value of walking away. Of thinking, and processing, and mulling. And editing. Oh so much editing.

R: You are constantly praising your editor and agent for their superhuman abilities to keep you sane. What shape do each of their epic sanity-bestowing powers take?

V: Haha, they really do. Holly has a full set of "ledge furniture" and we pull it out (metaphorically, though I have an idea of what it looks like) whenever I get a little close to the edge. She is brilliant, business savvy, hungry, and if she doesn't know the answer to any of my myriad questions, she'll find it in a blink. I could do one of those trust-fall exercises with her. I wouldn't blink. She's already caught me several times. And she lets me send her cute animal pictures on bad days.

And Abby. Abby has this brain. I don't pretend to know how it works, except that it functions in a very different way than mine, while still being compatible. We are a Venn diagram of skills and techniques, I think, and if she's not soothing me with her sense of logic, she's brainstorming, or helping me untangle, or just sharing in the adventure with me (and tolerating my many "hey look at this!" emails).

R: That sounds great; I should probably invest in some "ledge furniture," myself! And I bet anyone who's looking to become an editor or agent would love to be just like Abby and Holly. It sounds like they've supported you a lot through your revisions.

Let's talk about those. The Near Witch itself has changed a lot since you first wrote it. Can you share one change you made, big or small, and why?

V: You know, it's changed so much that I don't actually know if I can pick a single element. The way I think of it is that The Near Witch was a skeleton, just the bones (I was really very new at writing books) and over the course of editing, I learned how to make muscle and flesh and features and then put them on the skeleton in such a way that when it moved, they didn't fall off. They functioned. It wasn't bulk or plot or anything for that thing's sake. Everything strengthened the story.

R: That makes perfect sense, and I'll be curious to see if your experience with your next work is the same in that there isn't one "light bulb moment," so to speak, but rather a constant fleshing out.

From what I remember, throughout all of those changes and revisions, you were in constant conversation with fans online. You're a fabulous self-marketer, and you've clearly put a lot of time into connecting to your fan-base and spreading the word about The Near Witch.
Is there one thing you've done to market yourself that you found particularly effective?

V: I sold in 2009, and was then told that, because the book wouldn't hit shelves until 2011, I couldn't really talk about my book. At all. For more than a year. It was imperative that I stayed on people's radars without generating premature buzz for The Near Witch. So, I had to start by promoting myself. And that's hard, but positively invaluable. By the time I could promote The Near Witch, I had a foundation. I had an audience, and not only that, but one predisposed to like me because they liked me. And that's not to say I haven't gotten less than stellar reviews from members of that crowd, but the people who love it, and have been with me since the beginning, are so wonderfully supportive and vocal.

R: What advice would you give to authorsor even publishersabout marketing books?

V: Start early, and be willing to engage. I didn't sit on a stool and talk TO the internet. It wasn't one-way. I made friends (and none of this was for the sole purpose of marketing. If anything, it was to keep me sane, to have people while I waited, and they really are the reason I made it through), and as my following grew, I continued to engage. I'll never be a "collector," one of those authors only concerned with the number of eyes on her at any point. I built, and continue to build, a community. I don't rely on my book to do all the work. So many people overlook the human component, some willingly, and some simply naive, but I've found that being accessible and engaging as a person, rather than hiding behind my work, has been so, so good, for both my sanity, and my marketing.

R: Sounds like you really knew what you were doing, even as a debut author! But what surprised you most about the publishing process?

V: IT'S SOOOOO SLOW. Until it's not. And then it is again.

R: What's the toughest criticism you've gotten as an author?

V: Oh, probably that I value the poetry more than the plot. Which stings, because it's not intentional. This book has been an immense journey for me as an author, and it's my debut, and as far as I've come, I am still growing. I came INTO this with a strong ear for language, and have been learning how to use it. So it's less about my preference for poetry (though I really, really love words) and more that I'm learning. But in my defense, The Near Witch is written the WAY it is very, very intentionally.

R: I totally agree that The Near Witch's style is intentional—and very effective. The language is so beautiful that the book's voice becomes a character in itself. And I think you've grown tremendously as a writer in the time that your audience has been following you, which makes me all the more excited to read your next novel. So how about the other side of that question: what's the best compliment you've gotten?

V: I think to date there have been 5 or 6 Neil Gaiman comparisons. Every single time it happens, a puppy cuddles a baby somewhere, or something. And every time, I have to sit on the floor for a little while. Oh, and maybe the "classic" thing. I've been startled (pleasantly so) by the number of people who think The Near Witch will last.

R: Pick one from each of the following categories:
  • R: Favorite sister from The Near Witch: Magda or Dreska
    V: Dreska, because she's a little sharper. Literally.
  • R: Authors you could have as a mentor: Laini Taylor or Neil Gaiman
    V: Laini Taylor, because I'd probably be so intimidated by Gaiman that I wouldn't be able to focus and learn.
  • R: The only gift you can ever give your fans: narwhals or baked goods
    V: Narwhals, because they are proof there is magic in the world. Also, then I can eat the cookies.
  • R: Favorite book to work on so far: The Near Witch or The Archived
    V: I can't answer that. I've spent the last two and a half years looking at The Near Witch, so part of me never wants to see it again, and it hasn't even been released yet. And I've spent two years WAITING to make eyes at The Archived. So it feels like a stacked deck.
R: Finally, can you tell us something interesting about your latest project, The Archived?

V: My agent and I are constantly searching for the right "mash-up" to describe The Archived, because it's still a good ways out, and we don't want to give too much away. The current one is Buffy + The Shining + If I Stay. And I am literally shaking with excitement (and from within edits, no less, so that says something).

R: It does—though, of course, on my end the edits (well, the whole publishing process, really) are the most fun part! I can't wait to see what you, Abby, and Holly have up your sleeves this time around. Thanks so much for answering some questions here, and for having me along for the ride from book deal to publication with The Near Witch!

The Near Witch is the story of Lexi, who has always been closer to her father, who taught her to creep after the red deer and to touch it without its startling, and to Magda and Dreska, who speak to the wind and the earth and seem older than time, than to her fellow villagers. And now that her father is dead, her younger sister barely remembers what their family was, and her mother has taken to kneading and baking bread endlessly to work out her sorrows, Lexi longs for nothing more than to be close to the moor the way Magda and Dreska are close to it—or closer, the way the first stranger to come to town in ages seems to be.

Then, when the town’s children start disappearing in the whispering dark of the night, drawn out of their rooms by a wind that can speak their names, Lexi needs that closeness. She needs the moor to surrender signs of the children so she can track them; needs Cole, the stranger, with his burden of memory and his strange powers; and needs, most of all, to know the truth about the Near Witch. It might be the only way to save what's left of what she loves.

I couldn't put it down, and couldn't stop thinking about it once I did. You can pre-order a copy at your local bookshop here, so you can read it for yourself!


  1. I LOVE this interview! Victoria seems so awesome and I can't wait for the book :D

  2. Yes, Rachel. Thank you for the great interview. It's always good to hear about how established authors made their way.

  3. Great interview—thanks for sharing!

    Also-I gave you the Liebster Blog Award, if you're interested :)

  4. Great interview - it was nice to get the perspective on that in-between time when the contract was signed, but it was way too early to be promoting the book.