- passionately defends YA fiction against a recently published negative opinion of adult readers of the genre
- illustrates a time in which the element of luck inherent in marketing worked in her favor
- shares a list of earlier marketing and promotional efforts she undertook as a self-published author that will likely disabuse anyone of the notion that self-publishing is the easier route to publication
Author and writing coach Hannah R. Goodman is represented by Erzsi Deàk of Hen&ink Literary. She is the founder and editor of Sucker Literary, which features emerging YA authors, and the founder of All The Way YA, a group blog of writers telling the real deal about writing and publishing YA fiction.
Hannah’s YA novel, My Sister’s Wedding, won the first place award for the Writer’s Digest International Self-Publishing Contest, 2004, children’s book division. She published the follow-up, My Summer Vacation, in May 2006, which went on to win a bronze IPPY in 2007. She’s published young adult short stories in several literary journals and anthologies. She also has written columns for the Jewish Voice & Herald.
Hannah is a member of AWP, SCBWI, and ARIA, as well as a graduate of Pine Manor College’s Solstice Program in Creative Writing, where she earned an MFA in Writing For Young People. Currently, she is completing a Certificate of Graduate Studies in Mental Health Counseling. She resides in Bristol, RI, with her husband, two daughters, and two cats.
5 on Writing
CHRIS JANE: You more than write and edit YA fiction—you’re also a passionate YA advocate. What is it about YA and/or middle grade fiction as a genre that ignites you?
HANNAH R. GOODMAN: The ages of thirteen to eighteen were filled with painful yet funny adventures and experiences in my life that have to be shared in all their humiliatingly hysterical glory. I’m self-deprecating by nature, so it follows that I would capitalize on all my mistakes and moments of embarrassment in my writing.
Also, I’ve been a teacher of teens since I was a wee, young adult—so I’m very much in touch with their growing pains. They struggle to accept that the world isn’t fair, that sometimes people will not behave how they want them to, and they believe wholly in magical thinking (“If I think something is going to happen, it will”).
From dealing with the disappointment of the first sexual experience to the anger of when someone doesn’t love you back, being a teen means we cross the threshold out of childhood, then hover at the door of adulthood for a few years, longing to both move forward and yet also step back.
My personal growing pains revolved around unrequited loves and friendships. The boy I longed for throughout high school gave me crumbs of attention. The crowd I wanted to be in (or so I thought) seemed to run too hard and fast for me to keep up. It wasn’t until I graduated and went to college that I realized what I wanted in high school was a romantic notion of love and friendship that was based on the idea that I want what I cannot have, and not on mutual connection. Additionally, when I was in high school, I felt like I was the only one experiencing all these disappointments, while everyone else was busy being spectacular athletes or having these great romances and feeling awesome about themselves.
Working with teens today, I’ve had the popular athlete in my office and the quirky introverted artist, and when they tell me their stories of hope, pain, and disappointment, they are all very similar. And that is also something we can’t comprehend until we leave our teen years—we are not that different from one another.
Where do your basic plot ideas come from?
My own teenage years (I still have every diary from fourth grade on up) and my students. I borrow from all and just move things around to disguise. Most recently is the short story in Sucker Literary Volume 3 called “A Different Kind of Cute.” This came directly from one of my many humiliating moments in high school involving a boy. The hot, popular soccer player I’d been crushing on all year in tenth grade asked me to meet him at the homecoming dance. I get there and he comes right over to me completely drunk. He gropes me, tries to stick his tongue down my throat, and then proceeds to throw up on my shoes. He is kicked out of the dance. I’m brokenhearted, but more disgusted and disillusioned. We never speak again. The End. (I’m both exaggerating and truncating this a bit, but that’s essentially what happened).
I always wondered what might have happened if he (a) hadn’t been that drunk and (b) hadn’t gotten kicked out. Additionally, I had a student, years ago, who had a crush from afar on a boy who eventually asked her to prom. The night was a disaster. He brought her to prom and dumped her for her best friend. She didn’t dance one dance. Her story and mine came together and inspired me to write about the disillusionment of teenage crushes.
What specific issues are important to you to explore in YA fiction that are unique to your audience’s age group?
The imperfection and complexities of relationships are something that, when we are teens, we just don’t get. We have a very all-or-nothing attitude when we are young—girls, especially, want that contact all the time on the phone, hanging out, doing everything together, and when there is a wrinkle in that, we tend to not be very forgiving. So I like to explore the complexities of relationships in adolescence—not only with peers, but parents and teachers.
This is because of my own complicated history of pursuing inappropriate (the grown-up word) relationships in high school. I chose the absolutely wrong people to be in relationships with, from best friends to boyfriends. And, at the same time, I had some amazing close friendships that I still have to this day—but I don’t think I valued those good, healthy relationships back then as I probably should have.
I always wanted to fix a broken bird or tame a wild coyote. If someone was not in need of a codependent experience, then they were boring to me. Looking back, I understand both myself and the birds and coyotes so much better and without the judgment and resentment I felt back then. I can see all sides of a relationship now, and it’s very healing to my inner child (I am studying to be a psychotherapist right now, so pardon all the warm and fuzzy and woo-woo stuff) to be able to write from multiple perspectives. So when my main character is angry or sad, I don’t write her story (even if it’s from first-person) in a singular way—I aim to widen the perspective through the setting, through props, and through the dialogue of other characters. You still get an angsty, self-conscious teen, but the view of her experience is wide.
What subject matter would you not explore in your fiction?
I will probably never write about abuse of a child from an adult. It’s too devastating and horrible for me.
I get the sense there’s a feeling in the YA community that young adult/middle grade fiction needs defending. Who are the people criticizing YA fiction, what are they saying about it, and what is your response?
My response is that we generate the most money for Hollywood, so the people can hate all they want. The criticism comes from snobbery and small-mindedness. Case in point, this Slate article by Ruth Graham, “Against YA: Adults Should Be Embarrassed to Read Children’s Books.”
In my quest to deepen my answer to your question, I did a bit of Googling, and when Graham’s article showed up, it made my stomach hurt. Let this woman go on with her dislike of YA. But as I pointed out above, YA fiction generates a lot of money for people. This woman, who claims to hate YA, sure seems to know a lot about some of the most popular YA books—you’re going to tell me she spends all this time reading things she hates?
Not to mention, Graham’s article about her hatred of YA generated over 82,000 Facebook shares. She’s benefiting off “hating” YA, which, by the way, I don’t believe she does. Again, why read all that if you hate it? It’s like people who say they hate Howard Stern and yet don’t stop listening; they critique him so thoroughly that you know they probably spend three hours a day with their ear to the radio. If you genuinely hate a thing you spend so much time on, well, please get yourself a therapist.
My response to this is, I feel sorry for anyone spending so much time and energy hating an entire category of literature (and yes, it is literature). What I think Graham and others fail to see in YA literature is the authors’ chutzpah to portray the quest of the “other” in a conformist society, and that this is invaluable in today’s sociopolitical climate, where there is a movement to bring equality and acceptance to the “other.”
From YA’s inception with The Catcher in the Rye (probably the first book we called YA), YA literature offers diverse protagonists and a three-dimensional perspective on growing up. Here are a few examples that speak for themselves:
- In Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, the protagonist, Auggie, has a rare facial deformity and struggles with social isolation while trying to make his way in middle school. Because the story is told from multiple characters’ POV, we get a very wide perspective of Auggie’s experience.
- In J. D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye, while we do see the main character, who struggles with depression and anxiety, through a first-person lens, Salinger creates round secondary characters who offer, through their dialogue, a more fleshed out experience of Holden’s breakdown.
- And in Meg Kearney’s The Secret of Me, a novel in verse, a teenage girl who is adopted explores the meaning of the adoption to herself, her family, and her experience growing up. The lyrical language and the authentic voice of the narrator provide a story that is about the many facets of exploring who we are and where we come from.
Many other YA books provide the same multi-layered character development and rich plot lines: Some Assembly Required, The Duff, Feathers, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and My Heartbeat, just to name some of my personal favorites.
Characters and themes in YA lit vary and offer a wide perspective of the teenage experience, which—let me remind haters—we have all been through and, having survived, continue to walk around with the scars. To hate YA is to hate your inner teenager; it’s to hate a part of yourself. I think those who criticize YA are simply afraid to remember their own teenage pain. They want to forget their childhood and pretend they popped out as fully formed, sophisticated adults. On my new YA blog All The Way YA, we’ve tackled the subject as well with “People ‘Against YA.'”
5 on Publishing
What was one of your more exciting victories, whether on a search for an agent or while looking for a marketing opportunity, and what did it take to achieve it?
Landing in Publishers Weekly in 2011 and my (now) agent emailing me and asking to see my work because of that article. It was a fluke achievement, in my mind. I’d created Sucker Literary, and the awesome Tanya Whiton from the Solstice MFA Writing Program sent out a press release about it. Somehow Publishers Weekly received the release and asked to interview me. That article did so much for me in terms of exposure and connections. It launched Sucker, meaning I went from fifty twitter followers to hundreds within hours of the article being released. For me, that was a big deal. The submissions to Sucker went from a handful to hundreds, as well. People all over the planet emailed me to be part of the staff (which grew to about fifty within that week).
Just a few weeks later, my now agent emailed me to say she’d read the article and read my post on the Sucker blog and liked my voice. Would I send her something? For a writer who had been trying for years to get some kind of foot in the door, this was huge. The effect was viral on a small scale compared to others who have self-published something and it has taken off (Fifty Shades, etc.), but for me it was significant.
Over the four years of Sucker, our writers and staff members have gone on to sign books deals and get agent representation. Some of the people we mentored, but didn’t necessarily publish, went on to get the very same story we worked on published elsewhere—all because of the work we did together.
Although, ultimately, Sucker is on hiatus because it simply is a full-time job (we mentor writers whose stories have potential instead of just flat-out rejecting them) and I’m focusing on my own writing, now, as well as finishing up another degree, I still believe in the concept of a literary collaborative where people help one another to be better writers and publish, together, as a group. Someday I will go back to Sucker and do another volume. Just not right now.
What was the hardest lesson to learn as a self-publisher?
It’s much harder than you think—and I’m not talking about financially. I’m talking about emotionally and physically. The reality, for me, has been that self-publishing is too much work if the goal is to sell a ton of books (you gotta pound the literal pavement and the cyber pavement all day, every day, like it’s your job).
The lesson I learned was that I had to shift my perspective on self-publishing. Self-publishing, for me, is about sharing my work, and the bonus is if I sell a lot of copies. Self-publishing is about exposure and the writing community for me, as opposed to it being this money-generating business. It’s about art and expression. It’s taught me that I’d like a book deal, please.
What marketing tactics have you tried, and which were the most and least successful? Were there any surprises—ideas you thought would be a sure win that flopped, or ideas you were skeptical about that turned out well?
It’s hard to summarize everything I’ve done to market my work because I’ve been at this whole thing since 2003, when I made my first major marketing move with an unpublished paper manuscript entitled My Sister’s Wedding. I’ll share with you how I tackled publicizing that book because that’s the one were I pounded pavement the most (I also was a lot younger, at the time, with more energy and only one child):
Months after finishing edits on My Sister’s Wedding with a well-known “book doctor,” I called a local radio show that focused on books and reading and asked if the host would be willing to read it. Not only did she read it, but she had me on her show to talk about My Sister’s Wedding (which she loved). She also encouraged me to self publish it, which I did, knowing absolutely nothing about self-publishing.
Fast forward to the publication in February of 2004, one month after I gave birth to my first-born child. I began what would become a three-year publicity blitz. When I say I’ve pounded the pavement, I actually did; I put my baby on my back and carted around boxes of books to local and regional bookstores, handed out sell sheets and press releases. While baby napped, I emailed every single person I knew personally, and then every single school district, with the same sell sheet and press release. As a local high school teacher, I had a lot of connections to other teachers and used that to my advantage, landing on school summer reading lists. My campaign was wide—I sent press releases to recovery bookstores across the country (alcoholism is a major theme in the book), mass emails to every single high school within the tri-state area and to all local papers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and walked into countless high schools and middle schools to hand-deliver free books and sell sheets.
I emailed all local members of SCBWI, as well as the president, with information about my book. I even emailed Judy Blume! Her assistant actually read my book; Judy, I guess, was too busy. I donated a class set of books to the Alternative High School in Providence, RI, and did a book signing there. Having kids wanting my autograph was pretty cool! I landed the front page of the Newport Daily News (my home town) and was featured in the Bristol Phoenix (where I lived and continue to live) and the Jewish Voice. I sent letters out to over one hundred book reviewers (and heard back from about twenty). I sent a free copy of the book to JACS, an organization that deals with Jews who have alcohol problems. I sent emails out to recovery bookstores across the US, and a few actually purchased several copies for their stores. I sent letters and emails to every library in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. I also emailed TV shows and radios shows, which landed me on two popular local AM radio stations several times.
All this lead to winning the 2004 Writer’s Digest Self-Publishing Award, first place in the YA/children’s category, which led to several well-known agents reaching out to me to read my work (one of whom I did sign with and later left). Also, people actually started to call me to do speaking engagements or run workshops on publishing and writing—Brown University (woot-woot!), Stonehill College, and several adult-learning institutions, as well as a whole bunch of high schools and middle schools. Libraries reached out from Rhode Island to Massachusetts to Connecticut—I remember when a few actually paid me to speak, and the crowds were over one hundred people. I was asked to do book signings all over Rhode Island. (The one in my hometown was pretty amazing to me—we sold a hundred books that day, which is incredible for a small-town high school English teacher. I rode that wave for a few years.)
Did this work? I guess so, but it depends on how you define work. It got me my first agent, but we stayed together for almost four years and she never sold my book. My ultimate goal had always been to get a book deal. All the pounding of the pavement had been fueled by the idea that it would lead to a book deal. As the years went by and I didn’t, I stopped pounding the pavement as much. Today, I focus on social media and my agent, and I attend events that our local author association hosts. I do a few events a year, but that’s it.
I realize that I’m a writer first and foremost and that I need to focus on that. Not to mention, my life has grown since 2003. I have another child and a business, and I’m back in school. In order to continue to do what I was doing, I’d have to give up some of these other things—which are non-negotiables. Most importantly, doing all that work and not having it lead to what I wanted was very disappointing (depressing). Now I focus on doing events not for the sake of pushing product or trying to gain attention from a publisher, but for connecting with other writers and learning more about my craft.
I’ve tried everything—seriously. I think what I’ve done that ultimately helps (but certainly hasn’t led to some big break) is being very visible. Also, I have good ideas and am not afraid to try them. Like creating Sucker or All The Way YA. Both have landed me more and more exposure. I’ve been on radio shows, TV shows; given talks, book tours, book signings; press releases; blog tours; giveaways; contests; etc. The thing about this all is that I’ve never had a thought that anything was a sure win. Entering the Writer’s Digest contest in 2004, for example, was similar to creating Sucker, kind of just this thing I did that actually turned into a bigger deal—I got my first agent because of it. And, as far as being skeptical—anything marketing-wise that costs money, I’m skeptical about. But that’s just me.
You write at All The Way YA that you’ve developed a strategy to overcome the reactionary envy that springs up when you see writer friends announcing publishing deals. You have an agent, which undoubtedly creates similar envy in writers receiving rejection after rejection from literary agencies. Before signing with your first agent, what did you imagine having an agent would be like, and what has been the reality?
Way, way, way back when I signed with my first agent, I thought we’d just get a book deal. I thought, Well, this person is a successful agent who has sold a whole bunch of books; I’ll be next. The reality is that your agent is not a magician, and I’m lucky enough to have someone who believes in me and continues to submit on my behalf and be there to help me dry my tears when a rejection comes in. I’m especially lucky because both of my agents have been that way.
When I first started writing, I had ideas about what would make me feel like I’d achieved something: Geez, if I can get even one short story published in a literary magazine, I’ll know I’ve made it. What were your early goals as a writer once you started taking writing seriously, and what would it take now (with the understanding that goals constantly shift) to make you feel you’d accomplished enough?
These questions are coming at an interesting time for me because I don’t think about my writing in that way anymore. My early goals were, as you say, to just get one story published, and then it became get an agent, and then sell a manuscript. And, just to add, I never didn’t take my writing seriously. I was always serious, from the time I wrote my first short story at age ten. But I also always assumed that I would “get there,” get a book deal. I had that young person’s perspective of “Life is fair,” that if I worked really hard, I would get a book deal. Now, as the years go by and I continue to not get the book deal, the goal may be the same (get a book deal), but I assume nothing.
I know for sure that you can be the very best writer, a hard worker, and still not get where you want to be with your writing. My philosophy now is to enjoy the journey as if it were the goal.
Thank you, Hannah.