Jumping the fence: an interview with Juliet Mushens
It gives me great pleasure to talk to my agent, Juliet Mushens, today. She’s been my touchstone in all writing endeavours since 2012 and she’s quite the fancy dresser too. I can sing Juliet’s plaudits all day but really, I want to talk to her today about jumping the fence and becoming a writer herself.
I attended the launch of her Teach Yourself book: WRITING YOUNG ADULT FICTION yesterday, commissioned by John Murray Learning.
Writing Young Adult Fiction by Juliet Mushens:
Many people long to write a novel for young adults but have no idea where to begin. This inspiring, practical guide will give you the skills and confidence to create a polished and compelling book
Get started in Writing Young Adult Fiction provides sensible, easy to follow advice on how to plan, write, edit and publish your first novel for young adults. It will help you understand how genres work, what makes a book suitable for a young adult audience, and how to make the process of writing easier by breaking it down into bite-sized chunks.
Written by a leading literary agent who knows what it takes to make it in the market, this book will give you the advice and tips you need to stand out and get your writing noticed in one of the fastest growing and most popular areas of fiction. You’ll learn how to develop your plot, write relatable characters and convincing dialogue, and bring your story to life. Using editing exercises and workshops this book will give you the practical tools, encouragement and motivation to write great fiction for young adults and show you how to get it published.
Juliet, huge congrats on finishing and having your first ever non-fiction book published! What was it like to experience being an author?
The experience has made me feel much more empathy with writers! I knew on an intellectual level that it was a nerve-wracking experience, and that writers felt hugely vulnerable when people started reading their work, but feeling it is a completely different experience. I now totally sympathise with authors who obsessively read reviews and agonise over misplaced sentences – and I hope the experience will make me a better agent now I’ve been on the other side.
I love that you tackle the plotting nightmare so many authors struggle with. What percentage plotter / pantster are you?
I plotted my book heavily – the idea of writing 60,000 words was terrifying, so breaking it down into bite size chunks made it a lot more manageable! I decided on ten chapters, each of around 6,000 words, and came up with 4-6 subheadings within each chapter. That made it much, much easier as when I sat down each day I knew what I had to write about and why.
Were you ever assailed with doubts whilst you were outlining the book or when you sat down to write it? How did you get past these?
I was terrified before I started, and there were a few moments where I thought ‘help! There’s no way I can do this!’ Basically I just made myself get the words down on the page as once the bare bones were there I could then edit and redraft and reshape. That was why planning helped me so much: I always knew what I was supposed to be writing, and tried to focus on individual chapters at a time rather than panicking about overall wordcount.
What kinds of research did you do to prepare for writing the book?
I read anything and everything I could get my hands on about writing. I have an entire shelf full of creative writing books now, and also read about screenplays, and the general creative process. I asked my authors for their opinions on various things, and also wanted to challenge some heralded writing advice so ended up writing a chapter about when to break writing rules. I wanted to create something that gives you ideas and guidance, but recognises that there is no One True Path for writing.
Let’s talk a little bit about how you fit in writing WYAF in amongst working as an agent? I know from experience you are very hands on editorially with your authors so how did you juggle all of this, real life ™ and your own writing?
I often work evenings so I had no time during the week to write: I only had a chance on weekends. I would be at my desk by 9:30am and wouldn’t allow myself a cup of coffee until I had written the first 1,000 words. By that point I’d be into a pattern and flow so found the rest of the day a lot easier. I’d aim for 6,000 words in a day and found once I’d hit that 6,000 I could normally go on to do another 4,000 that day before breaking for the evening. I write really fast, which helps, but I knew that I didn’t have the luxury of time so had to make the days really count. A lot of those words would then be deleted, or reshaped, or end up as something completely different entirely, but just getting them down was the important part. Some days were hard, and I’d think ‘everything I’m writing is complete dross’ but found that pushing through that and writing it anyway helped – I was pleased when editing the book to discover some of my chapters were actually pretty good despite that feeling!
That was the biggest learn for me, actually, that so much of it relied on discipline and drive. A lot of people say ‘I want to write a book… but I don’t have time’. If you want to do it enough, you have to make the time. Whether that’s a couple of hours before work, or writing on your iphone, or at your desk during your lunch break, you can do it if you want it enough.
Let’s chat briefly too about what you’re up to at the moment at work. We’ve touched about various aspects of your work in the past during other interviews, but can you tell us what you’re keen to find at the moment in your pile of submissions?
I would love something set in an asylum, or a boarding school, or an island. I love thrillers in enclosed spaces, where the tension doesn’t let up because you can’t escape. But to be honest I’m open to anything with an exciting premise and a fresh voice.
Are you spotting any trends at the moment? Things you’d prefer not to receive that you’ve had an influx of? Also, I have this idea for dinosaur fiction…featuring a t-rex and a zookeeper who go on the run from an evil corporation and then fall in love…would you be interested?
I love dinosaurs! I’m seeing a lot of Gone Girl-esque psychological thrillers at the moment, but I’d need one to be really stand-out in order to take it on. But sometimes someone takes an old story and through some alchemy injects energy and passion into it, so I’d never say never…
What are you reading currently that’s not a client manuscript or potential client manuscripts?
Judy Blume – In the Unlikely Event. It’s a wonderful, moving novel about the effect of a tragedy on an American town in the 1950s. I’m also reading a lot of Captain American fanfiction at the moment, and I’m not going to apologise for that. (I’d like to point out that I am with you 200% on the Captain America fanfiction front, Juliet! Stucky forever!)
With WYAF behind you, would you consider running writing workshops at the various conventions you attend?
Absolutely! I supervise dissertations at Kingston University, and really love working with writers to help them get their ideas down.
And finally, a word of advice to aspiring YA writers who are in the process of polishing up that final draft or even those of us only starting out on the journey?
To quote a famous brand: just do it. Focus, plan, and write as much and as often as you can. Get the words down on the page – even a rough first draft is better than no draft – and don’t get bogged down in worrying about marketing, or social media, or the cover for your book. That all comes after the writing, so you need to make that your priority.
A huge thanks to Juliet for her time doing these questions. Juliet is an agent at The Agency Group here in London. She represents a large swathe of different writers, a lot of YA authors and genre writers. She’s been shortlisted and highly commended for Literary Agent of the Year at the Bookseller Industry Awards, has been picked as a Bookseller Rising Star and shortlisted for the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize for excellence in young women in publishing. She’s very active on twitter – @mushenska – where she runs a very fun and informative #askagent feature (really do check these out!). She’s also is a geek (my own words here!) and attends a lot of geeky conventions where she’s part of panels.
If you’re interested in a copy of Writing Young Adult Fiction, find the link here. It is also available in your local bookshops and high street bookstores.
Go forth and make words, my friends!
Liz de Jager
Liz grew up in South Africa and is the youngest of six kids. In the year 2000 (AD) she moved to the UK with her husband and they now live in Kent with their Jack Russell, Sparrow. Liz ran My Favourite Books book blog for several years and wrote articles and reviews for other online sites about comics, movies and best writerly coffee shops in London. During the day Liz is an executive assistant in London, but her mind is always busy with writerly thoughts and how to get her characters into deep(er) trouble. Her debut in the Blackhart Legacy trilogy will be out in Spring 2014.
- BANISHED (Tor UK, February 2014)
- VOWED (Tor UK, November 2014)
Click on an image for more information