Ann's Voice

How to Land a Big-Five Contract: An Interview with YA Debut Author Ann LaBar

Ann and I have been pals for twenty years, and several times a week I’m lucky enough to get to talk with her about writing and animals and neuroscience and every thought that traipses across our mindscapes. That’s why I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, no one is more creative, hard-working, and generous. And that’s also why, back in March of 2019, I was looking forward to meeting up with Ann at SleuthFest. My daughter Delaney and I arrived at the hotel first. We planned to pick Ann up at the airport in a few hours, when I got a breathless call from her–while she was changing planes in Atlanta she got the call from her agent: she had an offer from Simon & Schuster!

Delaney and I ran straight out and bought champagne.

To help you understand what it takes to have the kind of success Ann enjoys right now, I asked her a few questions. Here’s what she said:

LLR: Brad Parks in his recent SleuthFest talk said, “You won’t find someone in the NBA who’s only been playing basketball for five years. It takes ten years or more of practice.” Now here you are, your debut book, Prom Theory, and you land a Simon & Schuster deal. However, anyone who knows you knows you’ve done your time. What has that looked like for you?

AL: I began as a poet and have been writing since grade school. I wrote through college and published a few poems in some literary journals and then when for my MFA in poetry. It was when I was teaching as an adjunct at DeSales University that I met Jim Mcallister, then a tenured professor in the English Dept. He and his wife, Nikoo, had just gotten a three-book deal for historical Scottish romances. I never read romance, being a literary snob and all. But I read my friends. I was hooked, and it only took a few months (and reading probably thirty or more romances) that I thought, “I could do this.” So I started. I joined Valley Forge Romance Writers and Romance Writers of America. I went to workshops and conferences. And I wrote. And rewrote. Threw out hundreds of pages time and time again. Researched my ass off about the Klondike gold rush, the time period, the fashion, the manner of speaking etc, etc. For fifteen years. Not every day, of course, as I was raising one special needs child and one whirling dervish (we call her Emma). And then I realized the reason I had trouble writing sex scenes was I really should be writing YA. So I wrote a YA, one that still needs work, but I love it, and then another. It was the third book that sold. A book that I rewrote for my agent three times over three years, and then once it sold, twice for the editor. I would say about 30% of the book I sold wasn’t completely changed and rewritten. So I guess having kids turned my “ten years” into twenty.

LLR: What’s your typical writing day? What would you say is your discipline?

ALB: My typical writing day a couple of hours in the afternoon, if life allows it. I wish I had a discipline. When I am on a roll, I write every day but then everything around me falls apart. I am still working on a reasonable writing discipline. Maybe I’ll figure it out before I turn sixty. But that’s probably not likely as sixty is only five years away.

LLR: With Prom Theory, you really snagged the brass ring with a big-five book deal. What’s the genius behind the origin of this book?

AL: The genius behind Prom Theory? Well, I have a now adult child that has Non Verbal Learning Disability. I spent a lot of time trying to understand how they acted, thought, and what they needed to be successful in school and life. They totally knocked school out of the park, unfortunately they are still struggling with life. That said, I also read a ton of popular science stuff, particularly on evolution and neurology. I’m fascinated by all of it. I had been on a run of reading about the evolutionary, physiological and neurobiology of attraction and sexual attraction.

One day, there was Iris, in my head, saying that love was nothing but chemistry, and “I can prove it by getting the track star to ask me to prom.” And that was that. So a lifetime of reading, writing, and living with mental health issues with everyone in my family and BOOM! overnight success with a genius idea.

LLR: What are some things that have really helped you hone your craft?

AL: My other writer friends’ critiques, writing workshops with my fellow genre writers, and of course reading with a critical eye. And writing, writing poorly, and making “newbie” mistakes like “he thought to himself….”

LLR: What’s your take on MFA programs?

AL: That and five bucks will get you a cup of coffee. An MFA program really is a way to give yourself permission to write for three years without society judging you too harshly. I mean, you’re in grad school, that’s admirable and seemingly responsible. But what an MFA does is just give you that time. It doesn’t get you a job, and it doesn’t get you published. Much like your GPA, nobody caress. Did you write a good book that will sell?

LLR: How did you get your agent?

AL: I got my agent by networking for fifteen years. I pitched at every conference, developed relationships with agents and editors through Twitter and social media, hung out at the bar at conferences. Before I got my agent I was on “let’s go to lunch” terms with probably twenty or so agents and editors. (I am a natural networker and have always been. My husband says I network in my sleep.)  I got several of my friends agents long before I got myself one. I really considered becoming an agent for awhile myself since I seemed to know nearly everyone on NYC.  I pitched Prom Theory to the woman who would become my agent at a conference. She was looking for more YA with science in them. She read my unfinished rough draft and pursued me. We worked together on Prom Theory for three years before she signed me. And then she sold Prom Theory in three weeks.

LLR: How did Prom Theory get published?

AL: My wonderful agent worked with me on Prom Theory until she knew it was ready to pitch to editors. She had been talking it up to editors for a couple of years. I would say it sold because of three reasons: her knowledge of the market and what certain editors were looking for, I hit a moment in time when editors were interested in books with neurodiverse characters, and luck.

LLR: What’re your three best tips for aspiring writers?

1. Write as much as you can, when you can.
2. Consider yourself a student of writing (and the writing business/market place) for your entire life and career.
3. Network. Network. Network.

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