AJ Sass – #WriteMentor Success Stories
I'm humbled Jordan saw promise in my writing and can't wait to dive (glide?) into edits on my queer ice skating story ⛸️🏳️🌈 Love & gratitude to the kidlit community, esp. my CPs & #WriteMentor.
— A.J. Sass ⛸ (@matokah) October 20, 2018
AJ, what about Caroline’s bio convinced you to sub to her?
So many things. Caroline is a writer of an award-winning contemporary Middle Grade manuscript, for one. Since my #WriteMentor submission was my first attempt at Middle Grade-anything, her experience in that age category was a big plus to this newbie novelist. Her stated mentoring style—forthright about what doesn’t work, offset by positive comments about what does—appealed to me as someone who is shy about sharing my writing. It also didn’t hurt that she’d mentioned she is the mother of four boys. If anyone could assess whether my characters’ dialogue was coming off as authentic, I figured it’d be Caroline.
Initially, Caroline was offering a query package (synopsis, query letter, and first three chapters), which I thought would be a great way to get more comfortable with having my writing critiqued. Imagine my surprise on announcement day when I learned Caroline had not only chosen me but changed her mentoring package to a full manuscript review until it was query-ready. It was an intense summer of revisions and craft homework, but I’m so grateful for the experience.
Caroline, what made you fall in love with ANA ON THE EDGE?
From the first few lines, I was centre ice with Ana. AJ pulled me into Ana’s world of ice-skating and pushed me back into books I loved in my childhood, like Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes, where the reader gets a glimpse into the passion and dedication that a rising star must possess. The writing was beautiful – quite simple and stark at times, but rhythmic and with some exquisite turns of phrase. I almost dissuaded myself from choosing it, because I wasn’t sure I was the right person for a story about a young girl exploring her gender identity; but I decided that I could mentor on the story structure and pacing and even down to a line-edit level. The truth of the story felt very valid to me, so I didn’t need to even comment on that.
AJ, looking back, what was your favorite part of the #WriteMentor experience?
Two things: a dedicated point-person I could reach out to whenever I had questions, concerns, or frustrations and the community I became a part of as a result of my participation in the program.
First, Caroline has been where I was at the beginning of #WriteMentor. She understood what it was like to stare at tens of thousands of words in a first draft, wondering how you can possibly rework them into something coherent. I had some ideas for revising certain parts of my manuscript already, which I shared with Caroline early on. Maybe I could’ve revised fine on my own, but the process definitely would’ve taken longer and been filled with more self-doubt. Caroline was the sounding board I needed, someone I could turn to and bounce ideas off of to ensure sure I was headed in the right direction. Working with a more experienced writer who was invested in my success gave me the confidence to see the potential in my manuscript so I could effectively apply edits.
Second, writing can be such a solitary, isolating activity. I know very few people offline who write fiction, and it can sometimes feel like I exist in a vacuum. #WriteMentor introduced me to a wonderful group of mentorship program hopefuls right from the outset. I’ve stayed in touch with many of these writers over the summer, as well as taken the leap into being a more active member of Twitter’s writing community. Everyone is at a different stage in their writing journey, but the community is steadfast in its positivity and support. I may not have gotten as involved if it hadn’t been for #WriteMentor and other writers’ use of the program’s Twitter hashtag on the lead-up to the mentee announcements, throughout the summer, and ongoing as we gear up for the Children’s Novel Award.
And a bonus third: I love that the #WriteMentor community is inclusive. Whether you worked with a mentor this summer or didn’t, or maybe just heard about the program more recently, you’re welcomed into the fold and encouraged to support everyone else.
Caroline, tell us what it was like working with AJ.
He was amazing. You know that star pupil who sits in the front row and asks pertinent questions and always does their homework – that was AJ. His work ethic is impeccable. Puts me to shame, quite frankly.
AJ, what was the most surprising part of the #WriteMentor experience?
I thought it was going to be revisions since I’d never done any on a full manuscript before, but it was actually how much prep-work Caroline assigned prior to giving me the go-ahead to revise. At first, it was hard not to compare my progress with other mentees who seemed to have leapt straight into revisions within hours of the mentee announcement. I wanted that to be me too, especially because I’d already taken notes about how to rework the first third of my novel while I waited to see who’d been chosen for the program. (I also don’t think I ever voiced this frustration to my mentor, so sorry if you’re hearing about this for the first time, Caroline! By the time I got comfortable enough in our mentor-mentee relationship to say something, it became a moot point as I’d already seen the light.)
That said, I also recognized that I was the green one in this pairing, and my initial skepticism didn’t stop me from working my way through each and every assignment. I completed work on theme to get to the heart of my story, devised novel loglines which later came in handy for Twitter pitch contests, fleshed out secondary character backgrounds, and completed thirty pages of detailed scene beats. Caroline even suggested I create a color-coded chart of major character arcs. I am neither an artist nor a particularly visual person, but I did my best. It came out looking like a literary subway map (also had my boyfriend wondering if I’d gone a bit mad after I proudly propped it up by the wall beside my writing desk).
I finally understood Caroline’s reasoning for assigning me all that homework when she gave me the go-ahead to start revising in mid-July. I printed out each assignment and referred back to my notes every single time I sat down to make changes. Even when I had to go off-script and make edits I hadn’t initially envisioned, they were so much simpler to implement when I had my homework in front of me. Caroline’s assignments allowed me to dig deeper, to learn more about my story and characters, something I hadn’t had the time to do while I was initially drafting my story. These are strategies I can take with me and make use of for future projects, so I’m glad I put the work in and stuck with Caroline’s style of mentorship for the long haul.
AJ, the revision process is only three months and can be intense. Tell us about your revisions and how you dealt with constructive criticism from Caroline.What advice do you have for future mentees?
My traditional revisions didn’t start until around the seventh week of a twelve-week program. Intense, indeed! I also happened to be out of the country for two weeks during that time. Caroline and I operated differently than some of the other mentorship partnerships I’ve heard about, in that we chatted back and forth about some of my revision ideas but she told me to sit tight until I’d completed my homework. Once I had the go-ahead, I started my revisions. The first half of my manuscript was relatively straightforward since I’d been thinking about how to rework a secondary plot point for two months by then.
It was the second half of the story that involved the most teeth gnashing for me. Possibly, this was because I was revising while traveling (and trying to remind myself I needed to chill out since it was meant to be a holiday!), but it may also have been because the second half of my story was rougher than the first. It was still in first draft format at the time I applied to #WriteMentor.
Since I was still revising in the month leading up to the end of the program, I would send Caroline a handful of chapters at a time to look at. She’d pass back feedback that I’d review whenever I needed a break from heavier rewrites. Caroline’s notes were on-point and helped me in a variety of areas: reworking dialogue to make it sound more authentic, clarifying skating terms that might not make sense to a non-skater, suggesting add-ons to flesh out scenes that ended too abruptly, and some straight-up line edits when I’d flubbed something that my word processor didn’t catch (compliment ≠complement!). For the most part, her feedback involved enhancements. My homework took care of the need for more extensive rewrites by the time I sent Caroline my chapters.
Until the final third of my story, anyway. That’s when Caroline rolled up her sleeves and sent me back loads of notes that basically boiled down to, “okay, so. This part? Doesn’t work.”
As someone who was already shy about sharing my writing with others, feedback of this nature can be devastating, even if it’s presented in a constructive way. My face gets hot. Self-doubt sets in fast. It’s easy to forget why I sought out a mentor in the first place.
I’ve worked with beta readers and critique partners. I know constructive criticism is meant to make my story stronger. But still, my first read-through of this type of feedback tends to lead to an initially negative reaction.
My advice to other writers is this: embrace it. Own that emotion, acknowledge how you’re feeling, and step away for as long as you need to mull over the feedback received. For me, this usually takes a day. Possibly two. During that time, I won’t return to look at it. I also won’t reread my manuscript. I do other, non-writing related activities but keep the feedback in mind, mentally working through it. Nine times out of ten, I have a gut feeling as to whether or not I agree with what was said. Once I’ve had time to process, I grab a sheet of paper and scribble down a plan of attack. Only then do I return to my computer and dig in for more revision.
And Caroline’s feedback? The part of my manuscript she didn’t think was working? She was right. It just took me some time to realize that she wasn’t telling me I’d failed as a writer. She did her job in pointing out that my story’s climax could be stronger. By the time the mentorship period came to an end, the story I’d submitted three months earlier was still there, but it was far more polished. Where before it was just a mesh of words and scenes that didn’t quite get to the crux of my intended theme, the characters now feel alive to me.
Even better? My mentorship with Caroline equipped me with the ability to accept and evaluate constructive feedback, a skill I’ll be able to use again and again as I take my next steps and begin edits with my agent (and hopefully one day with a publishing house editor).
AJ, after #WriteMentor, you signed with Jordan Hamessley of New Leaf Literary. Give us all the details of “The Call.”
Sure! Except it wasn’t actually a call, and thanks to a major oversight on my part I almost didn’t query Jordan at all.
You know those non-writing related activities I mentioned above? One of them involved researching and creating a handwritten list of dream agents to query once my manuscript was polished. Later on, once the #WriteMentor program was done, I transferred the agent info to a color-coded spreadsheet so I could keep track of the queries I planned to send. Jordan’s name was on my initial list, but it never got transferred to its digital equivalent.
About a week and a half after I started querying (just about the time when I’d started fixating on how empty my inbox was looking, incidentally), I returned to my original list to update it. There was no reason for me to do this since everything was already in my spreadsheet, but the querying process induces the desire to do odd, unproductive tasks to pass time. As I scanned the original list, my eyes snagged on the entry I’d written for Jordan. I didn’t remember anything about my query package to her, so I cross-checked my spreadsheet, only to discover she wasn’t on it.
I did some internet sleuthing to confirm that she still did in fact take on manuscripts in my preferred age categories and genres, spent a good deal of time fawning over her #MSWL entries and kicking myself for my flub-up, then sent her my query materials. A few hours later, Jordan requested my full manuscript. A couple days after that, she emailed again, saying she’d love to find a time to chat about my story and writing goals. Since we live relatively close to one another, she said we could even meet in person.
In the end, “The Call” became a meet-up at a café inside a bookstore, and I can’t imagine a more perfect setting to discuss all things writing. I learned more about Jordan’s background and what led her from a decade on the editorial side of publishing to now representing authors directly as an agent. We discussed my manuscript, plus my ideas for future projects, I asked approximately 4 frajillion questions, and after a wonderful chat, Jordan officially offered representation. I’m still glowing about it.
What does your writing process look like?
AJ– I like prompts, those given to me and ones I come up with myself. Often, I get a character or a concept in my head that I fall in love with. As a long-time pantser, I used to take that idea and run with it, which often had me writing myself into a corner.
My approach for ANA ON THE EDGE was different. While I still started with a concept I found compelling (nationally competitive ice skater navigates gender identity in a rigidly gendered sport), I only got two chapters in before I stopped and decided to outline. So often in the past I’ve gotten stuck when whatever character or theme initially drew me in turned out to be a plotless dead-end. I didn’t want the same to happen with ANA, so I took time to ensure I had a roadmap. That made all the difference. Then I wrote like the wind so I’d have something to edit (my favorite part).
Was my first draft perfect? Not by a long shot. But it was far easier to identify what needed to be reworked when I knew where I wanted to end up by the final page.
It also helps to give myself a deadline. This is probably a throwback from my university and law school days, but I’m far more productive when I feel like there’s an expectation to have something complete by a specific date. I’m a big fan of daily checklists and spreadsheets. Once I’d outlined ANA, I created a spreadsheet with each chapter down one column, their start and first draft completion dates in the next two, plus word counts and the approximate percentage of overall manuscript completion. It definitely helped to see my progress laid out like that.
Caroline– Am I supposed to have a process? Okay, after hours/weeks/months of procrastination, I’ll make a few notes and start writing chapter one. I’m very linear – I don’t like dotting about and doing exciting climax scenes and then going back to find everything before makes no sense. After the first chapter, I usually realize I’m floundering and will go back and plot – I’m a big fan of Blake Snyder’s Beats Sheet. The Plotstormers course from WritersHQ www.writershq.co.ukis also hugely beneficial and brings clarity to some pretty muddy waters.
I edit a lot as I write. I know it’s frowned upon, but I don’t like the ‘zero draft’, ‘throw anything on the page’ idea. My first draft is usually quite polished as I re-read and make changes as I go along – even line edits that I know might be a waste of time later on. But I feel uncomfortable leaving detritus in my wake, so to speak.
Having said that, THE TRUTH ABOUT CHICKENS nearly doubled in lengths during revisions as I added layers and subplots and amplified emotions. So maybe it was a half-draft, rather than a zero draft?
You’re on deadline! What are your go-to writing snacks?
AJ– Boba Thai tea makes my life better. Always. I’m also a big fan of popcorn and brownie brittle (not necessarily in the same sitting!).
Caroline– ooh, what does Marks & Spencer have on the shelves? Salted caramel and Belgian chocolate popcorn is never a bad idea. And cheesy, salty things. Any kind of crackers with cheese. And more cheese. Yum!
What fictional world would you most like to live in?
AJ– Time City from Diana Wynne Jones’s A TALE OF TIME CITY would be a pretty awesome place to call home (after the events in the book, anyway!). It’s a city built far in the future on a patch of space outside of time itself. Its residents oversee all of history. I can think of no place cooler to live than a city full of time ghosts, where vending machines carry cuisine from various centuries and there’s ample opportunity to meet tourists visiting from other time periods.
Caroline– most fictional worlds are dangerous, so I’d steer clear, personally. I’m a risk-averse homebody. But when I was little, I desperately wanted to be in the Lake District with the crew from SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS, living their slightly feral, benignly neglected lifestyle. And I wouldn’t have minded experiencing the miniature world of THE BORROWERS – I loved their ingenious use of found items. But right now, the fictional world I would like to live in is one in which my sons pick their dirty socks off the floor and put them in the laundry basket.
What is your favorite book (or series). Why?
AJ– I … am incapable of picking just one. By and large, the books I love most, the ones that I repeatedly reread, are those that made me feel something when I was a kid and that continue to invoke an emotional response as an adult. Excitement. Hope. Fear. Grief. It doesn’t matter. If a story has the ability to draw me in, it’s a winner.
Some examples: THE GIVER – Lois Lowry; ONE MORE RIVER & BROKEN BRIDGE – Lynne Reid Banks; A TIME FOR DANCING – Davida Wills Hurwin; THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC – Jane Yolen; MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH series – Robert C. O’Brien; DOGSBODY – Diana Wynne Jones; TUCK EVERLASTING – Natalie Babbitt.
Caroline– I agree with AJ. Impossible to pick just one. I always come back to LITTLE WOMEN for the familial warmth and emotional trauma. I will never not be heartbroken by Beth’s death. Middle-grade favourites include CRENSHAW – Katherine Applegate, THE WOLF WILDER – Katherine Rundell; THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET – Brian Selznick; SEE YOU IN THE COSMOS – Jack Cheng; GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM – Michelle Magorian. The last one, for example, is flawed in many ways, but as I had tears in my eyes so many times, I know it will stay with me for a long time.
Where does your inspiration come from?
AJ– I answered this a little already when I described my writing process. What it comes down to for me is a desire to produce books that would’ve made me feel seen as a child or teen. I want to write stories my past self would’ve read multiple times, plus characters I would’ve wanted to be friends with. I read a lot as a kid, but rarely did I ever see characters like myself in print. I want more queer and neurodiverse representation in children’s literature, not just in traditional ‘issues’ books but in all genres of kidlit. I want autistic and queer characters just living their lives on the pages of stories that sometimes, but don’t always, relate to their identities. That’s my goal and it’s often what inspires me when I decide to put in the time to turn an inkling of an idea into a full-fledged story.
Caroline– my book that is out on submission, THE TRUTH ABOUT CHICKENS, was inspired by a magazine article about a man who, having been abused as a child, adopted ex-battery hens. Caring for those birds turned his life around. I loved the idea of ‘a boy and his chickens’ story, instead of ‘a boy and his dog’. I have another work in progress that was inspired by the total eclipse of the sun in 2017. And another that is very loosely based on my sons’ expat lifestyle. And I also write flash fiction, which can be inspired by anything – a day out with family, a throwaway comment from a child, distant memories, half-forgotten dreams…
AJ Sass is a fiction-writing figure skater, inclined toward adventures of a traveling nature. He is autistic, non-binary, and keen on exploring how gender identity and neurodiversity impact character narratives. An avid figure skater, AJ is a U.S. Figure Skating double gold medalist in Moves and Free Skate, a silver medalist in Ice Dance, and a member of the 2018 national bronze medalist Masters synchronized skating team, IceSymmetrics. AJ grew up in the Midwest, came of age in the South, and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his boyfriend and two cats who act like dogs.
Caroline Murphy is a former magazine editor and freelance journalist, specialising in design and home interiors. She moved from the UK to Singapore in 2004, followed by Hong Kong in 2006, and returned to the North-East of England in 2017, with a husband and four young boys in tow. She is now a full-time mother and part-time writer. Her middle-grade novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT CHICKENS, was shortlisted for the Joan Aiken Future Classics Award, and has just gone out on submission.