new book deal! and where it came from

I am delighted to announce that I have sold another novel! My middle grade fantasy novel CITY OF ISLANDS has been picked up by my fantastic editor Alex Arnold at Katherine Tegen Books. 

Here is the announcement from Publishers' Marketplace:

Author of the forthcoming SHALLOW GRAVES Kali Wallace's CITY OF ISLANDS, a fantasy set in an archipelago of peculiar islands where a diving girl discovers bones on the ocean floor from creatures—and magic—that shouldn't exist, to Alex Arnold at Katherine Tegen Books, in an exclusive submission, by Adriann Ranta at Foundry Literary + Media (NA).

Here is a fun fact, appropriate for an early December announcement: CITY OF ISLANDS was a NaNoWriMo novel.

But don't get too excited, people who just finished NaNoWriMo and have a shiny new manuscript in hand. CITY OF ISLANDS was in fact it was a NaNoWriMo novel twice, from two different Novembers three years apart, the most recent of which was 2013. This novel has been a work-in-progress for a long time.

I first started it in November of 2010. I finished 50,000 words in 22 days, then I stopped. I didn't stop because the story was finished, but because it was really bad and I had no idea what I was doing and I didn't like it anyway. I didn't want to abandon it, so a few months later I rewrote it. Another few months passed and I rewrote it again. I still didn't like it.

In 2010 and 2011 I was still pretty much a pile of smug weasels in a trench coat masquerading as a Serious Writer, but I did have enough self-awareness to see that none of my rewrites were making it better. So I gave up on it. Sort of. I set it aside, at least. I had other stories to write, and these were stories I was having a lot more fun with. One of them was the one that eventually turned into the novel that would get me my agent a few years later.

But that magical island city never really went away. It kept lurking around the dark corners of my mind like a shark. Even though I barely had any sense at all of what I wanted that book to be, there is obviously something I loved about that drivel I had NaNoWriMo-ed in 2010. It wasn't the story. It sure as hell wasn't the characters. Were there even any characters? I didn't even think about characters until I was about ten thousand words into the first draft. (It really is that bad.)

Looking back, it's obvious what I couldn't let go. It was the setting. I was madly in love with that setting I had invented. I wasn't ready to abandon it just because I hadn't found the right story for it yet.

This isn't unusual for me; I am a very setting-oriented writer, because I am a very setting-oriented person. Place is important to me: how it looks, how it smells, how it feels, the personality and memory it carries, all of it. That's why I spent ten years of my life studying the earth--the number one place we have, you know, all around us, every day, whether or not you care to notice it or know anything about it.

And that's why I spent so many tens of thousands of words of that first NaNo attempt at CITY OF ISLANDS describing the setting of an imaginary city that existed only in my mind, and only tried to make a story happen as an afterthought.

I wanted to go back there. I wanted to make it work. I wanted to make it work this time with the things that are necessary for a novel: the best possible characters, the best possible story. So instead of feeling like I had wasted all that initial effort, I started to think of it as practice. I had just been feeling may way around. I would figure it out eventually.

By November of 2013, I had more or less figured out how to write a whole novel with a plot and characters and stuff. I think I had three complete (if not polished) manuscripts under my belt at that point. I knew I could finish it, and maybe even come out with something I didn't want to burn to the ground. I knew I could get somewhere, if I let myself tell get to know the characters and tell their story. So when I got to work on November 1 in 2013 I just let myself tell a story.

I finished it really fast. I mean. Dude. So fast. 15 days for 50,000+ words.

Now, it was a complete story, but it wasn't good. It was terrible. I absolutely did not fire it off to an agent or publisher the very next day. I would never in a million years make anybody read a novel I had written in two weeks. I sat on it for about a year without even looking at it--I was working on other novels in the meantime--then I got to work revising it from beginning to end. I spent about six months going through seven or eight major revisions, both before my agent saw it and after.

But what I came up with on my second NaNo try at it was more or less the story that CITY OF ISLANDS is now. A story about a girl, a magical city, and a lot of fish.

So the lessons I have to offer from getting a book deal a NaNoWriMo novel are this:

1. Just because you have 50,000 words of garbage that goes nowhere and has no point and is in fact mostly about describing the smell of dead fish, that doesn't mean there isn't something in there worth loving and hanging onto. Give it time. Eventually you'll figure out what you want to keep.

2. But just because you have 50,000 words doesn't mean you have to hang onto those 50,000 words as though they are precious jewels. You can set them aside and try again. You don't even have to delete them; just put them in a file called MAYBE LATER and open a new file. You can do this again and again and again. And again. As many tries as it takes.

3. If you still love the idea for a story you tried and failed to write years ago, you can write it again. There is no statute of limitations on the stuff knocking around in your brain. If you have been writing, and if you have been reading, you have also been learning. You can do it better this time.