I'd like to thank everybody who participated in last month's query contest, both for their great entries and for their patience with me as I took five weeks to cap the thing off. I would have gotten to it sooner, but other deadlines--specifically the ones letting me pay my rent--sort of piled up and I got all wrapped up in the notion of not living in a cardboard box.
But the query contest was actually judged and someone actually won (which took me a bit by surprise, as I didn't expect anyone to actually enter). That person's name is Noelani Spercher.
Noelani agreed to speak with me about her literary loves, her crazy life as an undercover writer masquerading as an ordinary college student, and her intriguing new YA series.
1. You recently completed Etheria, the first book in your The Timekeeper's Daughter series. If you had to give a teaser description of the novel, what would you say?
At the time when most teens are preparing to head off to college, eighteen-year-old Castella DeTyrius is heading off to another world--the first earth, to be precise. Taken away as newborn, Castella never expected to return, but when a series of strange circumstances force her back with the specific purpose of saving her brother, she finds herself in a land torn by magic and impending war that will test her resolve more than she ever thought possible.
The Adowyn and Kurin, two races with strongly conflicting beliefs, struggle to remain united under a king who is slowly losing his mind. And Castella’s brother Jamil, one of the most powerful Kurin Seers, is the only thing keeping a much greater threat at bay.
2. Etheria is a new adult rather than a young adult book. What led you to that choice?
I originally defined the novel as YA, but it never felt quite right, especially as I was writing the second book. Most of my test readers for Etheria were college aged and they kept saying that they saw my book more for their age group, with older protagonists. The protagonist, Castella, was originally supposed to be 16. I tweaked it for this newer genre and it feels more right. I deal with some pretty mature themes and situations later on in the series, which will definitely cater towards the slightly older audience.
3. Your protagonist, Castella, has a complicated relationship with her older brother, Jamil. How central is that to the story? If you peel away the magical setting, do you see elements to Castella and Jamil's dynamic that are especially relatable for those navigating the changes of their college-age years?
The conflict between Jamil and Castella is definitely one of the driving elements in the story. Castella’s original purpose in returning to that world was to save Jamil, but Jamil, as one of the most powerful Seers in the land, doesn’t seem to need saving. They are both good people, but they have fundamentally conflicting viewpoints: she wants to be useful and to be able to make a difference. He is much more aware of the potential danger in that world and wants to keep her safe.
There is also tension because Castella’s mother, Nadina, was considered a traitor--she switched sides before the end of her life, a fact Jamil has never reconciled with.
4. One of the key elements of the manuscript is the concept of the magical substance Etheria. How does that divide the population of this universe? Did you draw on any real-world inspiration when fleshing out the idea?
The Etheria, the magic-sustaining force that spottily covers most of the globe, is seen in two very different lights. Those who can control it, the Kurin Seers, are the most powerful people in the world. For them, the Etheria isn’t just a blessing: it is their means of existence. It allows mind communication, powers their weapons, and even enables transportation. But the Adowyn believe the Etheria is a dark force and they refuse to use it.
This comes to a head when a young Andowyn king ascends the throne.
As for real-world inspiration, I tend to think of instances in history when two conflicting religious or political groups have caused a lot of chaos and bloodshed. I could be more specific than that, but I’d have to give away plot spoilers.
5. You're a young writer but have already completed your first book. Tell us a little bit about where you are in life right now and what your literary inspirations have been.
I’m finishing up my senior year at Bethel University in St. Paul. It’s been really interesting juggling my life as a student and my secret life as a fantasy writer. It definitely involves sacrifice and commitment (read: late nights and plenty of coffee). I’ve been able to do a lot of writing and editing during the summers, but I wrote almost the entire second book in the series during my junior year at college. I worked on it late at night, in between doing my homework and juggling my four part-time jobs.
But the story hooked me, so I didn’t mind. More often than not, during classes my notes were not about what the professor was saying, but about my book.
Sometimes I feel like a spy or a super-hero with dual identities!
As for inspiration, I’ve always been a big reader. I read a lot of the classics while growing up. Gone with the Wind and The Count of Monte Cristo are some of my favorites. I also love the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games, and anything and everything written by Clare Cassandra (like The Mortal Instruments series).
6. You wrote a pretty big book pretty quickly. How'd you do it?
Etheria is about 138,000 words. My first draft was closer to 115,000 and I wrote it, from start to finish, in one month. The only reason that I was able to do this was because I had spent three years planning the series and, by that time, I had over 60,000 words of handwritten and typed notes. Everything was there: the characters, setting, and the basic storyline. I just had to put it on paper. It helped that I had some extra time in the summer. Sometimes I wrote eight hours in one day.
My writing style is also a little unusual. I tend to fly through the first draft with little or no editing, just focused on getting my ideas out. I build up momentum and, by the time I’m finished with it, it’s usually a mess. But at that point, I think, "Well, it’s done--I might as well edit." So I do. I edit, and edit, and edit. And then sometimes it is readable enough for me to share it with someone else.
7. What has been most helpful to you in terms of refining this project? What do you think is critical for any writer as they perfect their manuscript?
I honestly don’t know what I would do without my informal writing group, composed of family members and writing friends. My sister, who has her BA in creative writing, has given me invaluable feedback throughout the entire process. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get feedback from people--honest feedback. It’s critical to any writer’s success. It’s hard as a writer to take advice sometimes--but DO IT. Your manuscript will be better as a result. Other readers will always see the things that you can’t see.
I’ve also read quite a few good books on writing and editing. And a basic understanding of grammar is imperative to any writer. Know your English. Part of what it really boils down to, though, is work. Perfecting a manuscript can be the hardest part of writing. It’s usually the part I enjoy the least, but I do it because I know the finished product will be better.
8. And, of course, your entry in the query contest was quite nice! Do you have practice in this area? Have any agents gotten to see Etheria yet?
The only practice that I’ve had with queries was the one I created for Etheria. I’ve gone through a few drafts of it at this point. My first query was absolutely terrible! But I’ve gotten better since then. So far I’ve sent queries to about twenty agents. I haven’t found anybody interested yet, but I’ve recently revamped my query letter and hopefully that will help.
Check out Noelani's fun blog to read her winning entry and keep up on her adventures in authordom!