I spoke with author E.M. Caines, writing as Ella Martin about her writing process, her agent, and her debut novel. Be sure to follow her on Twitter because she’s easy to talk to and supportive of other writers.
What inspired you to write your first book?
A few years ago, my sister gave me a shiny new Kindle for Christmas, and I went on a mad reading binge. I read everything I could get my hands on. I was so removed from the publishing world that I was truly exploring books as a reader, and there were a lot of books that made me think, “Oh, I can write at least as well as this.” I had some ideas and noodled them, and my aunt really encouraged me to put them down on paper. So when NaNoWriMo rolled around in 2012, I decided to try it. I mean, 50,000 words in a month—how hard can it be? (Answer: Very hard.) So I set out to explore what would happen if Snow White was in high school and Prince Charming was anything but. Would she wind up with one of the dwarves? And how would I write the dwarves if it was a contemporary YA without any magic? Will the Real Prince Charming Please Stand Up? was born out of those questions. Of course, I didn’t know anything about YA or contemporary or anything else. I just knew I wanted to write this story.
Do you have a specific writing style?
Would I sound like an idiot if I say I don’t even know what this means? [smiles sheepishly] I guess my writing style is conversational, if you have to put a label on it. I write like I talk, so writing in first person was my obvious first choice. But I have a couple of WIPs written in third person limited now. I thought I would struggle with them, but it’s interesting to see how there’s not a ton of difference.
How did you come up with the title?
I love my title. I really hope I don’t get asked to change it because I would be very sad. A number of people told me it reminds me of Eminem and “The Real Slim Shady,” which was kind of the idea. The phrase really originated with the old game show To Tell the Truth, but not a lot of people would immediately think of that. So, sure. I’ll credit Eminem. [smirks]
On another note, though, I really love the titles for all of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series. They’re all slight takes on well-known phrases—and also really long titles—so I was largely inspired by those, too.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I never considered this while I was writing, but one of my Alpha Readers (that’s how I refer to early readers who are gluttons for punishment and are willing to read through multiple revisions) pulled out a random quote she loved: “You deserve a lot better than ‘not that bad.’” The funny thing about that line, of course, is that it was essentially a throwaway piece of dialogue that I had every intention of changing, but it was so well-received that I kept it.
So, yeah, I guess the real underlying theme is that you deserve better. But that’s something I don’t think most girls learn until they get a bit older, and some don’t ever learn it at all.
How much of the book is realistic?
I call myself a prep school survivor, so I lived in a different world than many of my peers. (Read: I lived a very sheltered life surrounded by the rich and the beautiful.) Within that context, I think it’s pretty realistic. I mean, I write YA contemporary. It ought to be realistic. Now, admittedly, some of my supporting characters are a bit larger than life, but as they are largely amalgams of people I either knew from school or had the, uh, experience of working with, I tried to keep everything as real as I could.
Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
I’m sure some of what I’ve written was based in part on people I know, but in writing these characters, they’ve all kind of become their own persons. Like, I initially modeled the main character, Bianca, and her relationship with her brother Brady on a girl from my high school and her brother, but it ended up being so far removed from reality. And I think that’s kind of the key to writing characters based on people you know. You never really know what’s going on in their lives or what their thoughts of or relationships with others are truly like. That’s when imagination comes into play, and more often than not, I’ve idealized things so much that I’m way off the mark.
What books have most influenced your life most?
I feel like everyone and their mother would cite this novel, but The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was a game-changer in my life. I read it the summer before fourth grade, and it was like, “Wow.” When my sister told me S.E. Hinton was only 16 when she wrote it, I decided I was going to become a novelist, too. Interestingly, it took 30 years before I actually finished a novel, but that was the book that made me say, “You know, I could totally do this.”
After high school, I read romance novels almost exclusively for a few years, partially because I enjoyed them, but also to analyze the craft. So I read everything I could get my hands on by Jayne Ann Krentz, though my favorite works of hers were under the pseudonym Amanda Quick. And it was amazing because that’s when I started recognizing patterns in how each story unfolded.
But I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Sweet Valley High series. These books were my first introduction to pulp literature, if you will. And I’m not ashamed to say I honed my craft as a kid writing SVH fan fiction, though I had no idea it was called that at the time. It was a great exercise in taking developed characters and dropping them into random situations.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
If by “mentor” you mean a writer with whom I’m in constant contact and frequently turn to about craft and whatnot, that’s easy: L.S. Murphy. I’ll be honest: I’d never heard of her until I signed with Julia A. Weber, who also happens to represent her. L.S. Murphy (or “Ellis” as I like to call her for fun) released Reaper not long before I signed with Julia, and it was such a great read. As agent sisters, we had some commonalities, but it wasn’t until we met in person and really started to talk to each other that we realized we’re actually clones.
But if by “mentor” you mean a writer whose Twitter feed and blog inspire me to push myself as a writer, I’d say it’s a toss-up between Chuck Wendig and John Scalzi. Dear God, those men are insightful, amazing writers and funny as all get out. I mean, honestly, I want Chuck Wendig to come to Orlando just so I can present him with a bourbon offering and fangirl over him for a few moments. Not that I’m super crazy or anything. [shifty eyes]
What book are you reading now?
It’s impossible to keep up with all the amazing books out there, even as quickly as I read. The pile of unread books in my reading nook is threatening to topple over. Well, that’s not totally true, but it feels like it. I’ve been wanting to tackle Troy High by Shana Norris because it’s a YA contemporary retelling of The Iliad. How awesome is that premise? But I’ve also got Gail Carriger’s Curtsies and Conspiracies staring at me from my Kindle, and my sister gifted me a hardcover set of Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles this Christmas. And I’ve also resolved to read at least one classic book a month, so I just finished H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.
But what is actually open on my Kindle and/or bookmarked and on my shelf? Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I’m reading it to my 6-year-old son.
Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
There’s one author on the 2014 debut list whose work I really want to read: Adi Alsaid. He’s got a book coming out in August from Harlequin Teen called Let’s Get Lost, and I’m dying to read it. It just sounds so amazing. And based on my (limited) interactions with him on Twitter, he’s such an sweet, down-to-earth guy. I’m really looking forward to reading this.
What are your current projects?
I have a couple of works in progress right now. I wish I could say they’re all in various stages of completion, but they’re not. The only worse thing than wondering if anyone will ever want to you’re your work is having people anxious to read your work. [hangs head in shame]
The story I’ve been
working on struggling with for more than a year is a Sleeping Beauty retelling called I Love Him, I Love Him Not. In my version, sleep and the briars locking out the prince are all metaphors for the walls the main character, Talia, puts up to protect herself from getting hurt. She did something pretty gutsy when she was about 10 and is really skittish about guys as romantic interests. But she’s got to face her demons and metaphorically wake herself up, because Prince Charming can’t do it for her.
My (unfinished) 2013 NaNoWriMo novel called How to Ask a Girl to Homecoming is a gender-flipped Beauty and the Beast featuring a girl with Type 1 Diabetes that takes place in a whole different world than WTRPCPSU and ILHILHN. It’s still a contemporary YA novel, but it has a different feel than the other two.
And last is what I refer to as The Unnamed. That’s a super-secret project only L.S. Murphy and our agent have any details on, mainly because I’m terrified I can’t pull it off. We’ll see.
Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
This is easy. I’m part of a writing group in Central Florida that was formed out of a local group of NaNoWriMo participants. We named ourselves Central Florida Inklings, as a nod to the original Inklings from Oxford. We’re nowhere near their caliber, but the Central Florida Inklings are a great group of people who have been incredibly supportive.
And, of course, there’s Team Weber, a.k.a, all of Julia’s other clients. We’re a pretty close-knit crew. I couldn’t imagine better agent sisters.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
You mean something original? No. But Ray Bradbury is credited for once saying, “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance,” and I fully believe this. In fact, I get nervous when I send my work to beta readers and they don’t have anything bad to say. I wonder if they really read it.
What’s all your social media links to share with readers?
I’m most active on Twitter (@EMCaines) and occasionally post random thoughts on my blog (NeverWordless.wordpress.com). I also have a writing column called Plays with Words in YA Interrobang (YAInterrobang.com), a bi-weekly magazine dedicated to all things YA. I don’t do a whole lot with Facebook, though I have an author page. A part of me feels I should do something with it, but it also feels like a lot of work for very little in return. [shrugs] I have books to write.
Who is your agent?
I’m represented by Julia A. Weber of J.A. Weber Literaturagentur. She’s fantastic. If you write contemporary YA, MG, or Women’s Lit, I highly recommend checking out her website to see what she’s looking for. She’s wonderful.
How did you meet your agent?
I learned about her online. I wish I could find the exact interview I read, but in it, she said she loved romance and fairy tales and was looking for well-written contemporary YA manuscripts. That described my novel in a nutshell, so I put her at the top of my list of agents to query when I felt I was ready. But then I stumbled upon #PitMad, a Twitter pitch party hosted by author Brenda Drake, and Julia was one of the agents who requested it. I still remember seeing the notification that she marked it as a favorite. I stopped breathing for a few seconds, ran into my friend’s office, closed the door, and tried really hard to explain what was happening without screaming.
What’s your agent phone call story?
The Call from Julia was actually The E-mail. And I did everything you’re not supposed to do. I didn’t call her other clients (though she offered), I didn’t take any time to think about it (though she offered), and I didn’t behave like a normal writer ought. I did, however, ask eleventy billion questions when I Skyped with her (though the camera wasn’t working on my laptop), so I did something right. But she’s so sweet, incredibly sharp, and it almost felt like she knew my manuscript better than I did. So I don’t regret trusting my gut and skipping the vetting process because it worked out for me. But I wouldn’t recommend it.