Please Welcome Karen Sandler to the World of YA!

Today we welcome author Karen Sandler, whose debut YA novel, TANKBORN, is coming September 2011 from Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low. Karen has several published romance novels under her belt, and has now turned her hand to young adult fiction.

There's a great synopsis of TANKBORN on her website, but here's a little blurb about her book to get us started:
When best friends Kayla and Mishalla, genetically engineered slaves on the planet Loka, develop friendships with higher-status boys, they discover a shocking, evil plot that leads them all to begin to question the strict caste system of their world.

ARJ: Tell me a little about the world building you did for Tankborn: how the society and classes relate to each other, how roles are assigned, and so on. Were there any specific, real-world events that prompted you to write on these themes?

KS: Back in the ‘70s, in my first job (I worked on the Space Shuttle project), I worked with a man from India who became a good friend. He shared stories about Indian society and the caste system, and my fascination for that culture embedded itself in the back of my mind for years. Later, in the mid-‘80s, I became intrigued by genetic engineering, back when the concept was nothing more than science fiction. I first came up with the idea of genetically engineered slaves when I took a class on writing movie scripts and wrote a screenplay called Icer. A few years ago, I started thinking about how I could use some of the ideas from Icer to write a young adult book. Somehow, those two fascinations, for the Indian caste system and for genetic engineering, dovetailed in TANKBORN.

The world-building came about in stages. I’d created the “castes” in TANKBORN without fully fleshing out how that stratified society came to be. Later, during the editing process, my editor, Stacy Whitman, pushed me to develop a more integral understanding of my own world. In the process, I set up the history, politics, and religion on Loka, as well as its geography and flora and fauna.

ARJ:Prior to Tankborn, you wrote and published several romances. Did your romance writing skills translate directly, or were there some aspects of writing that you discovered are unique to the YA genre?

I strongly feel that writing romance (particularly the category or series romances I wrote)is an excellent training ground for developing good characterization skills. The stories are very character-driven, and internal conflicts are key to a satisfying romance read. I love science fiction, but it’s sometimes a disappointment when depth of characterization is given short shrift in an SF story. That is one of the most gratifying aspects of great YA—stellar characterization.

Knowing how to build a romantic relationship in a novel was also a helpful skill while writing TANKBORN. The romance element can be an effective way to connect emotionally with the YA reader (although not all readers of YA appreciate romance in their stories).

I did struggle with the language, the word choice while writing my first YA. After a while, I just wrote, getting into the characters’ heads and writing them accordingly. I also read widely in YA. I have a lot of catching up to do.

ARJ: You did not have the typical road to finding an agent--please tell us a little about that, and why it worked so well for you. Are there lessons that other writers trying to break into the YA market can take from your experience?

KS: Hmm. I’m not sure what was atypical about my search. I probably had a bit of a leg up having already been published and having been previously represented. I’d only left my previous agent because although her agency was just getting into YA, my agent didn’t feel she could represent SF.

But I did what most people do—I sent out a raft-load of query letters. For the most part, I used Agent Query to find potential agents. First, I used their search feature to find agents who represented SF/F and YA. Next, I went to those agents’ websites for further information. Although Agent Query was a great resource, sometimes what was in their database didn’t match what was on the actual website. Accurate information is a must in an agent search.

If after checking the agency website it still seemed like TANKBORN was a good fit, I’d follow their requirements to the letter. That is, if they wanted just a query by mail, that’s what I sent (luckily most want e-mail queries). If they wanted pages too, I sent what they requested.

I kept track of my submissions in a Word table. As a former software engineer, I love tables and keeping things orderly. For a sample of the table that Karen used to keep track of her agent submissions, go to her website and use the contact form to contact her.

I sent out queries to 28 agencies. Of those 28, all but two passed. Some of those were agents who never got back to me one way or another. I sent my first query in mid-October 2009 and got two offers for representation in late February 2010, so the whole process took four months. That seems fairly quick to me.

ARJ: What do you read for pleasure? And do you have any favorite YA authors and books you'd like to mention?

KS: As I mentioned above, I’ve been reading a ton of YA and middle grade books to “catch up.” For instance, I just finished HUNGER GAMES a week or so ago (which was fantastic). I’ve really enjoyed the UGLIES series and think Scott Westerfeld is a rock star. I also loved MATCHED by Ally Condie (my only disappointment was that the next book doesn’t come out until November!). MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine was wonderful, as was RULES by Cynthia Lord (I heard Cynthia speak at an SCBWI conference and she had me in tears). On the non-YA front, ROOM by Emma Donoghue was just incredible (actually, I can imagine YA readers loving this) and THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett is an absolute must-read.

As far as classics are concerned, I have read and re-read the EARTHSEA TRILOGY by Ursula K. Le Guin so many times those books are falling apart. Same with Anne McCaffery’s early dragon books.

ARJ: What are you working on next? Do you see yourself writing more YA and possibly breaking into other genres as well?

KS: For the moment, I’m committed to YA. I recently completed a proposal for a sequel to TANKBORN that my editor is considering. I’m also working on an entirely unrelated book in what I envision as the first in a new series. It’s what I’d call apocalyptic horror.

Thanks so much for the interview, Karen, and I can't wait to see what else you have in store for the YA market!


Theresa Milstein said...

I just heard about this book from Stacy Whitman at NESCBWI this weekend! She used it for examples during her World Building workshop. I added it to my Amazon list. Good luck with the book!

Karen Sandler said...

Thanks, Theresa. Yay to Stacy for mentioning TANKBORN. NESCBWI sure sounded like a great conference from everyone's tweets. Wish I could have been there.

Ellen said...

Sounds like a really interesting concept! Looking forward to when this publishes :) and YAY, diversity on the cover!!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Enjoyed this interview! Good luck with your new series as well as the success of Tankborn.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

Glad everyone is enjoying the interview! I can't wait to check out this book in September myself.

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