AMA with Leila Sales

Writing, storytelling, and collaborative fiction!
by Hidden Door

Good morning! Recently we were fortunate to host critically acclaimed author Leila Sales for an AMA (ask-me-anything) about her experience as a writer and storyteller. We hope you find it as fascinating as we did! 📚

This is part of a series of chats with team members and friends with backgrounds in games, literary publishing, AI/ML, and more. Be sure to join our Discord for the latest updates!

Could you introduce yourself, and how you joined Hidden Door?

Hi, everyone, I'm so glad to be here.

I'm the author of eight middle-grade and young adult novels, published by Abrams, Chronicle, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster. I mostly write contemporary stories (about girls in our real world), but I've dabbled a bit in historical fiction and SFF as well.

Books by Leila Sales

I'm also an editor. I spent more than a decade editing children's and YA books at Penguin Random House, and I got to edit a number of award-winning and bestselling books, including the Last Kids on Earth series by Max Brallier; a couple YA novels by Gayle Forman; the Half Bad trilogy by Sally Green; and lots more.

You can see more about my writing on my website.

You can see more about my editorial work here.

And you can see covers of many of the books I've edited here.

What first inspired you to get into writing and publishing?

I pretty much always wanted to be a writer. When I was a kid, I was always writing and telling stories. I thought I might want to be an actress or a singer, too, but I'm MUCH better at writing. I wrote my first novel when I was 11 and tried to get it published. By the time I'd graduated from high school, I'd drafted and submitted five novels. None of them ever got published (and, in retrospect, none of them should have!)

So, I learned at an early age that it's very hard to get a book published, and so I knew that I wanted a "real," salaried job. I also knew that the only thing I really loved or really felt expertise in was books. So when I graduated from college, I started applying for jobs in publishing.

I got a job as a marketing assistant for Penguin Young Readers about six months after I graduated from college, and after a couple years there I moved over to the editorial side of the business. Working in publishing made me a MUCH better writer--it gave me a much deeper understanding of what readers are working for, what does and does not work. So the next book I wrote was much stronger, and I was able to get an agent and a publisher for that one.

What advice would you give anyone who's thought about writing a book/story, but find getting started too daunting?

Oh, man, this is a good question. It IS daunting. I think you just have to think about it in small pieces. If you sit down to write 200 pages, you're immediately going to get overwhelmed and feel like you can't do it. If you just say to yourself, "OK, today I'm going to write one page," it feels like a more approachable task, and it takes less willpower to make yourself sit down and do it.

Also, giving yourself permission to be bad at it. To be like, "It's OK if I type 500 words today and none of them make much sense and none of them wind up in the final product." I'm a big believer that no words are wasted words. You write down lots of stuff that doesn't work, but it leads you to the stuff that DOES work.

I have books where I've completely rewritten 100+ pages. Like, just tossed out the first draft and started from scratch. It feels bad in the moment--like, all that work, just gone, for nothing!--but I always have to remember that I needed to write the "wrong" 100 pages in order to figure out what the "right" ones were.

What's one commonly held belief you've heard about YA novels that people get wrong? About how they are made, how they are distributed, the value they bring to culture…?

I love this question and I feel like there are so many answers! I do still hear some people speak derisively about YA novels--like, "why would an adult read them, they're for kids, they're not mature, they're all just silly love triangles"--which I think is just laughable. I feel like people who say stuff like that haven't read a YA novel in years. Or maybe they've read one super-popular one and believe they now are experts in the entire category. YA books exist in every genre, with every sort of plot and setting, and there are books that anyone would love. No one person is the audience for every book, but everyone is the audience for SOME book.

I think another misbelief about books in general is that they should be free/cheap. Don't get me wrong, I also hate paying $25 for a hardcover (or for anything, really--I'm pretty thrifty), but once you understand the labor that goes into making a book, it's actually surprising that they don't cost MORE.

How do you go about making sure what you write is accurate to the experiences that your target audience is living through?

Thank you for telling me that you're a storyteller, too! I totally agree with you that it's crucial to be relatable and relevant. I think a lot about universal human emotions: we all want to be loved and understood and respected, we all want to feel a sense of success, we all want to be included, etc. We have all felt lonely and left out and awkward and broken and disappointing. When you're writing, especially in a fantasy world, the things that cause those feelings may be different from anything you've ever experienced, but the feelings themselves are the same.

What about Hidden Door's iterative system drew you in, and what are some challenges you are excited to tackle?

So, I connected with Hidden Door in the fall of 2020, shortly after I'd run a pandemic-inspired interactive group storytelling challenge called Ada and the Lost Horizon [Note from the Hidden Door team: This is AMAZING.]. It was very different from writing books, but incredibly fun and inspiring in its own way, and I was trying to figure out what could come from it. I saw Hidden Door and became really interested in their work--I didn't know anything about AI (and still know extremely little), but I love viewing storytelling as a game. I really think it is. I view writing or editing stories as like putting together a puzzle, or playing a game of chess. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what the pieces are or where they go, but there is always an answer. And while there are consistent rules, every iteration (be it a story or a match of chess) plays out differently.

Where do you see the future of YA heading and do you think YA books should be recommended to age groups outside of 13-17?

YA definitely leans older now than it used to. It wouldn't surprise me if, as that continues, we see a resurgence of a "young YA" category. Right now, we basically have two categories in bookstores: middle-grade, for ages 8-12, and YA, for ages 12+. But a lot of stories that are going into the YA category are too mature for kids at the younger end of that spectrum. This is totally fine because there are plenty of 20 and 30 year olds reading them, too, so they still have a sizable audience. But I do worry that the 12/13/14 year olds are getting a little bit lost in the middle, and I hope that the future will bring shelves in bookstores that are specifically for them.

What kind of stories are you excited about currently? And in your career of writing and editing, what unexpected realizations, if any, have you come to?

Personally, I am always excited about stories with complex, tight plots and rewarding reveals. I find that the hardest to write--I'm good at character and relationships and dialogue, but I'm not so natural at figuring out complicated plots, so I am so impressed and delighted when other authors do it well. For example, Jennifer Lynn Barnes' Inheritance Games and Naomi Novak's A Deadly Education are two intricately plotted trilogies that have their final installments coming this fall and I can't WAIT. (No bias; I didn't work on either of them, I just like them!)

I also am excited about stories showing the depth and complexity of people. Like, that don't just paint people as good guys or bad guys. I recently watched the movie Vengeance--have any of you seen it? I thought it did such a good job of showing how people are not stereotypes, as much as we might want them to be.

What's your process like going from idea to getting your book published? Do you have a method that works for you or is there a gold standard you follow?

So, first of all, I should say that I still, even eight books in, have plenty of ideas that don't get published. Sometimes I'll try stories and I just can't figure out how to crack them--like, it's a good premise, but then what happens? Sometimes I'll set something aside for years before I figure it out, and sometimes I never figure it out and it just gets shelved. Or sometimes I write a manuscript that I love, but my literary agent can't find an editor who believes in it enough to take it on. Often there's an issue of audience--like, if I like a story, then it's worth writing down, but there may not be enough other people out there who like it that it will get published.

That said, what I do is I think about an idea for a while, start jotting down notes and doing research, reading what else is out there already, etc. I write a draft, which can take a LONG time. Then I revise a bunch, often as I go. Like, if I figure out in chapter 12 that I actually needed the protagonist's mom to have disappeared back in chapter 2, then I will go back and revise those chapters before moving forward again. So it's a lot of moving backward and forward, moving scenes around, adding to scenes, etc. Once I have a draft that I believe is as good as I can get it, I share it with my literary agent. He gives me some feedback and I revise again. And then we start submitting it to publishers and hope for the best.

As someone who has had a lot of experience working in the industry, what are your hypothesis on how mystery writers write their novels and stories? It has always seem so hard to me as well to keep things a surprise and fit together neatly at the end.

I agree! I think it must require a lot of outlining before they even start writing. I have never written a true mystery, because, as you said, it seems very hard. But I have edited a number of mysteries, and I can say that even that is a challenge--you start to pull on one thread and the whole thing can unravel. As the writer, you have to know a few things from the start:

  1. who dunnit
  2. why they did it
  3. why we don't assume from the beginning that they did it

I think you start with those three things. Then you add in who the other suspects are (and why they would have done it). Then you figure out what the clues would be that the actual person did it. And then you figure out how your protagonist comes across those clues.

Like I said, storytelling is a game, just like puzzle or chess. You figure out which pieces you need and then you move them around until they work.

We’re curious about the whole process of getting an idea for a work to getting it published: what advice would you have for someone who has gotten their first book written and is ready for that next step of getting it published?

So, my first piece of advice is always to REVISE, REVISE, REVISE. You'd be amazed how many people finish a first draft of a first book and immediately start sending it out to agents. I mean, I get it; I used to do that, too, because revision is hard and it can be extremely difficult to see the flaws in your own work, or to figure out how to fix them. This is where having critique partners is incredibly useful.

Once you've revised and gotten feedback from other writers, readers, and friends, then you have two options. You can go the self-publishing route or the traditional publishing route. Self-publishing is good if you want to bypass the gatekeepers, but it takes a lot more work and money from you (like, you have to do all the marketing yourself), and by and large you will sell fewer copies than if you get it traditionally published. It's good for books on specialized topics or for people who are interested in doing a lot of self-promotion. There's no one right answer there; it really depends on the specific book and specific creator.

I have only ever done traditionally-published books. So the next step, once you have the manuscript, is to start querying literary agents. You find agents who represent books similar to yours and send them query letters and sample pages. Hopefully, you connect with an agent who's interested in reading your entire manuscript.

Once an agent signs you as a client, they will probably ask for a big more revision. Then they will come up with a list of editors who they think would be a good fit for your book. Agents are encyclopedias of who editors are, where they work, and what sort of books they're looking for. The hope is that one of the editors they submit to will make an offer for your book. Sometimes that doesn't happen, or something an editor will ask you to revise and resubmit it--i.e. they think it shows promise, but it's not there quite yet.

And that’s another amazing AMA for the books! (heh, puns!) Thank you, Leila!

If anyone else has further questions for me, always feel free to tweet at me @LeilaSalesBooks! I love talking about books and publishing and storytelling pretty much all the time.

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