The Art of Lying: YA Author Paula Stokes

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Paula Stokes author YA Goodreads Liars Inc The Art of Lainey Critical Blast

Young Adult Literature. It's been officially a thing now for a handful of years, offering up stories that appeal to young and old alike, featuring young protagonists in a variety of plots.

Paula Stokes is carving out her own place among the pantheon of YA authors, with two novels, LIARS INC and THE ART OF LAINEY from Harper Teen. I first met Paula in St. Louis, and was glad to get in touch with her on the release of LIARS INC to discuss the YA market and get some insights into her own process.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the early proofreaders on LIARS INC, what feels like so long ago. What was going on back then that provided the inspiration of Max's story?

It was a long time ago--early 2012, I think? :) I wrote this book directly after THE ART OF LAINEY, but I had the idea back in 2010, before I even started LAINEY. I knew I wanted to write a mystery because those are my favorite books to read and I knew I wanted a teen boy main character, because there aren't too many of those in YA. Writing from a male POV felt like it would be a fun challenge.

As far as the actual storyline? Some of it was probably inspired by all the Christopher Pike and Dean Koontz books I read as a kid--those guys know how to write dark, twisty tales--and some of it by an illegal lottery my brother and his friends started in middle school.

It seems that so many of the YA novels out there do get written from the female perspective and, accordingly, get targeted to a female audience (despite being fan favorites of many male readers). THE HUNGER GAMES, THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, and several others spring to mind instantly. Why do you think the YA market is so female-centric, both in terms of targeted readership and creative talent?

I leave the marketing stuff to people smarter than me, but I've heard that research shows many boys who love to read skip right from middle grade (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Harry Potter) to adult fiction. As far as why this would be, I can only speculate that maybe some boys pass over the YA books because many of them have heavy romantic components, female MCs, and covers that cater to the aforementioned market research. I am not making a blanket statement about what boys do or don't like, but if I saw a book with a cover of two guys fishing, my immediate inner response would be "Fishing is not for me." I wouldn't even pick up the book to see what it was about. So maybe it's the same with a lot of boy readers and all of those "girls in big dresses" covers?

Maybe it's a vicious circle. Publishers have found that most of the readers of YA are female, so they buy female-centric books and design/promote them to appeal to girls, which ends up discouraging more boys from reading them. Two books with female MCs that don't fall into this trap are The Hunger Games, as you mentioned, and also Divergent. The publishers did a great job designing covers that didn't feel skewed toward one gender and though both of these titles would have likely found widespread success regardless, I think their designs helped them gain immediate widespread readership.

As far as why are so many YA authors female, that seems like a question I should direct back to you ;-) Maybe it ties into the above, where YA publishers are more likely to buy books with female MCs and there aren't a lot of male writers writing female? I'm not sure. I actually know plenty of male YA writers writing characters of both genders, so I like to think this is gradually changing too.

There's a lot of procedural and technical things in LIARS INC. How do you cope with the "I need to understand everything about this field" versus the "I really need to tell this story and I can't wait around for a degree in this field" struggle?

I err on the side of more research is better, but my advance for this book wasn't big enough for me to pay hundreds of dollars to have lawyers and FBI agents beta-read for me. Basically I started with the internet and tried to figure out as much of the legal and procedural stuff as I could on my own. Then I interviewed a major case squad detective via email who was a friend of a friend. He was actually the one who recommended using FBI agents, but I couldn't access any of them for an interview so I used some books and FBI-related websites. While I was waiting to interview a friend-of-a-friend attorney, I happened to meet a third-year Northwestern law student at a book-related event, and she offered to read the manuscript and look up all of the official names of the charges Max incurs for free (Yay!) She also verified the arraignment scene and pointed out a couple of places where my wording was problematic.

My major goals were to be as accurate as possible without drowning the text in dry legal facts that would cause teen readers to disengage, and also to portray law enforcement officials as competent and realistic. I'm always a little skeptical of those books where the teens are smarter than detectives and FBI agents ;-)

What draws you to the Young Adult market? And why IS there a Young Adult market of old-*cough*-er adults are enjoying the stories?

Well, I have a new adult book finished and an adult book started, so in a practical sense what drew me to the YA market were story ideas that best fit as YA. I sometimes run across adult fiction writers who say things like "My agent told me I should write YA." I wouldn't encourage anyone to "write YA." I would encourage you to write the book you want to read, and to place that book in the category that best suits it.

To me YA is transition, it’s about letting go of the safety of youth and beginning to make the hard choices for yourself. It’s about when you realize, for better or worse, that you’re the boss of your life. It’s about being bold and following your heart or your gut or your brain into new places and relationships. I think YA books appeal to adults too because of the incredible variety of settings and storylines, and also because most of us never completely let go of that feeling of seeking our place in this world.

You've got an appearance coming up soon in St. Louis with other authors. What's that about?

The lovely people at Left Bank Books have invited a whole group of awesome authors to the Central West End's Local Social on June 12th. Drop by the bookstore between 6:00p.m. and 9:00p.m. to meet Heather Brewer, Sarah Bromley, Cole Gibsen, Shawntelle Madison, and me. We'll be pouring lemonade, chatting about our favorite reads, and signing books. Here's the link to the event:

What's been your experience so far with finding out you have actual fans now that you're a published author?

It's weird. I think of them as readers rather than fans, because "fan" implies a power differential that I don't think applies, at least not with me. Readers are hugely influential in a book's success with their reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations. I need them, just like they need more books to read.

It is really cool to have complete strangers email, tweet, or Instagram and tell me how much they enjoyed my books, though :) That never gets old, and often a random message hits me just when I'm feeling discouraged and it's enough to energize me to keep working.

Rather than ask what book's next in your schedule, I'll rather ask about how many books you are prepping to be the next one. Because you can't just have one going at a time, right?

I envy people who can work on one book at a time. I literally have edits due on May 29th for one book and June 1st for a different book. Prior to these edits I was finishing up the new adult novel I mentioned earlier, which I will hopefully put out on submission later this summer. While I was finishing that, I was also doing promotion for LIARS, INC's release. Between outlining, drafting, revising, and promoting, I probably work on four different books in any given month.

My 2016 releases are titled GIRL AGAINST THE UNIVERSE and VICARIOUS. GATU is a contemporary standalone about a girl who has retreated into her own world because she believes she's bad luck to anyone who gets close to her, and the resulting dilemma she faces when she meets a group of friends she doesn't want to push away. VICARIOUS is the first book in a duology, a high-tech thriller about a Korean stunt girl who searches worlds both real and virtual to find her older sister's killer.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Read. No, read way more than you currently do. Reading is the second-best way to learn how to write. Obviously, writing is the best way. It takes most people a couple of practice books to get good enough to even think about publication. If your first book doesn’t sell, you are not a failure. You are human. Human is good. Books by robots would probably suck.

Write the book you are dying to read...unless it's about vampires ;-) Nope, write it even if it's about vampires, or a dystopian society, or whatever happens to feel overdone in your corner of the reader universe--especially if it's your first book. If you LOVE the project, the research will feel less like work. You won't gouge out your eyes reading and re-reading your book 25 times during the writing and revision process. Writing what you love is also much more likely to produce an excellent book than you scrambling to try to hit the tail end of some supposed trend and churning out a book you're not passionate about. And don't let anyone tell you your idea won't work. I told another author about VICARIOUS back in 2012 when I first started working on it and she said: "Maybe back when The Matrix was popular, but no one would ever buy that now." It took a while to sell, but eventually three different editors made offers.

Most important, no matter where you are in your publication journey, never forget why you started writing in the first place. This will bring you peace when you are feeling frustrated and discouraged.


Check out Paula's Amazon Page to keep up with her latest releases.