An Interview with Michele Kwasniewski
Michele Kwasniewski is the author of The Rise and Fall of Dani Truehart series. Her fifteen years of colorful experience working in film and television production inspired her to take on her character.
The Rise and Fall of Dani Trueheart is contemporary YA. Dani is a young girl who's been trained up by her mom Jody, who is a stage mom. Jody felt like she should have been like a star, even though she probably couldn’t have made it. She pushed both her daughters to be stars, but Dani was the one who seemed to be really making it. She has a dance and vocal coach Martin Fox, who used to be an 80s icon in a boy band. He then reaches out to his former manager, despite a very rocky breakup when the band broke up, and sets up an audition for Dani. This launches her on a career path to be a pop star. The book is really about all the intricacies of what happens to Dani. It’s about how her life changes. She's 15 years old and being thrust into this adult world, but she has no way to be prepared for it.
“I don't write with an outline. I write with a map in my head.”
I've been writing since I was a little kid: little poems, stories and this and that. I'm an avid reader. I love reading, and I like telling stories. So I just thought I would start and see how it went. It turned out I really enjoyed it. So that's where it went, and I've been feeling my way forward.
My first book The Rise and Fall of Dani Truehart took me about seven years to complete because I started right after I had our son. It sounds weird to start a book right after you have a baby, but I actually had been used to working really long hours in production, and I was feeling a little like I needed something more after my son was about six months old.
My second book Burning Bright is finished, and will be the second in the series. I'm going to start the third book Falling Star probably in a few weeks. Now that I've got the bug and I've got a rhythm, I feel more competent with my writing process.
My inspiration came from working in entertainment for 15 years. I was behind the scenes, but I worked on-set for movies and television, so I just met a lot of people and saw a lot of things. It’s pretty easy for people to become famous right now if they have the drive. But there's a whole flip side of that, which not everyone really knows about or concentrates on. They just think about getting there, but what do you have to do to stay there? How does that affect your life and all your friends and family?
Becoming a star takes a lot more than people think about it. Especially nowadays. Everyone’s judging you. Everyone's on social media blasting you. It’s crushing what people can say when they're hiding behind the screen or behind a username that's not even their real name. I think that can really be hard if you're the target of that.
Even though this is a trilogy, I could see myself going back and meeting my character when she's a little bit older. Obviously in the title The Rise and Fall of Dani Trueheart, it’s clear something happens to Dani, but you don't know what it is. I could see myself going back in and exploring where she lands in like 10 years.
That's one of the great things about being a writer or an avid reader. You think about the characters you really love. I have gotten attached to my character and watching her go through this journey and the choices she makes. As an adult, I’m like, “Don’t do it!” It's fun to see the choices your character makes. I never understood that when I wasn't a writer.
I read someone once said often their characters surprise them. I wondered, If you're writing the character, how does your character surprise you? But I have found that it is true! You just kind of develop this path for your character, but then they develop their own path. Some things just don't sit right that, as the author of thought, your character would do this. When it comes down to writing it, you realize it just doesn't feel right. Then you have to change it and go down a different path you weren't expecting. The fun thing for me about writing is just seeing where it takes me.
That’s one of the great things about my process. I don't write with an outline. I write with a map in my head. I know where I'm starting, I know where I'm ending up, and I know some places I want to hit. But I'm a very loosely planned writer. I found, for me, that works better because I'm allowed to journey more and see what happens. If I have too much construction in my plans and I have to make these turns at a specific time point, it really stifles how I'm writing.
For my second book, I actually wrote the ending and the first couple chapters of my third book before I wrote anything else. That gave me a target to shoot at, but then the whole rest of the book was so much fun because I knew where it was going to end up and I knew where she started. It took me into a whole new place I hadn't thought of when I'd imagine the second book.
The downside to my way of doing it is there are some times when I have to go back and thread in an idea or a plotline I really need. Luckily, I find I already know where to put it because I can feel there's just something that needs to fill that spot, and it fits in perfectly.
Another part of the writing process is finding the time to write. I have to write when my son goes to school because writing when he is home is way too much. I usually write anywhere from two to five hours a day. I don't have a page count or word count I try to hit every day. I just have an idea in my head on how long my book has to be. I have a tendency to overwrite, so I can afford to underwrite.
I’m someone who loves long books. It’s not always something people like, but I enjoy a long book. So I'm not really scared of a page count. But I know when I started looking into the business of getting a book published, I had to talk to my agent and do research online. Sometimes publishers simply won't look at a book from an unknown author with a super huge word count. My agent said she wanted 80,000 words. I got it to 85,000 when I was pitching the book to publishers, and then it ended up somewhere in the high 90s, which is about 250 pages.
“The first thing is just to show up, sit down, and write.”
I had a very different mentality when it came to pitching my book. Maybe it comes from my production background and having worked in the business side of things with money, deals, and contracts. If you're trying to get your first deal or you're trying to get your first shot, you have to take a hit. So I went in with that mentality. I love my series, but it does me no good to love it, if I'm not willing to get it out there. So I knew in my head there'd be a certain amount of things I'd be willing to compromise in order to get it sold and to get it picked up.
I'm very grateful. I have a wonderful agent, Diane Nine at Nine Speakers. I’m one of her first YA authors she represented. When she read my book, she really vibed with my character and gave me some suggestions. I was really disappointed about cutting down the word count, but I had to remind myself, if I want other people to love it, what am I going to do? I wanted to make sure my book got seen. I was lucky I didn't have anything crazy I had to cut out.
When I was querying an agent who had been rejecting me, she was kind enough to talk to me and gave me fantastic notes. One of her notes said, “You don't want to hear it, but you need to change from third person to first person, and you need to cut out all the adult perspectives.” That was devastating because I was in love with my characters. She said that and I heard it from a couple other agents, so I finally realized they were right. They know what sells. I took a good month and a half to rework my entire book.
I had these great backstories for all my adult characters that I had to pull. I really struggled with letting go, but I eventually gained perspective. When your YA is all about the intensity and the story of young adults growing up, everything is so major. Taking the adult perspective but showing it from my young character’s first person voice was something people were able to connect with more. The intensity of her experience came out. It worked out for me.
I had a lot of rejection from publishers. I had over 120-something rejections. It was staggering. They say you're supposed to stop around 50 or 75, but I decided I'm just gonna keep going. Someone's gonna pick me up. Why am I giving up on myself? It's like falling in love. There's got to be one person that's gonna get me, so I just need to find that one person.
If you want to be a writer, my first piece of advice is just to show up, sit down and write. What took me so long to get my book written was that I would think about all the other things I needed to do. I just never made the time because everything else was always so more important than my writing. I felt like I shouldn't be taken away from cleaning the house or cooking dinner to write. Then I talked with my sister-in-law, and she told me I just need to do it. So I set aside two hours a day, and sometimes it would be 30 minutes, if that's all I had. I would do whatever I could do in that time. Even if it was only one page at a time, I was getting towards the goal of finishing the book.
“Please don't publish your book without letting someone else read it.”
My second piece of advice is you need to let people read it. Please don't publish your book without letting someone else read it. Some of the best feedback I got was from other people reading it. I had one of my writing partners read my book. He’s 65 years old and he loves it. I've had moms read it. I’ve had people of all different genres and lifestyles read it. Because if they like my book, and they're not a YA reader or a 15 year old girl, then I know I've got a story that hits.
One of my biggest challenges is just shutting down those voices in my head telling me I've got to do other stuff that's more important than my writing. It's the constant to-do list. I’ve got to do this and that. I just need to shut down that voice. It's okay if my house is a little messy. It's okay if we have leftovers tonight. What I need to do is accept the fact that my writing is just as important as all the other things I have to do for other people because writing does make me happier.
Michele Kwasniewski’s book is published by Rand-Smith Publishing. It's available on barnesandnoble.com, amazon.com, and bookshop.org. Michele is eager to receive reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble.