Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Interview with Elizabeth Richards

Today I'm interviewing the fabulous Elizabeth Richards about her novel BLACK CITY, debuting from Putnam in Fall 2012!

Summary of Black City:
Deep in the heartland of the United Sentry States are the burning ruins of the Black City, a melting pot simmering with hostility as humans and Darklings struggle to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of a brutal and bloody war. A wall now divides the city separating the two races. Trapped on the wrong side of the wall is sixteen-year-old hustler Ash Fisher, a half-blood Darkling who’ll do whatever it takes to survive, including selling his addictive venom ‘Haze’ to help support his dying mother.

Then there’s Natalie Buchanan, the daughter of the Sentry Emissary, who feels imprisoned by her life of privilege and fame. When their paths cross, they instantly detest each other but Ash is shocked when his once still heart starts to beat. Bonded by a mysterious connection, Ash and Natalie first deny and then struggle to fight their forbidden feelings for each other, knowing if they’re caught, they’ll be executed. Then Haze users start dying all over the city and Ash discovers the terrible truth behind his and Natalie’s mystical connection. Suddenly, city walls and the threat of execution become the least of their problems.

You said on your website you used to review video games. Has that experience, or video games in general, influenced your writing and/or storytelling methods?

Ah, the good ol’ days. That was a fun job! Writing for videogame magazines taught me how to work to tight deadlines and not to stress about opening paragraphs. I quickly learnt that if you obsess about your opening you'll never get the rest of the article written, so I always wrote that last - and funnily, this is what I do with my books too!

It also taught me how to write for a specific age group, and I have followed that through to my novel writing. Regarding storytelling, a lot of videogames use the traditional 3-act structure, so you can learn a lot from them regarding creating an exciting adventure with plenty of twists and turns, lots of peril, and a big crescendo, all within this classic structure.

Do you do a lot of outlining, or do you prefer to just write and see where it takes you (in other words, are you a Plotter or a Panster?) Why?

I’m a plotter, thanks to my training as a scriptwriter (I studied Scriptwriting for TV and Film at university). I like to do detailed outlines, 3-act structures with all the key turning points mapped out, character biographies, scene-by-scene breakdowns, that sort of thing. Then I throw it all out the window after 50 pages and let my characters tell me the story. But I do this prep-work more for my peace of mind, so I know if I get really stuck I’ve got a solid story to fall back on. It also makes sure that I don’t write scenes that don’t drive the plot forward or reveal something about the character.

One of my favourite plotting tasks is to get my 3-act structure together. I usually do this process with my good writer friend Tracy Buchanan ( – who incidentally is the girl I named my protagonist Natalie Buchanan after! What we do is write up all the key scenes on post-it notes, then move them around my dining room table to decide the best order for things to happen, making sure all the key turning points are on target. It’s a very quick way to see where there are gaps in your story and where you need to add some more conflict.

What has your path to publication been like?

Well, my path to publication certainly isn’t the awe-inspiring story like fellow Apocalypsie, Gennifer Albin (, that’s for sure! But I think it’s inspirational in its own way, mainly because despite many rejections and set-backs I ended up with a 3-book deal with Putnam, Penguin!

Black City is actually the second book I queried. My first attempt several years ago was…well, a learning curve. We’ll gloss over this, because it was a dark, dark period in my life, filled with much rejection and humiliation (including accidentally inviting an agent along to my sister’s bachelorette party.)

However, I did learn a lot from that experience, including making sure your book is easily definable so agents and publishers know how to sell it; how to write an eye-catching query and to make sure you use a separate email account to query agents. ;-p

Black City itself wasn’t an easy journey either. I sent it out for a first round of queries, and while it received a lot of positive feedback, and plenty of requests to read the full, agents were concerned that it would struggle to find a place in the saturated paranormal romance market. So I took it back to the drawing board, and spent nine months completely redrafting the story, turning it into the dystopian fantasy it is now. And I’m so glad I did!

The second round of queries went a lot better, although funnily enough my agent – the truly amazing Ayesha Pande - originally rejected Black City. Her intern read the query and while she loved the premise and the writing, she had concerns about the supernatural element of the book. We had some enthusiastic email conversations, where I tried to persuade her that she really did want to read the full MS, but sadly she said she wasn’t sure they could take it on.

Then two weeks later, out of the blue, I got an email from her saying that she and Ayesha had been thinking about it a lot and they were very intrigued by the idea, and would I be willing to submit the full MS afterall? Of course, I emailed it over in about a nanosecond, and two weeks after that I got an offer of representation.

While it wasn’t the easiest journey to getting an agent, I’m so glad it happened the way it did because I couldn’t have asked for a better, more supportive agent. She really is the best! I’m thrilled. :)

After doing two months’ worth of revisions, we got Black City out on submission to the publishing houses and a few weeks later I got my amazing offer in from Putnam – 2 days after I got married, no less.

So it was a real rollercoaster ride, but it was totally worth it, and I hope other authors out there take encouragement from it, and realise that it can happen, as long as they keep believing in themselves.

What’s been the most surprising part of this whole crazy publishing process for you?

I think for me, I’m surprised at how quickly it’s all happening now I have a deal. I’m currently working on my editorial revisions, which are due at the end of this week (Eeeps!), the Art Team are working on my cover and I’ve got to get the next book in the trilogy written by March.

I was always told publishing took a long time, but really if it’s anything like my experience things happen very quickly!

Luckily, I’m so blessed to have a really communicative and supportive editor, Stacey Barney, who likes to keep me involved in every step of the process. She’s so enthusiastic about Black City (she calls Ash and Natalie ‘Nash’. I love it!), that it gives me so much encouragement. And my awesome agent, Ayesha, just inspires a lot of confidence; she always keeps me calm and well informed, so I feel incredibly supported by them both - which is good, because I’m a bit of a neurotic mess at times.

I think the main thing I’ve learnt is you need is stamina, and crazy amounts of it. The hours are long, the deadlines are short, and you just need to make sure you find the time, energy and enthusiasm to keep going. But it’s so worth it! I’m loving every second.

What book has influenced you, either personally, or in your writing? Why?
Stephen Fry’s The Liar had a very profound effect on me as a teenager. I was in sixth form (the UK equivalent of your Senior Year, I think?) when I read it, and his humour and masterful use of language really inspired me. I wrote a film script immediately after reading that book, and that script secured me a place on my university course. The rest, they say, is history. So I think for that reason that book has been a great influence on me.

Other books that have inspired me have been the Harry Potter series, Twilight, Shiver, and The Hunger Games, just because they have enriched my life in so many ways. I come back to these books time and time again, and they remind me why I want to be an author.

The two main characters in Black City seem to come from very different socio-economic backgrounds. What was writing that clash of cultures like?

Challenging! But it also opened up so much scope for the narrative, allowing me to tell the story through the eyes of two very different people from opposite sides of the track.

Ash and Natalie’s different backgrounds force them to question things about themselves, to challenge beliefs they’d been brought up to believe, and to find a common ground where they can learn to love and respect one another.

It was fun too, as I basically spent the whole book arguing with myself as Ash and Natalie struggle to overcome their differences, despite their love for one another.

You’ve written that your favorite book is Harry Potter (specifically Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince *that one’s my favorite too!*). Why do you think this series was such a game-changer for young adult literature?

In all honesty, it just comes down to Harry. He’s simply an amazing character. He is everything you want a hero to be: brave, kind, loyal, trusting, funny, dark, complex, dangerous.

You could drop him in any scenario, and it would still be a thrilling adventure! And I think that’s the key to his success. A lot of characters are confined to their own universe, and outside the realms of the story you’re telling for them, they simply won’t work. However, Harry feels as real to me as any living, breathing person.

Plus JK Rowling is a master at universe building. I loved learning about the wizarding world (I’m still dreaming about the day they manage to genetically engineer a Pygmy Puff), and everything is so well thought out and developed that it doesn’t require much effort on the reader’s behalf to get engrossed in Harry's world. Which I suppose is why it’s so accessible to so many people.

She’s a genius, there’s no other word for it!

Advice for would be writers?

Get some writing credentials under your belt. I can’t stress how much it helps your chances of getting an agent if you’re able to prove to them that you’re serious about writing. So start blogging, write columns for newspapers / magazines, enter writing competitions and just get out there. Like any business they need proof that you have knowledge of the industry and that you’ve got writing experience. Think of querying like applying for a job – if your CV is blank, then it’s going to hinder your chances.

Also start following other author blogs, and keep an eye out for any competitions they’re running, especially ones they're doing with agents. It’s a great way to get your name out there and there’s also a good chance you’ll be able to by-pass the query process and get your MS directly into the hands of an agent, who can give you feedback and maybe even offer to represent you. I won a Twitter Pitch contest shortly before getting my agent, and it was just the boost I needed. So keep an eye out for any opportunity to get ahead of the pack.

It's a lot of hard work, but if you want to do this for your career, you have to start taking yourself seriously and then agents will too.
Elizabeth Richards
(Putnam, Fall 2012)
Twitter: @theredpenofdoom


  1. Great interview! And, OMG, I have learned about the using another email for querying. Yup. Been there done that! Love it, girls! And congrats on your amazing sale!

  2. Great interview! I love the sounds of the Black City Chronicles and look forward to finding out more about it. Tracy Buchanan was actually how I first came across Elizabeth around the release of her book, Sternenwandler. Congrats to Elizabeth on her book deal.

  3. Fantastic. Can't wait to pick this up!