Ampersand Project: new voices in YA

Melissa Keil, Life in Outer Space When you’re writing your first novel in any genre it can be challenging getting it into the hands of publishers. First, there’s the question of agents (to have or not to have?) and, then, how to stand out among the thousands of other unsolicited manuscripts sitting in piles around editors’ desks.

So it’s always exciting when a new venture is announced that’s actually calling out for debut novels. The Ampersand Project emerged in 2011, a Hardie Grant Egmont scheme looking for first-time YA novels with a distinctive voice. In March, they release their first title, a nerdy romcom, Life in Outer Space.

I spoke to debut novelist Melissa Keil and Ampersand editor Marisa Pintado about how the project is encouraging and attracting dynamic new writers.

(This is the extended version of an article originally published in Newswrite magazine.)

Why did you decide to set up the Ampersand Project? Did you see a gap in the market?

Marisa Pintado: We felt that there was room in the YA market for more debut writers, more fresh voices, and really, more variety. When we were still dreaming up Ampersand, a few years ago now, there was a glut of paranormal romance and gritty dystopian fiction. This went beyond mere trends, as far as we were concerned — there was simply very little new fiction available for readers who were into different things. We wanted to create some energy around different kinds of stories, so in the first year we focused on contemporary real-world fiction — and we were thrilled with the response from writers.

At what stage was your manuscript when you heard about Ampersand? Did it inspire you in any way?

Melissa Keil: The manuscript was complete, and I had been workshopping and editing it for about eight months before I seriously started thinking about submitting it to Ampersand. I was at the stage where I had done the bulk of the structural work that I could do on my own, and was just fiddling and making very minor changes — but I still think I would have sat on it for many months more if I wasn’t given a shove by my writing group. I guess Ampersand inspired me to be brave and put the book out there!

From the piles of manuscripts on your desk, how do you know when one is a goer for publication?

Marisa Pintado: A manuscript shines because it combines a multitude of appealing elements — a beguiling voice, intriguing concepts, skilful writing, well-developed characters, an authentic teen-feel, and an understanding of classic story design. It’s rare to find these elements all in the one manuscript, but when you do, it feels like the heavens are opening.

What we really love to see is evidence of hard work in the writing; we can tell when writers are sending in their first draft, and when they’ve laboured over a story for months or even years, painstakingly threading through subplots, re-writing chapters and refining character trajectories.

How did your manuscript originally come about? Did you come up with the voice? Or various plotlines?

Author Melissa Keil
Author Melissa Keil

Melissa Keil: Definitely the voice, and the character of my protagonist, Sam, came first. It was one of those weird, writerly light-bulb moments, when I had decided to set aside the novel I had been working on and begin something new. I had no idea what the new ‘thing’ was going to be, but I was sitting with my laptop in a café when I saw a poster for the Melbourne Horror Film Society, and Sam’s voice, literally, just popped into my head. I wrote the first chapter that afternoon, and though it’s gone through quite a few rounds of edits, and I refined and redrafted it as I got to know him better, the outline I wrote that afternoon is pretty much the first chapter in the published book. The plotlines evolved as the various characters took shape.

What was it about Life in Outer Space that singled it out to be the first Ampersand novel?

Marisa Pintado: Life in Outer Space really took us by surprise. When we launched the Ampersand Project, we’d expected to go for gritty, boundary-pushing fiction — essentially sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, with some cutting on the side. And then Melissa’s manuscript landed on my desk, and it was like having a warm bath in the sunshine. She’d written this gorgeously geeky romantic comedy that shredded a stack of awful YA clichés and pop-culture tropes, and it was just an incredible achievement.

At first we wanted to wait until we’d finished reading all the Ampersand submissions before signing Melissa up. This decision lasted about two days, and then we caved and signed her up so that we could launch into the editorial process. We knew we didn’t want to let her go, and we were prepared to have more than one Ampersand author in a year, if it came to that. She’s an amazing talent, and we could tell that she’d been working really hard for a very long time. She was absolutely ready to enter the YA scene as a fully fledged author.

I’m so looking forward to introducing her to readers in March 2013. I’ve read Life in Outer Space about a million times during the production process, and it has made me cry with happiness. Every. Single. Time. I just love Melissa’s writing.

I notice you are part of a writing group. How did this help you shape the narrative?

Melissa Keil: I can’t overestimate how valuable working with my writing group has been; not only for their advice and feedback as the manuscript developed, but also because of the emotional support that only other writers can really provide. They were the first people to flag issues and to suggest solutions for problems, but also, the first people to offer genuine encouragement and praise when things were working. It’s quite an exposing thing to put your work-in-progress writing out into the world, and my writing group has really been the perfect combination of critique group and cheer squad.

There are many 80s references in the book but it’s a contemporary world. Why did you decide to step back in time for influence?

Melissa Keil: I knew that pop culture of all kinds was important for both of my main characters, but I also knew that saturating their story solely with contemporary references was going to confine it to a singular time and place; I guess I really wanted the story to have a ‘timeless’ feel, if such a thing is possible in YA contemporary! Also, Sam and Camilla are both quite ‘old souls’; the things that they love and that influence them come from all over the place, and lots of different time periods — having said that, yes, there are quite a few 80s references! There is something in the tone of the 80s teen movies I love that I wanted to invoke.

How do you see the current state of YA publishing in Australia?

Marisa Pintado: Australian YA publishing has gone through tremendous change since the glory years of the 90s, where writers like John Marsden, Melina Marchetta, Maureen McCarthy, Robin Klein and Gillian Rubenstein turned out books of the most incredible calibre and enjoyed strong sales. I think as the market has become more enchanted with the blockbuster-sales model (usually books by international authors), and review space is increasingly limited, Australian novels can find it hard to elbow their own space on the shelves.

But I remain optimistic, because you look at the quality of writers who have established themselves over the last few years — Leanne Hall, Fiona Wood, Cath Crowley, Meredith Badger (also writing as Em Bailey), Chrissie Keighery, Myke Bartlett, Penni Russon — and you think, it’s OK! We still have amazing writers coming out of this country, and they’re writing brilliant books that do sell, and do well overseas. The Ampersand Project is all about finding more of these talented people, and giving them as much support as we can to establish their profiles and kick-start their writing careers.

How important are projects like Ampersand in helping emerging writers?

Melissa Keil: The current publishing climate being what it is, it’s becoming more and more difficult for publishers to take a risk on an unknown. Knowing that publishers are still actively looking for — and are excited by finding — new authors to support is amazing. And I think it’s so critical for new writers to have a great editorial team behind them. A project like Ampersand, with editors willing to work with a new author to help shape their manuscript into the best it can be, is crucial for any writer looking to build a career.

In 2013, what kinds of manuscripts/writing are you looking for?

Marisa Pintado: We’re opening up to all genres across YA, so I’m really keeping an open mind. My reading tastes are pretty broad, so I want to be surprised! At the moment I’m particularly keen on horror, thrillers, accessible sci-fi, high-concept drama and contemporary romance, but overall I’m hoping to find raw talent in writers who are hungry for development, and stories that I have to stay up late to finish because I’m so desperate to see how it all turns out.

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE YA AUTHORS? ARE YOU A YA WRITER LOOKING TO BE PUBLISHED? LOOK FORWARD TO YOUR COMMENTS…

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