Lucienne Diver is the author of the popular Vamped series of young adult novels (think Clueless meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Her short stories have been included in the Strip-Mauled and Fangs for the Mammaries anthologies edited by Esther Friesner (Baen Books), and her essay on abuse is included in the upcoming anthology Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories (HarperTeen). 2011 saw the launch of Bad Blood, the first novel in her Latter-Day Olympians series of contemporary fantasy, set in LA and featuring a heroine who can, quite literally, stop men in their tracks. Long and Short Reviews gave it her favorite pull-quote of all times, “Bad Blood is a delightful urban fantasy, a clever mix of Janet Evanovich and Rick Riordan, and a true Lucienne Diver original.” She can now die happy, though maybe not just yet.
Carl Slaughter chats with Lucienne about her work and juggling the roles and writer and agent.
CARL SLAUGHTER: The main characters in both your series are heroines. They don’t volunteer, they’re virtually compelled by circumstances. Given a choice, would they choose to be special and choose to rescue others?
LUCIENNE DIVER: Oh, Gina Covello, the heroine from my Vamped series has never had a single doubt that she’s special. She’s on top of the high school pecking order, gorgeous, curvy, and with mad fashion skills. She’s always had a mission-to beautify the world one person at a time. (She sees that as rescuing people from fashion disasters.) It throws her for a loop when she wakes up undead with a serious lack of tanning options and no reflection to speak of. To make matters worse, she’s been buried in the dress she literally wouldn’t be caught dead in. (I’ll admit that it might have been a wee bit fun to torture the popular girl.) What I set out to do was take away everything that made Gina special, tear away the struts of her identity and watch her rebuild. Yes, misfortune/circumstances set her back, but it’s not what life throws at someone that makes them who they are, it’s how they deal with it. Gina emerges a new kind of leader and her rescue mission changes along with her.
Tori Karacis from the Latter-Day Olympians series, on the other hand, doesn’t see herself as special…unless special is defined as different. She’s a complete mismatch with her circus family-afraid of heights, which keeps her out of the family acrobatic act, and too curious by half, which gets her in trouble in the close-knit traveling troupe with secrets best kept under the covers. She’s also never believed the tales about her family line dating back to the god Pan beer-goggling one of the gorgons or that her Yiayia’s gig as the bearded lady or her cousin Tina’s really aggressive over-bite have anything to do with secondary gorgon characteristics. Not until she witnesses a murder by something she can’t explain while working as a private investigator in Los Angeles. But she can’t ignore a mystery and can’t stay out of trouble to save her life. Saving others…I don’t think she even gives that a second thought. You solve the mystery, you take down the bad guys, you save the day. Case closed.
CS: Do your main charaters evolve/devolve over the course of the series?
LD: They both evolve, Gina more so than Tori. Gina becomes a lot more human after her death than she was during it. She has to, as she says, put on her big girl panties and deal with the loss of everything she’s ever known and the immediate challenge to who she could become due to a rival vampiress set to use Gina and her classmates as cannon fodder in a war of her own devising. Gina has to become a different kind of leader with the stakes life and true-death as opposed to social success. Hair sticks become stakes; hairspray and a lighter a makeshift flame thrower. In a way, she’s been preparing for her new role her whole life.
Tori’s evolution is more physical that emotional. Without giving anything away, certain peculiarities of her bloodline begin to manifest, at first in small ways and then, with the “help” of various triggers, in a bigger, much more difficult to disguise fashion. She is, however, forced to confront directly some of her deepest fears, like heights and spiders.
CS: Neither heroine is an equalizer, so they don’t advertise their services. How then do you set up the plot so they become a trouble magnet, solve a mystery, and save the world in every sequel?
LD: Actually, Tori does advertise her services. She’s a private investigator, after all. She meets her first Latter-Day Olympian when she’s hired to deliver a message to high-powered Hollywood agent Circe Holland-rumored by Tori’s eccentric grandmother to be that Circe from myth and legend-and ends up witnessing her murder by something that looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. All of the sudden, her Yiayia doesn’t seem quite so crazy. And when she’s hired by Apollo-yes, that Apollo, though in modern day he’s better known to film enthusiasts than followers-she becomes embroiled up to her eyeballs. Once the gods are aware of Tori, she gains a reputation as P.I. to the Pantheon and the weird cases come to her whether she likes it or not.
Gina…well, let’s just say that by the end of the first book, the government has laid claim to Gina and her friends, and after some “super spy club training,” they get their missions and cover identities from their handlers…until they decide some freelancing might be in order.
CS: The current trend is horror creatures. Vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies. Not many stories, in print or on screen, about gods and demigods? Why delve into classical mythology?
LD: My novels always start with characters talking in my head. At first they annoy the bejeebers out of me, because they don’t have anything better to do than banter. Now, I like banter. Love it, actually, but I abhor chaos. So inevitably I begin to form a framework around them. Usually, I’ll sit down and write a bit of what’s in my head, just to get a sense of my characters’ voices and who they are. This part never survives the actual drafting. It’s for me. Once I know who my characters are and what’s important to them, I have to mess with all of that, whether I take it away completely as I do to Gina in my Vamped series, or just challenge a character’s long-held beliefs and throw her up against beings way above her pay grade as I do with Tori in the Latter-Day Olympians. I think that’s how books start-either you know your characters first and torture them in a very personal fashion (writers are heartless that way) or you know the story you want to tell and develop a protagonist who’s in direct opposition.
As for classical mythology, I grew up on it. One of my aunts gave me a book on Greek mythology early on, and I was hooked on the tales. In junior high, I began taking Latin, which was about more than just the language, but also the culture, the ancient religions, the empire-building… I continued it into high school. In college I was an anthropology and writing double-major and one of the things that struck me in my anthropology studies was how many parallels there were in the myths of various religions. It fascinated me. I always knew I was going to do something with it. I just never knew what…until Tori came along and started talking to me.
CS: Who would play Gina and Tori in a screen adaptation? Who would play the other characters?
LD: Gina looks a lot like Selena Gomez in my head, so from a visual perspective, she’d be great. Zac Efron is a little too old now to play her love interest, Bobby, but if we could find a look-alike… Melisande, the evil vampiress in the first book looks something like Bernadette Peters.
Melina Kanakaredes from CSI: NY would make a wonderful Tori Karacis. She has the right look and the wild hair, which in Tori’s case owes to her gorgon heritage. Apollo would be Daniel Craig. Showing my age now, but for Detective Nick Armani, I imagine Ken Wahl as he looked back when he played the lead in Wiseguy. Jesus (pronounced Hey-Zeus) might be Rick Gonzalez from Reaper.
CS: Will we be seeing Gina/Tori on screen any time soon? Any feelers to or from Hollywood?
LD: I would absolutely love that! Nothing in the pipeline at the moment, but when it happens, you’ll hear my hooting and hollering from there.
CS: Are we going to hear from Gina again? How many more times will we hear from Tori?
LD: I hear from a lot of fans who want a fifth Vamped novel, and I’d love to revisit Gina and Bobby. Unfortunately, I don’t have another storyline in mind for them right now. And Tori needs a break! Wow, does she ever. I wrote a free prequel short story called “Trickster Blood” from Hermes’ perspective (he’s a major player in the series) and now he’s clamoring for more. We shall see.
CS: You’re also an agent. Do you represent yourself?
LD: Oh no. I know the importance of agents, and so I have one of my own. As an agent, I’m confident. I’ve been in the business for twenty-three years now, and I know what I’m doing. If I haven’t seen it all, I’ve come pretty close. As an author, I’m completely neurotic and would be terrible at negotiating for myself. I represent so many amazing authors that I feel very humbled beside them. My negotiating strategy for myself would be to agree to anything so we can get the contracts signed before the publisher came to its senses. Possibly not the best tactic! (The agent in me is suitably horrified.)
CS: As you’re typing, do you have a writer on one shoulder and an agent on the other, both of them whispering in your ear and the two of them competing to influence what comes out of your keyboard?
LD: Sometimes I’ll have an idea that I know isn’t terribly marketable and it kills me. I’m too practical to work on something I know will be next to impossible to sell. But for the most part, I foil my agent brain by writing first thing in the morning before it comes on-line. My inner critic/agent/badass needs a bit more caffeine and some time to wake-up. My inner author is best off first thing in the morning when the house is quiet and the ideas flow without me getting in my own way, if that makes sense. I can edit in the evenings with a critical eye, but I find that I write best when I don’t worry about perfection and just pour forth. Revisions are for perfecting and fine-tuning, but you can’t fix what isn’t on the page.
CS: Your agency is geographically very distant from New York? Isn’t that the publishing hub? Aren’t you supposed to take the editor to lunch to pitch a story or negotiate a contract? Or are these factors overrated?
LD: I spent fifteen years in New York at Spectrum Literary Agency. Those years were invaluable to me, but back then we needed to messenger manuscripts around and we couldn’t just e-mail them like we do today. I got to know the editors and yes take them to lunch and drinks or have them take me-we all had bigger expense accounts back then. Eight years ago I moved to a home office in Florida. At that time I was still with Spectrum. I moved to The Knight Agency about a year later. I go back to New York all the time for meetings, as do all the agents I know who live outside of the city. I see editors at conventions and writers conferences. We also have these wonderful devises called phones that allow us to keep in touch on a regular basis. And, of course, there’s e-mail, Skype, etc. Negotiations have always been done over the phone or via e-mail (or, in the old days, fax) to keep a paper trail, and so that hasn’t changed. Really the only thing that has is that instead of doing maybe one lunch a week throughout the year, I do concentrated visits where I have breakfast meetings, coffee meetings, lunch, more coffee, even more coffee, dinner, drinks, collapse into bed and then do it all over the next day. I still pitch over lunches or over the phone, which is the way it ever was. I think my track record attests to the success.
CS: How many manuscripts do receive per year and how many do you represent?
LD: I can’t say how many queries we receive per agent anymore because at The Knight Agency we have a submissions coordinator who does the first pass, but I can tell you that when I was the one reading all the queries, it was three hundred per month, per agent. Out of those three hundred queries, we potentially asked for about five each. Most of those we rejected. I’d say that we only took on one or two debut authors a year, plus a few established authors. I currently represent forty-seven authors, so I have a very full list. Still, I’m always looking for the next big thing.
CS: Average amount of time to find a publisher?
LD: Average? That’s a tough one. I’ve had books sell overnight and I’ve had it take three years from when I first took on an author until we sold her second series to a publisher. (Her first has since been published as well and she’s a very successful, award-winning author.) The average range is more like one to three months.
CS: How far will you go trying to find a home for a book before you cut your losses?
LD: I keep on going as long as I believe. In the case I mentioned above, I knew this author was something special. We just needed to find the right editor to share our vision. When I begin to lose faith, I’m no longer the right agent for that author and it’s best for us both to move on so that he or she can seek out new, enthusiastic representation who may be able to come at things from a fresh angle.
CS: What are the common misconceptions authors have about finding/dealing with an agent and finding/dealing with a publisher?
LD: I think one of the common misconceptions is that agents just submit work, negotiate the contracts and take our commissions. There’s so much more to it. We’re constantly in touch with editors so that we know their tastes, what they’re looking for, what they’ve just acquired. We browse Publishers Marketplace and other sites to see what new contacts we should make so that our network is always growing. We bring to submissions our reputation for finding amazing talent so that when we say that something has blown us away, it holds a lot of weight. Also prior to submissions, we work with the authors editorially so that the proposal, partial or full we go out with is absolutely the best it can be. We try to anticipate any objection an editor might have so that we can eliminate it before it gives an editor pause and foils acquisition. We hone our pitches. We call editors so that they can hear the excitement in our voices.
Then we follow up. Unless you’ve got a proven bestseller or the most original of ideas, you might not year overnight or generate multiple offers leading to an exciting and speedy closing. Often it’s a matter of following up. Updating the editors on interest or anything else relevant to their decision-making, like award nominations or other career benchmarks. Once we have the offer or offers, it’s a matter of negotiating so that the end deal is the best it can be and the writer gets to hold onto as many rights as possible (or receive advances and bonuses that make it worth granting some of those rights). We then haggle out the actual language. Our agency boilerplates with each company will already be an improvement on the standard and will incorporate language from battles already fought and won, but there are often changes, and every contract needs to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb.
We chase checks, query on statements when there’s an issue, deal with any editorial, cover or copy issues that arise, playing bad cop so that the author can have a harmonious relationship with their editors. We deal with the publishers on promotional plans and do all kinds of other things to help our clients achieve their success, including promote them ourselves in newsletters and social media. In essence, we’re editors, business managers, contracts specialists, subrights representatives and much, much more.
CS: What bestsellers have you represented and what about the stories did you find compelling enough to be convinced they were winners?
LD: I represent some amazing New York Times and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors, including Rachel Caine, Chloe Neill, Faith Hunter, Kalayna Price, N.K. Jemisin, Ramez Naam, Christina Henry… It’s different for everyone, but the uniting factors are a great voice/characters and a compelling story that keeps me turning pages long after I should be in bed. More than that, I love these stories so much that I don’t just pitch them to editors. I find myself pitching them to my family, my friends, bloggers, random people on the street… Really, I’m such an advocate for them. As an example, Rachel Caine’s Great Library series is based on the idea that the Library of Alexandria wasn’t burned down, but instead gained a stranglehold on knowledge and has its own standing army, guards, sister libraries (aka serapeums). The main characters are kids in training for service to the Library. Each keep secrets, some aren’t meant to survive their training. It gives me chills just thinking about it. Or N.K. Jemisin’s latest, The Fifth Season, which has been on just about everyone’s Best of 2015 list and is a current Nebula and Kitschie Award finalist. Imagine a volcanic world where the people with power, the orogenes, are feared and ostracized for what they can do. And where what’s just happened is the eruption to end all eruptions. The end times. The fifth (and last) season. Really incredible.
CS: Any advice to newer/unpublished/unagented speculative fiction writers?
LD: There’s a lot of buzz about self-publishing these days, and that obviously works for some, moreso authors who’ve already built up name recognition in traditional publishing. But overall, there’s so much signal to noise out there-so many books published daily-that I think for most it’s more important than ever to have an agent and publisher. Adoption of e-readers and e-books has slowed, and print is still showing itself to be an important format for readers. The only way to get widespread national and international bookstore buy in is to partner with a publisher with the distribution already in place. They also have the infrastructure to get books the attention they deserve-marketing, publicity, sales reps, etc.-and years of experience with what works in terms of covers, cover copy, timing, metadata, review and media outlets.
Agents know the editors, the strengths and weaknesses of various houses, and how to negotiate. We have the clout to get the best language and terms for our authors. As mentioned above, we play bad cop when necessary to keep things moving along in the right direction. We nag, chase payments, interpret royalty statements, provide editorial feedback, market subrights and do a myriad of other things.
So, advice? Rejections are part of the process, but the most important part is perseverance. You don’t want to find just any agent and editor, you want to find the ones who get your work and share your vision. Sometimes that takes time and effort and a thick skin, but it’s worth it in the end.
Carl Slaughter wrote many reviews for Tangent before moving to Diabolical Plots as a reviewer and later an interviewer. He conducted 50 plus interviews for Diabolical Plots. For the past 14 years, he has traveled the globe teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in 6 counties on 3 continents. Carl has traveled to 18 countries and counting. (He’s tired.) In college, Carl studied journalism, broadcasting, advertising, English, speech, and history. For several years, he was a stringer for the Associated Press. His essay on Chinese culture was published in Beijing Review. His essay on Korean culture was published in The Korea Times, as was his expose on the Korean ESL industry. His travel/education reports about Thailand occasionally appear on the Ajarn website. Carl subscribes to the Mike Resnick philosophy of fiction: It’s all about the characters. Check out Carl’s Diabolical Plots interviews, his Facebook photos with his students of all ages from around the world, and a short Youtube video of Carl with some VERY excited Thai kindergarteners.