Thursday, May 15, 2014

Just Another...Book Crush (#15): The Art of Lainey by Paula Stokes

Just Another...Book Crush! is a monthly feature where I invite an author whose book I've recently reviewed and loved to write a guest post and share their three latest book crushes. It's a feature I'm starting mostly because I'm often very shy to approach authors, especially ones I admire, and also because I love reading guest posts since, more often than not, they convince me to pick up a book even when the reviewer cannot. 

I got in touch with Paula a couple of months prior to the release of The Art of Lainey as I'd picked up my ARC almost immediately after receiving it and was thoroughly impressed with the story within. Of most importance to me, however, was the depiction of a strong female protagonist in Lainey and, in particular, Paula's journey to publication with a heroine who doesn't quite fit all the usual boxes. Needless to say, I had to have Paula on the blog to share her story with you all! :)
Soccer star Lainey Mitchell is gearing up to spend an epic summer with her amazing boyfriend, Jason, when he suddenly breaks up with her—no reasons, no warning, and in public no less! Lainey is more than crushed, but with help from her friend Bianca, she resolves to do whatever it takes to get Jason back. And that’s when the girls stumble across a copy of The Art of War. With just one glance, they're sure they can use the book to lure Jason back into Lainey’s arms. So Lainey channels her inner warlord, recruiting spies to gather intel and persuading her coworker Micah to pose as her new boyfriend to make Jason jealous. After a few "dates", it looks like her plan is going to work! But now her relationship with Micah is starting to feel like more than just a game. What's a girl to do when what she wants is totally different from what she needs? How do you figure out the person you're meant to be with, if you're still figuring out the person you're meant to be?
Hi! I’m Paula. Keertana invited me on the blog to talk about the creation and evolution of Lainey, the main character from my first YA contemp The Art of Lainey. Like Keertana, I see Lainey as a strong and engaging female character, but she’s also very flawed. At the beginning of the book, she’s got a lot going for her—looks, athletics, friends, loving middle-class family, hot boyfriend, use of her brother’s car for the summer, etc. Because of this, she starts out as someone who might get hashtagged with #FirstWorldProblems, if you know what I mean.

So why would I want to write about this kind of girl? The first answer to that question is “I don’t know.” I don’t design my characters like some mad scientist in a lab, tweaking the height lever up a bit and the snark lever down until I achieve the perfect girl. They usually just appear out of the ether and start talking. Sometimes there are tons of them all fighting each other in a big mental street fight until eventually one or two win out. Lainey Mitchell came to me, with her likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses  mostly in place, based on the idea of “what happens to the girl who has everything when her world falls apart?”

The second answer is because I like flawed characters. There are plenty of books with inoffensive and seemingly perfect main characters for readers to insert themselves into, but everyone I know in real life has flaws. So what if Lainey is a little shallow and snarky and emotional? So what if she starts out a tad desperate in the romantic arena? These things make her real.  Plus, there’s more opportunity for growth and character arc if your MC isn’t perfect to start with.

The third answer is because I wanted to bust the myth of the popular girl. You know—the one whose life looks perfect? Well guess what? She has all the same insecurities as everybody else. She’s insecure about her looks. She worries about her future. She’s afraid of being hurt. She’s afraid of hurting people. She wants to be loved. When we put people in boxes, we run the risk of forgetting the common threads we all share.

Although I try to let my characters be themselves as much as possible, there is one thing I demand from my MCs—strength. They don’t have to be physically strong (although Lainey is) or even mentally strong, but they need to have strength of spirit. I think it’s clear from the first chapter that Lainey is going to be okay, no matter what. She’s a fighter. My female characters manifest their strength in different ways and occasionally do weak things (no one’s perfect) but in general they’re  tough chicks. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In summer of 2011, I took the first chapter of The Art of Lainey  (which was still a WIP) to a conference where an editor told me she liked the voice but that Lainey couldn’t think of herself as pretty or popular because all high school girls were insecure and considered themselves dorky. I’m paraphrasing her words, but basically I walked away thinking my book didn’t have a chance unless I made Lainey just like the quiet, quirky, intellectual, outsider girls that were prevalent in a lot of YA contemps published a few years ago.

But that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, so I finished the book my way and queried four agents in fall of 2011. Three of them requested the full manuscript immediately, from the first ten pages where Lainey is kind of at her worst. Yay, vindication! Sort of. The agent I signed with also loved Lainey, though she pointed out a few places where Lainey was snarky for snarky’s sake that I ended up revising.

My agent felt really positive about my revisions and sent the book on submission in winter of 2011 using Stephanie Perkins’s books as comparison titles. I hadn’t read ANNA or LOLA at the time, but I knew how popular they were so I was feeling confident too. But unfortunately…EDITORS. HATED. LAINEY. “I just didn’t care about her.” “I didn’t feel a connection.” “I thought this book was full of horrible people.”

I cried. If you think it sucks to get a string of mysterious “not for me” agent rejections, wait until you get a whole slew of NYC editors being completely honest about why they didn’t like your book. I cried some more. Then I went for a run. Then I called some friends and discussed the uncomfortable reality of just how much of my inner self I had put into Lainey. “OMG.  Editors hate me,” I said. “I’m apparently a horrible person.” But my friends didn’t think so. And my agent didn’t think so either. We put our heads together. She thought the current draft of the MS was fine and that we should go out for another submission round. But since multiple editors had remarked on Lainey’s lack of appeal, I wanted to revise.  [Sidenote: Paula Writing Rule #3: Never pass up a chance to revise.]

That was the tricky part, because as Lainey’s creator, I knew every part of her. I knew her history. I knew her thoughts. I knew that underneath her “popular girl façade” she was awesome. But how could I bring that to the page?

Because I wasn’t willing to sacrifice Lainey’s popularity, feistiness, or her deeply felt emotions (she basically goes through the stages of grief after her boyfriend dumps her, so she is very angry in places and despondent in others), I decided to revise by addition instead of subtraction. I started by layering in self-awareness to make her more sympathetic and relatable. Finished book-Lainey realizes she’s being bitchy to Micah in the first chapter and wants to apologize even though she can’t quite spit it out. She knows when she’s being melodramatic. At one point, she makes a really bad decision and she questions herself the whole time. I also worked to emphasize Lainey’s positive traits. She’s funny, fiercely loyal, and hates to see people in pain. I developed scenes to show all of these elements throughout the book. Finally, I deepened her relationship with Bianca and her interest in soccer to make her feel more multi-faceted.

My agent loved the changes and the manuscript was eventually acquired in May of 2012 by an editor at HarperTeen. When I told her the story of “Everyone Hates Lainey” she was like “Nah. Maybe she needs a little tweaking, but I thought she was fun.” VICTORY! :-) My Harper editor pushed me to make the book even stronger by requesting I give Lainey and Bianca’s friendship additional backstory and develop the soccer aspect of the story even more. I also finessed Lainey’s intellectual arc with respect to The Art of War and her overall emotional arc with respect to her best friend and possible new boyfriend.

Lainey Mitchell doesn’t become a whole new person in one summer, because that would be unrealistic, but by the end of the book she has changed in subtle but important ways. She knows more about who she is and what she wants. She more thoughtful; she’s less afraid; she has new things in her life that matter. I’m proud of the person Lainey becomes. If you read The Art of Lainey, I think you will be too.

Just Another...Book Crush!
My book crush picks [Disclaimer: authors don’t get time to read 200 books a year like we wish we could, so these aren’t brand new releases, but they’re three of the last books I really loved.]

  1. VICIOUS by V.E. Schwab: Truth--I don’t like books that are written so just when something good is happening I have to flash to a different time period or POV and wait to find out what’s going on in the present. The fact that VICIOUS does this, a lot, and I still love it speaks to how absolutely phenomenal it is. What made this one for me is Victor, his relationships with the other characters, and the PERFECT ENDING.
  2. THE DUFF by Kody Keplinger: Sometimes a book speaks to you on a personal level—no, on several personal levels. I did not go into the book expecting that Bianca and Wesley would make me cry, but they did. If you like YA contemps and can handle some sex/swearing, this one should not be missed.
  3. A TALE OF TWO CENTURIES by Rachel Harris: I’m re-reading this one in preparation for the third book and it is such a delight. Austin is deliciously swoony in that bad boy/slacker/surfer who knows his classic literature kind of way. Less’s adventures in modern day California are hilarious. Reading this book reminded me of why I wrote The Art of Lainey—to make people laugh and feel good.
Thanks for stopping by, Paula! I seriously loved this post and The DUFF is a favorite of mine. I'm definitely bumping both Vicious and A Tale of Two Centuries up my list after your glowing recommendation, so I cannot wait to pick those up soon as well! :)


  1. ooh I have been meaning to read Visious and The DUFF. Both sound awesome. I absolutely loved Lainey--her flawed-ness was what made her stood out. Seriously adored this novel.

    Thanks for sharing, Keertana! <33

  2. An excellent post! It's hard to tweak a character so he/she is "likeable" or "relatable", especially when you've worked with/on this person's EVERYTHING for so long. I like how you uncovered the awesome in Lainey.

  3. Wow, what a fascinating post! I love hearing road to publication stories from authors and how a story started and then evolved throughout the process. I love a character with flaws for sure, I can never see myself in the characters who handle everything in their lives perfectly, so I think I'll enjoy Lainey:) Thanks so much for sharing Paula and Keertana!

  4. YES to VICIOUS! I love Victoria Schwab's writing, and the fact that Lainey loves it, too, must mean that I'm meant to read her works, as well! I consider it a real sign, Keertana. Lovely feature :)

  5. Oh Thanks for the really interesting post. I agree that it's always fascinating when the characters aren't perfect because there is so much to discover about them.

  6. Great post. I find it interesting to see how authors came to be published. I'm glad that you didn't get rid of the main aspects of your MC and you persevered!

    As for your picks, I REALLY want to read Vicious and I LOVED The Duff. I hope to read it again this summer.


  7. I am so excited to eventually read The Art of Lainey! I need to purchase or borrow this soon! It definitely sounds like a book I will enjoy, especially after hearing how much thought was put into this character. And this post has also persuaded me to eventually read The DUFF and Vicious. Wonderfully written!

  8. Wow I absolutely love this post—it's so wonderful to see how the evolution of Lainey and her relationships happened prior to publication. I have a review copy of this and am now kicking myself for waiting so long to get to it, this sounds like a wonderful story and I can't wait to meet Lainey and Micah and Bianca. And yes to the Duff and Vicious love! Clearly I need to read A Tale of Two Centuries too. :-) Thanks for sharing this fab guest post!

  9. I am now more intrigued than ever to about Lainey's character. I always love reading others' thoughts on strong female protagonists, and it is fascinating to read about Lainey's evolution.

    I also loved The DUFF and plan on reading Vicious soon myself. :)

  10. The Art of Lainey is a refreshing contemporary I've read in a long time. Stokes, you've become my favorite. I liked the description of not designing characters in lab.It is really nice to hear how Lainey's character made its way into the novel from the creator of Lainey Mitchell. Wonderful post!!

  11. I definitely want to read Vicious, I'm not sure about The Duff, and I haven't heard of A Tale until now, will look it up!

  12. This is such an insightful post Paula, I loved how despite it being really tough to get your book out in the real world, you were still able to write the Lainey that you wanted to. Also characters which are strong in whichever way, always make my favorites! And I have had The Duff for the longest time ever, I think you've certainly given me the extra push to give it a go sooner!

  13. I have heard so many good things about this one I just know I will be picking it up and adding it to my TBR pile on Tuesday!

  14. Oh I've seen this book around quite a bit and its' supposed to be pretty good. I haven't read the duff yet but I really found the blurb interesting so I'll definitely check it out

  15. Wow, it's a difficult process to write a book and I would find the critiquing hard to bear. I do love a story with positive character growth. Thanks for sharing ladies! :)

  16. I have to admit I am thoroughly impressed. Lainey is exactly the type of character I would normally avoid, but thanks to this post, I see that she was written with a certain purpose and without compromises and I see that she's someone worth meeting.
    And btw, I've had VIcious on my tbr for so long, I think it's time to finally pick it up.

  17. Thanks for the interest and lovely outpouring of support, everyone! And thanks, Keertana, for the chance to share Lainey's journey from my heart to my brain to the page to the shelves. What can I say? We're both fighters :-)

    And all three of my book crushes are so different, but yeah, so worth reading, IMO. VICIOUS is delicious evil goodness. A TALE is sweet fluffy goodness. THE DUFF is thoughtful and uplifting goodness. I must now add DREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS to the crush list--all around epic goodness! #BookLove

  18. That is exactly why I like flawed characters... I like books with growth in them. I wouldn't go for Lainey if she didn't grow, but that was the purpose of her flaws. I also like seeing how she was "tweaked" for the final book. Great post!

  19. I am glad she changes but not too much cos yes that would not be realistic

  20. Aw, I love this! I really enjoyed THE ART OF LAINEY, and I am all for flawed--and therefore realistic and interesting--characters. I agree that the picture perfect life of popular people is often a myth, too. Often. Not always, but often. ;)

    Enjoyed this guest post, ladies, thank you!

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

  21. Wow, I can't imagine having everyone say they hated my MC like that. But it does seem as if you've done a great job in your revision. Keertana is not easily impressed! So some more books to add to my reading list. Great feature Keertana.


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