When publishers told Karen Avivi that her book Shredded about a girl BMX rider was too niche, she didn’t return to the drawing board. (She has a literal drawing board, a giant whiteboard on which she plotted out the book.) Sports had helped her find confidence as an adult, and she couldn’t let the stories of sporty girls remain untold. With the sense of determination gained from running triathlons, skydiving and rock climbing, she decided to take matters into her own hands and self-publish.
Earlier this year, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators announced that Shredded, released in 2013, had won the Spark Award, which “recognizes excellence in a children’s book published through a non-traditional publishing route.”
For Avivi, a freelance technical and business writer, self-publishing didn’t mean she could skip any steps. She hired a graphic designer to create her cover, found an editor and a proofreader, and made sure Shredded was polished ready to debut. We spoke about her tips for writing about niche topics, dabbling in the YA genre and considering the self-publication route.
How did you get into writing?
I actually studied chemistry in university. I wanted to be in journalism, but I was just too shy at the time. I didn’t want to do any interviewing. In chemistry, you had to order things [for the lab] from catalogs. And I remember one of the catalog companies was hiring, and I thought that would be really fun. I’d rather do that than be in a lab running these experiments over and over. That was my first job, writing catalog copy for a scientific supply company, and from there it just snowballed into marketing and technical writing. Then about 10 years ago, one of my jobs was threatening layoffs, and I thought: What job would I want? You go through that when you think you’re going to lose your job: If I could do anything, what would it be? I would want to write books. Then I thought: Why not start writing books? I don’t have to wait to be fired. I can do that now.
And now you’re writing full time?
I freelance write so it leaves me a fair bit of time, more time than I would have if I worked full-time. Freelancing is up and down. Sometimes I’m really busy and working weekends, other times it’s slow. But it does allow me the time to write and go to conferences. It’s still freelance business writing and some technical and catalog writing.
How did you get into adventure sports?
I don’t want to overstate my athletic ability. I would call myself very active, but I don’t win things. I’m not like an Olympian. I got into triathlon after I was working at a job where we were creating first generation websites, if you can remember back when no one had a website and they needed to go from no website to having a website. The writing was really important so I was what they called a content manager. Everyone wanted a website so we were working around the clock. I was working with young programming guys who ate donuts all the time, and I packed on 12 pounds. My cousin said, “I’m going to do a triathlon,” and I said, “I’ll do it. Anything. I have to do something.” I signed up without really thinking it through, and then I had to basically learn how to swim more than a lap. But I needed that challenge to really push me. I started with a triathlon and went from there. I had never thought of myself as an athletic person, but I finished a triathlon. That’s not a small thing, and it trickled over into every other aspect of my life. I’m not the most confident person always, but from finishing that race, I realized that I can do things that I formerly thought I couldn’t. It completely changed my attitude about myself. It was pretty amazing.
Why do you write about sporty girls?
I’m not a huge fan of the overly romance-y and find-your-soul-mate-when-you’re-a-teenager YA stories. I think there are better stories to tell people. I discovered sports so late, and part of it was I wasn’t exposed to it. I grew up with Title IX, and girls were in sports, but it just wasn’t in the media. So I feel like these stories are missing. And it’s not about doing a sport because your boyfriend does it or because you want to meet somebody. It’s more about finding that thing that you really like to do. I chose a fringe sport because to me, it’s more interesting. The girls’ football story’s been told. A lot of those sports have been done several times. I wanted to choose something that would be interesting for me to research. I guess it’s a little self-indulgent, but what would I like to learn more about? When I saw these girls flipping and doing tricks on BMX, I’d never seen anyone doing it. It was interesting to learn about them.
What additional research did you do?
I borrowed a bike and decided to try a ramp at Ray’s Bike Park in Cleveland. It didn’t go so well. The girls said, “Be careful of the brakes.” I know how to ride a bike. I’ve been mountain biking. I have a commuter bike, a road bike. I have four bikes. I can ride a bike. So I get on this bike, and I’m going down, not even a big ramp, don’t picture anything huge, but I was picking up speed and Ray’s is inside and there isn’t a whole lot of space, so I hit the brakes. That bike stopped cold. I went over the handlebars; the bike landed on me. Oh my God, people were crowding around. I’m like, OK, I guess I know what it feels like to completely humiliate yourself on a bike in front of all these people. That research I did myself. But the actual winning something or landing a trick, I had to rely on imagination and Internet research for.
How do you communicate a message in books for young people without being preachy?
If you look at the three girls, there’s the main character and she has her two friends, and they have very different reasons for why they’re riding. There’s not just one message. Alexis is much more into the guys, and it’s not a bad thing. It’s just a different way of being. She really wants to have a boyfriend, and that is what she’s after, and it’s not for Josie. I wanted a boyfriend when I was a teenage girl. Who doesn’t? So you have to mention that there is romance around, but I don’t want the core of the story to be that unless she finds a boyfriend, she hasn’t succeeded. I don’t think that’s right for my story.
What are the challenges for you as an adult writing about high-school characters?
I can’t write about the way things were in high school [for me]. I’m not sure I’d want to. It’s embarrassing. And you can’t use realistic dialogue. Even the way adults talk doesn’t come out well in a story. You have to write the dialogue much tighter. But I didn’t worry about the voice too much. I started writing women’s fiction. Those were my first early attempts. The drawer manuscripts I guess you could call them, and people told me that my protagonist sounded too young. I thought: That’s my voice that I’m using. I don’t think I sound that young but maybe I just still have that kind of attitude. I didn’t really change it [for Shredded].
What is your process for naming characters?
I have a hard time with names, and they change quite a bit until I’m happy with them. I like to spy on my niece and nephew’s Facebook friend lists so I make sure I’m getting names current for their age range and not my friends’ names. I pick and choose names that I like, but then I end up with names that all start with the same letter. But once it’s right, it starts to stick and everything about that character will come together.
What’s your outlining process like?
I don’t draw very well, but I do try to sketch out where characters are and who’s in the scene and what it looks like. If you were going to storyboard movie style, that’s the kind of outline I like to work from. I have a huge eight-foot white board on my wall that I installed specifically to plot out a book because it was making such a mess. I had index cards everywhere, stuff taped to the wall, Post-Its falling down. In the house it was forbidden to throw away any scrap of paper. Is this important? Don’t throw it out! Put it in my office! It could be that key thing I thought of in the middle of the night. The white board solved a lot of that.
Why did you decide to self-publish Shredded?
I did shop it around a little bit, but I was getting feedback like I love the protagonist, I love this, I love that, but it’s not marketable. It’s too niche. What I was hearing was the subject matter I chose wasn’t going to be very marketable, but the quality in the book was fine. My options were to put this aside and write something more mainstream or see what I could do with it myself. It was the story I wanted to tell, so I felt like I’d achieved what I wanted. You have to sit and think about that. What am I trying to do? Am I trying to get traditionally published no matter what it takes? Or do I want to tell this story? I thought if someone wants me to change this to a more mainstream sport, a team sport and have her be more romance-y, I’m going to refuse to do it, so I guess this is the story. I’m the only one who was going to publish it. I took it on myself.
Do you plan to do that for your next book as well?
I think I will because again I have chosen something odd to write about: adventure racing. The girl is 19. It’s not going to be a mainstream story. If somebody wants to publish it and pay me, I wouldn’t turn it down, but I’d be surprised if that happened.
What was the process of self-publishing like for you?
I had to hire an editor, and I had to get it proofread and get the cover designed and set up all my social media, but as far as making it available, through Amazon and Create Space, that’s pretty simple. They can give you a template for the cover, and if you know how to, say, auto-generate a table of contents in Word, you know enough about Word to be able to format the book properly. They give you all the specifications. It’s not rocket science to get that formatting done right, but it’s time-consuming. Now discoverability, whether anyone cares or notices, that’s a whole other story.
What have you done to get people to read the book and be interested?
I try to go to people who seem to already like sporty books, like Sporty Girl Books blog was a good match. They’ve been really supportive. I’ve reached out to some teachers and librarians who had specific lists of girls’ sports books. I reached out locally. It’s been slow going. The book didn’t make a big splash. It’s getting excellent reviews from the people who do read it and review it because I chose very carefully people who I thought would like it. You have to go into it knowing it’s going to be a slow build.
Would you recommend self-publishing to other authors?
Again, it depends what they’re trying to do. To some people, it’s the dream to be traditionally published, and some people would be very uncomfortable trying to format their own book or hire a designer. If you’ve already been working as a freelancer and you’re accustomed to having to pretty much do everything yourself, I don’t think it’s that intimidating. And if you have an odd story you want to tell your way, then, yes, I think you’re going to have to self-publish.
Do you have any advice for writers who might want to try self-publishing?
Be honest about the reasons you’re doing it. Is your story as well-told as it can be? Did you get it edited? Did you get feedback? Is it ready to be put out in the world?
Megan Kaplon is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston and an editorial assistant at The Writer magazine.
Excerpt from Shredded
by Karen Avivi
I’d spent countless hours riding that half-pipe and was comfortable with tricks I didn’t try anywhere else. I started by riding down one side, up the other and doing a basic double-peg grind, turning my bike on the top of the curve so I landed sideways on my wheel pegs before dropping back down.
I kept riding from side to side doing different grinds each time I hit the upper lip. I tried one involving my rear peg plus a 180-degree turn but I lost control and landed on my left hip under my bike. I stood up, shook my legs out, and climbed out of the trough.
Looking down from the deck, Lauryn said, “Nice,” then dropped in and did a 360-degree air turn at the top of the opposite side, landing in a fakie so she was riding backward down the ramp. Not an easy trick. She was good.
Each time she reached the top of the curve she did an air trick, and she missed a lot of them, but she’d jump right back on her bike and go again. Her riding style reminded me of Miguel’s. No fear.
She kept doing different tricks, some I recognized but didn’t know what they were called and other I’m sure I’d never seen before. She was landing badly, tumbling with her bike rolling over her until she reached the trough of the half-pipe.
Each time she got up she’d check her bike, climb back up and go again. Stopping wasn’t an option for her.
My hands and feet started moving with hers, and adrenaline flowed through my body as if I were the one riding nonstop. I mouthed silent instructions to her when I could see what she needed to do. Push down, hop up, shoulders back, lean forward, yes!
Something wet and cold touched my right forearm.
“Aaaah,” I yelled, snatching my arm away.
“Mesmerizing, isn’t she?” said a girl with spiky black hair and a nose stud, clutching three slushie drinks together. Was this Alexis?
Shredded is reprinted with permission from Karen Avivi. Copyright 2013.