Q&A: Meet the Women Cooking Up Your Favorite YA

by Claire Luchette

Self-described "plot geeks" Lexa Hillyer and Lauren Oliver are the co-founders, entrepreneurs, and "literary incubators" who run Paper Lantern Lit. Neither a publisher nor a literary agency but with similar responsibilities, PLL envisions the book-writing process differently. The PLL "story architects" work by creating and fine-tuning ideas for narratives and then scouting out the writers who can make their plots come to life. So while publishing houses only consider finished manuscripts, PLL considers the voices and work samples of promising writers. Currently, they're focusing on Young Adult lit, a genre they feel is "dynamic" and home to grown-up content, but with a sense of "optimism and possibility." When their books are complete and ready to be enjoyed, PLL sells their manuscripts to publishing houses. (Their current sales record is 100 percent!)

I chatted with these lit-savvy entrepreneurs about their vision for Paper Lantern Lit and how they see their contribution to YA publishing. Our convo begins here:

BUSTLE: Tell me how co-founding a startup works, both idealistically and practically. How'd your idea blossom, and what are the logistics you had to deal with?

LAUREN OLIVER: Lexa and I both wanted to take what we love about traditional publishing — the opportunity to nurture young writers, the ability to edit and think structurally about books and plotting — and kind of mash it up with what we love about writing. We wanted creative flexibility and we wanted to start a company that would reflect our values as artists and as people.

Logistically, wow — everything was a challenge at first! We faced criticism and skepticism and everything in between. We didn't know how to apply for a Tax ID number, how to write a business agreement, how to open up a business account at the bank. The learning curve was huge.

LEXA HILLYER: True. But as Laura said from the start, you just have to take one step at a time, and eventually they all get figured out. That, and hire a fantastic intern! Someone who will hold you to your word, remind you what you brainstormed during your last Wine Night official meeting, and will help keep the enthusiasm up even when you're falling victim to all the logistics. It also immensely helped to have a partner. We could trade off tasks and we each always had someone holding us accountable. Finally, we had a vision, and it came from wanting to do what we loved, and to create value around what we knew we were good at. No matter what else shifts as you start your business, knowing what you're good at, and why other people would want to pay for it, is key to sticking with it and staying on task!

How are the challenges of "literary incubation" different from the challenges of traditional publishing?

Laura: In traditional publishing, editors are largely acquiring books that are kind of "fully cooked" — the basic plot and story structure is there, and the manuscript is (for the most part) complete. But Lexa and I grow concepts from the ground up, which sometimes necessitates months and months of back and forth as we try and determine how to make a particular concept work, or why an outline is glitching in Act II, or what we could be doing better to streamline and build more suspense into a particular project. It's freeing to create and develop projects from the very beginning, but it's also stressful and deeply nerve-wracking. We have such a personal investment in all of our projects.

Lexa: Agreed! Every book feels like one of our babies. We also really invest in our authors. We want them to have a great experience and to truly grow as writers. We support them by helping set up events, coaching them through social media platforms, and keep very frequent contact with them. While some editors won't hear from their authors for months as the books are being written or revised, we talk to our authors almost every single week to find out how they are doing and where they are struggling. This can be super-demanding, but it is a hallmark of why we do what we do.

What do you like about Young Adult?

Laura: Young Adult literature is very dynamic — it's always changing, and there's a huge emphasis on imaginative concept and extremely well-constructed story structure. There are a lot of big conceptual experiments in YA: aliens-meets-mermaids-meets-Romeo-and-Juliet! It's fun.

Lexa: Totally. It's a space where you can explore adult themes but with a more youthful sense of optimism and possibility. Also, that's the age where absolutely everything important feels like life or death. Will he kiss me? Will I win? Do I fit in? Does anyone care? Where are my socks?! No seriously, WHERE ARE THEY, THEY'RE MY FAVORITE SOCKS?! This heightened perspective makes for more intense and condensed storytelling.

How do you hope to contribute to the genre?

Laura: I think our greatest contribution is the fact that we're finding and helping to build the next generation of great new YA authors. That's a wonderful feeling.

Lexa: We stay on top of the market but we aren't slaves to it. We are looking for concepts and voices that are special and yet universal in their appeal. The goal is to make books that people will want to read for ages, not just while it's trendy one month. There's a lot of that in YA because people think the window is so narrow — readers are only teens for a few years, after all. But we think great books can continue to find new audiences and new formats. Adaptation! Besides, we'd rather do something surprising and take a risk with the chance of ending up at the front of the newest trends, rather than spend all of our energy chasing them.

What do you hope to change?

Laura: I would love for there to be less of an emphasis on the Next Big Thing. I think the whole industry could stand to be diversified a little; I'm not sure the blockbuster model is actually beneficial to the publisher, the author, or the reader.

Lexa: True dat. I also love genre-busting, which is tough because bookstores are always asking "but what shelf do I put it on?" Of course that's fair — bookstores are mostly made up of books on shelves, after all, but it seems like such a pedestrian reason to limit the literature young people are able to find, doesn't it? how about a shelf called "we don't know what it is, but here, try it and it may just change your life!" This is where indie stores really shine over the chains. So, I guess I hope the chains start taking more cues from the indies and make reading more about the books and less about the category.

How do you come up with your YA concepts?

Laura: It's really variable. We have massive brainstorming sessions, where we write down interesting words, themes, ideas, and images and try and cobble together book ideas from them. We're inspired by art, by the plays we see and the music we hear, by news stories and by trends we perceive. And then we work and work and work the concept, hone it, chisel it down, try to render it in its best, purest form.

Lexa: Or sometimes one of us has an insane daydream in a cab or the shower or while someone boring is talking to us, and calls the other and says "would this work as a book?" and the other says "let's find out!" But yeah, mostly what she said. I think people are often surprised by the fact that ideas don't just emerge whole like an ostrich egg. They usually involve fitting together several surprising elements, collage-like, and seeing what happens.

Are your visions of stories ever different from how the author brings them to life? Give me an example if you can.

Laura: Totally! The examples are too numerous to list. That's the joy; that's the special alchemy. We want our authors to take control of the projects, to own them at a certain point. Their voices and visions transform the outline and make the scaffolding we've developed beautiful and different and unrecognizable to us, in the best way.

Lexa: But seriously, we rewrite huge portions of our outlines once the writer is on board and begins writing. The process is pretty fluid that way. It has to be. I can think of a pretty big example. Notes from Ghost Town, by Kate Ellison. Super amazing literary mystery and heartbreaking love story rolled into one. When we started out, there was a dead guy, a best friend (guy), and a hot new guy. Only after the author had written about half the book really struggling to figure out who to focus on did we realize wait, wait, wait: the best friend is the dead guy. I don't know how we missed that from the start, since it ended up becoming the heart of the book. I mean literally it is the heart of the book. It wouldn't have ever worked without this crucial but somewhat massive alteration. When she turned in the rewrite, we all sobbed with joy. That's when you know it's working!

What has surprised you about being in charge of Paper Lantern Lit?

Laura: I don't think we originally anticipated that management--training employees, growing our team's skill sets, and monitoring workload — would take up as much time as it does, or be as challenging to us as it has proven. We're a very tight-knit group, but it definitely takes work!

Lexa: True! I now give our editors "editorial bootcamp" assignments every monday morning at 9am. They love it! (Right, guys?) Plus we try to stay responsive to what's working, and to set our employees up for success — for instance, we recognized one of our editors' passion for marketing, and so we promoted her to half marketing manager half editor! We can do that because we are small and we make up the rules as we go. Also I am always pleasantly surprised by how many amazingly talented people want to work with us and how many other cool innovative companies find us and want to partner. When we first started out, we were kind of in a creative vacuum, not realizing the full potential of our company. Now our eyes are always open to new opportunities. We want to stay fresh and dynamic. We really try to take conventional wisdom with a (glass of wine, or) grain of salt.

Image: Charles Grantham