Interviewed by Beth Pond
Jennifer Iacopelli was born in New York and has no plans to leave…ever. Growing up, she read everything she could get her hands on, but her favourite authors were Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery and Frances Hodgson Burnett, all of whom wrote about kick-ass girls before it was cool for girls to be kick-ass. She got a Bachelor’s degree in Adolescence Education and English Literature, quickly followed up by a Master’s in Library Science, which lets her frolic all day with her books and computers, leaving plenty of time in the evenings to write and yell at the Yankees, Giants and her favourite tennis players through the TV.
I am an admirer of Iacopelli’s debut Young Adult novel Game. Set. Match. and was delighted when she agreed to speak with me by email.
When did you first discover your love of writing?
Eighth grade, sitting in an Honors Earth Science classroom bored out of my mind, a friend, who shall remain nameless and I would pass a notebook back and forth writing stories starring our favorite celebrities and characters conveniently with our names as their love interests. I didn’t do nearly as well in Earth Science as I should have, but at least one thing stuck.
Is Game. Set. Match. the first manuscript you completed and queried?
It was. Before Game. Set. Match. I’d never completed anything other than fan fiction. I’d started and stopped many original stories, in fact I found an old notebook full of them just a few days ago (Wow, were they terrible!), so I’ll just say that I was very, very lucky that everything worked out for me the first time around.
I read that Penny’s character was inspired by a Hanson song. Could you talk a little bit more about how the idea for Game. Set. Match. unfolded?
Penny was inspired by a Hanson song. It was the strangest thing and usually most of my writing ideas are, but I was listening to the song Penny and Me and she just popped into my head, nearly fully-formed. I knew she was a tennis player, I knew who her family was and I even knew which tournaments she’d win and when. Everything else took a long time to figure out, but the characters always stemmed from Penny and her family. I have an old, original outline for the story and it’s just so different from how it ended up.
So if music inspired the Penny’s character, does this mean you listen to music while you write?
It depends on the scene I’m writing. If it’s a particularly difficult one (not necessarily difficult for the characters, just difficult for me, for whatever reason) I usually need quiet. If everything is flowing, I definitely have much on in the background. I’ve noticed that if I play classical music while I’m writing the tennis-action sequences, they tend to read more fluidly, so I’ll usually play some Beethoven and Bach to get me through.
Game. Set. Match. has three main protagonists, Penny, Indy, and Jasmine. Were any of the girls easier to write than the others and why?
Indy was very easy to write. She’s one of those people who just says whatever she’s thinking and that’s always a little easier to write than more closed off characters because you don’t have to worry about what her personal filter is and what she would and wouldn’t say out loud. Her personality just lends itself to writing freely and seeing where the chips fall. Penny wasn’t too difficult. Of the three girls, her personality is most like my own, so I had a lot to draw from in that sense. Jasmine was the real pain in the butt. She was a difficult balance because she’s a difficult girl. She’s under a ton of pressure and sometimes that pressure gets to her, so the Jasmine on the page, didn’t always reflect who Jasmine really was on the inside. I tried to carefully hint that she was deeper than she was showing the rest of the world. I hope my readers see that!
Did you use any particular outlining methods during the drafting phase to help you keep track of their storylines?
I had notecards, lots and lots of notecards. I color coded the cards by character and that’s how I kept track of everything. It made it easy to shift scenes around, without too much hassle and I could lay the cards out and visually see the plot of the book. That was really important when tackling a story with three different points of view. I actually really liked this system and while I use Scrivener now to write, I still plot on physical cards.
What drew you to write about professional tennis athletes rather than athletes competing for a high school or college team?
Honestly, I never even considered writing about a high school or college team. Tennis is one of those sports (gymnastics is another) where players decide relatively early on (or rather their abilities and level of commitment decide for them) whether they intend on playing professionally or not. All of my characters, with one notable exception, have ambitions of becoming the best tennis player in the world. That’s just how the story unfolded from the beginning.
Do you draw upon your own knowledge when writing the tennis scenes or do you ever use videos or photos for research/inspiration?
I’ve been a tennis fan all my life. I took lessons at a young age at the National Tennis Center (one of the many benefits of growing up in Queens!). Sometimes I draw on the matches I’ve watched in the past. Other times I’ll wonder if something’s happened before and I’ll tool around on YouTube looking for an example. Sometimes a tennis match will arrive in my head with the entire match and its outcome all determined before I even start writing.
Typically young adult protagonists are between the ages of 15 and 17. Recently, books with protagonists with characters between the ages of 18-25 have been considered part of the new adult genre. Game. Set. Match. has characters that fall into both age ranges. Do you think the crossover potential for GSM made it easier to gain agent and publisher interest in your work or did it causes challenges?
At the time, I think it probably caused more challenges than anything else. New Adult, the category focusing on protagonists ages 18-25, was still very much “not a thing” while I was querying. I had many agents interested in the original manuscript, but wanted me to revise it aging down the characters and making it solely a “young adult” novel or simply a flat out rejection, citing the mixing of two categories, one of which didn’t exist in the market yet. I was lucky in that a few agents saw Game. Set. Match. the same way I did, which is very much a crossover novel. The age of my characters was something I felt very strongly about. A trio of sixteen or seventeen-year-olds just wouldn’t have worked for the story I wanted to tell, at least not realistically, and realism is something I wasn’t going to compromise on with this world.
Game. Set. Match. is part of a three book deal, and I believe you’re currently working on the second novel in the series. Did you always plan for it to be a series? If yes, could you explain your creative process for outlining the series? If not, how have you taken what you thought would be a stand-alone novel and turned it into a series?
I am currently working on the second novel in the series. What no one tells you is how tough it is to write a sequel! I did always plan it to be a series and I’m lucky in that the lives of my characters translate well to a series format. There are four Grand Slam championships in a tennis season, so that’s four opportunities for a huge event for each book to focus upon. Game. Set. Match. centered upon the preparation for and attending the French Open. The next book in the series will focus on Wimbledon. And the third, the U.S. Open.
At what point in the writing process do you share your work with critique partners?
This is going to sound SO ambiguous, but it’s true. I share when it’s ready for me to share. It’s just a feeling I get in my stomach that I either need someone else’s eyes on it or that there’s no more good I can do on my own and it’s time to let it go a bit. With everything I’ve ever written I’ve been the same way. Sometimes I send full manuscripts, other times I get through chapter 5 and I need help with a particular section. I’m lucky enough to have some awesome critique partners who put up with me!
How do you balance writing with other work obligations?
This is one of the things I’ve found the hardest. When I wrote GSM, I’d just been laid-off from my job and had a lot of free time and thus brainpower to devote to writing. With this manuscript, I’ve started a new job, so I write whenever I can find the time. Mostly on weekends and on vacations (I’m a high school librarian so I do have time off in the summer and several long-ish holidays during the year). But the key for me is to just try to do a little bit every day so it doesn’t all pile up at the end of the week.
What general advice would you give to writers about to embark on the querying process?
RESEARCH! Do your market research. Research the agents you plan to query. Research the agents you don’t plan to query. Research how to write a query letter. Write one and get as many eyes on it as humanly possible. Do your due diligence. Don’t assume after an afternoon of futzing around on the internet that you’re the Query Master and you’re going to get it right on the first try. No one does. It’s a unique process, comparable to applying to college or for a job, only even more subjective than those two very subjective processes. Keep your skin thick and keep pushing through. Rejection is part of it and it’s going to sting. Let it sting for a minute, but no more than that, and just keep at it. It will happen.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned about publishing thus far?
It’s a cliché, but it’s cliché because it’s true. Everyone’s journey to publication is different and there isn’t a “right way” to do things. The right way is the way that’s right for you and that’s the only thing that matters. Solicit opinions and read as much as you can on the publishing industry as a whole, but at the end of the day make sure you’re comfortable with the decisions you make (or that your agent is making on your behalf) and don’t be afraid to speak up!
Beth Pond is an MFA student at the University of British Columbia. Her Young Adult novel, Podium Finish, was released from Astraea Press in November 2013.