Just two short years ago, Lara Avery crossed the dais at graduation, unsure of her future. Today, she’s the author of the young adult novel Anything But Ordinary, which will be published in September by Disney Hyperion—with Hollywood rumors suggesting a future movie starring Emma Roberts and Anna Sophia Robb.

So how did a 24-year-old creative writing minor from Topeka, Kansas, get so far, so fast? Like so many of today’s publishing success stories, hers starts with a blog.

As a senior at Macalester, Avery had a blog in which she wrote about “life, everyday happenings, and thoughts.” Given that she’d already spent several years writing sketches for Mac’s Bad Comedy, the blog was funnier and more interesting than most. Mac friend Rhett Dupont ’08, then living in New York, happened to show one of Avery’s blog entries to a friend of his who worked for Alloy Media.

The Alloy Media employee told him that Avery’s was the writing style they were seeking at Alloy’s sister company, Alloy Entertainment. Dupont gave Avery the email address of an editor at Alloy, with encouragement to send her writing in.

Alloy Entertainment is a creative think tank that develops and produces approximately two dozen new books each year. In 2009 and 2010, more than 30 of Alloy Entertainment’s books reached The New York Times best sellers list. Its best-selling franchises include The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars.

Avery promptly sent Alloy the capstone writing project she’d just finished—50 pages of fictionalized memoir about the competitive junior high school basketball team she’d once been a part of, her family, boys—the whole adolescent enchilada. The editor liked it. Her next test was to look over a list of Alloy’s book ideas—titles and summaries only—choose one, and deliver a first chapter, written on spec.

The concept that intrigued Avery—and that ultimately became her book Anything But Ordinary—involves a teenage diver at the Olympic trials who hits her head and goes into a five-year coma. When she awakens, her boyfriend is engaged to her best friend, her friends are older, her family is splintered, but she’s still the same 17-year-old she was at the time of the accident. Drama, naturally, follows.

After Avery completed an initial chapter, Alloy asked for a second one, and then there was a
months-long process of no news, followed by meetings and discussions, and finally, by the end of the summer following her graduation, she had a contract to develop the book. The writing process, especially on the first nine chapters that would be shopped around to publishers, was collaborative. She and the editors outlined each chapter together, she’d write, they’d read and discuss plot points, and she’d rewrite.

Then came a less pleasant surprise: They needed the final two-thirds of the book written in five months.

By May 2011, a year after her graduation, Avery’s book was sent to the teen imprints of major publishers, Alloy acting as her agent. Happily, a bidding war ensued, with the rights eventually going last August to Disney Hyperion. Then came a less pleasant surprise: They needed the final two-thirds of the book written in five months. “It was an incredible challenge,” says Avery, “and there was no breathing room for that publishing deadline.” She put her head down and wrote, and then, at Alloy’s insistence, rewrote.

The advance at least allowed Avery to move out of the “$50/month closet” she’d been living in and to stop working in a cafe. She still worked part time as a nanny to help pay bills, but then what young writer doesn’t have a day job?

Although, like most aspiring novelists, Avery had considered enrolling in an MFA program, she ultimately heeded the advice of Mac creative writing professor and author Peter Bognanni, who pointed out that being published is just as educational as graduate school. “Every writer has more learning to do,” Avery says. “And this project was like three years of learning compacted into one. The editors were accommodating but also demanding. I had to learn things fast.”

Avery’s learning—both in and out of the classroom—really started at Macalester, as she’s quick to acknowledge. Her involvement with the Chanter literary magazine was key—“I became a better writer there”—as were her years with Bad Comedy, where, she laughs, “We pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on stage.” Both student groups “changed how I think of an artist,” says Avery, moving her definition from the classic inspired solo effort to a more collaborative model, foreshadowing the group effort that helped form her first novel.

As for classroom influences, Avery first thought she could be a writer after taking Wang Ping’s creative writing class. She found English professors Casey Jarrin, Bognanni, and Marlon James equally influential. “Marlon was really helpful because he treated us like graduate students, as if we’d actually have careers in writing,” she says, noting that James’s experience with editors and publishers and his advice about tailoring one’s book to a specific audience were important real-world lessons.

She continues using those writing lessons daily, working on screenplays, blog entries, and short stories even as she teaches theater to preschoolers and works with an after-school program. Soon she’ll be adding book publicity duties to her schedule.

But this dedicated writer, who has been journaling since she was in grade school, is unlikely to be waylaid by publicity junkets—or even by Hollywood. “For every real human tragedy or triumph, there are millions of contained, beautifully futile attempts to figure out what they mean,” she told the website Map of Kansas Literature. “My experience is hardly fraught with all the peril of human tragedy, but I like to turn my life into stories as an attempt to make what I know as meaningful and beautiful as fiction.”

Avery held a reading from Anything But Ordinary at Common Good Books on Sept. 11, 2012.

July 11 2012

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