the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Clete Barrett Smith and MR 60%!

Posted by Adi Rule on Wed, Aug 23, 2017 @ 10:08 AM
We are 100% thrilled for the launch of Clete Barrett Smith's Mr. 60%, a young adult novel out now from Crown Books for Young Readers!
Mr. 60 cover.jpg 
Matt Nolan is the high school drug dealer, deadbeat, and soon-to-be dropout according to everyone at his school. His vice principal is counting down the days until Mr. 60% (aka Matt) finally flunks out and is no longer his problem. What no one knows is the only reason Matt sells drugs is to take care of his uncle Jack, who is dying of cancer.
Meet Amanda. The overly cheerful social outcast whose optimism makes Matt want to hurl. Stuck as partners during an after-school club (mandatory for Matt), it’s only a matter of time until Amanda discovers Matt’s secret. But Amanda is used to dealing with heartbreak, and she’s determined to help Matt find a way to give life 100 percent.
Welcome, Clete! So, tell us . . .
What was the spark that ignited this book?
When I was taking time off from teaching to start at VCFA, a beloved family member who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live came to stay with us and I helped care for him. It was my first up-close experience with death, and it had a deep impact on me. Jerry was a funny, charming, charismatic mess of a guy, and I adored him. His experience with his final days was much different from what I had read in most books; he was not ready to die and did not want to pass on any pearls of wisdom. He was angry and defiant and the process was messy. I knew that I would have to write about this experience, to honor his memory and also as a way to work through my own feelings.
Also, as a teacher for twenty years, I knew many kids who existed on the fringe of high school society, and I wanted to tell their story.
Those are such important stories to tell. Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?
Bringing this book to publication was a strange process. It is coming out nearly ten years after I wrote it. Mr. 60%  was my second-semester project (with Uma Krishnaswami), but by that time I had already signed a deal with Disney-Hyperion to publish a fun, lighthearted middle grade book. My agent at the time loved Mr. 60%, but his advice was to not follow up a humorous middle grade book with a grim, gritty YA book. So I wrote four middle grade books for Disney-Hyperion, and then we talked about sending out Mr. 60%. My agent (the late George Nicholson at Sterling Lord Literistic) was very passionate about the story and about finding the right home for it, and he stuck with it for a long time.
What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?
God bless Rita Williams-Garcia, because she taught me where the Delete button was on my keyboard, and how to push it. Before meeting her, I was so invested in all of the hard work that I had done to write a first draft in the first place, that it was very difficult for me to “throw it all away.” But Rita taught me that the effort in writing the first draft was still a valuable experience, and what I wrote after I hit “Delete” on large chunks of my manuscript would be much better.
I hear you. I think a lot of writers struggle with Delete!
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?
It’s not weird, but yesterday I had to Google a “travois.” I can NEVER remember that word. (And because a lot of my books are set in the forest with kids having to solve their own problems out there, I have had to use this device on multiple occasions.)
What's your writing superpower?
The only thing that comes easily for me is dialogue. (Writing any other aspect of a novel is filled with cringing, wincing, despairing self-doubt.) As a kid, I read a ton of crime fiction by writers like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, where the dialogue is snappy and tight and is structured how people actually speak, with half-formed sentences, interruptions, unexplained allusions, etc.
Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.
Artwork from my daughters.
How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
VCFA created my writing life. Before I enrolled, I had been writing for nearly ten years, but doing it completely on my own: no critique group, no professional editing, nothing. Stepping onto that campus and finding people who were passionate about the same thing that I was absolutely changed all aspects of my life. I went from being a closeted writer to having amazing friends and collaborators all over the country. Attending VCFA was, by far, the best professional experience I have ever had.
What is your favorite VCFA memory?
It’s hard to pick just one, but reading from Mr. 60% for my graduation residency was probably the proudest moment of my life. I think that people were expecting something lighthearted and fun, because that is usually what I write, but I took a risk and read something very serious and even grim. It’s a story that is very personal and emotional to me, and I had never been able to read that passage without breaking down and sobbing. The support I received was amazing.
It was an incredible reading! What was special about your VCFA graduating class, the Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines?
There were only nine of us, so we became very close. I love those people.
Clete Smith 1.jpgThanks so much for stopping by, Clete. Welcome to the world, Mr. 60%!
Clete Barrett Smith graduated from VCFA in 2010. His first semester project with Rita Williams-Garcia was a humorous middle grade sci-fi story titled Aliens on Vacation, which was published by Disney-Hyperion in 2011. Two more books followed in the series, Alien on a Rampage and Aliens in Disguise, while his fourth middle grade novel, Magic Delivery, was released by D-H in 2014. Mr. 60% is his first YA title.

Topics: young adult, Penguin Random House, Penguin, Clete Barrett Smith, 2017 release, Crown Books for Young Readers, Crown Books

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