Meet Jason Ancona, Covert Youth Agency (C.Y.A.) Author

Starting out this year 'reading' fiction, I happened to come across Jason's synopsis for his debut book, Covert Youth Agency, alias C.Y.A., and immediately found my interest piqued.

"An elite group of nerds fight injustices by running a clandestine operation in high school..."

Yes, this line sat me right up, however before this line, it was this message I read first:

"---If ever you're in need of help and you have nowhere else to go, seek out the C.Y.A. We're always watching and we're here for you---"

So, to my wish list this title went, along with looking more into the author, before contacting the author who graciously granted me an interview!

Jason says he "grew up geeky in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago, sporting braces, spouting gigahertz, and painting figurines. Turned frat boy in college, he spent time with humans, speaking with said beings, and dancing like a dork -- even with some females. He snuck out of Bradley U. with a marketing degree, masqueraded as a corporate soldier, and fled to Los Angeles, where he donated a lot of dough to UCLA, writing screen-plays for nearly a decade."

I am very pleased to share our candid interview, and look forward to reading C.Y.A.
Interviewed by RYCJ/OEBooks Jan 2011
Jason, I see you write scripts and am curious to know the difference(s) you’ve found in writing a novel versus writing scripts.

The exposition in scripts is geared toward setting up visual elements that can be easily be seen as "shots."

In screenplays, descriptions are encouraged to be short. I've heard that readers are very busy and often skim over descriptions, paying attention to just the dialogue. In scripts, you're not supposed to say what's in a characters head, unless you do it through voiceover, which is generally frowned upon.

In novel writing, you can go much deeper into a character's psyche, and are allotted more time to develop all the characters.

I’m just as interested to find out how difficult it might be to adapt a novel with very little dialogue to a script.

I've never adapted a novel into a script, so I'm not sure. The studios do it all the time, though. I imagine the right person could find the characters' voices and make it work.

How long did it take you to write Covert Youth Agency?

Covert Youth Agency was a TV pilot I wrote in 2008 -- revised for about a year. I think I spent six months turning it into a novel.

Is there an element you believe every YA book should contain? For instance; should the story ‘always’ include a happy ending, or include a strong message in the theme?

I'm still a rookie novel writer, so I don't know how qualified I am to respond. I don't think that happy endings or strong messages are mandatory. It depends on the genre. If I want an action-packed book or a humorous read, I may be looking for just that. Sherlock Holmes stories are absent character arc and deep themes, but they're still very entertaining.

On that note, what are elements that should not be in YA books, or elements that you wouldn’t write in YA stories?

That's a tough question. It seems like with what's on TV, the radio, and what teenagers experience in their day-to-day lives, if you tame everything down too much it seems false. At the same time, you don't want to expose them to things that are inappropriate for their age, or in a manner that's too explicit.

What was your experience in getting the CYA published like?

After querying a bunch of NY Lit Agents, I was surprised to get one fairly quickly--since in screenwriting I never had one. My agent championed Covert Youth Agency, telling me that C.A.A. (Creative Artists Agency) was interested in movie rights, and that she had positive notes from an editor at Harper Collins. She shared the notes with me, which I worked off of for another draft. In the end, H.C. passed. I contacted my agent about my next novel, and learned that she was no longer with the company.

Nearly a year had passed since this had all started, so I decided to self-publish instead of re-querying agents.

As the paradigm shifts in the publishing world, and more readers get electronic devices, the distribution channels will continue to grow for independent authors. That being said, as an Indy, you still need great content, a comprehensive marketing plan, and time to execute it.

Do you have an interest to write in other genres? (literature, romance, historical, non-fiction, poetry maybe?)

I have ideas for deeper, more dramatic novels, but I've been steering away from those towards more marketable material. There might be a romantic novel in my future. Maybe when I'm less afraid to explore that territory.

What's one of the best books you’ve recently read?

Hunger Games blew me away. I couldn't stop reading it. The story has everything--a protagonist you cared about, fleshed out secondary characters, high stakes (fighting for your life), and romance. Brilliant.

Just from reading your “nerdball” bio, I get the impression you enjoy humor. Who are your favorite comedians? …And favorite televisions sitcoms, comedy movies, cartoons, and/or comic strips?

Yes, I love to laugh.

Re: favorite comedians -- Even though they were before my time, I loved these SNL veterans: John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, & Bill Murray.

Re: TV sitcoms -- I grew up loving Family Ties, The Cosby Show, and Cheers. Moved on to Seinfeld and 30 Rock.

Re: Comedy movies -- Animal House, Wedding Crashers, Caddyshack, Revenge of the Nerds, The Hangover, Dumb and Dumber... I could go on.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to write a script?

I'd recommend taking classes, reading books, and joining a writers' group. If you're interested in writing scripts, read them. You can find many online for free.

Keep writing. And re-writing. It takes time. I've heard agents in L.A. tell a group of students to give themselves ten years to become a good writer. William Goldman, the guy who wrote Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, was rejected for over six years. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio gave themselves ten years to break in (they wrote Pirates of the Caribbean). I believe they sold Little Monsters after five years.

There are people making a living at writing movies. That being said, it is extremely difficult. Out of the hundreds of screenwriters I've come to know, many through UCLA, I don't know any who are making a living at it. I have a friend who's a TV writer, who is.

Another friend of mine has a film degree from U.S.C., has written some great scripts, and worked at Fox Studios as an administrative assistant reading and critiquing screenplays everyday. He said, "Dude, selling a script to a studio is like winning a lottery ticket." He was referring to the odds, not the jackpot of money. After spending most of his twenties working for Fox, he's since moved on, and out of town. 

Don't mean to be discouraging, but want to relay that it's not easy to sell a screenplay. In L.A., if you talk to three people, the odds are that one of them has a script, is writing one, or has a great idea for one. 

It can be done, but be willing to sacrifice a normal career, relationships, and a lot of time on something that may never pay off. If it's still your passion, you still keep doing it. No matter how irrational it may seem.

Finally, what is your advice for debut novel writers?

I'd echo the same points above about writing, re-writing, and taking classes. And read. Especially books in the genre you're writing. 

Traditional publishing is feeling the crunch of failing brick and mortar bookstores. The traditional houses that embrace the electronic medium and adapt their model to it will be the ones who thrive. As a writer, and if they let you in the gates, note the terms that they want you to sign in regards to e-rights. 

Self-publishing seems like an increasingly more attractive option as the world becomes more digital. I highly recommend checking out J.A. Konrath, who's making a living writing self-pubbed novels. He'll stress that you need quality content -- a lot of it. He has 29 books and counting.

Visit Jason Ancona - C.Y.A. Covert Youth Agency