Neither first-timer nerves nor the Santa Ana winds that brought massive power outages across Southern California could keep Pasadena resident Marie Lu from her very first signing as a published author—at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in Redondo Beach on December 1. “A dream come true,” says the author—a dream that was a long time coming.

Lu, now 27, says she began a serious quest for publication at age 14. Most writers will confess to adolescent scribbles, but Lu’s approach was professional from the start: though her first attempt went nowhere, her second manuscript garnered an agent during her freshman year of college; her fourth brought a new agent and some publisher nibbles; and her fifth became Legend (Putnam, Nov.), first in a trilogy that has already been optioned by CBS Films. Along the way, Lu graduated from USC, interned with Disney Interactive Studios, and created the Fuzz Academy children’s brand.

Her art background was crucial in the development of her kinetic, spatial writing style. Designing layouts for games influenced her perspective: “I see the world as a 3-D map and think about how I would render it,” she says. Add to this a writing voice in tune with the fresh eyes and strong emotions of adolescence, and it seemed inevitable that she would gravitate to a teen audience. Nevertheless, it was her agent who pointed her work toward that market, not Lu: “I write the story as it comes to me—YA is my natural voice, not a conscious choice.”

Lu readily acknowledges the influence of the play Les Miserables and childhood reading, such as Brian Jacques’s Mattimeo, on the evolution of Legend, a dystopian thriller that pits Day, the Republic of America’s most wanted teen criminal, against June, military cadet and prodigy, who is assigned to hunt Day down. Television cartoons, anime, and manga also played a role. “Comics and animation have some of the deepest stories I’ve ever seen,” Lu says. “[The characters are] so expressive.” For Lu, that connection with deep emotion is the essence of what her art is all about.

A firm advocate of value added by agents and editors, Lu advises all aspiring writers to find representation first. She began building her relationship with current agent Kristin Nelson (of the Nelson Literary Agency) at writing conferences years before submitting work to her professionally. When considering offers, Lu recommends looking deeper than the numbers and going with an editor who clicks. After a six-publisher bidding war for Legend, she knows whereof she speaks, and sticking with her gut has clearly delivered results. She cites especially the detailed give and take throughout the revision process with her editor, Jennifer Besser. Lu has found the marketing process a positive experience, too. “They let me be hands-on, especially with the online promo.”

With Legend 2 in line edits and Legend 3 just underway, Lu isn’t ready to unveil future projects yet. Whatever they are, she’s certain that YA fantasy will remain the focus of her writing imagination. “Fantasy and science fiction are where my brain lives,” she says with a laugh. And perhaps one of the most welcome changes Legend has brought about in that life of the imagination is the way writing has become a less solitary occupation. Lu now has beta readers she trusts and a wider circle of contacts in the publishing world. “Solitude had become a habit,” she says. “Now I have more of a community.”