I asked my fellow YA and MG writers whose debut novels appeared in 2010 to answer a few questions about their publishing and writing lives today, three years after our books came out. Of the original 72 writers who were eligible to reply (they were in The Tenners), 23 responded anonymously between May 20 and June 14, 2013, and all of the respondents reported themselves as actively writing still. In case you’d like a hint to remember some of the new names from 2010, our year included Julie Kagawa (The Iron King), Leah Cypess (Mistwood), Kiersten White (Paranormalcy), Stephanie Perkins (Anna and the French Kiss), Jennifer Hubbard (The Secret Year), Teri Hall (The Line), and Becca Fitzpatrick (Hush, Hush).
While this survey admittedly captures a small sample and is not scientific, the results are still interesting. For instance, the results suggest that the turnover of a writer’s editors is more common than the turnover of her agents, and that many of these writers are satisfied with their writing lives. If you’ve ever thought that a writer doesn’t have to have a bestseller or earn a living writing to be satisfied with her writing, this small sample supports that theory.
My heartfelt thanks to the writers who completed my survey. I appreciate their honesty and admire their tenacity.
1. Are you actively writing now (10+ hours per week)?
Yes: 23 (100%)
2. Since your debut came out, how many more of your books have been released (not including the debut or any indie-pubbed books)?
Zero: 6 (26%)
1 or 2: 14 (61%)
3 or more: 3 (13%)
3. Do you currently have a contract for your next book?
Yes: 13 (57%)
4. Are you still working with the same editor you had in 2010?
Yes: 5 (22%)
No: 18 (78%)
5. If you had an agent in 2010, are you still working with the same one?
Yes: 16 (69%)
No: 5 (22%)
Had no agent: 2 (9%)
6. Do you now earn a living by your writing?
Yes: 8 (35%)
No: 15 (65%)
7. Have you had a NYT bestseller?
Yes: 2 (9%)
No: 21 (91%)
8. Have you indie-published since 2010?
Yes: 2 (9%)
No: 21 (91%)
9. Are you satisfied with your publishing life?
Yes: 14 (64%)
No: 8 (36%)
10. Are you satisfied with your writing life?
Yes: 21 (91%)
No: 2 (9%)
I attended the opening ceremony of The Adventure Park at Storrs last week, and as people traversed cable pathways in the trees overhead, I peered up through the rain to watch them and contemplate my own bravery. I’m not scared of heights, but I appreciate them.
Beyond just the concept of aerial pathways and ziplines through the forest, which is already pretty spectacular, three things about the new Adventure Park impressed and delighted me most. First, the technology of the safety clips that attach each climber’s harness to the cables makes it impossible for both clips to release at the same time. A climber is always attached to a safety line, and can never accidentally go into a free fall. That was incredibly cool to me.
Next, twenty-five people who love working with people, the outdoors, and physical challenges have new jobs. The Adventure Park is staffed by excited, happy, fit young people in bright orange sweatshirts, and their enthusiasm is contagious. I love to see businesses that give responsibility and expert experiences to young adults, especially in the so-called quiet corner of our state where we have had few such new openings.
Finally, I’m completely inspired by my friends, Lynn Stoddard and Chris Kueffner, who with their partners have opened the park. When Lynn first told me of their concept a year ago, it seemed to face insurmountable obstacles and unknowns. Yet she had this vision of doing something ecologically responsible with the land she and her husband owned, and finding a way to get people into the trees, and bringing a sense of fun to our community. I find her inspiring. She put a dream and hands-on bravery into action.
Did I make it up into the trees? This time, I did not, but I saw the world from a new perspective even from the ground. And I’m going back.
A: Yes. Regularly. It isn’t simply that they make choices I didn’t see coming or say surprising things. There’s this play between what I consciously expect them to do when faced with a problem and what spontaneously happens once they’re in a scene. Sometimes they do what I expect, but their reasoning for it is more complicated than I thought. Sometimes they say what I expect, but it turns out to be a lie.
What I especially like is the way characters keep evolving through different drafts. The layers help me better understand their motivations, and how they’ll feel in response to a comment from another character so I can convey that emotion.
For instance, I have a guy character who seems well adjusted and easy going. He’s smart, modest, and from an intact, wealthy family. I think of him as classy and deeply good, which presents a special challenge. It’s hard to generate a lot of interest for a guy who is good. If he’s predictable as well, he risks coming off as boring.
A bad guy who’s complex and conflicted can’t really hide that he has problems. Such a character is easier to write about, in a way, even if he’d be awful to live with, so it has been tempting to play around with making my good guy character secretly troubled. This morning, in a pivotal scene in Project Next, he let drop a comment about his righteous older sister, and all the sudden, I had a completely new glimpse into why he is the way he is, and the costs for that. Do I have him all figured out now? No. Will this completely change the entire novel? No. But this new angle of him changes how I see him and every interaction he has, and it is certain to shape how I revise from this point onward.
It helps to remember that characters are entitled to true personalities, and human personalities are a combination of the ways we change and don’t change over time. In real life, we can be surprised by people we know, but deep down, we know if they do something out of character. When a friend unexpectedly takes up dancing at age thirty, or decides to divorce her husband of forty years, it’s natural for us to wonder how well we knew her before and adjust our views. When book characters make big choices, they reveal their true personalities, and this liberates us to vicariously make choices, too. Those are the surprises I appreciate.
This may be just me, but I need occasional bright things in books. Once, when I read a string of YA dystopias back to back, the physically dark settings had me feeling like I lived in a cave, and I needed a break. By contrast, I was rereading Levine’s Ella Enchanted this spring, and I actively noticed the happy scenes of friendship, which were just as nourishing as physical brightness. Of course, it made the contrast all the worse when Ella lost those friendships and had to endure loneliness, but those bright spots had existed. I felt them within me, and I felt them in the balance and movement of the book.
I like writing grim stories where the trouble perpetually gets worse. It’s fun to work that way, and if I don’t have enough conflict in a section, I tend to feel like I’m doing something wrong. It makes me impatient. Questioning or tinkering with my conflict barometer feels risky to me, but I’m finding that taking a chance to lighten up a scene also gives me room to develop a relationship. It reminds me of how I revised Birthmarked, when the flashback scene with Gaia’s father and the development of several scenes with Leon came late to the framework, when it felt safe to hold back the action a moment to let the characters and relationships come forward.
It’s always about balance, isn’t it? This time, I have physically bright settings to work with, in spades. I have conflict, and the right characters to manipulate. I just have to find the right balance of bright and grim.
Birthmarked is out in Turkey! ”Dogum Lekesi” translates, I believe, to “Date of Birth.” Many thanks to my Turkish translator, Zeynep Yeşiltuna! What does it feel like to be published in Turkey? Pretty amazing.
Below is the Turkish description, and you can discover other Turkish titles from publisher Marti Yayinlari on their Facebook page.
Geleceğin dünyasında insanoğlu ikiye bölünmüştür.
Bir yanda son derece ihtişamlı ve korunaklı hayatlar yaşayan üstün bir ırk,
diğer yanda bu ırkın varlığını sürdürmek için görevlendirilmiş, zor koşullar altında yaşayan ötekiler…
Yüzündeki çirkin yara izi yüzünden kusursuzların dünyasından ucube olarak dışlanan bir kız, bu üstün ırkın bilinmeyen gerçeklerini ortaya çıkaracak
bir güce sahiptir;
çünkü geleceğin kaderi, bu kıza ait eski ve gizemli
bir kurdelenin ucundadır…
Sometimes, when my plot has become snarled in a traffic jam, I think of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with its straight-forward, train-wreck focus, where we start steadily down a track and accelerate fast toward a visible and unavoidable disaster. Lennie kills a mouse, then kills a puppy, then crushes a man’s hand, then kills a woman, and each time we try to forgive him and search for someone else to blame because we believe he is an innocent at heart.
I look at this plot, this driving plot that builds on injury and dreams, and the way its simplicity releases all these complex moral problems, and then I look at my own draft. It is nowhere close to where it needs to be. I’m not Steinbeck, but that doesn’t excuse me from trying to learn from him.
So, these days, I’m looking at a 75-page section of my current novel, a piece between two major points of action, and I’m stepping back to ask how the scenes in this section create or don’t create a progression. I’m finding some scenes are only a few pages long. The more satisfying scenes are 8+ pages long but feel like they fly. This reminds me I’m better off stringing together a few significant scenes than many brief ones. I need to mindfully pick the scenes that matter, order them to build, flesh them out, cut the others or fold their dialogue into the preserved scenes, and see what else might still need to be added.
This is my sixth draft. On one hand, I feel like ought to know what I’m doing with my novel by now. My mess seems like evidence that I’m no good at this. On the other hand, I am determined. I will invent the process I need to judge this section and revise it. Then I’ll move on to the next.
I attended a unique earthling ceremony this weekend. The main participants dressed up in extraordinary hats and flowing black gowns, men and women alike. Restless spectators filled the pavilion to listen to a series of speeches, impatient for their chance to make noise. At last, while each individual participant was called for a victory lap (Gampel5.11.3) around the arena floor, their family groups howled from the stadium. Howl after howl went up in a stream for an hour, no family quite able to one-up the preceding howl, until the paraders returned to their seats, and then the families rose and howled once more, together, in pride and celebration and tribal love.
We long to prove how much we love our kids, to voice how proud we are of their work and studies over the last four years. We need to stand together among strangers with equal love and pride, for this common moment, this intersection where a ceremony can mark a completion, a transition. We want to witness the step through the portal, and feel the proof. We can never go back in time, not any of us. We only go forward.
To all of you graduates unpacking the boxes and laundry baskets you hauled home from your dorms yesterday, I wish you well. Congratulations. Remember, as you sort your laundry alone, far from your former suitemates and confidantes, your families love you. We believe in you. We will be there for you always, even when you no longer need us. Especially then.
Another, complete world exist in my computer now, right there in the file behind this one. I don’t know how to describe it or explain it to people, not the book itself nor my process of working on it. When friends ask if the draft needs big changes or if I’m working line by line, I feel the novel world suck me out of the now toward rainy plains and a silent window and the blue glow of night glass. Depths, colors, and currents swirl there. People are leaving my story—gone. Others are coming forward, uncertain. Hints my subconscious once dropped into the novel now reveal themselves in a pattern. Others don’t. Eliminating one scene means motivation for an action 50 pages later no longer makes sense. Fixing the pace in one place means dropping out a plot thread that guts character development. One perceptive observation from my editor in the margin of page 60 ricochets through my choices all around the first half of the novel and unmoors them all. If you’re looking for me, that’s where I’ll be.