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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why do I write for teens?

The reason I write for teens is sorta selfish because I do it for the teenage me. To explain: when I was in high school, I had a very hard time finding characters in books that I identified with. As a kid and tween, I identified with Ramona, Laura Ingalls Wilder, all the Judy Blue characters. But once I got older I had a really hard time finding books that reflected the life of that girl there on the right.

That's me right around my sixteenth birthday. I'm almost at my pinnacle of punk rockdom. Soon the hair will be bleached all blond and cut short. My hair will never be that curly again because I will kill it first with bleach and then with black dye. I will never see that natural color again. I will wear makeup more regularly: black eyeliner and red lipstick. I will swap the Sid Vicious shirt for one with a more obscure band on it, preferably one fronted by a woman like The Gits or 7 Year Bitch. I will continue to wear that studded collar even though my ex boyfriend will tell me it makes me look like a dog.

I apologize in advance for being a bad role model (but I was no one's role model at the time and I didnt have very many good role models for myself), but I can tell by my eyes that I'm probably stoned in this picture. At the very least, my hair smells like cigarette smoke, but I will tell my parents it smells that way because my friends smoke, which is true but not the whole truth, and they will pretend to believe me.

The shirt I'm wearing is an extra-large even though I weigh around a hundred pounds, maybe less. Because I hate myself and I hid in my clothes. I've just gotten out of a controlling, emotionally abusive relationship and I'm dealing with it by starving myself and cutting. My t-shirt hides all of this.

If you look at the wall behind me you can sort of tell that my parents are remodeling the kitchen. They will announce they are separating in a little over a year.

I'm smiling even though there is all of this misery inside of me because my best friend is taking the picture and I want her to have a smiling picture of me because she is being sent to boarding school in Iowa. She'd told her parents that she wanted to get away, she did not say it was because their home life was so awful, but that was unspoken. This boarding school is the best they could come up with and she decided she didn't want to go but they decided she was going anyway. She will be brought back six weeks later after I visit and report back to her mom that everyone there is smoking crystal meth and I am afraid my friend will get sucked into it. (It's the truth.)

That is the girl I was and I wanted to see that there were other girls like me, maybe even worse off than me, in books. I wanted to see them survive so I could be assured that I would survive. The only books I could find that were for teens that I related to were by Francesca Lia Block. Other than that I read Sylvia Plath poetry and related to the deep depression behind her words, I read Hamlet and related to Ophelia, I read the Scarlet Letter and related to Hester Prynne feeling like an outcast, I read Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh because even though his characters were older and living in Scotland, they reminded me of some of my friends. I read lots and lots of nonfiction. And I wrote.

Ballads of Suburbia, which comes out in exactly three weeks, is the book I'd been searching for back then. Something that would shatter the silence about issues like cutting and addiction and maybe give me the courage to talk about them with friends, perhaps even parents or teachers. It's the book I've been trying to write since I was sixteen.

But I'm not sixteen anymore, so I guess it's not entirely selfish because now I wrote this book for today's teenagers. And I will always continue to write for teenagers--whether my books are shelved in YA or Adult or wherever else--because I write to give teenagers (and grown ups) who are unsure where they fit (or did fit) someone to relate to.

PS. Sorry if this blog was a little depressing, but I wrote it be as honest and real as possible. Another reason I write for teens is because I know they are searching for what is honest and real and I love that.

On a happier note, what are/were some of the characters you really related to as a teen?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Why do I write for teens?

It's actually sort of an accident--not that I write for teens at all, but that I write for teens only.

When I was a teenager, I was reading both adult books and teen books, back and forth. It was Paula Danziger's YA (or middle grade, by today's standards) Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? that made me want to be a writer myself. When I was 18 and in college, I took a trip to Boston University to visit my BFF from high school, and that experience formed the basis of my first novel. At that very moment I happened to be reading one of my all-time favorite books, an urban fantasy YA romance called The Beginning Place by Ursula K. Le Guin, for the third time. I remember this specifically because I lost it on the airplane and had to look everywhere for another copy (this was before you could order anything off the internet). I finished writing that first novel when I was 20, and although I can see now that it was clearly a YA book, at the time I thought it was an adult literary masterpiece. All English majors want to be Hemingway, at least for a little while.

Well, my agent had the good sense to tell me that novel #2 was a YA rather than an adult book, but I did not have the good sense to take his advice. By the time I purposefully wrote a YA novel, #5, the market for YA had crashed, and nothing was beeing published for teenagers but those Goosebumps books and other horror stories. I got a "good rejection" from an editor for novel #7, saying that she would have bought that book if the YA market were better.

So I went back to writing adult books. But as I was finishing up novel #9, I saw that the YA market was finally making a comeback. I decided that novel #10 would be another YA. I knew of several authors who were publishing romantic stories for both adults and teens: Jax Abbott a.k.a. Alesia Holiday a.k.a. Alyssa Day, and Katie Maxwell a.k.a. Katie MacAlister. This was the career I wanted for myself. My agent sent novels #9 (an adult romantic comedy) and #10 (a teen romantic comedy, Major Crush) to editors simultaneously. We were both astonished that novel #10 sold, and novel #9 did not.

And that's where I still am, with one half of my career goal fulfilled. I have three YA novels out now, The Ex Games coming out on September 8, and two more YAs coming from MTV Books in 2010 and 2011, with no adult book in sight--not that I'm not writing them! I'm actually finishing up an adult urban fantasy/romantic comedy as we speak. But if I never got an adult book published, that would be okay with me too. I do love writing YA. And as long as I have an opportunity to write, I am grateful and happy.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why Do I Write For Teens?

During the late Middle Ages when I was a teenager, YA books were pretty much nonexistent. After I’d worked my way through the Nancy Drew series, I had nowhere else to go. I remember sitting on the floor of my hometown’s dark, musty library squinting at titles on the spines of equally dark, musty books. Luckily for me, my grandmother, an avid reader, introduced me to wonderful mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Otherwise I would have been forced to reread The Bobsey Twins, which is not where a teen reader wants to go.

Years later when I was a middle school reading teacher, I came across Scholastic Book Club's superb bonus point program. Soon I was reading more YA books than my students were and making an amazing discovery—in many cases the quality of writing was superior to the adult novels I had read.

When--several years and a few hundred tween and YA books later--I wrote my first novel, there was no doubt that it would be for a YA audience. I knew my readers, I knew the books, and I liked what I saw.

Hanging out in the world of talented writers like Chris Crutcher, Lois Lowry, Gary Paulson, and our awesome MTV authors is scary. But what fun is it to play the game if you don’t compete against the best?

Okay, if Danielle and Jenn can do it, so can I. In this picture, I'm sitting on the counter of my mom's office in the Dallas County Courthouse. BTW, it wasn't easy finding the right shade of orange tights to match my velvet paisley top. Impressive, no?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Why Do I Write Teen Books?

Because it's fun. It's really as simple as that.

I had 3 "adult" books published before I wrote my first teen book. I never really intended to write a teen book, it just sort of happened when my agent said, "Hey, got any ideas for a teen book?" But then I had so much fun writing it, so much more fun than I had writing my adult books, I wrote more. And now I think it's all I want to write.

What it comes down to for me is this:

1. When you're in your teens life is all about possibilities, there are so many unknowns ahead, so many choices to make, each with a different potential outcome.

2. Life is so less routine when you're in high school, you switch classes every hour for god's sake, show me a career where you're forced to shift gears dramatically every single hour! Not likely. So you get exposed to so much and have so much more to react to.

3. I had a really good time in high school.

4. Teens have so many different relationships (friends, teachers, parents, siblings, boyfriends, coworkers) yet they're all about to change at any time because that's the nature of your life - it's a constant state of moving forward into the unknown.

I tried so hard to find a picture of me when I was a teenager, like Danielle included in her post. The thing is, my parents have all the pictures taken of me back then. But I found this in a box with my old report cards. It's an ad for a bridal store. One day I walked into the bridal store to look for a prom gown, and they asked if I'd like to model in a fashion show. Then they decided to shoot an ad. I was all of 17 but every 6 weeks I got to wear amazing dresses and prance down a catwalk at these shows, it was like playing dress up. I loved it.

When's the last time I went from shopping in a store to wearing amazing gowns in front of hundreds of on-lookers? High school. That stuff just doesn't happen when you're a grown up.

And that's why I write teen books.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why do you write for teens?

I touched on this subject in my last post expressing my love for writing for teens. I started writing my first novel when I was a senior in high school and didn’t even know it then, but it was the start of my first young adult novel. That book may be deep in the recesses of my filing cabinet, but it was the beginning of my love for all things teen.
A couple of years later while earning my BFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College, I took a children’s writing class. There I started a novel about a fifteen year-old girl which helped me find my voice. Over the years, I went on to finish that novel, which may be resurrected at some point, but also remains tucked away.
It wasn’t until I started teaching middle school that I decided to get more serious about my writing and even several more years until I joined a children’s critique group. To tell you the truth, I never thought why teens because that’s what I wrote, plain and simple. It’s the spot on the page where my pen magically fell. Whenever I mulled around book ideas, they always featured teen characters.
I still carry around my teen years with me because those years hold so many emotions, good and bad. I’m filled with stories from those years, many things that can’t wait to hit the page—the funny and the not-so funny. In addition, I’m definitely still a teen at heart. I read mostly young adult books, love teen movies and music too. I still feel very connected with those years and hope that readers are able to identify with my characters and know that they’re not alone, that there are others who might be going through the same things as them. Books provided great solace for me growing up and as an author of teen fiction, I hope to do the same.

Note: The picture above is me at 16 "working" on my etiquette skills:)!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ode to the Summer Road Trip

Ah, the open road. Doesn't that just look beautiful? Wouldn't you love that?

Today it finally *finally* feels like summer in Chicago. I got to hang out at an outdoor cafe with my friends Kelly and Becky and their baby girls. Becky (what a brave soul), road tripped all the way from Denver to Chicago with her four month old daughter. (She would not recommend trying it!) And it got me thinking about road trips.

I don't know about you, but my family vacations were always taken in the car. We flew to Florida once when I was thirteen, but other than that, my parents packed us up in the mini-van and off we went. Our longest trip was from Chicago to Detroit to Toronto to Montreal to Maine to Boston and back. I was ten years old and remember it being pretty fun. Except when the air conditioner broke in Boston. My parents never fixed it and we had that car about six more years!

I haven't been on a long road trip like that in ages. I went down to New Orleans from college in Ohio back when I was 18, but other than that, it has mostly be shorter jaunts. Last summer there was an impromptu day trip to Iowa (I did it with my best friend about a week after a dear friend of ours past away; it was a weird head-clearing sort of thing) and there was the drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to San Francisco. I loooooooved that. I would actually love to take the PCH all the way up through Oregon and Washington if I could. I'd also like to do Route 66 from here to California.

Those are my biggest dream road trips, but the one I'm obsessed with right now is driving to South Dakota. I want to see the Badlands and go to Deadwood. It could be because I'm currently watching Deadwood, but I've actually been fixated on South Dakota for about a year now ever since hearing about a friend's road trip through there.

One of my WIPs centers around a girl driving all over the country. (Hmmm, a little bit like Louisa in I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. I seem to have a fixation on traveling to find yourself, maybe because the road is a good place to do that.) I wish I had the time and money to just follow my character's path for research purposes, but sadly I don't think I'm going to be able to do any road trips this summer.

What about you? Got a road trip you are taking? Or a dream road trip? Please tell me about them and let me live vicariously through you!

PS for those of you looking for good summer reading to take on any potential road trip. I'm running a contest for an ARC of Ballads of Suburbia this week. Here are all the details, enter to win!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Great news!

Going Too Far has been nominated by the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, as a Best Book for Young Adults! I feel so honored to be part of this group that includes Sarah Dessen and my friends Carrie Jones, Tina Ferraro, and Rosemary Clement-Moore. Thank you, librarians!

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Many Branches of Conflict

Sunday afternoon one of Iowa’s legendary thunderstorms ripped two enormous limbs from a honey locust tree in our backyard. One hit the deck and the other one landed on the roof of the sunroom. I was upstairs closing windows against the rain when the branches—bigger around than my waist—crashed onto our house.

No real damage was done, except to the poor, ripped-up tree, but it’s going to take a lot of effort to clean up the debris. The limb on the sunroom is pinning down the one on the deck, and the branches are intertwined like a giant game of Pick-up Stix. If we cut the branches in the wrong order, the whole mess will come crashing down on top of us.

This morning, while I was selectively sawing off branches and dragging them down the hill to our brush pile, it struck me that what sucks in life makes the best kind of plot.

As a writer, I invent conflicts for my characters. Sometimes their troubles come crashing down like giant tree limbs. Sometimes they build up slowly and almost unnoticed, like falling leaves. But whatever kind of conflicts there are, they must be significant and not easily solved. The most interesting conflicts are so complex that characters need to use many strategies to find their way out of the mess I’ve put them in. And, if they choose the wrong branch in their journey, life will come crashing down on them.

Eventually, though, characters work their way out of the disaster and come out stronger on the other side. And if they have some scars like our locust tree--well, that's life, isn't it?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

How do your writing habits and your writing change during the summer?

I've never written a book during the summer. I've wanted to, maybe even had every intention to, but I haven't. For one very simple reason: I can't read my laptop screen in the sunlight. And if it's vaguely nice out, I'm outside. If I could take my laptop to the lounge chair by the pool, I'd write. But because I can't read what I'm typing, it's not terribly productive. So instead I read books.

I devour books all summer and they give me ideas, get me excited to write. So I take a lot of notes during the summer. Fall has always been my writing time.

It also helps that I've never had a deadline over the summer. And I never want to. I like my reading time, relaxing and letting the creative juices begin to bubble over until the fall comes and I sit at my laptop and let it all out.

This summer, however, I'm working on two books. It will be interesting to see how far I get. But I'm not all that optimistic.

NOTE: Just started reading new YA book - the main character "flushes" twice in the first 8 pages due to embarassment. Does it never end?