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Monday
Jun232014

The 11 Stage of Drafting

The Magpie Phase

Deadlines loom on the horizon. You have so much work to do. But when that brand new idea pops up smack in the middle of your brain, how can you possibly ignore it? It’s JUST. SO. SHINY. You try to push it away, but it sits there in your peripheral vision all day, twinkling and sparkling like someone went at it with a Bedazzler, making it impossible to concentrate on anything else. Eventually, you have to snatch it up. You don’t want someone else to get it first, do you?

 

The Toe-Dip Phase

Writing that first chapter involves some serious apprehension. You skirt the edge of it, carefully testing the waters before you submerge yourself. Is this a good entry point? No, it’s a little too cold. Can’t start over there, or you’ll cut yourself on those jagged rocks. The waves are looking kind of big today. And is that a shark? Better try the next beach over…

 

The Honeymoon Phase

For a little while after you’ve found your starting point, drafting feels like falling in love. You constantly discover new things about your characters, and everything you learn is endlessly fascinating. You like spaghetti, oh protagonist of mine? I like spaghetti, too! Tell me more. We were obviously meant to be together.


 

The Daredevil Phase

You’ve only just embarked on your journey; you don’t need to know where you’re going yet, right? Ignore that internal GPS and follow the plot bunnies wherever they may run. Hmm, the entire chapter you’re writing may be an unnecessary tangent? Who cares! You can fix it later! There might be something cool around this hairpin turn…

 

The Act 2 Slump

Your zippy little drafting joyride has come to an end, and now you’re sitting by the side of the road with several flat tires. You think you know where you are, and you think you know where you need to go, so why can’t you get from one to the other? Oh god, nothing makes sense, and everything you’re writing is so boring and aimless. You’re bored even writing these scenes. How could anyone ever be expected to read them?

 

The Organizational Fiend Phase 

All right, that’s it. You need a map. You should’ve bought one at the gas station way back in chapter one, where you stocked up on Cheez Doodles and caffeinated beverages. Why do you always leave without a map? Now, halfway through the draft, you start to outline. You plot things out on a calendar. The colored notecards and Post-Its come out to play. You are going to whip this thing into submission if it kills you.


 

The Corporeal Possession Phase

Somehow, your main character seems to have crept inside your body, and now she’s controlling you from the inside. All your emotions are directly tied to hers, whether they relate to your own life or not. People ask you how you are, and you tell them how she is without even thinking about it. You feel angsty all the time, but you can’t tell if it’s because the writing isn’t going well or because you’re writing someone else’s angst very well.

 

The All-Nighter Phase

When you hit the climax of your story, your daily word count skyrockets beyond anything you’ve ever been able to accomplish before. Food and sleep suddenly seem like friendly suggestions you can safely ignore instead of necessities for continued life. You’re almost there, and all you want to do is write write write write write until you’re finished…

 

The Last Day of School Phase 

OMG YOU’RE DONE! YOU TYPED “THE END!” YOUR MANUSCRIPT IS AN ACTUAL MANUSCRIPT! Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? Time to dance like a maniac and eat ten thousand celebratory cupcakes and down a bottle of wine all in one go and then sleep for a week straight! *fires confetti cannons*


 

The Hangover Phase

In the harsh light of morning, you can see the truth: this is officially the worst thing you’ve ever written. Sure, it’s book-sized and book-shaped, but it makes absolutely no sense. Where are the themes? What is it actually about? How can a book feel too action-packed and too slow-paced at the same time? Why did you even write this piece of crap? Nobody is ever going to want to read it. And why is there a wine bottle under your pillow?

 

The Revision Phase

At least there are words on the page. Bad words are better than no words. Bad words are fixable. Time to get started.

 

Thursday
May152014

My writing process: blog tour

Thanks to my friend and agent-mate Kayla Olson for tagging me on this blog tour! Kayla is a delightful person, an excellent cheerleader, AND the writer of super-suspenseful mysterious things that she needs to finish up so I can read them already. (She also routinely sends me pictures of hilariously bad taxidermy.) To read about her writing process, click here! You can also follow her on Twitter @olsonkayla. 
 
 

WHAT AM I WORKING ON?

My work in progress is the book I just sold to Delacorte, a contemporary YA called LOOK BOTH WAYS that takes place at a summer theater festival in upstate New York. I don't think I'm allowed to say much about it yet, but in a broadest sense, it's about trying to fit in with your family, what "talent" really means, and the fine line between romantic and platonic love. (It also involves a Macbeth/Bye Bye Birdie mash-up musical called "Bye Bye, Banquo.") I spent the summers of 2003, 2004, and 2005 working at theater festivals as a lighting designer, and I'm thrilled that I finally get to write about some of the unbelievably weird stuff that goes on there. The story isn't autobiographical in the least, but the setting absolutely is. 
 
 
WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I WRITE?
 
One of my closest friends calls my writing style "skew-topian"—a little weirder than straight realism, but not nearly off enough to be utopian or dystopian. That makes total sense, because my favorite parts of the world have always been the ones that are a little bit bizarre and ridiculous and nonsensical. That stuff is everywhere, but I feel like most people walk right by it without stopping to look and revel in the absurdity. I had this brilliant director back in 2005 who told me that my responsibility as an artist was to show everyone else how I saw the world, and that's what I'm still trying to do. I just have a different medium to work with now. 
 
Obviously, ALL of life isn't delightful and quirky, so there are much heavier themes and emotions mixed into my lighthearted weirdness. The female friendship parts of my books are always my favorites to write; I love exploring how people pull apart and come back together and are forced to learn to accept each other in new ways. 
 
 
HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?
 
The process usually starts with me sending myself a messy, nonsensical email that says, "What if THIS happened and this happened and this happened, and there was a guy who had this one weirdly specific character trait, and maybe a cat, and maybe this also happened?" Then I let the half-formed idea sit in my head and percolate for months, sometimes years. I almost always come up with situations before characters, and I know I'm ready to start putting some serious work into an idea when the main character pops up in my head. (My MCs are kind of like meat thermometers that way.) Names are really important to me—if I have the wrong name for a character, I can't get a handle on her at all. 
 
Even once I have the characters nailed down, I can't start actually writing until I have a first line I feel really confident about. I'm so neurotic and careful about writing those first sentences that both RED's and FOR REAL's stayed exactly the same through the entire process, word for word. (The first line of LOOK BOTH WAYS has already changed once, but giving up what I'd originally written was a serious struggle.) I'm a plotter, but I don't plot absolutely everything—as long as I have one-line descriptions of a bunch of scenes and I know what the climax is, I feel like I'm ready to start. I use the notecard feature in Scrivener to organize my pseudo-outline and make notes about characters; I used to use actual notecards, but having everything laid out on a screen makes the process less messy. (I LOVE Scrivener. If a word processing program could be a spirit animal, this would be mine.)
 
I write in order, mostly because if I didn't, I think I'd just write all the easy, fun scenes first and abandon the project before I had to write the harder ones. My first drafts are incredibly overwritten, and it's not at all unusual for me to cut 20,000+ words out of a first draft. (The first time I tried to write a book, my first draft was 150,000 words. It was contemporary. I have no idea what all those words were about, because I lost basically nothing when I cut half of them.) When I finish a draft, I put it away for a month or so, then bring it back out and read it as if I'm beta reading for someone else—I don't change anything, but I insert comments all over the manuscript, ranging from "this sentence is awkward" to "these three chapters are irrelevant." Then I flip back into author mode and work through alllllll the notes until they are gone. When I'm finished, I send it out to a batch of beta readers—usually four at a time—and repeat, repeat, repeat until it feels ready to send to my agent!
 
One of the biggest things I've learned in the course of writing a bunch of books (publishable and unpublishable) is that you usually don't know what your book is about until you finish writing it. Regardless of what you think the themes are, you are probably writing about something else entirely. It took me a long time to figure this out and even longer to embrace it, but now it's actually kind of fun to see where my stories land. It's nice to know that my own brain is capable of surprising me over and over.
 
 
I know I'm supposed to tag other people on this blog tour, but I'm pretty sure everyone and their mother has already been tagged... so I'm going to let the chain die with me. (Crap, does this mean evil spirits are going to haunt me or something?)

 

Wednesday
Mar122014

Falling is only the beginning

I’m about to say something that’ll make me sound like a horrible, blasphemous, cynical monster. Ready?

Often, my favorite YA romances aren't the Happily Ever Afters—they're the ones that run their course and end up falling apart.

I’m not talking about tragic love stories, where one of the characters dies or the two lovers are separated by obstacles beyond their control. I’m talking about the stories where two people get together, discover they're not right for each other, and learn things from that failure. The Happily Ever After (or Happily for Now) absolutely has its place—those stories are really satisfying to read, and they give us lots of hope, which I think is important. But it bothers me that nearly every YA book I come across focuses on the beginnings of relationships without ever exploring the more difficult middles or ends, where most of the work takes place. So many people learn about relationships by reading, and I kind of feel like we’re dropping teens at the tops of beautiful, scenic overlooks and then bailing before we tell them how to climb down or get home.

Before I go any further, I want to admit that I’m just as guilty of this as everyone else. Beginnings are incredibly fun to write, and the push-and-pull lead-up to two people getting together can make for excellent dramatic storytelling. But there are lots of situations that happen all the time in real-life relationships but seldom pop up in YA, and I’d love to see more of that stuff on the page, too. Here are some examples:

Already-established relationships that exist for their own sake, not just to give the MC something boring/bad to leave behind in pursuit of something better.

Falling in love is so easy, and by and large, the beginnings of relationships are overwhelmingly similar. You eye each other from afar. You banter flirtatiously and blush a lot. You’re delighted by every tiny quirk and fascinating detail you discover about the other person, because everything is so new. You stare into each other’s eyes for hours on end and think about how OMG YOU’VE NEVER FELT SO CONNECTED TO ANOTHER PERSON EVER EVER EVERRRR.

And then there comes a point when you’ve heard most of the other person’s stories, and maybe some of those little quirks are starting to become annoying, but you’re still totally in love, and that’s where things start to get interesting. It’s no secret that relationships are tons of work and that love involves plenty of negotiating and compromising. But in YA, it’s rare that we get to see any of that. Amidst all those first kisses and spectacular breakups, I’d love to see some middles. Ask the Passengers by A. S. King and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan explore this admirably.

Unrequited love.

It shocks me how often YA characters fall for people who actually like them back. The number of all-consuming crushes I’ve had in my life is infinitely larger than the number of people I've dated, and I think everyone I know would say the same. Statistically, most people don’t like each other that way, and the feelings that come from being fixated on someone who doesn’t care about you at all are really interesting. So many highs, so many lows, and nothing is actually even happening. Marisa Calin does a great job describing those feelings in her debut novel, Between You and Me.

Relationships with unequal levels of emotional commitment.

Another thing I’ve noticed about YA couples is that the two people usually care about each other the same amount. In reality, I’d venture to say that one person almost always falls harder and faster than the other, and it can be exceptionally awkward. I dated a guy in high school who told me he loved me after two weeks, and I had no idea how to handle it. (I handled it by panicking, saying it back, rescinding it the next day in a letter, and then saying it again two weeks later after he bought me jewelry. Because that’s what you do when you’re fifteen.) My diary entries from that time are a roiling jumble of confusion, and I think it would’ve helped me to know that other people had the same problem.

Relationships with unequal levels of growth/change.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I saw the movie Her a couple months ago. I thought it was brilliant; I’ve never seen a better allegory for the unbalanced growth and change that happens in a lot of (human-human) relationships. Being in love with another person deepens and broadens just about everyone, but people often don’t deepen/broaden at the same rate. That means some relationships essentially end because they teach one person so much that he/she ends up outgrowing the other; the breakup is a direct result of the relationship being really informative. (Yeah, my head is spinning now, too.) I realize this is incredibly hard to write about—I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge, personally—but I’d love to see someone besides Spike Jonze give it a shot!

Those times you can’t quite tell the difference between platonic and romantic love.

I adore Elizabeth Wein’s CODE NAME VERITY, and one of the lines that resonated with me most was, “It’s like falling in love, finding your best friend.” When you find someone who clicks with you on a really deep mental/emotional level, it’s easy to confuse it with a crush. You want to be with the other person constantly. You do a lot of worrying about what he/she thinks of you and when you’ll see him/her again. When the other person compliments you, you feel like you have champagne in your veins. He/she makes you feel like your very best self. Sometimes you also want to make out with said person, which makes it a pretty standard crush. But sometimes you don’t—or you’re not sure if you do, because the other person isn’t the gender you usually make out with—and that can make things really confusing. Benjamin Alire Saenz does a nice job of parsing that confusion in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and so does Bill Konigsberg in Openly Straight. (I am also attempting to write a book about this! We’ll see how that goes.)

The long, drawn-out, exciting lead-up to a kiss… that ends up being absolutely terrible.

Remember that time in Buffy when Cordelia and Wesley make eyes at each other for an entire season, and then they finally kiss, and it’s the most awkward, embarrassing, disappointing kiss in the history of the world? Yeah, we’ve all experienced that. And yet, everyone in YA seems to be remarkably good at kissing. I’d love to see some more awkward, fumbling, ultimately unsuccessful physical contact!

Do you know of a great book that explores one or more of these things? Tell me in comments!

 

Friday
Jan102014

Psst... want to win an ARC of FOR REAL?

YOU GUYS... I got FOR REAL ARCs in the mail yesterday!!!

Here's the front (with bonus cat)*:

 

And here's the back...

 

And here are the pretty, pretty spines!

 

You know what? I think I have a few too many of these. How about I give one away RIGHT NOW?

a Rafflecopter giveaway  

Good luck! 

Love,

The slightly delirious author

*I'm not giving away the cat. Sorry.

Sunday
Dec292013

Best reads of 2013!

It's time for Alison's Best Reads of the Year Awards!

The rules are as follows:

1) I must have read these books for the first time in 2013, though they don't need to have been published in 2013.

2) Books I read as ARCs in 2012 do not count, even if they came out in 2013. (Unfortunately, this eliminates all my critique partners' books from the running... but I'll give them their own special section at the end.)

3) Books are listed in no particular order.

4) I am not allowed to choose more than five books per category, but I can choose fewer.

5) Books may receive more than one award.

Here we go!

 

BEST YOUNG ADULT:

ELEANOR AND PARK, Rainbow Rowell

FANGIRL, Rainbow Rowell

ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE, Benjamin Alire Saenz

CHARM AND STRANGE, Stephanie Kuehn

GONE, GONE, GONE, Hannah Moskowitz

 

BEST MIDDLE GRADE:

THREE TIMES LUCKY, Sheila Turnage

NAVIGATING EARLY, Clare Vanderpool

SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY, Karen Harrington

THE REAL BOY, Anne Ursu

THE YEAR OF SHADOWS, Claire Legrand

 

BEST ADULT FICTION:

THE SNOW CHILD, Eowyn Ivy

LIFE AFTER LIFE, Kate Aktinson

THE INTERESTINGS, Meg Wolitzer

WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE?, Maria Semple

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Neil Gaiman

 

BEST NON-FICTION:

BIRD BY BIRD, Anne Lamott (granted, this is the ONLY non-fiction I read this year... but it's also the best non-fiction I've read maybe ever. I love it.)

 

And now for the special awards:

THE LAUGH-OUT-LOUD-ON-THE-SUBWAY AWARD: ME, EARL, AND THE DYING GIRL, Jesse Andrews. Never would've thought a book about cancer could be hilarious. It can!

TEARJERKER AWARD: THE YEAR OF SHADOWS, Claire Legrand. Man, what a gorgeous book. Also, extra points to Claire because when told her about my copious weeping, she gleefully said, "I'm so happy I made you cry!" Honorable mention to my reread of HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, because... obviously. 

MOST SATISFYING REREAD AWARD: THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, which makes me all melty and warm and fuzzy and stupid, and HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX. HP5 is still not my favorite of the HP books—it's my third favorite, after 3 and 6—but I loved it WAY more this time around than I ever had before. It was a very pleasant surprise.

BEST BOOK WITH ILLUSTRATIONS: A MONSTER CALLS, Patrick Ness. Seriously, just LOOK at it.

BEST COVER AWARD: ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE, Benjamin Alire Saenz, and PARCHED, Melanie Crowder.

THE CLINGINESS AWARD: FANGIRL, Rainbow Rowell. I loved this book so much that I was weirdly unable to let it out of my sight after I read it. The ARC lay on my bed for days and days, and I didn't even bother to move it when I went to sleep. When the hardcover came out, I bought it that day, brought it home, and told myself I was just going to look at it "for a second." Then I proceeded to read the entire thing again. 

THE UNDER-MY-SKIN AWARD: WILD AWAKE, Hilary T. Smith. Though this wasn't one of my favorite books of the year, I could NOT stop thinking about it after I read it. It made me all itchy and antsy and uncomfortable, and I worried about the main character for days after the book was over. That, to me, is a mark of really excellent writing. I can't wait to see what Hilary writes next.

THE UNEXPECTED ADORATION AWARD: THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE, Leila Sales. I liked both of Leila's other books, so I was certainly expecting to like this one, too. But I loved it way, WAY more than I expected. I've been recommending it to everyone.

THE SATISFYING ENDING AWARD: THE BITTER KINGDOM, Rae Carson. I don't want to say anything that might spoil people for the first two books, but I'll just say that there's this THING that I really thought might happen, and I DESPERATELY didn't want it to happen, and it didn't happen, and I was so relieved.

THE CLIFFHANGER AWARD: REBEL BELLE, Rachel Hawkins. This is a 2014 release, so I'm breaking my own rule here, but I purposely tried not to read books with cliffhanger endings this year. However, when I got to the end of this one, I burst out laughing, pointed at the book, and shouted, "WELL PLAYED, HAWKINS."

MOST ASTONISHING READ OVERALL: A MONSTER CALLS, Patrick Ness. The reason this book isn't listed above is that I have no idea how to categorize it. The main character is middle-grade-age, but the book says "14 and up" on the back, and I would really only recommend it to adults. But I've never read a book that dealt with grief in such an astute way without being at all manipulative. This book had been sitting on my shelf for two years, and I'd been too afraid to read it, having lost a parent to cancer myself. But I'm so glad I picked it up, and I'm sure I will do so again many times. The whole time I was reading it, I sat there going, "Yes. Yes. Yes. YES."

 

And now, because I can't help myself... here are some 2014 books I've read that I know you're going to love. They are all by people I adore, and I can't wait to watch them make their way out into the world!

I HEART BAND, Michelle Schusterman (January 9)

FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, NATE!, Tim Federle (January 21)

POINTE, Brandy Colbert (April 10)

LIFE BY COMMITTEE, Corey Ann Haydu (May 13)

THE FOURTH WISH, Lindsay Ribar (July 31)

THE TERROR OF THE SOUTHLANDS, Caroline Carlson (September 9)

AT YOUR SERVICE, Jen Malone (Sept 26)

 

Happy new year, and happy reading!