Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Kristen and Nina: Write Teen

I’m not just a writer. I’m also a teacher. At least I used to be, and then I stopped doing that. But now I’m doing it again. Why? Because one day I was eating plantain chips with Nina LaCour and a light bulb went off inside my head. I realized that Nina is a teacher too. (And a ferociously talented writer.) So that night we hatched a plan to teach together. And then, after hours and hours of planning and eating tacos, at the beginning of this year, Nina and I started teaching writing classes in the Bay Area. We call ourselves Write Teen and we teach our class members how to craft and publish marketable teen novels. Together we’ve sold eleven novels to Simon & Schuster, Random House, Disney-Hyperion, and Penguin. So now, once a month, at Firehouse North Art Collective in Berkeley, we share our own strategies for writing and revision, and help our students analyze critically and commercially successful teen novels. Also, we offer a lot of snacks.

By now I’m sure you all have many questions about Write Teen. (In addition to being a writer and teacher and a founding member of Write Teen, I am basically a mind reader as well.) Below is a Question and Answer section about what it feels like to become an entrepreneur and sacrifice all your free time (and normal sleep) so you can chase after your dreams of starting your own business in San Francisco. (We are only asking ourselves 8 questions, because that is all we have time to answer.)

1. Question: I read in a self-help book that launching a series of writing classes is arduous work that demands 8 gazillion hours of prep and marketing time a week. What keeps you motivated?


You did? Because I honestly thought it would be easy. I mean, it wasn't like we were opening a law practice or a restaurant. We were just going to do something we were good at already: teach. But, like most things in life, this endeavor has been more consuming than either of us anticipated. It's also been great, though. It's super fun to read YA novels and research the industry and meet in the lobbies of fancy hotels and talk about what we will teach and how we'll spread the word. It makes us read a lot and discuss a lot, and approach this vibrant body of literature from a new perspective. I am a firm believer in teaching subjects I'm passionate about and fascinated by. For me, there's nothing more motivating than that.

2. Question: What’s the most memorable thing a student has said so far?


This is going to be a serious answer. One of the ways I like to start the class is by asking everybody to introduce him or herself with a claim to fame. (This is something unique about a person that is brag worthy. I usually tell people that I don’t have fingerprints. Because I think that is unique and brag worthy.) Recently one of our students told us that after suffering a spinal cord injury she’d been told that she’d never be able to walk again. Then she told us that even though her doctor said it was impossible, she'd taught herself how to walk again. Her honesty and desire to connect with us really left a lasting impression. We'd only met a few minutes before and here she was sharing something incredibly personal and inspiring. That’s what I love about teaching these classes. As a writer, I spend a lot of time alone. But as a teacher, I get to meet incredibly interesting, dedicated, and wonderful people.

3. Question: You recently allowed students the chance to ask top-selling literary agents questions. Cool. What sort of questions did your students have?


One of the aspects I love about our classes is that we work to narrow the divide between aspiring writers and the publishing community. When I was beginning to write HOLD STILL, I had no idea how best to approach an agent. I didn't even know what agents actually did. So it feels awesome to provide our students with the opportunity to get some answers before beginning the querying process. Many of the questions were about actual queries--how to find an agent who is a a good match, what biographical information to include in query letters, if sending queries actually works, etc. (The answer to this last question is YES, in case you were wondering.)

4. Question: What’s the best writing advice you could give somebody who wants to be a published writer?


If you want to be a published writer, focus on your craft. Read a lot. And don’t read to be entertained. Read like a writer. Read with the intent to figure out how successful stories are built. And don't give up. Some people have to knock on the door longer than other people. That's life. Sometimes there's a doorbell. Sometimes there isn't. Knock. Knock. Knock.

5. Why are you teaching at an art collective? Isn’t it hard to set out the proper number of comfortable chairs each week?


I teach at a high school that, in its beginning years, had no building. The teachers and students would sneak into classrooms at UC Berkeley that weren't being used and hold class until the college students and professors arrived and displaced them. They would go camping for weeks and hold class in the woods. So, really: who needs a conventional classroom? Not us. These aren't conventional classes. Plus, the art on the wall changes all the time which keeps the scenery interesting. And if you arrive early, you might get to sit on a red velvet sofa.

6. What’s the best part about teaching emerging and established writers how to craft a YA novel?


People are really open to everything. They’re curious about what’s allowed. That’s why teaching YA writing is so much fun. Because I get to tell them that anything is allowed. Mermaids? Allowed. Prison drama? Allowed. Post-apocalyptic world? Allowed. People dating ghosts? Allowed. Twins adrift at sea who get attacked by sharks? Totally allowed. As long as you’re writing a good story, you can take it anywhere.

7. You have an Advisory Board? I’m intrigued. Could you tell me more about your Advisory Board?


Kristen and I have an amazing group of people supporting us. Our own editors, Julie Strauss-Gabel (mine) and Catherine Onder (Kristen's) are on the board. Ari Lewin, Anica Rissi, Caroline Abbey, Jennifer Laughran, and the one and only Sara Crowe are as well. Julie Romeis visited our class last weekend to give our students valuable insights to the acquisition and editorial process, and Alan Rinzler will be guest speaking next week. Our board has been so generous with their time and their knowledge. We're learning so much from them.

8. What’s the most surprising thing that has happened before, during, or after one of your Write Teen classes?


I'm not sure if I should tell this story. Okay. I'll tell it. After our second class we had a crisis. We'd wrapped up teaching and had left the art collective and a few of us were hanging around outside. That's when I heard a scream and I looked and saw something on the sidewalk. At first I thought it was a gigantic bug. But it wasn't. It moved quickly in the direction of one of our classmates sandaled feet. It was creepy. Then I realized what it was. It was a scorpion. And not just any scorpion. It was an Arizona bark scorpion, the most venomous scorpion in North America. And so I did what any teacher would do. I selflessly jumped in front of my sandaled student and squashed it. Okay. That didn't happen. Berkeley isn't exactly scorpion country. But if you happen to live in scorpion country, you should think about buying some chickens. Or maybe a cat. They are excellent scorpion predators.

And there you have it. Nina LaCour and Kristen Tracy have answered all your questions and given you a great strategy for fighting scorpions. If you’ve got any further questions you can put them in the comments below. Happy Writing!!


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Michael: Raise the Woof: Underdogs in YA

I stayed at a bar and listened to “Live Irish Music!” last night. You know why? Because no one else was. The musicians outnumbered the listeners, and I felt a little bad for those forlorn fiddlers. It got me thinking of the importance of underdogs, not so much in bars (though, please note, I can now write-off that trip) as in young adult literature.

There may be no other type of writing where the underdog is more common and more important, because in one way or another, almost every main character in YA is one. No matter how confident and competent they are, they are still teens living in an adult world—and possibly vampires living in a human world, wizards living in a muggle world, delicious, delicious humans living in a zombie world, or something else, but let’s stick with that first one for now.

And of course many of these characters are much less than completely confident and, in terms of competence, are at least as much MacGruber as MacGyver. The main characters in my first book, Gentlemen, are classic underdogs: They are lower-class kids from broken homes, remedial students, and they definitely have a tendency to bite. The narrator of Trapped, on the other hand, is basically an average kid—a good athlete and a decent student—but he’s at least as much of an underdog.

What makes him one is the weeklong blizzard that strands him and six other kids at their high school. Frankly, he could be the love child of Jack Bauer and La Femme Nikita and still be an underdog in that situation. All sorts of obstacles conspire to stack the odds and make characters sympathetic in YA, whether it’s being the new kid in town or subject to the machinations of a hellish dystopian society.

But the biggest obstacle remains adolescence itself. It is a confusing age, and it definitely doesn’t seem to be getting any less so. (Thanks a lot, global political/economic/cultural/technological upheaval.) The characters are sympathetic because they are going through the same things the readers are (or were). They are misunderstood, uncertain, disrespected (it’s right there in the word “minors”), and liable to be ignored on the one hand or to attract the wrong kind of attention on the other.

If you write YA, whether you intended it or not, your main character is probably an underdog. Of course, that’s true of many types of books. What’s remarkable about YA is that, if you look closely, the bullies, jocks, rivals, crushes, exes, friends, and enemies who round out the cast are probably underdogs too.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Erin: As Nike says, "Just do it"

Last week, Lisa gave some advice on getting published. She said, and I quote, “Write the best book you can.” This seems pretty straightforward, but Lisa also mentioned how many of the people asking her for publishing advice had yet to write their book.

And this got me thinking. About time. About effort. About the amount of energy and dedication and utmost perseverance that is necessary to write a novel.

When I tell someone that I write in addition to my day job, they often say something along the lines of: “Oh that’s so nice. I would love to do that. I wish I had the time.” I usually feel like responding with: “You do have the time, you are just using it to do something else.” And that’s totally acceptable. You should absolutely fill your spare time with the people, places and things that you love. But if you say you’d love to publish a book, and then never find the time to write it, perhaps the hard truth is that you don’t really want to write.

Now let’s say you do want to write. There are stories inside of you and you feel you will not be yourself until they are shared. You are willing and ready to carve out the time. Well I have some advice: Start. Just start.

You will never, ever reach your dreams of publication if you don’t sit down and write the darn book. It is the only place to begin. And sometimes starting can be scary. I understand that the idea may not be fully formed, that it is mostly in your head, wild and unruly. I understand that you’re still working out the details and right now the plot seems overwhelming. And above all, I understand that you are busy with a million other obligations. But if you want to write – if you want to be published – you have to start. Right now. Don’t put it off any longer, because trust me, it will never be the right time.

This is not depressing. It is simply the truth. You will always be finishing school, or starting a new job, or getting married, or moving, or having a kid, or going back to school, or having a second kid, or visiting family, or buying a house, or moving again. All of these are wonderful things, and even when you plan for them, they require time and energy. Some you may not plan for at all, and they will happen nonetheless.

My point is that life will constantly throw you curveballs. There will never be that perfect moment when you sit down and a sign flashes before of you saying, “Begin novel now!”

So just do it. Start. Carve out the time. An hour here, an hour there. You don’t have to pull all-nighters, although I’m pretty sure you occasionally will. Write on your lunch break. Wake up an hour earlier. If your commute involves a train of some sort, take the laptop with you. Brainstorm while you drive. Nothing makes you focus more than a hard time frame and you will be amazed at how much you can accomplish when working against the clock.

If writing is your dream, your passion, you will find the time. You will make it and then you will use it wisely. Because only you are in control of how you spend the time you carve out of your busy day. Only you are in control of your dreams.

Finding the time to write is a constant balancing act. So go find that balance, start writing and don’t stop!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Lisa: You really want my advice?

As a published author, the most common question I get is – can you give me advice on how to get published?
I do understand it can be a bit daunting when you don’t know anything about the publishing business and don’t have a clue as to where to go first. (Although I often want to say – ever heard of that thing called google?)
But here’s what really gets me. Many times, the person asking the question hasn't even written a book yet.
To me this is like a single girl with no boyfriend going around asking new brides for recommendations on caterers, florists, wedding cakes, etc.
I mean, come on. First thing’s first.
Read, write, read some more, write some more, study the craft, maybe take a class or two or go to a writer's conference, write some more, and maybe then you can ask me about getting published.
Why are we so anxious to get published? Why aren’t we more anxious about writing the best book we possibly can? Because honestly, if we do that, if we invest the time and energy into our writing, the publishing part will be a piece of cake. Maybe not wedding cake, but cake nonetheless. And once your book is on the shelves, you want as many people to love it as possible. And the only way that's going to happen is to spend the time and energy writing an amazing book. But good writing isn't enough in today's competitive market, you say. Yes, you're right, it's tough out there. Having a little luck on your side certainly won't hurt. But knowing someone or having a special "in" isn't enough either.
I can't help but wonder if sometimes, people who ask me about getting published are hoping I can give them a fast pass somehow. Well, sorry folks, this ain't Disney. 
How did I get an agent? How did I find an editor who loved my work? How have I continued to sell six more novels after that first sale? The old fashioned way. Lots and lots of hard work. Nobody gave me a fast pass. 
Years ago, I wrote a novel and it sucked. I wrote another one, it sucked a little less. I wrote another one, and was almost there, and then, I wrote a fourth one. It was different. It was risky. And it made my heart dance and sing. I stopped writing with the goal of publication and started writing something that made my heart dance and sing. When I finished, as excited as I was, I didn’t jump to sending out queries right away. I knew I needed to make it as good as I could make it. So I got one critique, then another, and a third, and I revised accordingly after each one. That book, I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME, eventually landed me my agent and after that, a contract with Simon Pulse.
So, you want my advice?
Write the best book you can. It's not easy, I know. Believe me, I know! And if all you get are rejections, then write another book, better than the first. And keep writing. Try a new genre or a new age group. Maybe you haven't found what you're meant to write yet. I think the first years of writing and submitting can be a lot of trial and error - figuring out what your strengths are and maximizing those. 

Once you have a great book ready to submit, there are wonderful resources out there for you to tap into. Here are a few off the top of my head:

www.scbwi.org - The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, with publications and conferences that will help you on your path to publication.
www.verlakay.com/boards - A place where writers gather and share all kinds of information about writing and publishing
www.agentquery.com - A database of literary agents. Search here based on what you write, or search name(s) of agents you've heard about.

In case you’re curious, the second most common question I get is – I want to write a book, but I don’t know how to get started. Can you help?
That one’s easy.
Start at the beginning. And don’t stop until the book is finished.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Christine: Bringing an Elevator Speech to Life

The phrase “elevator speech” ranks right up there with “branding,” “synergy” and “thinking outside the box” as PR/marketing cliches I’ve grown to hate.

But in creating a trailer for my young-adult novel, THEN I MET MY SISTER, the concept of an elevator speech actually began to resonate with me.

My assignment: Create an approximately two-minute promotional video convincing viewers that THEN I MET MY SISTER is a must-read.

This project turned out to be such a wellspring of joy that I couldn’t possibly quantify all the good things that came of it, but close to the top of the list is that it inspired me to drill down to the essence of my novel. In effect, it forced me to formulate an elevator speech.

Two minutes to convey protagonist Summer’s overwhelming insecurity despite her persona of studied indifference? Two minutes to probe living in the shadow of a “perfect” sister she’s never met? Or of letting down her guard enough to discover a reservoir of love and forgiveness she didn’t know existed?

Yep … the ol’ elevator speech isn’t as easy as it looks.

Writing the trailer script helped me distill 273 pages worth of thoughts, plots and character development. It helped me avoid the blank stare I’ve come to refine when people ask, “So what’s your book about?”

This is what it’s about, my trailer announces.

As victorious as that process was, even better was bringing the trailer to life. I enlisted the director I work with in my day job. His passion and enthusiasm were infectious. It was exhilarating seeing my story through his eyes. Put that guy behind a camera and a million subtle nuances spring into life. Thanks, Tim.

Next, we needed actors. Tim and I produced some award-winning videos for a campy, tongue-in-cheek campaign for our day job, and when I enlisted my college-age kids and their friends as actors for the project, they rose beautifully to the challenge. If they could pull off comedy, I knew they could handle pathos. Besides, my daughter bears an uncanny resemblance to the model on the cover of my book, so I don’t think Central Casting could have done a better job.

They came through beautifully. Taylor Staten brought incredible focus to her role as Summer. My daughter, Julianne, endowed Shannon with ethereal grace. Son Greg, in addition to assisting the director with any task thrown his way, jumped in whole-heartedly for the car crash scene.

When my daughter struggled with that scene—summoning rage, angst and utter despair on a dime—the director patiently pulled her aside and spent several minutes helping her get into character. He shot the scene multiple times, evoking new depths of emotion with every take. The process—and the end result—was sublime.

Next came the score. My brother is a highly respected recording engineer/mixer and musician in Nashville who works with world-renowned artists. But he’s never produced a score before—synchronizing sounds with images to create emotional depth and propel a storyline—and he was a bit wary when I asked for his help. But once he signed on, his excitement grew. He picked my brain at length, then created an acoustic guitar hook—just three notes—that announced an eerie, suspenseful ambiance. Next came growing layers of synthesizer, electric guitar, percussion, bass, sound effects—all combining to suggest growing chaos, distortion and confusion.

Once the car scene crash ended and the music needed to pull back, he asked me for a single word describing the denouement—Summer’s connection with her dead sister, Shannon. I thought for a moment, then said, “Sweet.”

“Sweet,” he repeated decisively.

The resulting artificial harmonic on his acoustic guitar as the two girls’ hands clasp is my favorite part of the video.

The trailer was intended as the means to an end—selling more books—but ended up being a work of art in its own right, thanks to the talented people with whom I was privileged to work. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpXAw8uIsRI