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!!



  1. I hadn't thought about how this venture would be an enforcement mechanism for massive amounts of reading. It's making you experts in the field, not just expert writers, and it's bound to inform your writing.

  2. I think Nina has the best advice when she says she stays motivated by writing about topics she is passionate about.

    Sometimes I choose (for financial reasons) to write about things I'm NOT passionate about. I immerse myself in that topic and "act as if" I'm passionate about that topic and it usually works well enough.

  3. Sometimes I choose (for financial reasons) to write about things I'm NOT passionate about.
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  4. Hi there,

    Nice post n great story.Thanks for sharing.


  5. you are a teacher?? I did not know, but I think that writers can be good literature teachers too, by the way really nice interview!

  6. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something that I think I would never understand.

  7. This one article alone shows off your excellent writing skills. I am very impressed with your views and interesting content. I hope you intend to continue writing more informational articles.

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