Kristan Hoffman - Writing Dreams Into Reality
Thu Sep 9 2010

Why I Write YA

Erin Danehy pretty much rocks the hizzouse. We trade like 9 billion emails a day (no, really) and she’s always full of good advice, random but helpful information, and (in her words) cheeky optimism.

Even though we went to college and studied writing “together,” we didn’t really become friends until after graduating and moving to different cities. Now I can’t even imagine going through this process (of becoming an author) without her by my side.

Erin recently signed with agent Kate Testerman, and soon her amazing YA fantasy BOUND BETWEEN will be on submission to editors. Please leave her lots and lots of comments, since I won’t be around to clog up her inbox this week. :)

I was originally planning to dish on my experience with Kristan as a crit partner (because I know you all want to know all those juicy details! Um, yes…), but I’ll save that for a future guest post.

Without further ado, I present a list of the heartfelt, stupid, crazy, applicable, random, insensible, honest, nerdy, and deep-down emotional reasons why I write (and always have wanted to write) novels for young adults. (Replete with much parenthetical commentary.) These aren’t necessarily the same reasons for why I write fantasy (that’s a whole ‘nother list), but some are the same. I bet you won’t guess which ones!

I write YA because…

  1. I want to. (What, that’s not in and of itself a valid reason? I have to elaborate? Pfft.)
  2. When I was twelve years old, I decided to be a novelist and write novels for ME, me as defined as who I was then — and it’s still true for who I am now. I swore I’d never write a book I didn’t love. That I’d always strive to write a book I could call My Favorite Book of All Time. At the time that book didn’t exist — and it still doesn’t exist. That is my carrot-on-a-stick, my very pulse. I live to write the best book I’ve ever read. Over and over again, across my whole career.
  3. I’m obsessed with coming-of-age stories. Young Adult, as a genre, encompasses the age at which most people “come of age” — in a variety of legal and emotional senses.
  4. I had a relatively boring, normal teenage life in the suburbs, so I write about teens who don’t have boring teen years. (Whether or not they welcome the boredom, ha.) Escapism? Nope. I write for pure fun and imagination, for thrill, joy, love, and the “what if” just beyond every corner.
  5. I have absurdly vivid memories of my childhood and of my teen years, my “young adult” years, when I wanted so desperately to just “grow up” and be done with being a “kid.” Those memories are replete with the visceral emotions I felt at the time. I can still feel the searing pain and disappointment from my first college rejection letter at seventeen; the loneliness and abandonment I felt as a twelve-year-old who had no “best friend” the way novels told her she should; the swell of triumph and pride of hitting a home run on my high school softball team at fourteen. I feel them with such immediacy, it’s only natural I write about young adults.
  6. I’m a big kid. I routinely use slang, make up my own slang, and I get more excited about the latest PG Animated Movie release than the latest big Summer Blockbuster or Romantic Comedy. I play with toys. I make funny faces in the mirror. I hate the thought of being considered a “kid” but I also want so badly to be taken seriously as a “grown up.” Still. I’ve always been this way. This is who I am. I’ll change, I’m sure, but I’ll still always be this person, or I’ll always have been this person, this big kid.
  7. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe my high school experience, at least as far as I’ve learned so far. I’m willing to spend an entire career searching for and using all of those adjectives to write about high school and the experience of being 14-18, to write about being on the cusp of, in the middle of, and just beyond… everything.
  8. I naturally exaggerate about everything. So does the average teenager. I think because we have that in common, it makes sense I write for teenagers. (Also teens are the best audience EVER. EVERRRRR.)
  9. I’ve been obsessed with the idea of a classroom of students reading a book I wrote since the third grade. (THIRD GRADE; that was before I was even certain I was going to be a novelist. This must mean I’m dedicated.)
  10. I LOVE the idea of going to a school or library and talking to kids, teachers, and librarians about reading and writing. About my books! They will have to kick me out of school/library events and book signings.
  11. Because teen (and all-around) literacy is important to me. Hugely important.
  12. Some teen readers use YA lit as a jumping off point into older “classics,” into adult genres of all sub-sorts, or into further YA lit discovery. I would love for my books to encourage a teen to pick up one of my classic favorites (Pride and Prejudice, Paradise Lost, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), some of my adult genre favorites (oh — there are too many), or a YA book (or “coming of age” as some pre-“YA-as-genre” books could be classed) from yesteryear they might not have yet discovered (again, too many to list). I would love my books to be that stepping stone.
  13. The English major in me sees the young adult / coming of age experience as a version of Joseph Campbell’s hero theory. (Extrapolate it; it works!) I’m obsessed with Joseph Campbell’s hero theory to something of an unhealthy degree. (Go read The Hero With a Thousand Faces now. NOW.) So why wouldn’t I write young adult / coming of age stories?
  14. As a teen I read voraciously, but when I was reading young adult fantasy for the first time, there weren’t more than a handful of female-hero-driven fantasy books I could fall in love with. I had to skip to adult, or hang around exhausting the kid’s (middle grade) section, or put up with (some rather excellent, I admit) male-hero-driven fantasy books. Since I was a teen, there’s been an explosion of the genre of young adult fantasy featuring strong female protagonists who’ve earned the title of “hero.” I couldn’t be happier. I want to be a part of that.
  15. I love reading YA. Love. I’ve always wanted to be a part of the genre I love, to participate in the game as well as cheer on the sidelines.
  16. Teens aren’t the only ones who read and love YA. I like the idea of writing for EVERYONE, for writing for the 12+, the 14+, the 16+ audience. YA doesn’t limit me. It’s one of the freest genres I can think of.
  17. I love YA, but I also recognize that I don’t have to limit a career to YA alone. If I ever want to write for adults, for middle-grade; a picture book, a non-fiction book (about Joseph Campbell’s hero theory? Yes? Yes?), a memoir… why not? I just might. I don’t know. But just because I’m loving and writing YA now doesn’t mean I have to limit myself to this genre forever.

The more I read over that list, the more I realize that represents only a fraction of the impossible-to-articulate reasons why I write YA. Really, I like my first reason: Because I want to. It’s so much more succinct than having to list all the others and more.

So Kristan’s lovely readers, please tell me: why do you read what you read? Why do you write what you write? What inspires you? What motivates you?

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Wed Sep 8 2010

Writing superpowers

Two summers ago, Rachele Alpine and I could have been BFF. We were both at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, living in idyllic, isolated Gambier, Ohio, and writing our brains out. BUT. Since we were in different classes, we didn’t really get to know each other. {sad face}

Fortunately, thanks to teh interwebs, we reconnected later. Now I know Rachele is a beloved teacher, a voracious reader, and an all-around great gal.

Big thanks to Rachele for taking time out of her BUSY life (teaching! MFA! book on submission! wedding planning?) to guest post. She really is a super woman.

I have never been a big superhero fan. Yeah, I loved the Spiderman movies, but I think it was more because of Tobey McGuire’s dorky cuteness than anything else. I have two friends who write/illustrate comic books, but besides looking at their work once in awhile, I never really got into the superhero craze.

However, when Kristan posed a question the other day about what writer “superpowers” I wished I had and which ones I already possess, I started to think a lot about superheroes and their special abilities.

First, I thought about fictitious superpowers. You know, the kind that you see in comic books and movies. The powers that a person would never have, but it would be awesome if they did. I ruled out invisibility, because even though it would be kind of cool to creep around without people knowing, there might be some information I’d find out that I didn’t want to know. The same goes with the power to read people’s minds. Some things are just best not knowing. Flying would be fun for about five minutes, but then I’d just get bored and figure all my friends would be asking for rides to places on my back to save money on gas. I think if I could have a fictitious superhero power, it would have to be extreme speed like the Flash. I have so many routine things I do everyday that life would be so much better if I could speed through them and spend time on the more important stuff. Instead of taking forever to blow dry my hair, clean the house, drive to work or exercise, I could do it in a matter of seconds with my super fast speed. I’d be able to focus on things the things I love like writing (hooray!), reading and watching bad reality TV (think of all the episodes of Teen Mom and The Real Housewives I could catch up on if I could speed through the boring every day tasks!).

If we were talking about writing superpowers, I would wish for the power of outlining. I just simply cannot do it. I’m the type of person who likes to sit down and write and write and write. The problem is that I’ll often hit a wall with my writing. I have had to push stories aside and let them simmer before I can go back to them with fresh ideas. My writing often looks like puzzles with pages cut out and spaced out all over the floor so I can work on creating an outline after I get stuck. I admire those who first have the dedication to sit down and write an outline before starting a story (I always want to just start to write) and then use that as their road map. How nice life must be when you know the route your story is going to take. It’s fun to have my characters surprise me, but there’s too often those points where they just stand around and look at me like they’re all expecting me to point them in the right direction. The superpower of outlining would help me do that!

I do have a superpower with writing! I possess the coveted YA writer power of understanding teenagers. I’m surrounded by them eight hours a day as a tenth grade Language Arts teacher and when I go home I’m addicted to bad MTV reality shows. I love teeny bopper movies (I can’t wait for Easy A and never tire of Mean Girls) and have piles of journals from my high school years that I often go back to for inspiration. I feel like when I write, I can easily channel “teen speak” and “teen thought.” I know what they’re thinking, because I hear what they’re thinking in the classroom all day. I know what stresses, upsets, angers and excites them. I may not be a teen anymore, but I’m still a part of that world and it helps me so much with story development.

Writing superpowers really is an interesting concept. I believe we all have one and with a click the power button on a computer, the uncapping of a pen or rip of a fresh sheet of notebook paper, we call this power into action. So what about you? What are the writing superpowers that you have and what are the ones that you wish you could have?

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Tue Sep 7 2010

A novelist attempts to write a fairytale

Sonja Seawright is a woman of many talents. She’s witty, well-read, an excellent pen pal, and she can even turn a ukelele into a children’s guitar! I mean seriously, how cool is that? Sonja’s also the queen of thoughtful comments, and I always look forward to seeing what she’ll say about my latest blog post. She constantly gets me to think further, work harder, and laugh louder.

So I hope y’all will leave her plenty of good comments, too. After all, you just might win something awesome. ;)

Step 1
Decide that you will write a princess fairytale (as opposed to an animal based fairytale or whatever) and then determine that a fairytale written for young children is approximately 2000 words.

Step 2
Begin with “Once upon a time.”

Step 3
Write a long history of two nations going back no fewer than three generations in order to justify why anyone would want to kill a beautiful princess who is friends with animals, because if animals are your friends, you must be good people or people who cannot form relationships with other humans. Scrap this idea after you see you have written 1800 words and the princess hasn’t even been born yet… nor have her parents.

Step 4
Go back only one generation but add a third kingdom’s history into the mix. Scrap this idea at 800 words when you realize you will need at least 500 more words to get to the birth of the princess.

Step 5
Learn from past mistakes and start with the princess’s birth. Write in detail about her mother being in labor, how the princess looks purple and sticky when she comes out, and how her older brother (age three at the time) is terrified of this disgusting creature. Scrap this idea after it’s taken 1000 words and has, perhaps, more detail than is necessary for the preschool/kindergarten set. Feel slight pain, as the three year old’s reaction to the purple sticky alien baby was some pretty good writing.

Step 6
Start at birth of princess without any gory details or sibling rivalry. Introduce prearrangement of marriage into another royal family. Introduce bad guy who wants to stop royal marriage. Realize you have introduced a lot of things in about 500 words. Continue doggedly ahead, determined that this time, you will get it done. Describe princess’s idyllic childhood and friendship with animals. Realize that you’ve taken 1000 additional words to age the princess to marriageable age, bringing you to about 1500 words, and you still have not started the main conflict with the bad guy nor introduced her to her marriage prospects. Select virtually all of the text and hit delete button with more force than is strictly necessary.

Step 7
Start at birth of princess without any gory details or sibling rivalry. Introduce prearrangement of marriage into another royal family. Introduce bad guy who wants to stop royal marriage. Cut 997 words from the process of aging the princess by simply writing the following: “Seventeen years later…” Close your eyes and imagine the princess’s friendship with animals. You will know even if no one else ever will. Open eyes and start introducing conflict with bad guy. Realize that bad guy has been doing nothing to stop the wedding for seventeen years, which is necessary for the plot but makes no sense. Realize bad guy is now quite old and really has no reason, at this point, to kill the princess anyway. Scrap bad guy’s motivation, which means scrapping this particular bad guy, which means returning back to the very beginning. Again.

Step 8
Pound head on keyboard.

Step 9
Start at birth of princess without any gory details or sibling rivalry. Introduce prearrangement of marriage into another royal family. Age princess with three words, “Seventeen years later,” and then introduce revamped bad guy with revamped reason to kill. Have the princess meet her marriage prospects. Now you’re getting somewhere! Only to find yourself inexplicably having the princess show her marriage prospects around her kingdom while explaining to them its agricultural and building systems, not to mention the conservation (!) efforts of the nation.

Step 10
Decide that it might be best to go back to writing novels. Wonder if you had the good sense to save that bit about the purple sticky baby and the horrified three year old. Spread out over 80,000 words or so, that idea had potential…

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Mon Sep 6 2010

Call me silly

Kicking off our week of fantabulous guest posts is Sarah Wedgbrow, my crit partner and friend. We met through a local writing group and, being the loudest and most opinionated of the bunch, quickly banded together. We’re both always right, even when we disagree, so watch out!

Please give Sarah a warm welcome, and remember: most thoughtful comment of the week gets a prize! (I don’t know what yet, but I promise it won’t suck.)

There’s a lot of talk out there in the blogosphere about branding, platforms, etc. I recently read an excellent post by Wordbird about the topic. Madeleine points out that it’s very important that the book you’re writing is the one you want to make as your career—otherwise you could be branded for life.

This is problematic for me. I still don’t know which direction I’d like my writing career to go at this point (other than in the money-making kind). I still consider myself an apprentice and while I am writing a YA paranormal story (ghosts, not vampires), I don’t know if in ten years time I will want to be in the same place. I would still like to experiment some more with dystopian, contemporary, fantasy, middle grade and literary. If I am to write within these genres, will my only option be to adopt several different pen names?

There is also the possibility that the need for genres will fall to the wayside as e-readers and e-books become more and more popular. Without booksellers needing to know where to shelve a book, genres may become more blurred. Still, I would think that a consumer is the deciding factor on this one. When browsing online for books, you would still need categories and ways of organizing titles. I guess it just wouldn’t limit the amount of books being “bought and shelved,” which is a good thing for us writers.

Todd Newton’s post about Lady Gaga’s platform pointed out that even if you don’t like her music or her style, everyone knows what is “Gaga” and what isn’t. Just the other day, Scott Mills, a BBC radio one DJ mentioned how he’d like to change up OMG to OMLG (oh my lady gaga). It just proves how strong her platform is and how recognizable she is as an “artist.”

At this stage in the game, for me, the most important thing I have to worry about is writing. Sounds like such a nice problem to have compared to the mania that surrounds the publishing world. Call me silly, but I still want it—the book being published, the book tour, the book readings, catching a glimpse of my book in the book store or a trailer of my book online. One bit of relief is that at the heart of my stories is my own very special brand of humor. I may not be able to bottle it and sell it, but it certainly keeps me sane and keeps me enjoying this crazy career choice.

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Fri Apr 16 2010

Author Interview: Todd Newton, Part 2

For those of you who missed it, Part 1 of this interview “aired” on Wednesday.

Aaand we’re back. So, Todd, let’s hear how 9A finally got from brain to bookshelf.

The Ninth Avatar started as an idea for a trilogy, and once I had the first “book” written (what became the first “half” of 9A) and ran it through a few rounds of edits and beta-reads, I did what a lot of writers do. I went straight into the query process.

Not that this is an outright mistake or anything, but I can say now that neither I nor the work was ready. We each needed more of a chance to mature. My numerous synopses and query letters were pretty lame, so I got a lot of form rejections. I wasn’t just sitting on my hands, though, because I wanted to continue the story into “book 2” and I also had another project I was working on (which eventually became my religious satire, Thomas Redpool Goes To Hell).

About halfway through writing “book 2,” I realized I didn’t have enough story for a “book 3.” This may sound odd, but it was one of those instinctual notions; I didn’t want to try to stretch the story, I wanted to keep it tense and coherent. So, two books became one, and I wrote all the way to the ending I thought it deserved. After a few more rounds of edits, I figured it was time to submit again.

I got more of a reaction this time, but it was mixed. One agent thought the MS was too long (at 154,000 words) which is a valid concern, especially for a debut author, and I received some more form rejections. I decided that, while I continued to work on other projects, the best way to move this one forward was to self-publish it. I figured the worst case would be a few people might read it, and maybe it would get my name out there. I never meant for self-publishing to be my “ultimate” goal, merely a stepping stone to other things, but I put as much effort into it as I could.

Months later, through a contact at my critique group I heard about Trapdoor Books and contacted the head of the startup publisher directly. He read both of my completed works, Thomas Redpool and The Ninth Avatar, then had others read them as well, and offered to acquire and publish the latter. After more rounds of edits, a new cover, design treatment, and months of discussion, the final version of the book is in its first print run of 5000 copies (including both trade paperback and hardcover) It’s also available in various electronic formats.

The story’s come quite a ways from being nothing but a hand-drawn map, a ton of concept art, and a meandering “summary” of chapters, and hopefully still has a long journey ahead of it.

Whew, I’ll say! But it seems to be well on its way. ^_^

Now that you can look back on this whole crazy journey, what was the hardest part of writing 9A?

The constant creeping suspicion that I had no idea what I was doing. More than anything else, we writers need confidence in our project and our process. I’m very lucky to have people around me who push me forward, like my wife and other writers, but during your first novel there is a lot of room for doubts like, “Can I really do this?” I obsessed about a lot of things that, in retrospect, proved to be far less important than people in the industry purport them to be. I should have been focusing on just getting it done.

Mmm, I definitely hear that… Well, on the flip side, what was the best part of writing 9A?

For me, the best part is when people read my work and have some kind of emotional reaction. Whether it is a resonance with the characters, agreement or disagreement with the concepts and conclusions, or just plain honest criticism, nothing beats the accomplishment of having created a coherent story that people respond to. Smaller victories include nailing a scene, not just getting excited that I wrote something the way it came together in my head but also that elation of “Now I get to have the character do this!” Writing is and always should be fun, otherwise we wouldn’t do it. That’s just the bottom line.

Writing is always fun, eh? I must be doing something wrong… Help me! What is your process like?

Disorganized. I am the epitome of a Type B personality, so I tend to write “organically,” which is a nice way of saying “by the seat of my pants.” Expanding on ideas as they come, focusing on the creativity aspect of writing; these are a few of my favorite things. I’m terrible at outlining, and I tend to under-write during my first draft, many times ignoring my responsibility to “describe” a scene in favor of just getting to the point. To write, all I need is a comfortable chair, my laptop & headphones, and a place that minimizes distraction. It also helps if I don’t have access to the Internet, which is why you can find me a Starbucks when I really want to get some work done on a project.

Ah, now I know the secret!

Well, hopefully this isn’t a secret: Do you have any other books or projects in the works?

Now that The Ninth Avatar is finished, the marketing push is ready to begin. The publisher and I will be posting on the Trapdoor Books blog with news and updates, and hopefully there will be something to tell soon about a possible “alternate reality game” as well as an iPhone app. But these are still under development.

My second book, Thomas Redpool Goes To Hell, is finished but not published in any form just yet. I’m kicking around the idea of doing a Podiobooks version of it. I’m also working on another Fantasy novel, a standalone separate from 9A’s universe, called Scions of the Shade. It’s coming along, but don’t get the idea that subsequent books get any easier to write (or finish!).

I do plan to return to 9A’s universe, though. After I finish Scions, I want to try my hand at writing a prequel & sequel in tandem, to be released that way as well. It should be fun and a challenge, which is everything a writer needs.

Indeed! Thanks again, Todd, for taking the time to tell us about your debut novel and all the hard (but fun!) work that went into it. I’m really excited for you, and I know 9A’s going to do great!

Readers, if you have any questions for Todd, I’m sure he’d be happy to field them in the comments section. Don’t forget to visit him on the web and/or order your copy of The Ninth Avatar!

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