Confession: I spent nearly $12,000 to market my debut, Survival Colony 9.
Don’t believe me? Here are my numbers:
Publicist retainer: $5800
Publicist expenses: $225
Website hosting: $60
Website design: $850
Swag design: $100
Swag printing: $280
Launch party game: $70
Launch party cake: $170
Curriculum guide: $500
Giveaway items: $600
Mailing supplies: $200
Professional dues: $180
Conference fees: $250
Why did I do it? Peer pressure, I guess. Everyone told me that if I wanted my book to do well, I had to spend tons of money (and time; I’ll get to that momentarily) promoting it. Even though Survival Colony 9 was coming out from a major publisher, I was told that these days, authors had to bear the brunt of marketing costs. I figured if everyone else was doing it and I didn’t, then my poor little book baby would be doomed to a life of miserable failure. So like many an anxious parent who pays for pricey private schools and SAT prep courses so Junior can go to Harvard, I dumped much of my advance (after taxes) on selling my wares.
Survival Colony 9 sold neither better nor worse than many a debut. It turns one year old today; it’s out in paper; the sequel, Scavenger of Souls, will appear next summer. To my mind, that’s success.
But if you ask me whether any of the dollars I poured into marketing contributed to sales, I can’t tell you. There’s really no way to connect the dots, to determine whether marketing scheme X translated into units sold Y. I wish I had a time machine so I could test whether the book would have done any worse (or better) with zero marketing on my end.
But money is one thing. Time is another—and to me, as to many a writer, it’s an even more precious commodity than dollars and cents. Like most authors, writing isn’t my only gig; I have a full-time job, plus a full-time wife and children. Writing books, much less marketing them, can’t be allowed to take over my life. Yet that’s exactly what happened in the six months surrounding my debut: I can’t even begin to enumerate the hours I spent blogging, tweeting, emailing, driving, speaking, and what-notting in the name of making contacts, creating my “author brand,” and selling myself and my book. All I know is, I really wish I had that time back. I could have been writing instead. Or, better yet, living.
So what have I learned?
Only this: like everything else in writing, the decision whether (and how much) to market your books is a personal one. Just as there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to structure your story or shape your characters or place one word versus another on the page, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to marketing the products of your imagination. If you have money and time to spare, use it as you please. If you love tweeting or blogging or speaking at schools, go ahead and do it. The harsh reality is that of the thousands of books published each year, most will sell modestly at best no matter what the writer does. Leaving aside books published by big-name authors, the few books that hit it big will not necessarily be the few that were promoted the most. In fact, those few will likely be a surprise to everyone, including the marketing experts in the publishing industry.
So think things through before throwing yourself body, soul, and pocketbook into the game. Be realistic; invest your time and money wisely; avoid scams (buying Twitter followers, etc.); don’t believe anyone who says s/he has a sure-fire way to become a top seller; don’t attempt activities in which you have no interest or confidence. Be yourself.
And keep writing. That’s the only thing you can control.
The phone call came late in the morning, or maybe early afternoon. I’m not sure anymore. Time has softened the sharp edges of my memory. I won’t go into detail or burden you with emotional baggage that isn’t yours to take. A few years back someone important to my life decided to end his. They say you’re never the same after something like that.
Days and months passed. The grief lost its weight but never disappeared. I couldn’t look in the mirror without thinking I’d failed. My morning commutes were full of tears. Things you’d never expect would set me off. A song, a billboard, a thought. Grief is hard. Just when you think you’ve found a way to overcome, it’s back, as immense and devastating as before. This particular “event” came after a long line of disappointments. I use the term “disappointments” loosely. Imagine trying to rebuild your house after a bomb exploded inside of it. Yeah, this shard will make a great bed. Bring all the shards. Make sure the pointy sides are up. That’s what I mean by disappointments. That’s life, it knocks you down and it kicks the shit out of you. It doesn’t let up. It doesn’t let you catch your breath, it just kicks and kicks and kicks.
I’m getting to the writing part, I promise.
Two years before the “event” I became a writer. It wasn’t so much the need for release, I found inspiration through other writers. And I had this manuscript…it featured an “event” strikingly similar to my real life.
I remember sitting at my keyboard absolutely terrified of the rewrite. I knew it was a story I needed to tell but suddenly the manuscript was personal in a way I’d never imagined. I made several attempts, writing up to the “event” before chickening out and shutting it down. There must be five or six partials floating in my hard drive. I just couldn’t push through my own emotions to make it happen. This one scene determined everything. I had an obligation to make it perfect. Like it would somehow bring him back if I got it right. This thought left me frozen with terror. How could I do it right when I’d failed the first time—the time when it truly mattered?
There wasn’t a catalyst or some burst of courage that finally forced me to sit down and write. It happened on an ordinary day, as these things do. I remember sobbing as the words emerged and the scene took shape. It came out in the way of grief—disjointed, frantic, breathless.
Now, I won’t say it’s perfect, but that scene is something I’m proud of. There are all kinds of courage, and having the courage to write what terrifies you is something I admire. People always ask me when I knew I was a writer—that moment defined it for me. If you aren’t bleeding for your work, you might be doing it wrong.
I released a book a few weeks ago, one that I’ve worked on for over six years. When I say I’m residing in this awkward place of bursting euphoria of debilitating dread, you know what I mean. I’m facing that same fear again, the freezing terror that any artist feels when they release their work in to the world. What if people think I’m a fraud? I can’t exactly preface my book with a note that says I promise I know what I’m talking about. The emotions found in these pages? They’re real. They come from a place of horrible knowing.
My part of the story is done. I climbed the mountain and left my flag in the dirt. It’s time to let go and breathe for half a second before I return to that dark place of writing that’s all too true.
Say what you want about Stepping Stones, it is art, after all. Just don’t call me disingenuous.
You know the moment. The one where a great friend of yours gets an incredible publishing deal. Their book is going to be made into a movie starring some actor so hot you could fry an egg on his chest. They have everything they’ve ever wanted.
For me, I used to greet those days with a healthy dose of self-loathing: “I’m just not a good enough writer.” I’d avoid my current manuscript in favor of an unnatural relationship with the Nutella jar. Okay, I’ll admit I only allowed myself two (even) spoonfuls of the stuff, but still. Every last bit of hazlenutty goodness symbolized my own failure and not a “special treat” as my son calls my vice.
It didn’t matter how much wonderful feedback I received on my writing… I’d fallen into the trap of playing the comparison game. That’s a dark hole most writers are intimately familiar with. The pattern continued until there were these ugly fringes of bitterness that wove themselves into the border of my personality, threatening to take over. I hated them.
And then one day I stopped and looked in the mirror and said: “No more.” I meant it, but I didn’t believe it.
That day an email from my editor came. It included the words “so well-written” and “perfect for the market.” Normally, this would be the kind of thing I dismissed with a “they don’t really mean it.” Not that day. I went back to the mirror, stared into my own eyes, and said four words that would change how I handled rejection.
“I’m a good writer.”
For a moment, nothing happened. Obviously, the heavens weren’t going to open up and rain down confetti. Still, I said it again: “I’m a good writer.” I repeated the phrase. I kept speaking the words out loud until I smiled. A real smile. A genuine smile.
Because that was it, the root of my problem. It wasn’t that I was jealous of anyone’s success. Not at all. It was the opposite. Instead, some distant part of me believed that because I hadn’t experienced the same triumphs, it meant I couldn’t write. That someone would come along, kick me out, and say: “You don’t belong.”
Funny thing, self-loathing is. It can make you internalize anything if you let it. It can even take hold, the way the ivy in my backyard has, until it’s nearly impossible to kill.
But it was not that day. “I’m a good writer.” I spoke the words until I believed them.
There’s a psychological exercise where a person holds his or her arms out to their side and repeats the phrase: “I’m a good person.” A second person then tries to press down the speaker’s arms. Usually, the second person can’t press the speaker’s arms down–at least without a fight.
In that same exercise, however, if the speaker says, “I’m a bad person” their arms can usually be pushed down immediately without a resistance.
That’s the power of the Human Psyche. When we say we’re a bad person or a bad writer in this instance, we actually start to believe it. That core belief drives everything. How we write, how we interact with others in-person and on social media… It messes with our lives.
Our lives are too precious to waste on a negative outlook.
Since that day in front of the mirror, I’ve had friends get fabulous book deals. I’ve continued to feel genuinely happy for them. I do not have a Hollywood-hot actor portraying one of my characters in this year’s blockbuster. Still, when I pass the mirror, I glance at it, and smile. I don’t even need to say the words now. It was never about them anyway.
I just needed to learn how to find my voice. And believe in me.
Oh, and I still eat Nutella–let’s be honest. But now it’s my go-to for special occasions, not self-doubt.
Stephanie Keyes grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She’s the author of the YA Fantasy series, The Star Child, which currently includes The Star Child, After Faerie, The Fallen Stars, The Star Catcher, and The Last Protector, all from by Inkspell Publishing. She will also release the forthcoming novellas The Boy In The Trees (November 2015) and A Faerie Wedding: A Star Child Companion Novella #4.5 (February 2016).
The Star Catcher took first place in the 2014 Dante Rossetti Young Adult novel competition (Mythological Category). The Fallen Stars was a 2013 semi-finalist in the Kindle Book Awards. The Star Child has topped the Amazon best-seller list several times since its 2012 release. She is an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
After working mainly from my home office for the last almost 12 years, I now work at an office two days a week, and not only is it to help with my clinical hours towards my license to become a psychotherapist, but it also has been a nice respite from my life as a writer. Those of you who have read previous posts know that I’ve been going through a major shift/change/artistic crisis of sorts, and so this change of scenery is quite welcome and needed for me. I work there to replace all the endless hours of staring at my screen waiting for inspiration, waiting for my agent to tell me “sold!”, waiting for a contest to say “Yes!”, waiting for goddam Godot!
But in my Gemini, dual-nature, I shed my writer-self to be my therapist-self with some ambivalence. Part of me wants to scream to the entire building of three offices of co-workers, “Dammit! I write and I’m pretty good and you should buy my books for yourself, your friends, your family, hell, anyone you know!”
And so, I did confess to someone in the office that I am, in fact, a writer and then a little later, when asked the routinely-asked question all writers get from non-writers, have you been published? I responded with, yes, I do, in fact, have things published. Then, upon an office wide Google search, I was discovered, found out—I have a secret, double-life as published, YA author.
When one of my colleagues asked where he could buy a copy of my books, at first I insisted that he shouldn’t…then I confessed that Amazon carries all of them…then, because I felt worried (insecure) that if he bought them and hated them, he’d resent the money he’d spent, I gave him all three books before he could hit the buy button on Amazon.
So the following day, after I gave all three of my books (that have been published) to the particular colleague, who is a gentleman older than my father and who I respect very much as a doctor and therapist, I felt that stomach-dropping sensation one gets when getting a case of the Oh-Nos.
As I handed them over, I told my pounding heart to chill, but it was too late; the assault began.
He’s going to hate them.
He’s going to think I’m a terrible writer.
He’s reading them to be nice.
This is a terrible idea.
This is a disaster.
He’s are going to think, thank God she’s going into psychotherapy because this stuff sucks.
In the days that followed, the older gentleman colleague showered me with compliments. “Great writing! Great metaphors! Great stuff! I can picture teachers reading this with their students!”
Then one day he came in and announced that he had finished the book and he wondered what I thought of the idea that maybe my book was a little dated. You know, because coming out isn’t a big deal any more, right? He went on about this, but I pretty much went somewhere else, not physically, but mentally; I continued to stand there, leaning against the cabinet that contained all of our CBT worksheets and therapy note sheets while my spirit went somewhere else, somewhere vague and cloudy. Somewhere dark.
When I returned to my body, he was going on about “Cynical? Is that the word? Cynical. Your voice in the book is very cynical…”
I left again, feeling stripped of any label that would be associated with writer, author, hell, human.
When I returned again, he was still going on, this time about the portrayal of the shrink, Josephine, in the story, “And that Josephine! She was one-dimensional. I mean everything she said was so trite…”
I don’t remember what I said back, but whatever it was, it wasn’t the truth of what I was feeling or thinking. The truth was this:
Do you have any idea how hard it is to not only write a book, but also to then share it with the world?
Eventually I went back to my office, but before I did, he reeled in another colleague, and repeated every single piece of feedback to her, finishing with an ironic, “You really should read this book.”
And she said some things back, most of which bounced off my somewhat numb self. One thing stuck: “Oh no. Coming out is definitely still a big deal.” Then she threw empathetic eyes at me, and I smiled back…with great effort.
That was not even a week ago and with each passing day, his words echo and echo through my brain, his words touch a deeper part of my mind where things can accumulate unless I properly take them out, look at them, and accept them for what they are and what they are not.
After falling into and coming out of the deepest depression of my life last year, I know that when the darkness comes, it’s a sign that something within me is off. Something within me is looking at the situation, which has triggered the darkness, with some distortion, but that there is also some value in what I am feeling.
When I take step back and use my logic mind, I can see that my colleague wasn’t trying to hurt me, wasn’t intending to send me into a deep dark depression. And, yes the critique wasn’t the most positive about my work…but he did say I was a good writer and he was enthusiastic about the books, enough to share them with people. Besides, I’ve been critiqued before, had worse things said about my writing, so why did his words sting so badly?
Because the words pricked at the insecurity within me about these particular books. I know that I wrote them a long time ago. I know the stories aren’t the most profound or deep or even the best that I can do now. And I’m frustrated that the work I know is that is better, deeper, stronger is stuck in my computer, not shared with the world.
My frustration isn’t with my dear colleague but with the situation—with the reality that I’m still waiting for Godot.
In the meantime, check out the books my colleague
“I’ll never write young adult fiction because you can’t have sex in it.”
I was at a cocktail party when I heard this. The speaker was an academic enrolled the MFA program at the nearby university. I was invited because I’d befriended his wife and our kids went to the same school. But when he found out that I was also a writer, of young adult fiction, he made that statement.
Perhaps you’ve been in a similar situation, where someone, oftentimes another writer, makes blanket statements about YA without really knowing what they’re talking about or taking the time to ask you, the expert. My response?
He actually walked away before I could respond, which is probably why I felt the need to write a piece about sex in YA.
So here’s the truth: teens are having sex. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the likelihood of sex increases with each school grade level, from 32 percent in ninth grade to 62 percent in 12th grade. And even for those who are not having sex, they likely have friends who are. They hear stories about it in the hallways, they see hyper-sexualized pictures online and in the media, they watch movies and play video games. In other words, sex is out there.
If we take a moment to think about our own upbringing and unpack the things we were told about sex, it’s often a variation of one of these themes:
“Wait until you’re married.”
“Sex is dirty.”
“Girls who have sex are sluts.”
“It’s your job to say, no.”
“Be safe or you’ll catch a disease.”
“Getting pregnant will ruin your life.”
Very rarely are young people told that sex is a normal, healthy activity that they might even enjoy. Instead, they’re often scared into thinking something will terrible will happen if they engage in sex. Meanwhile, their hormones are at full-throttle, making it nearly impossible, biologically speaking, to say, no.
Where does YA fiction fit in?
YA books allow the reader to experience another teen’s life in a safe environment. Through the story, they learn another teen’s thoughts, their hopes and dreams, and their fears. They see the teen interacting with their family and friends, with teachers, crushes and other members of society. Because of this, YA fiction is the perfect place to explore topics like sex. And there are many excellent YA books that do. With that in mind, here are a few tips for writing sex in YA:
Be real. Most early sexual encounters aren’t the stuff of Harlequin romances. Often they’re awkward, bumbling, nerve-wracking affairs. There is usually some anxiety involved in having sex with someone for the first time, even if you’ve had sex before. There are also some logistics involved, like condoms, that should be part of your narrative. Or, if your characters are engaging in unsafe sex, the feelings and motivations involved in that decision should be explored. Remember there are actual teens reading your book and they have a lot of questions.
Is the sex necessary? Does it add to your character’s development? Is it integral to the plot? Does it change the course of the story? Sex shouldn’t be treated like a token act that’s trotted out to keep the story interesting. It should enhance the story and advance the plot.
Sex can be good and it can be bad, but if it’s violent or non-consensual, you need to deal with it. This one seems obvious, but I’ve come across more than a few books where a rape or attempted rape scene occurs and the plot and characters continue on as if it never happened. Don’t include sexual assault unless you’re prepared to fully explore it. If your story is about sexual assault, treat it with sensitivity and make sure you know what you’re talking about.
Be prepared for push back. There may be editors who want the sex toned down or cut altogether. They may want you to pull a TWILIGHT where your characters disappear into the darkness to do mystical things that may or may not be sex. I’m not a fan of the allusion of sex because I think it feeds misconceptions. But editors know that it’s a lot tougher to sell a story to parents and librarians when there is sex involved, so be prepared to defend your artistic license and deal with the fallout.
Remember it’s all about relationships. There is great opportunity for tension and conflict around sex. Should we do it? Am I ready? Does he want to also? Will having sex change our relationship? Will it bring us closer together? Break us apart? Will he treat me differently after? Will I feel different? What will my friends think? My parents? Whether it’s the best thing to ever happen, or if it’s a mistake, don’t miss the opportunity to develop character and increase the tension in your story.
Now, for some required reading. Listed below are examples of books that cover a wide range of sexual experience. Each of them are great examples of the topic done well.
IF I STAY by Gayle Forman
FOREVER by Judy Blume
ON THE JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta
PERFECT CHEMISTRY by Simone Elkeles
SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson
STORY OF A GIRL by Sara Zarr
THE DUFF by Kody Keplinger
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green
Tell me your thoughts on sex in YA. Have you ever gone all the way? Any tips you’d like to share with the rest of us? Don’t be shy…
Laura Lascarso’s debut novel COUNTING BACKWARDS, which deals with mental illness, won the 2012 Florida Book Award gold medal for Young Adult Literature. Her e-novella series RACING HEARTS tells the story of two star-crossed lovers thrust into the world of competitive car racing. Follow her on Twitter @lauralascarso and enter here to win a free copy of Racing Hearts 1.
When Success Doesn’t Look Like Your Writing Dream
by Kimberly Mitchell/@KSMitch17
2014 was a tough year for me as a writer. I had a manuscript I had a lot of confidence in and delivered it to my agent early in the year. She loved it and immediately sent it out. I felt like I was walking around with my fingers crossed for months, waiting for an offer. And waiting. And waiting. And then rejections and more waiting.
Writers know we’ll encounter rejection. We know it’s all part of the process of honing our craft, paying our dues on that hard road to publication. We also know that the knowing doesn’t make rejection easier. I felt my desire to write slipping away. The current manuscript I was working on languished in murky middle ground and the ending lacked focus.
Come to think of it, I felt on murky middle ground and lacking in focus.
Towards the end of 2014, I had lunch with a good friend, who also happens to be a local social media influencer. She encouraged me to get more involved in the local writing community, especially with a group called Arkansas Women Bloggers. She didn’t tell me to stop focusing on writing for children; she simply asked me to lift my head a little from the narrow race I’d been running and have a look around.
I decided she was right. I needed a change, or I was in peril of not writing at all. When I set my goals for 2015, they looked quite different from the previous year. Typically, my yearly goals look like this:
1) Outline X novel
2) Finish revising Y novel
3) Come up with storyline for Z.
If I feel ambitious, I might add, read a book on writing.
This year, in addition to working on my novel, I would commit to maintaining my blog by posting at least once a week. This doesn’t sound like much, but if you’ve ever run a blog, you know it’s hard to maintain momentum. I also committed to look for other blogs where I could guest post, and local blogs or magazines I could pitch articles to. I even set a day and time – every Monday afternoon would be dedicated to these ventures.
Two-thirds of the way through the year, I’m proud to say I’ve far exceeded my own expectations. I’ve had the privilege of guest posting for Latin@s in Kidlit, All the Way YA, and Pine Manor College. I’ve also blogged professionally for a few local companies and gotten paid for those posts.
What? You mean writers can actually make money writing and blogging?
I’m currently pitching a few more ideas to my network of bloggers and letting a few others simmer. In one way, I’m more excited about writing than I’ve ever been. My personal blog isn’t going to break any hit records, but I’ve been more consistent and the stats back that up. This week I even signed a contract with an awesome local non-profit to be a blogging ambassador for them for the next year. A contact I made, incidentally, by attending a local chamber meet and greet. It turns out, networking does work.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though. That manuscript I was going to revise in the first few months of 2015? I’m still slogging through it. That first draft of the new middle grade story I was going to knock out this summer? I’m on page 20.
I still only have 24 hours in my day, and let’s be real, 8 of those are for sleeping. I teach, partner a marriage, stay involved with friends and family. Something has to give, and for now, it’s the amount of time I spend on my middle grade novels – my first love, the reason I always wanted to be a writer.
It’s an uneasy balance, but finding another writing outlet that has drawn me into a supportive community locally and brought in a little extra income is hard to beat.
So for the next four months, I’ll continue to walk out my goals for 2015, starting at the end of this month by attending the Arkansas Women Bloggers Conference for the first time. I’ll pursue blogging personally and professionally, and I’ll work on my own stories, knowing that for a season, my time with my children’s novels will diminish a little.
I’m not going to lie. A little success feels good, even if it’s not the success I expected or hoped for.
And my dream of being a published children’s author? That dream lives on for another day.
Kimberly Mitchell is pursuing writing and life in Northwest Arkansas. When she’s not writing and blogging, or teaching preschool fitness, she’s cheering on the Razorbacks, playing soccer, and scheming ways to travel the world. Follow her on Twitter @KSMitch17 and check out her blog for updates on all of the above.
It’s been a while since I’ve typed THE END on a first draft. I’ve written, but I haven’t finished any long-form piece of fiction in a few years, and that really, really bugs me.
I’ve tried. And in typing that, I already have this voice inside my head telling me that real writers don’t try — they do.
Real writers nut through the hard times and just finish the damn thing. Maybe move on from there and smoke a celebratory cigar.
I guess I used to be a “real” writer (minus the cigar). I prided myself on my knack at churning out a quick draft. Three months (the length of a season, as Stephen King advised) and I’d have my very own shitty first draft, ready for massive edits.
But these days, well… I’ve started (and quitted) more projects than I’ve finished.
And here I am, starting another WIP. There are all the usual jitters, but also a mean little voice reminding me of all the manuscripts I’ve started, but left half-done. All the stories that I let run out of steam and turn into unfinished failures.
I worry a lot — that I won’t get it right, that I’ll get lost in the jumble of words and not be able to hack my way out. I worry that this novel will end up like the others: just another abandoned Scrivener file, untouched and unloved and abandoned because I just couldn’t stick it out.
So there’s that.
But hey, there’s also this: I have today. I have this story, and it’s one that actually caters to things that I feel natural writing about. The others were stretches for me, and while I think it’s good to flex the muscles a bit, there’s something to be said for a project that feels as natural and welcoming as sinking into a warm bath.
Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe I need to fool myself. Maybe that’s what it takes to finish anything at all — equal parts ass-in-chair time, inspiration, and self-delusion.
And for sure, I can control at least the first part of that equation.
Rosie David is a writer, artist, and book sniffer. When she’s not writing YA novels (most of which have kissing in them), she’s usually reading YA novels (most of which also have kissing in them). Lately, she lives in Indianapolis with her husband, two dogs, one cat, and the occasional goldfish. You can find her at @TheRosieDavid.
When I wrote the last line of my first full manuscript I jumped up and down for joy and eagerly accepted the glass of champagne my husband offered me. I was high. I was elated. I had never felt so good about what I had written.
And I never would again.
What I didn’t know that snowy Christmas day was that writing is actually all about revision. Not getting that first draft done. For that first monster of a YA fantasy manuscript (which weighed in at around 220,000 words or maybe even more) I wrote all the scenes by hand and then reworked it as I typed them up. I thought this was a great system and never felt my first draft was a ‘rough’ draft because of it.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I began querying my baby. And received… complete silence.
I started to doubt. Big time. I was already in several crit groups, I had recently joined SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators) and I had worked really hard on my book. It wasn’t my first attempt at writing, and I didn’t feel like a newbie – although my word count shows that I was.
Luckily, I finally got a personalized rejection from a friend of a friend who worked at Random House. His feedback was very direct. And harsh. The manuscript wasn’t in publishable condition even if the plotting was good. Overall, the manuscript wasn’t compelling. And it was way too long. By 100,000 words at least.
After a few days (or rather weeks) of avoiding my no longer favorite baby, I swallowed my pride and sat back down. And that was the beginning of what was to become a whole new world of writing for me: that of revision.
I have always loved writing – the ideas, the excitement of figuring out characters, plots, worlds. And since I even enjoyed getting feedback and making scenes better, I thought I knew about revision.
But I didn’t.
Revision on a larger level means pulling back and analyzing what is going on with the whole manuscript. From the plot to the character arcs to the pacing. And for this manuscript I hated it – because I discovered I had made so many plot twists I couldn’t figure out how to unravel it all. And I now knew I needed to cut half the manuscript. To say I resisted all that cutting would be to put it mildly. I bled all over my computer as I slashed and cut. But I finally got through it after nearly as many months revising as I had originally taken to write it.
And so, with my new favorite baby ready to go, I queried again.
Only to find out that this latest draft was also just a draft. A better one, yes. But still not market ready. And this time, as I once again attacked the revision process, I took a class on tension and discovered how to improve each and every scene without losing sight of the overall plot arc. I began detailing motivation and objectives and turning points. And the manuscript began to improve.
It was during this revision that I discovered the joys of revising. The manuscript I had was like a lump of clay. It had all the elements of being something, but it wasn’t yet shaped and polished and made appealing. I learned to massage scenes knowing what I wanted out of it for the book at the same time as I analyzed what the characters’ motivations were. My characters deepened and became more fleshed out. They became more believable and distinct. They no longer followed the plot but became active elements in making the plot move forward.
Even after that round of revisions, there were still others. In fact, since this is a manuscript I eventually put to the side since I wasn’t sure how to correct some of it’s inherent problems, it may one day see a new round of revisions. Or not.
But all the work and blood and tears that went into that first, completed, manuscript (which I was so sure was finished so many different times) taught me that revisions are where you dig in to your story, your characters and your craft. Each wave of revision, starting from the broader issues before going to the nitty gritty ones, improves the manuscript. Each wave of revision is another chance to love your characters, improve your story, create more tension and make your work shine.
And even once the manuscript is polished enough to land an agent or get a new contract, there will be yet another round of revisions before he or she sends it out on submission. And then once an editor buys it, there will be yet another round of revisions.
So embrace those revisions and enjoy making your book better each time!
Born in the US, Dina has lived on 4 continents, worked as a graphic artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. Somewhere between New York and Paris she picked up an MBA and a black belt. Dina is currently the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium, where she lives with her husband, two children, three horses and a cat.
Dina’s debut YA novel, Dragon Fire, was published by Twilight Times.
When the movie Tomorrowland was doing its press tour, an interview in Vulture with writers Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof (and also star George Clooney) in which Lindelof was quoted as saying the following when asked about rendering strong female characters. “What if she doesn’t get distracted by romantic entanglements? What if her “romance” is with the future?”
In my infinite insecurity (I am, after all, a writer. We’re all insecure.) I started to think about my story while panicking. Was there something wrong with romance in an adventure story? My story doesn’t involve a romance with the future! The relationship between my main character, Jacklyn, and her confused and confusing as hell potential love interest, Kyp, is a central part of the plot. It’s often the driving force. By not having my main character’s true love be adventure, or being a hero, or something more abstract, was I being somehow anti-feminist? Considering my strong feminist stance, I was genuinely concerned that I had miscommunicated my message.
Now, I’m sure Mr. Lindleof didn’t intend to panic me when he answered his interview question. He was speaking of one type of strong female, not the only type. Still, this is not the first time I’ve heard comments like this. People complain about the (admittedly barely existent) love triangle in The Hunger Games as though it is abhorrent for Katniss to love anyone at all in the midst of the dangers she is in. Is it impossible to be a strong female and still fall in love?
I believe that people’s problems with this dynamic started with the Twilight craze. People’s complaints about Edward and Bella were not based on the fact that they were in love, but were primarily concerned with the idea that Bella was a wet noodle in said relationship, whose life suddenly revolves around her boyfriend.
But is anything taken from Katniss because she has feelings for Peeta and Gale? She is made weaker by the attacks of President Snow, by the trauma inflicted on her by the Games, but she still stands strong and continues to fight. Even though she has romantic feelings for the boys, her true love and driving force of the story is her little sister, Prim. In The Divergent Trilogy, Tris and Four’s relationship is in the forefront, but she remains a strong warrior. Her life and her decisions, especially in the final book, are her own and often not what Four would advise. In Eleanor & Park, Eleanor’s feelings for Park don’t keep her from making tough choices that run against Park’s interests. Hazel Grace, in The Fault in Our Stars, stands firm as a strong character in the face of tragedy. Her romance with Augustus doesn’t dampen that strength.
The issue seems to be less about romance and more about how the romance effects the character. Does she suddenly go to her boyfriend to guide her through everything? Does she make her own decisions? Does she retain her own agency? Yes? Then, no matter the romance, you still have a strong female character.
Faced with this question about my own work, I started thinking about Jacklyn and her relationship with Kyp. When Jacklyn arrives at her new home, where she will be trained to use her powers, Kyp serves as a sort of mentor, teaching her the things she wouldn’t formally learn about the Order. In this way, the power in the relationship is most certainly in his favor. However, Jacklyn is definitely the more well-adjusted of the pair, able to handle her emotions way better than her slightly unstable counterpart. Her powers lie in her body, so she is physically stronger than Kyp, whose powers lie in his mind. And while Kyp is actually the leader of the rebellion Jacklyn joins, she often makes her own rules, finds her way out of tough situations, and many times, she and Kyp butt heads over the way things should be. At times she is right. At times she is wrong. But what starts out as a clear power differential, slowly becomes something a little more even-keel. Like Katniss, Jacklyn’s agency takes some hits because of forces out of her control, in this case, the female leader of The Order. But, also like Katniss, Jacklyn is often able to make tougher decisions than the men in her life, and is often far more headstrong and powerful.
When you’re writing about young adult characters, they should feel real, even in unreal circumstances. Some teenagers are not interested in romance. Many are. And if your character has a significant other, their lives are going to be impacted by them in much the same way having a best friend, siblings, parents, would impact them. Good relationships, of any kind, lift us up. They bolster our confidence.
If you still think writing a female character in a romantic relationship must somehow weaken them, then ask yourself this – is a male with a girlfriend made somehow weaker? Just because he has a girlfriend he cares about? If your answer is ‘no, that’s ridiculous’, you might want to consider why anyone believes a female with a boyfriend would be any different.
Justine Manzano is a multi-genre writer living in Bronx, NY with her husband, son, and a cacophony of cats. She maintains a semi-monthly blog at JustineManzano.com and a twitter account @justine_manzano, where she discusses her adventures in juggling motherhood, writing, and the very serious businesses of fangirling and multiple forms of geekery. The Order of the Key, the first book of her YA Fantasy series Keys and Guardians has been contracted for publication by Fantasy Works Publishing and will be available for purchase in Fall 2015.
As someone who may never get married and has no intention of ever having babies, it’s definitely something I’ve thought about: the fact that any books I go on to publish will become like my children. I do feel that the things I have written are that sacred to me, like gifts from God (or from the universe, depending on what you believe). They’ve sprung from my head, kind of like Athena sprung from Zeus’ head. The latter is an appropriate analogy. Athena was always one of those goddesses I was able to relate to. She never got married or had a kid either.
This theme of not marrying and not having kids is important. I will get back to it.
I have been writing about the same character for going on fifteen years. He’s gone through so many changes that it seems weird to say that, but I do think of him as one character who is helping me explore different facets of my own personality in ways that are sometimes literal and sometimes more allegorical.
And I can’t help but wonder if there are other writers out there like that, who have fallen in love with their characters as though they were their lovers or their own children. Maybe it’s just my way of justifying the way I choose to live my life and to find deeper meaning in it.
How appropriate that I should be writing YA fiction then, considering the fact that I feel responsible for these lives that I’ve created as though they were actual children. It’s my job to mold them and help guide them on the path that is right for them. And I can only do so much guiding. Eventually, they have to develop their own voices and tell their own stories.
A subject I’ve been exploring a lot in my own work is asexuality (presumably the sexual orientation where someone chooses not to get married or have kids, but as I’ve come to realize over the past few years, that is not always the case). Asexuality is not something that I’ve encountered too often in the media but something that fascinates me. There are books and movies out there that deal with the asexual character — like Dexter, and The Big Bang Theory, and Sherlock — but almost in a cursory sort of way. And often times, these characters don’t stay asexual for long because sex sells.
However, people are becoming more and more aware of alternative lifestyles and orientations. This is something that young people are grappling with especially — their own sexual identities — and is, therefore, a very relevant topic if you’re inclined to write young adult fiction.
I remember reading one quote in particular from The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2012: “I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist.” And that quote has stuck with me for the past three years because I’ve realized that if I could pick a thesis statement for what my own writing is trying to say, that is it. I feel that there is a need for stories like that, and the main character of The Perks of Being a Wallflower only confirmed what I already believed. There is a need to feel that connection with other human beings that transcends the physical; a form of human connection that doesn’t come with rules and conditions and societal expectations that weigh you down at times and make you feel that you are unworthy of love, or simply pursuing the wrong things. I want to get to the heart of the matter — that connection that can occur between any two people regardless of age, sex, race, genetics, etc. And to get back to what I was saying earlier about asexuality, just because a character never ends up finding a sexual partner in the end, it doesn’t mean that they don’t long for the same things that your typical, often heterosexual, characters do. They may still want to experience companionship, or parenthood, or even romantic love. I am fascinated by the many different ways there are to feel connected to others and the many different kinds of relationships there are out there.
My critical thesis in grad school was on connection and disconnection in literature. A woman named Claudia Johnson came up with this theory that what makes a story so rich is not just the conflict and the drama, but also the connections, or disconnections, between the key players that serve as the driving force for the different messages on what it means to be human. She discusses this in her article “The Power And Importance of Human Connection To A Great Screenplay,” which I strongly recommend reading. And if there is one kind of fiction that excels at digging deep into what it means to be a passionate individual who is all about the connections and disconnections in life, it would have to be YA. Teens understand more acutely than most what it means to fit in, or not fit in, as the case may be, and the importance of feeling loved and accepted. Sure, sex, drugs and high school drama are all well and good, but the connection and disconnection is really what it all comes down to. Teens know all about peer pressure. About first love. And especially unrequited love. What is unrequited love anyway? If you care for someone and they teach you things about yourself and make you grow as an individual, is that not just love? Love for them, perhaps, and maybe even love for yourself. A connection with another person can be a powerful, life-changing thing, even if it is not reciprocated. Kind of like how you can really love a book and be moved by the message you got from it even though you may never find out what the author was really trying to say. One of the things I mentioned in my critical thesis in grad school was that connection and disconnection occurs between author and reader as well, not just between characters.
We don’t necessarily lose that desire to fit in as we grow older, though we may get sidetracked by all the grown up things in our lives. And maybe this is one of the reasons why so many adults love to read YA fiction. They still have these feelings, but they’re just maybe not as pronounced as they’ve gotten older. They’ve learned to control them better. Perhaps they’ve learned to hide them. And it’s the one thing that I feel connects almost every single person, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation. Most everyone has that desire to be loved and accepted. Most everyone has that desire to create great things that impact the world around them.
And to get back to what I was saying in the beginning, sometimes those great things don’t come in the form of the traditional milestones such as a job, a marriage or a flesh and blood, screaming, crying infant. Sometimes they come in the form of writing a really satisfying book.
Christina Irace is a graduate of the Solstice MFA program at Pine Manor College. She recently published a piece of flash fiction, entitled “Your Best Friend’s Sister,” in Cantilever: Solstice MFA Anthology 2015. She is currently working on a YA novel that started out as a love triangle story involving two stepsisters and the boy they both like, but it may end up being about something completely different when all is said and done. She lives in South Portland, Maine with her cat Stella, who was named after the Tennessee Williams character. Maggie the Cat lives across the street with Christina’s grandmother. To read more of Christina’s posts, visit her blog: https://chmirasblog.wordpress.com.