Teen Author Reading Nights – 2010!

Every month, YA authors descend upon a secret location in New York City and perform an ancient ritual known as “Reading from their New Works.” It is often spoken of in hushed tones, and even in tones that aren’t all that hushed.

Below, I have — at great personal risk — reproduced the reading schedule for the next several months. And that secret location? Turns out it’s not so secret after all: You can encounter all of these great authors at the Jefferson Market Branch of the New York Public Library, located at 425 6th Ave (at 10th St.). Each night’s event runs from 6-7:30 pm.

If I’m in town, I always make sure to attend — join me!

January 6

Alexandra Bullen, Wish
Gitty Daneshvari, School of Fear
Dream Jordan, Hot Girl
Robin Palmer, Little Miss Red
Diana Peterfreund, Rampant

February 3 

Elizabeth Eulberg, The Lonely Hearts Club
Carolyn Mackler, Tangled
Shani Petroff, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly Dress
Jon Skovron, Struts and Frets
Jordan Sonnenblick, After Ever After

April 14

Daniel Ehrenhaft, Friend is Not a Verb
David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson
Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, Dedication
Sarah Mlynowski, Gimme a Call
Marie Rutkoski, The Celestial Globe
Elizabeth Scott, The Unwritten Rule
Rachel Vail, Brilliant
Adrienne Maria Vrettos, The Exile of Gigi Lane

Writing Advice #34: Q&A Pt. 5 – Endings

This week, I’m going to answer two questions from the original MySpace version of this series. (For those of you new to the Writing Advice BLog: I originally ran a similar series on MySpace a couple of years ago.)

I just really like these two questions and I think they’re good things to think about as we look ahead to a New Year, fresh with possibility.

Here we go:

What in your opinion is the best part of being an author?

That’s such a tough question! There are so many wonderful things about this job. If you put a gun to my head and told me that I had to pick one, I would probably say the best thing about it is hearing from people who’ve read and enjoyed my work. There’s just nothing else in the world like it. You write your book in solitude, you publish it at a distance, it goes to stores all over the world… And you never know if anyone bought or read or liked it until you get an e-mail or a letter from a reader. And that’s when you feel great.

Next question:

If you’re writing a story or something, in terms of endings, is it usually better to go with the ending that you think your readers will want, or is it better to go with an ending that you’ve been thinking about since you started the story?

Oh, boy! This one sort of hits right at the core of Being a Writer.

I’m going to tell you what I think and my advice may someday cost those who follow my advice millions of dollars and the cheering of crowds, but you know what? You’ll feel better about yourself. (Eat your vegetables, too.)

When you go with the ending “that you think your readers will want,” more often than not, you’re chasing dollars. You’re thinking, “Well, I know how I WANT the book to end, but it will be more appealing if I do it THIS way instead. And if it’s more appealing, I’ll get the Big Bucks and the swooning, hot dancing girls (or boys) and the phat ride (you can tell I’m old — I said ‘phat’) and all that stuff.”

And that’s all well and good because God knows we’d all like the Big Bucks and all the rest, but if you’re anything like me, that book will forever be tainted for you. Every time you look at it — every time you THINK about it — you’ll think, “Man. It SHOULD have ended THIS way, not THAT way…”

That would drive me NUTS, no matter how much money it brought in for me, or how happy it made readers. I would know, deep in my heart, that that book was WRONG.

My first book had an ending that — to put it lightly — displeased a lot of people. The single most common comment I get from readers about that book is, “Why did it end this way?”

That happens because people are — for all intents and purposes — programmed by our popular culture to expect a certain kind of ending. When they don’t get it, they’re unhappy. In the case of my book, everyone wanted Fanboy and Kyra to make up and kiss and go off into the sunset together at the end. And they didn’t. And, boy, did I hear about it!

When I wrote the book, I knew that people would be upset about the ending. But I didn’t change it. Because it was the ending I knew the book HAD to have. It was the ending I had in my brain from the very first sentence. Every single word I wrote led up to that ending — to change it just to make someone ELSE happy would be a betrayal of the entire story.

And, yeah, there was pressure on me to change it. Early readers asked me to change it. My editor asked me if it “had” to end that way. I stuck to my guns.

Here’s the thing: The fact that people were so devastated and upset by that ending PROVED to me that it worked! It kept people thinking about the book and the characters, long after they turned the last page. That’s an ending that works. Sometimes, when you wrap things up in a nice package at the end, you just make it easier for the readers to toss the book aside and forget about it.

Look, we write for an audience. But our FIRST audience is US. If YOU don’t love your book, no one else will, either.

Maybe that’s all a bit too philosophical for you. Maybe you’re not convinced. That’s fine. Listen to this, then:

There’s no point “chasing” the ending the readers want…because you’ll never know for sure.

If you get to the end of your book and you have the choice of selecting Ending A or Ending B, how can you REALLY be sure that readers are going to like one more than the other? You can’t know. It’s impossible. Oh, sure, you can SUSPECT. You can be PRETTY CONFIDENT. But you can’t know to a 100% certainty.

This means that you’re left with two possibilities:

1) You end the book with an ending that doesn’t make you happy, on the CHANCE that it will make readers happy.
2) You end the book the way you’ve always wanted to, KNOWING that it’ll make at least one person (you) very happy.

I think it’s pretty obvious what side I come down on. Audiences are fickle things. Write YOUR story the way YOU see it.

Next week: Outlines — Threat or Menace???

Until then, be good to yourselves, have a happy New Year, and feel free to put questions in the comments below.

Security Kabuki

Posted on: 12/28/09

I was working on a piece about the Christmas Day bombing attempt on Northwest Airlines and security kabuki and the like, and then Christopher Hitchens went ahead and said everything I had to say…and said it better.

Go read him.

Interview: Nisha Sharma’s Writers on Writing

Nisha Sharma asked me to answer some questions about writing, and I was more than happy to do so.

Somewhere in there, I coined the term “brain drizzle.” Go figure.

You can read the interview here.

Writing Advice #33: Q&A Pt. 4 – Pacing

Before I start this week, I just want to point out that Laurie Halse Anderson is causing trouble AGAIN. This woman just will not leave me alone. Clearly, she has issues. I urge you NOT to click on the following link and NOT to read her eminently sensible and reasonable discourse on dialogue — it will only encourage her, and who wants THAT?


All right, now that that’s out of the way… Back to Q&A! This week, the question is about pacing:

I’ve been reading your blogs and they’ve been helping quite a bit, but I was wondering if you have tips on pacing? See whenever I write a story, it all seems to happen in a few days, I can’t make the days past faster. Or time for that matter. Is there something you do specifically to pace the story evenly? I have a second question too, (Are we allowed more than one? xD) I want to write a story out of order, it’s strange but it works with my concept. But I have no idea how to go about writing it. I figure it’s based on what I want my audience to know and when, but that’s about all I’ve got. Any ideas of how I can make a non linear plot line work? Thanks in advance, you’re awesome. Take Care Heather

Hey, Heather — you’re awesome, too. And I’m glad these blogs have been helping you. Let’s hope I can keep that streak going right now.

Pacing is tough, no question about it. I struggle with it all the time, and I totally feel your pain. If you look at my first book, the whole story takes place in about a week’s time, with every single day accounted for. Boy Toy takes place over a few weeks, as does Hero-TypeGoth Girl Rising is something like a few days! So, yeah, I know what you’re talking about.

In the case of my books, part of the problem is that the stories are told in first-person present tense. I chose to write them that way because I like the immediacy of it, but it also has a tendency to make the author feel as though he or she has to describe everything and every single day. When you’re writing in the past tense, it’s easy to say, “A week passed and then…” because you’re looking back on the story from the present. So it makes sense that the narrator would just skip over things.

But when you’re in the present tense, you feel this compulsion to describe each day one after the other because, well, that’s the present, right? If you’re living in the moment, then you don’t have the perspective to retroactively edit out the things that don’t apply to the story, so everything seems equally important. One moment after the other in a straight line. It feels somehow awkward and disingenuous to say, “A week passes and then…”

Now I don’t know if you’re using present tense or not, but hopefully the hints and tips I’m about to describe will help no matter what.

First of all: It may FEEL awkward to say, “A week passes and then…” but it really isn’t, as long as you do it skillfully. What you need to do is wrap up a scene with a sense of something that is to come and then pick up the next scene with that something.

For example, in Boy Toy, I wrote a session with Josh’s therapist wherein Josh is worried about going to prom with Rachel. At this point, prom is still a couple of weeks off. The therapist coaches Josh, tells him not to worry and — as the chapter ends — tells him to have a good time.

So now the reader is thinking of prom, thinking of Josh’s reactions to it. The reader is not thinking, “Gee, this story is in present tense, so I wonder what happens when Josh leaves the therapist’s office?” And when the reader turns the page to the new chapter, he or she see this:

Chapter 17:

As much as I try to make it not happen, despite my best efforts to bend the space-time continuum with the force of my brain alone, it happens: prom arrives.

I’ve now leap-frogged over the intervening time and put us exactly at prom. At the same time, I’ve clued the reader in to the fact that in the time that has passed, Josh hasn’t become any less freaked out about going with Rachel. When I first wrote this bit, it felt strange and artificial to me. It felt like cheating. But you know what? The book has been out for a couple of years now and no one has said to me, “Man, you sure copped out with the weeks before prom!” or “What happened to Josh between his session with Dr. Kennedy and the prom?”

Readers have internalized the conventions of fiction. They understand when you jump forward in time. They subconsciously “get” that nothing of substance has happened in the intervening time, unless you tell them otherwise. So it’s fine to do.

Second of all, realize that you are not duty-bound to show every last event in a story. I’ve said this before in this series and I’ll say it again now: A story is not every single thing that happened; it’s every IMPORTANT thing that happened. When you plan your story, don’t approach it from the position of “OK, here’s what happens on Monday and here’s what happens on Tuesday…” and so forth. No. Approach it from EVENT TO EVENT, not from day to day.

I see this mistake a lot. Writers read about plotting a book and planning and being detail-oriented, so they go ahead and they micromanage every last instant of the story, basically setting up a schedule for their characters. But the job of your story is not to provide a recitation of the timeline of a character’s life — it’s to show us an important sequence of events in that character’s life. Keep that in mind when you’re plotting — you don’t have to fill up every day. You just have to get us from A to Z (start to finish) in the most interesting way possible. When you start thinking in terms of events and not in terms of time, you’ll find that your pacing improves and your timeline will probably stretch and contract a bit more naturally.

Last of all, consider this: Maybe your story is MEANT to take place over a few days. There’s nothing wrong with that. Plenty of interesting things — life-changing things — can happen in a very short period of time. Again, Fanboy takes place over about a week. It’s not all that crazy to imagine that Fanboy could meet Goth Girl and go to a comic book convention and a party over the course of a week.

As to your second question: There’s nothing wrong with writing a story out of order. See the movie Memento for a great look at this. Or re-read Boy Toy, which starts five years in the past, jumps to the present, then jumps six years in the past, jumps back to the present, then jumps five years in the past again before wrapping up in the present.

The most important thing to keep in mind when telling your story in non-linear fashion is to play fair with the reader. If there’s something a character should know in the present, but you haven’t revealed it in the past yet, you can’t just ignore that the present-day character knows it. You can play coy about it and you can have reasons why the present-day character doesn’t talk about it or act on that knowledge, but you can’t just pretend the present-day character doesn’t know. This is sort of similar to something that bothers me about Lost, which is one of my favorite TV shows. The characters never seem to tell each other specific pieces of information or ask intelligent questions when given the chance! This is mainly because the writers aren’t ready to have those questions answered yet, but it’s a clumsy way of handling this problem and it makes the characters look like idiots sometimes. (It’s a testament to the otherwise-high quality of the writing on Lost that most of the time I’m willing to overlook this flaw.)

Another pitfall to be aware of when writing out of order: Don’t let jumping around in time substitute for real tension. Tension comes from conflict, not from coyly hiding information. Don’t lead up to a big revelation and then suddenly do a time-jump to avoid revealing something too soon. Don’t have present-day characters mysteriously referring to “that thing that happened” in oblique language. Real people wouldn’t talk like that. Again, I’ll use Boy Toy as an example — from the get-go, you knew that Josh had been molested. You didn’t know the particulars, you didn’t know how or when or why, and you didn’t know how Josh really felt about it, but you knew what had happened. I didn’t hold that back. The tension of the story arose from the slow revelation of how and when and why, and the decisions Josh makes as a result. I feel like this is playing fair with the reader. I didn’t wait until the end of the book to say, “Guess what the big secret is? Ta-da!”

So when you’re writing out of order, be very careful with how you dole out information. Don’t have your characters constantly refer to some kind of big secret and never talk about it until it’s convenient for the plot, especially if it would make sense for them to talk about it earlier. Find other ways to ramp up the tension and the conflict — telling a story non-linerarly should be done because it contributes to the telling of the tale, not because it’s a cheap and easy way to fake out the reader. Because believe me — it IS a cheap and easy way to fake out the reader, and most readers know it and will ding you for it.

That’s all for this week! Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it — enjoy the long weekend, and I’ll see you all back here next week. Remember: If you have a question you’d like me to tackle in Writing Advice, ask it below in the comments!