If I’m doing my job, my work stands up to DFW and Franzen and Egan no matter where it gets stocked in bookstores. But frankly, I’ll never be as purely gifted as those writers. There are, however, YA writers who are among the world’s best living novelists: M. T. Anderson and Markus Zusak, for instance.
I don’t really think novels for adults have inherently different themes from YA novels (like, Egan’s Good Squad is functionally a kind of coming-of-age story, albeit not one about teenagers. And David Foster Wallace is certainly very popular with teenagers).
I like publishing the way I publish partly because it reminds me that books are supposed to do something other than just prove to the reader that the author is intelligent. (I don’t think that criticism applies to DFW or Franzen or Egan, but too much literary fiction is merely clever.) I’m very prone to that kind of self-indulgence, and honestly it is only when I am writing for teenagers that I feel like I am doing work that is useful.
And that’s very important to me: Writing novels takes a long time, and it’s completely impossible for me to do it unless I feel like the thing I’m working on is going to be helpful to people.
Maybe to my discredit as a writer, I like to make stuff that is useful more than I like to make stuff that is beautiful.* In short, I write because I share DFW’s belief that books can actually make human life better. For me, at least for the conceivable future, that means writing YA novels.**
And I don’t feel like you’re taking the easy way out if you read my books. There’s plenty of room for both Franzen and me. Reading isn’t an easy way out. Watching NCIS is an easy way out.
* although of course books are seldom useful unless they are also beautiful.
** I mean, of course I am not saying that adult fiction is not helpful: DFW’s work, for instance, is extremely helpful to me on a literally daily basis. I just mean that I personally feel most useful, as a writer, when writing books about teenagers. And readers, at least thus far, seem to agree.
Writing as well as you can and finishing what you start. So simple, so genius, so difficult to achieve.
from “Ernest Hemingway on Writing” edited by Larry W. Phillips
My books usually come from a place where I’m trying to explore and/or challenge the socially ingrained ideas and expectations we have of girls. They’re a response to the anger I feel about double standards in fiction, the way girl narratives are subtlely and overtly dismissed, how we penalize girl characters for either being too much of a girl or not enough of one, and the many questions I have surrounding all of this. I write my books with more questions than I have answers for, if I have any, but to me, that’s the point.
One of the things I do while I work on a book is I’ll try to anticipate its reception. Will it be embraced? Rejected? That’s something completely out of my control and I’m happy to leave it there, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something I think about. Love my work or hate my work, it’s all good. Mostly, as a female writer, writing female narratives from a place that wants to challenge and explore, I wonder how certain elements in my novels are going to be received based on the gender of my main characters.
Most of my readers know I wrote CRACKED UP TO BE because the book I’d tried to get published before it got rejections highlighting the unlikability of its main character as The Issue—as if a girl can’t be unlikable and still lead the way. This remains one of its biggest problems for some of the people who have contacted me about it; they express disappointment when they discover Parker’s story is about a Mean Girl Who Falls from Grace and Gets Meaner, as opposed to a Nice Girl Who Falls from Grace and Finds Her Way Back to Niceness. Some people really struggled and are very uncomfortable with the concept of a girl being more than sugar and spice at any given moment.
SOME GIRLS ARE is about girl-bullying and how girls internalize and externalize violence. I was told girls do not behave the way I was writing them and I’m still told this. Too extreme, too unladylike. Even in the wake of more and more news stories about girls being bullied to death by other girls. Both Regina (from SOME GIRLS ARE) and Parker have been accused of not being “good enough” for the male characters who express romantic interest in them. This sentiment followed me to FALL FOR ANYTHING, a book about a girl trying to find the answer to her father’s suicide. I got an email telling me Eddie was too selfish in her grief, thus making her less worthy of the male love interest.
THIS IS NOT A TEST is probably my least criticized book in a way I can draw these kinds of lines, but I’ve seen Sloane, who suffers from PTSD related to a lifetime of abuse at her father’s hands, accused of being whiny and why can’t she get over it or better yet, kill herself already? And while that might not be related to her gender and could have everything to do with my execution, it’s hard not to wonder how her trauma would be received had she been a boy.
There are some people who need to see a girl a certain way and if she is remotely outside of that box, they dislike it. The general worthiness of a female protagonist as a love interest is a biggie—male characters can be cold, flawed, and present behaviors bordering on abusive (emotionally and physically) without ever compromising their potential as a love interest. Girls who experience trauma are often dismissed as melodramatic, though a traumatic past will often add to the mystery and desirability of a male character. These particular responses are not really surprising. You can find them in just about anything that features a female protagonist—movies, television, books.
The response that broke my heart, though, was this one. Before CRACKED UP TO BE was released and ARCs started rolling out, a person in publishing shared their thoughts of it and left me sucker-punched enough that I never forgot it. The person had issues with the writing and characters (fair enough!), but wound up their take by suggesting YA fiction already had a book about a girl who was dealing with rape so why did we need another?
It’s amazing how many different ways you will hear this kind of sentiment leaving the mouths of a disappointing amount of people. Another book about a girl falling in love. Another book about a girl with trauma. Another book about mean girls. Oh no not another book about a girl that is breathing and alive and on and on and on. Why write them? When is enough enough with these girl stories? I think I was ready for just about anything in terms of push-back relating to the questions I hoped my work was asking about gender expectations and stereotypes relating to girls, but I was not prepared to hear those questions weren’t worth asking in the first place.
If you follow me on Twitter, maybe you’ve seen my recent Twitter rants about girl characters and the expectations surrounding them (here, here, here, here, here, and here). It’s all been on my mind lately, because ALL THE RAGE, the book I’m working on now, is about rape and rape culture and violence against women. This is obviously a subject I have approached before in my work, but it’s one I have so many questions about and so I keep coming back to it.
I got this wonderful email from a reader a little bit ago. The subject line was, When I read your books, its like reading my life. I have printed out and saved a comment that showed up on Angie Manfredi’s review of SOME GIRLS ARE: Nobody gives a shit . They never will. This is what really goes on. This is my life. I get messages like these in my Ask Box.
I think about all the ways a girl can be devalued in fiction and in life, because she is a girl. I think about that years-old review of CRACKED UP TO BE, that, whether consciously or unconsciously, implied it would have rather had no story than another story about a girl.
I wonder what would have happened if I had taken it to heart. I think of all these readers, most of them girls, who have reached out to me because they’ve connected with the girls in my novels. These girls often tell me they are writers, they have stories of their own. The world being what it is right now, there is no doubt in my mind those girls will come across similar sentiments to the ones I’ve experienced and shared with you here. What if they take them to heart?
And that’s the question I’m asking now.
Except I already know the answer.
My first piece of advice is stop thinking about whether it’s “decent” or not! Assessments of quality are stifling at the early stages of drafting in particular (and all throughout the writing process!)— just do the best you can at any given moment. And my second piece of advice is to stop worrying about getting anything “done”! All I did from ages 11-20 was write little broken pieces of stories that fizzled out after ten pages, twenty pages, fifty pages, three hundred pages…and then one day I found something that I thought was worth writing to the end. And after that I was able to finish things more often. But no time spent writing little pieces is ever wasted— Divergent was one of those pieces, for me, something I started and abandoned quickly after my freshman year of college and then picked up again four years later with a fresh perspective. I don’t really think any writing is wasted. Everything gets you where you need to go.
So, once you’ve stopped worrying about both of those things, try to just write because you love it. Write even when you don’t love it, too. And you’ll be fine.
needed to hear this…
Bill Watterson’s advice on writing...via
First Thursday: Tales from a Former Bank Robber
January 3rd, 2012
Mill Valley Public Library Creekside Room - 7pm - 9pm
Just for High School Students
In his youth, Joe Loya robbed more than a dozen banks and spent seven years in prison. Today he’s on the right side of crime, living a solid life as a father, husband, a writer and performer. During the January First Thursday event, Loya will discuss how taking ownership of his story, refusing to accept people’s limited expectations of him, and expressing himself through writing helped him turn his life around. Author of “The Man Who Outgrew his Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber”, Loya will also share tips on how to really get deep into your own story so you can become a more effective storyteller.
Joe Loya’s idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end when his mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness. In the two years before her death, Joe’s extremely religious father became increasingly violent toward his two young sons—a contradiction that haunted Joe for years. Then, at age sixteen, Joe retaliated during a particularly severe beating and stabbed his father in the neck. For Joe, this was the starting point of a life of crime, and after holding up his twenty-fourth bank, he was arrested and served seven years in prison. He continued his criminal behavior behind bars and was eventually placed in solitary confinement. Alone in his cell for two years, Joe was finally able to forgive his father, finding clarity, cultural insight, and redemption through writing.
Food and beverages provided.
- Care about things. Show it. Be funny, barbed, and pointed when needed. Slick is easy; don’t be slick.
- Confidence and arrogance will both protect you when people yell at you. One is vital and one is poisonous.
- Learn to be your own devil’s advocate. Interrogate your own arguments. Interrogate your point of view.
- Successful writers can play loud and soft and can make a variety of harsh and gentle sounds, just like great musicians.
- Look at the people whose careers you admire and think about their paths. Don’t assume you want the fast lane.
- If you are read widely, you will get blowback, no matter what. Don’t let it paralyze you, but don’t reflexively blow it off.
- If you try to make your fortune creating controversy, then even if it works, you’ll be expected to keep doing it.
- Being young doesn’t make you dumb or smart, important or irrelevant. But you’ll be a different writer in 20 years.
- “Win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful.” Obey deadlines and house style.
- You are entitled to be wrong, to feel embarrassed, to feel like a jerk, and to keep writing anyway.
[as told by NPR’s Linda Holmes]
Yep: signal boosting myself. No shame / no cares.
I’ve had some great submissions so far: looking to publish this this summer, so do keep them rolling in! (Send your writing in here)
YO LISTEN UP: I want to publish this in the next few weeks, so please send your writing in here asap if you want to be included! Thanks so much, xo
This week brought another spate of bad job-creation news in the United States. This surprised, I think, precisely no one other than pundits, whose job it is to be professionally surprised. The culture of work in this country is unstable at the moment; sometimes I wonder whether not being sure of how to make your living opens your eyes to this in a way not available to the comfortably employed. That’s been my experience, anyway, having gone from a stable job to, well, whatever this current status is.
As a gesture of comfort I compiled the below list of kinda crappy and/or annoying jobs writers have held, along with the evidence of their instability, so that any worried/unemployed/underemployed Rumpus folk can feel they have kin in the writing lineage.*
1. Kurt Vonnegut managed a car dealership for Saab. At this link you can find the letterhead to prove it. He tried to learn car mechanics, but the Saab people felt he had no talent for it and kicked him out of their classes.
2. George Saunders was a geophysical engineer but he also bummed around Texas for a while before doing his MFA.
3. John Steinbeck was a construction worker on Madison Square Garden, and hated it. According to his biographers, he quit the day a man tumbled from the ceiling rafters and died.
4. Harper Lee was an airline reservations clerk who found herself, in 1956, without enough time off to go home for Christmas. Friends who hosted her for the holiday in Manhattan instead gave her a big present: she could take a year off to finish her novel. And she did.
5. J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director of a cruise line. According to a biographer, he “acted in plays, accompanied daughters of rich passengers to dances, and spent his days organizing and paying deck sports.” The biographer claims Salinger enjoyed it, but note that he only did it the once.
6. Richard Wright sorted mail in Chicago. He started as a temporary worker, but when he tried to apply for a more permanent position he couldn’t measure up to the physical requirements. He weighed, at that time, less than the then-required one hundred and twenty-five pounds.
7. Anthony Trollope worked for the postal service, too, in England. Apparently we have him to thank for the invention of the letterbox.
8. Patrick DeWitt was a dishwasher for six years, and a construction worker, too.
9. Robert Frost worked in wool mill, replacing the carbon of arc lamps balanced precariously over the moving machinery and sneaking off to the roof to read, according to his biographer Jay Parini.
10. Langston Hughes was working as a hotel busboy at the Wardman Park Plaza hotel the day Vachel Lindsay dined there. Hughes left three of his poems by Lindsay’s plate; that night, at a reading Hughes was not permitted to attend becase he was black, Lindsay read them aloud and announced he’d found a major new talent. Hughes proudly posed in uniform for the papers, who picked up the story.