Friday, January 28, 2011

Rounding Up Assorted News Items

ITEM 1: Across the Universe

Maybe you've heard of it. It's not just a Beatles-themed musical/movie. It's a young adult sci-fi mystery. It's the book I'm currently dying to get back to, but have to do work first. It's also a NYT bestseller.

I had the pleasure of meeting Beth Revis last week at ABA Winter Institute (which I will discuss at greater length next week), and she is A. sweet and B. seemingly unaware of how awesome she is. A winning combination.

Anyway, here's a video in which many writers congratulate her by dancing on camera:

And here's a post in which I congratulate her in a somewhat lamer way:

CONGRATULATIONS BETH! From what I can tell so far, your book totally warrants it.

Item 2: Book Covers

My friend Michelle Hodkin wrote this unique, amazing book called (tantalizingly) The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer. It will be out in the fall. I will talk about it at length some other time. But recently the cover appeared on the Internet as if from nowhere, and I sighed and said, "Perfection."

Because: kinda hot? Check. Kinda creepy? Also check. Visually appealing? Triple check. Perfect for the book, and perfect for covers generally. Here, enjoy:

I also spent too much time drooling over this:

I love how it kind of messes with your mind. And that it's clean, intriguing, and beautiful. I also can't wait to read it.

ITEM 3: Look!

DIVERGENT was on PW yesterday! So many wonderful things were said in that article. I sincerely hope that the book in some way measures up to those things. In any case, though, going to ABA Winter Institute was a great experience, and I love booksellers.

That is all.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Some Answers: On Sequels

I want to know what the biggest challenge is working on a sequel.

Two things about this. First: one of the biggest challenges of working on a sequel, for me, is that It Will Exist In Large Quantities, IE, Will Be Published. When I wrote the first book, I wrote knowing that there were no guarantees; chances were, no one would ever read it. Now, writing the second one, I know that eventually people will read it, which means that I am constantly thinking about people reading it while I'm writing it, which makes it harder to break out of The Safe Box and explore things and fail miserably and start again, and so on, which are all integral to my writing process, especially the failing miserably.

It has been very difficult for me to turn off the "people are going to read this so it better be good!" voice that shouts at me all the time, but I've tried to develop a new way of thinking when I sit down to write, and that has helped some. I also think it just takes some getting used to.

Second: the trouble with sequels is this. In the first book, I explored some deeper themes (choice, moralism, goodness, etc.) as I was writing, not with the intention of Making A Point, but with the intention of...well, exploring. Questioning. Examining.

But with the second book, I found that I was just continuing the story I'd started in book one, which is fine, but somehow lacking. Certainly the story has to continue, but the deep exploration can't vanish, or the book is not as meaningful to me, which means it probably won't be as meaningful to the reader. It's something I wish I had kept in mind when I started, and that I am now remedying as I continue, and will keep trying to remedy as I revise.

My advice to people writing sequels is to think of the work not just as a continuation of the first book, but as a whole book in and of itself, with the same story arc, the same character arcs, and the same undercurrents of thoughtfulness that you would have in a stand-alone. Easier said than done, right?

How do you handle new ideas, when you know that the trilogy is just beginning? Do you write them down and then just plan to tackle them after all three books are complete?

What I do is: I let the idea percolate for awhile in my head--write it down, think it over, let it develop--and then I start to write whatever scenes I've got floating around. I usually get to about 30 pages before I get stuck and would normally have to do some serious thinking/exploratory writing, if I was going to commit to making it a full-length work. But instead of doing that serious thinking/exploratory writing, I just save the 30ish pages I have and put them aside. That way, if I decide to go back to that idea once the trilogy is done, I haven't forgotten anything crucial.

I know it sounds a little crazy to devote so much time and energy to a new idea, like I should just try to shove it out of my head. But if you're a writer, you know that doesn't work--the idea just pokes at you over and over again, begging you to write it. So I spend a little time on it, knowing that it will ultimately make it easier for me to re-focus on my trilogy writing.

Also, do you ever get nervous or anxious at the thought of working on the same story for so long?

Yes, definitely! But it was before I started book 2. Now that I'm almost done with the rough draft of book 2, it seems more like "well I'll just revise this, then write the next one, and that's it." (Yes, I do manage to sound extremely cavalier about putting WHOLE BOOKS together in my me, it's all talk.) I think the key is not to look too far ahead. Just take it one step at a time--one book at a time, one scene at a time. That's how I stopped feeling nervous about it.

Did you write Divergent as a stand-alone novel with series potential or just as a stand-alone? And if you wrote it with series potential, how did you leave it open ended enough that sequels can follow but not so open ended that agents reject it for a an ending that doesn't wrap up perfectly?

I wrote Divergent as a stand alone with series potential, which means that I worked very hard to find the right balance for the end: satisfying, such that the story could stop right there if it had to, but intriguing enough that people would want to read more. In my mind the world and greater story were always big enough for three books, so when I was asked how many I thought there would be, 3 was always the answer.

I don't know if I can answer the question of HOW I did that "satisfying but intriguing" thing without giving the ending away (although I will say--and I hope this doesn't sound arrogant-- that I believe I did strike that balance successfully), but I'll try. Basically, in Divergent there is The Immediate Conflict, which forms the plot of the book, and The Greater Conflict, which is essentially, how do these people get themselves out of this downward spiral (even if they just end up getting themselves into yet another downward spiral)?

It's like this: you're in a tiny, crappy boat in the middle of the ocean. And your boat springs a leak. ("CRAP! WE'RE GOING TO SINK! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE IF WE DON'T PLUG UP THIS LEAK RIGHT NOW!") You manage to plug up the leak, but once the leak is plugged, you are still in a tiny, crappy boat in the middle of the ocean, and really need to find land. ("CRAP. WE'RE STILL IN THIS BOAT!")

The plot of book 1 is like the leak. The series arc is being in the boat.

I think you try to answer the most pressing questions, like "what happens to Character X?" and "Does Character X ever reach Very Important Goal X?", etc, but leave other, not essential but still intriguing, questions unanswered. It's hard to figure out. If you have beta readers to tell you how they felt at the end, that's extremely helpful.

Awesome questions all. Thank you! Next week I'll be talking about Divergent specifically (inspiration! Writing process! Revision process! Etc.), if you want to check back again.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Some Answers: On College and Being Young

First off: thanks so much for your questions, guys! I have a lot of blog posts to write now, and I'm happy to hear your feedback. Today I'm going to tackle some of the more practical questions, because I'm in that sort of mood. So, about college, and youth.

How did you juggle college and writing?

The best answer I can give to this is: I prioritized writing. That sometimes sounds misleading, so I'll say this-- I did work hard, attend class, and maintain good grades. But: I also figured out exactly what was necessary to be in good standing in any given class and did only that. I didn't always finish all the reading. I didn't always revise every paper to the best of my ability. I didn't always study until I felt confident about the material. Certainly I regret not engaging with some of the more interesting material as much as I should have.

But it's important, whether you're a writer or not, to remember that while you are a student, you are also a person. And I think you should prioritize being a person-- being healthy, sleeping, resting, hanging out with friends, exploring the world-- even at the expense of your grades. For me, part of being a person was writing. And I found that if I allowed myself time to be a person, when I did sit down to be a student, I worked HARD. I was far more focused during the time I set aside to work than I would have been if I had tried to work all day. So it's also a matter of using your time well. And you'll be able to use your time well if you have your priorities in order. That's my theory.

Sometimes the juggling was difficult, and didn't turn out well. Most of the time it was okay, if not great. So...there it is.

Is it hard being a "baby" in the published world? Does being so young hurt your chances or help?

Just to set the record straight: I was 21 when I wrote Divergent. BUT other talented authors like the delightful Kody Keplinger were even younger than that when they wrote their books. So this age question is an interesting one.

Being young didn't hurt my chances because it wasn't a factor. I didn't mention my age in query letters to agents; sometimes I didn't even mention that I was a student. JSV knew my age only because she'd met me in person, and she didn't care. She just wanted to see a good manuscript, and in that, she's not alone. I haven't met many people who care how young you are, as long as you write a good book.

In a certain sense it's difficult, because I'm just not as wise or mature as I'd like to be. That's not to say that I'm unwise and immature, because I'm not-- but sometimes I seriously struggle to handle the things that are on my plate, sometimes I react to things like a young person does (with stubbornness!), sometimes I get anxious about what's ahead of me because it feels too adult, too soon. Maybe older writers also have this struggle, but some of it is specific to my youth and my personality. I also know that I can only push my writing so far before I just have to say, "Wait. With time, wisdom. With wisdom, better writing."

But as far as my reception among other writers, or people in the publishing industry...being young is not a hindrance. Some people will make a thing out of it, but only in a good way ("And she's so young, too!"), in which case I try to remind myself I still have a lot to learn, so that it doesn't go to my head.

I'm a senior in high school who just finished all her college applications from hell and I'm quite curious to read of what you thought of the process when you were going through that period of application stress and all. I'd also love to know how Northwestern is like, as I applied there as well.

Applications! Ahh! Congrats on being finished with them, first of all. My application process was pretty easy, since I applied early decision to Carleton College, got my acceptance letter in December, and didn't have to think about anything after that. And then, when I decided to transfer, I applied to UChicago and Northwestern. Some people freak out and apply to a dozen; some people freak out and make a very logical list involving a few safety schools and a few "reach" schools; and I freaked out and made very intense, not particularly well thought-out decisions. But everyone freaks out. And you really never know about a school until you go there.

My one piece of advice is: don't make a decision about a school based on your perception of the people there. Even small colleges have thousands of people, and in any group of over a thousand people, or over a hundred people, you're going to have all KINDS of different personalities. You will find people to get along with wherever you go. It's just a matter of locating those people.

Northwestern is a great school, and I met a lot of wonderful people there. If you want me to get more specific, I will gladly do that-- just send me an e-mail! (

I am currently a senior in high school and plan on majoring in English in college-hopefully creative writing-but I am a little hesitant. Since you majored in that area, I was wondering if you always knew that you would eventually publish a book or if you had some other idea of what you would do after college with a creative writing degree. Thanks!

I certainly hoped I would get a book published, and was even determined that I would eventually do so, but I didn't know if selling that book would supply me with enough income to write full time-- and in fact, I knew that would be nearly impossible, so I was fully prepared to seek other employment. My plan was to work in publishing, if at all possible. I was an editorial proofreading intern at Sourcebooks, and later did freelance proofreading for them, so I knew that my skills leaned toward the nitpicky editorial (copyediting! Proofreading!), and would have tried to get a job in that area somehow.

This isn't The Absolute Truth, but here's my experience: it doesn't really matter what you majored in. Study what you love. Get involved in an activity or two. Get good grades. Get an internship. Get a degree. Then your past internship and your degree will help you get the next internship/job. (Hopefully.)

You will be much happier if you spend your time in college studying something you're actually interested in, instead of something that seems practical, and I say with a reasonable amount of confidence that it won't harm your future if you're determined and lucky enough.

Note: I feel a little nervous giving advice about this, so...take it with a grain of salt. I have a very narrow range of experience.

(Oh, and if anyone still has questions, you can either keep asking them in the previous post, or e-mail me with them! I love them. Really.)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

An Inquiry for Blog Readers

It's no secret I haven't been posting as much lately, and part of that is because I'm hard at work on the rough draft of D2, but part of it is because I'm no longer sure what to say. Not that I don't have a million things to say, but this blog is less for me spilling my thoughts all the time and more for the enrichment of the people reading it (I hope), and I'm not sure what you guys are interested in hearing.

So, I wanted to know: does anyone have any questions? About me? About the book? About the book publishing process? About writing? About living in the Midwest? About...tea? (These are my only areas of expertise.)

I may not be able (or if they're really personal, willing) to answer all of them, but if you want to e-mail me at, or ask in the comments, I think your questions could inspire some worthwhile blog posts.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Knowing Character Vs. Knowing About Character

Recently it occurred to me that I might need to simplify things, as far as the writing goes. Writing advice is a good thing to hear, from time to time, because it gives you fresh ways of approaching your work. But ultimately, writing is not quite that methodical, at least not for me. I can't learn how to do it better in the same way that I can learn a language or how to complete a math problem. There isn't a formula. There's what I see and how I talk about it, and a lot of that is inexplicable.

Why do the words come out one way with one story and another way with another story? I have no idea. Why do little pieces of myself work their way into my work without my knowing? I don't know. Do I need to know? Probably not.

Anyway. For me, the first task of this new year is to pare down all the tidbits of advice floating around in my head in the hope of rediscovering The Basics: me, the word document, and the characters.

The other day I listened to a recording of Marilynne Robinson speaking at DePaul University, a talk titled "My Faith and My Fiction." (It's on iTunesU if you want to hear it! It's fascinating.) And I thought "AHA! Here is someone who is talking about writing in a way that is currently helpful to me. Perhaps I should transcribe part of it and put it on the blog!"

(No, this is not, word for word, what I thought. I rarely say AHA to myself. Or "perhaps.")

Anyway, enjoy:

"For me at least writing consists largely of exploring intuition. The character is really the sense of a character, embodied, attired, and given voice as he or she seems to require. Where does this creature come from? From watching, I suppose, from reading emotional significance in gestures and inflections as we all do all the time. These moments of intuitive recognition float free from their particular occasions and recombine themselves into nonexistent people the writer, and if all goes well, the reader, feel they know.

There is a great difference in fiction and in life between knowing someone and knowing about someone. When a writer knows about his character he is writing for plot. When he knows his character he is writing to explore, to feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite his own."

And later on...

"It was then that I had the sense of this, that I knew this man. ...I didn't have trouble sustaining the voice because I felt as if I knew him so well. It seemed more as if I simply had to pay attention to him than that I had to do anything else. I liked him; I enjoyed his company. Who knows where he came from?"

Cool, right? The last time I really knew a character was when I sat down to write the first draft of Divergent. Maybe one of the reasons I've been having trouble with the end of D2 is that I've lost touch with her.

Just some thoughts I'm having.

Anyone else have some writing resolutions?


Related Posts with Thumbnails