realistic YA

The After Girls is officially out! A little on how it all began

the-after-girls So The After Girls is out today. I could talk about how nervous I am, but I already did that to excess yesterday. So I thought I'd share a little on how I got from an idea to a book that's out in the world and that I really hope you all love.

Around three years ago, I had an idea for a title--The After Girls--it came to me out of the blue, and I loved it. I immediately saw it as about friends, and I started to think about what would take a group of friends from before to after in an instant. The answer was suicide. And the story began to unfold from there.

I didn't start working on it in earnest then. I was finishing up another project, and I still wasn't sure how it would all pan out. Instead, I tried (rather unsuccessfully) to write an outline and started talking about the idea with any friends who would listen (a big thanks to my NY friends for listening to my ever-changing plotlines). I took a writing class in New York and shared my idea with my classmates and soon-to-be friends. I still wasn't sure where exactly the story was going.

I wanted to set it in the mountains of North Carolina, because, honestly, what setting is more fun or creepy than that? I had only been to the mountains a few times there, but I had it all laid out in my head. And the summer after I got the idea, I visited my sister in Boone, NC (in the picture above), and everything was exactly as I had imagined--only better. It was the perfect setting, the one that would become the fictional Falling Rock, NC.

I began to write, following Ella and Sydney, two best friends as they mourned and  tried to understand their friend, Astrid's, suicide. I probably knocked out about a hundred pages. Slowly but surely I was making progress.

It was around this time that I got a call at 4 a.m., learning that a friend from college had passed away. She'd had cancer for two years, and it was very progressed, but none of that matters. When someone dies at 26, someone who is strong and beautiful and full of life, it's a shock. It's horrible.

My roommate at the time and I flew down to North Carolina to attend the funeral with the rest of our college friends. We spent the weekend crying and laughing and getting sunburned or tipsy on the beach. Our friend would have wanted it that way. She was one of the most happy and fun-loving people I've ever met in life.

It was also that Spring that I met and fell in love with my boyfriend. And it was only about a month before I would leave my job and travel to California and decide that I wanted to make the move to the West Coast.

There were a lot of changes in my life, but more than anything, highs and lows, grief and joy were more real to me than they'd ever been before. The story I had thought up a year before became more than just a story. I'd seen how much friends mean to each other, especially during times of loss. I'd seen how sometimes the most wonderful and inspiring person in the world dies way before they should. I'd seen the hole that they leave when they go, all the people they affect, all the people that miss them and remember them and still think of them all the time.

These are the things I was thinking about while I was writing it. And that's what I want to share with all of you.

As always, thanks for the support.

Leah

My advice for up-and-coming writers in Sadie magazine

Happy Saturday! I'm excited to share a little piece I did for Sadie magazine, a very cool online pub for young women. Sadie asked me to share tips and tricks for breaking into writing/publishing, culled from my experiences getting my first book published. Here are a few:

1. Stop stressing about how to get published and just write. Before you bother yourself about the whole business angle, remember that the only people who get published are the ones who have a finished product to sell. Whether it’s a novel or a screenplay or a magazine article, put in the dirty work (the creative expression that inspired you to write in the first place) before you make your business plan.

2. Start calling yourself a writer. Assuming you’re ready to commit to the first tip, start backing it up by the way you speak about yourself. Long before I wrote The After Girls—long before I completed a full novel, I began to start to call myself what I was—a writer. I wasn’t yet published, but by telling people I met at parties and events about my ambitions, it not only helped in building contacts, but it gave me a reason to be accountable—and it reminded me to shut off the Hoarders marathon and write.

3. Chill out about your “contacts.” It’s time to ignore the guidance counselor again. When it comes to publishing, it’snot all about who you know. I signed with my agent by humbly sending my manuscript over to her slush pile. Then she did the rest. Even if you do have a connection, unless you’re famous enough to entice a publisher on your name alone (ahem, YA novelists Lauren Conrad and Hilary Duff), all your connection will do is move you to the top of the pile. Publishing is a business (and a tough one at that), and no agent or editor is going to take a chance on you out of the goodness of their heart—or because you went to college with their half sister.

4. Make friends with other writers. Now that you’ve stopped stalking agents and editors on their Twitter pages, think about making the contacts you will need—writer friends. They’re good for critiquing, discussing plot ideas, guzzling wine post-rejection, etc. Simply knowing them will inspire you to write—and very likely write better. (And when you do sell your book, they’ll all attend your launch party.) To find writer friends if you don't have them already, join a Meetup, start a critique group, email that girl from your college English course whom you haven’t spoken to in years, or take a class yourself. I made some of my closest and most dependable friends from a Mediabistro course I took in New York.

5. Use the tools the Internet provides. Once you’re ready for the business stage of the game, get thyself to AgentQuery.com. It’s basically the Facebook of literary agents. You can sort by fiction, nonfiction, children’s, sci-fi, chick lit—the list goes on. Each agent lists whether they’re seeking new clients and how best to query them. Plus, they’ve got helpful articles on how to write pesky things like query letters and synopses.

See the rest at Sadie.com.

Feminism and YA

Bella Swan vs. Hermione Granger It's been hard to read the news lately, especially concerning women. The horrific rape and death of the student in India has left all of us wondering what we can do. I just got back from breakfast with a good friend, and we both could only really talk about how bad things are. It's hard to see solutions when you hear about things that are so brutal and heartbreaking.

I think a lot of the people who say that there is no need for modern feminism were silenced by what happened in India. But the truth is, and maybe not to the same extent, but it happens here, too. Jessica Valenti wrote a good piece in the Nation on America's rape culture, and it shows that there are so many reasons why feminism is still necessary, whether across the world in India or right here in the U.S.

All of this got me thinking about the role of feminism in YA lit. These books are being read by young girls (and boys) when they are at their most impressionable. And while we think a lot about how much mature content can be included in this evolving genre (I struggled, myself, with whether to include swearing in my book--I chose to include when I thought it was necessary, as that is how teenagers talk), I think we don't focus enough on how these characters and their entire outlook affect kids at one of their most developmentally crucial stages of life.

An obvious example is Bella Swan in the Twilight series. Much has been written about Bella as a dangerous role model for young girls. I won't add too much here. Except for the idea that we should be encouraging young girls to literally trade their souls, their humanity, and their entire family and community to be with their first love is scary (oh, and I never understood the appeal of stalker-like Edward). Worse, though, is the sheer number of knockoffs that Twilight has inspired. And I'm not talking about just vampire books--there are tons of  stories and series created around young girls who make literally every decision for love.

I've read several dystopians that all had the same plot--Girl is in oppressive world, Girl has Cool Best Friend who hates the oppressive world, Girl clings to the ideals of that oppression, ignoring/falling out with her friend until Boy arrives to explain to her how oppressive it is, then she understands, then they fight evil together and ride off into the sunset (usually leaving Cool Best Friend behind). This plot device bothers me because A) it's pretty predictable and boring, but B) why do these characters need romance to have their awakening? Can't they reach that decision on their own? Or with the help of their kick-ass friend? It feels very 1950s, like they can only vote the way their husband does. What if the girl doesn't have a boy falling all over her (I didn't in high school)--will she just go on thinking her oppressive society is really cool?

Of course, there are the obvious heros. Katniss Everdeen. Hermione Granger. They are smart, self-assured, strong, powerful, magical, interested in boys but not solely motivated by them. They are delightful, and I wish I'd been as cool as them when I was that age (hell, I wish I were as cool as them now). But they are also fantasy characters. Sure, without the bows and the wands they'd still be awesome, but most of us weren't like that in high school. So the question is--how do we create feminist role models in contemporary young adult lit? In realistic young adult? We could make them act and move independently of the dream boys (or the dream girls), but is that realistic? I, for one, thought about my crushes a lot in high school. Plus, love is fun to read about (and write about).

I think the biggest thing we can do is to have them fight their own battles. It doesn't matter if it's for the state of the world or for the state of a friendship. I think that's the biggest difference between Bella and Katniss--Bella joins Edward to fight his battle, Katniss fights her own. On a smaller scale, in realistic YA, it means having them argue with their parents, question their teachers, realize that popularity doesn't always lead to happiness (Cracked up to Be is a great example of this), or that having a great boyfriend doesn't define your whole life (Mia's decision in If I Stay). They can mess up, they can do stupid things, they can cry over love and hurt their friends say things to their mothers that they will most definitely regret later (that's being a teenager). They don't have to be perfect feminist role models, but at the end of the day, we should at least be writing characters who live for themselves and not for someone else. At least that's my thought on the matter. I'd love to hear how other writers feel.

Oh, and on a lighter note, there's this, from Buzzfeed (Bella Swan vs. Hermione Granger). It's also the photo above.

Seeing Your Book for the First Time

the-after-girls-galleys

So ... these arrived. My official ARCs. I have never seen my name on/in a book before. Magazine, yes. Newspaper, yes. Book, no. It's weird.

The box came yesterday, and Thomas and I were trying to figure out what it was. "It must be one of your textbooks," I said.

"I already got all mine," he said.

"Are you sure?"

He cut the box open, looked at me, and smiled. "It's not my book."

It's crazy seeing them on actual paper--with an actual cover--and it they looked so great in ARC paperback, I can't wait to see the real deal.

I opened a read over the first page, flipped a few pages in. I read for a bit, and it's strange--it started to feel like an actual book, not like something I wrote or dreamed up. Not like an overly long Word document that I 've looked at and tweaked a million times. The words were closer together, more bookish. The background was the kind of matte white you only get on real paper. I kept on going, and I thought, wow, I would really read this. Which is the point, right? To write something you'd love to read yourself.

I can't wait to go through the whole thing, but for now, it's the best early xmas present I could get.

Book Deal!!!

I've been meaning to announce this for awhile, but between being superstitious/paranoid about telling too early and the little matter of driving across the country, moving into a sublet, and setting to work finding a new apartment, I've been a little preoccupied.

That said, the contracts are signed, the revisions (which I completed--I kid you not--in the passenger seat of a 16-foot Budget truck) are in and accepted, and my first official novel, The After Girls, will be coming out from Adams Media/Merit Press Books in hardcover in spring 2013!

Even after getting and accepting the offer, talking to my editor, the talented Jacquelyn Mitchard (of The Deep End of the Ocean fame--good book, if you haven't read it already), and embarking on a light revision, I don't think the news really hit me until I saw the cover, which was the exact thing I never knew I wanted, and I will share it here as soon as it's ready and I'm allowed to. As my editor said, seeing the cover of your book for the first time is like meeting a child--you feel like you've known them forever even though you're seeing them for the first time.

Well, all I can say was that she was right. I'm thrilled that this thing I've created is going to be real and on paper, but mostly I'm just thrilled that so many people decided to take a chance on my story, from my amazing agent, Danielle Chiotti, to my friends, family, and boyfriend  who supported me the whole time I was writing it, to my Mediabistro writing group who gave me amazing notes, to the editor and publishing team who are putting it on the shelves.

More than that, I'm blessed to be embarking on this new phase of my writing life in a beautiful new city with my wonderful boyfriend, and in a new apartment (we sign a lease next week)--I only have to figure out the little matter of finding a new job.

It's weird how the good and the bad always seem to come together. My boyfriend and I moved out of NYC literally two days before Hurricane Sandy hit. And even though the coverage has waned in the wake of the election, there are still so many without power, without homes, mourning loved ones, eager to get back to work, having two-hour commutes each morning. I've been hesitant to talk about all the good things happening to me during this time, but all I can say is, I'm incredibly blessed--and incredibly grateful--and I'm thinking of the brave people of New York every day.

Can TV Watching Be Good for Your Writing?

Writing Inspiration: Breaking Bad

It's Saturday morning (pushing afternoon), and I'm sitting on the couch with coffee watching AMC's Breaking Bad. I have three writing projects I should be currently working on--reworking an article for a news site, completing an edit test for a potential gig in SF, and finishing revisions on my novel--and I am sitting here watching TV (well, technically, I'm taking a break even from that to blog).

In my defense, I did work on writing all day yesterday and a good bit this morning, but I'm telling myself that my TV indulgences (at least this one) are kind of like research. It seems to be common agreement that watching too much TV is lazy, non-productive, etc., whereas, reading is not. I definitely recognize that your mind is doing a lot more work when you're reading than it is when you're watching TV--plenty of studies have come out saying that TV numbs and even shuts off your brain--but my question is, if you're watching something with great writing, is it possible that you could get something out of it (besides just an escape from your to-do list)?

Given that I tend to write contemporary YA fiction, I'm mainly talking about realistic dramas. Some of the ones I've found most inspiring for their writing include Breaking Bad (shown above), Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and Friday Night Lights (a clear winner). It's not even about the story or exact dialogue--with plots centering around meth dealing, advertising, and 1920s England, apart from FNL, what these characters are worried about has little to do with what any of my characters would be thinking about. That said, in all these shows, the writing feels very natural and real--it's not what they're saying so much as how they're saying it--the cadence, the choice to confront someone or not, the right silences, the difficulty they find in expressing themselves, the nuance when they say one thing and clearly mean another.

A great moment in this episode (Breaking Bad Season 4, Episode 3) comes when Jesse asks his older partner, Walt, "You want to do something?" after they've just finished a day of highly illegal drug-making. Walt asks him what he means, and he responds by describing a Go Kart place down the road. In the show, Jesse is dealing with guilt and depression after a lot of really heavy stuff, and the fact that he asks his partner to go Go Kart-ing is, to me, far more powerful than any breakdown, argument, or explanation of his unhappiness would be. It's just good writing.

What do you guys think--can I really be learning from TV, or am I just procrastinating?

Realistic Young Adult Fiction as a Genre

Last night, I headed with my friend to Greenpoint in Brooklyn for an event at Word bookstore as part of Brooklyn Book Festival. On the agenda: a discussion with authors Gayle Forman (If I Stay), Michael Northrop (Trapped), Matt de la Pena (Ball Don't Lie), and E. Lockhart (Real Live Boyfriends) about writing realistic YA fiction. The event came complete with brownies and brews from Brooklyn Brewery, and helped raised money for First Book-Brooklyn, which provides new books to kids in need through local literacy programs.

It was a fun panel--a good mix of laughter, beer, and insight--and also very inspiring for us up-and-coming writer types working on contemporary YA for shelves dominated by paranormal and dystopian series. It was an especially good exploration of what makes a book contemporary or realistic, and whether "realistic" can even be considered a genre. I think E. Lockhart put it best--the only thing all four of the panelists' books have in common is that they don't have vampires. I tend to agree that "realistic" shouldn't be considered a genre. It's what people have been writing and reading for hundreds of years and it's what they'll continue to read and remember and return to years from now. In a way, shouldn't everything be based in emotional reality? Aren't those the best books? Sure, none of us are actually going to wizarding school, but we all know that feeling of being somewhere new, making friends, trying to create a space for yourself in a world of cheaters and mean kids and evil lords (apart from the lord bit, that just about sums up high school).

What's more, many of the books that are being called realistic aren't even wholly based in reality--for example, Gayle Forman's If I Stay is literally an out-of-body experience, from cover to cover. Gayle does it beautifully, and so the reader doesn't feel like it's fantasy at all--instead it's just this stunnig tale of a girl's life and a chronicle of what really matters, when it gets right down to it--it just happens to be told from the perspective of someone who may very well soon be dead.

I think all the mish-mashing of genre just further proves that the best books are genre-less--they're impossible to define. They're mysteries with heart, and with characters as pensive and deeply developed as in contemporary (In the Woods), or they're dystopian that make you not only see the horror of war and poverty, but remind you why, in the end, it's better to fall for the good guy, the calm and kind-hearted person who balances you out (The Hunger Games, Team Peeta all the way). Or a 19th century novel written with a GRE-prep-book vocabulary and filled with subtle drawing room discussion that manages to be more desperately romantic than almost anything written since (Pride and Prejudice).

Those are the books that, in the end, I think we all want to write, even if we joke about coming up with the next paranormal or dystopian hit and cashing in. They're the books that I want to read not just because they are page-turners, but because I come away understanding something that I didn't quite get before--or understanding it in a new way, at least.

Both Gayle and Matt noted it on the panel: there's an undefined takeaway that you can't push onto a book (or else it's propaganda--or just bad), but it's something that, in the best books, comes naturally, leaving you thinking about them long after you've turned the last page. Gayle said that if she'd set out to write a book that convinces you to love and appreciate your family, it would have been horrible, and yet most readers come out of If I Stay feeling that way. Without being overt or obvious, or trying to make you feel that way, she's created a story that just does--it's something I think we all strive for every time we sit down to write--otherwise, what's the point?

(It's also worth nothing that at the meet-and-greet after the panel, I nervously introduced myself to Gayle and explained to her how I finished If I Stay on the subway and immediately started crying. Her response: "It should have a warning sticker!")