Writing

New Interviews: On Writing Inspiration, Struggles and my Current Creepy Reading Preferences

Writing GIF Happy Monday! I enjoyed an amazing weekend of awesome San Francisco activities and productive writing (finished exactly 1/3 of the news project ...).  I also had the pleasure of doing two interviews with some awesome bloggers, and I wanted to share here. Below is my interview for What is This Book About. I spoke with blogger Michelle on my inspiration, struggles, advice for writers and what I'm currently reading. Check it out!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?  In a way, I think so, though maybe I didn’t always know it! I never really thought of it as a profession, per se, but as a kid (I was a definite “inside kid”), I spent hours crafting stories on our old PC. There were fairies. A lot of fairies. And magical lands. And unassuming girls who got to explore said lands.

What inspired you to write your first book? THE AFTER GIRLS came first as a title. I can’t say where it came from--it just did. From there, I began thinking about what would take a group of friends from before to “after” more than anything else. The answer was suicide, and all the guilt, confusion and heartbreak that come with it. More than anything, that is what I was exploring in THE AFTER GIRLS.

Now that you have published your first novel, did you have any expectations on the process? If you did, were they met? If not, what have you learned that could help other writers? It still feels very surreal. When I see my book in a library or bookstore or anything like that, or when I hear from a fan whom I’ve never met and loves it, I almost feel like it’s not really happening. Like I’m somehow fooling everyone around me! I try to take a step back and remind myself that, indeed, it is happening, but it’s difficult.For aspiring authors, I’d suggest that they enjoy the writing process--in many ways, it’s a lot more fun (and less stressful) than the publishing process. You’ve got to be in it for the joy that comes from the writing itself.

What was the hardest part writing your book? Finishing! Letting your baby out into the world for it to be judged and noticed and hopefully loved.

Your book has gotten some favorable reviews, was there something or someone that inspired the theme of your story?  At first, no. But about halfway through writing, a friend of mine passed away at a young age from cancer. Friendship and grief became incredibly real to me, and it definitely affected how I wrote THE AFTER GIRLS.

What message do you hope people who read your book take away from your book? That friendship is everything and that life is beautiful and worth living, no matter what you’re going through.

What book would you say you were most inspired by? Though it doesn’t have much to do with the themes of THE AFTER GIRLS, I learned pretty much everything I know about writing from obsessively reading Jane Austen.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you are working on? Yes--and a really exciting one at that--I can’t reveal too much, but it’s also set in the South, and it focuses much more on romance than on friendship.

What are you currently reading? “The Stranger Beside Me,” a true crime story about the Ted Bundy murders. Don’t ask.

Do you have any advice on aspiring writers? A great quote by W. Somerset Maugham is this: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” I’d say my only real advice is just to keep on writing.

My other interview appeared on Ope's Opinions. Check it out here.

Friday Writing Inspiration: Stephen King Quote and Why Fiction Rocks

Stephen King writing quote--fiction Happy Friday! I am blessed this weekend to have a lovely friend in town, so it's unlikely that I will do quite as much writing as I really should. But either way, how true and awesome is this quote by the great Stephen King?

I once explained to my boyfriend (a great lover of non-fiction) that I thought, in a lot of cases, fiction has a greater impact than non-fiction. Essentially, it is truth (at the least good fiction is), just delivered in a package we can all relate to, connect with and understand.

News and opinion and 24-hour cable and Twitter updates may make us a little crazy, it may make us all un-friend each other on Facebook and argue about the events of the day. This week has proven more than anything that it may polarize us, and that when we're in news mode, we are often unable to see things in a new light and be open to other points of views. Not saying non-fic isn't incredibly important, but in some instances, I think fiction and drama can be far more powerful, and instead of dividing us according to issues, it unites us through emotions and relationships and pages and pages of mini-truths that we can connect with.

Those are my thoughts, at least.

Happy Friday, and happy writing!

Famous Author Writing Spaces

sunrise-san-franciscoLast week, Buzzfeed pulled together photos of workspaces of writers and other creatives, many of them my favorite writers--think Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, etc. What's so cool about them is how different they are. Some are fabulously opulent, some are sparse. Some don't look all that different than where I sit down to write (more photos on that in a future post, but for now, I'll let you know that basically all my writing spaces in the apartment look out on the view above).

Here are some of my favorites from the post. Writers, do you have a special writing space, or do you switch it up? Is it like any of these?

Charlotte Bronte writing space

Charlotte Bronte

I can just imagine Mr. Rochester strolling right in.

Mark Twain writing nook

Mark Twain

Nothing like a round of billiards to inspire the next great American novel.

Virginia Woolf writing desk

Virginia Woolf

And "The Mark on the Wall" finally makes sense.

E.B. White writing desk

E.B. White

Note the well-placed barrel for all those first drafts.

Roald Dahl Writing Space

Roald Dahl

Is it any wonder he wrote about living in a cramped peach?

Dream writing space

Colm Tóibín

I actually haven't read any of this writer's work, but I want his writing space SO BAD.

Jane Austen writing desk

Jane Austen

Last but not least, my fave author ever. It's lovely to think that a house as rich and expansive as Pemberley could come from such a tiny table.

See all the writing spaces on Buzzfeed.

How my writing process completely changed, a new piece for Distraction 99

awesome GIF, frustrated GIF, best GIFs, writing GIFs Yesterday, I did a post on Nova Ren Suma's blog, Distraction 99. Nova is an inspiring YA author who I met several years ago in New York, and I was excited to have a chance to guest post for her. As part of her regular series, she asked me to talk about my "turning point" as a writer. It's a tall order, because as a writer, we have so many "turning points". The day your 3rd grade teacher tells you your a great writer, the day you finish you first "book" (mine was in elementary school and about an enchanted rose garden, illustrated by yours truly), the day you get your first rejection letter, the day you get an agent, the day you get a book deal, the day you realize that getting a book deal is nothing like you thought it would be.

But a lot of that is business, not the important stuff. And I chose to write about process. I've touched on it here, but let me just say, at least for me, it never gets easier. While I cranked out my first complete manuscript with an outline in only four months (revisions were necessary, of course), I didn't have a similar experience at all for The After Girls. And that was not exactly easy (see the GIF above). But it was worth it.

Here's a little bit from my piece for Distraction 99:

My turning point didn’t come in my first foray into novel writing. It came when I began The After Girls. The idea for the book came first as a title and a question: What would take a group of friends from before to after instantly? The concept came quick enough as I filled in the gaps—two high school friends shaken by their best friend’s suicide right after graduation, set against the eerie backdrop of a rural Appalachian mountain town—but the details were another thing. I was writing from the point of view of two girls instead of one. I added characters and removed them. I was walking a fine line between magical realism and contemporary. And I had no outline.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. I wrote outline after outline, hoping to find one that would work like the first one, with no success. I wrote 50 pages, rewrote those pages, and didn’t look at the manuscript for weeks or even a month at a time. I felt like a failure. I was the girl who could crank out a novel in mere months. Now I’d been months and months at a single idea and had very little to show for it. I wasn’t writing on a schedule. I wasn’t even writing regularly, for that matter, but I was writing—a page here and a chapter there.

At a certain point, The After Girls began to write itself. It was like that great E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Page by page, I made the trip. The characters took over—they surprised me. The plot took twists—the ending changed multiple times. I even added a character in a few hours before I sent a final version to my agent, one that came to me in the shower when I thought I was almost done. At page 50, 100, 150, 200 … I still wasn’t sure of what would happen beyond the next ten pages. But in the end, the flexibility was what I needed to uncover the mystery of why a beautiful, smart young girl with great friends and a whole future ahead of her would take her own life.

See the full piece here.

And one last thing, thank you everyone for your support on my "book birthday" yesterday. It was a great one, and I can't thank you all enough!

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.

Writing struggles, as told through Sideways

I re-watched Sideways last night, a novel-based 2004 flick starring Paul Giamatti that won the oscar for best adapted screenplay that year--and if you've seen it, it's easy to see why. I wanted to watch it again, because it's set in California wine country, and given my new location and recent forays into wine-tasting, I thought it would hit home in a new way. The movie is great, and if the photo above doesn't make you want to watch it, I don't know what will. But while I did remember all that sloshiness, I didn't remember that Giamatti's character is a struggling writer trying to sell his third novel to a NY publisher and anxiously awaiting  a call from his agent.

I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say that the movie gives a good depiction of why writing is tough (and is spot-on with the type of boilerplate editor responses and encouraging talks from agents that are par for the publishing course). It's one of the few movies I can think of that actually shows writing as a struggle, as something you have to work at, at something you will constantly doubt. I did a post recently on why writing is fun, and I am not taking any of that back, but the process of getting your work in the world is a hard one. And one that has been glamorized by Hollywood and oversimplified by stories of the J.K. Rowlings and Stephanie Meyers who've struck gold. For almost everyone, it is a  constant up-and-down journey, and believe me, the doubts and fears don't end even when you get that elusive book deal. It's refreshing to see an accurate portrayal.

All that said, watching the movie has only made me grateful that The After Girls is on its way.

Great writing quotes for any writing personality

I have always been a sucker for fun quotes about anything. I used to have an amazing archive in my saved AOL Instant Messenger away messages (in those crazy days before the dawn of Facebook). I think writing quotes are the best. Happy or frustrated, they always give me good inspiration when I need it (and finding them is a wonderful procrastination tool!). The one above is a favorite—perfect for the emo writer—and below are a few more, arranged by personality.

For the writer who takes herself EXTREMELY seriously "If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it." —Anias Nin

For the nihilist "You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you." —Ray Bradbury

For the minimalist “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” —Stephen King

For the writer whose very in touch with herself “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” —Virginia Woolf

For the baby-steps writer "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." —E. L. Doctorow

For the self-editor "I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil." —Truman Capote

For the procrastinator (who needs a kick in the pants) “Write while the heat is in you … The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with.” —Henry David Thoreau

For the optimist "You fail only if you stop writing." Ray Bradbury

For the dreamer “Writers live twice.” —Natalie Goldberg

For more of my favorite quotes, check out my Pinterest page. 

“A sensitive look at the wake of a friend’s suicide, infused with genuine emotion, hope, and just enough well-placed romance.”~Booklist

“The Writing King of Difficult Subjects has to be John Green. After reading The After Girls, I would definitely put Ms. Konen in his court.”~Ink and Page

“A striking debut and an eerily good book… THE AFTER GIRLS is a vivid portrayal of interrupted lives and enduring friendships. It is as much about the known as the unknown and as much about healing as loss.”~Michael Northrop, author of ROTTEN, TRAPPED and GENTLEMEN

Ella, Astrid, and Sydney were planning the perfect summer after high school graduation. But when Astrid commits suicide in a lonely cabin, the other girls' worlds are shattered. How could their best friend have done this--to herself and to them? They knew everything about Astrid. Shouldn't they have seen this coming? Couldn't they have saved her?

As Ella hunts for the truth, and Sydney tries to dull the pain, a chilling message from Astrid leaves them wondering whether their beloved friend is communicating from the after life. The girls embark on a journey to uncover Astrid's dark secrets. The answers to those questions--questions they never dreamed of asking--will change their lives forever.

Get a copy of my debut young adult novel, THE AFTER GIRLS, here. 

Why writing is a lot more fun than people make it sound (especially young adult)

I'm currently working on something new and prepping for the release of The After Girls, and I'm having to get back into the flow of writing new material (not revising or editing or proofing) regularly. That means I need to be positive enough to make myself pull out the computer after work or get up early enough to pull it out before.

I need to remind myself why I love writing.

Everyone likes to talk about tortured artists, writing frustration, writer's block, etc. I don't really believe in writer's block, but I'll tackle that in another post. People like to say all artists are alcoholics and really miserable, and yes, some of the geniuses probably were/are. But at the end of the day, no one is forcing anyone to write. They do it because they want to. So allow me to be a bit of a cheerleader for writing, since the whole process gets a lot of flak ... here are my top 5 reasons.

1. You get to make up whatever you want.  Seriously. Unlike non-fic authors and journalists and even college students, you don't have to compile pages of research for every sentence. You get to make everything up. Yes, you will need to have some basic facts straight, depending on timeframe, location, etc., but you're still sitting there making characters do whatever you want whenever you want.

2. You get to go back to INSERT ERA HERE and do it however you want. One reason writing young adult is so fun is because you can constantly redo all your awkward teen/high school years but make them however you want. If you want to be the popular girl, you can do it. If you want to fall in love at 15, you can. If you want to apply the music taste you acquired from years of going to hipstery shows in Brooklyn to a kick-ass fiddle-playing 17-year-old (that would be Sydney in The After Girls), you can. If you want to break the rules, cheat on your test, scream at your best friend, do a million things you shouldn't or wouldn't have done, you can.

3. Your characters will eventually start to make their own decisions.  I remember when I was working on my first longer project, and the main character was at a family gathering and just up and decided to join in a poker game with her uncle. I know it doesn't sound all that life-altering, but I had the scene all planned out and outlined, and I was going in a different direction, and then this character wanted to play poker, and all of the sudden, everyone in the scene was doing it. Cool feeling.

4. You can go anywhere. You can travel. You can live in a ridiculous mansion. You can explore a creepy house in the woods without actually getting freaked out. You can go to your hometown or the most exclusive restaurant in New York City.  You can make a new world. You can control dreams. You can build the most beautiful house and burn it down. You can live in a permanent summer (all my stories seem to take place then).

5.  You learn a lot about yourself. Writing about what's hurt you isn't just part of the writing process, it is the writing process. Whether it's friendships or family or relationships or self-esteem, I, at least, find that I tackle some of my biggest struggles through my writing. It's tough, but it's also cathartic, which is awesome, but the coolest part is that it can give you a new, more understanding, perspective on the past, as well as the people in your life. It's basically free therapy.

Parking spots and book deals

Puppy gifI was parking on Friday in my neighborhood and marveled at how I always seem to get a spot without much searching. And yet on the street where I park there is almost always only one spot left. Do I just have good parking luck? I don't think so. It's just that when I park I only need to find one spot. There only needs to be one person who has recently left theirs. I have a medium-sized car and live in a neighborhood where parking is, at least, a possibility. Odds are, in the two or three always-almost-full streets I go down, one will indeed be almost full and not full, and I will find my spot.

There are so many things in life like this, and so many ways to get discouraged when you look at the odds, when you try and try, and it seems like finding even one is impossible. But still, you only need one of them.

An agent, for example. You only need one person to really love your manuscript enough to want to sell it. And then you only need one editor to love it enough to convince all the people at the publishing house that it's worth taking a risk on. For each book, you only need one book deal (as much as we all may dream of being sold at auction). From Suzanne Collins to J.K. Rowling to many, many more, every literary success has had people in their lives and careers that believe in them--and people that weren't willing to take the risk.

Writing is difficult, yes, and there is absolutely no guarantee of success (though writing, in and of itself, is it's own kind of success) but lately, when I get discouraged, I find it's better to remind myself that I don't need to convince everyone I meet that my work is worthwhile. Just like I don't need to get offered every job in the world. And I don't need to find ten affordable apartments in New York or San Francisco. Just one.

Just like finding a parking spot, falling in love, making friends and almost everything in life, there is so much that you can't control or guarantee. But when I remind myself that every great success is made up of small victories--and a series of ones--it makes everything challenging seem a little bit more manageable.

Oh, and if that doesn't work, looking at puppies usually does.

The Importance of Support to a Writer

Boone-wooden-bowl Over Christmas I got a lot of cool gifts, but one of the best was from my dad. A wooden bowl hand-made by his boss, with a note inside saying it was carved from walnut wood from Boone, NC, "a setting from The After Girls." Both of my parents have always been extremely supportive of me and my writing (I had a, "do what you love and the money will follow," "you can be anything you want to be" sort of upbringing), but it was so nice to see that my dad had gone out of his way to find a gift that could somehow be tied to my book (he also told me he ordered 5 copies, which probably explains the slight peak in Amazon ratings the other week).

I am very lucky to have supportive parents, and I know not everyone who is pursuing a creative career path does. And it's not something you can really change, but as much as writing is done mainly in a vacuum, I think it's still so important to find people who believe in you and will tell you that you're going to make it. (Yes, you have to believe it yourself, but there will be times that you don't, it's inevitable, and hearing a few kind words from others will be crucial.)

I had a great network of writer friends in NYC, some of them from my industry (magazines), some of them from writing classes, some of them I met through friends, and I'm still trying to find that in San Francisco, though making progress (I went to a holiday cookie party with a couple of writers a few weeks ago, and we spent a good part of the time trading plot ideas). But as nice as that is, what it really comes down to is having friends and loved ones who believe in you. My parents and sister, my boyfriend, my college friends, my cousins and aunts and uncles and extended family--most of them aren't fiction writers--but they cheer me on and patiently listen to my stresses and my vows that this writing thing is never going to work and tell me I'm crazy and still listen to me when I realize I am.  It's great, and I am so thankful for all of them. I wish all my fellow writers the same kind of support. And if you're still working on building that kind of network, my best advice is to just be supportive yourself. Go to your friend's shows, donate to your aunt's charity race, listen to someone when they need to talk. If you have an agent, share your query letter with others. Lend people books and don't worry so much about getting them back. Karma's good that way.

Oh, and now for some shameless self-promotion (to go against everything I just said), my Goodreads page is finally it up, so take a look and be my friend if you feel so inclined!

Vintage Photos as Writing Inspiration

How cool are they? So, my grandparents were married 66 years ago today ... in New York City ... in the famed St. Patrick's Cathedral (I don't know how they pulled that off, either). That's them, above. Aren't they gorgeous together? I never remember meeting my grandmother, Mary. She passed away shortly after I was born. But my grandfather, Gordon, was one of the happiest, smiliest, most kind-hearted people I've ever known. Here's to them!

Anyway, I'm home visiting my parents right now, and I've been looking at a lot of old photos--ones of my other grandparents on the West Coast, standing in front of a classic car and a dusty landscape (I'll share that in a separate post), ones of me and my sister as a kid, ones of my parents as babies. Old photos are so amazing (I mean, just look at that car!). They can completely transport you to a different place and time, much the way a good book does.

I set my writing mostly in present-day, so photos aren't necessarily a window into another era for research purposes, but I guess when I look at them, I just realize how many stories each person has. I remember the way I felt when I was a kid. I remember places I used to live and visit. All of it makes me feel very creative, like there are endless tales to tell, moments to capture,  you just have to find them.

As a writer, what fun it is to be able to jump into a character's head and find their most happy, sad, dramatic, distraught, elated, book-worthy moments. I think that's one of the reasons we all love writing.

Anyway, enjoy the photo--and happy anniversary to my grandparents in heaven!

The One-Chapter Curse

Some writers write really fast. Some write really slow. Jack Kerouac apparently took just weeks to write On the Road while most people take years. I've never done NaNoWriMo--I tried once and I ended up making it like two days--but I do know people who it's worked for. Just not me. I guess I fall somewhere in the medium-paced category of writers--my problem is what I'm deeming the one-chapter curse.

It also has to do with my least favorite aspect of writing--plotting.

I'm currently working on writing something new, but I keep getting stuck after the first chapter. It's not necessarily even the first chapter, just a chapter. Sometimes I have an idea--pretty formed--sometimes I just have a first line, and I build the character from there: "She was the kind of girl who cared about firsts." That was one that came to me recently, as I was organizing my jewelry box and came across one half of the first pair of earrings my boyfriend ever bought me. I feel bad that I lost one of them, and how I'm bad about preserving things like that, and then the line came to me, and all-of-a-sudden there is a love triangle and two teenage best friends, and I'm writing again, and it's great.

But then I get somewhere between about three and ten pages, and it just kind of halts. I just don't know how to get to the next scene. I get the character, I get why they're upset, why they're happy, maybe even a little bit about what they want, but I don't know what they'll do next.

There are a lot of writers who are plot-masters, and a lot of them take a lot of flak for not being literary and being too commercial. Especially genre, like mystery and crime thrillers and all that. But in defense of plot-heavy works, plotting is really hard. I can make up characters all day, and I hope I can make them feel real. I can describe a setting, and I actually really enjoy writing dialogue, just jotting down what I imagine two people would say if they were talking.

But WHAT DO THEY DO NEXT?

It's something that for me, I can't sit down and think up--it kind of just has to come. Sometimes, I'm feeling especially frustrated, and I do silly things like look up plot generators. Here's one (you have to pretend to be a 6th grader to get it to work). After a few spins, I have this: "Write a letter to a sunburned spider monkey who finds an undiscovered island."

I know writers who have the opposite problem, who have fully-formed plots but trouble getting them down, building the world, etc. I guess we just all have our strengths and weaknesses. And I suppose if I keep on writing (not about spider monkeys), the characters will eventually do something. The whole story will come, as it always has before. That's how Joyce Carol Oates does it, and she's written a LOT.

Needless to say, any advice on plotting would be much appreciated.

Above: Jack Kerouac via Poetry Scores.

The Bad Writing Party and Why Everyone Is a Writer

bad-writing-partyAbout a year ago, one of my best friends in New York had a brilliant idea--throw a Bad Writing Party where everyone brings one or two examples of their worst writing: cheesy short stories, embarrassing cover letters, novels you started when you were eight, etc. Let's just say it was a hit.

I read from a few overly descriptive and indulgent stories for an introductory creative writing course in college, a friend read from her middle school journal, another girl read her child fantasy novel (along with a story inspired by her love for Ryan Gosling); one guy even played for the group a recording of him singing a song he'd written for his high school girlfriend. I'm sure it was enhanced, at least a little, by the wine, but it was hilarious (there I am, above, trying to keep a straight face).

One thing we started to notice was that all the bad writing wasn't really all that bad. Sure, they all needed a good edit, and each had at least one or two cringe-worthy lines, but for the most part, each piece was pretty engaging. I'm not saying any of them would have made The New Yorker, but they all had something to say, and given that most of the pieces were written when we were younger, we were all saying it rather honestly (if not also terribly awkwardly and embarrassingly).

I've been calling myself a writer for awhile now, long before I had an agent or a publisher. I went to a reading once and the author said you just have to start saying that, because if you don't believe it, no one else will, and worse, you won't push yourself to actually be one. A lot of times I felt silly telling people about my books (No, they're not published yet. Working on that), but I still think it was important to say.

So many people I know wind up telling me these great stories and how they'd love to write a book but: "I'm not a writer." They say it as matter-of-factly as, "I have brown hair." I'm not a "writer" any more than they are, apart from the fact that I write regularly. I'm not saying that everyone has the potential to be the next Hemingway (most of us don't), but I also don't think that every respected author is a genius. They're just people who write often and even when they don't really want to and listen to the stories around them, in their pasts, and in their heads. They're hard workers.

The funny thing is that, as evidenced by our Bad Writing Party, no one says "I'm not a writer" when they're a kid. Instead, they just write.

Writing About the Weather

It's December, and here in SF, it's sunny and lovely, and I'm currently wearing a tank-top. I walked along the beach yesterday, and it was great. I truly wouldn't change any of it. But still, a tiny part of me is nostalgic for the cold, for hot cider and down jackets and things that make it feel like Christmas. I know it's kind of silly, and I know that if I were in NYC right now, I'd probably be wishing it were warmer and praying that the landlord would turn on the heat a little early, or that the water wouldn't take so long to warm for a shower in the morning. Or if it were warm in NYC, like it is today, I'd be cherishing it. As a kid, it feels like there is so much change. Big change. There seem to be so many events that feel so significant. I grew up in a small town with four distinct seasons, and each one felt unique, like the whole world became different. Even if you grew up somewhere that wasn't so classically seasonal, there was summer vacation, winter vacation, birthdays were so exciting you measured years in halves and quarters just to get closer (I'm six-and-three-quarters, thank you). Pre-Tevo, Hulu, and Internet, even new episodes of TV shows felt like huge events. Each year at school you got a new teacher. Each summer was unique.

As an adult, there is less change. Most people will work year-round, many at the same jobs for years. I personally rarely look forward to live TV shows and watch them all on Netflix in spurts. Maybe that's why I love the changing seasons (and all anyone really loves is the change, because once you're in the dead of winter or summer, you usually just want out)--you may be at the same job doing the same thing, you may have not had a vacation in awhile, but everything changes around you. Your world, for a few months, is completely different.

It's something that I often try to capture in writing, especially because I write about high school, where each change does feel so monumental and big. I always find myself setting my books in the summer, because it just feels more magical than any other time, especially as a kid. And I often talk about the weather in writing, which is a no-no if you read any writing books. It's boring, like a bad conversation where no one has anything to say. It's the weather.

But it's not. Reading about a muggy day and the first step into a beach reminds us of our own beach days, it takes us back to the sand and the waves and the coconut smell of sunscreen. We don't remember how hot it was the next day, in the car with no AC. We don't remember how much we wanted the heat to just calm down.  Just like I have a hard time remembering how slushy and gross it gets in the streets after the powder-white snow starts to melt and congeal. It's nostalgia--it's not real--but it's nice to think about. It reminds us of our best times, like going through a photo album.

Bike Riding, Coming Up With Ideas, and Writing to the Trends

The photo above is me, about halfway into a bike ride through San Francisco. My new location is great--it's just a few minutes via bike to the beach and close enough to ride onto Golden Gate as well, through the Presidio (which feels like a Hitchcock movie), and through the amazing Golden Gate Park. I've been on a few bike rides with my boyfriend since we moved here. It's a great way to explore the area, but more than that, it's this escape from all the stressors of life (the to-do list, emails, job-hunting, holding back the anger that even reading a story about Black Friday inspires). It's much like running--you are so focused on what you're doing that there's no time to think of anything else. But unlike running, there are moments of relaxation. There's coasting down a hill, letting your legs rest. You can breathe and you can look around. And there's a lot to look at in San Francisco.

Even more importantly, your mind is free to wander. Truly wander, the kind of wandering I'd imagine you'd get from meditation, though I've never really tried meditating. Not wandering through anxiety and stress, but wandering through your imagination, your memories. You can think about being a kid, meet a new character.

For the last six months, I've been too busy with everything (preparing The After Girls for publication, moving across the country) to really focus on what comes next, writing-wise. And when I have, it's been frustrating. Ideas come, but in a matter of days or weeks, I go from loving them to hating them. I can get pretty far into a concept but then find that I have no earthly idea what the character wants. I find myself thinking in Publisher's Lunch blurbs  or elevator pitches (it's like The Hunger Games meets Pride and Prejudice meets Eternal Sunshine). I think about what will sell and what will get a book deal, a big one. I know it's not the way to think, but I can't help it. If I'm going to commit another 2-3 years of my life to a story then it better be worth it, right?

Wrong, of course. I know that writing to the trends is not just bad for art, it can be bad for business. As many copies as gained success, I'm sure that there are a ton of dystopian and vampire YA manuscripts that won't ever make it out of the slush pile. Readers, editors, everyone want something new. And even if you do make it through and snag those six-figures, do you really want to be known as the writer whose name no one can quite remember who wrote that series that was a lot like Twilight? I definitely don't.

Coming full-circle here, I actually got one of my more promising ideas while bike riding around SF. My mind was free to explore, and I saw the houses that reminded me of Hitchcock, and I just started thinking about what kind of girl would live there, and it's nothing, really, it's just an image--not a fully-formed plot or a pitch or even something worth sharing with my agent at this stage--but it's something that left me wanting to explore.

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?

The Right and Left Coasts and Writing About Where You Live

Me in San Francisco

I can't believe that after five years in New York City, I will be leaving in less than two weeks. There's truly no turning back at this point--the moving truck is booked, the first-month apartment is all set up, and we just called to cancel our internet! Haven't started packing yet, but that's only because my boyfriend and I are MAJOR procrastinators.

We'll be driving out in 6 days, which is a little crazy, with the only real stops being in Denver and Reno (I suggested we just throw our life savings on Black in Reno and see what happens...). And then, come November 1, we'll be San Franciscans! Living in the photo above!

I've never lived in California, but growing up in Washington state, I think that going back to the West Coast will feel like going home (it will also mark the fourth corner of the U.S. I'll have lived in). I was nervous for awhile, but now I just feel excited. I love this crazy, frenetic, dirty, beautiful, incredible city, but I'm also ready for the next adventure--and to trade a bitter NYC winter for the land of permanent fall in SF.

I keep thinking about how it will affect my writing--I've always been one to write a lot about places, but I've never been able to write about New York. Maybe once I'll leave I'll finally figure out how. Maybe, instead of setting things in the suburbs or the small towns of North Carolina (where I went to high school and college), I'll be able to actually throw a character into the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn--we'll see.

Fellow writers--are you able to write things set in places that you currently live in?

Top Ten Revising Tips from a Writer Who's Always Revising

Revising is hard. I've always been a big reviser. Though I wish I could crank out near-perfect prose in a first or second draft, that's just not me. I tend to follow Anne Lamott's "shitty first drafts" model, which leaves me in the revision phase A LOT. I'm currently finishing up the last (and hopefully light) revision on my most recent project, and so I've pulled together some tips for tackling this necessary evil. Without further ado ...

1. Always begin with a complete draft. This may seem obvious, but so many people delay finishing projects by obsessively tweaking the first half of their novel before they've written a climax or conclusion (which may change that first half, leading to even more revisions). While it's tempting to make something perfect before moving ahead, I think it's best to get the whole thing out first. That said, Revising shouldn't be confused with Starting Over--if you've got less than 100 pages, starting anew may be necessary before you go further.

2. Wait. Then wait some more. Finishing a novel is such an accomplishment and such a high, and you may want to jump right into revisions as soon as possible. Don't. A couple of weeks to a couple of months spent relaxing, drinking champagne, and indulging in bad TV will give you some much-needed perspective before you go back to it. This is also a great time to get a friend, fellow writer, agent, or anyone you trust to give your manu a read before you tear it apart.

3. Read your novel! Again with the patience. You shouldn't start changing your novel before you've READ THE WHOLE THING. Seriously. My favorite method is to load it onto my Kindle--reading it in the same way that I read other books creates a much-needed separation between me and my work and makes me look at it like a reader, not a writer (if you don't have an e-reader, a good old-fashioned printer will work just as well). Resist the urge to take notes as you read--if anything is really glaring, you'll remember it later, and without a pen in hand you'll stay focused on the bigger picture.

4. Fix the structural stuff first. You wouldn't paint a house before all the walls are up. In the same vein, don't get bogged down by language until your book's in good order. I like to create a new document with the reworked original text--moving chapters around, adding notes where I need new scenes, etc.--only once I have that in place will I move onto the nitty gritty.

5. Kill your darlings. Faulkner's advice is particularly true in the revision stage. While I typically think of it in relation to dialogue or turns of phrase (but it sounds so fancy, do I really have to cut it?), this notion is equally helpful with bigger things like minor characters or motifs. Just because you've written a funny younger brother doesn't mean he deserves a place in your novel (all his wisecracking might actually be distracting), or just because you want to make your main character's favorite book Pride and Prejudice (who doesn't love Mr. Darcy?) doesn't mean you should. Unless these minor elements are crucial to your story, they need to go--plus, you can always work them into another novel down the road.

6. Tell, don't show. I know, I know, every English teacher from 8th grade on has been saying just the opposite. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I'm working off the assumption that if you've finished a novel, you know you can't get by writing sentences like "Suzy was sad." That said, it's important to make sure your readers are well-informed in every scene and that you don't withhold crucial information from your readers to build drama. The readers shouldn't be left confused, nor should the drama come from figuring out basic facts. I think a great example of this method used effectively is in the first line of The Secret History by Donna Tartt: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” You know the basics, but you've got just enough questions to keep you turning the page.

7. Make sure every character wants something in every scene. This is a big one for me, because I tend to go for a slow burn, descriptive kind of writing, and I'm often guilty of sacrificing plot in the name of character development. My agent actually sent me a rant by the executive producer of The Unit to the show's staff of  TV writers to help with this issue. I can't put it better than he does--every character should want something in every scene. If they don't, rewrite it so they do--or else it's got to go.

8. Make your transitions awesome. The physicality of scenes often stumps me--I hate writing about people arriving in restaurants or getting into cars--so a lot of the time I just skip over these points and start right in the middle. While this is not an entirely bad technique, it's important to make sure there are a few key establishing details in every scene (I've personally been guilty of writing 3 to 4 pages before the reader even knows where they are). You can also use this time to make sure your chapter beginnings and endings are poignant, punchy, and keep readers turning the page.

9. Read your writing aloud. It feels awkward at first, but I think it's the hands-down best way to navigate trickier scenes and dialogue. If something is off, it's going to be very obvious when spoken. You can even imagine you're at a book signing or event--if anything you're saying makes you want to cringe, it definitely needs to be tweaked.

10. Trust your gut--not your timeline. Writing a novel is a LONG process, one that has always taken me about five times as long as I anticipated. When you're nearing the end of the revision, trust your instincts to decide whether you're really done or need to go back for another sweep. Similarly, don't ignore a stroke of genius just because it comes at the last minute and will require more work. Some of my biggest breakthroughs have come during the last leg of a revision. It's no fun to have to go back, and it may end up delaying a self-imposed deadline, but who ever said the writing process was easy?

To Outline or Not to Outline: Writing a Novel Starting in the Middle

The last couple of months I've been brewing ideas for a new novel, and I feel like I am finally ready to start something new. After a sad attempt at starting at the beginning (the writing was feeling really forced and just not there), I jotted down the first scene that came to my mind, and I loved it--it felt really natural and got me really jazzed about the project. The only problem is, I'm not sure where I'm going from there, whether this is now the beginning or somewhere in the middle, or possibly even the end.

I've read a lot about the writing process and there seem to be two major camps, Camp One: Outline, Outline, Only Geniuses Don't Outline, and Camp Two: Let the Characters Lead You and Enjoy the Ride (Even if You Have to do a Million Revisions). I'm not sure where I fall--for the first novel I wrote, right out of college, I stuck to an outline religiously, adapting and re-outlining if there were even small changes. I had a calendar of events, a list of scenes, detailed character descriptions down to what magazine each player read--everything. I wrote it in four months with about a year of revisions. For the second, I tried outlining again--I wanted to so badly--but it just wasn't working. It was like one of my favorite quotes about writing was truly playing out: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way" (E.L. Doctorow). It took me a good two years to write, plus probably six months of revisions, though I'm not sure if that is even accurate, as there was so much starting and restarting and jumping back and forth that it's hard to even remember. But it had a plot that I just don't think I would have been able to come up with in outline form. It came together in a way that I don't think it would have if not for the crazy, hair-pulling process.

All that said, I now feel like however I write number three is going to define my process. I really want to be the organized writer in Camp One, dutifully sitting with my characters, world-building, and letting an idea bounce around until I'm ready to write The Perfect Outline, but I'm starting to believe that that's just not me.

Fellow writers--do you stick to outlines or prefer to just go where the keyboard takes you?