Turning Points: Guest Post by Courtney Summers (+Giveaway)

This post is part of the Turning Points series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories.

If you’ve read this week’s posts, you’ve seen how a certain book—Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers—served as the turning point for two separate writers: Daisy Whitney and Brandy Colbert. Now we get to hear from that influential book’s author, Courtney Summers, on her own turning point as a writer…

I have one very vivid memory of the time I was trying to get published and it’s this: I am sitting in a car, in the passenger’s side, and I’m trying not to cry. Sufjan Stevens’s “The Mistress Witch from McClure” is playing and all I can think is, this is not going to happen for me. This is never, ever going to happen for me. My dream is bigger than my reality. I will never be published and I am a total failure. Whenever I hear that song, I think about that moment. At the time, I felt this complete and utter helplessness in knowing that just because I worked really hard and wanted something really badly didn’t mean I should have it. This is a lesson people learn a lot in their lives, but I think the first time you realize it is something else, especially if there are a lot of emotional stakes involved. Because then you have to decide what you’re going to do with that information. Are you going to let it defeat you or are you going to move forward in the face of it?

I’d been playing the optimist from book to book, thinking each one would be The One. I’d just shelved my third, a high-concept YA novel that brought me the closest I’d ever gotten; an agent talked revisions with me, said she’d send the paperwork along to make representation official, and then dropped off the face of the earth only to reappear to tell me she was leaving for another part of the business. I think close calls can be the hardest. When it doesn’t happen but it almost does, you feel like you’re farther back from where you started. That’s certainly how it felt to me and I didn’t know if I could continue this journey because my time was running out…

[cue dramatic music]

To understand what I mean by that, I have to tell you this: I dropped out of high school when I was fourteen because I hated it (let us pause and contemplate the fact I now write about people in high school). My family wholeheartedly supported that decision, but there were some vocal naysayers who insisted I was screwing up my life and making things harder for myself and because of that, I would never achieve what I set out to achieve. I was told that to drop out is to set yourself up for a life of mediocrity. So what I did was I promised myself the year I would’ve spent in high school, had I not dropped out, would be devoted to figuring out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Tall order for a fourteen-year-old, but get this, it actually happened—I realized I wanted to be a writer. That was my graduation, in a way.

And now it was time for the next phase. College. Except I wasn’t going there either, so I decided I had to be a published author by the time all of my friends graduated college or leaving school was for nothing and I’d be a failure. Wait. I need to emphasize that better. I’d be a FAILURE.

It was a very inflexible goal. It wasn’t I have to be a published author by the time my friends graduate college, if not, I’ll keep trucking it had to be BY THEN or I failed at life. And that’s ridiculous, but I was so worried about having something to show for a decision as dramatic as leaving high school, that was how I viewed it. And the pressure I put on myself was intense. I worked and worked and worked against my own self-imposed timeline, learning about the industry, writing novels and short stories, submitting novels and short stories, shelving them and starting new ones—I never took a break. I know there are A LOT of people out there who put more time in and get loads more rejections than I have, but when I reached the point where my third book had to be shelved, my “time” was, like I said, running out and I didn’t know what I was going to do. It felt like my journey had to stop there because I hadn’t achieved what I’d set out to do. I’d FAILED! I really felt like this lack of being where I wanted to be at that particular point in my life was unforgivable on my part. And that made me very sad.

I usually don’t tell people this part of my road to publication! But eventually, my sadness got so great, a member of my family suggested I stop for a while. Stop the whole thing. It was a fair suggestion. Nothing about what I was doing was making me happy. And yet while all this was happening, I should tell you I somehow managed to find the time to be annoyed about the rejections of my third book. Most readers found the protagonist really unlikeable and I liked her and—whether or not this was ultimately true—I decided they didn’t like her because she was an unlikeable GIRL and girls are always expected to be nice. In the back of my head, an idea about a girl nobody liked was brewing, but I was scared to start it because what was the point when the whole process made me feel this bad? But the idea was an insistent thing, it kept poking at my brain until finally, I thought, okay, one more book and then I’ll stop for a while.

But there was no way I could start my new book without taking a good, hard look at my ideas of success and failure and redefining them. My love for this idea (and indignation about girls not being allowed to be unlikeable!) was so loud I had to make a choice. I still wanted to be published, more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life. What happened here, my turning point, was I decided to define my success in terms of TRYING and accepting I had no control of the outcome. (And then I proceeded to write about a girl who was obsessed with perfection and outcomes.) As soon as I did this, the joy came back into my life. I got lost in this mean girl’s story and I looked forward to working on it and I loved working on it. I loved writing. It was what I was meant to do, and I was pretty sure I’d always do it regardless of whether or not I saw myself traditionally published.

I’d truly forgotten.

So that was a nice, eye-opening moment. It was a bit scary too—but it was a relief.

Cracked Up to Be

The book I wrote did end up being published. Cracked Up to Be. Everyone who writes and tries to get published knows how hard it is, how high the highs are and how low the lows. It would be very disingenuous to say letting go of the idea of being published helped me TO get published. I don’t believe that’s what happened. Really it was work and luck and timing. I was fortunate enough to get the manuscript into the hands of people who liked the story as much as I did. But letting go of my arbitrary self-imposed deadline to be published and letting go of the belief that being published determined my success or failure as a person reminded me why I tried for it in the first place: I love to write.

And on the harder days in this business, I miggght put on that Sufjan song to remind myself that all of my stories start and end with that.

—Courtney Summers


Courtney Summers lives and writes in Canada. She is the author of Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are, Fall for Anything, and This is Not a Test (June 2012).

Visit Courtney at courtneysummers.ca.

Follow @courtney_s on Twitter.


EDITED FEB. 11: THE GRAND-PRIZE WINNER OF THREE (3!) OF COURTNEY SUMMERS’S BOOKS, PLUS THE WINNER OF TWO AUDIO EDITIONS ANNOUNCED…! 

Thank you to everyone who entered the two giveaways via the entry forms—and thank you to the author for donating the prizes—and to Damon for donating the audio editions as an extra added surprise! I’m happy to announce the winners:

Andrea Benvenuto won the grand prize of three of Courtney Summers’s books: a signed copy of Some Girls Are, a signed copy of Fall for Anything, and a pre-order of This Is Not a Test. And melannie lara luna won two audio editions of Courtney Summer’s books: Cracked Up to Be and Some Girls Are (both donated by Damon Ford). Congrats! I’ll email the winners for their mailing addresses. Thank you again to everyone who entered!


Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Turning Points: Guest Post by Brandy Colbert (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Brandy Colbert tells us about the YA novel that changed her writing and her life…

I was scared when I began writing young adult fiction. Of everything.

Scared to show my characters’ flaws, to take the story as far as it could go. Basically, I was scared to be an honest writer. I held back because when I first started reading YA I wasn’t exposed to books that challenged me. I firmly believe that everything I read is a learning experience; whether I love it or hate it, each book I read changes me as a writer. But some just stick with you—for weeks after reading, or even years. They force you to become better, to dig down and find that story you didn’t think you were capable of telling. For me, that book is Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers.

Cracked Up to Be

The premise was simple enough: a popular girl’s fall from grace and the slow reveal of the events leading up to it. But from the first paragraph I knew I wasn’t dealing with a simple story at all because these characters. They threw out expletives when it felt right, not just in tense or dramatic situations that warranted such language from suburban, well-educated teenagers. They talked openly and frequently about sex. They were horrible to each other for no reason, they partied a lot, and they didn’t apologize for any of it. These characters weren’t cutesy or clichéd—they resonated so deeply with me because they were the people I went to high school with.

I am still in touch with many of my close friends from high school. I see some fairly often, talk to some even more. They are hardworking and smart, supportive and kind. They have remarkable careers and many are wonderful parents and spouses. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that we were ever teenagers, that we spent the mid- to late ’90s making loads of mistakes, creating cringe-worthy memories. High school was always intense and at times, terrible, and most of the time so much fun, and I’d never seen all of that so accurately depicted in a YA novel until I discovered Cracked Up to Be.

Upon finishing, I felt like taking a victory lap around my apartment for a novel I didn’t even write. It was there on the page, proof that I could create the types of characters and situations I truly wanted and someone might still publish my books. There is not one false note in Cracked Up to Be and the gritty observations within showed me how important it is to stay true to yourself as a writer. That doing so is what cultivates your voice, the intangible quality agents and editors preach about that is so frustrating until you finally get it and then wonder why it took so long when it was right there, living in you this whole time.

For me, becoming an honest writer boiled down to recognizing the quirks that make me the person I am and—somehow—incorporating that into my prose. They say write what you know, and what I know is growing up as a black kid in a Midwestern town that was more than 90% white. But I didn’t know anyone who grew up like me besides the handful of other black students in my class (literally, there were five of us in my graduating class of almost 300), so would anyone relate to my main characters? Especially if the main character’s race wasn’t the point of the novel at all?

I decided it didn’t matter. I was writing for myself, the type of novel I would have loved as a teen. Actually, the type I still love today. And you know what? As soon as I wrote like there were no rules to follow, like no one would ever question the validity of my characters and the trouble they created, I knew I’d hit on something. My writing had reached a new level. I wasn’t just pleased with it, I was proud. I saw the change. My critique partners saw it. And eventually, an agent and an editor saw it too.

It took me years to figure out that my truth is just that—mine. Cracked Up to Be isn’t a mirror image of my high school years, but its raw account of troubled suburban teenagers helped me tap into the version I wanted to explore. And while I sincerely hope readers relate to my truth, one of the most terrifying aspects of being a writer, of putting your work out there, is that this thing, this relatabilty, is ultimately out of your hands. But readers do recognize honesty, and to me, that is possibly the single greatest strength I could ever possess as a writer.

—Brandy Colbert


(Guess what? Entirely coincidentally, if you read Monday’s Turning Point blog by Daisy Whitney, you’ll see that Brandy isn’t the only author influenced by Cracked Up to Be! How amazing is that? So I’m excited to tell you that we have Cracked Up to Be‘s author here on Friday revealing her own turning point. That’s right! Stay tuned for later this week when Courtney Summers tells us what led to her publishing her incredible, beloved debut.)


Brandy Colbert was born and raised in the Ozarks, where she tap-danced for many years and never grew tired of defending Missouri’s status as a Midwestern state. She graduated with a journalism degree and has since worked as an editor at several national magazines and a business writer at an investment banking firm. Brandy lives in Los Angeles where she revels in the abundance of sunshine and palm trees, never goes to the beach, and eats too much cheese. Her debut novel, A Point So Delicate, will be released by Putnam/Penguin in fall 2013.

Visit Brandy at brandycolbert.wordpress.com.

Follow on @brandycolbert on Twitter.


EDITED FEB. 11: THE WINNER OF CRACKED UP TO BE BY COURTNEY SUMMERS ANNOUNCED…

Cracked Up to Be

Thank you to everyone who commented to enter the giveaway—and thank you so much to Brandy for donating a copy of Cracked Up to Be to one lucky reader! I’m happy to announce the winner:

Heather Perkinson won a copy of Courtney Summers’s debut novel Cracked Up to Be, generously donated by Brandy Colbert! Congrats! I’ll email the winner for her mailing addresses. Thanks again, everyone!


Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Guest Post: A Book That Scares Courtney Summers

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

By Courtney Summers, author of FALL FOR ANYTHING

When Nova invited me to participate in her Halloween guest blog extravaganza, there were two prompts to mine a potential entry from: What’s one of the creepiest books you’ve ever read? and What makes a story scary for you? I didn’t even have to think about it before I had my answer to the first question and, as luck would have it, it answered the second as well. Yay!

One of the creepiest books I’ve ever read is also one of the first creepiest book I ever read and I am pretty sure it lead to my interest in horror.

That book is this one:

I am serious.

So from the ages of nine to twelve, like lots of girls, I was obsessed with The Baby-Sitters Club. I mean obsessed. I joined the fan club uh, more than once. And before the official guide came out, I might have written my own. Okay, it was just the biographies of every sitter in a tiny notebook decorated by glitter glue but OH WELL. I was also on the cusp of becoming a massive horror movie fan. How fated that the BSC super mysteries (not your average mysteries!) were released around that time, pushing me into the realm of loving all things creepy and terrifying for the rest of my life? Thank you, Baby-sitters Club!

The plot to Baby-sitters Beware is right there in the tagline: Someone’s stalking the BSC! (Is it just me or does everything happen to those girls?) BUT WHO? AND WHY? I won’t spoil it because the reveal is not as interesting as the events leading up to it. And those events are pretty darn scary—especially when you consider this is a BSC book we’re talking about here.

Guys, this stalker wasn’t playing. The ways in which he terrorized the girls included but were not limited to: peering in their windows as they peered back, attaching threatening notes to the collars of their pets, hiding Stacey’s insulin, trying to run over Stacey with a car, trapping Stacey in a suspended ski-lift during a really horrible snowstorm—apparently the stalker really hated Stacey.

But anyway. The whole story blew my mind. It was just so crazy to me that the members of the effing Baby-sitters Club were not protected from the extreme crazies of the world. That is what I found deeply disturbing about the whole thing. What was going on in this book was well within the realm of possibility. People cross these kinds of lines all the time in real life! We are all capable of truly terrible stuff, which means that everything that is familiar and safe to you has the potential to become unfamiliar and dangerously terrifying at ANY GIVEN MOMENT. It gave me chills just to think about it. It still does.

Around this time, I also started reading the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. I actually think I had just come off the mind-blowingness that was Baby-sitters Beware when I picked up this book:

And while there is something terrifying about Slappy that I grow to appreciate more and more the older I get, then I just felt his whole story paled in comparison to Baby-sitters Beware because it was so preposterous. A talking dummy? R.L. Stine, what do you take me for? my nine-year-old self thought. I am not joking. (Did I mention I was not only on the cusp of becoming a massive horror movie fan but also a pretentious one as well?) I strongly believed that scariest things had to be the things that were most possible. A haunted ventriloquist dummy was JUST NOT POSSIBLE! Therefore, it could not be scary.

This led to fourth grade Courtney doing an entire book report based around this question: Which is scarier? Goosebumps or the Baby-sitters Club? Using Baby-sitters Beware and Night of the Living Dummy as my examples.

I am serious.

I made a case for realistic horror and polled my entire class and Goosebumps won. Consequently, I would look down on them for the rest of my elementary school career. Also I only got a B on my report because I decided to use magic markers and style my handwriting after various members of the BSC and apparently my teacher found i’s dotted with hearts hard to read but whatever.

I love creepy stories. Books, movies, television. There is nothing more satisfying than a good scare (and as Sheriff Brackett says, around Halloween, we’re all entitled to at least one). Baby-sitters Beware was the first truly creepy book I ever read and it shaped my idea of what I considered to be truly terrifying for years to come.

The older I’ve gotten (in case you can’t tell, I’m a 100 now), the more my definitions of what makes a story scary have expanded. My younger self would be totally disappointed to discover that I think Slappy is terrifying as hell and that I also enjoy being freaked out by the fantastical as well. But I will never turn down a creepy story based in a reality that doesn’t feel so far removed from my own because those are the ones that make me sleep with my lights on.

Thanks, Ann M. Martin!

And thanks for having me on your blog, Nova!


Courtney Summers lives and writes in Canada. She is the author of Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are, Fall for Anything, and This is Not a Test (June 2012).

Visit Courtney at courtneysummers.ca.

Follow @courtney_s on Twitter.


Comment on this guest blog and you’ll gain an extra entry for the big Halloween giveaway on October 31, containing prize packs of signed books plus books and ARCs donated by my publisher Penguin Teen!  

You can keep track of all the “What Scares You?” guest blogs with this tag.