Why I Don’t Talk

The lovely Laura Lutz recently asked a question on Facebook that I couldn’t help piping in to answer: Do authors like it or not when you ask them, “What are you working on now?”

Me? I’m one of those who do *not* like it. Nothing against the asker, but it’s just not something I want to talk about, especially to someone I don’t really know—a piece of writing forming in my mind, one that’s likely new and delicate and easily knocked over, it’s as private as flashing my underwear, maybe worse. And even once the book gets stronger, once it gets its hooks in the page… not even then should I tell you about it. A book is a flimsy thing until you’ve written it. Just because you’re thinking about what it will be doesn’t mean it will actually become that—you have to write it down first.

I don’t even like talking about a book under contract—a book I know will be written to the end. If a stranger or an acquaintance asks, I will be vague: “It’s a YA novel about sisters. It’s a little surreal.” That’s what I said for the longest time.

Worse would be if you asked me about what I’m working on next—the tween novel and the YA novel that have been slowly forming in the background while this other one made her impending deadline—I can’t say anything. Nothing. They’re not allowed out just yet. Once I choose which book to work on next I will probably tell three carefully selected people what that book is and then I won’t tell anyone else until it is (a) written to the end or (b) approved by an editor or officially under contract or (c) abandoned. It’s dangerous to do so otherwise.

All I’d need is one wrinkled nose or offhand remark or distracted look across the room at the hot guy/ hot girl/ hot other novel and it could derail the whole project. You wouldn’t know that—you could innocently say something completely innocuous and not realize how much of an impact it could have. It’s not your fault. Still, I’d rather not risk it.

I was once at an artists colony where all the artists would sit around the dinner table and talk after our days spent working in our solitary studios. Some of the artists liked to talk about their works-in-progress, which was fascinating, but others were very vague, cryptically vague. I remember what one writer said when someone innocently turned to ask him what the book he was writing was about—this was a very talented, amazingly good writer with many critically acclaimed books to his name. He said he couldn’t tell us. Not even a little? he was asked. Nothing, he said. Only his editor and agent knew, and we would know only once the book was turned in and he knew he’d written the whole thing.

Maybe it seems odd that someone so successful—and clearly used to finishing the novels he’d started—wouldn’t want to tell everyone what WIP was getting him so worked up in his wooded studio, but I understood it completely. In fact, I felt a little vindicated. Like maybe my own superstition was a good thing.

This is why I don’t post excerpts of works-in-progress, well, ever. Can’t. Shouldn’t. No matter how excited I get about a certain paragraph and really, really want to. There will come a time when I can show some special people my first chapters… but that will take a great amount of shaping first. And even then, if I’m at a party, say, or a writers conference like the one I’m headed to this weekend, and you come over and tell me all about your awesome novel-in-progress and ask after what I’m writing next since I finished* my other one, please don’t be offended if I say, “It’s a book. I’m writing a book.” That’s all I know for sure right now. Fingers crossed I get it all down on paper and can one day say more.


* IGGY** is due Monday. I expect to be, and sure hope to be, finished with the draft by this weekend! If not, and you see me at that conference, please don’t be offended if I act anxious and/or deranged. The deadline is now less than a week away. That close to a deadline, who wouldn’t be anxious and/or deranged?

** Yes, I have nicknamed my YA novel IGGY. Don’t judge.

The Fear

It’s a funny occupation to go after, writer. You live in your own head so much of the time it’s virtually impossible to know how you come across to others. I barely see myself most days, if you want the truth. Sometimes I’ll walk past a mirror and stop and go, That’s what you wore today?! It’s astounding how what’s in my head doesn’t show up on my face. I’m nothing at all like I thought I’d be. It’s the same with what I write. Sometimes I absolutely can’t tell if it’s any good—no idea of worth, none. Then other times I think it might be good. A little glimmer of a knot starts winding itself in the pit of my stomach—that’s the hope. That’s me, hoping someone else likes it, too.

Maybe this next confession is obvious. If you read this blog it’s probably alarmingly, annoyingly obvious. But I get *very* nervous when people read what I write. “Why did you publish a book then?” you might want to ask me. Some days I’d answer, I’d honestly say, “I really don’t know.” And here I am about to do it again.

Sometimes I want to print out my pages, bind them up in a blanket, tie it with a bungee cord, wrap it in a plastic bag, wrap that in a second plastic bag, label it with an old priority mail sticker from the post office that says “Imaginary Girls,” and stow it up in the top cabinet we have over the bedroom closet.

But, um. I guess, since my agent sold the book and all, and since it’s due to my editor February 1, I guess I sort of can’t do that.

Really, I don’t want to.

Because other times I am so *excited* that I wrote this book, I want to share it with all the important people in my life. I like it and I want them to like it, too. I want E to see it. I want my agent to see it. I want my editor to see it. I want my best friend from junior high school to see it. I want my writer friend to see it. I want my mom to see it. I want strangers on the street to see it. I want you to see it, and I have no idea who you are!

I keep going back and forth between those two extremes.

It’s *very difficult* for me to show my writing to other people, especially when it’s not “done” yet. (Or after; you wouldn’t know it, but after is hard, too.) Lately I’ve had all these wonderful writing friends and acquaintances offer to read my manuscript for me if I need another reader. I’m honored by that. I’m thrilled. I think it’s really nice. I probably won’t send it out to more than a few people, though, only because I think it’s safer to keep things close. And by safer I mean I’m trying to keep my heart from exploding. I can’t show you my manuscript yet due to my health. Maybe later, after my editor has had me revise it. Maybe once there’s an ARC.

All this is well and good and one of those quirks certain writers get that maybe a few people in their lives—maybe one person—finds cute. Like, Ha-ha, she’s so shy, isn’t that endearing. It’s not endearing at all. It’s hellishly annoying. It’s a handicap. It’s like entering a fistfight with one hand tied behind my back.

Because that’s the thing. Writing takes courage. Creating something from absolutely nothing—a blank page, a white screen, a wordless abyss where not an inkling existed before I got to it—takes COURAGE.

I had it then. I’ll find it again before it’s time to hit send.

Why I Write YA

In two weeks I’ll be turning my (first-ever!) YA novel in to the publisher… I can’t even tell you how nervous I am. Also excited! So excited! I can’t stand how much I love this book, and much of that is because I loved writing it. It’s also about sisters and I absolutely adore my baby sister, which is surely being channeled into the book. I won’t deny it’s been hard—I’m struggling right now over a new version of the final chapter—but oh how worth it. There’s something about YA novels—all these amazing books coming out right now—that makes me know this is just where I want to be.

Why did I give up on wanting to write for adults? For me, the choice was easy.

These YA novels say why.

The possibility:

There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.


The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.

Like Kizzy.

—from Lips Touch by Laini Taylor

The guts:

She goes back downstairs and gets on the phone again. She talks in a low, nervous voice. Terrible accident. Terrible. Terrible.

The thoughts in my head echo her words. It’s over. Over.

Each time she says Leah’s name, I get pulled back there, to the time when Leah and I were still best friends. The feelings come rushing into my chest. I try to shake my head. Swallow. Push them back down. Strengthen the mortar and rebuild my wall. But I see us anyway. One scene after another. Leah, always the leader, teaching me the complicated rules about trust and secrets and what it means to be her best friend. There were so many hard lessons. But what good are they now? What good are lessons from a dead girl?

—from Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles

The memory:

“Here,” she says.

“What?” I say.

“Eat it.”

I lick her finger and it is salty.

“Am I supposed to swallow it?”

“Just let it dissolve.”

“Where are we going now?”

“James’s house.”

I say “Shit,” and it sounds ridiculous coming out of my mouth.

“You look good,” Alex says. “Don’t worry. He already wants you.”

She walks fast and I try to keep up, but I am dizzy with “he wants you.”

It is good that she’s so far ahead, that she can’t see the stupid smile on my face.

“It’s only about a mile,” she says, and we don’t talk until we get there.

We walk along the lake, on the sidewalk made for joggers and mothers with strollers. It’s strange how different the shore is here, all perfect and straight. Instead of sharp rocks, instead of seaweed and barnacles and other live things, this beach is flat and sandy and barren, marked only with goose crap and the occasional piece of litter.

Here I am with the first friend I’ve had in forever. Here I am on my way to meet a boy who wants me. My life on the island is over. I have a new face and a new body and new clothes. I have a new friend and nothing will ever be the same again.

—from Beautiful by Amy Reed

The truth:

My stepfather was right:

It did feel like sun worship, tanning in the backyard.

With my eyes closed but my gaze held up to that enormous burning globe, I could hear my own heartbeat (I am, I am) and I could feel the sweat at my pulse points, the way the water inside my body boiled before it rose to the surface and evaporated. “You’re going to be a wrinkled-up old lady with skin cancer,” my mother would warn me, as I stood in front of the full-length mirror in the hallway looking over my shoulder to study my tan lines. “Your skin will be leather by the time you’re forty.”

But we both knew I didn’t care. It didn’t matter.

Forty? Who ever imagined I’d someday be forty?

I was seventeen, with a perfect tan.

—from Boy Heaven by Laura Kasischke

The moment:

Hallowell High: The parking lot pulses with scantily clad life, and I’m in the middle of it all, wearing a sweater. My scraggly black hair is plastered to my forehead, and a couple people point and stare at me because I look that ridiculous, but I don’t care. I’m still better than them. It’s not hard. Hallowell is one of those in-between towns, stuck between a city and another city, and everyone here knows everyone else. It’s too small for a social landscape more complicated than this: You’re either someone or you’re not.

I’m someone.

I’m Regina Afton. I’m Anna Morrison’s best friend. These aren’t small things, and Kara’s right: They’re worth keeping my mouth shut for. So I kept my mouth shut the whole weekend, and I’m still Regina Afton and I’m still Anna Morrison’s best friend. Friday never happened.

—from Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers

The heart:

An old guy in a snowflake cardigan sits next to me. My hand is now half full of wooden strips. I feel him watching but I can’t stop. I want to say, What are you staring at? It’s hot, it’s June, and you’re wearing a Christmas sweater.

“Do you need help, darling?” the old guy asks. His mustache is wispy and white.

Without looking from the bench, I shake my head. No.

He takes a cell phone from his pocket. “Would you like to use my phone?”

My heart beats off rhythm and it makes me cough.

“May I call your mother?”

Ingrid has blond hair. She has blue eyes, which means that even though her father’s eyes are brown, he must have a recessive blue-eye gene.

A bus nears. The old guy stands, wavers.

“Darling,” he says.

He lifts his hand as if he’s going to pat my shoulder, but changes his mind.

My left hand is all the way full of wood now, and it’s starting to spill over. I am not a darling. I am a girl ready to explode into nothing.

—from Hold Still by Nina LaCour

The chills:

Once upon a time, I did not live in Shady Pines.

Once upon a time, my name was not Alice. Once upon a time, I didn’t know how lucky I was.

—from Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott

The damage:

This is the thing: Pacifica is a stupid small town with only one real high school, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and the rumors never stop until some other kid is dumb enough to do something that makes a better story. But my story had the honor of holding the top spot for over two years running. I mean, a senior getting caught with his pants down on top of an eighth-grade girl, by the girls’ father (“No way! Her father? I’d just kill myself!”) was pretty hard to beat. That story had been told in hallways and locker rooms and parties and the back of classrooms since Tommy first came to school the morning after it happened. At which time he gave all the details to his friends, even though he knew it meant my brother, Darren, would kick his ass. (He did.) By the time I got to Terra Nova for ninth grade, the whole school already thought they knew everything there was to know about Deanna Lambert. Every time someone in school saw my face, I knew they were thinking about it. I knew this because every time I looked in the mirror, I thought about it, too.

—from Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

The cool:

It feels like everything should be different now. I don’t know how, exactly. Maybe, like, crackling sparks of divine energy should be shooting out from me in every direction. Something. I should be glowing with some kind of heavenly halo. An actual, literal aura of coolness. That is, if guys can have halos. Halos might be a chick thing.

Anyway. You get my point. I mean, I’m in a band now. So punk rock, right?

—from So Punk Rock by Micol Ostow

The beauty:

The dress itched a little. I suddenly felt awkward. For one thing, it looked really stupid with sneakers. But more than that, I guess it was because of what I wanted: I wanted to be beautiful. I wanted to be like Francie, and I knew that I never, ever could. Standing there, in front of someone so different from me, in that ridiculous dress, I was revealing all of my stupidest ambitions.

But Francie was looking up at me from the bed with a dazzled smile.

“You should see yourself,” she said. “I mean, you should really see yourself. You look like a different person. You look amazing.”

And then I did see myself, like from far away, like from an airplane at night, and she was right. Somewhere in the glittering grid of the suburbs, I was there, in Francie’s bedroom, and I was glowing through it all. The brightest light. I was beautiful. Anyone could have seen it.

—from The Blonde of the Joke by Bennett Madison

The miracles:

The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

—from Paper Towns John Green

(Also it may have something to do with how I’m perpetually fifteen, seventeen, or thirteen, depending on my mood and how stubborn I’m feeling about not cleaning my room or eating vegetables, but that’s just me—I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t like vegetables; try to make sense of that.)

I could go on and add more excerpts. But I shouldn’t; I have to finish my own draft. DUE SO VERY SOON!

There’s just so much to read. Have any amazing, must-read YA novels to share? Slip them into the comments. On my to-read pile you’ll find Going Bovine by Libba Bray and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins and Chasing Brooklyn by Lisa Schroeder and After by Amy Efaw and Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margie Stohl, too… and once I’m done with the draft I’m diving in.

The End Has No End?

I’m working up some plot changes and new developments to the novel before I turn it in Feb. 1—nothing too drastic, just stuff I wholeheartedly think will make the thing better. I just called it the “thing”—I worked too long and hard to call what I’ve done a thing. But what is it? In no way is it a masterpiece. (Though, for a first draft, I’ll tell you a secret: I’m pretty cool with it. Happy even, sometimes. I see lots of potential—I hope others do, too.)

I carried the printout around with me all day yesterday, afraid to crack it open. When I did this morning, floodgates, I’m telling you, floodgates. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from holding all those pages. I love seeing the story all crisp and clean in Times New Roman. As I read it like this, I get the sense of what could be. What’s to change. What’s to be made better. Now, maybe I don’t know all of what that might be. Maybe I can’t know until my editor sees it. But I know one thing: I can’t wait to see.

Still, I want to get this into the best shape I can by Feb. 1. One of the issues is the last chapter. It’s probably the most important thing to address between now and then.

So I woke up motivated. Got myself to my favorite coffeeshop. Ordered me a mocha. I didn’t take my usual square table and instead went for one of the bigger round ones, so I could spread out my pages and drink my (delicious!) mocha at the same time. I began to read chapter one. I like chapter one. I began to feel very connected to chapter one. Then chapter one began to tell me what should happen in the final chapter. Chapter one opened me up. I wasn’t lying when I mentioned floodgates above!

I was suddenly in the middle of the coffeeshop, noise and people all around me, scrambling for a pencil. I couldn’t even get my laptop on in time. Then the scenes, the ideas, the possible words started pouring out and I couldn’t scribble them out fast enough. Not even time to breathe. The mocha got cold, my wrist ached, and I’d filled up the backs of pages and pages and pages with scribbles.

It’s moments like these when I wonder: What’s better than writing? Not publishing—not getting awesome agents and fancy book deals and fellowships and expensive diplomas that do nothing but gather dust on my wall. Not any of that. I mean writing. The work of it. The time spent in it. The process of getting closer and closer to writing the best book you’ve ever written, maybe, if you keep at it.

Writing—the process of it. Nothing in the world feels better to me than that. And this morning in the coffeeshop reminded me why.

Some asides, completely unrelated to my happy moment this morning:

  1. You can now subscribe to this blog via e-mail. There’s a button to do so on the top right of the sidebar; you don’t have to have a WordPress blog or any kind of blog to do it. It was a new feature I noticed in WordPress and I clicked it on. I don’t know, maybe someone will make use of it?
  2. I’m doing a reading at a Hudson Valley Barnes & Noble at the end of February. If you’re up there, please come, and please bring a tween or two with you! Q&A after.
  3. I would like to thank the Genius at the Apple Store in SoHo for saving my life—I mean my MacBook—yesterday. I brought it in because I thought (assumed) the mouse button on the trackpad was broken and needed to be replaced. The Genius saw it and within seconds knew it was something else. I had the gall to argue with him, but guess what? He was right. I had an expanding—practically about-to-explode—battery under the trackpad that was making the mouse button unusable. He replaced it and he was 100% right. THANK YOU, Genius. If I’d been writing the end of this novel and my computer exploded under my fingers I can’t even tell you how horrific a scene that would have been. So this novel was saved by a Genius, as I’m sure many novels are.
  4. I’m starting to actively freelance again. I miss being a publishing person sometimes, but alas there is no such thing as a part-time day job with full benefits where you can come in at eleven when your novel’s captured your imagination and all you want is to get out this scene. Freelancing is a tough life, but I am going to balance it with the writing and see where it gets me. Worst case, I can look back and say I TRIED. So… off to dig up my red pencils, dust off my Chicago 15. Hard work ahead.
  5. No new aside here—I just can’t abide by things in even numbers. Have a nice day!

The True Story of My Imaginary Manuscript

I was too tired—flattened, exhausted, completely drained—to tell you the details before, but, yes, I did complete the first draft of IMAGINARY GIRLS, my first YA novel. I did it on Thursday night. There were points when I thought I’d never get it into shape, and there were points when I felt so close to the end I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t finished already. But no matter—it’s out. I’m going to work on it some more before I will—nervously, knees shaking—send it to my editor on the official deadline of February 1.

Here are some things about IMAGINARY GIRLS: It’s not like DANI NOIR. It’s older, it’s longer, it feels deeper. There’s bad stuff in it; it’s far more surreal.

IMAGINARY GIRLS had two beginnings.

The first beginning was as a novel I tried to write for NaNoWriMo in the fall of 2007. It was my third original novel—the first two were literary fiction for adults and were never published. This new novel was told in a teenage voice, but I didn’t know if it was adult or YA and I told myself not to label it and just write. Halfway through I realized it was definitely YA. Still, I failed to complete 50,000 words of it, I lost much of it when my hard drive died that spring, and I eventually ended up putting 200 pages of it aside to write DANI NOIR. I told myself I’d go back to the YA novel in the future, but I’d have to start over from scratch. There are no words from the original draft that made it into the one I’ve since written. No one has read all those pages, and no one ever will.

The second beginning was as a short story originally intended for adults, when I was still unsure of being a YA author and didn’t know if I could pull it off and be good enough to do it. I first began writing this story at the end of 2006. The main characters, two sisters named Ruby and Chloe, found in that story are in the novel IMAGINARY GIRLS. And you also might recognize two—heavily revised—paragraphs. The story was workshopped at Tin House in the summer of 2008. The workshop went well. But I never revised the story or sent it out after that.

Because something had happened. There was a moment. A Moment. And that moment changed everything.

I’d decided—secretly—a deeply personal thing: I didn’t want to try to write novels for adults anymore. No more. The heart of that story I’d workshopped at Tin House was this deep bond between the two sisters, told in the voice of 16-year-old Chloe. And Chloe and Ruby’s story was meant to be a YA novel. I wanted to be a YA author. Would anyone let me?

Frustrated, scared, unsure of myself and where to go and how to do it, I went out to dinner with E, the love of my life and the person who reads everything I write, to try to talk out the story. I love how he’s always willing to do that with me. That night, we talked about my YA novel idea, the one of the 200 pages I’d trashed, trying to figure out the plot from this new first chapter and 30-page outline I’d written. We were in a restaurant on Bleecker Street, a sort of hole-in-the-wall place, and we were in a dark booth in the far back of the restaurant, a private little hole in the wall, it felt like. He’d read my outline, and he didn’t think it worked. But then he said a very important thing. He said, Why didn’t I combine part of the plot from the YA outline with the world and the characters from the Ruby and Chloe story? He suggested a way to do that.


I can’t tell you how my world came crashing down in that moment—one of those creative avalanches where everything you’ve done has to be let go because you now know what to do instead and it’s so much better. E rocked my world. It’s this moment that brought to life what has since become IMAGINARY GIRLS.

That life-altering night on Bleecker Street occurred in the winter of 2008/2009 (I wish I could remember the day). DANI NOIR, my first original tween book, would come out in the fall of 2009—a book I’d sold without an agent, with no sequel in the works or anything under contract to write next. I had no excuse to keep me away from trying the YA novel again.

So I began working on the YA novel with renewed intensity. I threw out every page I’d written before. I ignored the outline I’d spent months planning. I started fresh. By April I had just 25 pages. Petrified, I showed them to E. He went wild for them.

I then did something you are NEVER ever supposed to do: query agents, even though the whole novel wasn’t written yet. (Aspiring writers: Don’t do this! Seriously. I’m not advocating doing this.)

Then there was this moment. (Spoiler: I sign with an agent.)

This agent put me to work revising the original 25 pages and writing two more new chapters.

Then he said it was ready. He went out in the world, performed some kind of magic I have no idea what, and then this happened. (Spoiler: I find a publisher.)

And then I sort of broke down and cried.

On top of that, I sent the first two chapters out to an artists colony—and, months later, I discovered they let me in. I’ll be there this spring.

I don’t know how this came to be, I don’t know why the universe let all this happen except to give me the opportunity to work harder than I ever have, to say, You want to try for this? Then TRY. Stop talking about it and TRY. So I’ve been trying like mad.

Since the summer, the novel has enveloped me. I dropped everything in my life to make it a priority. I put my all into it. Just two days ago I was able to step away and admit that I’ve completed a first draft, but I also know there’s so much more work to go—I’m very grateful that my publisher was excited enough about it to buy it and give me this opportunity to write it. I’ve put so much into it and I’ll continue to do so, at every point of revision, at every stage. I fully admit I’m scared, but now that I’ve reached the first hurdle of the first draft, I felt like I could tell this story of how it all came to be.

So this is the story—so far, anyway—of IMAGINARY GIRLS.

This first draft is all thanks to an uncountable number of mochas, especially those made by the talented baristas of Think Coffee; the spacious and inspiring Room where I write; my Pandora music station, especially a song called “Hanging High” by Lykke Li; magical literary agents who are so lucky to be living in California now, jealous!; brilliant and dedicated editors whose books make me want to be the best writer I can be; generous friends, publishing and otherwise; adorable genius husbands who made this novel exist in the first place; the gift of a contract; and the time to write.

This first draft was inspired by books such as Pedro Páramo, with thanks to the MFA seminar where I first read that book; Boy Heaven and Feathered by Laura Kasischke, who I discovered my first day at my day job, when I was assigned the task of doing a bound galley check for one of her books; Eva Moves the Furniture; and Story of a Girl. By places such as the Ashokan Reservoir and the town of Woodstock, NY. And by my beloved baby sister, the beautiful and amazing Laurel Rose.

Now… off to revise!