My Turning Point

Not so many years ago, I had a turning point in my writing career. An “Aha!” moment. Something made me remember it yesterday and I wanted to share it here—to show how you might think you’re going one way down a certain path you’ve carved for yourself, but in fact there’s another path carved for you. There it is, waiting, glimmering in the near distance. It was your true path all along.

This story is about how I became a YA writer, because I didn’t start out as one.

My turning point occurred in June of 2007, when I’d just started a new day job at HarperCollins Children’s Books. I was a production editor, working on the copyediting team. I was so excited about the job, because I’d get to work on hardcover YA novels. And I was very serious about the job (so serious, and so determined to do well that I took all the procedural paperwork home in the evenings to study!), but you should also know that on the side, early in the morning and on weekends, I was a writer, too. I wanted to publish my own novels one day. That had been my dream for as long as I could remember, but it sure wasn’t panning out for me. I’d gotten my MFA a few years before and at the time I started this new day job I was revising—endlessly, hopelessly, living in a spiral of revising—a novel for adults that I was unable to let go. I could not get an agent for that manuscript. I was very discouraged. But I didn’t know what else to do, so I kept working on that novel. Or staring at it with gloom and angst and trying to wring from it what was wrong, as if it would one day find it had a mouth and would tell me. (It never did.)

So there I was, starting my new job at a new publishing house, being my Copy Editor Self and pretending my Writer Self didn’t exist. My boss was this great guy I was excited to work for. And my first couple weeks on staff were spent getting the hang of things, and picking up projects that the other, more experienced production editors had started, so I could learn from what they did. One of the very first projects assigned to me by my boss—the first novel, in fact—was to do work on a book by Laura Kasischke.

The manuscript had already been copyedited and prepared by another production editor. My task was to simply check the manuscript pages against the bound galley layouts, just to make sure no text had dropped out. I wasn’t even supposed to read it at this stage. Just make sure everything was in place so ARCs could be printed. A very simple, very quick job.

And yet.

And yet I started reading. And then I couldn’t stop. This book that I was assigned to work on that week was Laura Kasischke’s second YA novel, called Feathered. And it changed my plan for myself as a writer. Simply put, it changed my life.

Interesting that my boss had assigned me this particular book to work on… like he knew me or something. But still. I’m sure he didn’t want me reading the whole book right then! All he wanted was for me to do the bound galley check, make sure there were no major problems, and move it along. There would be time for a full read later—maybe not even by me, since I was so new. But something happened to me when I was working on those pages.

I read and I remember very clearly looking up, straight into the sun shining through the office window, lighting up my new glossy wooden desk and the bright white proof pages, thinking, I didn’t know a YA novel could be like this!

Thinking, What if—and this would be the first moment I’d consciously think this—what if I wrote a YA novel, too?

The book utterly stunned me. After I finished Feathered, I immediately borrowed Laura Kasischke’s other novel from off the office shelf—her first YA novel, Boy Heaven, first published in 2006—and this book would stun me even more.

Everything changed for me after devouring Boy Heaven, something fired up inside me that was personal and growing and growing until it took me over. I was so inspired. So excited. So full of… possibility.

This, a great change after the low point I’d hit trying to write—and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite—that manuscript I was working on in my off hours—one that was, in fact, my second attempt at a novel for adults.

I’d never told myself that I should write a YA novel before this, even though I’d done work-for-hire writing for kids to help pay my bills. “My” writing was for adults, I’d thought, even though I always wrote about teenagers and from young voices. Writing YA had really never come up—not in all my MFA workshops, though it seems so obvious now. (There wasn’t a YA concentration, or even classes on writing YA, at that time in my MFA program, so I guess that’s why it never came up.) All I can say is that it truly hadn’t occurred to me until I read Laura Kasischke’s novels.

Reading Laura Kasischke would lead to more eye-opening YA-fever moments: Story of a Girl. Lessons from a Dead Girl. Sweethearts. The Blonde of the Joke. Paper Towns. Months after this, an editor friend who worked upstairs began to lend me YA and middle-grade books (I won’t call her out, but if she reads this, she’ll know who she is). Soon enough, I’d discovered Thirteen Reasons Why. Wintergirls. When You Reach Me. And more. More, more, more.

The rest is history, I guess.

I now know why that novel I was endlessly, hopelessly revising when I started that day job was so stalled: I wasn’t supposed to work on it anymore. There was a reason I couldn’t get a break. I was supposed to do something else. This. This.

I have my former day job—and my boss, who assigned me that fateful bound galley check—to thank for this. And Laura Kasischke, a poet and a novelist for both adults and young adults—and, so you know, it was hearing about her new adult novel, The Raising, a novel I must get and devour immediately, that sparked this memory. Whenever I think of Boy Heaven and Feathered I know them as the books that raised the question in me. The challenge. What if I write a YA novel? That was the day this whole new path made itself known to me. The very one that turned me into the writer I am today.

So tell me: Have you had a turning point in your writing life, too? Was there a surprise moment that sparked it?

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Psst. You can still enter my giveaway to win a signed ARC of Imaginary Girls. You have till Monday 11:29 p.m. to leave a comment on this post and you’re entered.

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ETA Friday, March 4:

Some commenters below have asked what it was about Feathered that struck me so. I’ll tell you if you’re curious: First it was the voice—two girls so distinct, their voices perfectly woven together and contrasting. Feathered is about a girl who goes missing on a spring break trip to Mexico—but just giving the one-line plot does nothing to explain the magic of this novel. It was told in intersecting chapters, between two girls: the one who disappears and the one who’s left behind. At the time, I was writing a novel (the dead novel) told from two intersecting voices, so I was very intrigued by the two sides to the story.

But also it was the language of Feathered—the dreamlike quality of the writing. The poetry of the words.

It was how the book was set in current day, in this world, and yet the fantastical edged in… the surreal.. the “What if?”

When I say “I didn’t know a YA novel could be like this,” I meant I didn’t know the structure could be so experimental, that the subject matter could be so dark, that the wall between realistic and fantastical could be blurred so much, that I didn’t have to pick a “genre” and there wasn’t one box a novel had to be shoved in. I meant that the world of YA fiction was—and has since proven to be—so much more expansive than I’d ever imagined, and I encourage writers and readers who are wondering what I mean to open their minds and seek out the incredible books that are being published as YA (i.e., “young adult”) today. There is literary YA (I’m not afraid of the L-word), which I think my novel Imaginary Girls is just because of the kind of writer I am and always have been, and there is every combination and incarnation between. I love when fiction breaks boundaries and shrugs off labels. Feathered does this, among so many other incredible YA novels I’ve come to discover and love these past few years. And that is why it spoke to me on that fateful day.

Thank you so much for all these comments sharing your own turning points in your writing lives. I love reading about them. And thanks, especially to WordPress, for featuring this post on Freshly Pressed yesterday! Such an honor!

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