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.
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.
(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…
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:
- Intro to the Turning Points blog series
- Gayle Forman: on overcoming bitterness
- Sean Ferrell: on the Writer who never arrives
- Eileen Cook: on a “nasty” book and a teacher’s advice that inspired her
- Christopher Barzak: on how short stories changed his vision for his novel
- Saundra Mitchell: on deciding to quit and walk away
- Eric Luper: on not writing for trends
- Gretchen McNeil: on how “everything happens for a reason”
- Julia DeVillers on the fan letter she wrote when she was ten years old that changed her writing career years later (giveaway open through February 2!)
- Daisy Whitney on the book that opened her eyes to writing YA (giveaway open through February 6!)
You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!
Series images by Robert Roxby.