The Surprises, the Failures, the New Chapters in This Author Life

bluelacesWhen I entered the YA world in 2010, with the impending publication of Imaginary Girls (before that I didn’t feel a welcome part of it because my debut was middle-grade), I looked around at all the authors and thought there was one single kind of career to aspire to, the Best Kind, and of course I should be aspiring to it: The full-time writer who publishes a book a year and reaches out with savvy, fun marketing to her fans (ahem, she has fans) and goes to all the cool conferences and festivals.

This was what I had to try to be, and if I couldn’t, then I would fail at this, just like I’d failed already at trying to publish novels for adults.

I gave it a good go. At one point I was trying to propose a middle-grade trilogy along with a new YA novel, saying I could write both in one year, and then of course both proposals failed before we even showed them to editors because I lost my steam and I began to have this little tickling laugh at myself: You can’t do this. You can’t write this fast. My agent knew it, too, and never pushed me. I was the one pushing myself.

I guess I pushed until I sputtered and fell over.

Time passed. Attempts. Failures. More attempts.

Everything involving The Walls Around Us came to be, and that was good.

And through it all, and in the aftermath of Walls, I’ve been thinking this: But wait. What kind of author do I really want to become?

If I’m going to be honest with myself, what feels right?

It’s funny, but I think at heart you often want to emulate the people who were there to influence you in those eye-opening moments when you first get serious about being a writer. For me, that’s when I was 22. I keep going back to my time in grad school at Columbia University, when I was 22 and starting my MFA in Fiction and writing my short stories. The authors I admired then weren’t publishing a book a year. The authors I admired were so far from commercial, most people outside my circle had never heard of them. The authors I admired—basically, every single one of them—were teaching writing in programs like mine.

So why didn’t I try to teach way back when?

I was too shy. I had no confidence. I was well aware I knew nothing. So instead of trying for any teaching assistantships, I found my way into publishing and chose the most quiet and out-of-the-spotlight position a person could take in book publishing, the copy editor aka production editor. The person no one thinks about until she misses a mistake.

I sat quietly in this job, or another job like it, for about five, six, seven years. Sometimes I walked the hallways of the publishing company I was working at—whichever one—wanting to disappear off the face of the earth with a red pencil stabbed through my neck because no one wanted to publish me. But I needed to live this experience. I needed those years of rejection to make me a better writer, and to want it all the more.

When I found YA and Imaginary Girls got me a good book deal, I waited until the day my advance check was deposited in my bank account, and then I quit my job. I knew I didn’t want to be a production editor anymore, but I would soon find out I wasn’t so good at being a prolific full-time author either.

So what was left?

* * *

It is eighteen years after that fateful August I moved to Morningside Heights to start my MFA, all the light and starry hope in my eyes, and a batch of IKEA furniture on the way to furnish my side of the apartment (I could afford one table and three chairs, one black fabric couch chair, and one bookshelf, all the cheapest models available). Eighteen years later, and I’m about to finish teaching my last week of my YA Novel Writing course at Columbia, the same university where this all began, and went into debt for, and regret sometimes even while knowing those were the happiest years of my life. My Columbia class ends next week, and I absolutely loved teaching it. I’m sad it’s over. I want to do it again.

All along was I supposed to pursue teaching?

Maybe so. Funny not to realize, but now that I’ve been teaching, I’ve come to see how much I do love it—this June I led my third workshop at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program; it was so wonderful, I’m doing it again in March, twice (applications just opened this week). And I have two workshops this fall, coming up at the Highlights Foundation and the Writing Barn (spaces still open in each workshop), and I’m working privately with some writers, and I’m pursuing other things to teach regularly if I can, and I’m doing all of this because I am hoping it will lead me to be like the authors I admired all those years ago, to build the kind of career that feels right after some trial and error at other ways. The goal: Teaching at a college one day, taking the time I need to write my next novel, helping new writers be the best they can be, the way I was helped and have not forgotten.

Working with other writers feels right—it feels good. Not having to be so self-centered and solely focused on my own stuff, my own books, my own marketing chatter, my own author career and where it’s going or where it’s not going… what a fucking relief.

I am frustrated, sure, that it took me this long to realize this kind of career would be a better fit for me—imagine how far along I’d be if I’d known, imagine how much angsting I would have saved myself—and yet, it is what it is.

I think of a writer from one of my workshops who recently sent out queries for her beautiful work and I am hoping she finds an agent who believes in her writing the way I do. I think of all the writers I’ve worked with over these brief few years I’ve been teaching, and the struggles some have had in this industry, and I wish and hope I can be a helpful light when the doors keep closing in their faces, the way hundreds of doors did on mine. I think of the writer whose unpublished novel I was reading last night and how stunned I was by the last page I read, and how I know it needs to be published and I wish I could snap my fingers and make it happen, but I know that’s not possible and maybe the feedback I’ll give her to work to make it the best book it can be will help in another way. I think of the writer just at the beginning of a novel and all the potential and spark I see in there, and how I said, please email me when you’re ready, even if it takes years, I won’t forget you, and if I can do something to help when the time comes, I will. I think of all the writers who work hard through all the madness of writing a novel, even when that novel won’t get published in the end, a fate many novels have, and I want to tell them it’s not wasted work and it doesn’t mean they won’t make it, and to keep trying, keep writing, keep reinventing yourself. I did.

This is the thing: The kind of author we want to be can change, as we grow as writers, as we realize who we are meant to be. It can expand. And maybe it can shock and surprise you.

It does not have to be what everyone else sees as successful.

You do not need to covet a seat at the popular lunch table.

You can carve out a new path for yourself. Start your own table. Pull up a few more chairs. Change the dream.

One day in the far future when I let myself go gray (I started going gray at 20 and I’m still dyeing, thank you very much), I want to know I gave back as much as I put out in the world, in my own small way.

Five Years After the Leap

yaddo coffee 2010

About five years ago, I was under deadline to complete the first draft of a contracted novel and stressing the hell out over how I would finish on time while working my full-time job as a senior production editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books. I had somehow sold my novel on proposal and agreed to a deadline that had seemed very doable at the time (in my haze and shock and delight, when the book was sold). But this was a serious, demanding day job that required eagle eyes and a very sharp mind, and I am a perfectionist at my jobs, so I could not phone it in. By the end of each week, I was exhausted and had little interest or energy in looking at any more words, even and especially my own. At the rate I was going, I would finish my novel in three years, and it was due in about four months. And to top it all off, after years of slowly working my way up in the publishing industry, the company had to consolidate offices and the children’s department moved into the same building with the adult imprints, giving us far less space than we had before. For me, this meant I had just lost my window office for a cubicle, which somehow made the job feel even harder.

I was facing a terrifying decision: Should I quit this day job so I could finish the book on time? Was that stupid? Too much of a risk?

While I was contemplating this and holding it in quietly in my new cubicle, I got a letter in the mail. It was from a famous artists’ colony up north that I had applied to on a crazy what-if whim, never expecting to get in: Yaddo. They had accepted me, to my shock, and given me a month-long residency.

I remember thinking this was a symbolic form of communication from the universe. My day job would not allow me to take four weeks off to go away to write. If I went to Yaddo for those four weeks, I could not have this job.

Was the decision made for me?

Is this stupid? I asked myself again. Is this too much of a risk?

I knew what I wanted. And, deep down, I knew that I would not be able to keep myself from taking what I wanted. It was a now-or-never moment, and if you know me at all you know I took the leap.

mansionfarther copy

Let’s be honest. It was stupid, and it was too much of a risk, but I did it anyway and gave my notice at HarperCollins a week later. By the next month I had become a full-time writer (who still did some copyediting freelance work on the side), without health insurance and without a net. I wrote my heart out for the novel that you may know as Imaginary Girls, and I did turn it in on time, and I did go to Yaddo, and health insurance did come later, as did other opportunities, wild and exciting, including other artists’ colonies and books to write and teaching opportunities, and I know, looking back, that I would have done it again.

My life has been a series of leaps like this: chasing dreams, chasing better situations, falling flat on my face, getting up again, thinking I would regret it more if I didn’t try. It’s been kind of romantic and, I’ll admit, very irresponsible. But I’ve had these five great years, and I’m grateful. No regrets? Well, mostly no regrets.

I remember going to my first Teen Author Drinks Night here in New York City and sitting at a picnic table in the outdoor patio of a bar, admitting to some authors that I had just quit my day job. This was my first time meeting all of them. Barely anyone knew me. I’d published one book before this that no one had read. I don’t drink, so I sipped a nonalcoholic glass of juice and ice I’d snuck at the bar, feeling like a child at the adults’ table. One author, a successful male YA author with many more books under his belt, said he didn’t quit his day job until he’d published three novels, and the undercurrent of the conversation was that I’d done the most idiotic thing in the world.

I asked myself: Did I just do something horribly stupid?

I had a growing sense that I did.

Then I remembered Yaddo. It made quitting seem a little less insane, and I know how insane that sounds.

As I write this post it is a little more than five years after I gave my notice at HarperCollins, and I am about to leave for another residency at Yaddo, just like I was then. I haven’t been back there since. Going back now, of all moments, feels strangely, frighteningly symbolic. I feel like a chapter of my life opened with that first Yaddo letter, and I am not sure if it’s now about to close and a new chapter is getting ready to start.

Yaddo is in Saratoga Springs, New York, a city I slipped into The Walls Around Us before I knew I would be going back. Did you know “Yaddo” is meant to be pronounced like the word shadow? One of the founders’ young children named the estate this nonsense word, before dying soon after, which makes it seem all the more like a dreamland to me.

That’s where I’m headed, as of early in the a.m. on Thursday, for the rest of December. I will be trying to stay offline as best I can. This will be easy, because there is no wifi in the rooms or studios. I will be trying to keep a quiet space in my brain. If I don’t answer emails, please wait for me to return to the real world in January.

A Small Moment That Meant Everything

I’m immersing myself in some serious work on the novel this weekend, but I had to stop for a moment and share this story with you.

Yesterday I went to go pick up a package at Penguin, the publisher of Imaginary Girls and my upcoming novel 17 & Gone. I live within walking distance to the office, so I walked on over, signed in with security, and went up to the reception area. While my editor’s wonderful assistant Liza was coming out to reception with the package, I happened to turn and notice the book display cases on the walls.


I should stop and explain something for those who don’t know me. This wasn’t my first visit to the Penguin offices. Not by a long shot. You see, years before becoming an author, I worked various day jobs in publishing. One of those was as a copy editor for two mass merchandise imprints of Penguin, Grosset & Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan. It was an immensely stressful but also very rewarding job. I worked on more than 200 books a year, from sticker books to picture books to chapter books to series novels to movie adaptations to Mad Libs, and for two or three years out of the four I worked there, I was the only copy editor for all those books. It was a lot of pressure. (Eventually I’d get promoted to senior production editor and be able to hire a production editor to help me; and eventually, I left this job for a new job at HarperCollins.) So there’s your backstory: I’m a former Penguin employee. And when I worked for Grosset and PSS!, my office was on the 14th floor.

My publisher with Penguin is Dutton—which is not related to the imprints I used to work for. But there’s one thing Dutton and my former employer share: They are housed on the same floor of the Penguin building.

The very same floor I was on yesterday, to pick up that package. In fact, the receptionist was the very same woman who was there when I worked there. (I’m not sure if she remembered me.)

And so there I was on the 14th-floor reception area looking at the display cases, when I thought for a moment, What if my book is in there?

I honestly didn’t expect to see it. I really didn’t. But then… a flash of turquoise called to me:

I wish I could explain to you how thrilling—how surreal, how amazing—this small moment was for me. I was brought back to those years I worked on this floor, the long hours in my office with the red-pencil shavings all over my clothes, the stress, and also the bad place I was in when it came to my writing: how hopeless I was feeling, how ready I was to give up…

…and now, years later, there’s my novel, my heart, in the display case I used to walk by almost every day.

I had no idea this would happen. But I have to tell you: It’s everything I would have wanted back then.

I know it’s romantic and beautiful and all that to think of authors who suddenly burst onto the scene from out of nowhere, their hardcover novels gracing book displays in New York offices they’ve never visited. But some of us were there in the background for years. Some of us took a long time getting here—and didn’t think they’d ever make it.

Penguin gave me my first full-time job in children’s books and—coincidentally, Penguin also published my debut YA novel. (Or not so coincidentally, because my fond feelings for Penguin and my admiration of Dutton, from passing their amazing books in the hallway, certainly influenced my decision to want to choose them when I was lucky enough to find my book going up for auction.)

If I’d have known when I worked there that one day my book would be in that display case, I would have cried.

The Isolating Writer

When I have a ton of work to do—like, for example, right now with freelance copyediting deadlines, teaching responsibilities for my writing class (which I think is going really well! I love my students), and novel revisions and a nice, solid book deadline I have noted in beautiful panic red in my calendar, among other things, because there are always other things—I do tend to regress and do this thing that helps me focus and get calm and breathe: I isolate.

Here I am writing in bed in my writing sweater, which I love wearing during isolation. Photo by Laura Amador, taken at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.

It’s comforting to be in a cocoon of my own making, where my mind can find some quiet, and where my panic can slither away and leave me alone so I can get shit done. It’s comforting to avoid all social interactions and let my roots grow out because who cares what I look like. It’s comforting to sit on the floor of my dark apartment eating a tub of blueberries and thinking about the climax of my novel until the “aha!” moment comes. But this kind of behavior doesn’t help me keep friends. Truly, I don’t know if anyone understands when I do this. Sometimes it’s all I can do, you know?

The good thing about isolating in the face of deadlines is I feel like my mind gets sharper, which is a necessary thing for solving plot issues in a novel, and also for getting through freelance jobs. I’m just a usual introvert who needs some Alone Time, as we call it in my house, to recharge. And sometimes this Alone Time spreads out over weeks.

I hope no one takes it personally.

How do I explain this to people so they understand? Fellow introverts, let me know what helps you and how you keep your friends and families intact during and after times you need that comforting, and necessary, bout of isolation to keep your head on straight.

p.s. Change of subject. Do you want to win a signed paperback of Imaginary Girls? The paperback comes out next month and you’ll have chances to win a signed one here on this blog, but in the meantime here’s the first giveaway as a part of Laura Pauling’s Spies, Murder and Mystery Marathon (oh, how I wanted to add a serial comma!). I wrote about mysterious girls from books who catch my imagination… Comment and tell me the “mysterious girl” characters you love, and you could win a beautiful paperback of my book.

Enter the giveaway right here.

The new cover look is gorgeous. This picture doesn’t even show how glossy and delicious this paperback is in person. Wanna see?

(Pre-order links can be found on my website!)

Now back to isolating…

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?


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.


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: Continue reading

Publishing Rites of Passage: Seeing Pages

Guess what? I think my book is really going to be a book. After all the hard work, harder than I’ve ever worked on a piece of writing in my entire life, so much of me poured into those pages (and I have to tell you I’m feeling happier about the novel than ever), I almost didn’t believe we’d reach the next step. When I wouldn’t be writing anymore. When it would be time to… you know, have people outside my publisher read it.

A shiver ran through me as I typed that.

But yesterday was a big day. I got a phone call that 1st pass pages were ready for me to review. Calmly, as calmly as I could manage with my heart beating up in my throat as it was, I gave out my address and then waited for the messenger. I live about a seven-minute walk* from my publishing house, so the wait wouldn’t be all that long.

Soon enough, the buzzer rang. I picked up the intercom and a voice said, “Delivery from Penguin.” I pressed the buzzer and held it in so long I could have let a parade of Penguin employees into the building all up to my floor with balloons.

The messenger came bounding up my four flights of narrow, twisty, downward-sloping Village steps and held out the package to me. He’s delivered to me before, but this time he didn’t have to ring the bell on my door. I was waiting with the door open, hopping from foot to foot, so excited to sign for the package. I wanted to embrace the guy, shriek, “Do you have any idea what’s in here! It’s my novel!” But I kept my hands to myself.

Then I closed the door and instant-messaged E to tell him the package had arrived and that I was afraid to open it. “Open it!” he told me.

One slice of the scissors and there they were, the pages:

Imaginary Girls pages

Like I said, I think they really are going to publish my book!

What’s funny is I’m used to seeing 1st pass pages—they get messengered to me from other publishers, but for an entirely different purpose. I freelance as a proofreader and a copy editor. So I’m that person with the red pencil peeling my eyes for your typos and writing cryptic little symbols in your margins. It’s so important to me to do the best job I can on this—to be that invisible net to keep any mistakes from getting through, without the author even having to worry—because I can easily put myself in that author’s shoes.

I’m there right now.

I really think it’s happening:

Imaginary Girls chapter opener

That there’s the first sentence you may remember from the plot summary. It took me forever to get that sentence. Months of going back to it, sculpting and resculpting it, and now, finally, there it is. Wow!

I’ve made an album for Imaginary Girls photos on my Facebook author page—look for the “IMAGINARY GIRLS photos” album; you don’t have to be my friend on Facebook to see it.

Next step after this is… ARCs! I’ll definitely be taking pictures of those.


* Random aside: Know how I know it’s a seven-minute walk from my publishing house to my apartment building, if you take certain streets and walk at a good speed? I used to work at Penguin, some years ago. I bet some of you know that, but if you don’t: I got my start in copyediting as a staff Copy Editor for the mass merchandise division there! So there were many mornings I took that seven-minute walk—longer, if I stopped for a mocha—to reach my desk, piled up with pages to read. And, yes, if you were wondering, I did spend many days in that Penguin building dreaming that one day I might be one of their lucky authors with their more prestigious hardcover imprints. I’d pass those imprints in the hall, peek at their book covers on display… sigh a little. I worked there for four years. The truth is that Penguin had been my top-choice publisher since I first started paying attention to the logos on the spines of books. My having worked there had nothing to do with me getting this book deal—that is all thanks to the magic of my agent, who if he’s not magic must at least have superpowers—and at times I worried if my past with Penguin would hurt me, since maybe the powers-that-be would think of me first as a copy editor and not an author. But, somehow, they saw me as a writer first, which is what I want to be. The beauty, and utter weirdness!, of this moment isn’t lost on me.

Writing for Hire… and for James Frey

I read this article about James Frey’s fiction factory with great interest, since he was recruiting writers from a room I could have been in, had this happened some years ago. For those who haven’t been following this story, James Frey is writing YA novels now. Well, he’s not exactly writing them. But he’s getting them written—and sold. And, sometimes, sold big.

What he’s doing is hiring a whole stable of writers to write the books for him.

“It’s a crappy deal but a great opportunity” is how one writer put it.

So, if I’d been sitting in that classroom and scribbled down James Frey’s email address in the margin of my notebook on that fateful day… would I have contacted him?

Big question. And complicated answer.

“We were desperate to be published, any way we could. We were spending $45,000 on tuition, some of us without financial aid, and many taking out loans that were lining us up to graduate six figures in debt. A deal like the one Frey was offering could potentially pay off our loans and provide an income for the next decade. Do a little commercial work under a pseudonym, sell the movie rights, and never have to suffer as a writer in New York. We wouldn’t even need day jobs.”

First, some about me: I was a student in that MFA in writing program at Columbia, one of the schools he’s recruiting writers from. I went straight in to the program from college, at age 22, and if a New York Times bestselling writer thought I was good enough to write with (really for) him, believe me, I would have been swayed. But that did not happen. So I graduated Columbia eventually… I took as many years to turn in my thesis as they’d let me, and that thesis was a novel that was never published outside of a few short stories adapted from it. Years passed. I wrote another novel that did not get published. More years passed. And then I began writing work-for-hire. My own contracts were directly with the publishers—I got a flat fee and no royalties, which sometimes worked in my favor when a series I was writing for got canceled.

At the time I was a work-for-hire writer, I was also a bitter and, I thought, failed novelist. I hadn’t tried writing my own YA novel yet, and I thought I’d never get anywhere. I’d visit bookstores and go check out “my” books on the shelves. Nowhere on them did my name appear, even though, in some cases, I could have chosen to use my own name if I’d wanted. I wrote at least seventeen work-for-hire books, some novels but most movie and brand tie-ins. There is not one book I wrote during this time that I’m proud of. And, thanks to all the deadlines, I was far too busy to do my own writing.

It was a little depressing.

But somehow, through connections I made doing this work, I was able to publish a book under my own name. Only after that did I get the chance to publish my first YA novel—my first true novel, my heart—with the help of the best agent I could have hoped for. As of June 14, 2011, it’ll be a dream come true and all that. But it was an odd twisting road to reach that dream. James Frey’s road could get a writer the same thing it got me.

So that’s me. Filled with the misled MFA glory and gone desperate from reality after graduation. Naive enough to sign away my rights in a snap. And well used to writing possible crap for very little pay and no byline so I could pay my bills.

My first reaction to hearing about James Frey’s new company was—momentarily forgetting my own YA novel coming out next year and the fact that I’m contracted for another to follow—hey, maybe I need a new day job… I’m a Columbia MFA grad… where can I sign up?

Then I kept reading. And realized my agent would never let me get involved in this (if he did; I’d be shocked; check out the contract terms). And I want my own ideas for my own novels. But, yeah… it sounds tempting at first, doesn’t it?


“It’s an agreement that says, ‘You’re going to write for me. I’m going to own it. I may or may not give you credit. If there is more than one book in the series, you are on the hook to write those too, for the exact same terms, but I don’t have to use you. In exchange for this, I’m going to pay you 40 percent of some amount you can’t verify—there’s no audit provision—and after the deduction of a whole bunch of expenses.”

So, sure that sounds scary. But I can easily put myself in the shoes of any writers who leaped at this chance—and, surely, as this is ongoing, still leaping.

But my second reaction, when I thought about it, was a surety that I wouldn’t have jumped on that chance had it been handed to me when I was a “young writer” as he says. Why? Because that was before I went through all those years of rejection. When I was still a student, I really believed in myself in a way I don’t even believe now. I had faith. Naive faith. Signing up to write for James Frey means letting go of some of your own faith that you can make it on your own. In my mind, it’s giving up on your dreams. Or at least putting them on hold for a while.

Fact is, James Frey is smart to recruit from MFA programs like Columbia, possibly the most expensive program in the country. Smarter still would be to recruit from graduates a couple years after… when those massive loans come due and all the literary agents said “you’re a very talented writer, but I’ll have to pass.” Who’s to say, just a few years ago, that I wouldn’t have signed up for this had he asked me?

I might have. That scares me.

But what scares me the most is the “conflict of interest” danced around in the contract that makes it seem like you can’t work on anything that would get in the way of what you write for him. What about your own stuff… would that get in the way? What if the book you’re writing for James Frey becomes an ongoing series, and for years you’re obligated to write only for him? Can you not publish your own novel, if that opportunity arose?

How long would your dreams have to be put on hold?

That’s a risk I’d be very afraid to take.

The thing is, if you want to try your hand at writing a commercial YA novel under a name that isn’t yours—and you can change your mind about that name thing later; I did—guess what? You totally can. Write the manuscript. Get an agent. If it’s your own idea, keep it and at least try to sell it on your own first.

But if you need money—and to those who don’t get it, I’d love to show you my student loan bills… only I’m too embarrassed—who’s to say giving up a few years to write someone else’s idea for novels is the worst way to go? I did just that… and if I’d done it for James Frey’s company, maybe I could have made a solid dent in my loans by now.

But if that’s what you want to do, I suggest try sampling for Alloy first.

So what do you think about this? Would you want to secretly write the next Great American YA Novel for James Frey?

Maybe it just inspires you to work harder at your own novel. Imagine the glory of publication when you see your name on the spine and you can honestly say to anyone who asks: That’s my novel and no one else’s.

Imagine that.