A truly amazing thing happened to me this year. The Walls Around Us was chosen as the first-year read at Salem College, a women’s college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which meant that all incoming first-year students read my book over the summer (and wrote an essay on it!). So many young women, at the start of their college lives, reading my novel! And this week, I visited the campus and met with two classes of honors students and then, one evening, gave a lecture to the whole first-year class on campus, here, in this room:
When I was thinking of what I might say before a large group of young women, I was brought back to why this book was written, and why all my books are written… Why I write proudly and exclusively about girls, and why these stories are universal and just as worthy as the stories I remember reading all through school about men and more men and boys. I spoke about something that happened to me as a teenager that told me girls’ stories—that women writers—weren’t thought of as worthy… and why everything about my reading life and writing life is to prove that wrong.
I won’t recap the talk here, since in fact so much of it is infusing an essay I’m currently writing at the moment, and I look forward to sharing that with you in the future.
But I looked out at that room of young women, and I saw myself there. I remembered who I was (I’m still that girl—aren’t we always?).
I couldn’t fit the whole room in this photograph, but here is my first sight of the audience when I walked out onto the stage:
My talk touched on a lot of things—within the book, and within my life. I made a small mention of the book’s dedication, which was all connected.
This is the dedication of The Walls Around Us:
For the girl who needs to hide her diary
For the girl who doesn’t think she’s worth so much
Astute readers and/or those who know me very well might realize who this book is dedicated to… Someone specific, whose diary was found and exposed when she was a teenager, making her ashamed of her giant ambitions because who was she to have them? Someone so specific, who was told by multiple men in her life that she wasn’t worthy… That same girl stood on a stage on a college campus this week, giving a talk about her fourth published book. And the men who told her she wouldn’t, couldn’t, would never accomplish much? Look how small they are now.
Who dares to dedicate a book to herself? Someone who was told she’d never be able to publish a book at all.
After my talk, there were questions (some of which I am shocked I even answered, as I don’t usually reveal the secrets in my books! don’t ever expect that to happen again!) and a book signing, and it was a wonderful thing to meet some of the students and sign the book to them and get the chance to chat with them.
A few of the students confessed to me that they wanted to be writers, too.
If any happen to have found my blog and are reading this post—specifically one aspiring writer in particular who didn’t know how she would ever be able to pursue her dream, I hope what I said was encouraging, and I am always here if you want to reach out. I mean it. You can email me.
A few of the students asked me to sign the book for them on the dedication page instead of the title page, as if they saw themselves in the dedication as I did.
As if the book was for them as much as it was for me—and I believe it is.
If you see yourself there, it’s yours, too.
Thank you so very much to Salem College for having me! What an incredible experience.
As I was traveling home, I was thinking of all the ways my life has shifted and surprised me this year. I never expected to have these opportunities or to even be this person—even though, yes, it’s what I dreamed of and it’s what I wanted. These were pipe dreams. And now, standing in the shoes shown here (gifted from a dear friend and now, clearly, my new lucky shoes!), it has somehow become my reality.
When I reached New York City, on the way home from the airport and stuck in traffic in Queens, I had a moment. I know I’ve turned onto a new path this year—one more focused on teaching; one more true to myself—but I also know I have a lot more to do, to say, to learn, to write, to become. There is more I want, there will always be more I want… that ambition I carried as a girl has only grown.
But it’s not daunting or debilitating, even if the new road I’m on is long.
I haven’t written in a true diary in years… not since I started this blog, so I guess this became my diary, my public record. I’m not hiding anymore. Look, no hands! Here I am, I’m here.
When 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.
I’m really looking forward to June, and not just because my new book will be out and I can finally relax, maybe. It’s because I get to go back to this beautiful place in the mist, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Northern California, and I get to take a group of fellow YA writers with me. My third Djerassi YA novel workshop will be running June 21–26, and you can still apply to join me: The deadline is February 26.
I first visited Djerassi as a resident artist, where I spent a month writing and exploring ideas and finding great inspiration. I love sharing this experience with fellow writers of YA fiction—a small week-long taste with opportunities for critiques and a private meeting with me and good food and good discussion and a sculpture tour and what else can I say to entice you??
I’ve been fielding some frequently asked questions lately from prospective writers, and I wanted to try to answer those here. Please, if you have more questions, feel free to ask in the comments or to email me privately.
As it says in the general description, this is a fiction workshop tailored for writers working on YA novels of any style and genre, featuring daily critique sessions and time to retreat and produce new work. Includes 75 pages (25 for group critique; 50 in private conference) of manuscript review… And if you’d like some testimonials, scroll down on this page for the wonderful things the 2014 Djerassi YA workshop writers said.
But you have more questions, so here goes, a FAQ:
What are you looking for in writing sample?
I’m looking for good writing, of course, but also the spark that tells me I would be able to be helpful to you as a writing teacher—a connection to your writing that tells me we would work well together.
It’s not all about the writing sample, either: I am looking at that last question on the application carefully, the short statement where I ask “what you hope to gain from this workshop and what writing experience and classes you have taken before, if any.”
I’m looking at the person as well as the writer, so I can try to craft a good, supportive, dynamic group of writers who will click with one another, and who will come from differing perspectives and backgrounds and places in their careers.
Please know: The sample pages you send in for the application absolutely do not have to be the pages you send in for the actual workshop. So send your best work for the application, and know you can send far rougher pages later.
When will the pages for critique be due?
A month before our workshop starts, so you have a chance to read all your fellow writers’ work and write feedback before arriving at Djerassi (and so I’ll have time to read, too!): so May 21.
You’ll be able to workshop up to 25 pages with the group. You will also have the opportunity to send me up to 50 additional pages for private critique, which we will discuss in person when we meet.
These additional pages can be from a different novel, if you prefer, or from the same novel—up to you.
What kind of writers are you seeking?
YA writers with experience, though not necessarily publications. Though, of course, published authors are very welcome to apply.
This is not a workshop for beginning-level writers who have never written fiction before. You should also know what YA is, and you should be enthusiastically, passionately writing it.
Diverse writers are encouraged to apply. You must be 18 or older to apply.
Can I workshop pages from a middle-grade novel there?
You can send middle-grade fiction for your writing sample, but I’d like to keep the workshop itself just to YA fiction this year. Please only apply if you know you will have the opening pages of a YA novel to bring for group discussion June.
(You will be welcome to show me pages from a separate middle-grade project in our private conference, if you’re so inclined.)
Is this workshop for women only?
No! (This was a question really asked, so I’m including it here.) It was only coincidence that the great majority of writers who applied last year were women… Most of my readers are women, too. Male writers and non-gender-conforming writers are encouraged to apply. I’d love a diverse group of writers.
How many writers will you accept?
Nine. Though, if I can’t help it, certainly no more than eleven, due to housing constraints.
Are you choosing writers RIGHT NOW THIS VERY SECOND and is there a chance I will lose my spot if I wait to apply until the deadline? (i.e., Are there rolling admissions?)
No rolling admissions.
I won’t be selecting the writers until after the deadline, which is February 26. I admit that I have peeked at the applications and read some writing samples and I’m getting excited… But I really will be making the decisions after all the applications are in. Notifications will go out on or before March 12.
What is the daily schedule?
We will meet for workshop in the mornings, during which we will critique each writer’s opening pages in a constructive, honest group discussion led by me. At the end of discussion, you will have the opportunity to ask the group questions about anything you’d like clarity on, or anything that didn’t come up in our feedback.
After you’ve been workshopped, you and I will schedule a private conference in the afternoon, where we will talk about how you thought the workshop critique went and discuss your additional pages.
During one afternoon, we’ll go on a sculpture tour of the property, which is totally voluntary but highly recommended.
Otherwise the afternoons are yours to write, nap, think, read, chat, hike the sculpture trails on your own, or whatever you’d like. In previous workshops, sometimes the writers would meet together for writing sprints—and you are always welcome to write in your private studio. Your time is yours.
Breakfast and lunch are yours to make from the fully stocked kitchen, but every night we meet for delicious dinner in the main house, made for us by amazing Chef Dan. (Who is wonderfully accommodating for special diets, btw, if you are vegan or vegetarian or gluten-free. Everything he makes is so good. He’s my favorite chef, over all the colonies.) We share chores after dinner and clean up the dishes. It doesn’t take long.
In the evenings we will have readings—a chance, if you’d like, to share more of your work!—and we will try writing prompts if everyone is interested. We might have a movie night. I did a reading myself in previous years, but this year I might add in a craft talk. We might have an honest discussion about the publishing industry in a place where only we can hear. I take my cue from you, and will craft the week to be whatever you’d like it to be.
Is there any required reading?
A month before the workshop, you’ll get your fellow writers’ pages to read and start critiquing so you have ample time to have everything done before you arrive. Other than that, there is no required reading before or during the workshop.
Is there an opportunity for you to critique my full manuscript?
I’ve added in this option due to requests from last year. You can see my new critique and mentoring service on my website, but for 2015 Djerassi writers, the fee will be heavily discounted if you want me to read and critique beyond page 75 of your novel.
Are there scholarships available?
I’m sorry to say that we don’t have a scholarship program available.
(Last year, I was amazed at one of the writers, who ran a successful Kickstarter to fund her trip from Australia!)
Here’s a question I’m not asked: What do I want from this week?
I want to give you a safe place to talk about your novel, among like-minded writers. A place to be honest on the page. A place to dig in and ask questions and be open to feedback that could help raise your story to new heights. I want to dig in to your novel with you and help you get to where you’d like to be.
I also love being up at Djerassi, so I can’t wait to go back, just selfishly.
If my last two Djerassi workshops in 2014 were any indication, this is going to be an incredible week.
If you want to get a sense of the experience in a way I can’t tell you, here are some beautiful blog posts from some writers who were there last year:
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.
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.
I write this to you from a quiet moment in my publishing life. It is December 5, the year 2014, and I am in the room at the rear of the café at a table beside the outlet where I can safely sit with my back against a wall. I am all alone in a room full of noisy people, which is both literal and symbolic at the same time. I write this nervously, of course, and with hope, always, about what the future might bring. My new book comes out next year, and next year is close. The pub date is March 24, to be exact, which I can see ahead on the calendar and which feels breathlessly about to happen and also at the same time safely still far away.
The moment is quiet still, because nothing has happened yet. There have been no trade reviews yet. It is too soon to do much promoting, or to weigh any reactions. I haven’t had to dress up at an event for this book yet and talk about it in front of people. Anything is possible at this point. The book comes out in 110 days.
There are 110 days to go, and the book is mine still, even though some people have been reading it and kindly telling me so on Twitter.
Today, someone tweeted me something I said a while back. I guess I said, “When I was writing The Walls Around Us, I decided to be simply and only myself.” And that’s true. I want to remember that, no matter what happens.
Everything is about to be up in the air next year. Where I’ll live. What work I’ll be doing. What will happen with my writing career. How this book will do out in the world. How that will determine everything else, including, though I’d hate to let that happen, my self worth.
I don’t know yet. I can’t know yet. We’re waiting on news about our apartment. I can’t do much to figure things out for next year because I’m about to go away and be offline for three weeks. The book I’m writing now is due next month, and it’s the last book on my contract. I don’t know what I’ll write next.
The best thing I can do for myself is have no expectations. To look ahead into the future and see a complete and total blank. When I get my hopes up, it’s dangerous. When I skew too negative, it’s far worse. When I keep myself busy, and try not to think about anything beyond next week when I’ll take the train upstate to finish my novel, it’s okay.
So let’s just be okay today.
I wanted to write to you from this moment in my life. From before.
If you, too, are on the edge of something and want to imagine someone sitting next to you in the noisy waiting room crowded with other people all going about their lives, I’m here. I’m feeling quiet. But I’m here.
p.s. I’m too tired to check my math. If it’s actually less than 110 days, don’t tell me.
I am thrilled to share the gorgeous cover of my new novel, The Walls Around Us, which was revealed on Tumblr Books (the first-ever cover reveal by Tumblr!) on August 4! Here it is, and this author couldn’t be happier:
This is a novel about killer ballerinas, a girls’ juvenile detention center, and yes, ghosts. It’s told in two voices, one still living, and one long dead. And it’s very me, in all the ways a novel can belong to a writer, so I think fans of Imaginary Girls and/or 17 & Gone are really going to like this and see how all of these books connect and feed off one another. When talking cover art with my editor, I truly had no idea what to suggest. I’m no cover designer—and I like to keep my mind open and blank for the space where the cover will one day be, so I don’t get my heart set on anything too specific.
And yet I knew I didn’t want a girls’ face on the cover. I didn’t want a photograph at all really, at least nothing too specific. I didn’t want a dirty ballet slipper or an orange jumpsuit behind bars or a coil of barbed wire. I wanted something that translated the mood and voice of the book into an image that would be striking enough to call readers closer… Not that I had any worldly idea what that might be.
When Algonquin emailed me this cover image to ask what I thought, I was stunned to delicious silence and then began smiling like a maniac. It was everything I wanted but didn’t know how to put to words. It is EXACTLY right. It speaks to the kind of writing inside the book, and to the twisty slope of the story you’ll be reading. It feels timeless to me. It feels so very evocative. It feels like a book for YA readers and for adult-fiction readers, too—which is important to me. And it will resonate even more once you’ve read the story and know why the artwork of the flowering vines was chosen.
The designer, Connie Gabbert, could not have done any better—and I am so honored and thrilled to have this cover on my book! I couldn’t love it more. Thank you, Algonquin and Connie!
Now that you see my cover, I hope this entices you to pick up the book on March 24, 2015! If you are a reviewer or media person, you should know that ARCs will be available THIS month—as in very soon, as in August—and you should get in touch with my publisher, Algonquin Young Readers, to get a hold of one.
People have been asked if I will be doing an ARC giveaway. It depends on how many ARCs I get, but yes… I am pretty sure I will be able to part with one. Stay tuned!
The cover of my new novel The Walls Around Us was revealed today on Tumblr Books! Do you want to see this gorgeous cover design?
Oh, yes you do…
…Are you scrolling down so I’ll show you?
Well, I can’t post the cover here for a few more days… But if you go to books.tumblr.com, you will find the cover in all its glory! This beautiful cover was designed by Connie Gabbert. It’s everything I was hoping to have for this book and didn’t know how to articulate in words… and somehow Algonquin and the designer knew without me having to say. Psychic connection?? MAYBE.
If you want to know what the book is about, you can think of it as “Orange Is the New Black Swan”… and you can read a more detailed summary on my publisher’s website. The book will be published by Algonquin on March 24, 2015!