Turning Points: Guest Post by Courtney Summers (+Giveaway)

This post is part of the Turning Points 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.

If you’ve read this week’s posts, you’ve seen how a certain book—Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers—served as the turning point for two separate writers: Daisy Whitney and Brandy Colbert. Now we get to hear from that influential book’s author, Courtney Summers, on her own turning point as a writer…

I have one very vivid memory of the time I was trying to get published and it’s this: I am sitting in a car, in the passenger’s side, and I’m trying not to cry. Sufjan Stevens’s “The Mistress Witch from McClure” is playing and all I can think is, this is not going to happen for me. This is never, ever going to happen for me. My dream is bigger than my reality. I will never be published and I am a total failure. Whenever I hear that song, I think about that moment. At the time, I felt this complete and utter helplessness in knowing that just because I worked really hard and wanted something really badly didn’t mean I should have it. This is a lesson people learn a lot in their lives, but I think the first time you realize it is something else, especially if there are a lot of emotional stakes involved. Because then you have to decide what you’re going to do with that information. Are you going to let it defeat you or are you going to move forward in the face of it?

I’d been playing the optimist from book to book, thinking each one would be The One. I’d just shelved my third, a high-concept YA novel that brought me the closest I’d ever gotten; an agent talked revisions with me, said she’d send the paperwork along to make representation official, and then dropped off the face of the earth only to reappear to tell me she was leaving for another part of the business. I think close calls can be the hardest. When it doesn’t happen but it almost does, you feel like you’re farther back from where you started. That’s certainly how it felt to me and I didn’t know if I could continue this journey because my time was running out…

[cue dramatic music]

To understand what I mean by that, I have to tell you this: I dropped out of high school when I was fourteen because I hated it (let us pause and contemplate the fact I now write about people in high school). My family wholeheartedly supported that decision, but there were some vocal naysayers who insisted I was screwing up my life and making things harder for myself and because of that, I would never achieve what I set out to achieve. I was told that to drop out is to set yourself up for a life of mediocrity. So what I did was I promised myself the year I would’ve spent in high school, had I not dropped out, would be devoted to figuring out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Tall order for a fourteen-year-old, but get this, it actually happened—I realized I wanted to be a writer. That was my graduation, in a way.

And now it was time for the next phase. College. Except I wasn’t going there either, so I decided I had to be a published author by the time all of my friends graduated college or leaving school was for nothing and I’d be a failure. Wait. I need to emphasize that better. I’d be a FAILURE.

It was a very inflexible goal. It wasn’t I have to be a published author by the time my friends graduate college, if not, I’ll keep trucking it had to be BY THEN or I failed at life. And that’s ridiculous, but I was so worried about having something to show for a decision as dramatic as leaving high school, that was how I viewed it. And the pressure I put on myself was intense. I worked and worked and worked against my own self-imposed timeline, learning about the industry, writing novels and short stories, submitting novels and short stories, shelving them and starting new ones—I never took a break. I know there are A LOT of people out there who put more time in and get loads more rejections than I have, but when I reached the point where my third book had to be shelved, my “time” was, like I said, running out and I didn’t know what I was going to do. It felt like my journey had to stop there because I hadn’t achieved what I’d set out to do. I’d FAILED! I really felt like this lack of being where I wanted to be at that particular point in my life was unforgivable on my part. And that made me very sad.

I usually don’t tell people this part of my road to publication! But eventually, my sadness got so great, a member of my family suggested I stop for a while. Stop the whole thing. It was a fair suggestion. Nothing about what I was doing was making me happy. And yet while all this was happening, I should tell you I somehow managed to find the time to be annoyed about the rejections of my third book. Most readers found the protagonist really unlikeable and I liked her and—whether or not this was ultimately true—I decided they didn’t like her because she was an unlikeable GIRL and girls are always expected to be nice. In the back of my head, an idea about a girl nobody liked was brewing, but I was scared to start it because what was the point when the whole process made me feel this bad? But the idea was an insistent thing, it kept poking at my brain until finally, I thought, okay, one more book and then I’ll stop for a while.

But there was no way I could start my new book without taking a good, hard look at my ideas of success and failure and redefining them. My love for this idea (and indignation about girls not being allowed to be unlikeable!) was so loud I had to make a choice. I still wanted to be published, more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life. What happened here, my turning point, was I decided to define my success in terms of TRYING and accepting I had no control of the outcome. (And then I proceeded to write about a girl who was obsessed with perfection and outcomes.) As soon as I did this, the joy came back into my life. I got lost in this mean girl’s story and I looked forward to working on it and I loved working on it. I loved writing. It was what I was meant to do, and I was pretty sure I’d always do it regardless of whether or not I saw myself traditionally published.

I’d truly forgotten.

So that was a nice, eye-opening moment. It was a bit scary too—but it was a relief.

Cracked Up to Be

The book I wrote did end up being published. Cracked Up to Be. Everyone who writes and tries to get published knows how hard it is, how high the highs are and how low the lows. It would be very disingenuous to say letting go of the idea of being published helped me TO get published. I don’t believe that’s what happened. Really it was work and luck and timing. I was fortunate enough to get the manuscript into the hands of people who liked the story as much as I did. But letting go of my arbitrary self-imposed deadline to be published and letting go of the belief that being published determined my success or failure as a person reminded me why I tried for it in the first place: I love to write.

And on the harder days in this business, I miggght put on that Sufjan song to remind myself that all of my stories start and end with that.

—Courtney Summers

Courtney Summers lives and writes in Canada. She is the author of Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are, Fall for Anything, and This is Not a Test (June 2012).

Visit Courtney at courtneysummers.ca.

Follow @courtney_s on Twitter.


Thank you to everyone who entered the two giveaways via the entry forms—and thank you to the author for donating the prizes—and to Damon for donating the audio editions as an extra added surprise! I’m happy to announce the winners:

Andrea Benvenuto won the grand prize of three of Courtney Summers’s books: a signed copy of Some Girls Are, a signed copy of Fall for Anything, and a pre-order of This Is Not a Test. And melannie lara luna won two audio editions of Courtney Summer’s books: Cracked Up to Be and Some Girls Are (both donated by Damon Ford). Congrats! I’ll email the winners for their mailing addresses. Thank you again to everyone who entered!

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:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Turning Points: Guest Post by Brandy Colbert (+Giveaway)

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.

Cracked Up to Be

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.

—Brandy Colbert

(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.


Cracked Up to Be

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:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Terrible Week of Fakeness, Wackness, Slacking, Dodging Umbrellas, Sleeping In

This was not a good week. My exhaustion followed me everywhere, forced me to sleep in, walked with me to work, made my eyes and limbs heavy, my brain a static-filled TV on mute. Tired physically. Tired mentally. Tired of the fake hellos and the shoulds and the shouldn’ts and the people who cannot be trusted so I don’t want to talk anymore. Tired of being imperfect. Tired of the bills. Tired of the noisy neighbors. Tired of the lines and the trudging up subway stairs with all the slow people ahead of me like we’ll never get out and will be stuck down in there forever. Tired of being poked in the head with umbrellas.

Just tired.

Guess why?

My guess is that it’s because I didn’t do much writing this week. Slept in three days and had to go straight to work instead of writing first. Slept most of the day Sunday, wasn’t feeling well. Slept, and somehow felt more tired. And in the midst of this I stopped work on my new novel. Slowly filled up with doubts like an ugly, lumpy balloon begging to be popped and no one, nothing would do it.

But the week is over.


Trying to focus on the good: At work—finally caught up. Working on a beautiful novel that I get to return to on Monday. At home—e’s hair is at the perfect length, I love how his bangs fall into his eyes. At my writing spot—have a table in the back corner, a mocha in hand. Friends—saw one of my oldest friends this week, I love her. Writing—have a new novel if I can only find my way into it, can be a writer for two whole days so stop complaining. Reading—finished Cracked Up to Be (could not put it down, so good!), and I’m so excited for the talented writer! Random—I might bake something this weekend. I’d like to attempt a pie, but I also do not want to start a fire in the kitchen.

I feel a little less tired at the moment. A smidge. Then again, it might be the mocha. And is there anything wrong with that, a good mocha that can take the icky edge off the rest of life? No, there is not.