Best Writing Advice Ever

rabbitE.L. Doctorow said once that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Anne Lamott followed that up with, “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

But if it were this simple, why do we have the constant debate about outlining vs. following the story? Every time I turn around someone is blogging about one or the other as the answer to the holy writing trinity. Here’s the answer.

There’s no one answer.

Writing is so not about absolutes–and that’s the hard part. If there was one formula, one way, every MFA program across the country would be teaching it. Second grade teachers wouldn’t puzzle over, “How the hell are we going to teach these kids to write? I don’t even know if I know how to write?” (We actually had those conversations when I was teaching at one of the top elementary schools in the country and it’s not like we weren’t armed with masters degrees and curriculum.)

We get through school with some teachers (and later editors and agents) telling us we’re amazing and some telling us we suck eggs and we ought to just hang it up. (They usually euphemize.) It’s a very subjective medium. Just join writers (critics, librarians, parents) in a discussion of published books they think are pure genius or crap and you’ll generally get a divided room.

So what’s a new writer to do when writing a first novel? On the first draft of my first novel I followed the advice of Lin Oliver, co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The reason I did that was that I’d happened upon her workshop as my first ever and she talked about plot structure that day. She’d come from Hollywood (television) and had learned the 3 Act structure and that’s how she did it. A short time later I met the late Blake Snyder at Book Expo America. He was a third generation screenplay writer and author of Save the Cat. What a great guy. I really liked him. He was funny, nice, and he pitched random people at Starbucks on his ideas.

It was settled. I’d outline. I bought poster board and colored sticky notes. I stuck packets everywhere for my brilliant ideas. Scenes were all over my house in errant places for months. And in the end, I rewrote it all in the first rewrite and it didn’t represent the outline at all. Sigh.

When mentor and friend, and oh–Edgar winning YA novelist–Charlie Price told me how he wrote, I decided to try that. This is the E.L. Doctorow School of Writing. Charlie would say, “Just peer in the window at what’s happening in this scene.” I loved that! And, as an only child who used to plant recorders behind the couch at my parent’s cocktail parties starting at age 6, I had that voyeuristic streak anyway. It was a natural progression. If I just listened to my characters, they’d tell me what was happening.

That’s the approach I’m taking on my current novel. I have the outline in my head, of course, but I’m trusting the story. No poster board or sticky note scenes. It’s definitely more fun even if, as outline afficionados would have you believe, it takes me more time on the flip.

Follow your intuition and know this for sure–in writing, as in life, we are here to explore a diverse buffet of options. It’s how we grow. It’s how we discover. It’s how we create.

YA vs. NA: The New Adult Genre

books

We do like things in categories, don’t we? Especially when it comes to books, and where to shelf them in the bookstores.

Most writers I know don’t set out to write a particular genre. They have a story in them–one that won’t go away. This story, like a petulant child or annoying friend on Facebook, pokes at their brain until they can’t stand it anymore. They have to let it out.

This is how my stories come to be. I’m working on one now that I have avoided for 36 years. (Why, you ask? Because it involves a serial killer that was very real in my life and I really would rather not go down the road. But it’s very clear when it’s a story I’m meant to tell that I must tell it.)

My debut novel–not the serial killer one but the one before that–is called First Break. Again, a story I had to tell. The plot line goes like this: 17 year old girl from a small town moves to a big city to go to college and two weeks in starts hearing voices telling her to kill herself. (You know. Your average Rom-Com.) Paige finds herself in the vortex of a psychotic break and doesn’t know what’s happening, a coming of age story with a brain that’s in crisis.

When I started to write this story, I didn’t think, “What genre is this?” “Will it be a problem that she steps on a college campus?” I just knew this was a story that needed to come out. Poke, poke.

Because I’m a conference junkie, I’d listen to many editors, agents, and writers affirm my decision: “Don’t worry about the genre. Just tell the story.”

After I finished the 8,527th draft, and prepared to submit to agents, I started hearing this: “Love your writing. Show me anything else you do. Problem with this story is the protagonist steps on to a college campus. True, only for two weeks before she goes to the psychiatric hospital, but those two weeks just may take it out of young adult and then where would we put it?”

Really? But don’t we want our children to go to college campuses? Are we really sure they’re not reading? I mean, as an English major I had to read 10 books per class and still read for pleasure. I wasn’t buying it.

I had more than one agent ask me to rewrite it with her only on a high school campus, but because turning 18 is a key theme here, that seemed rather challenging.

I started calling it “Young Adult Crossover.” Not that it mattered.

And then guess what happened? More studies were done to suggest 18 – 25 year olds actually DO read books after all and maybe the market share had been wrongly calculated. Ha! Having one of my own–a transitional youth, that is–I knew this to be true. My son had friends. They definitely read for pleasure. And went to college.

Enter “New Adult,” the old YA Crossover. That’s what we’re calling it. I’m guessing there’ll be a spot for it soon in the bookstores if there isn’t already.

My fantabulous agent, Rachael Dugas of Talcott Notch Literary, explains it like this.

“New Adult” is this genre emerging for an age group that never previously had a voice because people didn’t think it would do well, and that is the college age to early 20’s bracket. (If you want to think of it another way, it is what “tween” books are to the gap between middle grade and young adult literature, but between young adult and adult fiction, usually women’s fiction.) It’s come to attention recently that there may be more of an audience for this genre than previously assumed. The big problem with trying to write that college and fresh out of college age range into literature before was that, even though they are technically “young adults,” they are not in high school. They are not living at home–they have an independence that sixteen-year-old readers can’t identify with, so editors didn’t quite know what to do with them. These books also deal with self-discovery and finding your place in the “real world” and identifying as a proper grown-up for the first time, which is really a little mature for proper teenagers and a little immature for 30, 40+-something readers. However, once people figured out that adults were actually buying a ton of YA literature, minds were opened to expanding the definition of who reads a genre a little more.

What this basically means for you, the writer, is that an editor or agent who sees your manuscript about a college freshman isn’t going to automatically reject it based on her age. Rather, they are going to consider it as a possible fit that can be pitched as “New Adult”. At the end of the day, it’s all about figuring where it’s going to sit in the bookstore.

Hallelujah! Now I have a name for both the stuff I like to read and the stuff I like to write. But it really doesn’t matter. The next story I have to tell will be the story it is no matter what. We can worry about making up a new genre later.