Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

Archive for January, 2011

delirium 397x600 ‘Delirium’ Author Lauren Oliver: Writing Can Be ‘Agonizingly Painful’

I was lucky enough to work for Lauren Oliver over the summer and through my first semester at the New School. Not only is she a crazy successful YA author and all around superstar, she also has the most eclectic, delicious sounding grocery lists I’ve ever seen. It’s quite the combo!

She also let me get sneak peeks at some of her upcoming work. I have read Delirium and its right up my alley — dark, edgy, dystopian, but also sweet and lyrical and suspenseful. Think Hunger Games page-turner intensity mixed with a Romeo And Juliet level of love story.

We asked Lauren to answer some questions for the blog about her new book, her journey in the publishing world and living the writing life. Enjoy!

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer?

I went to University of Chicago and studied Philosophy and Literature. I knew I wanted to write — I finished my first “real” novel my senior year, and went through the process of querying and getting an agent — but I didn’t think of it as a feasible career. After college I floated around for a bit, bartended in a club, and then decided to get my MFA at NYU. I simultaneously found a job, somewhat arbitrarily, in children’s publishing, and that’s when I began to write young adult fiction and work on Before I Fall, my first book. I don’t exactly write full-time now because I have a literary development company as well, but since I’m either writing or reading or editing, I don’t really think of myself as working all that much!

I’ve never wanted to be a writer, exactly. Writing was always just something I did and I needed to do, like I need to sleep. It’s all just a way of staving off the craziness (with, arguably, only limited success).

Can you give us a quick synopsis of Delirium? How did you come up with the concept? Was it a very different process than from your first book, Before I Fall?

Delirium takes place in an alternate United States, where love has been declared a contagious disease. Every citizen must submit to the cure at around the age of eighteen, and the book tracks a girl, Lena, during her last few months as an uncured. And of course there are surprises and twists and romantic complications. The idea for Delirium came from an essay I read by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in which he wrote that all great books were about love or death. The next day I was thinking about that quote — particularly about how and in what form a modern love story could be told — while I was on the treadmill at the gym. I was simultaneously watching a news story about a flu outbreak that had everyone freaking out about the possibility of a pandemic, and I was kind of marvelling that people so easily go into panics about reports of these diseases, and at some point the two trains of thought — love, and disease — just sort of combined in my head. And in terms of whether it was harder or easier than Before I Fall…neither. The hardest part of writing, I find, is the doing it, the sitting down and getting into the words and that mental headspace. It’s the same difficulty for every project.

What’s your process? What does a typical writing day look like?

For the record, I kind of hate the word “process.” My process is simply that I force myself to write every day, even though I sometimes (er, often) find it agonizingly painful. Some days I write at my computer. Some days, if I’m really busy, I write on my blackberry while I’m commuting between appointments. I’ve also been known to write on napkins, in notebooks, and at the dinner table, which isn’t very polite, of course. It sounds cheesy to say it, but inspiration is all around me. Every time I read the paper or watch the news, I see cool stories and think about how they might be books. Every time I read anything, I like to think I’m absorbing and learning.

What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

I think the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process is that it simply doesn’t get any easier! I mean, I love writing and I need it, but it still feels every bit as agonizing and hard as it always has. I still feel consumed with anxieties about running out of ideas, or turning out schlock. I guess I thought that being published might somewhat assuage those fears, but it has probably just compounded them!

 ‘Delirium’ Author Lauren Oliver: Writing Can Be ‘Agonizingly Painful’What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

The best writing advice I’ve received — and can impart — is to write every day, period.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

When I was a kid I loved Roald Dahl, and the fairy tales of Grimm, and anything weird and wonderful. I’m actually still into weird and wonderful, which is I believe why I gravitate to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jeffrey Eugenides. I also love elegant prose, so I love F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Ian McEwan. Right now I’m reading a nonfiction science book. I actually read a lot of nonfiction — the real world has plenty to offer in terms of inspiration. And weirdness. And wonder.

What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

My first middle-grade book for young readers, Liesl & Po, comes out in Fall 2011. I’m currently working on the final book in the Delirium trilogy and tooling around with a middle-grade fantasy that may or may not ever become readable. I’m also working on growing my literary development company, Paper Lantern Lit, and our ever-expanding stable of authors. What’s next in life? Well, I’ll probably take a nap. And in a less immediate sense, I am heading out on tour next week and my first tour event is with none other than…David Levithan!

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

I believe they’re helpful up to a point, yes. I loved my workshops at NYU because they taught me two critical skills: when to take criticism, and when to ignore it. You really need to know how to do both as an author. It’s totally possible to depend too much on other people’s opinion as a writer — you need to learn to trust your own instincts, and sometimes I think that depending on a group of writers can disable that. Like everything else, it’s a balance.

A Look Back at First Semester: Sona’s Finding Her Balance

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On January - 30 - 2011

balance A Look Back at First Semester: Sona’s Finding Her Balance

My theme for first semester? Much too much. Much too much work, much too much reading, much too much paper-writing, much too much time spent chasing after my baby. Colds, the flu, Levithan-worthy paper-induced stupors. Panels and workshops and readings, oh my. Much too much of everything.

And much too little time spent writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved every minute of it.

But as I do for everything, I had big expectations for first semester. Over-blown, over-ambitious, lofty goals. That is just my way. Big dreams, always. And fire, sure. But this time, I think, maybe I took on more than even I, in my typically Type A way, could manage.

A baby, for starters. A beautiful, exciting, enthralling and exhausting experience. She’s so fun, but boy does she take up a lot of energy. The fix: as much as it pains me, Kavi’s going to daycare fulltime. I honestly need the few extra hours a day she’ll be there to actually write. And the time that I spend with her can really be Kavi time. At the New School, I have this once-in-lifetime opportunity to really focus on this goal, this phantom thing I’ve been hopin’ and dreamin’ about for years. It’s now or never. I better make the most of it.

Work. To make a good dent in my apparently crippling grad school debt as I go along, I decided to amp it up. I’m about two years into building my own writing business, and happily, things are going well. But feast or famine is the nature of this beast. And so last semester, I took on a lot — too much — because I could. It hurt. So now it’s time to refocus here on working smarter, being more strategic, and learning, despite the pinch, to sometimes say no.

School. It’s been so energizing and enthralling, getting to know my classmates and their work, being focused on the craft of writing, delving into the canon of teen fiction under the wise tutelage of none other than David Levithan himself. But boy, did first semester kick my ass. Granted, it needed kicking. Still, one thing I most wanted out of my time at the New School — and didn’t give myself — was the concentrated writing time. As my New Year’s Writing Resolutions state, that all changes this semester. I can’t wait.

An education. Sure, I already said school. But between being involved with Teen Writers Bloc and all the readings and events we’ve been going to, I feel like I’ve learned a profound amount already about the way “writing as a career” actually works. Libba Bray. Rachel Cohn. Scott Westerfeld. Alumni like Coe Booth and Jenny Han. New York City is teeming with teen authors who are all about sharing their insights and experiences. There’s a real sense of community amongst them (and amongst us, already!). It’s overwhelming. And it’s awesome. And I can’t wait to be a part of it all.
Image courtesy Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr

A Look Back At First Semester: Dhonielle’s Slacker Semester

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On January - 29 - 2011

 A Look Back At First Semester: Dhonielle’s Slacker SemesterAs I break out new notebooks to start my second semester of the New School MFA Writing for Children Program, I am both excited and sad. I am sad that my fall semester finished so quickly. I am sad that I didn’t maximize every second of it. I am sad that I am three semesters away from the end of the program. Last semester I was a complete slacker. I’ll totally admit it. I know my classmates will concur. They saw it first-hand: half-read books, last minute notes and response papers, and frantic critiques. I was a mess.

Overwhelmed by my first few months in New York City and a hefty reading load layered on by David Levithan, needless to say, I was drowning in books, the subway, interning, all of the walking, tutoring, the critiquing, the pizza, and the distractions of a city that never sleeps. I was completely exhausted and no amount of vitamins helped me fight the fatigue and several sinus infections I developed. My to-do list was pages long and I barely made a dent in it at any given time.

But I should’ve known that this is how I work best. Under pressure (cue Queen and David Bowie). And the whole semester wasn’t a wash after all. I started a MG steampunk project in August, right before the semester began, and nearly finished it during the break between semesters. I’ve developed a tight-knit bond with my fellow members of Teen Writers Bloc that I know will transcend the program. And I’m more and more devoted to my craft and to becoming a full-time, successful children’s book author.

During the long break between semesters, I missed Tuesday night fiction workshop and Wednesday night teen literature class at 8 pm. I didn’t know what to do with myself, being deprived of watching David Levithan drink his Vitamin Water and listening to Hettie Jones tell me about her granddaughter before we got down to the business of critiquing.

All in all, it was a great semester. But I know I can increase my effort level. The spring will be the time when I prove that I can be better, reviving the student I once was: a bookworm nerd who never missed an assignment or didn’t complete her reading. Wish me luck, I’m going to need it.

A Look Back At First Semester: Caela’s Still Striving

Posted by Caela Carter On January - 28 - 2011

blog first semester image A Look Back At First Semester: Caela’s Still StrivingI am where I always wanted to be.

I keep reminding myself. I started exploring MFA programs in 2004, six years before I actually set foot in a classroom. After years of researching just about every program in the country; keeping spreadsheets on application materials, acceptance rates, professors and rankings; writing and re-writing chapters and stories for application samples; and tweaking my personal statements repeatedly, I finally applied to eleven programs in 2009. Although I was accepted into many, after visiting several disappointing classrooms, I realized that I am going to get an MFA once; I didn’t want to rush into it. Instead, I went back to the drawing board and applied again in 2010, this time getting admitted to six out of eight programs and happily accepting a spot at The New School, my top choice.

So I am where I want to be. Right?

Finally, the first word that answers what I’m doing with my life is “writing.” I have broken out of the short story format that was stuck in my brain from undergraduate courses and completed a novel. I live in New York. I have met so many authors for teens it’s overwhelming. I understand this career as a business, instead of purely an art form. I am writing thousands of words every day. I have a group of talented peers invested in my career and open to allowing me to be invested in theirs. If you Google-search my name, the first hit you get is about writing for teens.

So, yes, I am where I want to be. But now I don’t want to be here anymore.

Now that I’ve written a novel, I want to know how to pitch it — how to make it sound as fresh as I hope it is.

Now that I’m in a serious MFA program, I want an agent.

Now that I’m writing everyday for several hours, I want to be able to give up the day job and just write.

There is no denying that I got somewhere this semester — a full draft of a novel, at least fifty books read, and, in a way, a re-shaping of my entire identity from “teacher” to “writer.” There is no denying that I’ve been happy, or that it was worth waiting the six years to take this step at the right time. But now I feel like I won’t really be satisfied until I get an agent. And then I won’t be satisfied until I sell a book. And then I won’t be satisfied until I sell a lot of books.

This semester, we heard a lot of people tell us not to write for the money, and I’m not. They say we have to write because it’s the only way to make us happy, and I am. But the stakes are higher than that. We need food on our tables and roofs over our heads and if our writing isn’t going to put them there, something else in our lives will be eating up our precious writing minutes and dominating our brain cells. I want writing to be my career so that I don’t have to fill up my days being something that I’m just not.

But for now, I’ll just keep writing for myself and reminding myself: I am where I want to be. And, hopefully, it won’t be another six years before I take the next step.

Author Interview: Neesha Meminger Is Looking for Emotional Truth

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On January - 27 - 2011

 Author Interview: Neesha Meminger Is Looking for Emotional TruthWhen I read a book as a teenager with raging hormones and strict parents, I was looking to experience love alongside the character, because in my childhood household, dating was not an option. But while reading Neesha Meminger’s Jazz in Love, I was swept up in Jazz’s dilemma as her mother implemented the Guided Dating Plan to find her a suitable match, which often had me wondering, what kind of teenage boy would my mother have picked for me?

I caught up with Neesha Meminger to discuss matchmaking and how she achieves a deep layer of emotional truth in her novels.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer.

I started out, like most writers, keeping a journal. And because English is my second language, I spent a lot of time constructing phrases, tinkering with word rhythms and, in general, figuring out how to wield the English language to the best of my ability. I grew up knowing the power of language because I saw my parents’ struggle outside of the house when they fumbled to say what they needed to authorities, school administration, bureaucrats, government officials, police officers, neighbors, etc. It was tough to see parents — two people I admired and knew were strong, intelligent, capable souls — being reduced to bumbling, nervous adults facing irritation and/or hostility from people in positions of relative over them. So, I worked very hard to gain a strong hold on the language I would need to protect and defend myself in the world outside my home.

And yes, I totally write full time. I am also a full time mother, I promote my books a huge chunk-of-time, try to run a home the other chunks-of-time, and desperately search for ways to find a balance between all that and my own personal need for quiet time, growth and rejuvenation. icon smile Author Interview: Neesha Meminger Is Looking for Emotional Truth

How did you come up with the concept for Jazz In Love?

Jazz is a wise-cracking, wayward 17-year-old who keeps getting into trouble with her parents as she, ironically, tries to keep them happy (and meet her own needs at the same time). She is caught hugging a childhood friend in public and, because the friend is male, Jazz’s mother freaks out. She pulls out the big guns and sets out to find Jazz a suitable date so that Jazz doesn’t go poking around in unsuitable waters. What ensues is hilarity, a zany and hare-brained scheme involving Jazz’s own match-making, a celebrity, and a television show. At the end of it all, Jazz has to figure out what she really wants, and what she’s willing to do to get it.

What’s your process? What does a typical writing day look like? Where/when do you write? Where does your inspiration come from?

My typical writing day depends on where I am in the cycle. I have writing, rest, reading, and networking cycles, and sometimes a cycle of just complete daydreaming. But the typical day always starts with waking up far too early for my liking, and then:

1) taking the kids to school,

2) coming home, and starting the tea and breakfast ritual

3) eating and sipping while I catch up on email and visit my regular internet haunts

4) plunging into the work of the day

5) stopping when it’s time to pick up the kids

6) being on mommy-duty for the rest of the day

7) putting the kids to bed and mucking around on the computer for fun (or doing interviews like this one *smile*)

173505 618535284 7850699 n Author Interview: Neesha Meminger Is Looking for Emotional TruthWhat has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

Oh my gosh, there have been so many surprises. But mostly I’ve enjoyed the process with all its ups and downs and loop-de-loops. In a nutshell, I wrote an epic novel over ten years ago, featuring three generations of Indian, Punjabi, Sikh women. I sent that to every single agent and editor I could find and was summarily rejected by each and every one of them. I revised, tweaked, started something new. I sent that around, again, to every agent and editor I could find. That, too, was soundly rejected. I continued like this until, eventually, the rejections became more personal and kind, and very helpful. I incorporated whatever feedback I received from the rejections and revised. I sent the revisions around again, to some new agents and editors who’d come onto the scene.

And then one of those agents contacted me. She said that I really had a knack for the teen protagonist’s voice and would I consider revising my manuscript to focus on her? I said, “HELL YEAH” (in my head) and sent her a nice reply saying Yes, I’d consider that and would she be open to taking a look at the revision? She said Sure. So that’s how it began. I signed with an agent, we worked on polishing my manuscript together and then sent it out. It was rejected in the first round of submissions. I was discouraged, but my agent said, “Why don’t we try another round before giving up?” So we did. And then we had interested editors.

The surprising parts for me are how hard I still have to work, even after publication. I must have thought things would be easy after that magical moment when the agent calls and says, “We have an offer!” But it was more work after that. And more work, still. Different kinds of work, to be sure, but lots of work, nonetheless.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

Write the truth. Even in fiction, what people connect with is emotional truth, or something that rings true to them – and a writer can only provide that by writing the honest, brutal truth. That’s the best advice I’ve ever received and I wholeheartedly pass it along.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

I absolutely adored Tuck, Everlasting and Judy Blume’s books and Paula Danziger and Lois Duncan and S.E. Hinton and . . . Oh, sorry — you said “book.” Without an “s.”

I just finished re-reading (because it’s so awesome!) Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix and will begin John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story next.

 Author Interview: Neesha Meminger Is Looking for Emotional TruthWhat’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

Here’s another surprise — I had no idea my work load would DOUBLE with the release of another book! But it has, and I’ve been busy trying to play catch-up. So I really haven’t had a chance to think about what is next, but I am hoping to do a follow-up novel to Jazz In Love somewhere in there. Super-excited about that.

Due to the ethnic content of your fantastic books, did you have trouble placing them at publishing houses? Is the myth of the “one ethnic book” per season alive and well? Was it harder to place Jazz In Love even though it was second book?

The answer to this is a complex. The publishing industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it is part of a larger system of beliefs and attitudes that have taken centuries to form. The challenges in the publishing industry are no different from the challenges of marginalized or under-represented folks in film and video, music, dance, theater, business, politics, etc. There are dominant, prevailing beliefs and assumptions in all of these areas. So, do I think that these perceptions affected the sale of either of my novels? They had to; we are all products of our environment. There’s the belief that books by people of color don’t sell, that books with covers featuring people of color won’t be bought, that only the group written about will be interested in buying a book about that group, and so on. These are real challenges and barriers for authors of color. It’s much like what publishing was like for women in the early days of publishing. In a male-dominated industry, the belief was that women’s writing wouldn’t sell, that men wouldn’t want to read work by women. As a result, women started up their own independent presses, they self-published, they founded collectives . . . they went directly to their readers without waiting for the okay from the male-dominated presses of the time.

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

Abso-frickin-lutely. I joined the Debs as soon as I realized there was a group of debuting authors, and that has been nothing short of a god-send. Truly. I would be much more insane if I didn’t have this community. I highly, HIGHLY recommend joining a writers’ group, or at least some sort of forum or community where you can voice your uncertainties, ask questions, toot your successes, and throw pity parties. It is an absolute necessity if you’re really serious, and if you’re in this for the long haul. I forget who said it, but this writing gig is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. And trust me, you’re going to want some friends along on the journey.

A Look Back At First Semester: Jess’s Pre-Second Semester Musings

Posted by Jessica Verdi On January - 26 - 2011

writing 300x241 A Look Back At First Semester: Jess’s Pre Second Semester MusingsI can’t believe we’re already starting our second semester. Our first semester went by more quickly than I could have imagined. We only have two semesters of classes left and then we’ll be in the throes of thesis-mode. Crazy. But time flies when you’re having fun, right?

By leaps and bounds, The New School Writing for Children program has exceeded my expectations. That could be because I really had no expectations going into it — I had never been part of a writing program or a workshop group before and I really had no clue what I was in for. But I’m glad I took the leap, because I’ve found a wonderful writing community, people I admire and trust to help me make my work as good as it can possibly be. Not only are these people great critiquers, they have such immense knowledge about children’s and teen literature, it’s inspiring just to have conversations about books. Outside of this program, I don’t know anyone who shares my love of YA literature nearly as much as these awesome peeps.

As far as for my own goals, I truly believe that I am already a better writer than when I first started the program, and I hope that will continue to be the case. My plan for this next semester is to write as much as I possibly can, and try (futile as it may be) to not let myself get too bogged down with class assignments so that I have no time to work on my own writing. That was my mistake in the first semester, but I’ve learned my lesson. In a writing program, the actual writing should take precedence!

Steven’s Half-Cooked Thesis Semester

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On January - 25 - 2011

writing 300x200 Steven’s Half Cooked Thesis SemesterAs a new contributor to Teen Writers Bloc, I’d like to let all the wonderful readers out there in on my life as an MFA student at The New School. I’m the only second year Bloc member, and therefore the only one with a bit of insight into the thesis semester. For those of you out there considering The New School’s Writing for Children MFA program (which, if you aren’t, you should be), the thesis semester is an independent construction by each individual student. You acquire a thesis advisor – either a professor in our program, or an outsider – you form a peer group and create your own schedule of what and when you want to submit. You can send in pages as often or as little as you want, as long as you meet your goal. (New School requires a minimum of seventy five pages in order to graduate.) I opted to search outside of the program for my advisor, and ended up with a wonderful editor from Penguin Books. I wanted a new, fresh set of eyes on my work, and I couldn’t be happier with my advisor. Seriously.

In fact, I submitted the first ninety seven pages of my YA novel to my advisor last week, and we had our first meeting this week. All I can say: the ideas are a-flowing! My creative juices are pumping, and I know exactly what my next step is.

However, my task at hand isn’t exactly a picnic in Central Park (by the way, planning a picnic in Central Park is actually harder then one would think). My advisor told me that my characters are really strong and wonderful and that she loved getting to view the world through their eyes. She said I have a very strong storyline and great themes, but I that basically have to change the ground they walk on and the backdrop around them.

There are two major problems:

1) They are too old. College is a tricky time for YA, and generally treads adult fiction territory.

2) There is too much time from start to end; I need to compress the time-span.

What totally sucks is that in the back of my mind I knew all of this before I even sent her the pages. Okay, well, maybe I didn’t explicitly know what needed to be changed. I just knew that something was off. Something major. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And then I get my changes in an e-mail, and I knew right off the bat. Like the cliched old light bulb above my head, she had pulled the chain and suddenly it all made sense.

What’s even worse? That what she told me was what I had originally envisioned when I planned my preliminary notes on the novel and what I wanted it to be. Of course, when I started writing, my fingers and heart got the best of my brain and my notes, and set the whole thing in the winter, a whole year and a half from where I envisioned it.

It might seem like an easy enough task to switch from winter to summer, or to change a character’s age from 19 to 18, but let me tell you: it’s NOT. One might think it’s as effortless as changing “the slushy streets of New York” to “the glittering, sun-kissed streets of New York” or “piles of mountainous snow” to “piles of mountainous garbage,” but it’s not that simple. You have to think of clothing and catch every reference to a scarf or hat-and-gloves. You have to think of the temperature degree in the air and how it effects word choice. You have to think of the thematic schematics behind winter and summer and how it effects the overall arc of your story and its characters. In summation, it’s a bitch.

So what do I do?

I’ve already committed to making this the best thing I’ve ever written. So that means I have to get down to business, put my nose to the grindstone, get my hands dirty, employ every other clichéd sentiment to express hard work and get to work!

The good thing about all of this is that I have a clear vision of what needs to be done. I just know that it’s going to take my novel to the next level. And it doesn’t exactly hurt when an editor at a major publishing house tells you that she fell in love with your characters, especially the protagonist and his struggles. That’s just validation on top of a sort-of-half-cooked cake.

What’s next? I have to switch gears and change the setting from college to the summer between high school and college, picking up directly after graduation. That, and making sure I melt all the snow and heat up my pages. Hopefully the sticky, summer sun will spice things up and take them to that next level.

I have until February 11th to completely alter my characters’ world, make them a year younger, and finish the first (totally reworked) third of my novel. Excuse me while I wipe the sweat from my brow — and get to work.

Building A Steampunk Americana: Dhonielle’s New World

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On January - 24 - 2011

 Building A Steampunk Americana: Dhonielle’s New WorldWhen I start a fantasy project that takes place in another universe or an alternate version of our world, the fabric of the setting is usually based around my fears. I like to write about the things that scare me in tandem with things that I find fascinating. For my current work-in-progress, I am wrestling with graveyards, dead bodies, doctor’s tools, haunted lands, chain gangs, uncontrolled natural elements, fairs, and maniacal toys/machinery. Whew! It seems that I am afraid of a lot of things these days. I am juxtaposing those fears with things that interest me like dirigibles, the devil, the revolutionary change in life during the late 1800s, machinery, clockwork, watches, and a steampunk reality integrated with American sensibilities.

This world isn’t created entirely from scratch. It takes place in early 19th century America in a rural town outside of Chicago. I think the week I spent in Dekalb, IL, for a training session a couple years back was a slight inspiration: cornfields, a Walmart full of, let’s say interesting, folk, and miles and miles of nothing.

My goal is to blend all things Americana with all things steampunk. Americana is an amalgam of items distinctive about America–folk music, legends, wise-sayings, superstitions, art etc..that relate to the history, geography, and cultural heritage of the United States. So my middle grade fantasy is chock-full of “American” things: small town bigotry (ha!), the expansion of the railroad, a reinterpretation of the legend of John Henry, carnival and fair culture, and a dust-bowl-like town. I am attempting to merge this early American reality with steampunk iconography, such as dirigibles, data processing machines, steam-powered machines, automatons, a spooky, gas-lit atmosphere, and Victorian-esque technological hobnobs and thingamabobs.

Fantasy projects always start with the world for me as a writer. Even though I know, as most good writing books and creative writing professor say, it should start with a strong character. My imagination goes wild crafting the world and then somewhere down the line, in the early stages of percolating ideas, I stumble upon the character in the world. My steampunk Americana world features a surly little girl who rides a rusty bicycle and is being hunted because she has a particular gift. I am 75 pages from the end of this book and hope to be sending it out as soon as possible. Here’s to hoping the merge of two distinctive worlds works!

Photo Credit: Matt Girdler

A Spiral of Strange: Mary on Building a World for One Boy

Posted by Mary G. Thompson On January - 22 - 2011
Window.Scalise1 200x300 A Spiral of Strange: Mary on Building a World for One Boy

Photo by Filomena Scalise

When Dhonielle suggested that some of us fantasy/sci-fi types write about world-building, she had me scratching my head. I’d never thought about “world-building” as such. In my mind, everything starts with a character in a simple scene. As that character moves, his world expands as far as he needs it to. As the story grows, the world spirals outward and outward, until it contains all the details of the character’s life — and of course, all the monsters or aliens or wacky people he needs to meet.

In my upcoming book, Wuftoom, I first imagined the boy, Evan. I saw him on his bed in his dark room, his body twisted with membranes. I saw the boarded-over window and behind the closed door to the bathroom, the disgusting, worm-like creature. It wasn’t long before Evan’s town began to grow, both above the ground and underneath.

The same has been true for all of the books behind Wuftoom in my queue — they all start with a simple scene and grow outward. I can’t imagine trying to build a world without having that frame of reference. What would Oz have been without Dorothy? Would the Golden Compass have mattered without Lyra? I’ll never know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if L. Frank Baum first saw a little girl standing in the Kansas wind.

Of course, everything doesn’t just happen. All of us here at Teen Writers Bloc wish it were that easy! Once I’ve finished with the first draft, I go back through the manuscript multiple times to check that all the descriptions are consistent and that all the rules of the world make sense. That part is a lot of fun, because it’s like putting together a puzzle. I’ve solved problems like: How do you travel into someone else’s mind? What happens when you open a portal on spaceship? What powers a time machine?

Ultimately, my readers will be the judge of how well I’ve built my worlds. I can only hope that they make sense and that other people will have as much fun thinking about how they work as I do.

A Cloudy Purple Sky Inspired Amy’s Organically Built World

Posted by Amy Ewing On January - 21 - 2011

 A Cloudy Purple Sky Inspired Amy’s Organically Built WorldWhen Dhonielle first suggested to me that I write a blog about how, as a fantasy writer, I created the world for my current work-in-progress, I tried to come up with some sort of witty analogy. The best I could think of is it’s like making a cake without using a recipe, and with no clear idea of what a cake actually looks like.

My story came out of one scene — three characters in a dark and mysterious clearing with a purple sky. That was it. Initially, I had no overarching plot lines or clear cut themes. I didn’t even have a villain. But out of that one little scene, a thousand questions sprouted, each one needing a answer and an explanation. So, I spent two days not writing a thing, just plotting out the world. I knew there were at least two different races (eventually I called  them Tribes) that were not human. That number jumped from two to seven. Then each Tribe had to be given its own identity and its own history. If they had any sort of magic (and, by the end, they all did) it had to be catalogued, it had to be consistent, and it had to add something to the overall plot of the story—in short, everything had to exist for a reason.

The problem for me is, I write organically. Most of my best ideas have come while I’m writing them, not as a result of premeditation. Sometimes, I can’t even see a place until I get there, until the words appear on the page in front of me and I relax and think, “Of course. That’s what the Haven looks like.” I’ve created characters that I thought would be important who no longer exist, and characters that I just made up to get my main character from point A to point B who have become central to the entire story. What I’ve learned is that there has to be flexibility within the framework — I can’t have one without the other. I have to know where I’m going, but not necessarily how I’ll get there. It’s a huge responsibility. Most of these characters I’ve lived with for almost two years. I literally have their lives in my hands. It’s exhilarating and terrifying, at the same time.

Every fantasy writer draws from different mythologies, and I have to thank my mother for making the slightly bizarre choice of reading me Greek myths as bedtime stories. And my brother, for giving me The Lord of the Rings as a Christmas gift one year.

Fantasy might be nerdy, with all its magical terminology and oddly named places and supremely evil villains, but it’s also about finding yourself, about discovering who you are and what you are capable of. That’s what has really drawn me to this genre. And it’s just as fun to write as it is to read. Every day, I get to sit down at my computer and see where my imagination will take me. And more often than not, the result is surprising.

pixel A Cloudy Purple Sky Inspired Amy’s Organically Built World
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