Teen Writers Bloc

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

Jean-Paul’s Past is Not Perfect

Posted by JeanPaul Bass On January - 14 - 2013

past present future Jean Pauls Past is Not PerfectI have a problem with the past. I didn’t know I had a problem, though, until I started writing. The majority of my stories are told in the past tense. Writing in present tense just isn’t my style and a story told in future tense would make me crazy. So there are a lot of she was, he went, they looked, etc. My problem comes when I get into flashbacks and memories. There, I seem to get caught up in the narrative and forget to keep it in the past perfect tense which indicates that it had all happened before the present story. Which causes my readers to get lost in time and makes me cringe when someone points it out to me.

It all starts out fine, but halfway through I inevitably drop the ball. My had hads turn into just had; instead of she had found it becomes she found, and so on. I thought the problem was that I was writing too fast and not paying attention, or that my schooling had failed me by not teaching me proper grammar, or perhaps that I was just a tense doofus. Then I learned about the historical present tense. Most English speakers have a tendency to begin a story in the past tense and finish in the present tense and linguists call talking about past events in the present tense using the historical present. We begin in the past to orient our audience with the who, where, and when, and then move into the present when the action ramps up. To steal an example from Lexicon Valley, the podcast where I learned about the historical present, check out the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer is telling everyone what happened to him on the bus when he tries to take a woman’s severed toe to the hospital to be reattached. It starts in the past “I found the toe…” and switches to the present “So I’m driving the bus…” So, if Kramer can get away with shifting tenses in the middle of a story, then why can’t I?

Well, there are a few reasons why I can’t – the most important ones being consistency and not confusing the reader – but I don’t let it bug me too much anymore. We all do it at some point, mine just happens to show up in my writing. And when I notice the flashback moving out of past perfect into the past, that’s when I know I’m writing something really exciting.

Jean-Paul’s Three Easy Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

Posted by JeanPaul Bass On December - 13 - 2012

three fingers Jean Pauls Three Easy Steps to Becoming a Better WriterHow to become a better writer in 3 easy steps (or, what I learned this semester):

1. Be open. Sometimes, the story just isn’t working. Don’t be afraid to start all over. Putting glitter and a bow on a turd makes it pretty, sure, but it’s still a turd. All of the editing, rewriting, and revising in the world isn’t going to make a story better if the core of it, meaning the characterizations, the plots, the dialogue, is all clichéd and uninspired. I had an idea and wrote pages and pages and pages on it; over three hundred pages, in fact! And I had to throw them all away. On the second attempt, I wrote about five chapters and I had to throw them away, too. It wasn’t until the third try did everything start coming together. I changed the location, the ages, and personalities of the characters. The main story stayed the same, but the events leading up to it changed. Instead of a rambling prologue, I inserted the most relevant parts into the story, allowing the information to unfold naturally. And now, finally, the story is becoming what I always imagined it could be. So, be open to letting things go. Be open to giving up on something if writing has become a punishment instead of something you enjoy. Be open to starting fresh if that’s what it will take to make the story a good one.

2. Try new things. A few months ago, I had never done an outline, or written chapter two before writing chapter one, or done any sort character development exercises, such as figuring out a character’s like and dislikes, what scares them and what excites them, etc. But after rewriting the same story three times (see No. 1), I knew I needed help. So I gave outlining a try. I found some different outlines that seemed to work for my story, cobbled them together into one perfect outline, and filled it in. Now I could see the bigger picture. I knew why each chapter, each sentence was important. Everything fell into place.

And when I got to the sections that I just didn’t feel like writing, I took some advice from my friends and skipped them so I could get to the parts that excited me. Forcing myself to write the sections I thought of as boring was only going to make those sections boring. So I decided to write them later and work on the parts I couldn’t wait to write. If I hadn’t skipped ahead, I’d probably still be working on that missing section, stuck in an endless loop of trying to turn lead into gold by editing, rewriting, and revising something that just wasn’t working.

As I was working on the third attempt, I noticed I was writing my characters in ways that worked for the plot but made them act out of character. So it was back to the drawing board because I didn’t know my characters well enough to keep them consistent. I had to try some exercises to get to know them better and it worked. Now their reactions are authentic and they don’t come across as weak when I want them to be strong. I needed to spend more time with them, get to know them, outside of the story so that I would know how they would act in the story.

3. Share. I cannot express how much sharing fuels creativity and makes you a better writer. Sharing what you’ve written or ideas and talking them through with someone lets you see the flaws in your story and come up with ways to fix them. In class, someone pointed out a clichéd scene and while we were discussing it, I came up with a brilliant new idea that was totally fresh and made the story exciting. If I hadn’t shared the scene so that we could discuss our thoughts, I would have never been able to see it from someone else’s perspective or had that epiphany. And sharing with another also gives you feedback on what you’re doing right, so that you can do it again and again and again, all the way to the end.

Why does Caela write the most during football Season? (Also: Go Irish!)

Posted by Caela Carter On December - 4 - 2012

 Why does Caela write the most during football Season? (Also: Go Irish!)This fall, for the first time in 24 years, my beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team is ranked #1, has a 12 and 0 record, and is heading to the National Championship in  Miami in January to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide in a fight for the crystal football.

(For you non-sporty people, that means they played twelve games, won them all, and get a chance to become this season’s champions.)

Twenty-four years ago, I admit I didn’t pay all that much attention to college football. I was a six-year-old girl. (Although, if you asked me, I would have told you I liked Notre Dame.) So, to me and everyone in my generation, this feels pretty remarkable.

But, this fall, other than the success of my football team, our recent graduation from The New School, and my new marriage, life was usual.

 Why does Caela write the most during football Season? (Also: Go Irish!)My husband (who is thankfully also an Irish alum) and I attended five football games — three at Notre Dame, one in Boston, and one in Dublin, Ireland, which we fit in on the way to our honeymoon. At the end of our honeymoon, after traveling for 24 straight hours home from Crete, we watched the Michigan State game on only a slight delay before getting some sleep. The next weekend, I was at a beautiful wedding and I spent the reception as one of four heads bent over the same iPhone to watch the Michigan game streaming live. (I felt slightly bad about this until the bride called out to me to ask about the score.) And suffice it to say, I lost my voice shouting at the TV in the Public House in New York City during the Oklahoma and USC games.

But my football commitment goes beyond simply watching and attending the Notre Dame games. My family spent hours of Thanksgiving Day talking about who would go to which bowls. My friends and I email/Facebook/Tweet constantly about this subject. My husband and I, along with our friends Linda and Nestor, wrote a musical tribute to our star defensive player, Manti Te’o, to the tune of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite.” And, in some ways, this year’s time commitment has barely taken its toll because the Fifth Annual Carter Bowl (in which the members of my family pick teams and then trash talk brutally for the entirety of bowl season, all in a fight for the Carter Bowl trophy, pictured above — and, yes, that is a toilet bowl…) has not yet begun!

And yet, somehow, this was fall-as-usual for me in one other way. This year, for the third year in a row, I wrote the bulk of an entire draft of a novel during football season. In fact, during fall of 2010, (I attended four football games, moved to New York from Chicago, and spent every other Saturday watching football non-stop) I managed to complete my first draft of Me, Him, Them and It, which will become my debut novel when Bloomsbury publishes it this winter.

The past two years I marveled at this productivity. I thought to myself, “Imagine what I will accomplish in the winter when my brain can be consumed entirely by writing.”

But not this year. This year, I peer nervously ahead toward the winter months. Because in the past years, winter, spring and summer have not been ripe with words and inspiration the way I have planned. In some trick-math equation, more time does not equal more pages. So instead, I have to wonder, “why am I most productive during football season?”

Perhaps it’s simply the fall. As someone used to being on a school-schedule, maybe I’m just most productive when the leaves change because that was always the symbol of fresh starts and a new year. But, I don’t think so.

Maybe it’s that football provides some sort of structure for me. I always work hardest when there is a reward in store: write five pages today, go out to dinner tonight. But anyone who has followed a team like Notre Dame knows that this doesn’t necessarily work the same way. Because you are going to watch the game whether or not you deserve it. And because you approach the game with trepidation, unsure of whether it will be reward or torture.

No, after much thought, I’ve concluded that it’s pretty simple. I’m most productive during football season because I’m happiest. I mean, I’m a pretty darn happy woman in general, but during football season, even when we’re losing, I always know what my plans are on Saturday. In the moments that I’m being driven crazy by the world falling into the torrents of political upheaval and violence, I can always distract myself with a somewhat more trivial article on ESPN.com. And most importantly, my geographically disparate friends and family somehow feel a little closer when I know exactly what they’re all doing for at least four-hours of each week. (But it’s better when we’re winning.)

And, for me, happiness, more than time, leads to pages.

So now I just need to figure out something to create this much happiness in the winter. And don’t say basketball. I don’t have time for that!

Photo (and trophy) credit: Rich Carter

the book thief 194x300 Jane Envies Markus Zusaks Depth in Character Construction in The Book ThiefI love stories that are told from a unique point of view. The main character could have Asperger’s, like Caitlin in Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird, or could be autistic like Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. The narrator of the story doesn’t even have to be human. In Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann, the story is told by a group of sheep who attempt to solve the murder of their shepherd. Or the narrator may not actually exist, like Budo in Matthew Dicks’s Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend.

When I was asked which book was the one I wish I had written, I immediately thought of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The story is narrated by Death, who tells the tale of Liesel, who is raised by a foster family in Munich, Germany during World War II. I absolutely loved how Zusak’s writing brought out so many emotions. I felt the apprehension when Liesel stole her first book. There were sections that were so hilarious that I actually laughed out loud and parts that made me cry.

The characters in The Book Thief were amazing. They all had multiple layers to their personalities, just like real people. Liesel’s foster mother appeared to be rough and unsophisticated, but you could tell she cared for Liesel. I could immediately tell that Rudy, the boy who constantly teased Liesel, had a crush on her. Even Death was more than just a collector of souls. It felt sympathy for the people who lost their lives and the ones who had to deal with what came afterward.

I would love to be able to write like Markus Zusak. I want to give my characters the same kind of depth and I want my readers to react to my stories the way I did towards The Book Thief. I have a long way to go before I can accomplish this, but the only route to getting there is to keep practicing.

Image courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf

new school Guest Blogger Ghenet Myrthil Responds to Marys Question of Low Expectations

I’ve followed Teen Writers Bloc pretty much since its inception, and what I’ve loved most about it is the variety of perspectives the bloggers provide on their experience as writers and MFA students. I graduated from The New School Writing for Children program in 2010, and it’s been fun to read their posts and reminisce about my own time there.

The question the bloggers are tackling this month has to do with whether this MFA program is worthwhile. After reading Mary’s response, I realized how different my experience in the program was compared to hers.

Some things haven’t changed. The program still has its benefits and drawbacks, which I’m sure is true of many graduate programs. Like Mary, I didn’t find the adult literature class I took to be very useful, and I was equally offended by the administration’s assumption that children’s literature writers aren’t real writers unless they study adult lit. What a load of crap!

Also, like Mary, the main reason I loved the program was because of the writers I formed a community with while there. The support I receive from them even now, two years later, is invaluable. Not all twelve of us keep in touch anymore, but the five that I do keep in touch with are awesome.

One point Mary made in her post gave me pause:

“Finally, there’s the problem of low expectations. If you wanted to, you could graduate from the program without ever having completed a novel. The thesis requirement is only fifty pages. You could literally write only fifty pages in the entire program and still graduate.” 

Here’s where I respectfully disagree, and where my experience in the program differed.

I agree that MFA applicants need to decide what their expectations are before entering a program like this, because a lot of it is what you make of it. However, I don’t agree with the idea that if you don’t complete a novel by the end of the program, your expectations are too low. It’s not so black and white. The creative section of my thesis was only seventy pages (18,000 words). I certainly wrote way more than seventy pages over the course of the program (since I started several projects before deciding to focus on one), but I didn’t complete an entire novel.

There were two main reasons for this. One was a lack of time. I had a full-time job while in the program, and was also planning my wedding, so I found it hard to write every day. Along with all of the other program requirements (reading a book a week, critiquing several submissions a week, attending readings, and of course attending class), it was a lot to juggle. Second, I had never written a novel before. I entered the program having only ever written short stories.


My personal expectation for the program was to learn more about kid lit (through the literature classes), improve my writing (through the workshops) and get as far into a novel as I could. I would have loved to finish an entire novel, and I wrote as much as I could, but a completed manuscript wasn’t in the cards.


Despite that, I was so proud of my thesis! And I’ve since finished and revised that book. What I really wanted out of the program was to kick start my career, and it did just that.So while I agree that you do have to think about WHY you want to get an MFA and WHAT you want to accomplish, it’s okay if you don’t end up completing a whole manuscript. In fact, I was one of many people in my class who only submitted portions of manuscripts for their theses and completed their books after the program ended. At the time, none of my classmates had agents or book deals. Many of us (myself included) are still working toward that goal. None of us are unmotivated. We were just at an earlier stage of our careers while at The New School. We took our time getting the pages we wrote for our theses right.

One thing that’s very clear about the Class of 2012 is that they are a very motivated and productive bunch. I’m seriously impressed by how they’ve supported each other and pushed one another to write so much. I’m sure they’ll have long and successful careers, and I feel the same way about my old classmates! If there’s one thing I’ve learned from getting an MFA, and being a writer in general, it’s that everyone follows their own journey and writes at their own pace.

Thanks, Teen Writers Bloc, for letting me share my experience!

me Guest Blogger Ghenet Myrthil Responds to Marys Question of Low Expectations

Ghenet Myrthil is a 2010 graduate of The New School Writing for Children program. She’s currently seeking representation for her contemporary young adult novel. You can find her blogging at www.ghenetmyrthil.com and tweeting @ghenet

Covers Race in YA from a Biracial Perspective    Guest Blogger Jean Paul Bass Weighs in on the IssueI grew up reading Barbara Park, Louis Sachar, Baby-Sitters Club, S. E. Hinton, Paula Danzinger, Beverly Cleary, the American Girls series, and Lois Lowry. Some of my favorite books from childhood are The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Just as Long as We’re Together and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great by Judy Blume, the Anne of Green Gables series, Behind the Attic Wall by Sylvia Cassedy, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, and Betsy Byers’s The Summer of the Swans. So I had a pretty eclectic taste in books, but one thing never varied: pretty much all of the books and authors I liked focused solely on white characters. If there was a non-white character, s/he was usually around to teach the white kids a lesson on race or tolerance or just a peripheral character who happened to be ethnic, but usually not the main character. (Some of the authors/books/series mentioned above did feature non-white characters, but that was pretty rare and even rarer for the main character to be non-white.)

So I know I should be lamenting the lack of diversity in the books I read as a kid and how it made me think less of myself, but honestly, it didn’t bother me or affect my self-image growing up. I never read books looking for characters that were just like me because I didn’t want to read about me, a poor, biracial girl living with an abusive white mother in an economically-depressed and uneducated black neighborhood who was made fun of for attending mostly-white private schools. I knew that story inside and out and didn’t want to read about it while I was still living it. Books were my escape, my chance to see how normal people lived because my life was very abnormal.

I grew up seeing myself as neither black nor white, but as a mixture of both, and so it didn’t matter what race the characters were so long as they took me away from the problems of real life. But now, as an adult, I realize those books did have an impact on me. As a writer, it’s so easy for me to fall into the default white trap. Creating racially diverse characters is a conscious effort and I have to actively work to make sure that my stories represent people of all skin colors.

When I come up with a new idea, I generally don’t think about race. As I start writing and getting to know my characters, sometimes a light bulb goes off and I think, hey, wouldn’t it be cool if everyone was black or mixed-race like me? But why do I think writing a book about non-whites is a novelty? It all comes back to the books I read growing up. Even though I wasn’t bothered by the lack of diversity as a child, it subconsciously left an impression on me and made me prewired to assume my own characters are white, which is troubling since I’m not even fully-white myself.

In my own writing, I sometimes get a bit heavy-handed with my character descriptions. I feel like I have to shove it in the reader’s face that these characters are not white because if it isn’t explicitly stated, then people will just assume everyone’s white. And, frankly, I’m tired of reading stories exclusively about white people as if people of color don’t exist. We do, and our stories need to be told, too. I now recognize the importance of including a racially diverse cast of characters. Nowadays, I get excited when I find a book with a biracial main character and if the character is female, it’s even better. It feels good to be represented in literature.

Guest blogger Jean-Paul Bass recently decided to quit her job to focus on writing full-time and she swears she doesn’t miss having a regular paycheck at all. She is currently working on her MFA in fiction at The New School and writing a memoir about growing up in Cleveland, Ohio.   

Photo Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic, HarperCollins, Viking, Dell Yearling, and Puffin

Spring Cleaning: Mary Denies Her Problems

Posted by Mary G. Thompson On April - 18 - 2012

12406pgephldncy Spring Cleaning: Mary Denies Her ProblemsOkay, this month we’re supposed to write about bad writing habits or problems. What, me problems? Because I’m a subscriber to Scientific American Mind, I know I’m not unique in bearing this psychological trait: I’m sure that none of my problems are really my problems. Which is to say, they’re not my fault. Which is to say:

I’m not lazy, I’m just tired.

I’m not procrastinating, I’m percolating.

I’m not surfing the Internet, I’m researching.

I’m not sleeping, I’m active dreaming.

I’m not reading, I’m learning my craft.

I get headaches, so sue me.

Do you have any Excedrin? I’m out.

I said, do you have any Excedrin?



It’s not my fault you didn’t give me any Excedrin. I really can’t be held responsible for my actions. For example, why has my nice book about some kids prancing around in a fantasy world suddenly turned into a senseless bloodbath involving body parts and spurting guts? Possibly it has something to do with the way THIS COMPUTER SCREEN IS GIVING OFF SO MUCH *&(#*& LIGHT!

[Four hours later.] In all seriousness folks, I could work more. I know that some people think I already work a lot, but it’s not good enough. I still spend way too much time being tired, percolating, researching, active dreaming, and of course, learning my craft. I could blame the headaches, insomnia, distractions, work-work, or my stuffed pink pig. But the truth is, I should just try to buck up and work more. Probably that means I’m going to have to start getting up earlier. Also, I should actually do the things on today’s to-do list instead of just moving them to tomorrow over and over again. Finally, I should work more. There aren’t really any gnomes inside my head making me forget what I’m doing and play ping-pong with them. That’s just a story I made up to avoid writing another 1000 words today. But now that you mention it, I think I will play another game.

Image Credit: Simon Howden

Two Female Authors Who Have Sona Aspiring To Greater Lyricism

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On March - 29 - 2012

290382 Two Female Authors Who Have Sona Aspiring To Greater LyricismOkay, I’ll admit it. For the longest time, I would deny — to anyone who cared enough to ask — that I had a book in me. The idea of writing something so engrossing, so candid, so artful as a novel? Nope, not me. I couldn’t do that. I just didn’t have it in me.

It’s not an inferiority complex. Really, it’s not. But as intelligent as the SATs and GREs might deem me, I’ve always been fluff. That’s long been my thing. Writing about entertainment for a living sort of sealed my fate, in a way. And then, writing scripts, it was never that heavy, pedantic, indie route for me. It was go big or go home. High concept all the way, baby. Or as my husband likes to say, I’m all masala, all the time.

Which is why, two years ago, when he suggested I go to grad school to get my MFA, I scoffed. I wasn’t the MFA-type. I was hardly literary, after all. But I’m thankful I went, and I’m grateful for the astounding variety of books I’ve had the pleasure of reading through this program (including my classmates’ own). Books that are sometimes as deceptively fluffy as my own, and books that sometimes cut to the very bone.

So all of this is my typically long-winded way of saying that there have been countless authors, some male, but mostly female (again — including my classmates!), that have inspired me to — now that I have maybe, kind of accepted that I have a book (or perhaps a dozen) in me — try to temper all that masala with a maybe a small dose of lyricism.

Because the startling beauty of their way with words leaves me a bit breathless, a bit wistful, a bit hopeful that someday, maybe, I could write something that might also make someone stop and ponder, for just a second, something that hits so close to home.

Here are two very different writers who have caused me to just that:

Laurie Halse Anderson: I read Speak for the first time when I was in college, and the book shocked and moved me. It was so understated, you almost missed what happened all together. And yet, every page carried the pain of that life-changing experience on it. It was art, the way LHA wove that tale together, so seemingly effortless yet carefully crafted. And in my first semester at the New School, in David Levithan’s class, we read her latest, Wintergirls. Through that book, I learned how the so-called “problem novel” could be elevated to so much more than that, how one character’s story could illuminate a whole world, how structure and story could meld seamlessly into something that could stick with the reader possibly forever.

Kamila Shamsie: You won’t find Pakistani writer Shamsie’s works at your local Barnes & Noble. Her books, like Salt And Saffron and Kartography, are just too foreign, too literary, too flightful. But it’s definitely worth tracking down, if you can. She creates sprawling family sagas with startling parallels and gorgeous, understated language — all while touching down to the mundane, like that instant crush on a boy you just met, in the most lyrical of ways.

What books have aspired you to make your own writing better?

Photo courtesy Bloomsbury

Debut Author Interview: Aimee Agresti Talks ‘Illuminate’

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On March - 23 - 2012

illuminate 400x600 Debut Author Interview: Aimee Agresti Talks IlluminateWay back in the day, when I was just starting out in journalism, I worked briefly with Aimee Agresti, who was then an editor at the since-shuttered but always fabulous Premiere magazine. So when I heard that Aimee was releasing her first novel, the hotly-anticiapated Illuminate, the first in a trilogy, I knew we had to nab her for a quick chat for TeenWritersBloc.com. Thankfully, she graciously agreed! Herewith, Aimee!

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

Hi there! Thanks for having me! Before Illuminate, I was a writer firmly entrenched in the world of facts, so the leap to fiction has been a great new adventure. I majored in journalism at Northwestern and spent years writing for entertainment magazines, which was just as fun as it sounds! Most recently I was a staff writer for Us Weekly, a fabulous place full of great people. But I always dreamed of writing novels. I grew up reading everything in sight so writing Illuminate and seeing it on the shelves now has all been such a thrill!

Can you give us a quick synopsis of  Illuminate? How did you come up with the concept for the book? 

Sure! Illuminate is about a teen angel who’s forced to battle a pack of gorgeous, soul-stealing devils and ends up falling in love with one of them. But, of course, there’s so much more to it than that! Illuminate is a wonderful stew of so many things I adore. The first germ of the idea came from my love of The Picture of Dorian Gray. I thought it would be fascinating to update it and kept thinking, What would you have given your soul for when you were in high school? Then I added a few twists, some angels and devils, and, most importantly, a strong heroine. I grew up on Nancy Drew mysteries and loved Nancy’s fearlessness and confidence. I wanted my protagonist to be a girl who didn’t necessarily start out so sure of herself, but who became a force to be reckoned with by the end.

The book is set in a hotel. How did you decide on that for the setting? And you’re writing about angels and devils — did you dig into the canon on this?

I went to college in Chicago and I always knew it would be the perfect place to set a mystery. I loved its wild history — Capone, prohibition, and all those amazing tunnels beneath the city. What better place to serve as a backdrop for all sorts of sinister goings-on?

To get access to those tunnels AND to give my characters a fun place to call home, I decided to resurrect the Lexington Hotel — which is no longer standing. I liked the glamour element that came with living in a hotel. Dorian Gray is full of beauty and luxury, he lives in a pretty posh pad, so I wanted the setting to be special. I did look at old pictures of the Lexington but, since it no longer exists, I gave myself carte blanche to modernize it and make all sorts of changes. Illuminate‘s Lexington is a newly renovated version. (Capone sure didn’t have a spa when he lived there!)

As for the angels and devils: I wanted my characters to be angels because I thought learning to fly was a great metaphor for growing up. Since these are my particular angels and devils, I created some new myths and legends and history for them. I’m hoping readers come to the book ready to watch a whole new world unfold!

If I’m not mistaken, Illuminate is the first in a series. Can you talk about the challenges of planning ahead for books two, three, and so on?

I always envisioned Illuminate as the beginning of a trilogy. There are three tests these characters need to complete to earn their wings, so each book represents one of those tests. I’ve, of course, never written a series before, so I have a whole new appreciation now for all those authors who have done it so well!

There’s a lot of planning involved. I always need to map everything out, that’s just how I roll, I tend to outline like crazy before I start writing. But even so, there are certain little bits that I had planned for Book Two that went into Illuminate. And now, as I’m working on Book Two, there are certain bits that I was saving for Book Three that I can’t resist using now. Even with so much planning, you still have to let a book lead you sometimes!

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

Good questions! When I’m in Total Writing Mode, I have to admit, I become a little anti-social! I tend to stay tucked away in my apartment pretty much chained to my laptop from morning until mid-afternoon and I try to stay off of email, too. At some point, to prevent from becoming a complete recluse, I’ll emerge for a coffee break. And when I need a change of scenery, I’ll head to a museum to write. I live in DC, surrounded by the Smithsonians, and I absolutely love to write in the courtyard of the Portrait Gallery.

I tend to stop working in the late afternoon/early evening, but if it’s going especially well then I’ll pick things back up again at night, which can be the most wonderful, peaceful time to write.

Of course, this is my schedule in theory. It doesn’t always go so smoothly! I’ve had to amend it a little bit while working on the sequel to Illuminate because I had a baby boy a few months ago! He calls the shots!

Aimee Agresti new website photo 333x465 214x300 Debut Author Interview: Aimee Agresti Talks IlluminateWhat has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the process for you? 

The most surprising part of the process has probably been how well-cared for I’ve been. My editor is absolutely fantastic and I’ve learned so much from her. My agent is actually a friend of mine and she’s been so wonderful guiding me through every step of the way. And the whole team at HMH has been tremendous — from the fabulous cover designer to the publicist, who has been such a true champion of the book. I’m a lucky girl!

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

Write, write, write! The great thing about writing is that the more you do it, the better you get. I wrote so many unpublished stories before this, but I know that all of that work made me better. And I like to think that every time I sit down at my laptop, I continue to get better.

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

The Catcher in the Rye was my all-time favorite as a teen and it still is. I still reread it all the time, I love Holden Caulfield! But I had so many favorites as a kid: Alice in WonderlandLittle Women, the entire Nancy Drew series, Roald Dahl’s The Witches, so many!

Right now, I have a towering to-be-read pile and I’m always hopelessly behind. I just took a tiny break from YA to finally, finally, finally read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. (I know, so late, forgive me!) And now I’m back to YA and just started The Catastrophic History of You and Me by Jess Rothenberg. A girl who dies of a broken heart?! Such a brilliant premise.

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

I’m working on the sequel to Illuminate right now. It should be out next year! You can keep tabs on it at aimeeagresti.com!

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

I love writers supporting each other in any way or form — whether it’s championing each other’s work in the blogosphere or whether it’s actually taking a critical look at something before it’s a finished product. For me, I find it comforting to connect with folks who are sharing an experience, and, though it isn’t any formal group, I’ve been lucky to have a few individual writers I go to to compare notes on navigating the world of publishing and to talk about our work. We tend to share our writing before it’s out in the world, but after we’ve done a good amount of revising and feel it’s in pretty good shape.

When it comes to getting real, solid constructive criticism on early drafts, I turn to my trusted first reader: my sister, Karen! She’s extremely well-read, has a sharp eye, and is honest. She’ll tell me if certain things aren’t working. She’ll pinpoint what I need more or less of. She asks great questions and gives me the kinds of notes I need to hear. I listen to her, and I’m always glad that I do! Our deal is that she reads a draft, prepares her notes and then I take her out to dinner and we talk about it all. It’s a good time!

Thanks Aimee, for taking the time to chat with us! We’re so excited to check out the series! 

Cover Image courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Author Photo courtesy Aimee Agresti/Rouse Photography Group

man holding question mark In Writing Ethnicity, Jane Wonders If Shell Truly Be Able to RepresentWhile I was growing up, most of the characters in the books I had read were portrayed as white. In fact, the only book I can recall having an ethnic main character was Cassie Logan, a nine-year-old African American girl, from Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I wouldn’t have even known about this book if it hadn’t been assigned in the seventh grade. Not only was I fascinated by how the main character was not white, but that she was also strong. I was impressed.

I was in high school the first time I saw a book written by an Asian author. When I saw The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan on the library shelf, I picked it up only because I recognized that her name was Chinese. As soon as I saw her photograph on the back cover, I checked the book out, not even bothering to find out what the story was about. I felt the ethnic connection to Amy Tan’s characters from the very first page. Later on, I began seeing more and more books with Asian narrators on the shelves. I read everything I could find.

Even though I read all the books I could find that had Asian narrators, I never thought about making my own main character anything but white. When my classmates encouraged me to try writing a story with an Asian character, I felt like I was being pushed into an area where I wasn’t comfortable, so I resisted. At first, I thought it was because I spent so much of my life in America and I just didn’t feel I knew my own culture well enough to write about it.

But then I began to re-read some of the books I had discovered during my younger years and I noticed that the all Asian narrators appeared to have similar characteristics. They had non-Asian friends and they were disconnected from their culture. They tried to hide from their friends how “weird” their families were for practicing Asian traditions. Apparently, Asian authors aren’t comfortable making their characters truly Asian. I guess I shouldn’t worry about not being able to write about an Asian narrator.

I’m trying to change. Although the main character in my most recent story is not fully Asian, it is part of her background. Her grandmother is Korean and she is closely connected to her culture. I’m not ready to make my narrator 100% Asian, but I’m hoping I can make that happen in one of my future books.

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

pixel In Writing Ethnicity, Jane Wonders If Shell Truly Be Able to Represent

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