“Playing Keira,” a long story short

The first thing I ever had published was a short story I wrote for my 10th grade English class called “Goodbye, Annabel,” which won a local contest and got printed in the newspaper. It was a portrait of a ten-year-old girl saying goodbye to her ragdoll before being sent to boarding school, and unless you were immune to symbolism hitting you on the forehead with a hammer, you got that she was really saying goodbye to childhood. (Nobody questioned why a ten-year-old girl would be sent to boarding school in this day and age, and they gave me fifty bucks in prize money, which I promptly blew on Duran Duran cassette tapes and Swedish fish at the White Plains Galleria.)

I wrote many more short stories throughout high school and then at college, in the undergraduate Creative Writing program at Brown. Some were pretty good. Many were pretentious and inauthentic and I cringe to even think about them now. It wasn’t until my last story in my last college fiction writing class with the renowned writer John Hawkes that I finally found something that felt like my voice.

Which is, of course, when I stopped writing them and turned instead to screenplays, and then, eventually, novels.

Recently, however, I was invited to write a short story for the new HarperTeen Impulse digital imprint, and I jumped at it. Here was an incredible opportunity to get back to the format I came from, and in a way that would let me further develop one of the supporting characters from “You Look Different in Real Life.” The problem was, I was so rusty at writing in short form, I could almost hear the joints creak as I typed. To further slow those joints and make them periodically freeze up, I had to write the story for two types of readers: those who had not yet read YLDIRL, and those who had. Yikes.

But I forged on, and it was one of the best writing experiences I’ve ever had. You know when you think something’s going to be a breeze and then you realize it’s totally not, and it’s actually a challenge, and you can’t back out now so you just take on the challenge and guess what, you rock it and feel like you got that much better at something? THAT. I’m so thrilled to announce that “Playing Keira” will be available for download from HarperTeen Impulse on May 7, 2013 (and will include a teaser for “You Look Different in Real Life”). Here, now, the deets:

Playing KeiraThe premise was simple: Five kids living their real lives, with a new movie about them every five years. But that was before Keira’s mother walked out and the cameras captured every heartbreaking detail for the world to see. Now Keira doesn’t even know what “real life” means—she only knows how to pretend to be herself. Then she meets Garrett on a bus to New York City. At first, Keira creates a fictional identity and enjoys the freedom of being someone totally different. But as their brief connection turns into something more, Keira starts to see what life could be like if she just stopped pretending and accepted the person she really is.

Learn more about HarperTeen Impulse.

I think this imprint will be a great opportunity for authors to not only explore their stories in fresh ways, but also create new ones that may not fit into the novel format. And really, anything that encourages YA readers to check out short stories and novellas is a win for literature in general.

Actually, one of the beautiful things about my experience here was that it forced me to read short stories again, and YA short stories in particular, in an effort to loosen up those old joints. I have to give a shout out to two fantastic anthologies that to me, represent the best of this under-recognized genre:

“Sixteen: Stories About That Sweet and Bitter Birthday,” edited by Megan McCafferty. This one includes standout stories by Sarah Dessen, Julianna Baggott, M.T. Anderson, and Ned Vizzini.

“Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd,” edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci. So. much. great. writing. In small bites so you can really appreciate it. My favorites here were from Cassandra Clare, David Levithan, Kelly Link, and Sara Zarr…although they are all terrific reads.

I hope YA fans will continue to mix up their reading by picking up an anthology or checking out the new crop of “digital original” short form YA fiction out there from HarperTeen and other publishers.

Go Keira!

Maisy Dee’s “The Recipe” and sex in YA lit

In my life as an author, I’ve not yet had to tackle the question of whether or not to include a sex scene in something I’m writing. This wasn’t a conscious choice but rather, a result of sex simply not being necessary or organic to my story, and I was not compelled to go there. I’m definitely not squeamish about it. Au contraire, mes amis. (Right now I’m moving my eyebrows up and down teasingly in an effort to be alluring, but it really just looks dorky. I’ll stop.)

However, I’ve been thinking about this topic lately as I brainstorm my next project, and after reading Kelly Jensen’s excellent post “Sex, YA Books, and Some “E” Words” on the Stacked blog. Then, a friend gave me a copy of a book she just loved and thought was a great example of how sex in YA lit can be authentically portrayed: “The Recipe” by first-time author Maisy Dee (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform). In “The Recipe,” longtime friends Craig and Emily fall in love and explore their first sexual relationship, with all the awkwardness, sweetness, anxiety, and pleasure that go along with it. This was a great read for me because it was so refreshingly honest and tender and real. It’s the kind of book that can be the exact right thing someone needs to read at the exact right time in his or her life, and really make a difference. I’m a sucker for those kinds of books.

In pursuit of a larger think on the subject of sex in YA lit, I had some questions for Maisy; fortunately, she had some answers. And also fortunately, the Kindle version of “The Recipe” will be available as a FREE download starting tomorrow, February 1, through Sunday, February 3, so I’m really happy to help this book get some well-deserved exposure. To nab it, visit this page on Amazon.

What was your original inspiration for “The Recipe”?

The Recipe book coverIt’s hard to pinpoint my original inspiration. I was bringing my kids to the children’s library a lot, and started picking up books for myself in the YA section. I found tons of fantasy, of course, and lots of realistic fiction that had kids in tragic or troubling situations. And the romantic and sexual situations in these books sent two distinct and conflicting messages to young readers. You have so-called “paranormal romance” which literally makes sex, well, superhuman. Or you have horrible situations like rape or abuse—or consensual sex that is punished with a bad reputation or regret and self-loathing. I thought, gosh, where are the books like Judy Blume’s, where it’s normal to have urges and it’s okay to act on them in a responsible and very human way?

They’re out there, but can be hard to find. Tell me a bit about your journey with this book, and why you ended up self-publishing it.

Self-publishing allowed me to make all the creative decisions regarding the book and its packaging. Once I decided to go out on my own, I had a lot of fun with it, because I was lucky to know both a fantastic editor, Deborah Bancroft, and a top notch book designer, Jonathan Lippincott, so I had the resources to produce a really professional-quality book. I also had the freedom to choose and hire an illustrator. The creative process of collaborating with the artist, Jared Friedman, was really fun. I took a big risk with illustrations that are not typical of the YA books you normally see, but I think, like the story, they are honest in their quirkiness. So far, I’ve gotten very positive feedback. I really expected more backlash because of the explicit content, and perhaps that will come as the book gets broader readership.

There are definitely more and more examples of sexual intimacy in YA lit than back in the days of Judy Blume’s “Forever.” What have you seen out there that you think is great? What’s not-so-great?

There are a few YA books out there in which the female characters are more sexually liberated. They make decisions to explore their sexuality on their own terms and for their own reasons — sometimes as an expression of love or sometimes just to experiment, or even to relieve stress. I think that’s good because it’s a reality of life. Sexual experiences, good and bad, are just that — experiences. I’m not in any way talking about sexual violence or trauma here. I’m talking about making the decision to do something that might not turn out to be perfect, and that’s okay.

But the sexually liberated female is still too rare in teen books. There is too much emphasis on “losing” (or “saving”) your virginity or equating sex with power. And, to be honest, teen sex — when it’s consensual — is generally represented as being way too good! I’m not saying that it can’t be fun, but it’s much more awkward than that.

Yeah, I agree. Everybody loves some escapism, but when you’re reading about “perfect” sex in an otherwise “realistic” story, it can create an off-note. So if an author wants to write a detailed sex scene, to whom or what should his or her responsibilities be?

I believe that a writer’s greatest responsibility is to the characters and the story. I admit that I had a bit of an agenda in writing this book, because I felt that there are a lack of stories out there that are honest about sex — I knew I wanted to tell a story that represented it in a positive but realistic way. So I did have the reader in mind. But once I got to know the characters, I had to let them take the story where it would go, realistically. I had to let them make mistakes and figure it out. The sex shouldn’t be gratuitous; it should be a place where the characters would go naturally.

In “The Recipe,” I think you do a great job of writing sex so that it’s sensitive and realistic, and doesn’t jolt the reader out of the story. Was that difficult to accomplish?

I just tried to stay true to Emily and Craig. They explore their sexuality both alone and together, and I wanted to be honest about that. So many books go only so far and then slip into vague metaphors. And very few even mention the clitoris — which is a pretty big omission, I think! So, yeah, I went there, but I just tried to reflect what they were thinking and feeling during those moments. As long as the characters are headed in that direction, I think you can follow them. If you’re just trying to spice up your story, then you can get yourself into trouble. There really are only so many ways to describe an orgasm. You can’t go into writing a sex scene with the single goal of making it more amazing or sexier or kinkier than anyone else’s and succeed in telling an honest story.

Maisy Dee, as illustrated by Jared Friedman

“The Recipe” is told from the alternating POV’s of Craig and Emily. Was it challenging to write the development of Craig and Emily’s sexual relationship from a guy’s perspective?

Yes and no. I did talk to some guys (adults) about their teenage sexual experiences to gain some insight into a guy’s perspective.  But while guys and girls have to deal with different societal pressures and expectations, in the end we have very similar feelings and insecurities. I just tried to put myself in Craig’s shoes, as a human being, and ask myself how would I feel in this moment?  What would I do?

What would you like readers to take away from this book?

At one point in the book, Craig confides in his father his anxiety about sleeping with Emily, that he won’t be very skilled because he’s a virgin. His dad responds that “sex isn’t a performance, it’s a conversation.” And like any good conversation, there is give and take, passion, laughter, and respect. Sex in real life isn’t choreographed or perfect, it’s a part of creating an intimate connection with another person.

***

I have to say, I adore the idea of “a conversation” here. It’s so important. I’ll take that with me into my own process when it comes to writing about sex in the future.

You can learn more about Maisy Dee and “The Recipe” at www.maisydee.com or on Facebook.

I’d love to compile more recommendations of YA books that represent the range of ways in which sex is portrayed. Please share by posting a comment here…

Six months, six lessons

Hey, guess what? Today is the Six Month Anniversary — bookiversary, as we word-wrangling types often say — of the publication of “The Beginning of After.” Although I’ve been crushingly busy with my new book, because Harper wants to put it out in Summer 2013 which is great but also terrifying because that means we’re already behind schedule and holy crap will the story ever be what I imagine it to be, I can’t help but take a few moments today to Reflect. I actually see this leg of the trip starting not six months but a full year ago, when the HarperCollins Children’s Fall 2011 catalog came out and people actually became aware of my book.

I’ve learned a lot since my first email from a blogger telling me how excited she was to read TBOA. “Freshman year” is a little different for every debut author, but here are the six lessons (six months, six lessons…symmetry good) I’m taking away from mine:

1) Let go of your book. This has been said before by much more experienced authors, but it’s the kind of thing everyone has to learn first-hand. Yes, you have a deep, intimate relationship with your work. But once you drop-kick it into the world, that relationship ends. Seal it up in a velvet-lined box inside your heart, safe from the elements to come. Because now your book belongs to each person who reads it, and that relationship will be unique each time…love or hate, passionate or mixed or meh. Of course it hurts to think that anyone could dislike something I’ve created, but I’ve come to respect and embrace that part of the process. That’s the nature of art, and the beauty of it.

2) Separate the music from the noise. Time was, in the seemingly endless months before TBOA was released when I was hungry for feedback, that I eagerly awaited the morning Google Alert I’d set up for the book. Then time was, the alert wasn’t even enough and I’d Google the damn thing myself a few more times each day, the same way you impatiently punch an elevator button that’s already lit up. Great feedback = euphoria. Not-so-great feedback = pit of endless sorrow and self-doubt. Lather, rinse, repeat several times in a single day. Um, totally not conducive to functioning as a writer and general human being. (I’m ridiculously sensitive. When I invite someone to go for coffee, for instance, and they can’t, I’m, like, devastated.) Also, I learned lesson #1 from above. So I never Google my book or visit the TBOA Goodreads page. I don’t read reviews anywhere, unless they’ve been called to my attention by the author or my editor or publicist. That’s not to say I don’t want to hear anything negative; I’ve found it really helpful to see the patterns of criticism, and have been applying what I’ve learned to my current work. But after a certain point, it’s just a distracting and destructive ringing in your ears. So, know when and where to tune out.

3) Every author is on her or his own path. Publishing is a business, and business is competitive. I’ve felt that lurch in my gut when I see another author’s book getting more press, more promotion, an actual event tour. A movie deal, more foreign sales, a spot on the bestseller list. I could go on, because the ways the publishing world can make you feel bad about yourself are myriad and sneaky-vast. But I hit a moment somewhere along the line, when I remembered a conversation I once had with a friend who was struggling with infertility. She was upset about a co-worker who had just become pregnant, and how was she ever going to face her every day feeling that jealousy and resentment? Together we came up with the strategy of thinking, “That’s her path. Not mine,” about other people and their childbearing processes. Life paths are personal. Don’t compare them. They start in different places and take different turns, different high points and low points, sometimes over a long distance, but eventually they lead you to a place you were meant to be. I like to think of an author’s career the same way now. My path is my path. It has some wonderful views and features of its own, and more to come I’m sure. I’m following it forward, and that’s all that matters. Which sort of leads me to this next lesson about…

4) It’s trite but true: You have to be yourself. In the beginning, there was much panic. Should I be blogging and Tweeting more often? Should I be on Tumblr and Instagram and Pinterest, if I can figure out what the hell they are? I have kids and a husband and a PBS Kids website to manage, so how will I ever have the time to do all these things and still, you know, write? But even when I did scavenge the time, I found myself uncomfortable with putting something out there just to be heard, just to be part of the conversation somehow. I realized I wanted to engage readers in a way that feels organic to who I am and what I write. So I wait for something meaningful to come to me, something I’m bursting to say or share. For many authors, that happens a lot and I am wowed by that, but for me, not so much. Hence, many weeks in between blog posts. Erratic Tweet patterns. Facebook radio silence and then, boom, several posts at once. I advise aspiring writers to “trust your voice” and that applies here. I can only speak in that voice, and I think in the context of my public author “platform,” I do trust it. At the moment.

5) There are many different measures of “success.” Way, way more than sales reports, or awards, or average user ratings. It’s so much simpler than that. There’s the one where you finally get to hold your finished book in your hand, and the one where you first see it on a bookstore shelf. There’s having someone tell you in person how much they loved the read, and the bookseller placing the thing front and center because they believe in it so passionately. Then, of course, there are the e-mails from readers telling you your book helped them deal with something tough in their lives, and then the other ones simply thanking you for writing it. (And now here I go choking up again.) When it all shakes down, the ultimate measure of success, I’ve learned, is that I’m able to continue doing what I love most. It feeds my soul and keeps my fingers on the keyboard.

6) In the end, it’s still about the writing. Yeah, as an author there’s a whole lot of other stuff I need to do, and it’s all fun and good and scary-addictive. But then I have to remind myself that no amount of Twitter followers or networking or promotional brilliance is going to matter if I write crappy books. When all of the above has been lived through and learned from, it comes down to the place where I started: the work itself. This is the single most important thing I can give…and I plan to give good.

So the education continues now, as I hope it always will. Thanks for being part of it so far.