Butt Meets Chair: Michael Northrop

Rotten by Michael NorthropThere are some YA authors you can really count on to keep producing original, intelligent, trend-proof work, book after book after book. I would like to be one of those authors; I plan to be. Michael Northrop is one already. His work includes the superb YA novels “Gentlemen” and “Trapped,” as well as the middle-grade “Plunked.” His new book, “Rotten,” due out from Scholastic on April 1, is the story of a troubled teen, a rescued rottweiler, and their unlikely friendship. It sounds old-school terrific.

Before I give you Michael’s responses to my Butt Meets Chair questions, I’m going to jump onto an aside here.

Back when I decided I had a novel in me and needed to write it, or else, you know, feel the crushing shame of not writing it until my dying day, I read Carolyn See’s book “Making A Literary Life.” Up until that point, I was pretty sure I knew how to write, but I didn’t know how to be a writer; I didn’t know how to get my butt in the chair and then, upon the miraculous occasion that it actually stayed in the chair, how to Make All The Words in a way that made sense. That could become part of something bigger and weren’t self-indulgent, wheel-spinning crapola. “Making A Literary Life” gave me my first tools for doing that, and the big one, the one I still keep front and center on my creative workbench, is the practice of writing a thousand words a day (this apparently comes from Carolyn See by way of Virginia Woolf, so it’s got literary street cred).

Read on to see how Michael makes this rule work — really successfully work — for him.

First, the incredibly general, moderately annoying question: How would you describe your writing “routine”?

Michael NorthropMy routine is pretty straightforward: I write a thousand words a day on days when I’m writing. I often write a little more. A really good day is 1,300. If I’m struggling, I’ll fall across the finish line at like 1,001. Some days I finish in a few hours, but even then, I don’t push past my word count. I give myself the rest of the day to think about what I just wrote and where the story would/could/should go next. Long runs are particularly good for that, and as slow as I am, all runs are long for me!

The real catch is the “when I’m writing” part. Most of the time, I am not. Right now, for example, I’m waiting to hear back from my publisher. I have a few different books in the works with them, but I don’t know which one they’re planning to publish next. Rather than starting one and having to shove it aside and immediately start something else, I’m keeping myself busy doing promotion for the paperback release of Trapped. So far that involves a blog tour, school and library visits, a bookstore event, and so on.

Once I get the green light, though, I write every day I can: weekdays, weekends, holidays, the occasional hurricane. It doesn’t matter. The goal is to get in that headspace—the setting of the book, the mind of the narrator—and stay there. So I clear my schedule as much as possible and just start ticking off 1,000 words, 1,300, 1,100, 1,001, whatever. The important thing is to keep going until I’m done. The more immersive the process is, the better. When I’m really going well, I’ll go to sleep thinking about the book and wake up thinking about it.

That requires putting my actual life on the backburner, which is why it’s good to get it done as quickly as possible. While I’m writing, I may as well be an astronaut on a deep space mission. I basically give those months up to the book.

Do you write most of the time in one space? What does it look and feel like?

Yep, I write in a little home office in my apartment in Brooklyn. It has a desk, one of those four-wheeled office chairs, a National Parks wall calendar, a bottle of One-a-Day vitamins, and the MacBook Pro I use for writing. It’s basically a quiet corner of a sunny apartment. I’m a trance-y kind of writer. If you’ve ever read the poem “The Thought Fox” by Ted Hughes, that’s pretty much it. On a good day, I basically take a deep breath, look down, and start typing. A few hours later, I look up and I’ve written 1,100 words. Any distractions put that in jeopardy. On a bad day, for example, I look up 45 minutes later and I’ve written 300 words. I know it’s going to be a long slog to 1,000 when that happens.

Where do you go when you want to mix it up with your writing space?

The only other place I’ve found where I can write as well (or at least as much) as I do at home are the desks at the back of my hometown library: Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury, CT. I practically grew up back there, reading, doing reports, or whatever, so psychologically it’s a very productive space for me. And it’s generally quiet and sunny, and I can usually get a desk to myself.

So break it down for me. You’ve got your butt in the chair and you’re ready to make 1,000 words. What do you do first?

I might spend a few moments mentally reviewing where I left off, but usually I’ve been thinking about that all morning so it’s not necessary. I’ll often have my first sentence or two already loaded up. (As cliché as it sounds, I often come up with them in the shower.) Then I’ll picture the setting of the scene (literally the school, playing field, house, or wherever the action begins), take that deep breath, and start typing.

What are your must-haves for this time?

And the award for least surprising answer ever goes to: Coffee! But the beverage itself is actually less important than the process of getting it. In order to do that, I get up, shower, get dressed, and walk down to the main drag here in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. I usually go to Dunkin’ Donuts, but sometimes I’ll go to Catskill Bagel or my favorite bodega. I think the process of getting dressed (just like a real professional!), going out in public, and interacting with other humans (even if it’s just to say, “Medium French vanilla with milk and sugar, please”) really helps. It sort of flips on the Humanity switches for me. And if I haven’t already come up with my first few sentences of the day in the shower, I generally think of them on the walk back from Dunkin’.

Do you give yourself rewards of some kind for getting stuff accomplished?

Oh yeah, definitely. It’s one of the perks of being my own boss. I’m usually done writing by early afternoon. Sometimes I spend the afternoons doing promotion and that sort of thing, but I often give myself the rest of the day off. I’ll go to the coffee shop or to happy hour at the (one) local bar. If it’s nice out, I’ll go to the park or even the beach. The trick is, of course, no matter where I go, I’ll probably just be thinking about the story. I don’t read fiction while I’m writing, for example, because I don’t want any other narratives competing for my attention.

What distracts you when you’ve got your butt in the chair?

This is the best part of being a trance-y writer: Once I actually start writing, I’m usually fine. It’s a little like the gym: Making myself go is the hard part, but once I’m there I always work out.

What’s your totally weird writing “eccentricity”?

I get so hyper-verbal and revved up to write in the mornings that I sometimes make up nonsense lyrics to songs and sing them to myself. Like I’ll be putting in my contacts and go (to the tune of “Sailing” by Christopher Cross), “Saline takes me away/To where I can be seeing!” I basically just have a bunch of extra words spilling out of me. It’s vaguely Tourettic, and it gets worse once I start drinking the coffee.

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My God, this guy needs to meet my husband. Maybe together they can come up with alternative lyrics to “Blinded by the Light” that actually make sense.

As you can imagine, when Michael sent me back his answers and I read about his thousand-words-a-day regimen, I was all me too me too and frankly, relieved to hear that I’m not the only author who spends more time thinking and brainstorming than actually typing stuff into a draft. Thank you, Michael, for reminding us that living your story and characters, going about your day and feeling them under your skin, in between the rhythms of your breath, is as important as what you do with your butt in the chair.

Visit Michael and his books online at www.michaelnorthrop.net.

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.

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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…

How I Write

The lovely Jen of “A Book and a Latte” blog gave me a taste of my own medicine. She asked if I’d participate in her “How I Write” interview series in honor of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and I felt it was only fair for me to examine my own work process after forcing other authors to do the same.

I really enjoyed answering her questions; it’s always good to take a moment to think about how you do things, and why, and whether or not they actually work. Check it out:
Jennifer Castle: How I Write

Also, for those who are interested in the “tools’ I mention in this interview:

Scrivener, aka crazy awesome software for writers of all types and media.

Freedom, aka Internet Blocking Productivity Software, aka how to stay the f*ck off Facebook and get the job done.

For stretchy pants, I recommend Target and Kohl’s. (I’m kidding. Sort of.)

For pleasant distraction and stress-relief, I recommend:

I leave you with this, which could be a picture of me working in my office, except I’m taller and MY footie pajamas are blue: