Why did you choose to write YA?
I always say that I didn’t choose YA; it chose me. When I was in my early teens I became obsessed with the now-defunct Sassy magazine, so for a while I wanted to write/edit a magazine for teenagers. My all-time favorite television shows include THE WONDER YEARS, MY SO-CALLED LIFE, GILMORE GIRLS, VERONICA MARS (first season only, please), and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. So when I first applied to the graduate program at Emerson, it was with the intention that I’d learn how to write for TV. Only I couldn’t get into the scriptwriting class, which met during the day (I worked full time while in grad school), and through a series of serendipitous events, I ended up in an adolescent novel workshop taught by Lisa Jahn-Clough, whom I’d met at Emerson’s open house and who impressed the hell out of me. By the end of the semester, I was in love and never once looked back. Oh, and I never took a single screenwriting course, either.
What was your process like for drafting, revising, and completing your novel?
I don’t really have a set “process,” per se. I’m definitely a plunger (vs. a plotter), though my friend Emmett, who’s also a writer, calls this a complete waste of time (his notecards have notecards). For me, the seeds of a novel are planted long before I start writing it. I think about the characters, the “What If?” scenarios, the voice. This can go on for years while I’m working on other things. Eventually I’ll start to write, and those first thirty pages are brutal. They take me FOREVER. But once I’ve gotten them to a place I feel okay with, I’ll move on to the next thirty, which are still hard but definitely less painful. Finally, when I reach the 100-page mark, the rest of the novel feels like it writes itself. Until the ending, that is. I’m terrible with endings.
I do minor revision along the way, usually with help from feedback I get from the women in the WIPs, which is my local writing group. Big revision – the kind where you rip the novel up and stitch it back together again – happens with my editors (in this case, Jodi Keller, who is fantastic). She’ll send me a four- to nine-page edit letter, single spaced, with extensive line-by-line comments. I let those marinate for a while before responding, though with SWEET LIFE, I felt like some of the things Jodi told me weren’t working were things we’d discussed before I started writing the book – things she’d encouraged me to push for. So I was kind of a brat when I got the first edit letter. I was also kind of burned out, and I took about 18 mos. before I started that revision. Of course, as I rewrote the book, I saw how most of Jodi’s comments were spot on. Because she’s brilliant like that.
Jodi and I typically go through three rounds of edits – a major, a minor, and a picky tightening one where I don’t really even get an edit letter, just some e-mails about scenes that need tweaking, editing, or rewriting. Then it’s on to production!
Stella Madison is set in Delaware, with lots of references to real-life places in the surrounding area. What are the most difficult and best parts of using a place you know well to set your novel?
Let me start with the best, because that’s the easiest to answer. I’m a huge fan of novels that have a strong sense of place. One of my earliest influences was Douglas Coupland, who’s from Vancouver and writes about Vancouver in such a way that, when I actually visited the city, and went on an unofficial “Coupland” tour of all the places he’s written about, I felt like I was at home – like I already knew this place. I wanted to do that with my books, so using Delaware as a setting was natural. I grew up here, have spent most of my adult life here, and honestly really love living here. It’s also very gratifying when Delawareans read the book and are like, “Oh my god, I know that place!” They get so excited!
As for difficult: sometimes as a writer you want to take liberties, and I will in very small ways. Like in ANYONE BUT YOU, I wrote about Critter and Sarah hitting the Brewster’s on 202, and I needed there to be a picnic bench for the scene to work. There isn’t one. But I put one in, and sure enough, three people called me on it. Three! So that’s hard.
Did any characters gain larger roles than you initially intended for them?
Max! In the first draft, Max was kind of this teenage lothario that appeared briefly in the opening scene – he was macking on Stella on the last day of school but gets interrupted when Enrique picks her up. Stella had some desperate line like, “Call me!” as Max walked away, and he was all, “Whatevs.”
During the revision process, I was dealing with some messy things that just weren’t working. Like, initially Jeremy had a girlfriend, but that made his flirting seem smarmy so I took it out. Only, then I had this whole set up about why he kept telling Stella he couldn’t be with her, and it didn’t work without the girlfriend. Off-handedly, Jodi said, “What if Stella has a boyfriend?” and poof! There was my answer.
Briefly detail your journey to publication after finishing your first book. (Finding an agent, an editor, promoting the book, etc.)
I’m so not the person to ask about this, because there are many things I did backwards and many things that happened for me far too easily. But, here goes:
Manuscript for BRINGING UP THE BONES was as polished as I could get it. Pulled a list of eight editors who in 2000 weren’t afraid of “edgy” YA. Sent queries to all; three days later got a request for a full MS from an editor at HarperCollins. Waited three months before sending a follow up. No follow up. Later found out editor moved to Simon & Schuster two weeks after requesting my MS and didn’t bother to tell me.
Entered BONES in the Delacorte Press Prize Competition for a First Young Adult Novel. Didn’t win, but was named the first honor book in something like six years. Was offered a standard contract, accepted it, and started revising.
Got a call from my agent right after ALA in 2002. He’d actually started the Delacorte competition when he was an editor. Saw my galley at the Random House book, nabbed it, and read it on the plane ride home. Sent me an e-mail shortly after asking if I had representation and, if I didn’t, would I be interested in having him represent me? (I said yes.)
The night BONES came out, my mom and I drove to a bookstore and took a picture of me holding the book. Then I went to Mikimotos for a big boat of sushi with a random assortment of friends. Drank some sake; went home happy.
Didn’t learn until my second book, CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE, how crucial a role the author plays in publicizing their own book. Realized that BONES died a premature death because I didn’t know the what-what. Rectified those mistakes with CONTENTS, which is still my best-selling Random House book to date.
See what I mean?
What do you see as your greatest strength and your greatest weakness as a writer?
Strengths: voice and dialogue.
Weaknesses: unstructured with my writing time and not nearly as prolific as I could (or should) be
What advice would you give aspiring YA authors?
1. Don’t quit your day job, because the odds of you making a decent living from writing YA are slim. Everyone else who touches a book makes good money – just not the author. In the beginning, anyway.
2. Be prepared for all of the peripheral stuff that comes along with being a working YA writer – networking, marketing, blogging, presenting at conferences, etc., etc. You have no idea how much time this takes until you’re in the thick of it, but trust me: it’s a lot.
3. If you are okay with the crappy income and the marketing stuff, and you really, really want this, go after it with everything you’ve got and don’t stop until you have that contract. I don’t care how many rejections you receive, if you want it badly enough and believe in yourself strongly enough, it WILL happen.
You've also published two books--True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet, and its sequel, More Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet--under the pen name Lola Douglas. How is writing as Lola different than writing as Lara?
Lola’s books are more commercial than mine are. But me being me, I couldn’t write a straight-up commercial novel, so STARLET ended up with a lot more depth than my editors at Razorbill were expecting. Sadly, unless Razorbill decides they want a STARLET 3 (which, as of right now, they don’t), I think Lola’s gone into retirement. Permanently.
True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet was turned into a Lifetime movie. Can you speak about that experience?
It was crazy and exciting and very, very cool. I got to spend a day on set, in a suburb of Toronto, hanging out with the cast and some of the crew. When they were editing the film, they decided they needed some new voice-overs, but this was during the Writer’s Guild strike. I’m not a member of the Guild, so when the producer asked me to try my hand at writing some, I did and oh my god, was that fun! Plus, hi – IT WAS A LIFETIME ORIGINAL MOVIE. Those things live on in perpetuity (and for good reason!).
You are stranded on a deserted island for five years. What five books would you want with you?
Life After God – Douglas Coupland (book that made me want to be a writer)
Girl – Blake Nelson (book that set me on the path to YA, years before I got there)
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks – E. Lockhart (latest book I wish I’d written)
Holes – Louis Sachar (book with immaculate plotting; if I’m going to be stuck on an island for five years, I might as well spend part of the time deconstructing this one)
I’m Just Here for the Food – Alton Brown (book that teaches me something new every time I read it)
And lastly, you've published four novels as Lara Zeises, two as Lola Douglas, had one of your novels turned into a Lifetime movie, and Stella Madison is getting a lot of praise in the book world. What else do you want to accomplish?
I had a list of goals several years ago, and I’ve achieved almost all of them – except that I’ve never had an audiobook made from one of my novels (which is sad, because I love audiobooks), and I’ve never gotten a starred review in a major publication. I’m kind of over the review thing, because there are some recent novels that got multiple starred reviews and that I thought were complete and utter crap, and I’ve come to realize that all reviews are pretty much subjective. But the audiobook … yes, please, I would like one please and thank you.
The other thing – I would like to try my hand at writing for television some day. I was really lucky in that the producer of the Lifetime movie, Barbara Lieberman, offered to mentor me a bit. I haven’t devoted the time or attention to screenwriting that I need to, though, so that’s definitely a goal for the future.
Thanks so much, Lara! To learn more about Lara's other awesome books, check out her website at http://www.zeisgeist.com/.
You can also follow Lara's adventures in writing, cooking, and everything in between at her blog.