3 Teen Novelists Share The Best Advice They've Ever Heard
"Being a teenager is so important." -Theo Lawrence
"Maybe some day I'll write for adults. But only if they're good." -Deborah Heiligman
Last night, three teen novelists read wrenching scenes from their recent novels, dropped nuggets of writerly wisdom, and answered nerdy lit questions from an audience packed into pews under tall cement ceilings of a Brooklyn loft space. Yeah—Book Church was in session. Read on to find out what wisdom these prophets of prose shared with their Tuesday night congregation.
Columbia and Juilliard graduate Theo Lawrence read from his debut novel, Mystic City, a sort of Romeo and Juliet tale set in a bizarro Manhattan where "magic is real and true love can change the world." Theo ended his recitation on a cliffhanger where the protagonist has a gun leveled at her head. But she'll probably be fine. Juliet turned out fine, right? Oh…
Deborah Heiligman has written almost 30 books for children and teens, including a historical narrative about how Charles Darwin and his wife Emma balanced his church-rocking research with her devout religious love. Deborah read the first chapter of her first official YA novel, Intentions, which opens with a frustrated teen learning that her handsome rabbi mentor may not be as pure as he seems.
Matt de la Peña's award-winning debut novel, Ball Don't Lie, was adapted into a 2008 movie of the same name, starring Nick Cannon, Ludacris, and Melissa Leo, among others. He's probably been to some pretty sweet parties. Matt read a midway scene from his fourth YA novel, I Will Save You, in which a boy vows to help his lovelorn friend become impervious to heartbreak.
The reading and following Q&A session was moderated by Pei-Ling Lue, editor of the One Teen Story literary magazine, which publishes one "amazing short story about the teen experience" in each monthly issue. If you are between 13 and 19 years old, you can submit your own narrative gem to the One Teen Story Contest (and maybe get published in a legit lit mag!) right here.
The reading, by the numbers
Authors reading: 3
Authors in cardigans: 1 (Theo)
Authors with glasses: 1 (Deborah)
Authors wearing black and/or blue: 3 (also, Pei-Ling)
Authors who read from a 1st-person female POV: 2 (Deborah and Theo)
Authors who read a scene in which romance is the primary conflict: 3
Authors who read the words "Jewish Santa-Claus-looking rabbi": 1 (Deborah)
Authors with family in the audience: 2 (Matt and Deborah)
Their best quotes...
On breaking into YA
Matt de la Peña "moved to LA and had no money. I had a story, so I went to Barnes&Noble and found a book that listed literary agents. I couldn't afford the book, so I ripped a page out." The rest is history.
While at Columbia, one of Theo Lawrence's classmates was about to get a book published. "We all agreed that she was awful. So I wrote a story of my own."
On explaining their jobs to people
"In the beginning people would just look at me and say, 'Oh, that's sweet.'" —Deborah
"When I say I'm a YA author, other writers say 'Wow, you're going for the money.'" —Matt
On the boom of YA in the media
"Everything is drying up, because print is drying up…I think publicists of kids' books just happen to be more creative." —Matt
"I wish they'd review the books LESS. Then they wouldn't say those mean things." —Theo
On the importance of engaging readers through social media
"It's the age of accessible authors." —Matt
"I asked my editor, 'Do you think I should be on Facebook?' She said, 'You're NOT on Facebook??'" —Deborah
"It's not just about tweeting. It's about saying interesting things…you have authors like John Green, who is so amazing about engaging with readers online. Then you have Suzanne Collins, who lives under a bridge somewhere." —Theo
"People who retweet everything that's said that's good about them, I want to slash their tires." —Matt
On the prevalence of romance in YA plots
"I don't look for it in all adult novels I read, but I sort of hope it's there. What's better than love?" —Theo
"I think it's just the truth—when you're young, you're checking out the opposite sex." —Matt
On writing good characters
"If you do a good job, they're going to do stupid things whether you want them to or not." —Deborah
"You really have to think, 'What matters to this character?'" —Matt
On theatrical plotting
"I can't stand boring internal [narration]. I've also never read Shakespeare." —Matt
"I took a play-writing class this summer. I thought, 'this is great! You can write a book but you don't have to describe anything!'" —Theo
On the best writing advice ever
"Slow down. Don't get in the way of your story." —Matt
"I have two pieces of advice. 1) Give yourself lots of treats. 2) Ask yourself: Is this a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end? Does the story have to be told? And am I the only one who can tell it? If the answer to all three is yes: write." —Deborah
Do you follow your favorite authors on twitter?
What's the best writing advice you've ever heard?