Love was in the air as friends and fellow YA romance authors Susane Colasanti, Elizabeth Eulberg, Kieran Scott, Jennifer E. Smith, and moderator Jen Calonita dished about the origins of the stories they tell, their writing processes, and the art of crafting characters for a group of fans at Barnes & Noble on New York City’s Upper West Side on June 26.
The authors all said they draw on their experiences and emotions for their books, yet the way those ingredients manifest themselves in a fictional landscape is often unpredictable. Colasanti, who doesn’t hesitate to admit that her enduring love for New Kids on the Block provided the inspiration for Now & Forever (Viking), always thought that “it would be cool to be the girlfriend of the world’s biggest rock star.” What started out as indulging a teenage fantasy evolved into a book that focuses more on the negative aspects of stardom and, specifically, maintaining a relationship when two individuals suddenly find themselves in very different places in their lives.
Speaking of rock stars, Scott had her own confession to make: she has always been enamored of drummers – in fact, she married one – so when writing about a boy drummer in Only Everything, she tapped into her memories of adolescence, including the time when she was “dating a saxophonist, but crushing on the drummer.” Meanwhile, Calonita’s second summer camp-themed book, Summer State of Mind (Little, Brown/Poppy), draws from her own time spent working as a camp counselor.
Smith has her own formula for fiction: “I take something from real life, twist it, and add a cute boy,” she joked. The Geography of You and Me is a love story about a boy and a girl who get stuck in an elevator together during a New York City blackout and attempt to forge a long-distance relationship based on a single night of connection. For the record, Smith has never been stuck in an elevator. Instead, a flight to Europe inspired the book: she had a lively conversation about literature with the person sitting next to her, a man in his 70s. After arriving at the airport, they went their separate ways. The experience got her thinking about the bittersweet notion that “you can spend seven hours talking to someone and not even know their last name.”
Meanwhile, Eulberg’s Better Off Friends evolved from the idea of writing a restaging of When Harry Met Sally. Eulberg thought it would be fun to take the movie’s central question – can a man and woman really be “just friends”? – and set it in a YA arena.
Getting Down to Details
The authors turned the discussion from inspiration to planning, plotting, and drafting manuscripts. For Colasanti, outlining her books before writing the first draft is essential. “I like to know where I’m starting and going,” she said. Her outlines often end up at around 40 pages long.
Smith takes a more extemporaneous approach, explaining that she doesn’t plan her books in advance: “I basically start exploring. I get to know the characters as I go.” Her process of writing in a state of “total darkness” and “feeling my way through” can be scary at times, she said, and often her characters are “very different at the end than they are at the beginning,” requiring substantial revisions. But the creative freedom she’s afforded by working without an outline is worth the extra work in the end.
Somewhere between Colasanti and Smith is Scott, who loosely outlines her books before beginning. For her current project, though, she’s “winging it,” without doing any outlining at all: “I don’t know where it’s going. I feel naughty,” she joked.
Questions from the audience brought the authors back to the topic of character building; other topics included incorporating powerful narrative hooks, and the challenge of creating satisfying narratives that grant a degree of wish-fulfillment on the part of the author as well as for the reader.
For her most recent book, Scott started out writing a very character-focused love story, but with her editor’s input, decided that the book required more of a hook. That’s when she came up with the idea to mix Greek mythology and contemporary romance: the result was Only Everything. Her protagonist is lovesick Eros, whom Zeus banishes to New Jersey, where she – Scott switched the Greek god’s gender – is forced to play matchmaker for human couples. Tapping into mythology this way allowed Scott not only to explore love in its manifestations, but also to have fun with Eros as a fish out of water.
On the subject of character, Eulberg said she finds it especially empowering to create teenage girls who are able to find the words to speak their minds in a moment – instead of (ahem) thinking of the words years later and writing them for made-up characters to say. This isn’t to suggest that she takes it easy on her characters. Much of creating a tension in a book, Eulberg believes, means thinking about “the decisions your characters make. Think about what they really want – and then screw things up for them.”
In other words of advice, Eulberg shared that one of her favorite exercises for nailing down her characters was recommended to her by a friend who read an early draft of a book. Her friend suggested that “each day, spend your commute with one of your characters.” Now, when she’s having difficulty fully understanding a character, she imagines him or her riding on the subway; it forces her to think of that character as a person in the world, instead of as an abstraction on the page.
Scott also practices visualizing characters’ traits, and tries to reveal characters to readers in a visual way, as though through a window, she said. To demonstrate her point, she referenced a subject already broached on the panel. Her somewhat tongue-in-cheek example: Say you have a character, in a book set in the 1980s, who is obsessed with New Kids on the Block. She wouldn’t simply say how much she loves Joey in dialogue; instead, a photograph of her mother and father in a picture frame might be ever-so-subtly eclipsed by a magazine cutout of Joey’s face. Just, you know, purely theoretically – not based on anyone from real life on the panel or anything.
Whatever the origins of particular characters, the individuals who populate a novel are a big part of its driving momentum, the authors agreed. “I want to know my characters as well as [I know] my best friends,” Colasanti said.