One night, Laurie Halse Anderson awoke to the sound of a child crying. After checking on her own two children and finding them asleep, she realized that what she had heard was a nightmare in her own head.

She picked up a notebook and began writing to make sense of the dream. That's when Melinda Sordino, the magnetic narrator of Speak (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), took over. Anderson describes Melinda stepping up to the microphone, blowing on it (as if to test that it was on) and announcing, "I have a story to tell you." The author wrote a first draft that night, from start to finish.

Speak is narrated by Melinda, an alienated girl who, during the course of her freshman year of high school, harbors a terrible secret and is ostracized by her peers. The novel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award this fall, is remarkable for both Melinda's strong voice -- an ironic twist for a character who rarely speaks but has a pungent internal monologue -- and for its taut structure.

Anderson's nightmare may have been the catalyst for the book, but its themes had been brewing in the author's head for a while. Her daughters are both teenagers and Anderson had been reading Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia at the time. "I had been processing all this information about adolescence and girls, and remembered all too vividly what it was like. When I sat down ready to write, [the story] was waiting. Speak is the least deliberately written book I've ever done."

The author admits that she "wrote some bad novels before this one that no one will ever see, and that taught me a lot about writing novels." While the first draft for Speak came easily, Anderson revised it twice before submitting the manuscript. She decided to send it to FSG because she had previously received nice rejections from Frances Foster for some picture book manuscripts (Anderson went on to publish several picture books elsewhere); it was Foster's assistant, Elizabeth Mikesell, (who has since become an editor), who first read the new manuscript, asked Anderson to revise it one more time, then accepted it.

Anderson keeps a rigorous work schedule. She wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to write in her journal before her family wakes up, getting one daughter off to high school, the other off to middle school, and her husband off to work before settling in to write until noon; she uses her afternoons for research and reading. She is currently revising a middle-grade historical novel due out next year from Simon & Schuster, called Fever 1793, which is set in Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever epidemic. She is also working on another YA novel for FSG.

Anderson insists that the starred reviews Speak has received, and the NBA attention, have not changed her life: "I have two kids who do a great job of keeping me grounded, and a cat who gnaws my ankles if I don't feed her." But she d s concede that her writing life has changed. At first her goal was to get one starred review, now she has four of them. "I had to change my expectations of myself. No matter how long you've been writing, I think all writers think, 'Oh, God, can I do it again?' Now I think, 'I want to do it again, but I want to do it better.' " She recalls an analogous time when she was training for a half-marathon. "If I could train without collapsing, I felt good. Then I got up to running eight to 10 miles a day. Then I wanted to run faster, further." Her newfound fans will want to meet her at each new milestone.