Sunday, December 4, 2011

Read an Interview with Deborah Halverson and Win a Copy of WRITING YOUNG ADULT FICTION FOR DUMMIES!

My writing used to seriously bite. It’s really not that hard to admit.
If I look back at what my fiction writing was fifteen, ten, or even five years ago, I’m a million times better, primarily because of searching out strong advice and practicing.
Oh so many moons ago, when I was at Michigan State University, my poetry mentor there, the fabulous poet Diane Wakoski, would tell me, writers are formed from practice. The more they work on their craft, the better they get.
So I’ve worked.
Really Hard.
And it’s finally starting to pay off. This year, I snagged some prestigious literary awards (Yay, me!). So I want to take a little trip down Writing Resource Lane to highlight some books and advice that have really pushed me forward with my writing. Each book offers a takeaway that I try hard to apply every time I sit down to write.

Bird by Bird
by Anne Lamott –
My takeaway: It’s alright to produce that “s*%tty first draft.” That’s a HUGE piece of advice when fears and confidence create Empire State Building-size writing blocks.

It’s a Bunny Eat Bunny World
by Olga Litowinsky –
My takeaway: Children’s editors and agents definitely don’t have blue birds singing on their shoulders and adorable fawns curled at their feet. Truly, this whole children’s/YA writing thing is a rough business. Only the strongest and most determined survive and succeed. As writer Donna Jo Napoli recently told me, “Good is NOT enough -- you have to be persistent. So toughen up… just be tough, lady.”

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman –
My takeaway: That first line of a manuscript needs to be amazing, astounding, can’t-put-this-book-down hooking, so work it, Baby, and work it good! Lukeman, a literary agent, stresses some writing is just plain “better.” As one agent has told me, “We are looking for writing that’s superlative.” Lukeman, with his solid advice about voice, plotting, and writing style, tries to get every writer there. 

Hooked by Les Edgerton –
My takeaway: Backstory can be a slippery slope. It can either send your reader sliding back and slipping straight out of your book and into the latest TV show they find more entertaining, or it can be sprinkled in effectively. Edgerton, in his “coffee house,” let’s-chat writing style, discusses the balance between present action and backstory. He even creates new terms – passive backstory vs. active backstory. Passive being that blow-by-blow-by-blow-by-blow (you get the idea) of what happened in the past. Active is that perfect little drop of telling the past and using it as a springboard for impending action. Great advice!

And my latest resource book to seriously influence my writing life is – Drum Roll, Please! - Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies
by Deborah Halverson.

My takeaway: Deborah rocks! Oh, and also, if you aren’t exactly sure what constitutes a YA novel or what goes into one to make it effective, then the writing pitfalls are wide and deep and will swallow your publishing aspirations whole. Yikes!

Even if I weren’t always thirsty for more writing advice -- YA writing advice, specifically -- I would have purchased this book because Deborah was key to helping me become a stronger writer. I hired her to edit one of my novels before I sent it out to the literary world because I knew she was an exceptional writer and editor.

Not only is Halverson the author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies (WYAFFD), but she is the award-winning author of teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth. In addition, she is contracted for three books in a forthcoming series for struggling readers as well as a forthcoming picture book about Santa Claus. Armed with a Master’s in American Literature, Deborah edited picture books and teen novels for Harcourt Children’s Books for ten years before leaving to write full-time. She is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences and a writing teacher for groups and institutions including UCSD’s Extension Program. Deborah is also the founder of the popular writers’ advice website and freelance edits fiction and non-fiction for both published authors and writers seeking their first book deals.

Deborah was kind enough to answer some questions about her career, the YA industry, and what writers can do to become better and stronger at their craft.

YA books have exploded in popularity. Why do you think YA attracts so many readers of all ages? 
The spotlight is on young adult fiction, big time, thanks in large part to a succession of blockbuster movies and phenomenal sales for the books themselves. This high profile success has plenty of grown-ups looking twice at YA fiction, where they discover what longtime fans of YA have known all along—that young adult fiction is filled with rich characters and narrative voices, robust storylines, top-notch dialogue, and compelling concepts. Plus, YA storytelling is pervaded by a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. Who can say “no” to a reading experience that promising?

Do you find you like to read the same types of fiction books you write?
Indeed, I tend to write what I read, and vice versa. I adore the magical realism of Tom Robbins, Salman Rushdie, and Don DeLillo, I delight in the quirky, spoofy humor of Libba Bray and M.T. Anderson, and I totally lose myself in the stunning character work of Karen Cushman and Phillip Pullman. When I read their books, I’m so inspired that I feel a physical urge to run to my computer to tap out my own fiction. That said, every writer should read widely in order to understand the bookselling marketplace as a whole and to find inspiration in different styles. Being an editor, it’s especially important for me to read broadly so that I can guide writers as they position and craft their novels no matter what genre they choose.

Your two YA novels, Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth, are both laced with humor even as the main characters deal with some difficult issues. How important do you think humor and levity are for teen readers?

I tend to approach life in general from a quirky angle. I like to be surprised—good or bad—by what lies beyond the surface, and coming at topics sideways lets me do that. It’s just how my mind works, and my stories reflect that. For example, beyond reveling in the delicious wackiness of someone wanting to scarf down 54 hot dogs (and buns!) in 12 minutes, Big Mouth explores the very serious issue of eating disorders in boys. And then there’s the basic fact that I love to laugh. Doctors say doing so adds years to your life, and I’m all for that.

Why did you decide to take on Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies?
I was privy to the inner workings of a major publisher for a decade, and then I got the writer’s view of the publishing game when I started writing novels. I really wanted to share what I’d learned on both sides of the editor’s desk; it just became a matter of figuring out the best way to do that. Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies is that book. The tone of the For Dummies series let me indulge my humorous side even as I had free rein to shape the book I felt would most empower writers. The top of my ‘must include in this book’ list? Tangible, actionable techniques. That’s what I want as a writer, so that’s what I’ve tried to serve up.

Any projects you’re currently working on that you can share with us?
I’m excited to be working on three hi-lo readers, in the process gaining personal insight into a different corner of the children’s publishing industry. The book concepts must appeal to seventh graders, while the vocabulary is at the first- and second-grade level. I’ve also just finalized a contract for a picture book about Santa Claus, which my six-year-old boys think is just the bee’s knees. And now that WYAFFD is solidly out in the world, I can finally get back to work on a YA fiction series that’s been waiting (somewhat) patiently on the backburner.
Since you’ve worked as both an in-house editor and now as a freelance editor, what do you think are the benefits of hiring an editor to review your work before submission?
I’m biased, of course. But the fact is, in-house editors are extremely careful about offering contracts these days. It isn’t enough to write a really good manuscript—you must write a manuscript that can compete with the cream of the crop. An experienced freelance editor can help you hone your general writing chops, improve specific stories and characters, and shape your project for the marketplace. That last one is very important: to be published, it’s vital that you offer something fresh for an identifiable marketplace.
Being a mom of triplets and a writer and a freelance editor, you know better than anyone what it’s like to have a lot of work to juggle. What does a typical workday look like for you, and what advice would you give other authors who have time constraints?
Much of a writer’s battle is with time, and I’m no exception there. But it’s a battle I’m happy to have. I’m a multitasker at heart, so my varied life feels quite natural to me. My trick to staying motivated is the old fashioned deadline. Nothing gives me greater pain than seeing that red “overdue” icon on my calendar app. I’ll even set my own deadlines when none are imposed upon me. That said, personal deadlines are the first to go when life hucks a monkey wrench my way.

Writers are always worrying about trends in the market. What do you say to writers who worry about whether or not their work will be “trendy”?
The publishing industry is a slow-moving one. By the time you recognize a trend, write and revise a manuscript to suit it, go through the submission process, and then get your book produced in-house and into stores, the trend will likely be over. Manuscripts most likely to benefit from a trend are those that are already in the publishing pipeline when the trend is recognized. Instead of writing to a trend, write to a very specific audience and genre and then put a fresh spin on your story so that you’ll stand out as something new within that established market.

Being both an editor and a writer, do you find your inner editor gets in your way when you are trying to write? What advice would you give to writers who can’t turn off their inner editor long enough to pump out a first draft?
My inner editor is a total pain in my . . . well, I write for young people, so I won’t finish that sentence. I recommend that you defy the ornery editor within by making a deal with it: agree to let yourself cobble together a draft that is little more than characters and events pinned to a bulletin board. It’s a painful proposition, I grant that, but if you can ignore the ugliness of that draft and nail down your basic story elements, your inner editor can be indulged in Draft 2 as you flesh out the characters and scenes and hone the narrative voice.
You do a great job in WYAFFD outlining the different publishing options for today’s writers. For someone who has a YA manuscript ready to send out, what quick advice would you give them about deciding between soliciting a traditional publishing house or going the self-publishing route?
Answering these questions as honestly as you can will help you decide: Are you self-motivated and willing to work hard? Are you market-savvy enough to position your book in the marketplace, to design a cover that appeals to that market, and to articulate to the world exactly what your story is and how it’s different from others like it? Are you willing to pay others to design your cover, or do you have the skills to create a high-quality cover yourself? Are you willing to put in the time and money to turn yourself into a self-marketing machine? Do you have the financial resources to self-publish—and are you willing to lose that investment if the book doesn’t sell more than the average several-hundred self-published units? If you can’t answer all of these questions with a confident “yes!” then traditional publishing is probably the more realistic choice for you.
Teen books often push the limits and get that “edgy” label. What do you say to someone who questions whether the current hard-hitting YA is worthwhile for teens to read, and do you think writers should be fearful of pushing the YA limits too far?
There’s been plenty of hullabaloo about the “dark” YA fiction in recent months. That’s an unfair portrayal of the YA realm. Plenty of books for young people leave out the sex and drugs and children killing children. Write the story you feel you need to write. If you push the limits too far, editors and agents will be vocal about their hesitations. Or try this: Picture yourself reading passages of your book out loud to a group of young people in a class, at a book club meeting, or at a book signing. If presenting that content to them face-to-face makes you squirmy, there’s your answer. Every writer has his/her comfort zone. Wherever you fall in the storytelling spectrum, be sure that the elements you include are organic and vital to the story. You must stand by the integrity of the story you’re writing, not just your right to write it.

A HUGE thanks to Deborah Halverson for sharing her insight! For more about Deborah, check out her website . And as a generous parting gift, Deborah is giving everyone access to a free downloadable WYAFFD cheatsheet - -- Hurray!!

In addition, if you live in the United States or Canada, you have the chance to win a copy of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies by submitting a comment for this post. Comment on Deborah’s interview or give a suggestion for a writing resource that has helped you become a better fiction writer. PLEASE LEAVE YOUR E-MAIL IN THE COMMENT SO I CAN CONTACT YOU IF YOU WIN. A random drawing of posted comments will be done the week of December 11.

So think about the takeaways you have taken away and “Take It Away!” by posting for your chance to win. Good luck!


We have a winner in our drawing for a copy of WRITING YOUNG ADULT FICTION FOR DUMMIES. (Another drum roll, please!)  Janet from Ripley, West Virginia is our lucky winner. Thank you to all who posted comments. And once again, thanks to Deborah Halverson for a fabulous interview!


Danielle H. said...

Thank you for the insight into how you write. I can't wait to read Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies to learn more!

Kristin Lenz said...

Thanks Heather and Deborah! I've followed Deborah online for the past year and can always count on her solid advice. I'm going to check out the cheatsheet right now.

Heather: congrats again on your recent awards - my hard copy of Hunger Mountain arrived last week with your story in print - woo hoo!

Cheryl Ann Smith said...

YA has to be tricky to write, when teens and their lingo is hard to keep up with! But it is fun to read!

Katie McGarry said...

Fantastic post! Thanks Heather and Deborah!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Excellent and very helpful!

Tracy Bilen said...

Great interview! I've also loved Chapter after Chapter by Heather Sellers

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great interview. I'm trying to start my first YA book. I'd love to win Deborah's book.

Rachel said...

Thanks Heather and Deborah! Great interview and content.

LG said...

Great suggestions & take-aways, Heather! Thanks for your insight; I'm excited to pick up Bird by Bird... and I'm already toting around Writing YA for Dummies : )

LG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathy Higgs-Coulthard said...

Thanks for all the great ideas. I've also learned a great deal from Les Edgerton's work. Another great resource is Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham. It really helped me with those between action moments.
Kathy Higgs

Maricar said...

Thank you for the insights. I'm particularly encouraged by this: "agree to let yourself cobble together a draft that is little more than characters and events pinned to a bulletin board." This is exactly what my first drafts are. But there's hope! Thank you!

Sharon said...

One of the most helpful resources for me was taking workshops from my local writer's group. There's nothing better than interacting with fellow writers!

Shutta said...

Thanks for the fun interview. Triplets....!!! And writing! I am in awe. Another resource I have used is McKee's STORY. I know it's a bit inflated--but there's a lot of good info there.


Barrie said...

The Writer's Journey was super helpful for me. Great interview!!! I'm buying Deborah's book whether I win it here or not. :) (barrieDOTsummyATgmailDOTcom)

Barrie said...

The Writer's Journey was super helpful for me. Great interview!!! I'm buying Deborah's book whether I win it here or not. :) (barrieDOTsummyATgmailDOTcom)

Colette Ballard said...

Great interview and information! Thanks Heather and Deborah!

DawnSunshine said...

Thanks. We all need a boost to help us be better writers.

Haley said...

I've been reading Deborah's online advice for the past year. It is great to get know a little more about her and her writing. Great interview!

Pamela DuMond, D.C. said...

Thanks Heather. I too have been reading Deborah's blog. Great source of info.

Michelle Bradford said...

Thank you Dear Editor for your commitment to YA Fusion. Also, I appreciate the readers list and interview with Deborah. Thank you both for giving back so generously. -Michelle Bradford
Twitter: WriteFriend

Janice Gable Bashman said...

Great interview and thanks for sponsoring the contest.

Charline Profiri said...

Great interview. I met Deborah during an AZ SCBWI event. I also recommend Hooked & The First Five Pages.

Maureen Brady Johnson said...

Love the interview...mother of triplets AND editor??? Yes, I got a lot of writing done when I was teaching full time drama, doing up to 23 productions in one school year and the mom of four children...If I don't win the book, I will most surely go out and buy it!

Patti J. Kurtz said...

I love Bird by Bird and I can't wait for a look at Deborah's book, too.


StressFreeMom said...

I'm working on a middle grade novel, but some of my fellow writers think it would be better as a YA. I'd better take a look at Deborah's book!


Elizabeth said...

I agree with all the writing resources you mention and would add to the mix a good book with prompts to help give you some story writing ideas, such as What If, which is my favorite.

Thanks for the interview and list of books!


Natasha Wing said...

Read her column religiously. Got her book. Now want to give it to a writer friend. Excellent advice in the Dummy.

Andrea Mack said...

Wow - this sounds like such a useful book.

Christina Kit. said...

Deborah Halverson is INCREDIBLE - I love her blog as well, learned so much there.

ccfioriole at gmail dot com

Myrna Foster said...

Thanks for the great interview and giveaway. I love getting her "Dear Editor" posts in my in-box.

cwsherwoodedits said...

Thanks for both an excellent interview and the giveaway.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Great interview, thanks for the insights! I would love to win.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Wonderful interview, questions and answers.
I believe that children's books, and YA books in particular, are some of the most well written books on the market.
I would love to win a copy of Deborah's book.
Donna V.
dvolkenannt (at)

Yahong said...

Great interview, and love the resources you listed here! For me, Self-editing for Fiction Writers has been vital.

yahongchi @ gmail . com

Sophia Chang said...

I've had the pleasure of working with Deborah and she's awesome! Great energy and extensive experience - really hope to win her book!

sophiathewriter at gmail

Heather said...

I thought Hooked was terrific. I still refer to it. I've read excerpts of Dummies and am looking forward to reading more.

KarolinaS said...

Wow. Of the writing books mentioned, I've only read ONE. Now I have several more titles to put on my Christmas wish list. Thanks!

Krysten Lindsay Hager said...

Great interview. Bird by Bird was one of the first writing books suggested to me and I got so much of it it!

KrystenLindsay (at) gmail (dot) com

Pat Kahn's Childsplay said...

Great interview. Thanks you.

Deborah is also a terrific teacher. She co-led a one day revision intensive for SCBWI which was one of the best conferences I've ever attended.

Anonymous said...

This is very helpful information. Thank you! :-) email: bluefish3000 at yahoo dot com

Kayla said...

Great interview! XD

Books that have really helped me grow as a writer are James Scott Bells' "The Art of War for Writers," "Write Great Fiction: Plot and Structure," and "Writing Fiction for All You're Worth." Plus, "Story Engineering" by Larry Brooks. :) I REALLY recommend them! You will *not* regret reading either of them!!

Mary Ann Moore said...

I second the recommendation of The Writer's Journey by Vogler, for an inspiring way to look at characters and plot.
This interview was helpful, and the Dear Editor posts are spot-on to what aspiring writers need to know.

Anonymous said...

On the mornings they arrive, the "Dear Editor" posts are always the first email I read. Thanks for giving aspiring writers more of the gentle treatment we so desperately need.

jane Buttery said...

Deborah Halverson's advice is so well worthwhile. I hav read of her book earlier this year. I am into writing a historical novel and, after reading what Deborah write, I'm wondering if YA s will like what I write about. her on the border we are into the War of 1812. I'm taking a different tack and looking at Tecumseh's sister and a settler around 170-1814. They may have met as the later Settler was taken by the Shawnee and greatly loved by them for 4 years. I hope to make it interesting and wonder what Deborah would think of the topic .

Joyce Johnson said...

Thought provoking Interview! YA does push edgy. Thanks.


LeeMandel said...

I just recently purchased "Hooked," by Les Edgerton. What great advice. I've added the other books mentioned in this article to my "Wish List" for the holidays. Thanks for all of the great information. I hope I win "Writing Adult Fiction for Dummies" so that I can add that to my growing collection of valuable writing resources.

Lee (

Janet, said...

This was a great interview and very informative. I love books that help you with your writing and have quite a few, I would love to win this one.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Very nice interview. The book sounds so helpful. Looking forward to reading it. Thanks for a great giveaway.


Michelle L. Brown said...

I always appreciate Deborah's insight on DearEditor, and really enjoyed this inspiring interview. Going to ask for some of these books for Christmas!

mlbrown90 @ att . net

Michelle L. Brown said...

I always appreciate Deborah's insight on DearEditor, and really enjoyed this inspiring interview. Going to ask for some of these books for Christmas!

mlbrown90 @ att . net

Sarah Ahiers said...

ooh yes, please throw my name in the mux! Deborah's book is at the top of my "too buy" list.

Besides Hooked, which you already mentioned, i also love Stephen King's On Writing, not only for the writing bits, but also for the autobiography parts as well.

D. L. Cocchio said...

Loved the interview. Can't wait to read your book!

Anonymous said...

Hi Deborah,

Thanks for sharing the books that inspired you and their take home messages.

Congratulations for your success.

Happy holidays,

Anonymous said...

Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction is a good one too.

Thanks for a great post.

Kurt Hampe said...


Thanks for the rundown on the How To books. There are so many out there to sort through. I appreciate the recommendations and take-away lessons. Thanks, too, for the interview. Good questions, good answers. I'm still working on keeping that internal editor quiet when working on a first draft--although my crit group probably wishes I'd turn it up a notch.