Recently, I had the privilege of hearing YA author extraordinaire, Liz Coley, speak at an Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference and even more recently I had the even greater privilege of having her agree to let me interview her on her writing life. Liz has accomplished the amazing feat of publishing wonderfully successful books for young readers both through the “traditional” path and as an indie author. She shares some of her thoughts and experiences below …
KC: Pretty Girl -13 deals with some pretty disturbing issues. What led you to the idea for the book, and how did you go about crafting it in a way that would be accessible to teen readers?
LC: For a long time, I had wanted to write a book in which the protagonist has dissociative identity disorder (DID), but I didn’t know what her story would be. Then I had one of those author-shower moments when you are free associating and the whole thing came storming into my head–what if someone with DID had the choice about whether to remember or forget the worst things that had ever happened to her? How would her alter personalities feel about their possible extinction? How could they tell their own stories? Now I had to figure out what had made her that way. And since someone doesn’t develop DID at age 13, there had to be even deeper traumatic secrets that my character was keeping from herself. Emotionally, it was quite a difficult book to write. I focused on figuring out how and when all the alter personalities would reveal themselves to Angie and how much they wanted her to know. I wanted them to feel like actual individuals, because in the true cases of DID, they really are individuals time-sharing a body and consciousness. I was careful to keep anything graphic about Angie’s experiences off the page so it wouldn’t be too much for a younger reader who picked up the book. I’ve learned that the older readers are, the more unsettled they might be because they read what’s between the lines, especially moms with teenage daughters.
KC: Your protagonist, Angie, is dealing with memory loss, among other things. What are the most significant challenges in writing a protagonist who can’t remember chunks of her life, or who is actively repressing past traumas? How did you deal with them in the writing process?
LC: I’ve read stories where the protagonist knows what really happened but refuses to tell the reader, and I think that coyness or dishonesty is actually harder to pull off. In this case where Angie really doesn’t know, I found there was this careful balance to manage between letting the reader and Angie find things out together versus giving the reader enough suggested information to stay a step ahead of Angie. Different readers bring very different levels of sleuthiness to the process. One of the big twists relies on giving the reader hints that Angie doesn’t consciously put together herself. In technical terms, that’s called dramatic irony–when the reader is on board and waiting for the protagonist to figure it out too. You risk making the protagonist seem stupid when you try to pull this off, so that’s a huge challenge. I tried not to let myself know things that Angie or the alters wouldn’t themselves know directly. And, in fact, when people ask me about Angel’s mysterious comments, I can tell them only what I guess happened. What I’ve learned from reading people’s reviews or comments is that even though each person reads the same words, each person reads a different book.
KC: You have written both stand alone books and series (Tor Maddox). Which do you prefer? What are the challenges of writing a series, and how do you approach series as part of your writing process?
LC: I really like writing short stories, and I mostly write stand-alone novels. Even in the Tor Maddox series, each book is a stand-alone adventure with repeating characters and an overarching romantic interest who carries through them. They are more like a detective series in that respect, not a #logy. At this stage of my evolution as a storyteller, I tend to think in smaller chunks. In true multi-volume work, you need a super-story bridging all the books, which generally means super villains who are undefeated until the very end (Sauron, Voldemort, the Empire) plus full blown tales with subplots in each of the parts. I haven’t got an epic fantasy or sci-fi world developed in my head yet, so I will stick with individual novels or the episodic approach for now. The fun part about an episodic series is that you don’t have to say goodbye to characters you love. You can throw them new challenges and they practically write the story themselves because you know them so well.
KC: You have published traditionally as well as through self-publishing. What are the major differences between the two approaches? Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to decide between the two paths to publishing?
LC: In self-publishing, you have all the freedom in the world and ALL the responsibility. So that means it’s up to you to decide when the story is good enough, when the manuscript is perfect, what the covers should look like, and all the other design elements. I suggest it’s not for the insecure or the indecisive. On top of that, you must be your own marketing and promotions team, so it’s not for the shy either! Self-publishing is opening a business named YOU. You have to invest your time and money and lots of energy with the faith that it will work out well. You can create print books, ebooks, and audiobooks, but you can’t get access to traditional bookstores or generally to foreign or media deals, with a few spectacular exceptions (The Martian).
Traditional publishing has a very thick, guarded wall around it, and it takes a lot of persistence and resilience to break through, but once they let you in, a lot of the access issues are solved for you. They will expose your book to libraries and Barnes and Noble and various awards committees. They will help with reviews and marketing. They will scour the planet for foreign deals and L.A. for movie options. At the same time, you will yield some of your autonomy in terms of title, cover, editorial decisions, and timing. There will be long waits and frantic deadlines. One nice thing about traditional publishing is that the money flows toward the author, not away from the author.
Anyone trying to decide between the two paths should be very clear about how hard it is to do each one and honestly assess where his/her own strengths lie to find the best fit.
KC: What’s the most significant piece of advice you’d give to new writers? (Or what was the most important piece of advice you received as a writer?)
LC: At one of my earliest writing workshops, I was told (1) act like you already are what you want to be and (2) build a community. The first speaks to your professionalism–learn about the expectations, the ground rules, and the way things work. I think the second was equally important: build a support group around yourself of writers in all stages of the process. People ahead of you on the ladder can prepare you for what lies ahead: the joys, challenges, and frustrations. They can tell you that what you are feeling is entirely normal, that what is happening to you has happened to other people. People on your rung will generally be your critique partners and confidants. You’ll share your defeats and victories. People behind you on the ladder will be great cheerleaders for your success and will also benefit from your experience.
KC: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you reading now?
LC: I just finished and really enjoyed These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. Within science fiction, my favorite authors are Lois McMaster Bujold (Miles Vorkosigan series) and Connie Willis. Outside sci-fi, my favorite authors include Dorothy Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries) and Georgette Heyer (Regency Romance). I’m an eclectic reader! My favorite non-fiction book of all time is Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, Liz!!