Interview with “Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies” author and writing guru, Deborah Halverson

Today, I’m interviewing fiction and nonfiction writer, editor, blogger, coach and friend, Deborah Halverson. I met Deborah many years ago at a Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators meeting and her coaching, DearEditor.com blog, and how-to writing book are critical ingredients in helping me complete my novels, get my novels published, and in my continuing success as a writer. 

Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us today, Deborah. Tell us a little about yourself and your books. 

I’m glad my words about the business and craft of writing have been so helpful to you, Neil! I worked in the trenches editing for a major publisher for ten years before climbing over the desk to pen fiction for young people, and it totally rocks my boat to use that experience to arm my fellow writers with industry and craft insights.

In Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies I get to dig into the how-to of writing both teen and tween fiction, injecting the whole discussion with as much dynamism and humor as I can. Learning should be fun, right? It was also important to me to show, even as I zero in on specific techniques and insights about writing for young people, that each singled-out element gets swallowed by the overall story so that readers stay blissfully unaware of our mechanics as they sink into the fictional world.

I aim to do the same thing for writers of New Adult fiction with my next writing craft book, Writing the New Adult Novel: How to Write & Sell New Adult Fiction, coming out in July 2014 from Writer’s Digest Books.

On the fiction side, I’m a writer of extreme stories. That is, I put normal people in extreme situations and see how they react—and then how others react to them. In my middle grade novel Big Mouth, a 14-year-old boy aspires to a be a competitive eater—those people who cram 63 hot dogs and buns down their throats in 10 minutes flat. Extreme! In my teen novel Honk If You Hate Me, I take a normal sixteen-year-old girl and make the entire town hate her for something she did as a small child. To push her daily life to its limits, I have her hanging out in a tattoo parlor all day. Even my picture book, Letters to Santa, features normal citizens and postal workers stepping outside their normal duties once a year to make sure children’s letters to Santa get answered.

It’s awesome that you’ve viewed the craft from so many angles, and I’m excited to read Writing the New Adult Novel when it comes out. Though I may not veer away from YA for a little while, I’m betting there’ll be some jewels in your new book that a writer from any genre can make use of. I could rant for hours about how much you and your work has influenced me. Writers have numerous resources to turn to for help, but most advice is convoluted and hard to apply. Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies really boiled down the wealth of information out there and helped me focus my writing, editing, and publishing efforts in a way that no other how-to book achieved. Tell us how it is you became an author. What was your journey?

It was a journey of subterfuge and self-denial, is what it was. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, I knew that, but I stuffed that dream down deep and told no one because I was a mature little girl and didn’t consider writing to be a practical career choice. When it was time to pick my college classes, I convinced my parents that majoring in English would be “a smart pre-law decision.” Perhaps I was trying to convince myself, too. I even worked for a probate & estate planning attorney during college—playing out my pretend scenario for my parents or testing it out for myself, I don’t know. I do know that gig convinced me I wasn’t interested in being a lawyer at all. Crafting legal arguments and filling in document templates was not the kind of writing I’d had in mind.

So I decided to actively pursue an editorial career with a publisher, figuring I could work with novels and still get a regular pay check. Bonus: I wouldn’t have to move to New York for this career because Harcourt Children’s Books was located in San Diego, my hometown. After a short stint as a video game manual writer/editor and earning a copyediting certificate, I landed a job as an editorial assistant to Harcourt’s managing editor. On my first day of work I knew I’d made the right call: Art for a picture book had arrived that day, and they’d spread the illustrations out in the conference room alongside the text to make sure the flow between the two was perfect. This was the world for me! I moved to the acquisitions and developmental side of editing, went on to earn a masters degree in American Lit, and had the supreme honor of working with children’s book legends like Theodore Taylor, Eve Bunting, David McPhail, and Janet Stevens. I also got to work with newer authors and illustrators who went on to make their marks in a big way, like David Diaz, David Shannon, Margaret Chodos-Irvine, and Jean Ferris. I spent my days with creative people who live the art of storytelling and serve young readers. Along the way I learned how to edit and how to sculpt a story and how to teach writing, three surprisingly separate skill sets.

But guess what was still hiding inside? Yep—that dream to write my own books. I started writing in the wee morning hours, after walking with my husband but before heading to the office. Still, I told no one. I needed to know for myself if this dream was worth holding onto any longer. I figured that if I couldn’t finish the manuscript, couldn’t take my own story through its complete arcs, then I would know I didn’t have the chops for that side of book creation and I’d be good with that. If I found out I could do it, well then, hey, I’d certainly be happy about that! I did finish the story, I worked up the nerve to approach an agent I respected, and then the ball was rolling. I remember the shocked faces of my editorial colleagues when, shortly after I returned from maternity leave, my boss announced that I’d sold my debut novel in a 2-book deal. I’d chosen to publish with another house in order to separate my writing and editing careers. Of course, my husband knew what I was up to when I wrote that first manuscript, but he gave me the space I needed to experiment, referring to my writing sessions simply as typing. “Did you type a lot today?” “Oh, yes, I typed a lot today.”

I revised that first manuscript during my triplet’s first year and wrote my second book in the first months of their second year. With three babies to care for, I left Harcourt to start my freelance editing business and continue writing. My boys’ three-naps-a-day schedule gave me lovely chunks of writing time, and pushing that triplet stroller eight miles daily allowed me to mull the stories in my head. I think that was the most productive writing time of my life! I was now a writer, as I’d always dreamed.

Funny how while the specifics of many writers’ journeys are different, I frequently see so many similarities. The fear of writing, the search for another career and ignoring the inborn need to write, the supportive spouse, and the children who prove to us we can do anything and make us willing to take great risks to be a good example to them—these seem to be common themes amongst many of my writer friends. I can’t imagine how you’ve done it all with triplets! You are truly an amazing person.

The writing industry seems to be evolving at the speed of light, and for new writers to be a success, they have to not only write a great book, but also be creative marketers. Aside from gorgeous writing, what three things do you think every new writer must do in order to succeed in this highly competitive and ever-changing industry?

Admit that you are a small business owner: This kind of hurts to say, because I know it hurts many writers to hear, but this is a writer’s reality in 21st-century publishing. A few veteran writers with an established fan base may be able to divorce themselves from the promoting and selling of their books and instead focus only on the writing, but not the rest of us. Whether self-publishing or publishing through a traditional house, ultimately we are each a business that creates and promotes two “products”: ourselves, and our books. We must make our products strong by always striving to improve our craft and skills, and we must research, plan, network, and promote our wares. It’s a lot of work, no sugar-coating that, but if you’re aiming for publication and a long-term writing career, this mindset is a must. Publishing is an industry, as unartful as it is to admit that, and writers who want their books out there for readers to buy must consider themselves players rather than pawns.

Embrace social media opportunities. The benefit of 21st-century publishing is that writers have been empowered to an unprecedented degree.  When I started in publishing in 1995, pretty much the only things writers could do to self-promote was send out mailers using mailing lists and go to speaking engagements (mostly local events since traveling costs bucks). Ignore that “I’m an introverted writer” knee-jerk and embrace the opportunities that social media presents! You can do it all from your safe writing cave. Actively build relationships with bloggers and reviewers and readers online, and with those in your writing community, too—networking leads to speaking engagements and new marketing ideas and new publishing relationships and, fingers crossed, books sales and more book deals. Don’t try to do it all, though; pick two or three social media methods and execute those deeply and meaningfully.

Commit to improving your craft. I know you said “aside from gorgeous writing,” but I am unable to list three must-do’s for writers without underscoring the need for quality writing. All the strategizing and promoting in the world won’t make up for lacklustre storytelling. You are a writer, always be at the top of your writing game.  Your readers will thank you for it.

 Great advice! I think anyone who wants to be a writer must engage their inner entrepreneur or they’ll never make it, and we are truly lucky to have the internet to help us spread the word across the world. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to be a writer prior to the social media revolution. Your books are available in paper and e-book formats. In which format do you sell most of your books? What do you think is the future for the publishing industry?

I believe print and digital will co-exist for a long time, with ebooks eventually being the higher seller in most categories.

Now let me put away my crystal ball and get specific about the formats of my books, right now.

At the moment, Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies sells more hard copies than ebooks. I think that’s because it’s a resource book. I find that when I use a resource book, I want the hard copy so that I can flip through the pages quickly, scanning headers for exactly what I need, eyeballing sidebars, jumping from the index to the topic page, sticking fingers and index cards between pages with abandon, etc. Interestingly, a lot of people who own a hard copy of this book ALSO buy the ebook version. 2 books, 1 reader. They want the ebook in their phone or on their computer so that no matter where they’re writing when a question or issue arises, they can just pop open to that topic in the book, make a decision, then get back to their writing. It’s great to have both versions out there so readers can make that choice. Writing the New Adult Novel: How to Write & Sell ‘New Adult’ Fiction will be available in both versions when it comes out next summer.

As for my fiction, that sells more in hard copy initially. That’s probably predictable, too, since they are children’s books. Teen and tween fiction can sell significant numbers of ebooks, but physical books become more dominant the younger you go with your readership. My picture book and books for struggling readers are only available in hardcopy. My novels for older readers have both transitioned to digital-only, which is another plus of the ebook revolution: your books don’t have to go out of print simply because a new season of books has arrived at stores.

I have the ebook version of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies. Originally I bought it for my Nook, but now I keep an e-copy on my 5th Generation Ipod. I use it all the time. It’s great to have it in my pocket and to be able to pull it out when I have a question while writing at a coffee shop, on an airplane, etc. I’m working on my blurb for the second book in my trilogy, so I know I’ll be visiting your section on queries over the next few days. So what’s in the future? Are you working on anything right now?

I’m loving the emerging new category of New Adult fiction, hence Writing the New Adult Novel.  I’ve interviewed dozens of publishing insiders and bestselling authors of NA, researched and read NA broadly, and now I’m hunkering down to the writing part. It’s great fun.

Overall, I’ve entered a new phase of my career. Writers learn that there are ups and downs in their productivity depending on work and family demands. For the last few years I’ve been focused on writing my nonfiction craft books and building my editorial business and DearEditor.com, squeezing my picture books and books for struggling readers into the cracks. This year I seem to have hit a place of balance with work and family, and with editing and writing. So I moved my fiction from the backburner and am now at work on a new teen novel as well as some pictures books and a chapter book series. When Writing the New Adult Novel is done, I’ll go full speed on those and see what I can make happen there. I feel a bit like I’m spitting into the wind by proclaiming “balance” so boldly, but what the hey, optimism is a writer’s best ally.

A new teen novel! (rubbing my hands together) Super exciting! Can’t wait to read it. Where we can find your book, websites, and FB page?

Writer’s advice website: DearEditor.com

Author website and blog: DeborahHalverson.com

Free printable Dummies cheat sheet: http://www.dummies.com/cheatsheet/writingyoungadultfiction

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DearEditorcom, https://www.facebook.com/deborah.halverson

Twitter: @Dear_Editor

Deborah on Google+: https://plus.google.com/104489752810048503047/posts

DearEditor.com on Google+: https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/105475147060999231599/105475147060999231599/posts

Deborah, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Whenever I hit a wall with my writing career, your blog and book are the first place I turn for answers. Readers and fellow writers, do yourselves an enormous favor and start following Deborah’s blog, www.deareditor.com. And whether you’re a new writer or a seasoned one, check out her books. They’re full of handy tools you can add to your writer’s toolbox.   

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About nwharrisbooks

Born and raised in a small town in north Georgia, my imagination evolved under the swaying pines surrounding my family's log home. On summer days that were too hot, winter days that were too cold, and every night into the wee hours I read books. My face was rarely seen, always hidden behind a binding. I was nurtured on fiction. Now it is my turn to create some of my own. I live in sunny southern California with my beautiful wife and two perfect children (I may be biased). I write like I read, constantly. I studied anthropology at UCSB and medicine at SUNY Buffallo.
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11 Responses to Interview with “Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies” author and writing guru, Deborah Halverson

  1. Kirsten says:

    What a great interview. There is a lot of wonderful advice packed in there for all us writers 🙂

  2. Great to talk to you, Neil!

  3. I love the DearEditor site and Deborah’s always wonderful advice! I feel the same way about why it’s important for me to have references books in hardcopy form (most of my ebooks are fiction because I don’t need to flip through them for info), and, yes, my copy of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies is a paper copy. 🙂

    I can’t wait for Deborah’s book on writing for the NA market to come out. Thanks for a terrific interview on this talented woman!

  4. elainekielykearns says:

    Fantastic interview, thank you! Although I write picture books, I own Deborah’s “Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies” and I find it an awesome resource for my writing. It’s a great book for writers of many different genres, not just YA. Thanks again for the informative interview!

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