Author & Editor Teams: Writing a Contemporary Novel with Heather Demetrios
Ever been curious about editor/author relationships? Heather Demetrios, author of Something Real, I'll Meet You There, and Bad Romance, tag-teamed with her editor, Kate Farrell, to answer some burning questions about crafting realistic stories, the importance of emotional depth, and more. And be sure to check back tomorrow for Heather's questions for Kate!
Kate Farrell (KF): What is the most rewarding part of writing contemporary YA?
Heather Demetrios (HD): I love being able to explore things I really care about and shed a bit of light on challenges that I had as a teen and know my readers are having too. Bad Romance is highly autobiographical: I had my own bad romance in high school, as well as a challenging home life. That stuff stays with you. People talk about kids being resilient, but you know what? I don’t think they are. Otherwise, why is nearly every adult I know in therapy, talking about their crap adolescence? I want my teen readers to know they’re not alone, and that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And I want my adult readers to have their teen experiences validated, and their eyes opened to some of the things I explore in my stories. When I get emails and messages on social media from my readers about how my books help them to feel more seen, it’s pretty much the best feeling ever. Whether it’s a girl whose brother is a soldier with PTSD responding to I’ll Meet You There, or a girl in college who’s getting over an abusive relationship and stumbled across Bad Romance, knowing that my books are helping to bring more light into the world lets me know I’m where I need to be. My agent likes to say that people who write YA (and kidlit) have an age that they just can’t let go of, and for me that’s seventeen. I find myself going back, again and again, to the later years of high school, or the months and years just after high school. It’s a time of so much tumult and potential and hope and despair and you are so, so, so close to freedom: but you’re not there yet. I feel like it’s such rich soil for storytelling.
KF: What is the most challenging part of writing contemporary YA?
HD: Bad Romance is my sixth book (three are a fantasy series), so I’m getting to a place where I’m trying to figure out what new directions I might be able to go in within the genre. I’m putting my foot down and refusing to write another prom scene! I think the most challenging part is not covering the same emotional territory, or, if I am, that I find a new way to do that. I’m interested in exploring a bit of magical realism or stories that are, tonally, very different. I’ve got a college-aged YA in my back pocket, waiting for a rainy day. After my next book, which is about the summer my best friends and I lived in a house by ourselves just after graduation, I think I’m going to try to write a contemporary that has nothing to do with people in high school, but is still a YA with teen characters. Something with car chases. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
KF: What advice do you have for writers interested in writing contemporary YA?
HD: For me, contemporary YA is all about voice and emotional depth. I get really bored if it’s just vanilla writing and a set-up we’ve seen five-thousand times. Like I said, I can only read or write so many prom scenes. I don’t think it has to be some crazy original story, but it has to be something that is delicious and pulls you in—it has to be emotionally intelligent. Read Jandy Nelson, David Levithan, and e. Lockhart. Read Fat Kid Rules The World, a book that absolutely gutted me. They’re so good I can’t even be jealous. I just bow down. There will always be room for beach reads and lighter fare, and sometimes that’s what we need! But, regardless of what you’re writing, I think writers have to raise the craft bar as high as they can. There’s so much “content” out there and, frankly, a lot of bad books—a lot of coasting. I get mad when I see lazy writing. So my big advice would be to read as much YA contemporary as you can, as broadly as you can, and always be working on your craft. Get a writing coach, take classes, put yourself out there and find some beta readers. Get better. Give us characters we will love, complex and layered. Give us stories about stuff that matters. Don’t waste people’s time or take their eyes on your pages for granted. Always be digging deeper, going further. I’m of the blood, sweat, and tears school—obviously.
KF: Can you describe the writing process?
HD: For Bad Romance, I re-read all my journals from the years of my life in high school when I was in an abusive relationship. I had to start there before I could do anything else. It was… really hard. Very painful. I think what got me through it, honestly, was the playlist I made—lots of anthem break-up songs and girl power stuff. And knowing that I was only writing this book to help the girls (and boys) out there who are in their own riptide of love gone wrong. I wanted to write the book I wished I’d had. I’d gotten 30K into it as a memoir when Kate and I realized that it needed to be a novel—not because the memoir wasn’t working, but because the legal issues involved were holding me back from really being able to express the depth of what I went through. That was a really hard transition for me. I had to let go of what “really” happened and allow characters that weren’t me or the people I knew to emerge. Kate was SO HELPFUL and incredibly supportive through this process. She really could tell when I was holding onto something that happened that wasn’t serving the book. We needed there to be space to allow the book that wanted to be written to come through. I couldn’t have made this work without her.
I found that there was so much more freedom in fiction! I was able to get across exactly what it felt like to be in an abusive relationship as a teen. From what I’ve been hearing from readers, it’s an accurate experience too many of us are familiar with. I think it also saved me from having to totally relive that time in my life. Creating the boy, Gavin, acted as a buffer between me and my real life ex. I really don’t think I could have conveyed how I fell for my boyfriend—I have recurring nightmares about him to this day and I literally get nauseous thinking of anything related to our relationship. By creating Grace and Gavin, I could write romantic scenes and sex scenes and cute moments in such a way that the reader is with Grace, falling for Gavin too. And in the darker scenes, I was now allowed to play with details and make things even darker or less dark, as needed for the book. I didn’t have to say what “really” happened. For me, the responsibility lay in accurately conveying what it felt like to be in a bad romance. Kate and I went back and forth to get things right. She never dumps loads of notes on me. There’s a lot of trust from her and that is gold for a writer. She’s so great at seeing when a character isn’t quite fleshed out, when a moment hasn’t been mined for all it’s worth. She has a keen sense of what makes my books tick and she makes sure they’re ticking, so to speak, by the time it gets to copyedits. Seeing the cover was this gorgeous cherry on top of all this rough work. I’m really happy with how the whole book came out—and glad the writing part is over!
KF: Describe a perfect night as Teen Heather:
HD: My friends and I were seriously the biggest nerds ever. The teens in my books are waaaaaay more experienced than I was. (I didn’t drink until college—true story!). So for me, it would have been going to a friend’s house for a sleepover after one of our performances and playing drama improv games. I know, seriously, that is the lamest, but we loved it! Pepsi freezes and items from the Wendy’s dollar menu were essential, of course.
KF: If you weren’t an editor/writer, what would you be?
HD: A spy. Seriously, you don’t even know. I’ve actually been on the CIA’s website looking at employment opportunities. I think my theatre training would come in handy, and I have no qualms about running around Moscow or Marrakech in the dead of night. I guess I’d have to learn more languages and pick up some ninja skills, but I think I could swing it. Luckily, I can live vicariously through my characters if I just write about it (hint, hint, Kate).