We’ve just learned the teary, shocking end to Slate’ s serialized young adult vampire(ish) novel and now we want to know more. Mainly, we want to know how we can quit our day jobs and become young adult novelists ourselves, given that YA fiction is one of the fastest growing segments of the publishing industry. DoubleX editor Hanna Rosin sat down with Slate writer, Laura Moser, and her writing partner, Lauren Mechling of the Wall Street Journal, both YA pros, to let us in on the process.
Hanna Rosin:How did you guys meet?
Lauren Mechling: We met in college, on our first day of our pre-orientation hiking trip. I’d originally spotted Laura laughing across a crowded gymnasium and thought she looked appealing.
Laura Moser: Yeah, in a terrifying sea of Patagonia, Lauren was wearing an ankle-length red satin skirt, so I knew right away we’d friends.
Lauren: Later on, I approached her in the communal bathroom and asked if I could use her acne medication. We had the same prescription but mine was buried in a duffel bag.
HR:How did you start writing YA novels together?
Lauren: We’ve been creatively collaborating, to varying degrees of success, ever since we met. In college we fantasized about starting a magazine, and the year after we graduated, we co-wrote a screenplay about—
Laura: Don’t spill the beans. That concept’s still worth millions.
Lauren: Then, when I was 24, I was asked to write a profile of a woman I’d never heard of for the Telegraph of London. This improbably named Cecily von Ziegesar turned out to be the brain behind a book series called Gossip Girl. At the time, the books were getting more attention in England, where they were setting off several right-wing columnists. In researching the story, I learned all about the scandalous new world of YA fiction. I called Laura and proposed we write a trashy teen novel of our own—but funny.
Laura: I immediately jumped at the idea. My mother owned a children’s bookstore for most of my life, and I considered myself a lay expert on kids’ lit. This new type of YA fiction was just unrecognizable to me—intriguingly so—and so right away we got to work on what would become The Rise and Fall of a Tenth-Grade Social Climber.
HR:Why did you decide to give My Darklyng a second life on Facebook?
Lauren: Given how much time teens—scratch that, everyone—spends online, it seemed like a promising experiment. We wanted to make use of the characters’ online lives in ways other authors hadn’t. So, for example, if you wanted to figure out the central mystery of the story (and one reader solved it!), you had to go outside Slate to search for clues.
Laura: It was an interesting experiment for us, to see how the Internet could or could not enhance the storytelling process. (Katie Roiphe wrote about it in the New York Times recently.) I mean, e-books are getting more popular every day—they’re on track to outsell paperbacks on Amazon.com—but old-school publishers aren’t making any significant effort to develop innovative narratives for people who read on screens. We really wanted to blend some multimedia elements into the actual story.
HR:You live in two different cities, so what are the mechanics like? Do you e-mail plot outlines to each other? Write alternating chapters? And do you each have veto power over the text?
Laura: Our creative process hasn’t changed much since we lived down the street from each other in Brooklyn. We used to hammer out our plots at this grotty bar on Fifth Avenue, and then not see each other again—at least not in a professional context—until the book had reached the copy-editing stage.
Lauren: Yeah, basically, after the outlining phase, we take turns working on the document, which we e-mail back and forth constantly. We work in what we blue-collarishly refer to as “shifts,” during which the goal is to edit what the last person wrote and, knock on wood, to add new text on to it.
Laura: And yes, each of us has absolute total veto power over the other. Our sensibilities are so similar that if one of us doesn’t get the joke, or the plot twist, or whatever, then it goes, no questions asked, no apologies necessary.
HR:The novel has great dialogue—phrases like “geek-fest” and “déjà-vu totale.” Do you eavesdrop on real teens, or just make up teenlike dialogue?
Lauren: This is aspirational, made-up stuff—we wish we spoke like the characters.
Laura: And we definitely didn’t mimic real teen speech; that’d be disastrous. The NYC teenagers who “played” our main characters online tried to teach us some of their lingo, but we were hopeless, didn’t get it at all.
Lauren: I’m still trying to figure out what “I mean” means. That’s the hot thing to say at the end of a sentence. I mean, I think it is.
HR:Who are the actual kids in the photos, and how did you find them?
Lauren: Hannah Grosman, who plays Natalie, and Olivia Wherry, who plays Jenna, are both students at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn, where I went to school way back when. We were put in touch by a neighborhood friend. And my friend who works at Teen Vogue introduced us to teen eco-activist-cum-runway-model Erin Schrode, who plays James, the vampire book cover model.
HR:What did you think about when creating James, the villain in the novel? Are there particular psychodynamics that make for an excellent villain?
Laura: A good villain knows exactly how to seduce her prey. James reads Natalie perfectly from the outset. She registers her every emotion and feeds off her every insecurity. Natalie has never felt more understood. What’s more irresistible than that?
HR:What about the heroine, Natalie? Were you trying to create someone who was mostly innocent but just knowing enough to be interesting?
Lauren: We’d already started writing the book when we met Hannah, who “played” Natalie. Having a real-live adolescent in our corner was a major advantage—Hannah reminded us that teenagers can be smart and cool without having sitcom-ready rejoinders for every stupid thing people say to them.
Laura: And, more generally, we played a lot with the city-country/innocence-experience dynamic when developing the relationship between Natalie and James. We had this idea that a girl from the suburbs would somehow be more vulnerable to the seductions of a worldly-wise city slicker like James. Natalie’s naivety was essential to the whole psychodrama coming off.
HR:How have YA novels changed since you guys were teens?
Laura: There was really no such thing as a YA novel when we were teenagers, and adults certainly didn’t read them as they do now. In sixth grade, I went straight from Lois Duncan to Gone With the Wind. If you wanted a trashy summer read, you weren’t going to find one starring kids your own age.
HR:What’s the most interesting thing happening in the YA world these days?
Lauren: Back when Gossip Girl ruled the seas, the prevailing YA flavor was 15-year-old schoolgirls who acted like 25-year-old call girls. Then this whole dark thing set in, and over the last few years all the big teen books seem to be about dead siblings and dead boyfriends and prom in the afterlife. It’s getting a little, er, unlively. I’m curious to see what the next craze will be.
HR:Do you think there’s any formula for YA novels: two parts sex to three parts suspense? Make-out scene in the first chapter? Anything that’s a hard and fast rule?
Laura: No more than there is to “A” novels. The one big difference is the importance of something happening at every moment. There’s very little tolerance for four-page interior monologues or characters that don’t have a hand in the plot. The story has to start in the first paragraph, not the 12th chapter. In a serial novel, it’s even more important to keep the plot moving briskly along. We tried really hard to have some sort of intrigue going down in every single installment.
HR:What advice do you have for people who want to get into it?
Lauren: Before attempting to write a YA book, I’d say make sure you actually really like YA. Because even when it’s fun, writing a YA book is hard, and if you don’t truly love the material, it’s a stupid slog. Very few books are published (and yes, I say that with a few unpublished masterpieces under my belt). And an article I recently read said that of those that are published, only 1 percent sell more than 1,000 copies. And I learned this the hard way: Do not make one of your protagonists a middle-aged poet with a day job at NPR. (Sorry, Gary!)
HR:Do you love vampire novels or hate them?
Lauren: I don’t like them but I’m fascinated by them. It’s like watching porn … for goats.
Laura: I’ve always been more of a werewolf girl myself.