How many high schoolers have set their ex-boyfriend’s car on fire (by mistake!)? Taken a road trip? Exposed a corrupt mayor’s secrets while working as a summer intern for the town newspaper? Women Who Write member Jen Doktorski introduces us to two adventurous, witty, and hilarious teen girls who are main characters in her two debut young adult fiction novels, released this summer: Famous Last Words (Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt Books and Company, July 2013) and How My Summer Went Up in Flames (Simon Pulse, May 2013). Below, she shares her writing wisdom.
- Like Sam in Famous Last Words, you worked as a journalist for local newspaper. What do nonfiction/news writing and creative writing have in common, and what do you like about each of them?
I think non-fiction/news writing and creative writing both require a certain amount of self-discipline to get the words on the page. Research, attention to detail, and a desire to present the truth (even in a made-up story) are part of the process for both non-fiction and fiction. Good storytelling is probably the biggest common denominator. You want to tell a compelling story, whether it be news or a novel, and keep your readers reading. With non-fiction and news writing, I like the pressure of a deadline. I also enjoy doing interviews and research. I’ve had the opportunity to learn and write about everything from politics to indie bands. With fiction, I love the freedom of creating characters, writing dialogue, and telling stories I want to tell.
- Is the fictional Chestnutville based on the town where you grew up in New Jersey? Are you Italian and/or Ecuadorian like your protagonists? (I’m also Italian and Ecuadorian!) How much do you draw from your own experiences when writing?
Chestnutville is based on Nutley, the town where I grew up. I think it’s so cool that you are Italian and Ecuadorian, just like Rosie [the main character in How My Summer Went Up in Flames]. I’m Italian, on both sides, and my best friend is Ecuadorian. I drew mostly on my experiences and some of hers. Our families are very similar.
- Sam and Rosie have strong ties to their New Jersey hometown, the fictional Chestnutville, and are close with their families. Both protagonists draw strength from the sense of community they have. What communities have helped and supported you in your writing endeavors?
I’ve had a tremendous amount of support from my family and friends in my writing endeavors. Once I got serious about writing fiction, I was thrilled to discover how supportive the writing community, especially in the children’s and young adult fiction worlds, can be. I could not have finished writing either book without the amazing and generous writers in my critique circle.
- Which novel took longer to write?
Famous Last Words took me longer to write. It was the first novel I ever wrote so there was a definite learning curve there.
- Tell us about your writing process. Do you start out with an outline? Do you write the story in chronological order?
I don’t usually write with an outline. The one time I attempted it, the process didn’t go so well. My main character’s voice and the opening pages are the first things that come to me. From there I have a pretty good idea of where I want the story to go and how I want it to end. I like to write the story in chronological order, but sometimes an idea for a later scene will pop into my head and it helps guide the earlier part of my story toward that point.
- What advice would you give to writers looking for an agent?
Do your research. Try to approach agents who seem to be the best fit for your work. Read books that are comparable to what you’re writing and find out who represents those authors. Attending writing workshops, like those offered by Women Who Write, SCBWI, and the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature that invite agents to speak and/or do critiques is a great way to network and meet agents that may be a perfect match for your writing.
- Do you plan on sticking with writing YA books? Are any more Chestnutville novels in the works?
I’m currently working on two YA novels. Neither is set in Chestnutville, though both take place in New Jersey. I also have ideas for middle grade novels and hope to write those as well.
- What advice would you give to aspiring YA authors?
Write what’s in your heart. Don’t chase a trend. Join a critique group. Finish writing that first draft of your novel. Then, rewrite your novel until you have the best possible version to submit to agents and editors. Don’t let rejection get you down. And don’t give up!
- When you took a road trip from New Jersey to Arizona, did you go to the places that Rosie visited on the road trip?
I visited most of the places Rosie and boys saw on their cross-country road trip. My favorite place was the Grand Canyon─especially the stars at night!
- What was your launch party like?
My launch party was one of the best days of my life! Sooo many people helped make my books possible and it was a gift to have them there and thank them in person. Plus, my husband’s band, Stereo 87, played a lot of the tunes from the How My Summer Went Up in Flames playlist.
Marlena Idrobo interned for Women Who Write this summer. She is a sophomore at Wellesley College, where she hopes to major in Latin American studies and minor in art history. She is interested in both journalism and creative writing and writes for her campus newspaper.