Get Tangled with Carolyn Mackler
Posted by inkpop on December 28, 2009
“Things can go from sidesplittingly hilarious to really serious, sad, and hard.”
In her latest book, Tangled, Mackler dives into the ups and downs of being a teenager—and then some—by writing the perspectives of four very different teen characters. There’s Jena, a big-hearted suburbanite who gets her heart broken; Skye, a suicidal actress who wants to know somethinng—anything—about the father she never met; Dakota, the heartbreaker jock who’s life is harder than people might realize; and Owen, the shy observer who connects with the “real world” world via his blog.
Mackler is the author of the award-winning teen novels The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, Vegan Virgin Valentine, Love and Other Four-Letter Words, and Guyaholic. Shortly before her live inkpop Forums Event on December 30, Mackler talked about tricks of the trade, her superstar agent, and meeting her favorite author …
inkpop: In your bio, you write that books “saved you” when you were a teen. What do you think would have happened if you didn’t have those books?
Carolyn Mackler: I would have been a lot more lost, lonely, and less confident about my own experiences, because I really looked to books for understanding them. I had friends and boyfriends and a cohesive family, but even still I had a lot of questions about “Am I normal?” I looked to books for affirmation.
When I first started writing in my early 20s, I met Judy Blume. I was writing the first draft of my first novel, Love and Other Four-Letter Words, and I interviewed her for a magazine article for Ms. Magazine. We became friends, and she’s been my mentor for more than 10 years. It was really exciting to meet the person who influenced not only my teen years but also my decisions to become an author. I can trace back how much her novels affected me to my desire to write.
What advice did Judy Blume give you?
When I was writing the first draft of Four-Letter Words, she said, “Once you finish a draft, put it down for a while, before sending it to editors and agents. Come back to it later.”
If I have a two-month distance from the book, I’ll have a fresh pair of eyes, and I’ll see what needs to be changed. I get so close to my work that I have a hard time seeing what should be thrown away, but with a little time, I feel like I have a much fiercer editorial eye.
What’s your advice to aspiring writers?
Make your manuscripts as clean as possible before showing them to agents and editors. For me, when I finish something, I tend to think, “I’m ready, I’m done, I want instant results.” Then I stop myself, and I go back to the work to edit and rewrite. I think so much of the strength of a writer is her ability to revise.
Make things as clean as possible as far as plot, characters, grammar, and the look of the manuscript. People’s first impressions are very important. If I see a typo on the first page of someone’s manuscript, I get a little turned off.
You took an interesting path to become an author. In college, you majored in art history, and then you interned for Ms. Then you took an NYU class called Beginning Your Novel. Did that inspire you to write Love and Other Four-Letter Words?
I was already working on Love and Other Four-Letter Words, and I took the class to help me learn how to structure a novel. As an art history major, I didn’t know at that point that I wanted to be a writer. I just knew that I loved to read and write in my journal. I remember taking an art history class at Vassar—you understand more about a culture by looking at their art. I love analyzing people and taking everything apart—that’s how art history relates to being a novelist. I just want to understand everything about everything.
There’s no one path to becoming a novelist—it’s not a clear path like law school or med school.
How did you get your first book deal?
Judy Blume gave me advice about the publishing business and a list of the top agents in the children’s book world. I wrote letters to agents and sent out copies of Love and Other Four-Letter Words, and one of the agents’ assistants called me. She said she stayed up all night reading it and that she would pass it to her boss for a recommendation. I started screaming and crying.
The agent ended up taking me on, and after a few years, the assistant [Jodi Reamer] became her own agent, discovered Twilight, and has gone onto wonderful success. I was her first client, and I feel like we’ve grown up together over the last decade.
What’s your advice for novelists who are trying to sell their books?
Focus on the writing. Make sure you’re telling a story that you’re really excited about. Also, go to book conferences such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators—a lot of writers make important connections there.
How did you come up with the four characters in your latest book, Tangled?
They just kind of came to me. I was walking in Central Park, where I walk to get ideas. I thought of the idea of two boys and two girls who meet on vacation, and there would be a lot of drama, betrayal, and life-changing experiences.
I was totally sucked into the stories of Tangled’s four characters, including the two teen male characters, Dakota and Owen. How did you write from their perspectives?
I’ve always written about girls. I thought of Tangled’s boy characters and thought, “What do I do now?” When I write girl characters, I put myself in their world and write from their heads. So, for Dakota and Owen, I just thought about what they would feel. I’m an observer of boys, girls, men, and women, and I imagine what their lives are like—that’s how I create characters. I imagine what their lives are like and what they’re thinking.
The hardest part was writing Dakota because I don’t know much about weightlifting or what wrestlers do. To find out, I interviewed a teenage boy from suburban Chicago. I was speaking to an audience of high-schoolers and said, “I have this dilemma. I don’t know anything about wrestling.” And this guy came up to me afterward and said, “I can help you.” He walked me through how weightlifting would go. He was a sweet guy. He wasn’t Dakota, but he helped me choreograph Dakota. I talked with him for two hours.
Do you think about how to make yourself a better writer?
I always try to challenge myself and think about how to tell a story a different way. Tangled was a challenge because there are four novellas and includes two boys. I had to figure out how to turn that into a decent novel. My next novel has a bit of mystery and suspense, which I’ve never written. I like feeling like I have no idea how to do this, and then I have to figure it out.
Chat with Carolyn Mackler: You’re invited to inkpop’s live Forums Event with Carolyn Mackler on December 30 at 4 p.m. EST.
The inkpop blog is written by inkpopAmy