Alyssa: What compelled you to write about alternative worlds? Will you share with us your decision-making process for creating such worlds? What would you like readers to take away from this book?
Jen: Honestly, I have no idea what compelled me to write about alternative worlds! I wrote this book in the fall/winter of 2012/2013, and I really don’t remember specifics about my process. I do remember having the idea that the book would be a thriller-type story with nefarious government or criminal elements trying to kidnap Jonathan for his ability. (Imagine what you could accomplish if you could create worlds and then move things from one to another?) Well, the thriller angle lasted about fifteen seconds. The Kylie element, which originally was secondary, became the lead plot, and I ended up writing a much more internal story about a grieving boy who’s been living in a fantasy world and learns how to build a real life for himself.
Alyssa: I’m really interested to know more about your writing process. I read that you’re a pantser (and not a plotter) who finished your first draft by writing a page-a-day. Will you talk more about what writing your first draft was like compared to revising your manuscript? Without giving away spoilers, how did In a World Just Right evolve from draft to draft? What did you find easiest and/or most challenging about writing and revising your novel?
Jen: HaHaHa, yes! I am a total pantser, which, for your readers who don’t know the term, means that I don’t write from an outline. I like my characters to make up the plot as they go, and I love being surprised by what they come up with!
For me writing a first draft is HARD, probably because of the pantser thing. I usually have some idea of where I want to steer the story, but coming up with all of the little moments that get my characters there is painful. Revising is much easier for me (except when I get stuck and just can’t figure out why something doesn’t work). You have to know your ending to revise a manuscript. All things in a story must point relentlessly to your ending in order to achieve a satisfying pay-off. It’s tricky to put in details that point to your ending hoping your readers don’t realize they’re significant, only to figure out at the end just how important they are. (Did that make sense?) I love a book that makes you reinterpret things with a widened pair of eyes at the end. I’m working on getting better at doing that in my own work.
As far as In a World Just Right evolving . . . it really didn’t change all that much from first draft to last. I mean, there were plenty of places I revised, but the story remained the same. I rearranged the opening chapters a few of times. The biggest change was between the draft I gave my editor at S&S and the draft a different editor saw as an exclusive before the manuscript went on submission. Originally, the fantasy element was much stronger, with two of the characters as supernatural beings and a set of five scenes that took place in mystical settings—Jonathan got pulled out of his world into these settings, and it gave the book an additional mystery. In the end, I think the book is better the way it ended up, but I really miss those scenes!
Alyssa: What books have influenced your writing the most? What are your favorite books and why?
Jen: My favorite, favorite book of all time is To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I’m attracted to the richness of the themes, the beauty of the internal monologue, the preciseness and minuteness of the observations, the art of the structure. I have read that book so many times and get something new out of it always. A close second would be Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which I LOVE for the ending most of all, but also for the character of Ender himself, the pathos of his situation, the compassion of his soul. These books of course influence my writing, but all books influence my writing, as I learn something from every single book I read.
Alyssa: You’ve got an exciting event schedule ahead, including a discussion about defining YA fiction (at Grub Street with Kim Savage). Will you talk more about the YA-adult debate and crossover fiction, especially how they relate to your transition from writing adult to YA? If there should be a YA-adult distinction, what do you think it should be? What’s your advice for writers (especially of YA)?
Jen: YA literature has a teen protagonist, usually a strong voice and a certain immediacy to the action, as well as a hopeful ending. Adult literature sometimes has these things as well, but YA stories tend to center around typical coming-of-age issues. The definition of YA is also somewhat fluid, as more and different kinds of books get put into the category. I think crossover is super hard to define. Adults’ taste in reading is as varied as young adults’ taste in reading, and YA fiction covers everything from the highly commercial to the highly literary. Something that is crossover is supposed to have wide appeal to both adults and young adults, but since all readers—adult or young adult—are so different, it’s hard to say exactly what crossover is. I think it’s like identifying love . . . you know it when you see it. That said, I think I write crossover books.
My advice for writers of YA is to read lots and lots of it in the sub-genre you write in (science fiction, fantasy, historical, contemporary, romance, etc.). That’s the very best way to get a feel for what a YA book should and shouldn’t be.
Alyssa: What’s your favorite music? What did you listen to as you were writing and revising In a World Just Right? Do you have a playlist?
Jen: I think I’m the only YA author in the world who doesn’t have a playlist! For some of my characters, I do have a song that I associate with them, but Jonathan isn’t a character I have a song for. (This might be because I wrote his story in such a short, intense period of time.) When I do listen to music, it’s in the car, and it’s generally 80s tunes or movie themes. I have been known to sing along with music from Les Miserables. And Christmas carols.
Thanks so much, Jen!