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Authors on Craft: Bill Konigsberg on Surprises

honestly-benI write for the surprises.

Now don’t get me wrong: I like the moments when it feels like I have some semblance of control over my story, and I know what I want in a scene, and it happens correctly, and the prose feels solid and evocative.

But the best is when something happens as I’m writing that surprises me. Because in my experience, those surprises are where the magic lives.

Here’s an example: In my novel HONESTLY BEN (coming from AAL Books/Scholastic, March 28th) I have two characters who are in love but struggling to admit it. One is a gay boy named Rafe. He has known he’s in love with Ben for a long time, but he also is aware that Ben isn’t gay, or doesn’t consider himself to be gay. They had a fling but it didn’t work for various reasons, and there was a lot of pain for both characters.

Now they’re trying to negotiate their feelings and their relationship, and in a scene I wrote for the middle of the book, I have them beginning to get closer, beginning to regain trust. I had them going for a late night drive to the ocean in frigid February in Massachusetts. I went into writing the scene with no real goal except for them to come away from the scene feeling more in tune with each other.

I thought they might run into the ocean naked together. Yes, that would be chilly! That was just a thought of what might happen.

Instead, as I wrote, I found Ben chasing Rafe in a joking sort of way along the hard sand.

And then: a surprise.

Ben leaps and tackles Rafe. Hard. On the sand. And they wrestle. In a serious way. I was not expecting that! I thought they’d dealt with a lot of their feelings, but it was so, so right, and I knew it as it happened. They quarrel verbally while wrestling, and when it’s done, they’re better.

That there is a surprise! As I was writing, my skin got all shivery.

There was a level, a layer, of passion that I did not understand until the tackle and wrestling appeared, and it carried me, it gave me a sense of momentum that would carry the book to its climax. Without the surprise, I simply don’t know how I would have moved forward.

Sometimes our best plans aren’t good enough, and we don’t know it. Not until a surprise appears.

And I guess my point is that when our novels take an odd turn, we have a choice. We can nix it. We can decide it doesn’t fit into our perceived ideas of what the book is, or what is going to happen. We can steer the ship rather than allowing the ship to turn on its own. That’s my prerogative.

But I tend to think that when a surprise happens, I need to have a little faith that it means something. That I should follow it, and see where it leads. Because to me, surprises are God-or-Whatever’s way of showing up and leading me somewhere.

And I’m going to follow!

konigsberg headshotBill Konigsberg is the award-winning young adult author of four novels. THE PORCUPINE OF TRUTH won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Stonewall Book Award in 2016; OPENLY STRAIGHT won the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in 2014; His debut novel, OUT OF THE POCKET, won the Lambda Literary Award in 2009. HONESTLY BEN, available in March 2017, has already received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal. Bill is Assistant Professor of Practice at The Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. He lives in Arizona with his husband, Chuck, and their Australian Labradoodles, Mabel and Buford.


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Love is Love: A book giveaway!

girlmansup (1)In celebration of Love being Love being Love being Love… and Valentine’s Day, I’m giving away some copies of M-E Girard’s GIRL MANS UP! It’s pretty and red, so a perfect Valentine’s Day gift. And it’s about finding the friends who really love you for who you are. And it’s about finding the one who makes your heart go aflutter. And it’s a love letter to boyish girls. And to be honest, I just love this book! So there’s that.


Tell me about someone you love, or about something you love, or something about love, or about a book you love. Or share a short love poem. Just talk to me! I’ll pick a few people who respond in the comments section below. All comments must be made by 11:59pm Eastern Time, Tuesday, February 14th (tomorrow) to be eligible to win. (Winners must have a US mailing address.) Winners will be posted here on Wednesday (as well as emailed).

Click here for a special message from me now!


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Trends in Children’s Publishing: the Political and the Personal

Politics.jpgI was talking with a bunch of agents the other day and someone wondered whether the current political situation is impacting the authors we sign on or the projects we’re interested in looking at. They asked if anybody could see any new trends in what editors are acquiring or not acquiring, compared to pre-November 8th. Or if the advice we give our clients regarding which ideas are most marketable has changed any.
imgres.jpgI’m probably a bad person to check in on regarding clients and projects. I’m pretty political, fiercely feminist, care deeply about issues of racial equality and religious freedom, have been focused on our environment since the early 1980s (Yes! I’m old!), have marched on Washington multiple times to ensure that women keep the legal right to our reproductive and healthcare choices, and have been flying a welcoming rainbow flag for the GLBTQ+ community since way before I entered the industry. I’m not tooting my own horn (ok, I am), it’s just to say that anyone who has ever met me or read this blog, or any of my online interviews, can see what I’m about. I don’t hide that, I shout it out loud and proud. Many of the agents and editors that I know are vocal about where they stand politically. And you can see what they believe in and champion by the books they represent or edit. I couldn’t have been happier for my first ever book sale to be Bill Konigsberg‘s Openly Straighta book that is life affirming and also ridiculously funny. That was the perfect book for the start of my agenting career.

imgres-1.jpgSo, I doubt many writers would pitch me if they were anti- any of the above things. I’d be the wrong agent for them. If they’re dumb enough to pitch me anyway? Well, when I’m interested in a project I do Google the author. I do have a nice, long conversation with them about the manuscript I’m interested in. I do lay it on the line about who I am and what I’m about. Yes, publishing is a business, but it’s made up of people, who have opinions. If I wasn’t on the same page as someone about something as basic as human rights, I don’t think I would do a good job representing them or their work. For me it’s not about being liberal versus conservative or Democrat versus Republican, although those things are so polarized right now that it might seem that way. All of my clients don’t share all of my opinions, and the goddess knows imgres-1.png I wouldn’t expect them to. 

Would I be more likely now to be interested in a project about refugees or fighting fascism or climate change or the abuse of power? No. Quite frankly, I’ve always been interested in those projects. Would they be easier to sell? Maybe. Do I think editors will only want books like that? No. I don’t.

imgres.pngI think editors are people though. Publishing houses are staffed with people. Yes, many decisions are made based only on the bottom line (don’t tell me this isn’t all about money), but let’s remember that different people have different responses to stressful situations. Some folks (editors, agents, readers) might want to read (or acquire or represent) stories about the common people rising up and taking back control of a corrupt government. Some folks might want to read (or acquire or represent) stories for little kids about what it’s like to be a refugee, or with a strong focus on cooperation and making friends who are different. And some people might want to read a story about falling in love for the first time when you’re sixteen, and the boy is cuter than you think you could ever get. And he’s nice, too! Or a picture book about a Labradoodle named Bob who has nasty dog breath. A book about the apocalypse? Or unicorns and rainbows? How about both!

So, what I’m saying is this: yes, I do think the industry will respond to what’s happening in our country right now and around the world, as it always does. Despite the above link showing how publishers can sometimes be overly interested in the bottom line, the same publishing house launched this new imprint just last year (and not only because it would be profitable). That publishing house is made up of people, who care. Both of those decisions were made by people.

rainbow-heart-featured2_grande.pngSo… my advice to writers, and other agents, and editors: Write what’s in your heart. Represent who and what resonates with you. Acquire what you want to read. Whether it’s a story about dog breath or fighting the dismantling of democracy, there’s room for it all.

And because I have a bully pulpit here on the blog, I’d like to link to this keynote address by Roxane Gay, who said, “everything we do is political as readers, as writers, as booksellers, as people.” And this inspiring letter from the editor of Publisher’s Weekly.



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