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Top 10 Things I

Award-winning author and poet Ellen Hopkins shares her top 10 lessons learned since becoming a bestselling author. by Ellen Hopkins

Ellen Hopkins is a poet and the award-winning author of 20 nonfiction books for children and six bestselling YA novels-in-verse: Crank, Burned, Glass, Impulse, Identical and Tricks. Her seventh novel, Fallout, hits bookstores in September.

Here she shares her top 10 lessons learned since becoming a bestselling author. This special uncut version of Hopkins’ list is an online-exclusive component to WD’s “WD Interview Takes 10” feature in the September “Big 10 Issue”. Be sure to check out the complete issue for more inspiring and informative Top 10s from Sherman Alexie, Mary Higgins Clark, Jodi Picoult and other bestselling authors.

1. Zicam and Airborne really work. Well, they do! I’m currently traveling over 100 days a year. It amazes me how many people’s mothers didn’t teach them to cover their mouths when they cough. And they always seem to sit next to me. Sometimes next to me and in front of me (and of course, those people always drop their seatbacks all the way back into my face).

I actually did an entire blog [post] on this once, giving detailed instructions (OK, suggestions) about traveling (preferably not traveling) when you’re sick. I included some quite graphic examples of what not to do. I’d repeat some of it here, but you might be eating while you’re reading this. The point is, travel with Zicam and Airborne, and use them any time someone near you is obviously sick. I rarely catch bugs when I travel.

2. You can’t please ’em all. I have learned to write for my audience. Not for awards. Not for reviews. In fact, I don’t even read reviews any more. I used to, religiously. I’d go on Amazon and and see what people had to say. Which was fine, when the comments were good. But every negative remark sliced right into my heart. Someone actually didn’t like something I wrote?

Everyone won’t love everything I write. Some people won’t like anything I write. (What’s up with them, anyway?) But a lot of people will love everything I write, which is why I am determined to make each book better than the last. Or, at the very least, as good. I feel a real responsibility to the growing group of people who look forward my next book, and the one after that.

As for awards, of course I’d love a Printz, or the National Book Award. And hey, I wouldn’t turn down a Pulitzer. But major awards committees have definite criteria, which my books may or may not meet. The voting is always subjective, and sometimes politicized. My books have won numerous reader awards, and those are the ones that will always mean the most to me, because they come from the people I really care about pleasing.

3. Always write bravely. Because my core readership is labeled “young adult,” the content in my books is often challenged. Once upon a time, the YA label was affixed to books for ages 10 and up. Today, however, that has changed. My books are suggested for readers 14 and up, though my readership skews from ages 11 to 80. The subject matter is difficult, but I refuse to sugarcoat issues like addiction, abuse, prostitution, suicide, etc. These things demand an honest portrayal. I want readers to see, to know, to live them through my books, so they don’t have to live them for real. And, unfortunately, many of my readers already have. So when a would-be censor says something I write is “too graphic,” my question always comes back, “For whom?”

I field hundreds of e-mails, messages, comments, friend requests and snail mail letters every day. I often hear from readers who were raped or abused as very young children, or whose parents turned them onto drugs as young teens. Their realm of experience is very different from someone whose parents never let them out of their sight. What is “too much” for the latter makes the former feel not alone. Like someone understands them, and cares. No one person has the right to judge for everyone what is “appropriate.”

Book challenges don’t hurt my feelings or anger me. I understand there is a review process, and that’s fine. But things like preemptive pulls or canceling speaking events in the face of a challenge bother me mightily, and I will continue to push back. And, while I always write with my core audience in mind, I will never write in fear of censorship.

4. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Before I found my way to either YA or writing novels in verse, I freelanced for newspapers and magazines. From there, I worked my way into children’s nonfiction, largely for the educational market. Those things helped pay the bills and allowed me some time to grow my poetry and play with short stories, picture books, early chapter books and a big, sweeping commercial adult novel. None proved to be exactly where I belonged as a writer.

Then, largely as an experiment, I decided to combine narrative verse and fiction. The story I wanted to tell was inspired by personal experience, and so I knew it needed to be written as a YA. But the voice in prose was wrong. Too strong, and also too removed. Verse was the way to tell it, but I never would have known that without putting aside doubt and giving it a try. I discovered a talent for storytelling through verse, a talent that eventually carried me to the top of the bestseller lists.

I encourage writers to try something different. Maybe in terms of formatting. Or genre. Or something as simple as changing tense or point of view. Every story is unique and demands its own set of rules. The great thing is, as the author you get to define those rules. And then you get to break them.

5. To listen to my editor, but defer to my characters. I do have to say that I have been blessed with two amazing fiction editors, both of whom have supported me completely. My second book, Burned, took an odd turn in the writing process and developed a religious framework around the main character. When I first presented the idea for the book, the Mormon religion was not a part of it, but the character started to resemble a family friend who was LDS and the book began to make sense there. Religion can be a touchy topic, but when I called my editor to see what she thought, her immediate reaction was, “Go for it.” It was only my second novel, and had she said, “Uh, I don’t think so,” I probably would have backed off.

No more. Each book takes on a life of its own, as each character emerges from the ether and walks onto (and hopefully off of) the page. I trust my characters to tell me who they are and what their story is, and today I would argue for their right to be who they insist they are. I do trust my editor enough that I would listen if she had a valid argument. I would chew on it for a few days, but if in the long run I disagreed, I would follow my heart. Or maybe more accurately, my character’s heart.

Luckily, the biggest thing my editor and I have argued about in the past few years is comma placement. I’m happy to defer to her on that. Once in a while, however, the copyeditor agrees with me, and I have to admit a certain warped satisfaction.

6. Success does, indeed, have a price tag. With a few notable exceptions, success in this business is rarely overnight. The price tag is work, and a lot of it. I know people think authors sit up in their hilltop mansions, churning out books while butlers serve them cappuccinos and some publicist does all the legwork. I do live on a hill, and my house is nicer than it used to be (remodeling is a whole other discussion). But I don’t have a butler, unless you count my husband, and he’s pretty much useless when it comes to making espresso. And PR has almost exclusively fallen to me.

That means hours of correspondence with my readers every day. I try to answer each and every message (in the hundreds daily) personally. It was easy when there were only dozens. Now it’s very difficult, and when they slip past me, I feel horribly guilty. It means weeks of outreach every year, in the form of school or library visits; book festivals; writers and librarian conferences; and book signings around the country and, now, internationally. It means social networking; maintaining websites; fielding questions for student reports; talking to book clubs; Skype visits; and doing interviews for radio, newspapers and magazines.

All that while writing next year’s book(s), revising this year’s projects, working through design, layout, copyedits, etc. My days are long. I’m up before dawn every day, and rarely get to bed before 11. Even then, my brain doesn’t always turn off. I might lie in bed, stressing over a scene. I often dream about the book I’m writing, and sometimes characters wake me up, talking to me. I’ve heard there’s medication for that. But then, how would I get everything done?

7. Not to take myself too seriously. Ego is dangerous in this business. Every time you start to feel, “Hey look at me. I am somebody,” someone comes along and deflates your ballooned head. A popular question for YA (and children’s book) authors is, “When are you going to write a real book?” I get variations on the theme regularly. I was at a big writers conference a year or so ago, as a featured speaker. Unpublished writers would ask what I wrote, and when I said YA, the general response was, “Oh.” And then they’d walk away. I wanted to run after them, ask if it made a difference that the books had all been top 10 on the New York Times list, or that my bank account is healthier because of them. But it would have been lost on those people, anyway.

My chosen format is also a point of contention. I’m very proud of raising the bar on verse novels. Not only are the books selling well, but I’ve helped expand the marketplace. My readers are getting older, and they have shared the books with their parents (and grandparents!), teachers, librarians and even counselors—adults who are enjoying the verse format. Simon & Schuster has, in fact, invited me to write some adult novels-in-verse that will allow me to explore even more mature subject matter.

Yet just a few weeks ago, a “big” agent mentioned that one of his clients had a verse novel coming out soon. Then he said, “And you know, I think she has the talent to actually write prose some day.” My jaw kind of dropped. I could have argued that it takes real talent to write a novel, complete with story arc, vivid characterization, compelling dialogue and flow, using only necessary words and no extraneous verbiage; not to mention poetic devices, imagery, sensory detail and eye-catching formatting. But his opinion on verse novel was clear. I wasn’t going to change it. Why even worry about it?

8. On the other hand … I do have a voice that many people listen to. Because I write honestly, my readers expect me to use my voice honestly, and that is something I steadfastly do. I hold opinions strongly, and offer them publicly if I think it’s important to do so. And while I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, I believe discourse is integral to maintaining the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, and the ideals we share as human beings.

Some of my writer friends worry about public versus private persona, but for me, who I am in private is who you see in public. In a way, I have no choice. Because Crank and Glass are loosely based on personal experience, readers want to know how much is real, and I think it’s important to be honest about that. People who write memoirs open themselves up in a similar way. But beyond that, creating and maintaining a “public me” would just be too much work. One exception: I do wear makeup and nice clothes in public. At home, it’s a scrubbed face and ratty sweats.

9. Remember where I came from. Crank hasn’t even been out for six years, so my rise from nonfiction children’s book author to bestselling novelist, while not exactly overnight, has definitely been fast. But I remember the struggle to find my place in publishing, always hoping (as most writers do) I would realize the kind of success that I have. When I needed help honing my vision, I was fortunate enough to find it through some great organizations—Lone Mountain Writers, Ash Canyon Poets and, especially, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

Today, as a regional adviser for the Nevada chapter of the SCBWI, I help other writers navigate the choppy waters of publishing. In addition to organizing conferences, craft-related workshops, retreats, etc., I serve as a mentor for our Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program. I teach creative writing to both teens and adults. I drop in on various online writers chats and listservs, offering whatever insight I can. In other words, I do my best to give back, despite limited free time. And whenever someone I’ve helped realizes success, big or small, I celebrate with them.

10. Make time for family, friends and fun. Some people call me driven, and I guess I am to a large degree. One of the hardest things for me is leaving the career behind for a few and making time for fun. If I take a few days to plant garden or sit on the beach or go river rafting, I feel guilty for not working. When I vacation, a laptop always comes along. The trick is leaving it turned off for at least several hours a day.

On the home front, I have a 13-year-old son who needs a mom to help him with his schoolwork and to take him bike riding or to the movies. Since I travel so much, my husband fills in when I’m gone, and does a great job playing both Dad and Mom. But when I’m home, I have to remind myself to step out of my author heels and into my mom tennis shoes. Luckily, I have a great support system of family and friends who are not shy about reminding me when I forget, and who are always there when I need a shoulder. I value them very much.

Balance is perhaps the hardest part of being a bestselling author. It’s something I have to consciously work on every day. Would I trade any part of my life for something else? Not even!

What to know what plots work best in novels? Consider:
20 Master Plots

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