Bookish talk · Personal thoughts

Meeting Sarah Dessen + Finding the words

Some of you know that I have a Creative Writing degree. Meaning, I sat in classes for about threeish years, analyzing writing. I quickly realized that writing a good story is harrddd.

When I was in all those English classes, trying to write stories that my peers and professors wouldn’t roll their eyes at or tear to tiny (metaphoric) pieces, I used to say that I would love to write books like Sarah Dessen’s.

If I could pull up a finished Word document on my computer filled with a completed book, I’d want it to be just like one of hers.

I would love to write more than just contemporary YA fiction, but I really love Sarah Dessen’s books. They’re simple in a way that isn’t shallow. The deepest, realest reason I love them is because they are relatable. The characters have had thoughts I have had, have worried over things I have worried over, have felt sad or confused or alone like I have.

Those are the kinds of books I want to write. Books that people can connect to.

A few weeks ago, I checked the event calendar of a local bookstore and found that Sarah Dessen was coming for a book signing for her brand new book, “Once and For All.” I immediately put it on my calendar.

Saturday was the day.

I arrived at the bookstore about 30 minutes early and sat in one of those awkward, between-two-groups seats in the fourth row from the front. I had my new copy of “Once and For All” and my battered, ancient copy of “That Summer,” both for her to sign.

Sarah eventually came out and started telling us about her new book. “Once and For All” is about the daughter of a high-end wedding planner who is cynical about love. She meets a boy who is also cynical about love, but in a serial-dater kind of way. You know the type. I’m sure he’s dashing and charming. (I’ll update you on that once I read it.)

Sarah told us that she had thought of the idea for this book because she had two babysitters who were planning weddings at the same time. She said she wondered, “What would it be like to be around the wedding atmosphere all the time? Would it make you excited about love? Or cynical about it?” She said she finds all her ideas for new books with questions that begin with, “What would it be like ___?”

She told us more about her experiences as an author and then started taking questions. One person asked about the cameos of past characters that she does in each book and she says she does them because she doesn’t want to write sequels. She said, “I don’t think I’m a sequel writer. By the time I’ve finished a book, I’m tired of the characters and the characters are tired of me. And then once the book comes out, we spend a few weeks promoting it and we’re ready to say Goodbye to each other by the end of it.” I loved this because I love the connection she feels with her characters. They are real people who get tired of her like she gets tired of them. I totally related to that. I guess she writes relatable books because she’s relatable herself.

Another question someone asked was, “How do you do research for all the careers that are in your books?” She said, “I’ve learned that I’m a really lazy writer. You won’t find me writing historical fiction or anything I have to do extensive research on. I mostly make stuff up.” That was so funny to me and made me think. Because I’ve thought a lot about writing historical fiction or some sort of fantasy. The research and world-building is insanely difficult, though. I am well aware of that fact.

All of the questions asked were interesting, but one of them really stuck out to me. Someone asked, “What advice would you give someone who is writing their first book?”

Sarah said something to the effect of, “There’s a lot to be said for showing up. Meaning, set time aside to actually write.” She said that when she was writing her very first book, she was working two jobs so only had about an hour and half every day (from 3:00-4:30 PM) to write. So she always wrote during that hour and a half. And now, 20-something years later, she still writes from 3:00-4:30 PM. Those are her hours set aside for working/writing.

She also said that when you’re writing a story and it stops working, don’t get frustrated. Go back to where it stopped working and figure out what you changed. Did you introduce a character, change the setting, etc.?

She also said that when she writes her books, she doesn’t workshop her drafts. She likes to keep her books “close” while she’s writing them, like she’s “keeping a secret.” And only once she finishes the entire thing does she look for feedback. I loved this idea. Workshopping has always been difficult for me. But more on that later.

She also said that writing a book is hard work and she loves it when authors are honest about that. She said, “I hate it when authors say something like, ‘I sit down at my computer and the muses speak through me.’ And I’m like, ‘Shut up,’” So funny. Because I’ve thought the same thing. Hearing those kind of things from authors is so discouraging because I have never once felt that way while writing.

I have times where the words flow easier than others. But it’s certainly never easy. So I loved Sarah’s honesty.

After the questions, she sat behind a table and we were called up according to when we purchased the book. I was in Group B.

When it was my turn to talk to her and have my books signed (my heart was pounding, by the way), I told her how great it was to meet her. She looked at my copy of “That Summer” and said, “It’s cool that you brought this. It shows how much YA fiction has changed in 20 years.” And it has! Look at the old vs. new covers of “That Summer” if you want evidence. I told her how many times I’d read “That Summer,” how I loved all her other books, and that I even did a major senior project in college on “Just Listen.” To that last one, she said, “Oh, thank you,” and I was a little taken aback because I was like, “Oh. You don’t have to thank me!”

She signed my books, we took a picture in which I tried my best not to stand awkwardly, and that was that.

Meeting Sarah Dessen - chocolate and chapters
Meeting Sarah Dessen + Finding the words – Chocolate and Chapters book review blog

I loved meeting her and hearing her talk about writing and her process. It was really inspiring to me.

Because Confession Time: I want to write a book some day.

I don’t know why that is so scary for me to admit.

When I was young, I used to write stories. Pages upon pages of stories. Fantasy, time travel, horses, historical fiction. I wrote about everything I liked.

When I got to college, becoming an English major and specializing in Creative Writing seemed like a no-brainer. The stories were there in my head, I just needed to let them out.

But by then, I wasn’t the young girl writing stories with pure innocence and enjoyment. I was about 10 years older. And in those 10 years, I had begun to doubt myself.

The words didn’t come easily to me anymore. It wasn’t because the stories weren’t there or the characters weren’t waiting like actors in the wings of a theater. They were ready for their stories to be told.

But what had changed was that I was scared.

Now, I realize that writing stories and allowing others to read them is like turning the most precious parts of your mind inside out and waiting for others to see it and say, “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.”

I was afraid my words weren’t good enough.

I turned in all the required stories for my classes and was generally told I showed promise, but with each story I turned in, I held something back. I knew I did.

Now, almost five years after college graduation, I still have these words swirling in my head. I still have characters I think about every day. I think about their motivations, their personalities, the way they look when their faces relax. They’re here in my mind and they’re real. They have stories to tell.

If only I could find the words and the courage to write them.

Even revealing to the world that I have stories, that books are brewing behind my eyes all the time is terrifying. That people know and will wonder what stories I have to tell.

Because honestly, even if someone asks, I will not tell them about my characters or their stories.

Not yet.

Now, I read. A lot. I feel like the reading I do is research. Why, very specifically, do I love certain books? What about them makes me connect with the characters? How does the author form their sentences to make them beautiful to read? Why do tears come to my eyes while reading some books, while I quickly forget others?

Sometimes, the words for my own stories come to me, especially late at night. And I roll over in bed and write down those few paragraphs on a piece of paper.

One day, I might share them. But for now, I will read, I will research, and I will gather the courage.


Okay, so this post was suppperrr long. I’m surprised if you stuck around. But if you did, do you have experience with any of this? Any opinions? Tell me in the comments because I am infinitely curious.


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