Writer Spotlight: Anna Caltabiano

Writer Spotlight: Anna Caltabiano

Today’s interviewee is a teen author with a massive social media following. Anna Caltabiano is the author of The Seventh Miss Hatfield, All That is Red and the forthcoming The Time of the Clockmaker. Anna self-published her first book at just 14 and now, at 18, is in college pursuing a medical degree. Here, she talks about writing as a practice, working with editors and how she hopes a career in medicine will affect her writing.

Meet Anna Caltabiano

I understand you started writing because of a bet you had with your dad. Can you give us the backstory on that?

It’s a bit of a strange story, actually. I’m an only child, and normally every summer my dad does what a lot of parents of only children do—sign their kid up for summer camp so they don’t spend their summer being a couch potato. One summer, to escape summer camp, I told my parents that I was going to write a novel. I loved to write short stories, and I had always meant to write a novel someday, so I decided that that was as good a time as any. Of course, my dad said what any parent in their right mind would say: “Yeah, right.” I ended up parking myself right in the middle of the dining room table all summer to write the first draft of what would later become my first novel, All That is Red.

Have you developed a writing routine over the years? And how have you balanced writing with school?

I try to write a little every day. Of course, that doesn’t always happen. But I think of writing as something you practice. You can’t automatically become “good” at it. It’s something you get better at just by the sheer number of hours you spend on it. And what’s the best way to practice something? Doing a little of it each day.

Many of my classmates spend hours practicing their sport or running through lines for their musical. Writing is my activity. It’s not the only think I like to do, but it’s something that I love that I want to spend time practicing. I’m in an eight-year medical program in school, so I’m looking forward to learning about people in different ways. What better way to learn about the ins and outs of people than through studying and practicing medicine? I think what I will see and learn could only improve my writing.

Which part of storytelling do you love the most? What is the most challenging part?

My personal favorite part of writing is creating the dialogue. That’s where the storytelling becomes real for me; when characters have real dialogue, they become real people.

The most challenging part for me is writing the middle of the novel. I always start with the end of the novel in mind. Then I come up with a suitable beginning, and work forward by writing from start to finish. The middle is a wide-open mystery. I need to work through the story from beginning to end to find out what happens to the characters just as the reader works from beginning to end.

Can you describe what the process of publishing your first book was like? What did you learn during that process of working with editors and publishers?

I think that the most important part about being published is that you get to work with a professional editor. Their job is taking books that authors like me write, going through them in detail, and recommending how we can make them better. How lucky am I to have two world-class editors (one in London with Hachette and one in New York with HarperCollins) giving me advice on improving my books. Editors are often worried about hurting the feeling or confidence of writers by critiquing their books. I look at it totally differently. I am truly grateful to have such great editors spend time on helping my writing.

What about before you got your publishing deal—did you face rejection? If so, how did you deal with it and push past it?

Writing is very personal; you put down your own thoughts and emotions on the page, so when you get a rejection, it can sting a little. But what does one “no” really mean? All it means was that it was one “no” out of the way on your path to getting that one “yes” that could mean everything.

How was writing your first book at 14 different from writing your third book at 17?

Aside from the circumstances of writing my first book, which I previously mentioned, writing my third book was not that different from my first. Yes, it helps to do some basic planning, but in the end you cannot spend too much time diagramming and preparing to write. You just need to get down to the writing. Put pen to paper—or these days, fingers to the keyboard. Write every day. Don’t worry about being a perfectionist when writing—save perfectionism for when you are editing.

Anna Caltabiano

You’ve got a huge social media following, especially on Twitter. How did you build that? How important has it been to have that platform as an author?

I wrote my first book on a very sensitive, rarely discussed topic—self-harm, specifically cutting. Being a young teenager, and writing an allegorical novel on this topic, gained me immediate attention. I appeared on TV, in newspapers, and in various magazines, which, in turn, seemed to enhance my online following. Interacting online is incredibly important for an author these days, since social media has replaced bookstores and newspaper book reviews as the primary way that authors communicate with potential readers.

Do you intend to be a career writer/novelist? What would you like your life to look like in 10 years?

I plan to write the rest of my life. However, to be the best possible writer, you also need to experience life. Now, I am going through the college process, full of excitement, wonder, stimulation, exhaustion, and stress. Everything I do professionally and personally, everyone I meet, affects my writing.

I am studying medicine at Brown University. I plan to build a career in medicine and the mental health field, but I will always share this profession with my writing. In fact, I am sure that my professional and writing worlds will enhance each other and make me both a better doctor and a better writer.

What advice would you give to a young writer?

It’s easy to want to make things perfect—to sit in front of your computer or pad of paper and stare at it until the perfect words come to mind to write down. Writing rarely works that way. Put something down and tell yourself that you can—no, you should—change it later. Not only are you allowed to edit your own writing, you should; it makes you a better writer. If you wait for inspiration or perfection, you’ll be waiting a long time, maybe forever.

 

Thanks, Anna, for your thoughtful responses! If you enjoyed Anna’s interview—or if you have any questions—let her know in the comments. Don’t forget to follow Anna on Twitter.

Gift guide for the literary woman

Holiday gift guide for the literary woman

It’s December, which means we are all going to remain calm and act like sane, civil adults because there are more important things than holiday shopping.

Right? Good, now that we’ve got our priorities straight, here are a few gift ideas for the feminists, bookworms, writers or some combination of the three in your life. They’re all reasonably priced, and best of all, you don’t have to go anywhere near a mall to get them. File these under “Things to Give to Someone I Love and Possibly Buy for Myself.” Because they/you deserve it.

1. Five-year diary

For the writer who wants to document short notes about their lives every day for half a decade, get a five-year diary. One day, she’ll be able to look back on what she was doing on this date five years ago. (I’m three years into mine.) Urban Outfitters | Amazon

2. Noise-cancelling headphones

Give a writer the gift of silence so she can write her screenplay or manuscript in peace. She’ll thank you in her acknowledgements. Amazon

3. The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You 

For the voracious reader and/or hypochondriac, this book by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin has a prescription for all ills. Whatever you’re going through? There’s a book for that, and The Novel Cure can recommend it. Amazon

4. Field Notes notebooks

A writer can never have too many notebooks. These little books are slim and small—great for carrying in your bag or pocket and jotting down notes on the fly. For a sturdier design, Moleskine notebooks are a great alternative. Field Notes | Amazon

5. Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist

Book lovers with an equal affinity for booze will want to keep this one handy. With chapter titles like “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margarita,” this book is for anyone who loves a good play on words. While the cocktails themselves don’t stray too far from your basics, it’s perfect if you’re the kind of person who has no idea what goes in a cosmopolitan. (You’ll find out in the chapter titled “One Flew Over the Cosmo’s Nest.”) Urban Outfitters | Amazon

6. 642 Things to Write About

With this book, your writer friend will never run out of ideas again. It’s the perfect gift for the beginner novelist who just needs a prompt to get the creative juices flowing. Uncommon Goods | Amazon

7. Mindfulness coloring book

For those times when staring at a blank screen becomes unbearable, a coloring book is like therapy. That’s right, they make these things for grown-ups now. There’s something so soothing about coloring inside the lines. Brit + Co. | Amazon

8. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I haven’t read this book yet, but I have watched the TEDx Talk it’s based on, and Adichie is a captivating storyteller. Great gift for any budding feminist in your life. Amazon

9. Banned books mug

Anyone who calls themselves a fan of To Kill A Mockingbird, Animal Farm or coffee will appreciate a mug dedicated to the injustice of censorship. Plus, it’s heat-reactive. Out of Print Clothing | Amazon

10. Rookie Yearbook Four

Another great option for young badass ladies is Rookie magazine’s Rookie Yearbook Four. Filled with inspiring interviews, stories, photo editorials and more, it’s the kind of book that will make teens want to start a coffee table book collection (even if they don’t have a coffee table). Rookie Mag | Amazon

 

Want to support independent female artists? These shops sell literary gifts:

Type Shy makes beautiful library card notebooks

The Bookworm Prints has prints of literary quotes

Buy the Book Boutique sells jewelry, keychains and other gifts inspired by literature

Obvious State makes literary art prints and bookish paper goods

Monday Moon Design sells gorgeous black-and-white literary prints

Literati Club makes scarves printed with literature

Bookishly UK has gifts for book lovers including book page art and jewelry

 

See something you like? Send this link to a friend!

Books to read over the holidays

Books to read over the holidays

With Thanksgiving coming up (and Christmas not far behind), I’m looking forward to the opportunity to decompress from all that food by diving into a book or two. If you’ve got a little time off for the holidays, why not add to your list of books read in 2015 before the year comes to a close?

Fiction and personal essay collections are my favorite books to read when I’m holed up for a few days to enjoy the holidays and avoid Black Friday insanity. Here are a few recommendations so you can do the same!

You could read…


An old favorite

Some books make such an impression on you that you’ve just got to read them twice. I know, I know—there are too many books to read and SO LITTLE TIME, but what better time than the holidays to spend with a book that has changed you?

For me, that was Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. I picked this one up from the library earlier this month because the book I’m writing for NaNoWriMo has similar themes, and it had been years since I read it. I’m so glad I picked it up again—it was like reading it for the first time. There was so much more to appreciate about this book the second time around, just as I imagine there will probably be when I’m closer to the age John Steinbeck was when he wrote it. So many of his observations about American culture in the early 1960s when it was published were still relevant today, even prophetic.

The great thing about rereading an old favorite? You already know you’re going to love it.

A new author

Not just by reading one book, but two or more (chronologically) by the same author. If you’re curious about an author’s style and techniques, study their body of work to appreciate how their voice has developed and changed over the years.

I recently checked out Miranda July’s collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, and novel, The First Bad Man. July’s short stories were so off-putting and perverted, yet her distinct and strange voice was compelling. Plus, her short stories prepared me for diving into a longer, weirder story. When July interviewed and wrote a profile on Rihanna last month, I thought, Yep, that’s July’s writing. You’ll be able to spot an author’s work from a mile away if you spend lots of time with them.

A collection of short stories or essays

If you want something you can easily pick up and read in short bursts (or between breaks in other books), try a collection of letters, short fiction or essays by an author you love. This is also great way to sample an author you’ve been meaning to read, and if you don’t have the chance to read the whole thing at once, you can pick it up any time.

Aside from July’s short stories, Lydia Davis’ collection Can’t and Won’t is another recent favorite. Some stories are merely a sentence long, often peculiar or witty observations, while others like “The Letter to the Foundation” are funny yet vulnerable portraits of anxiety. I also recommend Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, an enjoyable critique on pop culture from start to finish.

A book on writing

Looking for inspiration or motivation? Countless authors have written some fantastic books on writing that will remind you why you want to be a writer in the first place.

I love a good book on writing, particularly those that are more literary and observant than how-to. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is an old favorite I’ve read more than once, and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is wonderful in ways I didn’t expect from a book on the craft. I’d like to read Joyce Carol Oates’ The Faith of a Writer next.

Something from your bedside table

You know the one—that book you’ve been meaning to read for months. Quit putting it off and crack that book open already! The Christmas tree can wait.

I’ve got a few on my bookshelf I’d like to read, plus several that have been on my library wish list for a while, including Leslie Jamison’s collection, The Empathy ExamsI’ll let you know what I think after I’ve read it!

Currently I’m reading The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is next on my list. (I can’t get enough of those library books.)

What’s on your to-read list? Anything to add here?

 

I’m taking the rest of the week off from the blog and newsletter to properly work on that reading list, enjoy the holiday, and end NaNoWriMo strong (hopefully—it’s been rough, guys). I’ll be back next week. In the meantime, happy Thanksgiving to everyone celebrating!

Writer Spotlight: Sofia Marie Gonzalez

Writer Spotlight: Sofia Marie Gonzalez

I’m so excited to introduce today’s interviewee: writer, actor and comedian Sofia Marie Gonzalez. Sofia is the creator of We Need To Talk, a comedy web series based on real-life breakups. You may recognize her from the viral BuzzFeed video, “If Latinos Said The Stuff White People Say.” (She’s also appeared on network television in shows like NBC’s Community!) Here, Sofia shares what it’s like to work and play in the world of comedy writing.

Meet Sofia Marie Gonzalez

Tell us a bit about your background, upbringing, and how you got into comedy.

The first part of my life was spent in the beautiful city of San Francisco. My father was elected to the board of supervisors and it was a very exciting time. I remember my mother and father catching up about their days at dinner and me and my siblings trying to get in on the conversation.

In school there were a lot of field trips to museums and live theater. I loved performance art from a very early age and started auditioning for the school plays right away. I’m so grateful my mom would help me with everything from my costumes to running lines.

When we moved to Sacramento there was a lot more celebration for sports and athleticism. I got to play soccer and basketball and learn the value of being a teammate. I was lucky to have fantastic teachers. My brother was a couple of grades above me and watched out for me. My sister began college at UC Santa Cruz and I remember getting to hear about all of the exciting things she was up to over the phone. I ended up attending UC Santa Cruz for college and majoring in politics.

When my brother Jaime and I released We Need to Talk, our friends from high school and college were the first to help us spread the word.

What was the impetus for We Need to Talk?

The truth is, I was busy with my one-woman show and my boyfriend at the time took me to a Starbucks to tell me he had gotten another girl pregnant. Now most people would have gotten up and stormed out, but I thought it was such a peculiar moment and I felt compelled to investigate.

The more questions I asked the more hilarious the specifics of the situation seemed. He met her at Applebee’s, he thought she was “hot or whatever” and he didn’t find it weird to answer a phone call from her while we were talking. My comedian friends encouraged me at the time to write it down and hyperbolize different aspects of the reality. Then when I looked back at other dating flops, I thought, Wait, maybe this is a fun theme to explore, when two people fire each other from their lives.

What (or who) else has influenced your work and passions?

Maya Rudolph on Saturday Night Live inspired me to follow my dreams. Her Pamela Bell character singing the National Anthem can still bring me to laughter to the point where tears are streaming out of my eyes from glee! It was important for me to see a woman shining and sharing her intelligence and talent. When I started my training at The Groundlings School of Comedy, I took a meeting with a manager by the name of Pam Thomas. She had represented Maya early in her career. I took it as a sign from the universe and Pam became my manager. Years later I got to meet Maya and tell her how much she inspired me. She was so gracious and kind. I hope she knows how much that meant to me.

How much time do you spend writing or editing material on any given day or week?

The days range for me with professional projects, but I write every day. I start the day journaling about what I want to achieve for the day. I am always writing things down on my phone whether it’s silly observations, a cool place to do a scene, or big ideas that I would love to explore. I think it’s important to carry a journal. If you love writing, you should treat it how you would a great romance! Lots of attention and excitement.

There are the days where I will avoid a deadline, but then when I start I think why the hell was I avoiding this? This is awesome!

What is your writing process like?

I chase feelings. I love to write when I’m feeling sad. It’s so dramatic and dark and later very funny. So I’ll feel hurt by a friend or boyfriend and then write the scene. Then I’ll go back and say okay how can I make this more fun? Where could they be having this conversation that would complicate the matter in a humorous way? Are they at a costume party? What details and specifics can I layer in while these characters hash this thing out?

Your work also involves a lot of collaboration with other writers, comics and actors. How does the collaborative process usually work?

Writers rooms are, to use an old lady slang, “da bomb.” I look forward to collaboration. Your idea can grow and get so much better. When I first started out I was very controlling of my work and didn’t want notes or suggestions. Then when I finally opened the door, I was so mad at myself for not being open to being collaborative sooner! Sometimes actors can make your written lines so much better, so give them a take or a chance to say it their way. If you truly don’t like it at least you gave them the respect as a collaborator to try. Also sometimes your ideas don’t have “legs,” and that is okay. It may just be a great one-liner and can be implemented in a different way.

Usually for a TV show you will pitch episode ideas. From there the group will discuss which ideas are the most exciting. Then the episodes get assigned to various writers. Then you regroup and punch up the script to make it better.

Describe the performance aspect of your work. How do you prepare for standup routines? What do you love most about them?

I usually write down things in my phone all the time that I think could be a “bit” or something to rave or rant about on stage. I am falling madly in love with stand-up comedy. I was lucky to join a class here in L.A. called Pretty Funny Women and then train privately with Jodi Miller. I am very lucky to perform consistently with awesome female comics. I am finding that revealing my fears and truth on stage is getting me bigger laughs than my observational humor.

What’s been your favorite project or gig so far, and why?

We Need to Talk was my favorite even though it was a lot of work to be wearing hats of writer, producer, actor and editing assistant! But I had so much fun working with the talent and the crew and of course my brother. I associate many happy memories with We Need to Talk. And I hope we get to do it again.

I also got to sit next to Chevy Chase one time in our make up chairs on NBC’s Community. And he was my favorite character in Three Amigos, so I get to brag about that!

With BuzzFeed I had the opportunity to make some social commentary with a video that received almost 5 million views, “If Latinos said the Stuff White People Say.” I am glad it resonated with so many people. Also I was part of the writer’s room for Fusion Comedy’s digital channel show SHADED and that was extremely rewarding to see our work come to life.

Comedy is still such a male-dominated arena. Have you faced sexism? How do you deal?

The truth is yes, it is there but I just say fuck that and keep moving. Yes, I have faced it and it was gross and awkward and awful. But then you just point it out to them in a clever way and you leave that B.S. in the dust. I’m cursing a lot in this answer aren’t I?

I have met amazing men in this business who have held my voice in high regard because I am a woman. I am proud to be a collaborator with men who are excited to work with women in comedy.

What’s your next plan? What’s your dream project?

I would love to write a feature film. I am also very excited for We Need to Talk to have a second life with other people’s stories.

What advice would you give to a young woman trying to make it as a comedian or comedy writer?

Do great work. I also advise finding community. There are so many great theaters, acting studios and excellent writing programs out here and if you hang around you will meet exciting, ambitious and lovely people. When you have great work to show people, the managers and agents will come. I am continuously working on making my reel and writing samples excellent and impressive.

Also have the most fun with your life and get inspiration from there.

 

Thank you Sofia for giving such an awesome behind-the-scenes look at the life of a comedian and writer. If you enjoyed Sofia’s interview, be sure to let her know in the comments and follow her on Twitter. Don’t forget to check out her series We Need To Talk.

How to persevere when you hate writing and everything sucks

How to persevere when you hate writing and everything sucks

National Novel Writing Month is more than halfway over, and everything I write is steaming garbage.

Not only that, but I’m completely stuck and way behind on my word count.

This was inevitable. I expected it. Welcomed it, even, in my naive enthusiasm for the daunting task that is/was my life’s dream. Just kidding, it’s still totally my life’s dream. Which is why it hurts so bad to suck. Anyone else feel me?

There’s nothing fun about getting yourself deep into a project only to realize this writing thing is, like, way harder than it looks, but that’s typically how it goes. There are a few ways to handle this. You could:

Stomp, scream and scare away your family, roommates and/or pets.

Give up writing all together and become an accountant or professional survey-taker.

Cry.

Or, you could try one of these more productive coping mechanisms that will help you get over yourself and this small hurdle. (I’ll be doing them myself!) After all, writing through the roadblocks is what makes you a writer.

Take a macro approach

Chances are once you’ve hit a wall, you’ll start making minor tweaks here and there without making any meaningful changes, quickly leading to despair (and possibly an existential crisis). Get yourself out of the weeds of your project and revisit your outline. If you started writing without one, now might be a good time to create it. Organize your material so it’s not overwhelming. Whatever you do, don’t get into nitpicky edits until you’ve worked through your bigger problems.

Use writing prompts to get the juices flowing

Maybe you’re just plain out of ideas or unsure of where to go from where you left off. Start anywhere—you don’t have to write chronologically. If you’re writing fiction, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction writing prompts are a great source of inspiration. If you sign up for the WTH Weekly newsletter, you’ll get 30 writing prompts to spark ideas.

Work on another project

Have multiple projects going at a time so that when you hit a wall on one, you have another to turn to that will keep you writing. It can be such a relief when you realize your fingers do in fact work, and all your brain needed was something new to focus on. And remember, not everything you write has to be publishable. It might be a welcome break to work on something that’s personal without putting any pressure on it to be good.

Read a book

Key word: book. Not blogs or articles online that will merely distract you or tempt you to procrastinate, but physical books that get you away from the computer and your mind someplace else entirely. You may draw inspiration from it or at the very least read something that reminds you why you want to do this in the first place. Reading a good book can heal most writerly woes and is never a bad way to spend your time. (i.e. No guilt.)

Check in with yourself

Make sure that what you’re writing is actually something you want to write. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in an idea we think will be popular or sounds very literary and don’t even realize it rings false because it’s not something we’re truly in love with. The key is knowing the difference between something we’re lukewarm about and something that’s hard, particularly once we’re in the trenches of a project and reach that inevitable wall. If even after a period of anguish and self-pity you still want to write the thing, pick yourself up and write the thing.

Do literally anything else

For the love of God, change out of your sweatpants, go for a run, cook a meal and interact with other human beings. Stop torturing yourself and go be a person who does normal-people things, even though you’re definitely probably not entirely normal. (That’s why we’re writers, right?) Trust that the words will come next time you sit down to do the work.

Cool? You’ve got this.

Related: What happens when we let fear dictate our art