Creative Writing at The New School

I was ecstatic when the writing office asked me if I would be interested in interviewing Corey Ann Haydu. Not only because she's the author of the incredibly witty and poignant YA novels OCD Love Story (Simon Pulse, 2013) and Life by Committee (Katherine Tegen Books, 2014), but also because I'm a huge fan of hers, as an author and as a person (follow her on Twitter and you'll understand). Corey and I hung out in the writing office at The New School to talk about her novels, her writing process, and her experience in the Writing for Children program.

KV: For OCD Love Story and Life by Committee, what were the seeds of inspiration for each one that pushed you to write these stories? And then, how do you know which idea is the one to actually choose and write?

CH: That’s a good question. Maybe someone else will tell me that! For OCD Love Story, I had been struggling with anxiety for a long time myself, not OCD, but general anxiety, and I was doing research on what that was about. And I learned that OCD was an anxiety disorder, which just wasn’t something I knew. I had an understanding of what OCD looked like and I just didn’t think it had any sort of relationship to what I struggled with. And when I started reading about it, I was like, oh, this is the same exact feelings that anyone who struggles with anxiety has, which is a lot of us, except with slightly different behaviors. Like different coping mechanisms than what someone with generalized anxiety would do, but still a very classic anxiety disorder where you’re working to not feel anxiety. That's your goal, you know, to try to get away from those feelings. I just got really excited and fascinated and connected to that. I was like, oh, I can write this, I have a little window to get in there.

Life by Committee is one of those books where you sort of have seven ideas and somehow they all end up in the same book. I had wanted to write about some things that happened in my high school experience. And there’s this French film that I love called Love Me If You Dare, it’s about escalating dares these two friends give each other. I wanted to write about the online world. Vermont, coffee, scones, all those things in there. Weed smoking dads. You know, all things I was interested in. So they ended up working, particularly the truth or dare aspect with a mix of things that happened to me in high school. Those things converged and ended up making sense together, luckily.

How I pick ideas, ultimately, or how I know if it’s the right one, man. When I was in school here, I had one project that I probably wrote 30,000 words and that never went anywhere. That’s probably the biggest one I’ve put time into and put aside. And I had a project that didn’t sell, back in the day. So, you know, I’m not always right about whether it’s a good one to be doing.

KV: Right, you almost have to get in there before you realize…

CH: Uh-huh, you have to get pretty far along sometimes to know if it’s a book or not. And I’m sure it will happen again where I write an entire book and it doesn’t end up working, I’m pretty confident that’s in my future.

KV: That will happen to all of us, I believe.

CH: Yeah, I think so.

KV: When you have an initial idea for a book, what do you do next? Do you let the idea simmer, are you an outline person, or do you just start writing and figure it out as you go?

CH: If the writing world is on that spectrum of seat of your pants vs. an outliner, I am far, far in the direction of seat of your pants.

KV: Me too!

CH: It’s a scary place to be. I’ll have the vaguest idea and I’ll try to write a book. So usually, I have the seed and I have a what if question. Like what if your dad was a plastic surgeon or what if you joined an online community.  And then I’ll just start writing scenes without chronology. I’ll put characters in different circumstances that seem interesting and then I deal with how to tie them all together later. It’s a really inefficient and totally terrifying way to do it. So basically what happens is that plot emerges really late in the game, maybe 50,000 words in is when I have to start thinking about plot. I usually write, for your usual 80,000 word book, I probably will have written 300,000 words because I’ll have written so many scenes and a lot of them are not useful at all to the book.

KV: But they probably help you learn more about the characters.

CH: That’s what I tell myself. I hope it makes the world feel fuller in some way. Sometimes I’ll outline at about 50,000 words. I’ll reach that place and put on index cards what’s happened in different scenes I’ve written and just try to organize them in some way that looks like a plot. It’s sort of instinctual too, sometimes I do that, and sometimes I don’t. You have to feel out what that book is going to require. Life by Committee, obviously, has a much heavier plot than OCD Love Story so in the case of that book, I was a little better at sticking to beginning, middle, end.

KV: What is your revising process like?

CH: I try to do a combination of a steady 1,000 words a day kind of pace while also, I probably every 3-5 weeks go back to the beginning and start reorganizing again and add scenes. I tend to send to beta readers and sometimes my agent at around 100 pages, just to be like what I’m writing, what are the things that pop out to you that you’re interested in.

KV: Who’s your editor again?

CH: Anica Rissi at Katherine Tegen which is part of Harper Collins. We work very closely. So even after my beta readers and my agent, about 25% of the book still changes after that point. So that’s a big part of the process too.

KV: All of my class, we’re about to graduate, so for students studying for their M.F.A., specifically for Writing for Children, but all students, what would your advice be to them—concerning school, publishing industry? Or what did you find super valuable, walking away from this program?

CH: Getting into a writing routine. Particularly during your thesis semester, it’s the time to do that. Just figure out what works for you. That’s something valuable I learned, that the process is so different for everyone. So being non-judgmental about what your process looks like. Whatever works for you that you’re moving forward in a book, that’s great.

KV: I think that’s really smart. Walking in, it was hard not to compare yourself to everyone else.

CH: Exactly, it’s really intimidating. Failing is really important, I think. Knowing that it’s not always going to work and that first drafts are going to be failures. Those are really important things. And we established a really strong core group of readers in our class, so walking away with some readers is great, but also knowing when those readers are right for you or not is important. Being open to what’s going to work and not deciding what’s going to work ahead of time. Those are things I would focus on coming out of the program. Or coming into the program. Feedback is really important, revising is unbelievably important, but filtering and trusting your gut is important too. It’s a crazy balancing act. .

KV: I read that you have a background in acting. How does your training in acting affect how you write?

CH: A lot of acting, particularly in Meisner, is about acting something out in a really truthful way, even though the circumstances are imaginary. So that’s what I do when I’m writing. I put on that circumstance and try to figure out what that would feel like. The process is basically exactly the same to me. I put on that skin and live in that moment and try to feel out emotionally what that looks like. The process of getting into a moment emotionally comes naturally to me from that training. So thank god, my entire undergraduate degree isn’t completely useless.

KV: Has anything about getting published surprised you?

CH: Finding my editor has been a huge surprise. I don’t think I understood how close that relationship could be and what a huge difference one person can make in your career. There’s something really interesting about when you’ve really connected with someone in the industry that can advocate for you, I didn’t understand how invaluable that would be. I should probably send her flowers every day to thank her. Sorry, Anica!

Another thing that’s surprising is, OCD Love Story was such an underdog. It wasn’t a big, fancy deal, it was a very small book, and it ended up doing really well, which was totally shocking. It got a really strong critical response. And I didn’t realize the pressure that comes with that. Which is totally a first world problem kind of thing and I’m happy to have that pressure. But it’s unexpected. And when I write now, sometimes I hear reviews in my head. Negative and positive ones. You can’t write from that place. But listen, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m super happy. It’s exactly what I want to be doing. So any kind of neurosis that comes with it is fine. You just have to shut off all of the voices in your head.

KV: Can you share anything with us about your upcoming middle grade novel, Rules for Stealing Stars?

CH: It’s a novel about four sisters who have a difficult family situation happening. There are magical elements which is really new for me. It’s about how their family situation and the difficulties of that intersect with this magic they’ve come upon.  It feels more contemporary than fantasy; it’s very much magical realism. It’s a book that’s really close to me and close to what my childhood was like, so it’s a big labor of love kind of book. I love all of my books, but it’s maybe the one I’m most excited about right now? Who knows, it may change. And I’m excited to meet younger readers and go to schools and do what you do when you’re writing middle grade.

KV: So what’s up next?

CH: I am writing a third YA which will be out probably in a year and a half from now. It’s about stepmothers and plastic surgery and NYC and really intense relationships. That has a draft done. I’m working on another YA right now that’s really quite different than these ones. It’s also something that I started working on at The New School. So I’m trying to make that one work. Yeah, I have a couple more things up my sleeve.

KV: What are your top five books of all time?

CH: Let’s see. The Giver. The Bell Jar. Natalie Goldberg’s The Long Quiet Highway, which is a book on writing and meditation. Catcher in the Rye. Valley of the Dolls, which is the greatest you-can’t-put-it-down book. So yeah, I think that’s a good, eclectic list, I’ll stand by it.

KV: Yeah, it was. One more. So if you’re stuck in writing, what your pick-me-ups?

CH: I’ll eat some cheese. Walk my dog. I love terrible reality TV for turning my brain off. Listening to audio books. And if you’re writing and you’re stuck, I always suggest jumping to a scene that you’re more excited about. Write the end. Write the climax. Write something that you feel more energy around than what you’re laboring over in that moment.

Corey Ann Haydu: Author Headshot Session by Navdeep Singh Dhillon of Pataka DesignCorey Ann Haydu is a young adult novelist currently living in Brooklyn, NY. Her first novel, OCD Love Story, was recently released by Simon Pulse. Her second novel, Life by Committee will be out in Summer 2014 from Katherine Tegen Books at Harper Collins. Corey received her MFA from The New School in Writing for Children. During graduate school Corey rounded out her list of interests with mochas, evening writing workshops, post-it notes, bi-weekly cheeseburgers, blazers, and board games.

BioKarissa Venne is an MFA student at The New School with a concentration in Writing for Children. She is currently an editorial intern at Scholastic, a contributing blogger at http://the-new-boom.com/, run by the WFC class of 2014, and a writer working on her first middle grade novel. Catch her on Twitter @KVenne717 where she obsesses about books, coffee, and whatever TV show she happens to be watching.

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Founded in Greenwich Village in 1931, Creative Writing at The New School continues to promote, engender, and shape innovative literature.