I love humor in Young Adult fiction, and I wish we saw more of it. In today’s W.O.W., Jilly Gagnon shares how humor always finds a way into her work. There are so many facets to building an interesting main character. By including humor, as Jilly points out, we can see how characters process and relate to the world around them, which I think is so important when writing Young Adult fiction.
Many thanks to Jilly for sharing her writing journey today…
Amy: What drew you to write a Young Adult manuscript?
Jilly: Honestly, I think the most important, formative years for almost anyone are the teenage years. There’s such an incredible emotional intensity at that age, and it means that even the smallest thing can have huge repercussions for the choices you make, and for how you see yourself. Obviously people grow and change a lot beyond that–I’m by no means the same person I was in high school today. But I think my sense of my place in the world, what kind of person I am and where–or whether–I fit in, was shaped almost entirely between ages 15 and 18.
As a writer, that makes those years really rich, exciting ground. Your characters can grow and respond in ways that adults–who are more set in our ways–never would.
And that emotional intensity extends to how you read; that indescribable feeling when a book feels like it was written just for you? For me that always happened when I was a young adult. The idea that I could create that experience in a reader is really exciting.
Amy: How many completed YA manuscripts did you query before one garnered interest?
Jilly: Just one (it’s currently in the vault), but I completed two other novels that fell awkwardly between “literary” and “commercial” adult fiction before I realized that my voice, and the stories that interested me, made more sense in the YA world. So I definitely spent some time in the trenches!
Amy: I love that you are a comedy writer. Do you think humor will always find a way into your manuscripts?
Jilly: I don’t think I’d know how to keep it out! Seriously, sarcasm is my default setting–it’s how my family has always expressed love.
That said, as a writer, I’m super interested in character and voice, and I think a person’s sense of humor, the way they see and comment on the world, is one of the best ways to let readers in–I love what it can show about what’s going on in a character’s mind.
More importantly, I think humor is such an important way for us to process things. There’s a saying, that people either see life as one grand tragedy, or one long comedy. I’m definitely in the latter camp. Adding humor even to dark topics is to me not only a relief, it’s an important way to work through them, at least for me.
Amy: Did your query for #famous come easily or did it go through many revisions?
Jilly: It was pretty straightforward–the idea is loosely based on the “Alex from Target” story, and what might happen if you suddenly had that sort of instantaneous, unearned fame. I think all the major themes and plot points were there from the very beginning!
Amy: Did you have critique partners for #famous? If you did, how critical were they to your writing process?
Jilly: I had both my longtime critique partner, Jen Russ, and my amazing writing group, Carrie-Anne DeDeo, Ken Marden, Jillian Melnyk, and Ben Miller, weighing in on the manuscript.
They were all absolutely indispensable–I’m very lucky to have a writing group where everyone comes with a slightly different set of strengths, and therefore spots different things the manuscript needs. You get so close to a story at some point that it’s hard to know what’s working–or whether anything is working–and what’s not.
And Jen and I have been doing full on MS swaps for a few years, now. She’s seen so many versions of all my stories, and yet she’s still impressively capable of seeing a new version with fresh, critical eyes. Seriously, I cannot thank all of them enough.
Amy: What can you tell me about your call with your agent, Heather Alexander?
Jilly: Heather is amazing and possibly my spirit animal. That’s probably the most important thing to know about her. That, and she has great hair.
By the time we had “the call,” we’d already spent an entire weekend together at Squam Lake–it’s an amazing SCBWI retreat for a small group of writers, and you really have a chance to get to know the people there, including the mentors. There was a lot of wine, and a lot of exciting, in-depth conversations about my writing goals and the manuscript I was working on at that time, and I just felt like she was a person I could see spending an entire career with.
Needless to say I was thrilled to learn, a few months later (after a more formal submissions process), that she felt the same way! It was like that moment when you learn that your crush likes you back–you can’t stop smiling, even though you know you look like a total goof.
Amy: Was there ever a time you thought about giving up on your writing dream? If so, what motivated you to keep writing?
Jilly: I’ve never really considered giving up on writing, but there was a point where I had to change my expectations pretty significantly. Through most of my twenties, I worked low-stress jobs–I managed a boutique, waited tables, and nannied a couple awesome kids–specifically so I would have more time and mental energy to focus on my writing. But a few years back, I just felt stuck. My writing wasn’t progressing along the lines I wanted it to, at least not as quickly as I’d hoped, and the thing about those jobs that was supposed to be a bonus–the extra time and flexibility they gave me–was starting to feel like a burden. I wasn’t working as hard as I had been, and I just felt…well, stuck is the best word, even if it is redundant!
So I went on some interviews and ended up taking a full-time marketing position. And counterintuitively, at least to me, that motivated me in a way I hadn’t felt in ages. I think I knew from the start that the job wasn’t a great fit, and the discipline of it–every day, week in week out–made that so much harder to deal with. Think of it as a wool sweater that’s a size too small; you can’t stop noticing it constraining you, rubbing every part of you the wrong way.
That feeling made me want to succeed more than ever before, because I knew that career path wasn’t going to make me happy on its own. I started waking up extra-early to write, taking freelance jobs after work (something I thought I’d have to give up), and jotting down ideas, or a few hundred words of a WiP, during my breaks.
I was once told by a writing professor that you shouldn’t try to be a writer unless you don’t think you can be anything else (he was warning us all about the difficulty we’d face). I think that job was the moment when I realized “shoot, I really can’t be anything else.”
Amy: What advice did you get early on in your career that you still use today?
Jilly: One of my first mentors was the amazing, talented E. Jean Carroll. She’s always encouraged me to try everything–she’s a fantastic cheerleader for her friends, so whether I was considering writing a short humor piece, or an entire novel, she pushed me to see it through.
I think the advice–to try anything and everything–was, and is, incredible for two reasons. As writers, we all get stuck sometimes. Trying lots of different things gives you a great way to feel productive when the “main” thing just isn’t coming. But it also forces you to hone different aspects of your craft. You don’t use the same exact skills writing a marketing email as you do for a novel, but having both of those in your toolkit is really important.
That, and the advice I got from just about everyone I knew who had “made” it as a writer: to never give up. I don’t even know if it’s something you can learn, it might just be a stubbornness in your personality, but enduring in the face of literally hundreds of rejections will pay off if you just keep perfecting your craft, and trying new things, and generally working to improve your writing. I’m proof of that!
Jilly Gagnon has been living in the Boston area since she graduated from Harvard, but she’ll always be a Minnesota girl at heart. When she’s not writing, she’s probably either deep in a video-game rabbit hole, talking to her cats like they understand her, or practicing her violin, which for some inexplicable reason (masochism) she took up less than a year ago.
Jilly’s short humor, personal essays, and op-eds have appeared in all kinds of places that it’s too tedious to list. In addition to young adult fiction, she also writes adult comedy books; her Choose Your Own Misery series, co-authored with Mike MacDonald, launched in 2016.