College is hard enough without writing your first novel, but somehow 29-year-old Alexandra Bracken managed to make it work. During her senior year at William & Mary in Virginia, Bracken sold her first novel Brightly Woven after dedicating the majority of her free time to writing. Her initial goal was to write a 50,000 word novel — a huge ambition for someone who is already doubled down with college assignments and exams — but with an idea she believed in and her passion unstoppable, she wound up with 100,000 words.
Bracken has worked relentlessly for her success and clearly she’s good at what she does (her novels have been translated into more than 15 different languages and one of her series is currently in development for a FOX motion picture), but we still can’t help but wonder — how did she do it?
On the heels of Bracken’s latest novel Wayfarer, we talked to the author about striking success at a young age, her biggest influences and what striving college writers can to do get their foot in the door.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I knew from a really young age, actually– third grade. I was already a really big reader at that age (I loved me some Road Dahl and Avi!) and had a huge imagination that was constantly running wild. I thought that if reading was so fun, it had to mean that writing was also really fun. And it is, mostly! I want to stress that I don’t think people are born writers, though. It’s really more of a natural instinct to create, and it manifests itself in different ways in different people (visually, verbally, etc.). I’ve always been amazed and so jealous of my friends who seem to have some mysterious ability to completely absorb math, music, and other languages– it’s really fascinating to see how differently we approach the world and use what we’ve been given. But with writing, it’s definitely a mileage thing: the only way to get to a place where– as Ira Glass said –your taste and ambition finally match the actual quality of your work is to read as much as possible and write as much as possible.
Writing a book (and getting it published) in college is incredibly impressive. How did you handle writing, editing and your course work?
I was honestly so determined to make it work back then, I look back and almost can’t believe it. I tend to be a really goal-driven person to begin with and I’m really good at motivating myself to get to work, but a lot of it was simply because I loved writing so much I was willing to give up a good portion of my free time (and, yeah, social fun) to work.
Up until my freshman year, I’d only ever written fanfiction and short stories–nothing like a novel. I decided to dip my toes into the process with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which is every November. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel or 50,000 words of a novel by the end of the month. I did that… and ended up writing another 100,000 words of it.
Now, I really believed in this story, even though I had basically word vomited every fantasy book cliche and trope imaginable into it. I’m not going to lie, trying to get published requires one part hope, one part delusion to get yourself through the querying and submissions process and survive the pain of so much rejection. I think I sent query letters (basically pitch letters describing the project) to every YA agent in business at that time and was rejected by all of them. After that smackdown from life, it felt too painful to write… but then I got the itch to work on something a few months later. To take the pressure off my shoulders and just have fun with it, I wrote this next story, Brightly Woven, for my friend’s birthday.
That story felt different to me– it had some sort of strange x-factor to it that made me think it could be published. I got plenty of agent rejections with that project, too, but I also got an offer of representation on my 21st birthday while I was at dinner (bless you, Carraba’s magic). I worked on revising that book for about five or six months with my agent, which involved waking up at six o’clock every morning to work in a nearby computer lab — so I wasn’t tempted to go back to sleep — and eating Cheez-its and drinking a bottle of Coke from the vending machine for breakfast. That book ended up selling at the very beginning of my second semester of senior year… but then I had to revise it at the same time I was writing my papers and studying for finals, and I have never been quite so stressed in my life. (0/10, would not recommend.)
I commend your dedication! I could never. Your The Darkest Mind series is currently in development to become a movie. How did you come up with the novel’s storyline? Passenger’s?
I tend to start any story by developing the characters, and letting the characters tell me about their world. That’s backwards from the way a lot of writers do it, but it works for me, even if it means some very messy first drafts. I never used to be much of an outliner because I was afraid I would become bored with a story if I knew absolutely everything that would happen in it. Now I tend to create a very loose outline with all of the major events and emotional beats so I can keep everything straight and know what end I’m working toward.
I pull a lot of inspiration from real life and history. With The Darkest Minds, I was really homesick for college and needed a project that was fun and could distract me. Let’s just say that it wasn’t the easiest adjust to go from Colonial Williamsburg to Manhattan. I selfishly filled that story with everything I really loved: road trips, superpowers, classic rock, Waffle House, you name it, and somehow a plot emerged from it. Passenger was inspired by my time at William & Mary, and living alongside the 18th century reenactment happening in Colonial Williamsburg. I wanted to try to capture the feeling of being a fish out of water and the way you’re constantly measuring your 21st century beliefs and ideals against the ones the reenactors are presenting to you.
Who has influenced your work the most?
Oh, there are so many authors. I feel like I owe my weird, occasionally dark sense of humor to Roald Dahl, but I also grew up with a dad who collected Star Wars memorabilia from the time I was in first grade until he passed away a few years ago. You better believe I was going to conventions and toy shows and watching those movies non-stop growing up! The best thing Star Wars ever gave me was a very clear understanding of the classic hero’s journey arc, develop characters, and establish story themes.
Because this answer hasn’t been random enough already, I also want to add that one book in particular that had a huge impact on me was The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. That was the first time I genuinely understood how emotional and beautiful writing could be.
What’s your favorite book?
Nooooo! Don’t ask this of me!! It’s so hard to choose! If I have to choose… Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman and Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle on the kidlit side, and Howards End by E.M. Forster on the adult side.
If you weren’t a writer, what career path could you have seen yourself taking?
My Sliding Doors alternate life would probably have me as a museum curator or working in historic preservation. I spent most of college, right up until the middle of taking the LSAT (true story), thinking I would become a lawyer but dreading the idea of it.
I think that if I had been honest with myself about what I really loved and was interested in from the beginning, my focus in school, and therefore in life, would have been very different. As much as I love writing, I’m not totally sure I would have pushed myself so hard to try to sell a book before graduating if I wasn’t trying quite that hard to prove to my parents I could make a living as a writer and therefore didn’t have to go to law school.
What’s the best piece of creative advice you’ve been given?
The best advice I’ve ever read on creativity has come from Ira Glass. I actually reference this all the time when people ask for advice on how to improve their writing or how to start writing. I’m going to summarize his point, here, but it’s essentially that when you start any sort of creative endeavor, your taste will always be superior to the actual product you’re producing. You’ll be frustrated that by the fact that your writing or art doesn’t match your initial ambition and vision. But that gap is needed in order to push yourself to become a better writer or artist, and everyone experiences that learning curve.
The other piece of advice I tend to repeat a lot is that first drafts are you telling yourself the story, and are really zero drafts. Books are made in the revision process. To finish a project, you have to free yourself from the prison of doubt and endless editing as you’re drafting and accept that you can fix it all later.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
Writer’s block is usually a sign that something in the story isn’t working, or that I’m bored with the direction I’ve taken it. This sounds really counterintuitive, but it usually means I need to stop working for a while and give my brain time to process what’s broken in the story and how I can fix it.
Occasionally, it’s my nerves getting the better of me — I feel too intimidated by the story to push forward, or I’m worried I can’t do it justice. In those instances, the only thing that works for me is switching from writing on my computer to writing the story out by hand. It’s a weird trick that helps my brain reset, and convinces it that the project is just for me… meaning there’s a lot less pressure, which can be creatively stifling.
Publishing is tough. What words of advice do you have for those who are feeling discouraged?
The only thing I can say is: don’t give up, even when it feels like that’s the only option. To make it in this business, you have to love the process of writing more than you love the high of being published or selling a book, because that high goes away and you constantly have to be creating and drafting to make a living.
What a lot of people won’t admit is that there is an element of luck involved with selling a book. Some people sell the first thing they ever write, others take twenty finished manuscripts to get to that point. Stars have to align in just the right way: you have to write the right book at the right time, find the right agent, and that agent has to find the right editor for it. A certain element of it will always be out of your control, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t talented or deserving. It just means you have to always be working on the next project. Each time you go through the submissions process, you’re making connections that might help you in unexpected ways one day.
The other piece of advice I have is to find people at the same stage of the journey as you so you can commiserate and share your work for critiquing. There are so many different communities and forums online, and I’d bet that there are creative writing groups at your school, too.
Do you have any advice for collegiates looking to break into the industry?
After graduating from William & Mary, I actually worked in children’s book publishing — first in editorial, then in marketing — for about five years before I left to write full-time. If you’re interested in working in the business, my first piece of advice is to comb through your alumni network to find people who work in the industry, even if it’s just a tangential part of it.
The weird thing about publishing is that it’s still very much an old-boy network. There are so few jobs compared to other industries, and the HR folks are constantly swamped with applications. They obviously try to be as fair as possible, but it’s always good to have someone already at the company forward your resume and cover letter on so it’s not lost in the shuffle. (Believe me, they’ll want to do it–if you get hired, they get a little bonus!) The best way to make this kind of connection is to ask for informational interviews via alums or friends of alums. The industry is very much an apprenticeship industry, meaning that you don’t have to come in with a specific major or work experience/internships–most of the time, they just want to see that you love books passionately (make sure you read their big titles before an interview and take a look at their catalogs!) and have some kind of office experience.