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Draper Journal

Writing isn’t easy, author tells students

Feb 01, 2023 04:04PM ● By Julie Slama

Instead of lecturing students, Neal Shusterman engaged Albion Middle School students to ask questions, which ranged from writing and editing to specific details in his best-selling young adult books. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Albion Middle teacher librarian and media specialist Bridget Rees may be one of young adult fiction author Neal Shusterman’s biggest fans. She began reading his work in 2007, two years after the writer won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.

When the writer, who now has written 50 novels, posted on Instagram that he would travel the country to talk to students and sign his newest book, “Gleanings,” Rees jumped through hoops to bring him to the Sandy school. She also shared the information with other area librarians so he also spoke at nearby Alta High, Midvale’s Hillcrest High, Draper’s Corner Canyon High, and at South Jordan Middle School.

While many Albion seventh- and eighth-graders were familiar with Shusterman’s writing, some Albion faculty and staff weren’t, including Assistant Principal Justin Matagi, who listened to one of his books on a family trip during fall break.  

“This is a good opportunity for students to get a glimpse and learn what it takes to be the best of the craft,” he said. “I’ve had 50 students come up to me who are excited to read what he has written and were looking forward to his visit, so it’s hard not to fall in love with that enthusiasm.”

Instead of lecturing students, Shusterman engaged them to ask questions. He talked about the writing process to collaborating with other authors on “Gleanings” (which he said he may write a prequel to) to writing for film as his 2017 Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book, “Scythe,” which he said was in development as a feature film with Universal Studios.

Shusterman also has written for TV, including the Original Disney Channel movie, “Pixel Perfect,” which was filmed in the Salt Lake City area.

The Brooklyn, New York-born author, who once lived in Florida and answered that he does not have a pet alligator, now lives in Southern California. He said the inspiration for his books comes from various places, including basing his book, “Dry,” in the neighborhood where his kids grew up.

“It was fun writing a story in a familiar place. My kids grew up in this gated community, Dove Canyon, and it required less research because we knew the meaning of the streets and we knew the schools; it was really interesting writing a story that took place in the high school where my kids went to,” he said. “I’ve always tried to include places that I’ve been or places that I’ve lived in the stories that I write because I think writing from experience sometimes means writing about places that you’ve been.”

Shusterman said the inspiration for “Unwind” came from three different places. 

“Sometimes an idea is a common one or several different things you sort of build together. First, there was a headline of an article that caught my attention. ‘Why is England afraid of their teenagers?’”

Shusterman said that it was during an economic downturn in the United Kingdom so when students graduated from school, there wasn’t work for them and they hung around, and many got in trouble. Eventually, the government passed a law which told them, “It’s OK to get rid of your unwanted teenage people,” he said.

The second part the inspiration for “Unwind” was from a team of researchers studying the psychology of the American voting system. 

“Why is it that we choose our candidates? What is the core of each of our decisions? They interviewed hundreds of people, and they asked them why they chose their candidates,” he said and learned more about their responses.

The third part of the book’s inspiration came from an article on transplants and interviewed a woman in France who had “a terrible thing happened to her face when she was mauled by a dog, and they couldn’t repair it.” She would go through life with a scar, or they could do “radical surgery for the world’s first face transplant from a target donor face,” Shusterman said, and read about the controversy about using another human being’s face.

“I started thinking about all of the medical issues, these issues of ethics, and how do we decide what to make that decision?” he said. “Suddenly, I connected with these other stories, and rather than looking at this side versus this side, I’m tried to point out that when we try to look at it from a new perspective, that doesn’t divide us, it’s the only way we’re ever going to resolve these issues. My story is an anti-political spin, trying to break that deadlock that we have not just one issue, but on all the issues, and points out that when we find ways of looking at it from new points of view, we have hopes of solving these very complicated issues, instead of looking at them simplistically.”

Although Shusterman outlined “Unwind,” “the plot always changes as I’m working on in terms of true events. I do a lot of research even when I’m writing something that is science fiction and fantastical subjects,” he said, adding that he goes through six drafts of his books before he submits it to his editor, starting with writing the first one by hand.

“When I write it into a notebook, it forces me to do a rewrite as I’m typing into the computer,” he said, adding that he still has those first drafts stored in his garage, but is considering giving them to the Ted Hipple Collection of Young Adult Literature at University of Southern Florida’s Tampa campus.  

Shusterman will read his third draft out loud.

“I read it out loud to myself because the experience of hearing your words is different enough from the experience of reading silently on the page, that you get a whole new perspective altogether different based on how it sounds,” he said.

One of the last preliminary drafts is to share it with friends, teachers and students who act as a focus group and uses those comments to help him finalize it before submitting it with his editor, who often finds more for him to revise.

When asked about writer’s block, Shusterman simply answered, “I don’t believe in writer’s block.” 

Then he explained, “The real part of writing is the hard part, those days where you can’t figure out what you’re doing, what’s not working, where you just feel like you have to bang your head against the wall to get ideas out. If you call that writer’s block, that’s an excuse for not working through the hard part of writing. If you just understand that that difficult part is just an ordinary expected part of the writing process, you’ll be able to take a breath and work your way through. It might take time. You might be stuck on the same chapter for a week, for a month. That’s expected. That’s normal. It’s not a block. It’s just a normal part of the process.”

Shusterman said that he hopes students learn “nothing is done the first time you write it and how important rewriting is; and how important reading is in general as it gives you perspective on the world.”
He also shared with students that he’s had fun naming his characters, which often come from his readers and fans who follow him on social media.
“I post a character and then I go away for about an hour. When I come back I have 1,000 different responses. I’ll go through every single name and I’ll choose a number of them. I may use somebody’s first name and somebody else’s last. What’s really fun is when I am at a book signing and someone comes up to me and says, you named that character after me. It’s nice to be able to sort of give that back,” Shusterman said.
While he likes introducing characters, Shusterman said it was hard to eliminate some of those he has developed when it is necessary.
“There was a character in ‘Unwind’ that I was going to kill off and I didn’t have the heart to,” he added.
While Shusterman somewhat dodged the answer about having a favorite book, he said that “Challenger Deep,” which won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, is a deep story about mental illness.
“It was inspired by my son’s experiences with mental illness, so it’s very close to my heart,” he said.
Shusterman grew up reading Roald Dahl books and the Lord of the Rings series, but said when he first read “The Shining” by Stephen King, 
“it scared the heck out of me. I remember sleeping with the lights on for weeks.” 
However, between being excited about stories and characters Roald Dahl came up with to learning how King’s book kept him turning pages, Shusterman knew writing was what he wanted to do.
His first story in ninth grade was inspired by Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster, “Jaws,” that had recently opened. 

“I went to see the movie on opening day, and I remember saying to myself I want to be Steven Spielberg. I want to be able to come up with stories that can capture people’s imaginations and keep them on the edges of their seats. I wrote my first story and I remember thinking writing was fun. The story was like ‘Jaws’ where you’re swimming in the ocean and this giant jellyfish would attack you and paralyze you and drag it down to the bottom,” he said.

Shusterman shared it with his first-year teacher; she told him, “I love the story that you wrote. I’m going to send it to the principal.’ Then, I got a yellow slip from the principal’s office to see him immediately. Now, the yellow slips were the bad ones. So, I think ‘great, it’s only my first week of school and I’m going to get myself suspended because the principal wants to make an example out of me because it’s inappropriate to write this kind of gross, gory story in school.” 

Instead of being reprimanded, the principal told him, his story will represent the school in a district story contest.

A few months later, when his English teacher announced the winners, he said, “I didn’t get first place; I didn’t get second place or third place. I didn’t get any one of the 30 honorable mentions. I got nothing and I was crushed. I felt humiliated. I said, ‘I am never going to do this again.’ Then, she came up to me and said, ‘Do you want to be a writer? Great. This is your first lesson as a writer; it’s called rejection. Deal with it.’”

Shusterman then took up the challenge she presented him to write one story per month for the rest of the school year.

“By the end of ninth grade, I felt like a writer, and I haven’t stopped writing ever since,” he said, adding that he dedicated a novel to her and presented her a collection of his autographed books. 

“As we go through school, you’re all going to find that you have teachers that have a powerful influence over your lives. For me, my ninth-grade English teacher was one of those teachers. She challenged me to believe in myself. And from that moment on, I just kept on writing and getting rejected, and writing and getting rejected, and writing and getting rejected,” he said. “It takes determination to succeed, and it helps when you have someone who believes in you like my English teacher believed in me.”