New Voice: Emily Howse on Zitface

Emily Howse is the first-time author of Zitface (Marshall Cavendish, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Thirteen-year-old Olivia Hughes knows what she wants to do with her life—be an actress. And she’s already on her way. She just landed a national ad campaign that should get her noticed.

But then her luck runs out. A little pimple turns into a full-blown case of acne, with serious side effects for her career, relationships, and budding romance with J.W., the new guy at school.

Now all Olivia wants to do is hide, but she can’t. She goes from being the girl at school everyone wants to be…to Zitface, a girl who is teased, dumped, and even fired.

What do you do when you’ve lost control of everything in your life? Olivia has to find out the hard way. And maybe, what she finds isn’t so bad after all.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

Discovering my book’s characters was much easier than I’d anticipated. During previous book writing attempts, I compiled pages and pages of character traits, for every character.

Not one to embrace change, I dutifully began this same process before writing Zitface. Then I realized I didn’t need to. I related to most characters either from first-hand experience, or experience in knowing people like them. This happy revelation saved me from serious writer’s cramp…and countless hours of jotting down everyone’s likes, dislikes, favorite food, astrological sign, you name it.

Here’s what I knew, when contemplating the characters, to be true:

Olivia Hughes (13-year-old protagonist): Olivia, a likeable eighth-grader and TV commercial actress, seems to have it all. You know someone’s going down when you hear that phrase! Her world goes awry when she develops serious acne: her friendships suffer, her family’s conflicted, her career’s in jeopardy, and her romance with a studly classmate tanks.

My tween life wasn’t quite that dramatic, but I encountered similar experiences. I too was a child actress, for awhile. I was popular at my tiny Catholic elementary school in L.A.—then sunk to the bottom of the social eco-chain when my family moved to Dallas.

That geographic upheaval triggered family strife: I blamed my mom for decamping us to Texas, and hated that my dad remained mostly in L.A. (not unlike Olivia’s dad, who hightails it to Albuquerque, post-divorce). My sweet dad doesn’t resemble Olivia’s controlling father, but I’ve dated my share of sports-obsessed workaholics. As for acne: I didn’t break out during adolescence, but did big-time in my twenties (which also didn’t help my love life). Adult acne still occasionally plagues me, but it doesn’t own me—a realization Olivia comes to, as well.

Wendy Dahl (Olivia’s sometimes antagonistic friend): Wendy can’t keep quiet. Unfortunately, I suffer from that same syndrome. Over time, I’ve realized that not everyone’s interested in my take on things, so I’ve amended (somewhat) my mouthiness. Wendy isn’t there yet. She has things to say and says them, with mostly good intentions. Some characters don’t appreciate Wendy’s ego or opinion, but I can’t help rooting for her.

I consider Wendy misunderstood…which is exactly how I felt as a teen, when I shared what I considered my sparkling wit with friends and got reamed for being snarky. Unlike Wendy, I wasn’t a blonde cheerleader—I was a drill team member with a bad perm. But I get Wendy’s need to exude confidence, especially when she isn’t feeling it. Doesn’t every teen sometimes try to act cooler than they are? Wendy just does it more.

Theo Winters (O’s friend—and potential boyfriend): Theo is kinder and wiser than most people in the book, because he’s dealt with adversity and it’s made him a softer—not harder—person. Theo has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and managing a chronic disease makes him keenly aware of life’s uncertainties. Yet he appreciates life’s joys. Theo accepts his condition, experiences joy, and doesn’t shy away from his reality.

I respect this about Theo because I also have rheumatoid arthritis (though I wasn’t diagnosed until my mid-thirties). I generally accept having a condition and manage it well, but uncertainty occasionally breeds fear. RA runs an unpredictable course…it comes and goes, so it’s impossible to know exactly what’s coming next. A lot like life!

Regarding other Zitface characters, I related to them on different levels: Olivia’s aunt’s job-hopping (check!), her mom’s resistance to dating (check!), best friend Jenna’s occasional judgmental-ness (double-check!). Freud once said that, in our dreams, we are every person.

Okay, so Freud may now be considered a bit of a quack, but I think there’s a part of us—and sometimes a lot—in every character we create. Which makes writing about them all the more meaningful.

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft?

At an annual SCBWI conference in the 1990s, I saw Judy Blume and Paula Danziger play jacks in a hotel hallway. It was between breakout sessions, and most presenters/participants were snacking and schmoozing in the grand ballroom.

But Judy and Paula were sitting in an adjacent hall—cross-legged on the carpet—playing jacks with child-like enthusiasm. It struck me that I couldn’t imagine witnessing two prominent speakers doing this at any other type of conference.

Their gleeful focus on the game represented, to me, why we were all gathered there: because, as children’s writers, we all revel and exist, somewhat, in a youthful state. Our inner child enables us to create kidlit, and it comes alive when we do.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

I love questions that allow me to kvetch! Being the primary caregiver of a young child has been the greatest boon—and bane—to my writing.

On the upside, becoming a mom (I adopted a baby girl from Kazakhstan in 2005) rebooted my urge to write. The urge had waned due to my dwindling belief that I’d ever publish a children’s book. I’d written the first draft (of many) of Zitface back in 2003. My literary agent sent the manuscript to publishers…and I received rejection letters.

After this happened many times, I abandoned writing and focused on motherhood. I decided to adopt as a single mom—and began dating my now-husband in the process.

When I wasn’t exhausted from chasing after an indefatigable toddler, I reminisced about writing. I loved being a mother, but I missed being a writer. I didn’t want to close the door on this integral part of myself. Plus, I wanted to make my daughter proud, to show her how to reach for her dreams. Not that she cared at the time. All she wanted was the television remote control, so she could chew on it.

During the early toddler phase (which seemed to last way longer than it actually did), I didn’t have the time, energy or drive to write. I gave myself a one-year writing moratorium, but kept a story-brainstorming notebook. When creativity struck, putting my ideas on paper helped me feel proactive.

As my daughter got older, I got craftier about writing. Employed as a high school counselor, I sneaked in some writing at work. A key writing survival strategy!

I staunchly defend the ethics of doing this, because I only wrote when I had downtime (who really toils every minute of every eight-hour workday?).

Unfortunately, you can only get so far writing during brief work breaks. When no students came to my office in crisis, I could produce two or three pages in a day. But it wasn’t high-quality writing. Jotting words down five minutes here, ten minutes there—and hoping your boss doesn’t discover you’re not actually working—isn’t conducive to exemplary prose.

But, at the time, it was my best option. Some people happily write at night, God bless them. When I was single, I did so as well…because I wasn’t exhausted! Only once I had a kid, my brain and body pooped out by 6 p.m. Weekend days—another great time to write, if no high-energy kid keeps jumping on your lap—occasionally proved fruitful. But more often I spent them doing mom duty at the park, birthday parties, soccer games, etc.

After two years, I quit my job and wrote at home while my daughter attended preschool. It provided me ample writing time, but it wasn’t an easy decision. It meant financial hardship and numerous budgeting discussions with my fiscally-minded husband.

Months later, Zitface was purchased by Marshall Cavendish. A lucky break.

I spent much of 2008-2010 honing the manuscript (I had no idea how involved book editing is!). But I’m not complaining. I am, in fact, working on a sequel…and seeking a part-time job. It’s time. Especially since my husband’s been a great sport about my not bringing in a regular paycheck these past few years.

For stay-at-home folks with school-age kids, writing time is obvious: do as much as possible while the kids are in school because trying to accomplish anything once they’re home is iffy, at best.

I write most days and try to start first thing in the morning, so I don’t get distracted by other tasks. Some days I don’t make it to the grocery store, and that’s okay.

I’d rather spend an hour writing than cruising the vegetable aisle. I wish I could report writing faithfully from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 pm, but that would be false. I don’t always write at the same time, or even for the same amount of time. But I devote some time to writing/editing/research most days. I’m convinced that writing—like exercise—must be habitual to be effective, so it’s better to write a little bit every day than force it in three-times-weekly chunks.

Here’s a summertime suggestion: when kiddos are out of school and the days are long: join the local Y! I had an editing deadline this past summer, and I met it by going to the gym every weekday, for two hours. Nope, I wasn’t obsessively crunching my abs or doing downward dog. I dropped my daughter off in the kid-care room, then sat down at a nearby table with my laptop and edited my heart out. Members could leave children in the designated play area for two hours (but had to remain on the premises), so I edited for ninety minutes and worked out for thirty. I did this for several weeks—and I got the editing job done.

For parents with day jobs, however, finding time to write is tricky. You have to carefully consider your schedule, identifying every possible writing opportunity.

Does your kid love long baths? Write while they’re turning prune-y in the tub. Write while your spouse cooks dinner. Write when your kids are parked in front of the TV (any parent who says they never utilize this tactic is probably lying). Write as they play in the yard. Writing on the fly isn’t ideal, but it’s doable.

And for more concentrated time, there are plenty of places your child can go have fun on the weekend: a play place, art class, sport camp, etc. This usually requires parting with money, but if you can afford it and get sufficient free time in exchange, it’s worthwhile.

And if you have multiple kids and can’t afford farming them out to various activities? Send them to their grandparents (or anyone who will take them)!

Last, but not least: forging a writing career sometimes requires—ironically—putting writing on the back-burner. Since Zitface came out April 1, I’ve temporarily traded writing for book marketing. Initially, I ambitiously presumed I could plug my debut novel and simultaneously write a sequel. I was deluding myself.

Some people excel at multitasking, but I’m not one of them. So for the next two months, I’m concentrating on promoting my work.

3 thoughts on “New Voice: Emily Howse on Zitface

  1. Thanks for the great post, Emily. I, too, have found the character checklists a time drain. When you can clearly hear and visualize your character and their situation, it might not matter what their favorite color is.

    I prefer free-writing, in my character's voice, on topics that concern or would be of interest to that particular character – especially how they're REALLY feeling about key relationships.

    Likes, dislikes, physical and behavioral idiosyncrasies come out in the freewriting or in daydreaming about the story and rarely from laboring over a checklist.

  2. Great interview! I LOVE the jacks story the way Emily describes give and take that the writing life requires. Great cover too!

  3. Thanks for your thoughts on free writing, Jean. I have students report great luck with collages–the characters' room, interests, passions. It's more of a flowing process than worksheets.

    Dana, I adore the jacks story. I'll always think of them that way.

Comments are closed.