New Voice & Giveaway: Allyson Valentine on How (Not) to Find a Boyfriend

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Allyson Valentine is the first-time author of How (Not) to Find a Boyfriend (Philomel, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Sophomore Nora Fulbright is the most talented and popular new cheerleader on the Riverbend High cheer squad. 

Never mind that she used to be queen of the nerds—a chess prodigy who answered every question first, aced every test and repelled friends at every turn—because this year, Nora is determined to fully transition from social pupa to full blown butterfly, even if it means dumbing down her entire schedule. 

But when funny, sweet and very cute Adam moves to town and steals Nora’s heart with his untra-smarts and illegally cute dimple, Nora has a problem. How can she prove to him that she’s not a complete airhead? 

Nora devises a seemingly simple plan to barter her way into Adam’s classes that involves her classmates, friends—and her older brother Phil’s award-winning AP history paper. But soon, Nora can barely keep track of her trades, and struggles to stay in control of her image.

In the end, the only thing that can save Nora is a chess tournament—that she has to compete in wearing her cheerleading uniform. Can she prove to everyone that she can be both a butterfly and a nerd? 

As someone with a full-time day job, 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?

Allyson writes wherever she can.

It was the spring of 2012 during the final round of revisions for How (Not) to Find a Boyfriend that we received my husband’s diagnosis.

Evan, love of my life, has Frontotemporal dementia, a brain disease that is steadily turning him into a giant toddler before it succeeds in taking him away from us altogether.

It was the first time I slipped a writing deadline. Sit in the chair? Focus on writing? How?

For the first few weeks following Evan’s diagnosis, I walked around in pajamas, zombie-like. The kids missed school. Each day, at breakfast, we took turns being the first to cry. My days were spent finding doctors for Evan. Sorting out insurance. Figuring out social security since Evan, who had been unemployed for six months, would never work again.

The greatest part of each day was spent applying emotional Crazy Glue to my kids and my husband in an effort to keep it all together. How was I ever going to have the time and emotional energy to complete my revisions?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, father of the practice called Mindfulness Meditation, wrote a book called Full Catastrophe Living.

The title of the book comes from the film “Zorba the Greek” when Zorba explains the life he is living:

“Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.”

The premise of Kabat-Zinn’s work is that we all live “the full catastrophe,” and a meditation practice better enables us to deal with the inevitable crap that is flung our way.

The only way for me to complete my revisions was to practice Full Catastrophe Writing. I forced myself to put aside my grief, sit down and go to the page.

And a wonderful thing happened. In returning to my work I found an escape from the catastrophic events that had become part of everyday life. Writing slowed my breath. It made me laugh. It gave me hope. Writing became my meditation.

As the fog has begun to lift, life has become busier than ever. I am faced with the same conundrum that faces all writers with over-committed lives. How do we find time to write?

I follow some basic rules:

Arthur helps Allyson write

1. Expand the definition of “writing time.” I keep chalk in my car and when I’m stopped at a light, or waiting for a kid to emerge from school, I jot notes on my dashboard. Messy, but highly effective.

I give myself credit for these tiny bursts of creativity, no matter how short they are. These days, even time spent walking my dogs in the woods, or washing dishes, or folding laundry counts as writing time if I use that time to think about my work, because that thinking eventually translates into words on the page.

2. Schedule your writing time as though it were an appointment. My Day Planner is not just littered with notes about who needs to be where, when. Interspersed in and among the other ‘to-do’ items are the words ‘writing time.’ If I do not schedule time to write, I do not write.

3. Set yourself up for success. I know writers who strive for a certain word count each week, or a specific number of scenes. I’ve tried that, and when I come up short I feel bad about myself.

Now, success for me is that I showed up when I said I would, regardless what I accomplish in that time. And if all hell breaks loose and my writing time is subsumed by the needs of my family? I am gentle with myself. The missed writing time was hard enough to take, I don’t deserve to be beaten up about it, too.

4. Allow reading to qualify as writing time. I read like a writer, always looking for ways to improve my craft. In fact, reading is a necessary part of my development as a writer. I give myself a gold star for writing whenever I’ve had time to hunker down with a good book.

Allyson and Kado

5. Get over the need for a harmonic convergence of light, space, and creative energy. Once, I needed to have quiet in order to write. I needed to burn a candle. I had to be totally present to get into my writing head. Those days are gone.

At this very moment my fourteen-year-old son is perfecting his backward slide down the banister. My dog is trying to get into my lap. My husband is wandering around the room muttering something about “Star Trek.” And here comes dog number two. If I waited for the time and ambiance to be perfect, I would never write.

A final rule I live by is this: be patient. All too soon my kids will be out of the house. My husband, sadly, will be gone. I suspect I’ll also be down a pet or two.

The quantity and ferocity of day-to-day catastrophes will lighten—good lord willing and the creek don’t rise, as my dad always says. And when that time comes, I will look back at the life I am living now and marvel that I got anything done.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited?

A friend once said to me, “You seem like one of those people who good things happen to.” Obviously not all the time. But I do feel incredibly blessed when hardships are book-ended with miracles.

My publishing story is one of those “no way!” tales.

Way. I did not find my editor, my editor found me.

I attended our annual Western Washington retreat, Writing on the Water, where sixty or so other writers and I attended fabulous workshops offered by two marvelous editors.

At a workshop on voice led by Penguin editor Jill Santopolo, we were asked to write in the voice of a homeless kid, a prep school kid or a cheerleader. The idea was that the voice should be recognizable without ever mentioning anything about being homeless, in prep school or leading cheers.

I chose to go the cheerleader route, writing a scene in which a cheerleader was stuck feeding breakfast to her much younger step-brother. When Jill solicited for volunteers to read their work aloud, I raised my hand. The piece I’d written was pretty funny if I do say so myself. And I really liked the character of both the cheerleader and her brother.

As I left the classroom, Jill stopped me. “You should really do something with that cheerleader character.”

Like what. Write a cheerleader novel?

Hah! I tried out for the cheerleading squad at my junior high and didn’t get selected. Not that I harbor a grudge or anything, but there was no way I would ever write a book with a cheerleader protagonist. Unless she got a terrible disease or something.

When I’d returned home from the retreat I received a phone call from Jill. “It’s such a crazy coincidence,” she said, “but Michael Green [President and Publisher at Philomel] was just in my office where he shared a concept for a cheerleader novel. He wanted to know if I knew anyone who could write a great cheerleader voice. What do you think?”

What did I think? “I’m in!” Seriously? It was like having the hottest guy at school call and ask me to the prom. Or at least it was what I imagine that would have been like.

Jill and her amazing assistant Julia Johnston shared with me a basic outline. I loved it. I created the characters and the subplots, and wove together a story I’m really happy with. And—spoiler alert—the cheerleader protagonist doesn’t get a disease.

The plot thickens. Jill’s assistant Julia, with whom I did most of my revising, left Penguin when we were in the final stages of revision. Every writer’s nightmare, right?

Thankfully Jill was fully on board, totally supportive, and looks at us! We have a book! As for what became of Julia, she joined ICM as assistant to Heather Schroder, a truly delightful (and crazy smart) agent. Julia introduced me to Heather, and we’re working together on my next book.

Miracles do happen!

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two copies of How (Not) to Find a Boyfriend by Allyson Valentine (Philomel, 2013) from Cynsations. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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12 thoughts on “New Voice & Giveaway: Allyson Valentine on How (Not) to Find a Boyfriend

  1. Wow. I will remember the phrase "full catastrophe writing." And I hope that Allyson's future is much more up than down.

  2. What a wonderful discovery story, Allyson. And even more importantly, your strong spirit is evident in every word you write here, from your dedication to your family to your decision to finding joy and escape in writing instead of beating yourself up about productivity. In the end, that clearly increases your productivity. My best wishes to you and your family.

  3. I love the term "full catastrophe writing". We've all been there at one time or another where we just can't seem to work because of present problems. I'm going to remember this and give it a try. This was a very inspirational interview, thank you for sharing such personal information!
    Congratulations on your book and good luck on the next one 🙂

  4. Congratulations, Allyson!!! Thank you for a wonderful, honest, inspiring, and heartfelt interview. Your joie de vivre comes through. Love, Vijaya

  5. Yay! Allyson…Congratulations!!!!I smiled when I saw that writing on the steering wheel. Thank you for sharing your story here, I'm glad the light of you is being shared.

  6. Wonderful, wonderful interview, Allyson!! I'm so happy for you for your writing success and agent success in the midst of all your 'struggalous' real life times. Vijaya steered me to your interview and I'm so glad she did. Your book sounds marvelous. Having been a nerd myself and having kids who played chess, I can't wait to read your book. Best wishes to you! Ev

  7. Great interview, Allyson and Cynthia. A reminder to me to quit whining when life gets tough and get writing. Allyson, I hope you and your family have special moments despite this terrible disease.
    Sue Ford

  8. You write on your dashboard!!! You are officially the coolest person I know! (or I guess you are the coolest person I've ever heard of, because we haven't met yet -though I hope we do someday.) This honest interview was so moving. Your family is in my thoughts.

  9. Jotting down ideas on your dashboard is such a crazily wonderful idea. Easier to remember and no little pieces of paper (with hieroglyphics) to misplace.

    You're a woman of great spirit, Allyson. I'll keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers.

  10. Awesome interview, very inspiring. Makes me happy to be a writer who also never has enough time…but because of this interview I am off to find some chalk. Lol.

  11. Allyson, first off, congratulations on your first book! And, thanks for the great interview. Jotting notes on your dashboard? Brilliant. And your path to discovery is magical. I love it when that happens.

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