Wendy Mills enjoys writing YA with thought-provoking and pertinent contemporary themes that connect strongly with the concerns of young people. She lives in Florida.
Wendy Mills lives with her family on the tropical island of Bokeelia, off the south-west coast of Florida where she spends her time writing and dodging hurricanes. POSITIVELY BEAUTIFUL and ALL WE HAVE LEFT (published to outstanding reviews) are her two hard-hitting YA novels, both published by Bloomsbury.
When and how did you start writing?
In the fourth grade, our writing assignment was to write a story in a page or two. While I had been dabbling with poems, and even had written a play for my class to perform, it was the first time I really remember writing a story. It turned into thirty pages, and won me a trip to a writing conference. My fate was sealed!
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
That's one of the reasons I enjoy writing for children so much. I vividly remember many of my childhood favorites, while half the time I can't remember where I put my car keys. That's how much impact those childhood stories had on me. A WRINKLE IN TIME was a particular favorite, as was PIPPI LONGSTOCKING and FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER. I loved, loved, A BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA. I also enjoyed the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA series, TRIXI BELDEN, THE DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN, and anything by Judy Blume. I could go on and on.
Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?
It was pretty heady at the time. I didn't have much luck agent-wise with the first few children's stories I wrote. Then I wrote my first young adult book, POSITIVELY BEAUTIFUL, and sent it out to the five or six agents who were currently selling the most young adult (I discovered this useful nugget of information on Publishers Marketplace). The interest was pretty intense compared to what I'd seen before, so I knew I was on to something!
I had several offers to read the partial and the full manuscript, including from Sarah. Then I received the email from Sarah asking if the story was still available, and if she could talk to me. We talked for an hour and a half, and at the end of the conversation she asked to represent me. I was ecstatic, because I felt that we really clicked. But I asked for some time, which Sarah encouraged me to take. By the next morning, I had told so many people "Sarah is exactly what I'm looking for in an agent!" that I realized she WAS, and that it was silly for me to keep looking. I emailed the other agents and pulled the manuscript from their consideration.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time?
I do my best writing in the morning, and I often get up before the kids so I can get some uninterrupted time. When I'm in the throes of writing a book, it often feels like an obsession. I get to the point when I can barely think about anything else and all I want to do is write.
Everybody's process is different. I'm more of an organic writer, in that it's hard for me to outline completely ahead of time. When I start, I do know my main character's flaw, the theme, and the climax of the story. Much of the story develops in my mind from there, and my first draft reads like a big outline. I enjoy the editing process, so I take the free-flowing ideas and whip them into some semblance of shape.
It helps to have a wonderful agent like Sarah who has extensive editing experience. Even after I went through my entire process, I received pages and pages of notes from her and completely rewrote the book. I am extremely happy with the way it turned out and have (I hope!) improved my writing/outlining skills. As a side note, I would say be very careful with your choice of critique partners. You need to be able to trust their judgment and motivations completely.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Everywhere! I listen to friends and their stories and find myself thinking, wow, what a cool character THAT would make. If I can, I make myself a note so that I remember it.
I'm always looking for high-concept, commercial ideas, so when I’m watching the news or reading books and magazines, I'm often filing away possible story ideas. I enjoy the "what if" question, so if something rings a bell for me, I will spend some time thinking: what if that happened to me, or my family? How would I react? What would be the consequences? Sometimes it's just an interesting exercise, but sometimes I come up with a good idea. That's how POSITIVELY BEAUTIFUL came about. I read about a young woman who decided to remove her breasts and ovaries on the basis of a genetic test and started thinking about how that would feel, the choices she had to make, and the obstacles she would face. POSITIVELY BEAUTIFUL grew from there.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Read, read, read! Read everything, but especially the kind of story you want to write. I had just started reading young adult again when I wrote POSITIVELY BEAUTIFUL. Sarah suggested I read as much young adult as I could (which I was already doing, but then it became a mission!). It really deepened my understanding of the conventions of young adult storytelling.
Also, I bought a subscription to Publishers Marketplace so I could see what was selling. Reading the pitches helped me immeasurably with writing my query.
Can you describe aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
1. Hone your ability to recognize good ideas. Do research on what’s selling, not so you can write the same thing, but so you can recognize a high concept, original idea when you see it.
2. Don’t get too attached to your story. Accept that not everything you write is going to sell, especially at the beginning. Be willing to put something aside if need be, and chalk it up to practice. Every bit of writing you do improves your writing skills.
3. Write down ideas as they come to you. It’s too easy to forget them later.
4. Study books that you particularly like. Dissect the story, figure out WHAT about it was so appealing to you, and figure out how the author did it.
5. Accept that your writing process is as individual to you as your fingerprints. Do what works for you, not what other people say you should do.
6. Have faith in yourself. Listen to criticism, absorb what seems right and true, and let the rest slide off you. There are plenty of bestselling books that are well-written, but are not my favorites because of personal taste. Know that not everybody is going to like your story. That’s okay.