Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Guest Author Holly Cupala: Finding the Emotional Juice

By Holly Cupala

I'd like to welcome YA author Holly Cupala back to the blog. Her new novel Don't Breathe a Word releases today, and the reviews on this one have been gushing. (How often do you get compared to Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak?) She doesn't shy away from the hard subjects, and she's here to tell us how she digs deep and finds the words to tell such powerful tales.

Holly wrote teen romance novels before she ever actually experienced teen romance. When she did, it became all about tragic poetry and slightly less tragic novels. She has worked with the Western Washington chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, been a readergirlz diva, and now serves on the board of the University of Washington Writing Program. When she isn't writing and making art, she spends time with her husband and daughter in Seattle, Washington. These days, her writing is less about tragedy and more about hope.

Tell Me a Secret is her first novel, and her second, Don't Breathe a Word, is coming October 2011 from HarperCollins. Ten percent of the author's proceeds go toward World Vision's Hope for Sexually Exploited Girls. You can find her at www.hollycupala.com, www.dontbreatheaword.com. For a two chapter sneak preview: http://www.dontbreatheaword.com/dbaw-preview.pdf

Take it away Holly...

With a second YA novel on the shelves and a third in progress, I feel like I should know what I’m doing by now—or at least be able to anticipate some kind of pattern. And sure, I have my own rhythms. Idea notebooksare a necessity. I abhor journaling. A timer is very handy for outrunning the internal critic, especially in the first draft.

After that, there are no rules. I keep trying to discover them, to figure out how to make this process more…easy. Emotionally safe. Less like excavating my deepest reserves and more like…I don’t know, skiing. Skiing is fun and exciting and fast-moving. It requires skill and time, but it doesn’t require ripping your heart out.

I thought I’d gotten this down when writing my second novel, Don't Breathe a Word, about a girl who runs away from home because of a secretly abusive relationship and winds up on the streets of Seattle, where she finds allies with secrets of their own (January 2012, HarperCollins).

The first novel, Tell Me a Secret, was emotionally gut-wrenching to write. It came out of a personal loss that required a careful walk through grief, while at the same time I had to battle all of the voices (most of them coming from myself) that viciously barred my progress, word by word.

The second novel came so much easier—by then I’d discovered I could tell the voices to shove it, and I had my handy timer. I’ve joked that Tell Me a Secret took four years, Don't Breathe a Word took four months, and I hoped this next novel would take four weeks (which it sort of did, minus an ending).

Those four months it took to write Don't Breathe a Word were exhilarating. I loved those characters! I could hardly type fast enough toget their story on the page. It had grit. It had meaning. I fixed it up and proudly gave it to my husband, my first reader and unfortunately a good one, who said, “Ok…so this boyfriend? He’s a jerk, but he’s not abusive. I don’t get why she’s running away.”

Obviously, he had no idea what he was talking about, so I gave it to three wise and intuitive writer friends…who said the same thing.

By this time, I was ready to put everyone in the Shut Up Box and gave it to my Agent. And…ok, you know what happened. (Husband loves this story, by the way!)

With Tell Me a Secret, the emotional backstory—the juice—was never an issue. I was living it, or I had taken the depth and breadth of my emotional experiences and drew from them to create Miranda’s story of loss, teen pregnancy, and redemption. The hardest part was putting those ideas and emotions into a moving plot.

Don't Breathe a Word was almost the opposite—I had the story, I had conflicted characters and a plot that screamed through the streets. But those weren’t enough. I had to dig deeper to find that emotional juice.

What I realized was that I did have the emotional experience. Cruel, seductive Asher had come from my own life. Of course I didn’t want to go there, but I had to. I had to in order to tell Joy’s story. And I wrote about that relationship in Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories.

So now I have another bit of personal truth in my writer arsenal: there are no emotional shortcuts, not if I want to write a story as honestly as I can. Maybe that knowledge freed me to draft this third novel in record time—and it’s likely the experience of writing this one will uncover another essential tool. I’d give anything to know it now...but that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?

About Don't Breathe a Word

Joy Delamere is suffocating...

From asthma, which has nearly claimed her life. From her parents, who will do anything to keep that from happening. From delectably dangerous Asher, who is smothering her from the inside out.

Joy can take his words—tender words, cruel words—until the night they go too far.

Now, Joy will leave everything behind to find the one who has offered his help, a homeless boy called Creed. She will become someone else. She will learn to survive. She will breathe…if only she can get to Creed before it’s too late.


  1. Thanks for sharing Holly. You always are picking the hard emotional issues in your books so you must have to dig into yourself. I can't wait to read Don't Breathe a Word.

  2. This was a really interesting post about your writing process. Thank you so much for sharing- so helpful and fascinating to a (relative) newbie like myself!

  3. Thanks for sharing. That's got to be the hardest thing -tearing down the emotional walls.

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  5. Holly, even though you may not have felt it at the time, you are a brave soul to just write what hurt so horribly, never mind deciding to publish it.

    It can just be hard to write what's close to you. Even if you want to.

    I have experience living with the mentally ill, and have a mental disorder myself, and I just don't want to go there,at this point and time.

    But I think that hurts me as a writer because if nothing else, I can provide a perspective that is not really present in fiction today, and I know there'd be an audience, and have met people who would benefit to a welcome antidote from the "mentally ill" stigmatized books out there now.

    I feel like after AIDS, mental illness is still heavily stigmatized, and seen only one way, in fiction more-so than nonfiction, and I wish I were brave enough to write some of those needed alternatives, which don't end in despair, or demonize the parents, etc.

    So again, Holly, thanks for being brave enough just to write these books, that alone takes courage and diligence I'm still learning, and unlike some writers I admire in this area, I can't exactly say it's ancient history, I still live the sorrow.

    But I have to remind myself daily that "I was not given life to only know suffering."