Making it matter – Deb Caletti

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By Deb Caletti

My newest novel, What’s Become of Her, a psychological thriller, is releasing this month from Random House, and – drumroll – it is my fourteenth book. I’ve also just turned in my fifteenth – my next young adult novel coming in 2018.

With so many books and as many years as a working writer, I’m often asked how I’ve managed longevity in this fickle and demanding business. It’s a great question. While it can be hard to get published, staying published is entirely more difficult. Staying in requires the same things that getting in does, only year after year, book after book. There is no tenure in publishing. You have to bring it every time.

Bringing it every time means dedication to the craft, continually striving for quality, staying passionate, challenging yourself, and never compromising professionalism. But, for me, bringing it every time means something else, too. Something as crucial and critical for the success of the first book as it is for the twentieth: connecting deeply and personally to what’s on the page.

It has to matter, in other words. I’m convinced: It has to matter to you, big and bad and hard, in order to matter to anyone else.

Before I begin a book, I ask myself what’s on my mind, what I’m struggling with, what I am caring a lot about or want to understand better. For me, a book cannot just be an idea or a plot – it has to originate in a place of meaning. The underlying truths in the novel – in some way – must be honestly and profoundly felt. If I convey the story’s emotion from an honest place, my readers will connect.

Examples? My book, He’s Gone, about a woman who wakes up to find that her husband has vanished, came about when I was thinking about guilt and how we can forgive ourselves for the events and decisions of our lives. In What’s Become of Her, Isabelle meets Henry, who has two missing women in his past. But in this novel, it was my own relationship to anger I wanted to explore.

I’d been mulling this – how I often felt cut off from my anger, how I didn’t really understand it at all, and how it seemed a useful and beautiful thing out of my reach. Like Isabelle, I’d had adults in my childhood whose anger had been large, and like Isabelle, I had grown into someone who stepped carefully around others’ aggression and my own. But how could I, or Isabelle, make sense of anger, and wield it? Writing about anger and fury and wrath and rage, especially when you haven’t allowed yourself to get very near those things – well, it felt pretty great. Glorious, actually. And I think it contributed to a page-turning read. Also, a very honest one.

If you want your prose to move and inspire (and sell!), the power is in the personal connection on the page. So, whether your aim is to get published or stay published, look toward the tortured corners of your soul and to your unanswered questions. The heart writes the best books.

Deb Caletti is an award-winning author and National Book Award finalist. Her many books for young adults include The Nature of Jade, Stay, The Last Forever, Essential Maps for the Lost, and Honey, Baby Sweetheart, winner of the Washington State Book award, the PNBA Best Book Award, and a finalist for the California Young Reader Medal and the PEN USA Award. Her books for adults include He’s Gone, The Secrets She Keeps, and her new novel, What’s Become of Her. Deb grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, and now lives with her family in Seattle.

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