ith five young adult books out and a list of awards to her credit, you might think Simone Elkeles was one of those book-crazy kids who always longed to write. After all, that’s the story you hear from a lot of women writers, especially those who write for teens and children.
But it isn’t the story you’re going to hear from Simone Elkeles.
Unlike many writers, Simone didn’t study literature or journalism in college. She focused on psychology, graduating in 1992 from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana before completing her master’s of science degree in industrial relations at Loyola University-Chicago. Following college, she went to work for her father’s manufacturing company, S-T Imagining, Inc. When he died, she became the company president and CEO at the age of twenty-four. This may not have taught her about writing, but she did learn about marketing and about business.
Her writing career began in 2000 when she sold the company to be a stay-at-home mom. Reading to her daughter, Simone discovered the joy of sharing a book with a child. Soon, she was writing at night when her daughter was in bed.
Simone knew she needed feedback to perfect her work. Because she wrote historical romances like those she enjoyed reading, she joined the Romance Writers of America, eventually serving as President for the Chicago-North chapter. This decision paid off, not only in helping her improve her writing, but also in providing the nudge that led her to write teen romance.
1.It’s such a pleasure to be speaking with you today. I read both Perfect Chemistry and Leaving Paradise before I found out that you didn’t start out writing for teens. What inspired the change from adult to teen audiences?
I was writing adult novels, and someone came to my writers’ group with an article from the Chicago Tribune. It told about a writer who made a six-figure advance on a novel with Hispanic characters. I thought, I need to make a living from this, too.
I hadn’t sold any of my adult novels, so I thought I’d start writing for teens—something different than I’d been doing. It was amazing because the novel just came out so easily. I thought, This is where I belong, where my voice is.
2.Teen readers are lucky you gave it a try because your voice really is an excellent match for young adult novels. Are there specific pitfalls in writing for teen readers that you would warn other women writers to avoid?
I try not to teach a lesson, and I try not to write issue books. They may come out that way, but I don’t try to do it.
The biggest problem for writers in general is that their dialogue is very stilted. They don’t write how teens talk.
I try to write how I talk, how I spoke as a teen, or how teens speak now.
It is very different from how adults speak. Don’t write the perfect English that you are taught in school. Teachers are going to hate that!
3.But you’re right. Teens don’t speak in complete, grammatically perfect sentences, especially not in Perfect Chemistry. Alex, the love interest, uses a lot of Latino slang. What was it like to write this gang banging “bad boy” as your male lead?
I pick tough characters, definitely. Alex is a bad boy, at least in the beginning, but his reason for being in a gang wasn’t bad—he wanted to protect his brothers. He wanted to do better.
A police officer challenged me to write Alex as a sympathetic character. She didn’t think I could do it, and I did put a lot into this character. I knew I had to meet her challenge. Not one person who has read the book has questioned how much of a hero Alex is.
Women are born “fixers” and think the love of a good woman can turn around a bad boy. Whether or not it’s true, I use the theme a lot in my books.
“Women are born ‘fixers’ and think the love of a good woman can turn around a bad boy.”
4.Reader and reviewer response to Perfect Chemistry makes it clear—you definitely succeeded in making Alex a true hero, but you took a chance in this character and in his relationship with the female lead. Some writers avoid writing teen romance because they don’t know how to handle the possibilities of sex or even sexual tension in a book for teens. How do you deal with this?
Sometimes you have to avoid it because of the requirements put on you by the publisher. A friend’s publisher said that the guy couldn’t even put his hand on the female character’s knee. It had to go on her shoulder. Fortunately, I haven’t had to face these restrictions.
5.I feel like I’m telling readers to turn to a racy bit, but I do remember a sex scene in Perfect Chemistry. What response have you had to this?
I get e-mail from kids who say, “Give us more.” Their music and TV today is so edgy. They’re used to it; but when I was a teen, I wanted edgy, too. When I read Judy Blume’s Forever, all of the pages were turned down on the edgy parts. “Read page 150,” someone would say. Simon Pulse even re-released it recently. Michael, the male lead, names his penis Ralph! That’s pretty edgy for kids.
But that made me read a book—the edginess. Forever was so edgy. When I was in 6th grade, you needed a permission slip to buy a copy of the book. You had to have a note from your parents. You’d tell your friends that you actually went to the store and bought your own copy. “I hid it under a pile of other books, but I bought it.” It was a huge deal.
I’ve not really been censored or had any complaints, but I’m very realistic when a mom asks how old someone should be to read my books. I don’t want a nine year old to read my book. A twelve year old could read some of my books, but not all. It’s all a matter of matching content to the reader.
“I didn’t love the classics. I didn’t understand them. I didn’t like to read.”
6.Matching content to the reader? This makes it all sound very carefully mapped. Does that mean you plan your romances out before you start to write?
I write the story how it comes out. I don’t write off an outline.
I write to entertain myself with the hope that it entertains everyone else as well. I don’t write for the market. I write things I would have loved to read when I was a teen. I didn’t love the classics. I didn’t understand them. I didn’t like to read.
I write books that I would have loved to read as a teen. I’m not saying don’t read the classics, but there is something for everybody, and my books are right for some teens. I get e-mail from my readers that say, “Yours is the first book I liked, and now I like to read.”
7.Clearly, you have made a connection with teen audiences. Teens voted Perfect Chemistry a Kentucky Bluegrass Award finalist. What feedback do they give you on your work?
The fan mail is the most amazing thing:
“You have changed my life.”
“I look at people differently because of your books.”
“You’ve inspired me to read.”
“You’ve inspired me to write.”
They are the most beautiful e-mails, and they make me want to write more books.
8.How good to know that you inspire them as much as they inspire you. Is there anything about your writing that surprises them?
I’ve had male readers ask me, “How do you know how a guy thinks? I don’t get it.”
I had a lot of guy friends growing up. They talked really frank with me. We were just buddies.
For me, every male character is better, easier to write, than my female characters. The female characters are a struggle, especially Maggie in Leaving Paradise and Brittany in Perfect Chemistry.
Some men write women characters better than they do male characters. Every writer has their strengths and weaknesses.
9.Strong characters are 100% essential to a good romance and you do such a good job even if it doesn’t come easily. What kind of research do you do to write teen romances?
For How to Ruin a Summer Vacation, I had to do very little research because I‘ve been to Israel so many times. Those were the easiest ones to write. When my character was in the military as a volunteer for the summer, I did that. I shot an M16. I did the obstacle course, got up at 5:00 in the morning, lived in barracks. Those were easy for me to write about.
For Leaving Paradise, I spent time touring a juvenile detention center. I got locked in a cell.
Perfect Chemistry is about a suburban gang. I interviewed some teenagers who were gang members. I don’t know Spanish, and there is some Spanish, though not a lot, in the story. So, I talked to my friend from Mexico, talked to some teens, and consulted with a professor in the Spanish department at Loyola University, and she went over the whole thing.
10.It sounds like your research can take you to some surprising places. What was the one you least expected?
I’m writing the sequel to Perfect Chemistry. It’s called Rules of Attraction.
I never planned to do a sequel to Perfect Chemistry, but reader response to the first book was so overwhelmingly positive. I ended Perfect Chemistry in Boulder, Colorado, so I had to base this one in Boulder.
I’d been through Boulder but never visited. I felt like just doing the research over the Internet was not going to do it justice. You don’t get the same feel. So, I went to Boulder for a week. I went whitewater rafting. I interviewed teens who live there. I had to go there.
Now I say, “Don’t let me end a book anywhere but Chicago, where I’m from, or the Bahamas or Hawaii.”
11.Your writing has shaped your life, taking you to new cities, but you didn’t plan on being a writer. How has your education shaped your writing?
I don’t think you need a degree in writing to write. I have a master’s in psychology. Maybe having studied people helps me know how to write characters.
I didn’t learn to write fiction in school. I learned to write as an adult when I started writing not for class but for myself. I taught myself to write by writing. I joined a critique group where people read their twenty pages out loud, and other people critiqued it. I learned that what other people did wrong in their book was probably what I was doing wrong, too.
“I don’t think you need a degree in writing to write.”
12.And you’ve obviously learned how to write. You kept me up until 2:00 a.m. reading Perfect Chemistry. But what do you know now that you wish you had known when you started writing for teens?
I have five books in the store, but I still read other authors’ books and think, I wish I could write like that. I have so much to learn.
When I read authors who are way better than me, I think, “What do they do? What magic do they have in their books?” I still feel like I’m a newbie.
I have a Google alert on my name, and someone blogged, “Simone Elkeles is the most talented creature on earth.”
I am so not! But I’m working on it.
13.A talented “creature”? That phrase made me laugh. But what authors do you read? Which ones would you recommend for women who want to write teen romance?
My books. (laughing) I don’t necessarily read teen books. Sometimes, I read adult books.
For romance, you can’t get better dialogue than Susan Elizabeth Phillips, especially in her earlier books. It’s really inspiring to read that. I have all of her books.
David Levithan is great for dialogue. He wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist with Rachel Cohn. He may write the male parts, and she may write the female, but it is really realistic dialogue.
I’m in the middle of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and I’m loving it. She does great descriptions.
14.Libraries are going to be busy with requests for those authors now. But how do these authors relate to your work? Are you better at writing dialogue or description?
I do dialogue well, but not description and not interior dialogue.
My advice to women writers is to know what you do well. Do it really, really well and work on the other things. But be proud of what you do well, and focus on it.
Because of this, I use a lot of dialogue, but I’m working on my description. Someone read Leaving Paradise and asked me if Caleb was black. Sometimes, really exact description isn’t so great. Because I didn’t put a description down, the reader put in himself and made the character look like him.
“Sometimes, really exact description isn’t so great.”
15.Excellent advice! Let’s move on to a topic that I hear discussed a lot at conferences. Do you feel that writers today need an agent to sell teen romance?
Yes, a lot of publishers won’t look at your stuff unless you’re agented.
If you send it to a lot of publishers and it gets rejected, and then you try to get an agent, an agent may not take you on. Who would they send it to?
If an agent is representing you, she’ll call the editor, and your manuscript will go on the editor’s desk. If you send it in yourself, it will go in the slush pile.
There is something else I want to make sure women writers hear: you don’t pay an agent unless they sell your book. You don’t pay them ahead of time. So don’t say, “I can’t afford an agent.”
16.So true. The agent only makes money when they make money for the writer. But many writers are reluctant to rewrite for an agent. How does your agent edit or shape your books?
I’ll do anything because I want to sell the book. Having a manuscript stay unpublished because I didn’t want to rewrite anything doesn’t do me or my fans any good.
Once, my agent said, “This book is so edgy. I don’t know if we can sell it, and an editor may say take out the sex.” I said, “It’s a plot point in the book, but I want to sell.” Fortunately, the editor got why it was there, but I had to tone it down a little bit. That was Perfect Chemistry.
17.Working in the business of publishing means taking direction from your agent and various editors. Can you tell us about a time that someone asked you to do something that didn’t work?
It’s a game, and you have to play the game. For Perfect Chemistry, my editor said, “We need a successful Hispanic character. You need to make the teacher, Mrs. Peterson, Hispanic.”
She was right. All of my Hispanic characters were likable, but they weren’t successful academically or financially. I tried to make Mrs. Peterson into Mrs. Perez, but the teacher needed to be someone Alex wouldn’t think was on his side. It just didn’t work.
But my editor was right. I needed a successful Hispanic character, so I changed the principal. I tried doing what she said, but her idea needed some tweaking, and the end result really worked.
18.You did an excellent job of taking the core of her advice and making it work within your story. Let’s discuss how you took advantage of the Internet. You offer sample chapters of Perfect Chemistry and Leaving Paradise on your website. Whose idea was this and why?
It was my idea, and I got permission from my publisher. I did it for my first two books because no one knew who I was. No one knew my stories. No one knew how I wrote. Now, I don’t feel it is so necessary, so I haven’t gotten it done for my recent books.
I think it is important for a new author, so that people know what to expect from you.
19.Speaking of what to expect, can you tell our readers what we can expect from you in the future? Any surprises in the works? Maybe an adult romance?
How to Ruin Your Boyfriend’s Reputation, the sequel to How to Ruin Your Teenage Life, just came out in November. Rules of Attraction, the sequel to Perfect Chemistry, is coming out in May of 2010.
Then I have the sequel to Leaving Paradise. My publisher didn’t want me to write a sequel, but I felt the romance wasn’t finished yet. It is coming out Fall 2010.
Then I have another title coming out from Walker books, the publisher for Perfect Chemistry and Rules of Attraction. It is unnamed, and I don’t even know what it’s about yet. We’re having discussions. I have a lot of different ideas. It will be edgy and emotional and a little bit funny, like my other books.
I have the teen bug, and I’m not leaving. I love reading historical romances and contemporary romances for adults, but my writing is for teens. I’m staying here!
20.I’m relieved to hear there’s a sequel to Leaving Paradise in the works. I wanted to see their romance work out. What parting advice can you offer other women who want to write teen romance?
Never give up. It’s the people who give up who don’t get published.
Keep working at it. If I can do it, anyone can do it. I wasn’t someone who loved to read or write. I didn’t take creative writing.
Still, my books have been on best seller lists. I’ve won awards. My dad said you can do anything you want if you work hard at it.
Simone, thank you for taking time from your writing to talk to us. You’ve obviously followed your father’s advice, and teen readers are reaping the benefits. On behalf of WOW!, I’d like to thank you for sharing your talent for teen romance with all of us.
To find our more about Simone, visit her website: www.simoneelkeles.net.
Sue Bradford Edwards is an editor, writer, and book reviewer who lives and works in St. Louis, Missouri. Find out more about her work at One Writer’s Journey, her blog about writing and editing; the Bookshelf, her book review blog; and her website.
Enjoyed this interview? Check out some of Sue’s previous articles on WOW!:
How to Write a Picture Book
Navigating the Fantastic: Rules for Writing Fantasy
How to Combat Writer's Block