They say there’s no such thing as an original idea, but sometimes looking at old ideas in a new way can result in exciting new hybrids—just ask graduate Crystal Velasquez ’97.
Velasquez, 38, and her editor and friend, Stephanie Elliot, wondered what would happen if Velasquez mashed up teen magazine personality quizzes with the 1980s-era choose-your-own-adventure book concept. What resulted was a popular young adult book series. The series, aimed at girls ages 8 to 12, includes three books—Your Life, but Better; Your Life, but Cooler; and Your Life, but Sweeter.
We chatted by phone with Velasquez, a production editor at Random House in New York City, who also authored four books in the Maya & Miguel series and works as a writer for hire for Working Partners, Ltd., a U.K. book packager.
How do you find time to work, write books, and take on freelance projects?
Like most writers, I’m motivated by deadlines. I plan it all out and figure out how much I need to do each day or month to make my deadline. Then life happens and I’m writing at 4:00 a.m. or on my lunch hour. (Laughs)
What does your position at Random House entail and what kinds of books do you edit?
I make sure there are no mistakes. I set up the layout, send it out to copyeditors and proofreaders. I also edit the cover copy and work with the authors and with the art and design departments. I work on all genres of books—self-help, fiction, diet, romance. Electronic books make up the majority of my list now.
How long have you been there?
Does being an author make you a better editor?
I’m more sensitive to the author’s voice, and I try not to change it.
OK, let’s talk about your books. Your first book was My Twin Brother/My Twin Sister in the Maya & Miguel PBS Kids’ show series.
Yes, I was trolling Craigslist one night and saw that an editor at Scholastic was looking for Latino writers to work on a children’s book series. I submitted a writing sample and was hired to write four of the books.
Then you started the Your Life, but… series in which each chapter ends with a personality quiz. Why personality quizzes?
I was influenced by teen magazine quizzes and thought personality traits made much more sense for guiding a reader than the standard choose-your-own-adventure format, which just seemed so random.
Did you have a psychologist help you develop the quizzes?
No. I thought they should just be intuitive to a young girls’ thinking, and I feel like I still think that way. (Laughs.) I force readers to make a choice by giving them four options. If I gave them three choices, most people would pick the one in the middle and avoid the two extremes. So I figured if we gave them four options, readers would have to make a real choice.
How did you keep track of all the threads in the Your Life, but… books?
I kept a pretty detailed and complicated flow chart. Each story had five or six chapters, and any of the major events in one story had to happen in all the others, too.
Did you always intend to write for the younger market?
It sort of fell into my lap, but I’m finding YA (young adult) really suits me. It’s a very interesting time in life when they are learning so much about themselves, so it’s a very rich time to write about. Also, YA forces writers to get to the point and keep things simple. Adult literature can get bogged down in complicated plots that obscure the meaning. I like the immediacy and honesty of YA books.
How long does it take you to write a book?
About three months. Once the first Your Life book came out, they wanted the other two right away, so I had less time with each of those.
That’s a lot of pressure. How did you deal with it?
What I’ve learned from having deadlines is that you can’t wait to get in the mood to write. You just have to sit down and make yourself write. It’s easier to edit than fix a blank page.
What are you working on now?
I've taken some writer-for-hire jobs for Working Partners Ltd., a U.K. book packager. They give you the plot and you take it from there. It's been an interesting process. I finished one and have another almost done now. I've also started working on my own book.
Favorite memories of Behrend?
Creative writing professors Yesho Atil and Dr. Diana Hume George, choir, hiking in the gorge, serving on the Multi-Cultural Council, working in the Student Activities office, making lifelong friends in Perry Hall.
Last book read for pleasure?
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
I watch a lot of bad television!
What makes a good writer?
- They are big readers. You need to study those already writing and learn how they do it.
- They have a good grasp of grammar and a large vocabulary. You need a big toolbox to work from.
- They are observant. You need to watch people and listen to how they speak.
- They are empathetic. You have to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, or every character you write about will be you.
Advice for wannabe writers?
- Learn the rules of writing. There is a craft to learn. You need to learn the rules, even if you’re going to break them later.
- Take classes from a variety of professors. Every teacher has a different technique. Don’t limit yourself to just a few favorite professors. Learn from everyone you can.
- Share your writing. Don’t keep it in a box under your bed. Who are you writing it for?
- Do your homework. If you want to be published, follow the publisher’s rules for submitting work (all found online or in the Writer’s Market books). If you don’t do it the right way, your work will end up in what’s called the slush pile. Taking shortcuts is a strike against you.
- Be open to constructive criticism. Praise is great, but if your goal is to improve, an honest critique can be much more valuable.