Melissa DeLaCruz On Maintaining Creative Spark Through 50 Novels

Mindy:             Today's guest is Melissa DeLa Cruz, Number One New York Times bestselling author of many critically acclaimed and award-winning novels for readers of all ages. With her 50th novel, The Birthday Girl releasing earlier this month, Melissa joined me to talk about longevity in publishing, retaining the spark of creativity, and how writers need community.

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Mindy:             So your newest release The Birthday Girl is your 50th book. That is amazing.

Melissa:            Oh, thank you. I'm glad I'm younger than my book count.

Mindy:             Well actually that's a lovely way to put it. I myself have eight books out and I know that the bloom comes off the rose pretty quickly in publishing and it can be a drag sometimes because you do have to focus on the business side of it as well, and the creativity side can get a little drained sometimes. I think. So, any thoughts on that here at your 50th book?

Melissa:            Yeah, and I think as a fellow writer, writers kind of understand what it's like, right? I mean when you say the bloom comes off the rose, I think we all want to be writers. We want to be authors, but then how do we make a living at it? I think that is like the biggest question and I heard it's not even really about selling your first book, it's about selling your second. I think that there's not really a path to it. Everybody kind of finds their own way. I started out wanting to write adult fiction and wanting to write commercial adult fiction. You know, Terry McMillan was one of my favorite writers. I wanted to write fun books for women. And my first book was adult book, but my editor said, I think you need to try out this new genre that we're kind of promoting. It was called young adult. And she said, I don't know if you've read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or Gossip Girl, but we kind of want to be in that genre. Do you think you want to try it? And I said, okay, well I'll try it. Because her other idea was a murder mystery. And I said, okay, I'm going to try a murder mystery. And she was like, yeah, you can’t write these.

Melissa:            And she said, my next idea is YA. I said, okay. So I wrote The Au Pairs and as I was writing this book about three teenagers and the Hamptons who are nannies by day party girls at night - that was our tagline. I just really enjoyed it and I thought, oh my God, this is what I'm meant to do. This is what my voice is meant to do. And I have written 50 books because I started out writing series. The books will either come out every eight months or every three months. We tell the stories through several books and I think J K Rowling made everybody think, oh, you have to write seven books. That's how it is. So I explain that it's not, you know, that I'm writing 50 huge long adult novels. Some of my middle grade books are only 50,000 words long and they would come out every three months. So that's how the count gets so high, so early,

Mindy:             Certainly. But 50,000 every three months, that is still a ton of work.

Melissa:            Yes it is. And it was a really difficult, because my career kinda took off right when I also became a mom. So I always joked that I never saw her. The nanny would say, oh, she's rolling over. Oh, she's doing this. I'm like, oh, that's great. You know, I never saw any of those.

Mindy:             Yeah, yeah. No, it's true. When you cross that line from writing being a hobby into being your career, that is part of where that bloom does start to come off the rose where it becomes not so much I want to write today, but I have to write and that's a distinction.

Melissa:            Oh yeah, no, definitely. And I think what happens sometimes is people forget about how fun it is. Try to always remember that you, you wanted this, this is your dream. And writers always roll their eyes saying, oh, we're living the dream. But we really are. I mean, I get to, we get to imagine things and play and even though it does sometimes feel not as fun as we imagined it to be, maybe more of a chore and a stressor. This fun, creative thing that we get to do. You have to find that spark in your work still, to be able to work, I think. Like it has to be fun and it has to be something that you want to spend time with.

Mindy:             I remind myself, I remind myself every day, whatever my complaint might be, if I am upset about, I don't know, Amazon not having my book in stock or if I'm upset about a bad review or like whatever. It's just like Mindy. You write for a living. Be quiet. You're all right. You're all right.

Melissa:            My friend Ally Carter said, you're not a $20 bill. Not Everybody's gonna like you.

Mindy:             You gotta roll with it. When you're a writer, you're, you are creating content for the public and your public is, it's the public. They are not a monolith.

Melissa:            Not your mom.

Mindy:             Not your mom. That is the absolute best way to put it. It is not your mom. You mentioned YA, and you mentioned a lot of titles that are really familiar to me because I was actually a librarian in high school for 14 years. Yes. Loved it so much. So you mentioned Traveling Pants and Gossip Girls and um, of course Twilight. And those all happened right at the time when YA just kind of blew up. And of course I remember your Blue Bloods series, handing those out to kids. I see on my handout here, there are 3 million copies in print now, which is amazing.

Melissa:            It was fun. And it was interesting when YA became YA and became something that people paid attention to because when I started out in the genre had like maybe one tiny stand in the Barnes and Noble, just kind of added to the children's section. And now you go and it's almost half the books are like YA. It's a little crazy.

Mindy:             It is. It's completely changed. It is a completely changed market. And when I was growing up, it didn't even exist. Like there were a handful of authors. Middle grade plus. They weren't touching most, not all - obviously some authors, Judy Bloom of course comes to mind - would touch things that others would not. But yeah, it is changed. It's a changed market. That is for sure.

Melissa:            50 books later you're returning to that initial push that you wanted to write adult and you're jumping in with The Birthday Girl, a domestic suspense. So why specifically domestic suspense as you're jumping into the adult market?

Melissa:            So my first novel was adult contemporary and then, Witches of East End was an adult urban fantasy. This is my fifth book for adults. I wanted to write in the genre that I basically read as my escape. So I try not to read a lot of YA and kid lit because I write in that and I want my reading to be just for me, just for pleasure, just for escape. So I usually read in a genre that I don't write in. So I read a lot of literary fiction and I read a lot of thrillers and I got really into domestic suspense genre. Basically I'm a Target mom. I go to Target, I buy whatever the books are at Target and they put a lot of these books out there and I read them all. I read Ruth Ware. I read The Wife, you know, While You Were Sleeping.

Melissa:            So those kinds of books that I was really drawn to and I always wanted to write a mystery but I don't think I had the chops for it 20 years ago. And I think after having written all these books and understanding plot and structure, I think I was like old enough and experienced enough as a writer to write the book I wanted to write. And it also came from an idea of wanting to write a mystery in Palm Springs because I think it's a place in America that has a little bit of historic uh, glamorous, mythical, Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack and you can still go there and it is like going backwards in time. So I wanted to set it in Palm Springs. And then about 10 years ago when I was 38, we bought this house in Palm Springs and I joked that I bought it to throw my 40th birthday party in. I was going to have this massive elaborate extravagant 40th birthday and like it was a revenge party.

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Melissa:            I was going to show everybody who had been mean to me in high school. Look, where the bitch is now! It was just this huge monstrous kind of delusion. I thought, oh my God, that's so gross to want that much attention and that much validation. We don't need that. But I remember that feeling of being on the cusp of 40 and 40 meaning something that was like so big and terrible that you wanted to squash that and kind of celebrate this milestone in a way that was kind of in your face. So I thought, okay, I'm going to have this woman planning this huge party, but then everything goes wrong. This party that's supposed to meant to be amazing celebration of her life is also like a time when all the ghosts of her past haunt her. And the book really came alive when I realized I could write it in two different timelines because I do write for YA I was like, Ooh, I can sneak in kind of this dark YA book into it? So that made me happy.

Mindy:             The cover is amazing.

Melissa:            Thank you. I'm not good with covers and I never really know what a good cover is. And I remember when we did The Descendants books The Isle of the Lost cover with the big apple. They're like, this is so great. And I'm like, really? And my husband was like, you're crazy. That is a great cover. And with The Birthday Girl too. He was like, that's a great cover. Everybody's like, it's awesome. Like really? Are you sure? Like, I never know. So thank you.

Mindy:             It's great. Like as soon as I saw it as a librarian, my immediate reaction was, oh, people pick this book up.

Melissa:            Oh, I'm so glad. Thank you.

Mindy:             Yes, most definitely.

Melissa:            I cannot take any credit. My notes make the cover worse.

Mindy:             No, absolutely. And that's the kind of thing whenever I get any compliments on my covers, I'm like, well thank you. But it has nothing to do with me. You are also a co director of YALLFEST, which is a huge celebration that takes place in Charleston every year. I've been lucky enough to be invited and it's awesome. So thank you for all the immense amount of work. I'm sure it goes into that.

Melissa:            Oh my God, thank you! I was like, Mindy, we've had you! Awesome.

Mindy:             Lovely, lovely event.

Melissa:            We're very proud of it. I think we're almost at 10 years. I can't remember if it is our 10th which it might be. We will have big party, I think 10 years is next year. Actually. I think it's next year.

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Mindy:             That's cool. It's emblematic of the YA community and how tight knit it is, and it really is truly a celebration and you can see authors interacting with each other, but there's also 30000 teens. It's an amazing kind of coming together of book minded people and a great love of, of course, the YA age range. So do you feel a similar type of community among the adult authorship or is it a different kind of setting?

Melissa:            We started YALLFEST because we wanted a book festival just for our genre, just for the people in our industry, who were writing our books. Because before there were all these teen book festivals, they would send you to these book festivals and you would be kind of the redheaded stepchild and you would meet these adult authors. They'd never knew what to do with you or like, What? You write YA? What is that? And you kind of feel a little bit not left out, but you not maybe really belong. And so we thought, let's have a festival that's just for us. It's just for teens. But Not even an age range. You know, it's a mindset. Youth and optimism and you can be a YA reader no matter how old you are. And so that's where it came from, from going to these other festivals and feeling like they don't really get me or my books.

Melissa:            And then the teen festivals are now so big that all the mainstream festivals now have a whole YA track. So that's kind of nice to see. We did start it because we wanted a place where the writers were celebrated. Writers kind of, um, make communities around genre. Thriller writers are kind of like, YA writers in a way where they all know each other and support each other. And it's a small kind of close knit community. I do look forward to that. People tend to band together with the kind of books that they write and there are communities in the publishing world, murder mystery. Thriller writers. They're always a lot of fun.

Mindy:             That's really cool. That's really cool. So when it comes to writing a dual timeline, that is always kind of challenging, I think. You're basically operating pacing, character building and everything within two different stories, kind of writing two novels to create one story. So how did you go about keeping yourself organized for one thing, but also just planning that out - or do you pants it?

Melissa:            No, I'm a plotter. I definitely am a planner. I like outlines. I think structure is really important. While the book was in my head, I also wrote like a pretty detailed outline of where I wanted to be because I wanted each chapter to kind of inform the other. So you would see something in the past and then something in the present and you would know that happened, uh, in the present because it's something that happened in the past and I wanted it to in the same time. I didn't write each chapter one after the other. I would write five Palm Springs in her forties chapters and then I'd write five Portland in her 16 year old mindset chapters. So it's like once I was in that certain POV, I would stick to it and kind of jump ahead. But then I also had to make sure that the chapters were still aligning in that way. Yeah. It was a lot of planning and then also like some kind of alchemy where, oh, it kind of all works. I don't know. I don't know how it works. When you're in it just kind of playing and writing and hoping, and then you rewrite it a lot and then you know, hopefully it's done.

Mindy:             Sometimes you step back and you're like, oh look, that worked cool.

Melissa:            Exactly. And it's kind of like, phew. Subconscious writing.

Mindy:             Totally. I feel that way often. So you're writing not only two timelines but you're writing someone as a younger person and then writing the same person in their forties so I am interested in the challenge of that because you have to have the voice there so that we know it's the same person. I'm curious about your approach. Were you imagining her first as a 16 year old and then wondering what kind of 40 year old person would the 16 year old evolve into or were you looking at the 40 year old and saying what happened to her when she was young?

Melissa:            I think when I thought of the character, I kind of knew everything. I knew that she had grown up poor and I knew that she had successfully built her own business. You know, kind of picked herself up from her bootstraps using her beauty and then I knew that something would happen at her 40th birthday because something happened at her 16th. But I didn't know I was going to do, like you said, two novels in one/ and when I realized, oh I could do that, that's how I'm going to show what happened in the past. It kind of clicked. I always knew who she was her entire life. I just didn't realize where I was going to put the camera. I was like, Oh yeah, right there at 16 and definitely at 40. She kind of was whole in my head. Like I knew who she was. I knew her background and her present.

Mindy:             Very cool. Very cool. Last question. What's up next for you? What are you working on?

Melissa:            So right now I'm taking a little bit of a break because I have a couple of books coming out next year. So I'm working on a couple of things that haven't been announced yet. This next year I have a new YA fantasy romance. It's called The Queens Assassin. It's coming out in February. They came to me in a dream. I dreamt about this assassin, this girl hiding in the bushes. And I was like, what are they doing? And I always joke when I wrote my vampire books, Blue Bloods, I would be on panels with Stephanie Meyer and Stephanie would talk about how Edward and Bella came to her in a dream. And I'd be like, please and roll my eyes. And now I want to apologize because now these characters came to me in a dream and I wrote a book about them. So you know, I guess it does happen.

Mindy:             My first book came about because of a dream and, and I guess you can't question inspiration right when it lands.

Melissa:            Oh yeah. You got to go with it. And then my next work after that's coming out in April is Gotham High, which is the first graphic novel that I've written. I've had my books adapted into graphic novels, but I've never written an original graphic novel. And it is the story of Bruce Wayne and the Joker and the Catwoman in high school. That's Gotham High.

Mindy:   Yes, that's exciting. Tell listeners where they can find you online.

Melissa:            I am at

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