I'm really excited to be with Sarah Mylnowski today. Sarah is an amazingly prolific, best-selling young-adult, middle-grade novelist. She was born in Canada and now lives here in New York City. For anyone listening with school-aged children who might have heard a lot about Abby and Jonah’s adventures, Sarah is the author of the addictive Whatever After book series. The latest release, which I just finished with my daughter, is called Two Peas in a Pod. Sarah also writes the Upside-Down Magic series about wonky magicians who are Flickers, Flares, and Fluxers and can't seem to get their magic right. As if that weren’t enough, Sarah has written a Magic in Manhattan series for teens, which started with a book called Bras & Broomsticks. She has written a few late-teenage books like Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have), which I can't put down even though I'm not a teenager, and a few novels for adults as well, not adult novels.
Zibby: In her spare time when she’s not on a book tour, Sarah goes to schools and gives forty-five-minute presentations that inspire kids to write. She’s a wife and a mom herself. Welcome to Sarah.
Sarah Mylnowski: Thank you for having me.
Zibby: Your bio is insane. It took me twenty minutes to count up all the books you've written on your website. I counted thirty-five, if that's right.
Sarah: That's seems about right.
Zibby: How and when are you writing all of these books?
Sarah: Writing, for me, is a full-time job. I'm in the office every day from nine to five. I'm working on books. I'm writing. I'm producing. I've been doing that for probably since the year 2000 now. That's how I've produce so many books.
Zibby: Eighteen years of thirty-five. So two a year, about?
Sarah: Two to three a year. When I wrote adult, which is what I started off doing, I started with one book a year. Now that I write for middle-grade readers, they're much, much shorter. I could produce more. I probably now write between three and four a year.
Zibby: That's amazing. On your website in your FAQs, which were fantastic and so detailed -- I was like, “I don't even need to ask her anything today. I can just read this website.” You say you mostly write from your desk at home because you don't want to be distracted. Is that what you do?
Sarah: Clearly I need to update my FAQs because I have an office now. I've had an office for the past probably a year and a half. It’s about twenty blocks from my apartment. I walk there. I do like a little bit of the closed-door situation, so I could focus on the writing. So much of my day is not just writing. It’s also changing my FAQs, [laughs] hopefully, or doing promotion stuff. There's so many different things that I do all day. I do try to get a certain amount of words written every day.
Zibby: Do you have a word goal?
Sarah: My goal when I'm actually doing the writing is probably about two thousand words. I'm a heavy outliner. Before I even start a project, I probably write about a twenty- to thirty-page outline and break up the book by chapter by chapter so I know exactly what's going to happen. That's where I do most of my work so that when I'm writing the first draft, I'm almost on auto-pilot. I get in there. I know what's going to happen. I never waste time with writer’s block because I always know what's going to happen next.
Zibby: Do you ever have outline block?
Sarah: No. I don't find outlines that hard. Maybe because I divide it up like that, I really don't. I get in there. I work on the outline. I play with things. It seems less scary for me when it’s just in an outline stage. I know the outline doesn't have to be perfect. At first it just has to be a first draft of an outline. Then I flesh it out. The way I've written so many books is I make really manageable goals for myself. I never sit down and think, “Today I have to write a full book.” It’s always, “Today I have to work on a page of the outline and figure out the first three chapters in the book.” Once I've done the whole outline, I usually send it to my editor to approve it. Then I go in and I’ll say, “Today I'm going to write one chapter of the first draft.” I really set small goals for myself.
Zibby: That's awesome. Actually, I'm going to be interviewing tomorrow, Charles Duhigg, who just wrote a book on how to be productive. That's exactly what he says. More on that later. Stay tuned.
When you sit down to write the outline, you already have the general idea of what you want the book to be in your head?
Sarah: Absolutely. I always have the concepts in the beginning. For the Whatever After series, first I’ll think, “What fairy tale am I going to do? What am I going to mess up?” I usually have a scene in my head, like a set piece, of how they twist the story. In this series, Abby and her brother Jonah fall into different fairy tales. In every book, they fall into another one. Then they mess it up somehow in some pivotal moment of the story. In the new one, in Two Peas in a Pod, Abby goes into the story of “The Princess and the Pea.” She doesn't know she’s in “The Princess and the Pea” right away. She’s offered to sleep over at this palace. There are a hundred mattresses. She realizes that she’s in that story.
Then of course when she climbs onto a bed of a hundred mattresses she cannot fall asleep because she's terrified of rolling over, as any human child would be. I had that image in my head of lying in bed on a hundred mattresses being terrified and not being able to sleep all night. Then of course because she can't fall asleep, they think she’s the princess the next day. I always have that one scene in my head. I’ll go from there. I’ll think about, also, what I want to change in the original fairy tale. Once I have those two points, I'm able to weave the story together.
Zibby: I love how Jonah was like, “Why are you more afraid to fall off up high as down low? You never fall out of your bed normally. It doesn't make sense.”
Sarah: True. I would still be terrified.
Zibby: I love how you have everybody go back in time and change things. It’s like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Back to the Future, where you're like, “No!”
What's with all the magic in all your books? You have, obviously, the Whatever After where you change fairy tales, the Upside-Down Magic series which my son -- I couldn't even read your latest book because he grabbed it from my hands. He was so excited to read it and wouldn't put it down. So many kids are obsessed with both series in so many different ways. How did you start spinning magic through all these different books? It’s like magic is its own character.
Sarah: It’s interesting because my first four books were for adults. They had no magic. They were very realistic fiction. They were in the chick lit genre that was back in the 2000s. Then I had this idea for a magic series. I wanted to write about a girl who finds out that her little sister is a witch and that she is not. I had that small idea. I thought, “Magic is kind of fun,” especially if I set it in a real world with just a twist of magic. That's how I started playing with magic in my writing. It’s built up. Every book, every series I write has more and more magic. Whatever After is completely in the fairy tale world. There's tons of magic. Upside-Down Magic is a series set in magic school. I definitely have increased the magic-ness of my novels. I didn’t necessarily set out to do that. It happened little by little.
Zibby: Do you think that the characters in Upside-Down Magic could take on the Harry Potter characters?
Sarah: [laughs] They probably would lose. The whole thing about Upside-Down Magic is that the kids are -- it’s a world where everyone gets magic powers when he or she turns ten. Nory, the main character, her magic is a little bit wonky. It’s upside-down. She’s a Fluxor, which means she can turn into different animals. Because her magic is wonky, instead of turning into a cat, she turns into a kitten with a little bit of dragon in it. Her magic is wonky. She’s sent to a school and to be in a class with other kids who also have upside-down magic. These kids in her class are all a bit wonky. Their magic is all a little bit off.
That's what really inspired us to write that story. I say us because I cowrite that series with two of my good friends who are also novelists, Emily Jenkins and Lauren Myracle. We really wanted to write a series where what if you get to go to magic school, but then you discover that your magic is not as great as everyone else's or it doesn't work in the same way? We wanted to write about the kid who has magic, but their magic is not the best. What does that mean? That’s why I think they may have some problems against Harry.
Zibby: I love the image of one the boys hitting the roof repeatedly of the school bus because his magic makes him have to fly up.
Zibby: That's funny. Your teen fiction is also amazing. I feel like you’re Judy Blume meets Sophie [indiscernible-talkover] as we were just talking about.
Sarah: I like that comparison.
Zibby: Your voice is super relatable and spot on. You’re way out of your teens. No offense. I feel like we’re the same age here. How do you write so well from that vantage point when you're not in it? Do you go out and talk to teens to pick up on how they speak or what social media they use? How do you stay relevant especially with such a hard to please, insular audience?
Sarah: I do find it more challenging the older I get, I’ll be honest. When I started off writing, I was in my twenties. It was much easier for me to channel that teenage voice. I still try. I try to, in my head, be still the seventeen-year-old that I was and try to write about those emotions. Slang and everything is going to change every year. Angst is angst. The emotions are constant. That's really what I try to tap into when I'm writing for teens. I do definitely read a lot of social media and try to make sure that I stay current. You don't want to stay too current when you're writing for teens in terms of the language because that comes in and out. I wrote Bras & Broomsticks, my first teen book, over a decade ago. I remember talking about one song. There's a Britney Spears song that no one listens to at this point. You have to try to not be too current in your language or descriptions.
Zibby: I saw on your website, you're like, “You can find me on…” not just Twitter and Instagram. The things you could find you on I've never even heard of. What are these things? How is she on these things? What are they?
Sarah: I joined Myspace earlier on. That's actually how I met Emily Jenkins and Lauren Myracle, my two Upside-Down Magic cowriters. We met on Myspace on this teen-lit group. Does Myspace still exist?
Zibby: I'm not sure. I don't think so.
Sarah: That's how we even met. I've always definitely been trying to stay current about what are the new technologies and what teenagers are on. You have to try new things. Some things I love and stick to right away. I tweet a lot. I'm on Instagram a lot. I'm on Facebook. Some I haven't necessarily figured out. I still can't figure out Snapchat fully. I know so many teenagers who are on it. It doesn't work for me. I try to just use the ones that I enjoy.
Zibby: That makes sense. My daughter asked me to ask you, how do you name all of your characters? Having pogged through all these books, you have so many different characters.
Sarah: Have I named anyone the same thing? That's what I always worry about.
Zibby: Not that I noticed. Is that your rule? Never do the same twice?
Sarah: I try not to. At one point, I think was in the fourth Magic in Manhattan book, my editor noted that I had another Chloe and also that all of my last names ended with “-ski” or “-berg.” I may have been going through my yearbook. I went to a Jewish school. I sometimes go through my yearbook and pick out names and twist them up. I definitely try to be aware of that.
Whatever After was a funny story. When I came up with the concept, I called it Farah’s Tales. Her name was Farah. Then my editor felt that Farah sounded a bit dated. She wanted something a little bit more modern. I changed the title of the series to Carrie Tales. Her name was Carrie. Depending where you are in the country, you're going to pronounce Carrie differently. One of the people at Scholastic was named Abby. I thought, “What if we call it Abby Ever After?” I liked the way that sounded. Her name became Abby. Then we changed the series name to Whatever After. At that point I was sick of changing her name. I left it as Abby. The name Jonah just came to me. I don't remember why. Maybe it was someone's kid or something that I thought, “That's a nice name,” and I just used it.
Zibby: In Two Peas in a Pod when you rewrite “The Princess and the Pea” fairy tale, you talked a lot about the qualities you felt like were important in a princess. You didn’t want the princess, like in the old fairy tale, to be a delicate flower who can't even sleep on a pea but instead has strength and is also kind and brave. You show these examples of different girls who are all finalists in the contest exhibiting all these great traits.
Are you trying to take on the Disney princess vibe here and show what you think women and princesses ought to be? Is this some sort big message? Was it just fun for that part of that book?
Sarah: It’s not even the Disney princess vibe. That's in the original story. Sleeping on the pea and making the --
Zibby: -- No, I mean your take on the story.
Sarah: For me, it’s my take on all the fairy tales. If you reread the original fairy tales, my characters always fall into the original fairy tales and not the Disney movie because I don't want Disney to sue me. That's in public domain. My characters always fall into the original fairy tale. Often the ending of the original fairy tales are pretty troubling. The fact that that's how they found a princess -- they wanted to choose a princess based on who was the most delicate is not the message that I want my girls to have. That's pretty much the heart of this whole series.
I always loved fairy tales. As a kid I used to fracture fairy tales also. I would tell the story of “The Princess and the Pea,” but it would be “The Princess and the M&M” because I was not a fan of vegetables. I liked chocolate. I always loved fairy tales. When I had a daughter of my own and I would tell her these stories, I wanted to teach her that she doesn't have to wait for a prince to come and save her. That's not how she's going to get her happy ending. She has to have agency. She has to be empowered. She has to be the one to make the change in her own life. That was really the message that I wanted to be in my books. That's why when Abby falls into these fairy tales, she not only is the one who saves the day, but she also helps the princess realize what she can be on her own. Sometimes the princess gets married. I don't want to give away the endings of all the books. In some of the books she realizes the prince is the right guy for her. In some cases she realizes that maybe she should get a job, and earn her own money, and then that's how she can move out of her stepmother’s attic.
Zibby: Tell me more about Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have), your teen book, which I thought was so awesome. It’s like a modern-day Forever…. Is this what you're going for?
Sarah: When I write my teen stuff I usually have an idea. I just explore it. For Ten Things We Did, it’s about a girl whose parents move away. She moves in with her friend. That is a story that happened to me pretty much when I was seventeen. My mom had remarried and moved to Connecticut. My sister moved with her. My father had also remarried and moved for a job. I did not want to leave Montreal where I was. For twelfth grade I ended up moving into my friend’s basement. We paid her rent. My friend’s mother travelled a lot and was in California for most of the year.
It was just the two of us in this house living on our own for the first time. I had never really done my own laundry before or cooked my own dinner. Suddenly I was living this adult life while still being in the twelfth grade. That really was the heart of the story. When I first pitched it to my editor I said, “It’s going to be about the fun parties that she has.” My editor said, “Okay, Sarah. It’s not just about the fun parties. What about the feeling of abandonment by your parents? What does it mean when your parents leave and you're left on your own?” Of course there’s fun but there's also the flip side, the dark side of that. It was a really interesting book for me to write. I hopefully was able to show both sides of that.
Zibby: Do you feel like that whole experience, in addition to gaining you this fantastic book -- did you have to choose your parents? How did that whole incident in your life affect through how you developed your own sense of family, especially now as a mom?
Sarah: It’s made family extremely important to me. I wanted to definitely have one of my own. I've been with my husband since we were seventeen. We started dating at seventeen. I actually met him that year that I was on my own. He became my family in so many ways. His family, his parents, were still in Montreal. They opened their arms to me. While I was living on my own, I still would go over there for dinners and feel like I was part of something.
Zibby: Was he like Noah?
Sarah: A little bit, yeah. I wrote that book now -- was Noah the good one or the bad… I don’t want to give anything away. [laughs]
Zibby: Don't tell me the answer. What is going to be your hit movie from all these books? What do you think?
Sarah: Upside-Down Magic has been optioned by Disney. They are developing it right now hopefully. What I think I'd like to do now in terms of next steps is for me to develop some of these books. I have so many books and so many ideas that I really want to see how do they go on television or features or something like that. I really want to spend some time focusing on that now in the future.
Zibby: Do you have one that you can see a main character, you have it all in your head already?
Sarah: I can see Ten Things We Did as a TV show.
Zibby: I almost went online to make sure it wasn’t. Have I seen this already?
Sarah: I hope not. I See London, I See France, that's another book I wrote about backpacking through Europe. I could see that as a feature. It’s about two girls backpacking. It was a trip that I did when I was nineteen. It was so much fun. I learned so much about myself. The theme of being on my own for the first time is such an important theme in teen literature. I've written about that in different ways. Those make great movies too.
Zibby: Is there anything you wish you did better?
Sarah: So many things. Yes. In general, I always think I could do more than I can. I'm often late with books. I just handed in something yesterday which was probably due about a month and a half ago. I'm always late on everything, especially with the books. Sometimes I have to bump books a year because I think, “For sure I could write four books this year.” I can't actually physically write four books this year. I had to push back the companion to I See London, I See France. For instance when I'm invited to speak on television, I get very nervous and usually come up with excuses why I shouldn't do it. I really should push myself to do that stuff because it’s good practice. It’s good publicity. I usually just make up excuses as to why I can't do it. I shouldn't do that.
Zibby: In addition to developing more for TV or film, what do you still want to accomplish?
Sarah: That's a good question. I’d like to write a picture book as well. I keep getting younger and younger with my material. Maybe then I’ll be writing board books. I’ll be writing K-2 novels, I don't know. I would like to write a picture book. I'd like to write some sort of Holocaust story. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors. It’s not really my brand. I write female, comedy, action-adventure books. At some point I'd really like to slow down and focus on a different type of story, to tell my grandmother’s story. I don't know when that’s going to be. I'd also like to write a book about being a mom. When I wrote for adults, I was writing about being the twenty-something single woman. I would like to write about what it’s like to be, maybe, a New York City mom because there's lot of stories. [laughs]
Zibby: You can research me. That's great. What about any kind of advice you have for either writers out there or parents who have kids who want to be writers?
Sarah: Encourage your kids to read everything, not just one type of book. Of course you want them always reading. You want them focusing on whatever they love. I wouldn't ever tell them not to read a specific thing, but to make sure that they're exploring all their options. Let them try mysteries. Let them try scary books, all different things, so they can figure out they want to do eventually. I would also tell them to keep a journal. I kept diaries my entire elementary school life. I often go back and look through them. Do you have yours too?
Zibby: My daughter now has play dates. She's like, “You want to come in and read my mom’s diaries?” Stop. No.
Sarah: [indiscernible]. I think they’ll probably get a kick out of that.
Zibby: How old are your daughters?
Sarah: My daughters are nine and five. Definitely keeping journals, I always advise that for practicing writing but also so that they can go back and reread them later on. I would say also to work on short stories and submit them to community journals or school journals. A lot of schools have their own. If they don’t, then to talk about starting one. Sometimes if the school doesn't have that available then it’s up to the student to say, “It would be great if we had this. Can I work on it?” I've done that before. In high school we started our own journal. We didn’t have creative writing classes in high school. We petitioned to have one. Then we did. A lot of is seeing what's available to you and otherwise starting it for yourself.
Zibby: I have to ask. What type of name is Mylnowski, now that I've typed it twenty times?
Sarah: It’s Polish-Jewish. It’s pronounced “Mullen-ov-ski” because it’s a Polish-W.
Zibby: Oh, sorry.
Sarah: No, it’s totally fine. I pronounce it differently all the time. It’s unclear exactly how it’s really pronounced. My father pronounced it differently his whole life. I do too. As long as everyone makes an attempt to get all the letters in, then I'm cool with it. Sometimes people come up with different things. There's a B in there suddenly. That doesn't make sense.
Zibby: One last thing on the Upside-Down Magic series, do you have your kids in mind when you're writing these? Do you read them out loud to your kids, not just Upside-Down Magic, but both of these series? We talked about how you get into the teen mind. Getting into that grade school, is it your kids?
Sarah: It’s pretty much my voice. I go into my mind. I have a younger sister, not a younger brother. I do channel that sibling relationship. I do read them aloud to Chloe, my older one. Her first day of kindergarten I got my page proofs. We were on the train going uptown. I’d just gotten it. I said, “Do you want to hear it?” It was the first one that she did. We read it all the way up and then all the way down. It was the first time I'd ever read my stuff out loud.
People always say you should read your stuff out loud. I never listen. It is so helpful. I cannot recommend it enough. I found so many things in it, mistakes and changes. Just to have her real-time reaction was fascinating. That was the first time I did it. I marked things up and I changed them. Now, I read her all the page proofs. The page proofs are once the book has gone to be edited, then it gets designed. It’s called the first pass or the page proofs. It almost looks like pages in a book. It’s easy to read aloud and mark up. The last one though, we were running late and she said, “I’ll just take them to school. I’ll mark it up for you.” That was sad and also cute. I like her little smiley faces. [laughs]
Zibby: That's so great. That was everything I wanted to know. I feel like we both speak so quickly. Thank you so much for chatting with me.
Sarah: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Zibby: Just a reminder, this episode was sponsored by Chloe’s Fruit, the cool way to eat fruit. Check them out at chloesfruit.com. Thank you again to Sarah.
Sarah: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.