Barry Lyga: Why I Write

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve gone gaga for the National Day on Writing, which we’re celebrating with our buds the National Writing Project, the New York Times Learning Network, and Edutopia.

In addition to asking writers why they write, we want to hear a little more about how, what, and where they write, and so from now until the Big Day (October 20!) we’ll be asking some of our favorite writers—a mix of pros and Figs alike—to tell us a bit more about their writing processes.

We begin with Barry Lyga, comic book authority and author of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, among a bevy of other YA delights.

How did you become a writer?

BL: This question is deceptively simple because there are actually two ways to answer it. First of all, there’s “becoming a writer” in the sense of being someone who writes. That’s easy―I’ve been writing pretty much since I knew how. My earliest childhood memories are of making up stories and either scribbling them down in a notebook or―more likely―telling them to my younger brother.

But second of all, there’s becoming a writer in the sense of “I write stuff and people I’ve never met actually read it.” And as to how that happened . . . It’s a combination of perseverance, talent, and dumb luck, really. I kept writing, even when no one wanted to read or publish what I had written. And by writing over and over and over again, I got better, to the point where I was good enough that one day someone didn’t say, “No,” but instead, “Maybe.” So I tried again, and eventually the “maybe” became, “Yeah, let’s do this.”

What are the things you’re most proud of having written, from any time in your life?

BL: I’m proud of everything I’ve written, but I’m probably proudest of the eulogy I wrote for my grandmother about 10 years ago, mainly because it soothed my grieving grandfather and actually made him laugh. After I delivered it, some people came up to me and said, “You should publish that.” But of course I won’t.

How would you describe your writing process? That is, how do you usually research, write, revise, edit? What routines help, and what challenges do you regularly face?

BL: Well, I belong to the school of “Just Do It” writing. I generally dive into a project once I know four things about it: Who my main character is, how the story begins, how it ends, and some emotional epiphany for him/her. At that point, I try not to overthink it―I just start writing. Sometimes, those four things will change as I write, but that’s all right because they’re really just guideposts for me. As I write, I’ll take breaks to research things that pop up during the process, but I try not to do much research in the beginning―that can wreck the spontaneity of the writing. There’s plenty of time to do research and fix such details later.

What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you’ve ever written about or researched for a writing project?

BL: For my upcoming series I Hunt Killers, I had to research all sorts of things related to serial killers: the pathology of sociopaths, forensic science, police procedures . . . It was like a crash course in catching lunatics!

How do outside forces influence or shape your writing? (For instance, your audience, editors, the market, things you read, etc.)

BL: I try not to let outside forces influence me. I’m sure everyone says that and I’m sure we all mean it, but of course it’s impossible not to be influenced by SOMETHING. But as far as my audience goes, I try not to think too much about it―the work has to be true to itself and it has to please me first. If I’m not happy with it, then no one else will be. So I write something that I would want to read and then cross my fingers that other people will want to, too! My editors do a good job looking at what I’ve written and finding those places where I haven’t been clear about my intentions, then asking me the right questions that help me to improve. It’s not that they tell me what to do―it’s just that they influence me by saying, “Is this what you really mean here?” and that gets me thinking about how I can do better. As for the market, I don’t think about it at all. It’s pointless. The stuff I’m writing today won’t be published for a year or two. By then, the market will have changed, and no one can predict how or why, so why bother thinking about it?

Why do you write?

BL: I’m willing to bet that a lot of people who answer this question will answer with some variation of “I have no choice” or “I’m compelled to” or something similar. And, yes, that’s true to a degree. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and believe me―for most of that time, there were no rewards involved, no positive reinforcement, no attaboys. Certainly no money! The easiest thing in the world would have been to stop writing, stop trying to succeed at it, just give up and move on to something else. But I didn’t. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s compulsion. Or just stubbornness. But I think a big part of it is just this need, this drive, to show the world something that exists deep inside. Why? I don’t know. Why do people play guitar? Why do people obsess over inventing new recipes when there are already millions of recipes in the world? You can say people do these things for fame or for money, but in a lot of cases ― in most cases ― people obsessed with any kind of art become neither rich nor famous. The only thing I can say is this: For me, writing is heart-breaking, painful, tortuous, and frustrating. But when it’s done, I feel better than I felt before I started. And that’s why I write.

Hungering for more author Q-and-As? Visit the New York Times Learning Network and the National Writing Project, and read the rest of the Figment Q-and-As here.

Then head over to the Forums to post your own burning, writerly questions to any of the authors featured on any of these three sites. The authors will answer their favorite questions, and we’ll post those answers here after October 20. And of course, be sure to let us know why you write . . .

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