In The List by Siobhan Vivian (which you can begin reading on Figment for a limited time here) eight girls arrive at school one morning to find their names plastered all over the halls. For each grade, one girl is declared the prettiest, and one the ugliest. The story that follows explores the experiences of each–and they run the gamut of high school drama, trust us. Or trust Siobhan Vivian, a former television writer and three-act evangelist, who answers some of our questions below.
Describe The List in 5 words.
Intersection of beauty and identity.
You were selected for an Academy of Television Arts and Sciences mentorship program, and also spent some time scriptwriting for Disney. How has television inspired your work? How is writing for television different from writing a novel?
For one thing, I am very focused on plot. I am a big outliner—I like to know (roughly) where a story is going to go before I start writing it. It helps me feel more secure and less scared, especially when I’m starting a new book project.
I completely geek out over three-act structure, which is a widely-used plotting device that I studied for four years straight. (I majored in writing for television and film in college.) Writers out there: if you find yourself always getting stuck in the middle of your stories, I’d highly suggest doing some research on three-act structure . It’s a formula that you can reinvent over and over again and it is super-helpful when trying to find a way to reach the end of a story.
One of the challenges that screenwriters must deal with is finding ways to reveal our characters’ emotions and inner thoughts. In first-person books, you can literally tell your audience what your character is thinking or feeling in each moment. But in film or television, unless you have a voiceover, there’s none of that allowed. Think about The Hunger Games. With the book, we are always in Katniss’s head. We know how she feels, how she struggles with her feelings for Peeta, how she wonders whether or not he’s being truthful to her. But in the movie version, we have to rely on weird little facial tics and awkward glances and dramatic pauses to get all that internal information across. It’s a real challenge, and I am happy to not have those restrictions on me anymore!
What’s the best method you have for coping with rejection letters? Is there a way for the experience to become constructive?
First off, you just need to accept that rejection is part of being creative. Not everyone is going to like what you do. And it doesn’t end once you are lucky enough to get published! Once a book is out, it’s going to get good reviews and bad reviews. Some people will want to buy it, some won’t. Honestly, I experience some form of rejection every single day.
But that doesn’t matter! I just keep writing, keep working and trying. That’s the only part of the process that any artist is in control of. The rest is out of our hands . . . so why stress about it?
You own a vintage typewriter. Do you use that for writing your novels, or just for fun?
For fun. I try to type all my fan-letter responses on it. The thing is huge and clunky, and pounding on those keys makes my fingertips hurt after a while. But I love love love the click-clack sounds.
Both The List and Not That Kind of Girl deal with teenage sexuality, and the pressures and expectations related to sex and appearance that are placed on high school girls. Does this topic feel particularly important or salient in this current moment?
I think so, absolutely. And, sad as it is to say, the pressure doesn’t let up when you graduate high school. It stays with you for your whole life. I feel just as much pressure to look a certain way as I did when I was 15, 16, 17. I’m just (slightly) better at handling it now.
Do you have any plans sketched out for your next novel or project?
Yes! I’m working on a new story. It’s magical realism, which is a genre that I adore. I only have about 50 pages written, but I’m having a lot of fun with it.
Tell us about the time you brought a stray dog to school in a stolen shopping cart. It sounds like a good story!
Oh geez. You know what? That story comes up every time I’m hanging out with my friends from home! It pretty much happened just the way you describe it. In sixth grade, I found a stray dog in the street on the way to school. I put him in a shopping cart, and then I brought him to school and let him run loose in the halls.
My principal totally loved that (not).