Ned Vizzini is the author of three acclaimed young adult books: It's Kind of a Funny Story (movie to be released by Focus Features, 9/24/10), Be More Chill, and Teen Angst? Naaah.... Ned speaks to students and teachers at schools, universities, and libraries about writing and mental health. He also reviews books for the New York Times and the L Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. His work has been translated into seven languages.
I went to Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan (1995-1999).
In 1996, I started writing for New York Press, a local alternative paper. I am very lucky that I wrote for the paper in what author and columnist Jim Knipfel calls "The Golden Age":
"Back around Ď96, Ď97 I think we all sensed that we were part of something remarkable. Everyone who was a part of it looks back on those days as the Golden Age of the Press. Everyone was doing something different, but the energy was communal. And the one to thank for that is John Strausbaugh. He had this uncanny sense for finding unknown writers with potential. And because of him, we ended up with the likes of William Monahan, Jonathan Ames, Mistress Ruby, J.R. Taylor, Zach Parsi, CJ Sullivan, Paul Lukas, Dave Lindsay, Spike Vrushoóthe list goes on and on. It was almost like a ratty, underground version of those early years at Esquire. [Uh, Esquire ran pieces by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1930s; then, in the 1960s, helped pioneer New Journalism with Norman Mailer, Tim O'Brien, John Sack, Gay Talese, Terry Southern and Tom Wolfe.]
Between 1995 and 2000, there was nothing like that paper anyplace. And even if there was some professional jealousy, a few threatened egos here and there, at heart we all got along extraordinarily well. Funny thing is, when we were located at the Puck Building, that sense of camaraderie extended to the art department and business department as well. It was really weird. Iíve never seen such a collection of skewed personalities all working on one thing before. Itís gratifying to see how many of the writers and illustrators have since gone on to pretty great things after getting their first public exposure in this scrappy little weekly.[source: Knipfel interview at "Who Walk In Brooklyn"]
I wrote stories for New York Press about my high school experiences. John Strausbaugh and Sam Sifton printed them every month or so. Many of them ended up in my first book Teen Angst? Naaah....
In 1998 I wrote an essay called "Teen Angst? Nah!" for the New York Times Magazine. This essay consists of advice for 13-year-olds from me, as a 17-year-old at the time.
That essay caught the eye of Free Spirit Publishing. In 2000, they put out my first book Teen Angst? Naaah..., a collection of stories from New York Press with some new ones added in.
In 2000 I had my first speaking engagement at a high school in New York City. Since then, I have spoken at schools, colleges, libraries and symposiums across the US and in the UK about my books, writing skills, and mental health.
In 2002, Random House bought the mass-market rights to Teen Angst and put out a the mass-market paperback edition.
I entered Hunter College in Manhattan in 2000 and graduated in 2003 with a computer science degree and an English minor, honors, Phi Beta Kappa. I got the computer science degree because I never thought writing would make me any money.
While in college, I wrote my second book and first novel, Be More Chill.
I first explored the idea of the book with a short story about a man who gets a radio installed in his shoe to tell him how to be cool all the time. I wrote this story for a class; the instructor was the writer Regina McBride.
In 2003 BMC was sold to Hyperion/Miramax books.
In 2004 the Be More Chill hardcover edition was published.
In the fall of 2004, suicidal with a lot of stress and depression that was later diagnosed and treated as manic depression, I spent a few days in the psych unit at Methodist Hospital, Park Slope, Brooklyn.
In late 2004/early 2005 I wrote a book based on my hospital experience called It's Kind of a Funny Story. This was convenient, because the pressure that got me into the hospital in the first place was the pressure to write a follow-up to Be More Chill.
IKOAFS was released in spring 2006 in hardcover.
IKOAFS was released in spring 2007 in paperback.
The jobs that I have had that I can remember include:
dirt-bagger at a plant store
apprentice house painter
all-purpose gofer at my parents' company
ColdFusion programmer for an internet startup
founder of a internet firm that resists simple description
In April 2009, I finished a new book for adults. However, it's been shelved.
In April 2010, I finished a new book for young adults. Stay tuned to this site for publication info!
On September 24, 2010, the It's Kind of a Funny Story movie will be released by Focus Features. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Sugar, Half Nelson) adapted the book and are directing. The movie stars Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, and Emma Roberts. The unofficial movie blog has more!
Yes, of course! If you are interested in having me speak, please take a look at my three programs (these are PDFs; any trouble, right- or control-click them to download):
You can contact me through the information provided in the PDFs, or you can use the Contact Form. If you are a student, please send me the NAME and PHONE NUMBER of your SCHOOL LIBRARIAN so that I can move forward with arranging a visit.
Put the book, plus a big envelope with 6 stamps on it, into a big envelope with 7 stamps on it. Address the envelope with 7 stamps on it to me:
PO Box 39941
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Be sure to put your return address on this envelope or I won't know who to send it back to.
Write MEDIA MAIL on this envelope in 2-3 places or it won't come to me.
Repeat this process for each book you would like signed.
If you're from outside the US, email me using the Contact Form and we'll make arrangements.
NOTE: this stamp count is circa 2009 and should cover ALL my books (i.e. hardcover or softcover -- that number of stamps should be enough). I haven't had the chance to test with my postal scale in 2010, though, so you might want to double-check when you bring the book to the post office that it has enough postage to get to me. You WILL have to bring the book to the post office if it weighs more than 13oz, which the hardcovers do (they weight about a pound, 16oz).
The first thing to do is get On Writing by Stephen King. This is really the best book I know on writing. It takes you through all the skills you need with wit and clarity. Read it!
One you've got a foundation in King's advice, it's good to know this phrase: "kill your darlings".
For inspiration, take a look at the "Raiders of the Lost Art Story Transcripts". Basically, the people who wrote Indiana Jones wrote it in a week: they sat down taped their brainstorming and came up with the entire plot just talking back and forth. This is good inspiration for being professional and not losing sight of your goals.
Many people want to start writing by writing a book. Not a good idea. Especially if you're young, you might not have the discipline to follow through on a complete work of fiction, which has to be on your mind all the time for months. Start small.
So, once you write short pieces, what do you do with them? I do a workshop called "FROM PERSONAL TO PUBLISHED" --
-- and in it, I give specific advice about writing outlets. That advice is summarized in this pdf:
If you've already written a book and you want to publish it, and you're right at the start of the process and you don't have any ins or know anybody, do get a copy of THIS BOOK:
Writer's Market 2011
It's like the yellow pages for writers. It'll list every agent and publisher you can imagine.
Send your stuff off to them with a respectful cover letter and see what happens! Here is an example of a basic, good cover letter:
Enclosed are the first three chapters plus an outline of my 85,000-word science fiction novel, Voodoo Robot. It is [insert here a one- or two-sentence summary of the basic setup and story arc]. This is my first novel. [OR: I have the following publication credits.] [Optionally, and only if EXTREMELY pertinent: In addition, I have the following related credentials or experience.] I also enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope. [OR: You need not return the manuscript.]
Thank you for considering my submission. I look forward to hearing from you.
[your name here]
And here are some funny examples of bad cover letters.
More (long-winded) advice:
Figure out your market.
Who are you trying to write for? Are you trying to write stories about gardening, or werewolves? It can be whavetever you like, so long as you know.
Know the potential of your market.
Once you know the kind of writing you want to do, check it out below:
Unfortunately, the market for poetry is tough outside of academia. If you want to be a poet, your best bet is to stay in school, writing your poetry while teaching poetry classes at a university. It's not a bad life by any means. Unless you want to risk it and try to be a kick-ass non-academic dangerous rock-star poet like Poe or Bukowski. In that case you shouldn't even be reading this; you should be out causing trouble.
Funny Little Stories
Times have changed. If you're reading this, then maybe you know that this is how I got started: by sending my funny stories to a local newspaper. Unfortunately, that doesn't work any more. Now, if you want to write funny, observant, witty, biting stories about your life, you have to put them on a blog -- no one will pay for them. Therefore you have to be a blogger and figure out how to make money off of the ads. People do it. No reason you can't. Here is the breakdown: stevepavlina.com.
Here, I don't just mean journalism. I mean everything from investigative war coverage to the captions under the items in Maxim. They all appear in magazines, and magazines are still alive. If you want to write for them, check it out: at the front of every newspaper and magazine (sometimes on page 2 or 3, sometimes buried in 40 pages of ads) is something called a masthead.
The masthead lists the names and occupations of all the writers and editors who work for the paper. At the bottom of the masthead is an address called the slush mail address. You will probably see it in tiny letters down there and really have to struggle to read it. This is the address that unknown writers can send their work to.
You know what? It's not like trying to be a model or a rock star. You don't have to sleep with anybody.
Newspapers/magazines need to run copy every month/week/day so they eventually read the slush mail because hey, if there's talent in there, they want to use it for copy. Send your articles and essays again and again and again.
Be specialized. Whatever you enjoy reading, you should send your writing to. If you like cars, send to Road and Track. If you've got a crazy story about homeless people or music, look for a local alternative paper in your city (like New York Press, it'll come out every week and have listings for all the concerts/parties going on); you will, at least, get a response and get an idea how good your stuff is.
Now, if you want to tackle the big fish and write books, first, like we said, start small. Start with stories, personal essays, a seriously updated blog that you treat like a job. Once you've gotten yourself to the point where you think you have the discipline to write a novel, you have two choices:
Go and get a degree in creative writing after college.
Get a job and experience "real life" and try to write based on that.
The purpose of #1 is to, after you're done with school, have an agent. And a book. Then the agent can try and sell your book. However, an MFA costs -- you know what, by the time I write it, the cost will have gone up, so I'll just say it's "market price." Even if you get an agent and sell a book, you might be in the red. (However, you can teach creative writing courses and workshops, which brings in some money.)
With #2, you're going to have to do it yourself. You won't be taken seriously by any of the #1 people until you get something published. Get a copy of Writer's Market as per above.
Make sure you finish your book (FINISH it, don't write 2/3) and then look in Writer's Market for an agent who will be interested in it (say, the guy who specializes in mermaid romance tales). Send him the manuscript, properly formatted, with a nice cover letter (see above for a cover letter example), and do that over and over and over again until you hear something back.
People who go through #1 should have an easier time of this -- their years in graduate school should have given them the connections to get an agent. (By the way, an agent is optional for independent publishers but necessary for major publishers.)
Ultimately, what's better, #1 or #2? I say #2, but that's just me.
Wait! There's more!
Make a database of everyone you know in publishing and watch it grow.
You probably know someone, somehow, who is connected with the writing world. So start a spreadsheet and put in their information: name, position, when you last talked to them, what happened the last time you talked to them... Ask them if they know anyone else in the writing world -- editors, freelance journalists, people who put out chapbooks -- and get them into the spreadsheet.
At all stages of the game, be honest. Don't pretend that you're not trying to get a leg up on things when you talk to a person who can help you. Tell them: "I wrote this article that I really want to get published, can you help me?" And just keep watching the spreadsheet grow.
Try the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, sponsored by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, is the best program in the country for honoring young writers. If you are in grade 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, or 12, you owe it to yourself to submit your work! Go here:
11. Who are your favorite authors / What authors inspired you ?
I'd like to preface this with a story. The first time I ever interviewed anyone for New York Press, it was Damon Che, drummer for math-rock band Don Caballero, and I asked him "Who are your influences?"
He answered: "That's a stupid f___i__ question that lazy journalists ask when they can't think of anything better to say."
I have to say, I appreciated it. I never asked it again. The reason that it's a bad question is because if you're active in any kind of art, your influences are constantly changing, and it's tough to even remember all the things you like, let alone catalog and rank them.
That being said, here's a list off the top of my head:
Michael CrichtonJurassic Park, Sphere, Congo... everything up to Airframe is classic, and I like some of his later stuff too
Stephen KingIt, Gerald's Game
George OrwellDown and Out in Paris and London, "Such, Such Were the Joys", "Shooting An Elephant"
Jonathan Safran FoerEverything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Tom WolfeA Man In Full
Jerry StahlPermanent Midnight
Jonathan AmesWake Up, Sir!, What's Not To Love?
Jim KnipfelQuitting the Nairobi Trio, Noogie's Time to Shine, Unplugging Philco
Nick AntoscaMidnight Picnic, Fires
Marty BeckermanDeath to All Cheerleaders, Generation S.L.U.T., Dumbocracy
James FreyA Million Little Pieces, My Friend Leonard, Bright Shiny Morning
George TabbPlaying Left Field, Surfing Armageddon
Jim GoadShit Magnet
Paul AusterThe New York Trilogy, Leviathan, The Music of Chance, Oracle Night, The Brooklyn Follies, Travels in the Scriptorium, Hand To Mouth
Jonathan LethemFortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn
Dave EggersYou Shall Know Our Velocity, What Is The What
Miles DavisMiles: The Autobiography
Charles CrossHeavier Than Heaven
Nathaniel PhilbrickIn The Heart of the Sea
Salman RushdieMidnight's Children
Here are three books that are specifically related to depression, a la It's Kind of a Funny Story, that I have gained a lot of strength from and that I recommend to anyone who's suffering:
Some people feel that the ending of It's Kind of A Funny Story is too tidy, that Craig "gets better" too soon. They'd like to know how he "gets better" so quickly.
My response is that Craig didn't get "better" as in "better -- his depression is cured." He got better as in "better -- he's not going to consider suicide again." He sorted out some things in his life like I did.
"The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift [emphasis mine] of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed."
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†Joseph CambellThe Hero with a Thousand Faces
I got the idea for the "squip" in Be More Chill simply by seeing so many products advertised around me that promised to make people cool. I thought, "What if there was just a pill that made you cool?"
I fleshed this idea out in a short story I wrote in college and turned it into the Be More Chill novel subsequently.
Also, there is a band called Drunk Horse that has a song called "AM/FM Shoes" that helped inspire the squip. "AM/FM Shoes" is about a guy who feels like a loser, except he has special shoes that play the radio, and when he puts them on, he becomes the coolest guy around. ("AM/FM Shoes" is from Drunk Horse's 2001 double-EP Tanning Salon/Biblical Proportions.)
21. At the end of Be More Chill, do Christine and Jeremy hook up?
The end of Be More Chill is what we fancy-pants writers call an implied resolution.
*** SPOILER ALERT! ***
At the end of the book, it is revealed that the text of Be More Chill is, in fact, a data dump from Jeremy's head of all the things he did prior to trying to ask Christine out disastrously during their school play. The idea is that the READER has to put him or herself in Christine's position and decide, if this book were given to him/her, whether to forgive Jeremy for his crimes and start a romance with him, or not.
*** END SPOILER****
I thought this was an interesting ending, but many people don't like it. For a while, when I visited schools and people asked if Jeremy and Christine hooked up, I said, "Yes, but they probably don't stay together. Relationships in high school are usually chaotic and often don't last."
But that tended to make people sad. So now I just tell them: "YES! Jeremy and Christine hook up and fall in love and have lots of babies!!"
No need to ask! As explained in the forthcoming afterward to the new edition of Teen Angst? Naaah..., I discovered the Wormwhole demo after it spent many years in exile. The video for Wormwhole's single "Pants in the Mail" is here:
The audio files for both of Wormwhole's songs are here:
29. Teen Angst? Naaah... comes in two editions -- a black one and a yellow one. What is the difference between the two editions?
First of all, as of fall 2010, there will be a *third* edition of Teen Angst? Naaah... -- Random House is re-releasing the book as a trade paperback with a new cover! Until then, here is your handy guide:
31. Regarding the footnote about Rude Boys: did you ever figure that out?
During the 1970s 2 Tone ska revival in England, the terms rude boy and rude girl were often used to describe fans of that genre. "Rude Boy" has since become a popular song by Rhianna. I was called a rude boy at summer camp approximately 15 years before this song.
32. (reader submitted) Why do you like writing so much?
Sometimes I don't like writing at all. It is incredibly frustrating when you are trying to write but it isn't coming out correctly. Your brain spins and you sit at the computer and go numb. So the rewards have to be great. Fortunately they are.
For the reasons why I enjoy writing, I defer to George Orwell, who wrote the following reasons for writing in his essay "Why I Write" (1946):
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose.
Only for me me, (ii) is more important than (i). When I get a sentence right, or when my writing is going well, it feels better than anything on Earth. And I have another reason:
(v) Connecting with readers. To know through letters and emails that I have had experiences similar to other people, and to thank them for their support and kindness.
33. (reader submitted) What obstacles did you have to overcome to write your books?
I was very lucky in that I did not face that many of the professional obstacles that many authors face while getting their books published. I started writing young (for New York Press), this writing was seen by Free Spirit Publishing, and they put out Teen Angst? Naaah... in 2000. At that point I began carrying flyers around everywhere to tell people about my books and I handed one to a person at a wedding and it turned out that they knew an agent and that is how I got my agent.
The obstacles I had to overcome were personal ones.
Specifically I wasn't able to write a very good book after Be More Chill. I tried and tried, and it drove me crazy, and that's how I ended up in the hospital as described in It's Kind of A Funny Story. So my obstacles have been personal and artistic.
38. (reader submitted) When did you write your books?
I wrote the essays in Teen Angst? Naaah... over a period of 3 years while in high school (1996-1999). I spent about a year with Free Spirit Publishing compiling and editing them before publication (2000).
I wrote Be More Chill in 2002, in a 9-month period between roughly March and November.
I wrote It's Kind of A Funny Story during a very intense month in December of 2004.
I wrote a fourth book (for adults) in 22 months from 2007-2009. It has currently been shelved and is not being published at this time.
I wrote a new YA novel between December 2009 and April 2010. (I drafted it extensively in 2009.) Stay tuned -- as soon as I know anything about publication I will announce it on the site.
42. (reader submitted) Why did you go to the hospital (It's Kind of a Funny Story)?
I was working on a book and it wasn't going well. I just couldn't make it work. I started getting depressed about it and one night I just couldn't take it and called the Suicide Hotline like Craig did. It went from there.
45. (reader submitted) I am feeling depressed. Can you help? Do you have recommendations for other books like It's Kind of a Funny Story that might help?
First of all, if you are feeling depressed and you're not sure if you actually have clinical depression or not, look to the physical signs. Clinical depression is a physical issue and it manifests itself with physical symptoms.
are you having trouble eating?
are you having trouble sleeping?
Those are the big ones. If you had a bad night or you were stressed out this morning and missed breakfast, that's one thing, but if you have spent the last few weeks unable to sleep and throwing up all the time, then you should talk to someone: your parents, a guidance counselor, or a doctor.
In terms of books that will help if you're depressed:
The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon
This "Atlas of Depression" covers the history and pathology of clinical depression, written by someone who suffered through it. Full of amazing science that will help you understand depression better and heart-wrenching stories that will help you keep your struggles in perspective.
Quitting the Nairobi Trio by Jim Knipfel
A book I read a few years before writing It's Kind of a Funny Story that showed me how funny being in the nuthouse could be. "Knipfel's wickedly hilarious and nutty viewpoint is so captivating that readers will finish his book with regret, waiting impatiently for the next installment of a unique, courageous life." -- Publishers Weekly
The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama
Although at the start it might just seem like pat advice from the Tibetan Buddhist leader, there are insights toward the end of this book that are profound. The Dalai Lama reminds us that there are always consequences to negative behavior -- and says that only by habituation can we train ourselves to be happy.
46. (reader submitted) Why was Be More Chill set in Metuchen, NJ? Have you ever been to Metuchen?
I set Be More Chill in Metuchen, New Jersey because I thought it seemed like a good, simple suburban town that would stand in for suburban areas around the country.
However, I never visited Metuchen before I wrote about it, so I got a few things wrong -- for example, I hear from people in Metuchen that all students walk to school there, so Jeremy would never be embarrassed to walk to school the way he is in the book. It's best to think of the Metuchen in Be More Chill as a fictional city that just happens to have the same name as the real Metuchen. In fall 2010 I got the chance to speak at the Metuchen Public Library and meet actual Metuchenites; thanks to everyone who showed up!