Ned Vizzini is the author of It's Kind of a Funny Story (also a major motion picture), Be More Chill, and Teen Angst? Naaah.... Ned has spoken at over 200 universities, schools, and libraries around the world about writing and mental health. He has written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and season 2 of MTV's Teen Wolf. His work has been translated into seven languages and is forthcoming in Czech. His next novel, The Other Normals, will be published in fall 2012.
Being a writer is really about two things: skill and business. The skill of being a writer involves two aspects, talent and craft. I can't teach you talent; you either have it or you don't. But a lot of skill is in craft, which comes from practice, dedication, and fear of death. Here are some resources to help with your writing craft:
On Writing by Stephen King (2000), full of the best advice from the best guide you'll never meet
"kill your darlings", a piece of advice from William Faulkner that was repeated to me by my father
"From Personal to Published", my writing workshop program
By business I mean the thorny question of how you get your writing out in the world.
My first piece of advice is: DON'T WRITE A BOOK. Many young writers, including many who email me, start out by trying to write books when they are 13. If you try to write a full book when you are 13, chances are you will flame out, never finish it, and abandon writing entirely.
Instead, start by writing short stories. I believe the easiest short stories to write are short tales about your own life.
This is how I started. I began writing when I was 15 for a local newspaper in Manhattan called New York Press; I wrote an essay about my high school and sent it to the address I found in the front of the paper; the editor got back to me a few months later and told me he liked my stuff but it was too long, so I started writing 1000- to 1200-word essays that were published in the paper and became the bulk of my first book Teen Angst? Naaah....
Here are some outlets for short pieces:
Teen Ink, a teen literary magazine and website
New Youth Connections, a general interest teen magazine (New York only)
the painted brain, a peer-driven campaign to eradicate the stigma of mental illness with a printed magazine component (LA-based, but open to submissions)
(Note: if you've already written a book and you want to publish it, get a copy of this book:
Writer's Market 2011
It lists 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 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.
9. Isn't it hard to write about your family and friends?
Yes, it can be difficult to write about people close to me. I solve this problem by writing fiction and basing characters on real people instead of actually writing about real people. And I always change their names! I can't emphasize how important that is.
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, The Buzzing, Noogie's Time to Shine
Nick AntoscaMidnight Picnic, Fires
Marty BeckermanDeath to All Cheerleaders, Generation S.L.U.T., Dumbocracy, The Heming Way
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
Neal PollackAlternadad, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature
13. How much of It's Kind of a Funny Story is true?
85% of It's Kind of a Funny Story is true. I based it on my own experience in Methodist Hospital in Park Slope, Brooklyn in late 2004. I was hospitalized for suicidal ideation like Craig in the book. Once I left the hospital, I started writing about it, but I fictionalized some important elements. Here is what I did:
I changed the names of the characters.
I changed the age of Craig, who is 15 when he goes into the hospital (as opposed to my age at the time, 23).
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 (and only 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 were 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." I thought it 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!"
When Be More Chill came out, I and a friend of mine ran a fairly insane publicity campaign where we invented a whole universe of websites that made it seem as if the squip were real. The websites were coupled with "Squip? Google It" stickers that we gave away. Readers put these stickers up and took pictures of them.
The squip campaign ran into some issues:
People criticized us for exploiting kids, because in many cases the people signing up for squips on websites thought they were real.
Managing the "Squip? Google It" t-shirts and stickers and the large amount of email proved very difficult.
I got very depressed (this was the summer before I went into the hospital).
For those reasons, the squip campaign never quite "tipped" into the phenomenon we hoped it would be and closed in 2005.
We started message boards to communicate withe the "squippers" and these boards became a vibrant and unique community. The highest-posting members of the boards are still given the status "Squip Sherrif":
No need to ask! As explained in the afterward to the 2010 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.
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.
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. 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; they put out Teen Angst? Naaah... in 2000. At that point I began carrying flyers around everywhere to tell people about my books. 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 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.
38. When did you write your books? How much time does it take for you to complete a book?
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 (and a few days in 2005).
I wrote my only completed "adult" novel project, Urban Renewal Renewal, in 22 months from 2007-2009. Urban Renewal Renewal is a 400-page seriocomic tale of Brooklyn real estate. It has been indefinitely shelved due to concerns about its quality. Perhaps I will come back to it later -- or it will be published when I'm dead.
I wrote my forthcoming young adult novel The Other Normals between July 2009 and April 2010. It will be published in fall 2012!
42. 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 got depressed because I was worried that my career and life were over. One very dark night, I called the Suicide Hotline, like Craig does, and it went from there.
45. 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. 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 students walk to school there, so Jeremy Heere 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!
47. In the snowboarding story in Teen Angst? Naaah..., you say you put your left foot forward when you slide, but the guy says you're goofy footed. Isn't it the other way around?
Snowboarders: yes, in the story "Goofy Foot Forward" in Teen Angst? Naaah..., the snowboarding term "goofy foot" is misidentified. I'm not sure if the guy at the ski resort was messing with me, if there was a typographical error, or if I just wrote it wrong in the first place.
The error has persisted through three versions of the book, so consider it a test to see if you are an attentive reader.
48. Where did you get the idea of the brain maps (It's Kind of a Funny Story?)
When I was a kid, like Craig in It's Kind of a Funny Story, I was really into maps. I was particularly enamored of the Hagstrom 5-Boro Atlases of New York. I used to want to trace them -- and I got frustrated, just as Craig does in the book (and film), because I couldn't do it.
One day, when I was five, my mother suggested that I draw maps of imaginary places instead of trying to trace real maps, and I took her advice to heart. I continued drawing maps throughout my childhood; I loved it; it was what I did instead of doodling in class.
For It's Kind of a Funny Story, I wanted to Craig to have an artistic drive but I didn't want to make him a writer because it was too close to me. So I made him an artist and gave him the map thing, but I put the maps inside the outlines of heads (because I could never finish them anyway!) and called them "brain maps."
I did make art myself when I was in the psych hospital in 2004: abstract art with cray-pas and watercolor which you can see here:
As a kid I was into experiencing art and then trying to create it. I would play video games and then try to design my own video games with graph paper. I would hear music and then try to make my own music. Writing was the art form I found where it was easiest to experience something and then create my own version of it.
51. How did you get into writing? When did you start writing?
I first discovered writing in 2nd grade. For two weeks, my school had a special class called "Writers' Workshop" in which all students were given a blank book and told to fill it with stories they made up. I loved it. I wrote adventure stories called "The Poor Old Wizard." A few years later I had a letter published in an issue of the comic book Moon Knight. When I was 15, I began writing for a newspaper called New York Press in Manhattan. I sent an essay about my high school to the paper and the editors liked it so I began writing for them. My essays in New York Press were collected in my first book, Teen Angst? Naaah.... Publication history continues here.
I don't have any "normal days" as a writer. All days are different. Some days I am traveling to speak at a school or library or university. Some days I am meeting with people about a project. Some days I am on deadline and I am writing until I'm exhausted. In general, I get my writing done in the morning, before I try to tackle other business.
54. What one piece of literature has affected you the most as a writer?
The piece of literature that had the biggest impact on me as a writer is Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. When I read it at age 12, I got so into it that my legs fell asleep while I was reading it on the toilet. My father banged on the door to get in and I got up and collapsed on the floor (because both legs were asleep) and while I was down there, I thought, "What power!" I wanted to have power like that, power to make people turn the page.
56. What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the writing process?
My favorite aspect of the writing process is when I know that it's going well, when the work is flowing. There's nothing like that feeling: as Mark Twain says, the right word is like lightning (and the wrong word is like a lightning bug).
My least favorite aspect of writing is the way I'm dependent on my mind to make money for the rest of my life. I'm not dependent on an organization or an employer or even, to a certain degree, my effort. I'm dependent on my mind, which is a flighty thing. If the ideas dry up I'm done for.
For living, the greatest advice I ever heard was from the Dalai Lama, in his book The Art of Happiness, when he says "always remember the consequences of the negative behavior" (I'm paraphrasing). His point is that it's very easy to do things that are harmful to you because you don't remember that negative behavior has consequences. If you remember that it does, you won't hurt yourself as much.
71. Did you take part in the development of the It's Kind of a Funny Story film? Did you choose the actors?
To answer this question, I will reprint an interview excerpt from SPLICETODAY.com:
Splice Today: How involved were you in the production of Itís Kind of a Funny Story? Were you the guy in the background of the set wearing a beret and making caustic jokes?
Ned Vizzini: I was directly creatively involved with the It's Kind of a Funny Story film in three ways:
1. I suggested the song "Happy Today" by the WoWz to the directors; it ended up on the soundtrack.
2. Prior to the "Under Pressure" musical sequence, if you look at the music group leader's t-shirt, it says "Drunk Horse." That's my t-shirt.
3. I wrote the book.
Other than that, the film is an interpretation, but it's an interpretation I stand behind because the directors really understood where the book was coming from. I visited the set frequently and wrote set reports. People on set were great: they were like, "You wrote the book? Thanks for getting me a job, man." [more]
72. Did you stay in touch with any of the patients you met in the hospital (It's Kind of a Funny Story)?
Yes, I stay in touch with one person I met in the hospital. I am not going to reveal who it is but I can say that the person is doing well!
I do have a funny story about a different person, "Humble." (Humble was not his real name.) He is the only other person I have seen outside the hospital since I left. I ran into him randomly, a few years after I got out, at a bodega in Brooklyn. I was buying chips. So was he.
"I was in the hospital with you, remember?" I asked.
"Oh yeahhh," he said. "How you doing?"
"I'm good. Actually, after I left the hospital, I wrote a book about it, and they're turning it into a movie."
"Wait a minute: you wrote a book about being in the hospital?"
"And somebody published it?"
"And they're turning it into a movie?"
He squinted. "So what you still doing in Brooklyn for?"
73. Would you ever consider writing a book from a female's point of view?
Writing from the point of view of the opposite sex is one of the hardest things you can attempt as a writer. I don't know how women think!
However, Barry Lyga (The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl) gave me some advice. He said that to write from the POV of a woman, you don't have to know "women," you just have to know one woman, your main character. So if I ever fully identify with a female character who wants to be the star of one of my books, I guess it could work. No immediate plans, though.
74. Did you have anything to do with the film Limitless? Do you feel like Limitless bit off your premise for Be More Chill?
I did not have anything to do with the 2011 film Limitless, about a writer who gets a pill that lets him use all of his brain and thus become successful. I did have a chance to read the Limitless script a few years before the movie came out (it was called The Dark Fields at that time).
While I see the similarities with my 2004 novel Be More Chill, I'm not angry about it. The main character is different (he's not in high school) and the mechanism of the pill is different (it's not a quantum computer that gives real-time social advice). The idea of getting something that you love and then having it turn on you is not new in fiction and it's fine for other people to play with it as well. (As of this writing I have not seen the film.)
75. What are ten important dates in your life and what happened on those dates?
April 4, 1981. I am born with the name Edison Price Vizzini. My
mother calls me "Ned" and other people follow suit.
1986. So many people are calling me Ned that it is starting to get confusing on school forms so I have my name legally changed to Ned Price Vizzini.
Summer 1987. My family moves from Manhattan, NY to the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, where I grow up and where much of Teen Angst? Naaah... takes place.
September 1995. I start Stuyvesant High School and begin reading the weekly newspaper New York Press.
May, 1996. I have my first story published in New York Press, "Horrible Mention" (collected later in Teen Angst? Naaah...). This marks the start of my career as a professional writer.
May 17, 1998. I have an essay, "Teen Angst? Nah!", published in the New York Times Magazine. This brings me to the attention of more people and leads to the deal for my first book.
August 2000. My first book, Teen Angst? Naaah..., is published by Free Spirit Publishing in Minnesota. The book appears on the Booksense 76 list and becomes popular with bookstores, libraries and schools.
June 2004. My second book and first novel, Be More Chill, is published by Hyperion books. The book is based on a short story I came up with at Hunter College and was written in 2002.
April 2006. My third book, It's Kind of a Funny Story, is published by Hyperion books. The book is based on my experiences in a psych hospital when I was suffering from depression and suicidal ideation during the attempt to write a follow-up to Be More Chill.
October 8, 2010. The film adaptation of It's Kind of a Funny Story is released by Focus Features. The movie stars Zach Galifianakis and Emma Roberts and is released in 2011 on DVD and BluRay.
76. Was your writing impacted by the neighborhood you lived in?
My writing was impacted by the neighborhood I grew up in (Park Slope, Brooklyn) to the extent that anyone who writes is impacted by the place they grew up in. I met characters there who inspired me and really appreciated the neighborhood library (as heard in this podcast). But I don't intentionally try to write about it or capture it in a special way.
78. Did your parents encourage/support your writing?
My parents generally support my writing. I used to read stories to my father over the phone and he was very encouraging. My mother is a great editor and she helped with essays I wrote as a student. However, she did not edit anything that appeared in New York Press. She referred to those essays as "filth" and stayed away from them. She was never a fan of the cursing.
79. Are your parents similar to the depictions of the parents in the book It's Kind Of A Funny Story?
The parents in It's Kind Of A Funny Story are fictional and any relation to my real parents is purely coincidental. Funny Story in general is 85% based on my real life, though, so you can draw your own conclusions...
82. What made you want to use your experiences to encourage youth?
I never set out to use my experiences to encourage anybody. I just wanted to entertain people. Now when I speak at schools I apprecaite the opportunity to talk about the science of mental health because knowing about how your brain works can save your life.
83. What were some of the largest obstacles you had to overcome in your early life as well as adulthood?
The largest obstacles I had to overcome in my early life were social warfare and artistic legitimacy. I dealt with the first by giving up on high-school popularity and playing Magic cards instead. I dealt with the second by working on my writing to make it the best it could be.
My largest obstacles in adulthood were making money and depression. I dealt with the first by writing good books. I dealt with the second through a combination of study, medication, maturation, moving to California, finding my wife, and learning to compartmentalize so that my down periods never get too down.
I don't think it's my job as a writer to identify themes I write about. I feel like that is the job of critics. If you're doing a report and you want to know what themes I write about, I turn it back on you: what themes do you think I write about? There are no wrong answers here. I suppose if you held a gun to my head, I would say I wrote humorous young adult fiction starring teenagers who have to deal with sex and death.
86. How did you first break into the literary "scene"?
By "literary 'scene'" what people really mean are readings. I did my first public readings in the early 2000s. I broke into that scene after going to other people's readings and asking the reading hosts if I could read at their events.
88. I read that you are now working on Teen Wolf for MTV. When you go in to write for television, how is it different from when you go in to write a book?
The process of breaking story in a writers' room is very different from writing a book -- it's more like a good game of Dungeons & Dragons. But the components of storytelling that go into TV are actually very similar to the ones that are effective in a book.
I don't tend to get writer's block; I tend to get "writer's dreck" where I just write crap. But in any case, the only way out is to find out what the problem is with the characters. A block means that there's something false about the characters -- and it must be excised.