Meg Cabot: 15 million copies & counting
Bestselling young-adult author Meg Cabot learned to be comfortable writing funny, and to persevere while enduring endless rejections
Published: April 2, 2010
The name Meg Cabot has become synonymous with popular fiction for teenage girls. Her Princess Diaries series is published in more than 38 countries, she’s the No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of nearly 50 chick-lit books for teens, juveniles and adults, and those books have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. She has been so successful in large part because she writes characters her readers can relate to. Whether it’s a juvenile story about the drama that takes place between friends or a young-adult novel about the trials and tribulations of young love, Cabot knows her audience. And she knows what they find funny.
Photo by Ali Smith
But how does a woman who set out to be an illustrator end up writing bestselling books for girls? Perseverance.
Once she decided to become a writer, Cabot was single-minded in her pursuit of literary success, but hers was an unorthodox journey at the start. She was an avid reader and wrote for her school paper, but she didn’t plan on be-coming an author. After high school, she studied art at Indiana University Bloomington, where her father was a teacher. Why art and not writing?
“Because,” she explains on her Web site, “a random guy I met at a party I went to in high school told me not to study creative writing because in his opinion studying creative writing as a major sucks the love of writing out of you (he was a creative-writing major, so he said he would know). I did not want the love of writing sucked out of me, so I followed his advice. (However, I did take a few creative-writing workshops at IU, and I enjoyed them very much.) Instead, I had the love of art sucked out of me.”
She graduated with a degree in fine arts and moved to New York City, where she worked as assistant manager of a freshman dorm at New York University. (In New York she again met the guy she had talked to at the high school party. The two eventually married.)
Cabot’s dorm job gave her periods of down time to write—and write she did. Sending hundreds of letters to agents and publishers, she received a stream of rejection letters for years. She was resolute and kept writing.
Today, with more than 25 successful series under her belt, Cabot is always working on a new idea, and always has several projects going at once.
She is currently working on two teen series (Abandon and Airhead), finishing up a juvenile series (Allie Finkle), and looking forward to a new project due out this summer, a dark fiction book for adults called Insatiable. The latter she de-scribes as urban gothic—a new genre she is pioneering. Insatiable is her modern-day sequel to Dracula and features Meena, a writer who hates vampires but is drawn to one in particular.
Cabot is friendly, funny and very talkative. During our phone interview, it felt like chatting with an old friend.
How is writing for children different than writing for adults, and which is more satisfying?|
Well, you can’t swear [in juvenile fiction], it turns out. [She laughs.] I really was not interested in writing books for kids, and my editor, Abigail McAden, who was just starting out when we sent The Princess Diaries around—and it was rejected everywhere—was just starting as assistant editor, and after 10 years she moved over to Scholastic. So I went with her, and she said, “Hey, we do books for little kids; do you want to do that?” and I was like, no way! There’s no dances or kissing or anything interesting to me.
But then I started thinking about it and thought, OK, fourth graders have a lot of drama! Like crying and friendships breaking up and all sorts of stuff going on, and I thought it might be kind of fun.
So it’s actually been real interesting, and it turns out that basically you leave out the kissing and the dancing and the romance, but the friendship stuff—oh, my God, these girls! I get a ton of mail from girls who are like, “Why are my friends being mean?”
Which comes first, the characters or the story idea?
Always the story idea. I get a plot idea first, and then I think, who would be the weirdest person to put in this plot? Who would hate to be a princess? Who would hate to become a model and have a brain transplant? Because I was just having the worst day, and I had to go on 5 a.m. morning television, and my hair wouldn’t do anything, and I was like, why can’t I be Heidi Klum [model and host of the Lifetime reality show Project Runway]? And that’s how I got the idea for Airhead. So it’s always like, the idea first and then, well, who can I stick in there? Who would hate that?
Once you have a workable idea, how do you develop it?
Well, it’s always something I wish would happen to me! But of course because I want it to happen, I’d make a terrible character. We all want to become a princess. We all want to be Heidi Klum. But you can’t write a story about someone who wants that to happen to them because then it would be boring. If it were “The Meg Cabot story,” it would be a page long: “And then she became a princess, the end. She loved it. She had the best time.” It would be horrible. So I always think of things that I want to have happen to me. Of course, it can’t be about me because I would be totally happy if all these things happened to me.
I’m also a terrible insomniac; I can never sleep. So I just lie there and try to fall asleep, waiting for my Ambien to kick in, and think of stuff I’d like to have happen to me. Like win the lottery, become a princess, save the president from being assassinated, or solve a mystery. I’d love to find a body and solve the crime and be a celebrity in my town. Then if I really like the idea, it’ll end up being a book.
How do you give your characters such unique voices that the relevant age group can relate to?
I try to think back to how I was at that age. I had a really great writing instructor when I took one of those continuing-ed classes at New York University while I was working there. She really told me something important, which is that you should just shut up and listen to people talk around you when you’re out and try to put that into your writing. So I really do try to listen to people who are the age of that character and try to put that inflection into my writing.
I also try to attend functions where there will be people that age or who are like the characters, and if I can’t do that I’ll watch TV. I worked on that. I had a really hard time when I was first writing, and I got rejected for many years because I couldn’t write realistic guys; they all sounded like girls. I started hanging around bars and sports bars and listening to guys talk. That’s really how I developed that ear for dialogue, by listening to people talk and not talking myself.
Does writing a series differ from a stand-alone?
Oh, definitely, because you have to hold things back for a series, so there’s stuff you don’t tell people. You still want to give as much as you can to make it a great story, but there are some things you can’t tell the readers. If there’s a romance, you can’t have it be completely fulfilled, but you don’t want to leave readers feeling that they’ve paid all this money for a book and haven’t gotten their money’s worth. So it’s hard to balance. You kind of want to give a complete story arc with each book, but you still want to leave a little bit back so there’s something left for the next story.
Do you outline your books before you write them?
If I really like the idea, I don’t outline, because I’ve found that when I do, it feels like I’ve already told the story, and then I don’t have the excitement about actually writing it. I might write a couple of sentences. Then I’ll pitch it to my editor and hopefully she’ll say yes. That’s how I pitched the Allie Finkle series and Airhead.
I’m lucky that I can do that; although, when I was starting out, obviously I couldn’t do that. I’d write the whole thing and then try to sell it. But that’s what I do now, be-cause if I outline it too much, then I find that I can’t write it because I feel like the story’s already been told. People call that “seat-of-the-pants writing.” I think you can end up getting in trouble doing that, because I often will get midway through, and I’m like, oh, my God, I completely screwed this story up, and this could never happen. And I get really frustrated and eat 10 pounds of candy, and then I’ll end up watching the Lifetime channel for 10 days until I figure out what I did wrong. Then I have to go back. But that’s the only way I can work.
And I know so many people who do the note-card thing and plan the whole thing out, and I think that’s a good way for them to do it, because then they don’t have the 10 days of suicidal thoughts where they realize they’ve done something horribly wrong. But I just can’t work that way.
Once you finish a book, what happens from there? How does your editor contribute, and how do you get along?
I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had a lot of editors, and they’ve all been really great. I usually like to go off by my-self and just write the whole book, get it out, and then I turn it in. To me, the editor/author relationship is like the author is the cowboy and the editor is the sheriff. So the author goes off and gets all crazy and shoots up the saloon, and the editor comes in like the sheriff and says, “OK, let’s calm down. Here’s what we need to do. This is too crazy and you need to pare this down, and this part’s too long and here’s why I think that.”
For the most part I think that all my editors have been really good, and one actually explained to me the editing process. ... She said that to her, books are like tapestries, and her job is to find all the loose threads and pull on them. And if any of them makes the tapestry unravel, then there needs to be some work done on the tapestry.
I think there’s only been one or two times when I’ve ever felt that there was something I really didn’t want to change, and I disagreed with why she said I needed to. For instance, with the second Princess Diaries book, I remember I called it Princess of Puke, and I really felt strongly that should be the title. Then my editor said she really felt strongly that should not be the title. She said, “Picture that in gold foil on the cover.” So editors are really good at telling the authors when they’ve gone too far.
Who have been your biggest influences?
I didn’t major in English or creative writing in college—I was an art major—but I did take a couple of creative-writing workshops for fun. And my first creative-writing workshop teacher was named Judy Troy, and the other kids in the class were really super serious and they were always writing about suicide and stuff, and I was always writing basically what I’m writing now.
So I was the only one in the class writing funny romantic comedies, and the other kids in the class were down on my writing because they thought it wasn’t very serious. So I started thinking that I was doing something wrong and that I should write more serious stuff. So I started writing the same kind of stuff they were writing about. You know, like, Vietnam War vets. ’Cause I know so much about that.
And after I started doing that, I got all this validation from the class, and she actually took me aside after the class and was like, “What are you doing? What’s wrong with you?” I told her that I thought to be a writer you write about really serious stuff. She told me it was actually harder to make people laugh than make them cry. “Anyone can make someone cry, but you are really good at making people laugh, and that is something really hard to do, so I don’t think you should keep writing this stuff; you should just concentrate on what you were doing before.” It was the best advice anyone had ever given me, and I’m so thankful for her because I think about it all the time.
What advice do you have for aspiring children’s writers?
I think that it’s really important to block out all the stuff that you hear about the overnight successes. It’s very stylish right now to say, “Oh, I sent out 26 manuscripts and I only got back three rejection letters.” It’s really important not to give up because I got so many rejection letters. One every day in the mail for four years, and that’s over 1,000 ...
I think we hear so much about somebody who sends their story off and the next day there’s a bidding war and they get however many million dollars. I really don’t think that happens as much as [people think]. If you really love what you do, you should just be doing it because it’s what you love and not because you’re waiting to get this big check in the mail. ... So I guess the biggest thing I’d say is, don’t give it up just because people are saying you suck. ... [That’s] the reason I’m here where I am today. Because I love it and I just kept on doing it and I didn’t care what anyone said.
THE MEG CABOT FILE
- Meg Cabot was born in Bloomington, Ind., in 1967 and is a graduate of
Indiana University Bloomington, where she studied studio arts.
- It took her three years of sending out query letters every day to land
an agent, and a year to find a publisher. Her first novel, a historical
romance called Where Roses Grow, was published in 1998.
- Cabot has written books under several other names, too: Meggin Cabot, Patricia Cabot and Jenny Carroll.
- Her husband, Benjamin D. Egnatz, is a poet and financial marketer. The
couple divides their time between Key West, Fla., Indiana and New York
A Toronto-based freelance writer, Melanie Florence has two books for teens being released this year, Thunder Heart: The Jordin Tootoo Story and Canada Apologizes: Native Residential Schools. Web: www.melanieflorence.com.|
(This article appeared in the April 2010 issue of The Writer.)