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I just finished reading the 2007 blockbuster YA novel, 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, which was recently aired as a Netflix series (which I didn’t see.) Here are 13 lessons for writers from this massively successful book. I will indicate spoiler alerts for individual entries:
 

  1. A great title matters. In the back of my copy of the book, the author indicates that he sold the book with the working title Baker’s Dozen: The Autobiography of Hannah Baker. I don’t know about you, but I would not have been drawn to that original title but I love 13 Reasons Why. It draws you in – why what? why 13?
  2. Word of mouth matters. So many people -- adults and kids alike – have been talking about this book and the more chatter I heard, the more I felt left out of a cultural moment. I never read a single review, which just goes to show how much word of mouth matters in the selling of books.
  3. Readers read for the why. I say this all the time and this book is perfect proof: You know from second one that the main character has already killed herself. You don’t read to find out if she lives, or how she died. You read to find out why. In any book, in any genre, it’s all about the why.
  4. Show don’t tell. There were so many moments in this book when the author deftly handled a small moment – a boy lying to his mom, a boy confessing the truth to his friend – and instead of explaining it or telling us, the author just let the moment unfold. He let us be inside it, knowing what was happening and watching it play out. It’s a small skill, but mastering it has massive payoff.
  5. Make your story universal. A lot of the chatter I heard about this book was from moms of young teenage girls. The girls were voraciously reading the book and passing it from friend to friend and the moms were scrambling to answer questions about bullying and suicide and rape and drinking – critically important conversations for parents of teens to have.  My kids are adults so I was not in that mix in an emotional way, but I could feel the emotion surrounding this story. It hit a nerve and brought to light the fact that so many kids are dealing with these intense issues in their everyday lives. It was, in other words, a universal story. It was bigger than one girl’s narrative – the goal of any story.
  6. Don’t back down from what you believe to be true. The topic of this book is very tough for a number of reasons, but I admire what author Jay Asher says about it. In an interview in TeenVogue, he talks about the most difficult scenes for him to write: “The other hard parts were dealing with some of the sexual issues. I knew that if my book was going to be challenged, or if somebody was going to try to ban it, it was going to be based on those chapters. But I felt they were very important to telling Hannah’s story, so when I was writing it, the hard part was making sure I wrote it honestly and didn't back away out of fear of potential conflicts. Thankfully, my publisher also felt it needed to be that way. There are things that aren't supposed to be comfortable to read because those situations shouldn't be comfortable to discuss, but they still need to be discussed.”
  7. Sometimes your beliefs will cause other people distress. (Spoiler alert.) This book and the TV series have been very controversial. School administrator, guidance counselors, psychologists, and teachers were all dealing with the issues it brought into their communities, and many professionals were upset about the way the story glorified suicide, depicted rape, and especially the way an adult in the story who was charged with helping kids didn’t help the main character when she needed it most.  I heard from parents at two local schools where administrators issued statements to their school communities about resources they have in place to help members of their community, and this article indicates that this was happening at schools throughout the country. Netflix worked to address the controversial nature of the story when they brought it to the screen. According to EW.com, ”Netflix has added multiple trigger warnings to the show, which already features an after-show special, Beyond the Reasons, where cast and creators and medical professionals talk about issues the series presents.” The truth is that it’s hard to write honestly about anything without upsetting someone. That’s one of the reasons I think writers are so brave.
  8. Choose a structure to enhance your story. (Spoiler alert here.) The narrative structure of this book is very unusual – a back-and-forth dialogue between the tapes Hannah recorded before she died, and the boy who liked her but who was afraid to let her know. It’s unusual because the boy comments on Hannah’s story line by line in some cases, with no dialogue tags. It took a little getting used to, but then it made perfect sense. It made me feel like I was inside that boy’s head.
  9. You have permission to write the story you want to write. Jay Ashes is a man who wrote from the POV of a teenage boy, which he was, once upon a time. He also wrote from the POV of a teenage girl, which he never was. So many writers shy away from the story they are drawn to write because they don’t feel they are allowed to appropriate an experience they never had, but imagination and empathy are powerful tools, and you have the right to employ them.
  10. Know who knows what when. (Spoiler alert here.) As the author, you have to hold in your head what your characters know and don’t know as they move through the story. Oftentimes, the story turns on a knowledge gap -- Romeo and Juliet is a story 100% dependent on who knows what when. The most tension-filled moments in 13 Reasons Why, for me, were the ones where Clay, the main character, encountered other kids who may or not have also been on the tape before or after him. Being seen, and known, as a figure on the tapes was a major undercurrent of his narrative and one of the reasons the book was hard to put down.
  11. Know your world. This story involved a map of a town, and by the end of the book, I felt as if I had visited there. I could see the box office at the theater, the rocket ship at the park.  It doesn’t matter if your story is set in a regular suburban American town, or outer space, you have to depict your world I such a way that it feels real to the reader. To do this, you don’t have to share a map or coordinates on it – but you have to visualize it in your own head, so that you know exactly how far things are away from each other, and how people get around, and what happens if, say, you get stuck without a ride after a party.
  12. Story resolutions don’t have to be neat. (Total spoiler alert here.) The ending of this book was bittersweet to be sure. Nothing was tied up in a neat bow. I kept expecting that, for some reason, and coming up with scenarios where the author could make it all okay – but of course, it was never going to be okay, and that was the point.
  13. Fiction is powerful. I found myself wondering if a nonfiction book about suicide would have sparked the same passion across American teenagers. Sometimes non-fiction books can absolutely do that—I am thinking of Queen Bees and WannaBees, which ignited the same market a dozen years ago – but while reading this story, I was reminded how powerful fiction can be.

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