The Art of Breaking Things: Q & A with Laura Sibson

The Art of Breaking Things (Viking Books for Young Readers, June 2019) by debut author Laura Sibson tells the story of 17-year-old Skye, an artist set to leave her small town and attend art school once she figures out how to survive senior year and confront the trauma she experienced several years earlier. Here’s a brief description of the novel from Sibson’s website:

Weekends are for partying with friends while trying to survive the mindnumbingness that is high school. The countdown to graduation is on, and Skye has her sights set on escaping to art school and not looking back. 

But her party-first-ask-questions-later lifestyle starts to crumble when her mom rekindles her romance with the man who betrayed Skye’s trust and boundaries when he was supposed to be protecting her. She was too young to understand what was happening at the time, but now she doesn’t know whether to run as far away from him as possible or give up her dreams to save her little sister. The only problem is that no one knows what he did to her. How can she reveal the secret she’s guarded for so long?

With the help of her best friend and the only boy she’s ever trusted, Skye might just find the courage she needs to let her art speak for her when she’s out of words. After years of hiding her past, she must become her own best ally.

I finished the novel in a day and found it to be immersive and compelling, With so much beautiful writing, believable characters, great dialogue, and seamless transitions from present to past, Sibson handles the issues of sexual assault, drug use and abuse, and consent with tremendous care. Not shying away from creating uncomfortable situations for her characters, Sibson allows protagonist Skye (and other characters such as her best friend and love interest Ben) to experience life as well as the consequences of their actions without being preachy or judgmental. I especially loved the way Skye uses her art and creative vision of the world to confront her past, deal with her present, and prepare for the future. I have no doubt that this novel will give teens and their parents a wonderful starting point to have conversations about consent, substance use and abuse and so much more.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Sibson during the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here are highlights from our email interview about her writing life:

EZ: What first sparked your interest in writing for children?

LS: In my junior year of high school, we wrote short stories. Working on a story about a good girl who shoplifts was the first moment that I remember realizing that I could craft stories myself. I’d been a certified bookworm since I was a young child, but it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe I could write. Fast forward to 2008 and I’d been working on a story that my critique partner observed had flashbacks upon flashbacks. I read Twilight (because let’s be honest, who didn’t read Twilight in 2008?) and it hit me like one of those lightbulbs over the head of a cartoon character: I could make my main character a teen?! Ever since then, I’ve never looked back. I love writing for teens and exploring that particular adolescent tension of beginning to understand yourself as separate from your family, but not yet possessing the real power of an adult in the world.

EZ: How did going to VCFA for your MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults impact your writing and change your life?

LS: I love this question because I do feel that VCFA changed my life. I remember reaching out to Lauren Myracle when I was thinking of applying and she said that the degree from VCFA wouldn’t necessarily get me a book deal, but it would help me become a better writer more quickly than if I tried to improve on my own. And though I secretly hoped to get an agent and a book deal as a result of the experience, what actually happened was so much more important. I met people who I could identify with and who were supportive and passionate about writing for children. In that environment, I learned how to write better fiction. But what helped my writing even more was learning how to revise. When I arrived at VCFA, I thought that the need for revision was an indication of my lack of ability. It took Amanda Jenkins in my 3rd semester to open my eyes not only to the essential need for revision for every writing project, but for the opportunity that revision offers to make the story even better. Now, even though revision is hard, I look forward to digging in and making the writing more specific, more focused, and better paced.

EZ: How did your experience as a career counselor for undergraduates inform or inspire your work as a full-time writer?

LS: Oh, another great question! I’m not sure that my career counseling work directly influenced the subject of my writing, but coaching college-aged people to identify their strengths and interests and pursue their dreams forced me to stop and wonder if I was doing what I was telling them to do. Also, colleges and universities are places of possibility and curiosity, you know? So working in higher education was inspiring and energizing.

EZ: On your blog, you say you’re on “A journey toward writing dangerously”—please explain.

LS: I’m so glad you asked about this because I was just thinking about it the other day. So, back in 2010, before I started at VCFA, I attended the annual SCBWI meeting in New York. Libba Bray was the keynote speaker. (Sidenote: while searching for a transcript of her speech I saw that she was also keynote in 2018 and you heard her speak! Isn’t she amazing?!) Anyway, I’d been a fan of Libba’s since shortly after I’d discovered young adult books. Her talk focused on writing as an extreme sport and at the end of the talk she invited the audience to join her in a year of writing dangerously. I’d felt at that time that maybe I was playing things a bit safe in my writing. I wondered: if I really let go and took risks, would I be able to achieve the depth of fiction that I hoped to achieve? And the good news is that in my forthcoming novel, I believe that I did achieve that. (But sheesh, it took a heck of a lot longer than a year!)

EZ: Would you say you fit writing into your life or do you fit your life into writing? And how do you organize your writing life/days?

LS: Well, when I worked part-time in higher education and my boys were in grade school, I definitely fit writing into my life. I would get up early to write before work. I’d write on the two days that I didn’t go into the office while my kids were in school. And I’d write while my boys were at swim practice, baseball practice, all sort of practice! But now, I’m an empty nester and I decided not to return to my counseling work. My writing is my priority. But I’ll be honest, it was very hard for me to make it a priority before I had an agent and a book deal. Until then, it was all too easy for me to let my writing time get eaten up by volunteer commitments, house stuff, catching up with friends and family or other aspects of being an adult in the world. My routine now is that I try not to schedule anything between 10-3 each day. And at least one day a week, I host writers in my home or meet up with writers somewhere else. Writing alongside other writers helps hold me accountable.

EZ: What are some must-haves that you need to write?

LS: I really like to have a hot cup of coffee when I sit down to write. For reasons I cannot explain, earbuds help me focus. So, when I’m drafting a new project, I’ll get my coffee, put my earbuds in (even if there’s great music playing at the coffee shop) and sink into the writing. I’ve found that it can also help me to set a timer. (A tip I learned from Sarah Aronson.) I can get a lot of scenes written in back-to-back 25-minute increments! But when I’m revising, all I need is time, my laptop and a big space lay out the plot points and emotional beats of my novel.

EZ: What was your journey from writing to becoming a published author?

LS: My road to publishing took forever and then happened really fast. I’d written a complete manuscript before applying for VCFA. I queried about 8 agents and editors (as opposed to the recommended 50) before giving up. While I don’t recommend that writers give up after querying a handful of agents, I don’t regret my path because it led me to VCFA. In my last semester there, I wrote a bare bones draft of a new novel and after adding flesh to the bones and revising, I tried querying again. This time I made it to about 24 agents and editors before giving up. The lesson I still needed to learn at this point was that agents and editors are subjective. I understood that intellectually, but didn’t really get it on a gut level, if that makes sense. I started a new story – a paranormal that was a lot of fun to write – and on the side began writing something only for me. When I read a little bit of the “me” project to trusted writer friend Cordelia Jensen, she encouraged me to keep at it. That project eventually became The Art of Breaking Things, which I started querying in March 2016. I stopped querying in November 2016 to revise and regroup. I’d received a lot of full requests, but no offers of representation. I started a new middle grade novel (that’s what I was working on when I met you at the Whole Novel Retreat at VCFA). At the end of August 2017, another trusted writer friend, Laurie Morrison, encouraged me to give one more go to querying The Art of Breaking Things. I queried three agents. Two requested fulls immediately and in early September, Brianne Johnson of Writers House offered me representation. People talk about their dream agents. Bri is the agent that I didn’t even have the nerve to dream about. She’s an incredible advocate of my work and excellent at her job. Bri sold my book by early December 2017 and the book will be in readers hands in about two short months!

EZ: Best writing advice you’ve ever received and/or given?

LS: One piece of advice that has stayed with me and which I consider when I’m asked to critique others’ work and when I receive feedback from readers is something that Neil Gaiman said: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” What I like about this quote is the reminder that readers are invaluable in helping us understand how our writing is landing, but that we are the best source of solutions for issues that come up. Of course, it’s helpful to brainstorm with trusted people and consider different angles for your story. But when it’s time to dive in deep with revision, it’s you, the writer, who needs to figure out the best way to implement changes to your novel.

EZ: What’s the best thing about becoming a published author (with a two-book deal, I might add)?

LS: As you know, writing is a mostly solitary endeavor. Even while working alongside fellow writers, you spend most of your time in your head with your characters I’m thrilled that my book was chosen by a dedicated team at Viking who believe that this story will connect with teens. I don’t take that for granted. With this book, I most look forward to readers experiencing hope when they read Skye’s story. And I’m grateful that Viking wants another book from me. As soon as I’m able, I’ll share what that will be.

EZ: What do you do to de-stress or get inspired when confronting the rigors of deadlines and the business of writing?

LS: Hmmm, that’s a big question. To get ready for writing, I like to either work out or take a walk in the morning. I find that I’m better able to sit still and focus after some physical movement. To de-stress after a big writing day, I’ll take the dog for a walk in the woods or zone out to an amusing TV show for a little while. If I need to process what’s going on in the writing or deal with the stress related to business things over which I have no control – I connect with my close writing friends who have been through the process before me. As for deadlines, I love them! I’m more likely to be stressed by a general “whenever” than by a specific deadline, even a tight one.

Read the Kirkus review of Sibson’s novel here.

If you’d like a chance to win a copy of The Art of Breaking Things through May 17th), visit Goodreads. The Art of Breaking Things can also be pre-ordered from IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Nobel and BAM.

Sibson is also doing a giveaway of books by authors who blurbed The Art of Breaking Things on Twitter. Learn more about her and her work on her website and on Instagram and Facebook.

Disclosure: At my request, I received an early copy of The Art of Breaking Things from the publisher.