The Radical Moderate

There was a time when I considered myself a radical. It was late high school, early college. An incurable disease was destroying a generation of gay men, and ACT UP had just formed in New York. I was young, but I felt the anger, too, right in the pit of my stomach.


They don’t care about you! They don’t give a crap if you live, or die! These were my typical thoughts as I walked to the subway each morning to go to school, back in 1988.

I wanted to scream from the rooftops, and sometimes I did. There were times when I would go into the theater in high school, stand up on the stage, and scream my lungs out, I was so angry at what I saw going on around me.

The injustice simmered in me. And I felt it was up to me to change the world.

So I attended ACT UP meetings, and a few times I went out with groups of older men and women and glued signs to walls decrying the government’s indifference to the epidemic, and I was openly gay when it wasn’t cool to be out, and I wore a Silence Equals Death pin to school some days, and I wrote a play with a couple friends called It Seems So Innocent, in which we decried racism and sexism and homophobia.

And today, I find myself living in Chandler, Arizona, which is mostly Republican. Last week I went to Red State Kansas, no gay mecca, and spoke about my journey and my books, which feature LGBTQ teen characters. This week I head to Wisconsin and do the same thing.

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Let Me Help You Write a Novel!

Do you have a Young Adult novel that you’re dying to write?

I can help you with that!

So can instructors Tom Leveen, Barry Lyga, Amy Nichols, and Beth Staples.

So can mentors Elana K. Arnold, Jim Blasingame, Martha Brockenbrough, Sharon Flake, Karen Harrington, Varian Johnson, Tom Leveen, Kimberley Griffiths Little, Barry Lyga, Lish McBride, Amy Nichols, and Jean Rabe.

I’m talking about Your Novel Year, the online certificate program for those wishing to write a young adult novel at The Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. In case you were wondering how you can work one-on-one with me (or any of these other authors), this is your answer. I coordinate the program, created much of the curriculum, and teach several of the classes.

Check out this great article in the Phoenix New Times about us. It talks about us as one of the best-kept-secret resources out there for aspiring writers, and while I know I’m biased, I must agree! How else can you work with award-winning, best-selling authors? Your options, if you wish to learn more about craft and get hands-on help, seem to be a handful of MFA programs that focus on YA lit, and us. Nothing against those programs, which sound awesome. This is just an alternative if you want to study for a year instead of two or three.

If you’re interested, get moving! Applications are due in less than a month (Oct. 31). We are a competitive program, taking the students we feel:

  1. Show the most promise based on a writing sample of 20-25 pages.
  2. Seem the most teachable based on a personal essay.

Feel free to email me at if you want to talk more about the program or if you have any questions. If you’re serious about learning, I promise you this will be a life-changing experience!

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Me and the FacePlace – A divorce?


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It was two years ago at my 25th high school reunion. A woman who was never exactly a friend came up to me and said, “Oh my God, Billy, I see you on Facebook and you’re doing so well in life! That’s amazing, because, back then, well… ” She then paused and rolled her eyes in a way that connoted, ‘you were a big-time mess.’

I got a big laugh out of that, because it seemed like the kind of thing you don’t say to someone at a 25th high school reunion, true or not. And truthfully I don’t live outside my own experience, so I don’t know if it was warranted. I was, let’s say, “dramatic” in high school. Lots of crises, rampant highs and lows, and always this annoying need to share my feelings with the world. Call it a tragic flaw, or maybe call it the reason I am a successful writer. I don’t know.

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Serenity NOW!

I started to watch “Happyish” on Netflix. The script was very good. But what became evident to me by episode 3 was the worldview… so ugly. The world sucks. People are awful.

HAPPYISHI had to stop watching, because I don’t want to feel hopeless, and right now things in our society feel a little, well, wretched.

It’s not hard for me to go there. I have negativity in me, too, even though I try to accentuate the positive. But this new world order of 24 hour news coverage and social media seems to push us toward snark and cynicism, not to mention simple, garden-variety hatred. Shit. Go to Twitter. People are often quite dreadful. Social media has given awful people a gassed-up vehicle for their terribleness.

And it feels like Hollywood has jumped on board. We all can name 5 popular shows about awful people. It’s really hard right now to find stuff to watch that isn’t gleeful about its sour worldview. Difficult People is very funny, and you can kind of see its tongue firmly in cheek, but man. Try watching an episode or two of that and then see how optimistic you feel about our society.

I’m writing this after a week of more terrorist attacks worldwide than I can count. A couple weeks after a devastating show of police brutality against two black males, followed by a heartbreaking massacre of police officers in Dallas. And now Baton Rouge.

Believe me, I’m lost in it. I can tell that many of us feel lost in it, unable to breathe.

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Text of My Stonewall Book Award Speech

People have been asking for the text of my Stonewall Book Award speech at the American Library Association Conference in Orlando, Florida, earlier today.

Here you go!

Thank you so much. Thank you to those on the Stonewall Award committee. I was blown away to learn about this honor, especially in a year with so many stellar young adult books that depict diverse aspects of the LGBTQ experience. I am honored simply to have my work considered on the same level as some of these incredible novels.

Thank you to my family at Scholastic, whom I happen to love, dearly. Cheryl Klein, my editor, will forever be the person in my life who saved me. Seriously. Before my second novel, Openly Straight, found a home, I thought it was quite possible I’d never be published again. This possibility terrified me, because I had so much more to say. Cheryl gave me a chance, despite not-so-stellar sales numbers for my first book, Out of the Pocket. And I will forever be grateful for that opportunity, and also for her brilliance as an editor.

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The Porcupine of Truth e-book on sale!

So let’s say… you’re one of those people who LOVED Openly Straight, but for some odd reason you haven’t picked up The Porcupine of Truth yet.Stonewall award winnerFirst off, why? What the heck? What could you possess you to do such a silly thing?

But most importantly, today you can remedy that.

In honor of Gay Pride Month, The Porcupine of Truth is on sale for $2.99. Go buy it!


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The Scoliosis Couch and Microwaved Peeps

I wrote a sentence this morning that made me smile:

“We draped ourselves across the Scoliosis couch and devoured microwaved Peeps.”

It made me smile because it reminded me of something I have been thinking about recently, and I thought it would make a good online writing lesson.

The subject: specificity.

I want to take you through the formation of the above sentence. I’ve been seeing a lot of sentences these last three months as the writer-in-residence for the Mesa Library, and that has really helped me to solidify my own craft.

In this case, I’m writing a scene between two teenage friends. They are a little “alt,” perhaps. They share a certain irreverent sense of humor. I want to place that scene in a setting, and in my mind, I go through the possibilities. I’ve placed them in a coffee shop before. Also a living room. They are eating and talking, so it’s probably an inside location, especially since it is December in Colorado.

A basic first-draft sentence might be, “We sat on the couch and talked.”

Fine. That’s a start. But we’ve read that sentence before, haven’t we? On a scale of 1 to 10, how interesting is that as a scene starter? Maybe a 1 or 2?

So how do I fix it? Two things.

One is to give them an activity.

Two is to make the setting stand out.

Brilliant author Randall Kenan was one of my teachers in college back in the 1990s. His first exercise I still remember, more than 20 years later. In it, he asked us to go to the grocery store and write down as many brand names as we could find. Then, when we brought those to class, he gave us the assignment: write a story in which the only nouns you can use are the brand names you found.

That was a really fun assignment. I remember writing about a Sheik, a Swiss Miss, and her Tastykakes. After we had fun reading some of the stories aloud in class, Kenan gave us the lesson: there are so many nouns out there. Unchain yourselves! Use them!

What a great lesson. And so important! Good writing, I am more and more certain, is about great nouns. Verbs are fine, and there’s nothing wrong with finding the perfect, rarely used active verb. But it’s nouns that carry the weight of the story.

And it’s nouns that we turn to when we need to find interesting actions and make our settings stand out.

scoliosis couch


When I thought of the Scoliosis couch, I pictured an elbow-shaped couch that is too short for a person above, say, 5-foot-10 to lie down on without having to twist their body. I pictured it in a furnished basement where a teen has created a hang-out space. Clearly he and his friend have a lot of shared experience, humor and language, because they’ve christened it the Scoliosis couch. Perfect. A good image, an interesting place for a scene where I haven’t been before. And the specific sensual data–the curved couch–makes the setting feel real.

So now we have, “We sat on the Scoliosis couch and talked.”

Better. A specific place that we can unpack that will tell us a bit about our characters. And people do talk. The problem is that we don’t want our characters to sit there and just talk. I may, once in a novel during an important conversation, allow characters to “just talk.” But typically I want the conversation to occur over action. What can people do while talking? Play video games? Sure, but that’s not that that interesting. In my books, I’ve had characters talk while playing checkers using sugar packets in a diner, while playing laser tag, and while having an apple war in an apple orchard.

Do you see what I’m trying to say here? Give the reader something memorable. My teacher Ron Carlson used to say, “Put something in your book.” I took that as was a clever way of saying, “fill the pages with interesting actions, words, inventory.”

Eating is an easy one, and yes, my characters eat. But if I can help it, I’d like to have them eat interesting things. Especially if what they eat will evoke character.


So I thought of microwaved Peeps, as one does. I came up with this concept about a decade ago, and my husband can vouch that he has seen me microwave many a Peep in my day. Not anymore, by the way. I am eating healthier these days. In fact, you can take it a step further and have characters talk while watching a Peeps joust. That’s where you stand thee Peeps up and put toothpicks in them so it’s like they’re holding swords out at each other. The first to burst loses.

So yes. Now we have a vivid first sentence. We can see the couch. Our interest as readers is perked up by the odd food choice. And we know something about these characters that would otherwise need to be told–that they are, well, quirky. As my characters often are.

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