The Craft of KidLit: Author Interviews
In this series of posts, I aim to shed light on the creative process of KidLit by asking a wide variety of authors the same set of ten questions. Check this space to gain insight and perspective on the craft of writing for kids.
Author of the middle grade novels Margie Kelly Breaks the Dress Code, Pavi Sharma's Guide to Going Home, and the forthcoming YA novel The Truth About Everything
1. What initially inspired you to write for kids, and what motivates you to continue to write for that audience?
I didn’t actually start writing for kids. My first two unpublished novels were for adults, and I was in the process of writing another adult novel when I got the idea for my first middle grade novel, Pavi Sharma’s Guide to Going Home. For me, the opening scene of the novel came fully formed and the idea of this girl and her story made me decide to write for middle grade. I continue to write for this audience because it was my favorite age group to teach. Even though I am no longer in the classroom, I love the passion of kids this age and watching them struggle with the big issues of life as they learn to become adults.
2. Give us a peek into your brain before you've settled on a project. How do ideas come to you, and how do you begin once you’ve got a great one?
Coming up with ideas is such an interesting question because I’ve been in a dry spell recently after I rejected an idea and then worried I had run out of them. While I waited for inspiration, I spent time reading other things and getting ideas from other art forms, hoping an idea would come to me—and it did! From there, I tend to write the scenes that I can see or hear in my head even if they’re not in chronological order. I didn’t even realize people wrote chronologically until my book coach asked about it. It does make for more difficult revising because I often create situations I have to go back and fix, but for me, the momentum of writing what I’m excited about outweighs the later challenges.
3. How much is your chosen idea for a story influenced by what is "marketable"?
Honestly, now my stories are pretty heavily influenced by what is marketable, not in how I come up with an idea but in what I decide to pursue. At this stage in my career, I’m not interested in writing books that only my mom reads. It’s hard to have my agent tell me she doesn’t think an idea I’ve started won’t get published, so in those cases I hang onto the idea knowing that I can always come back to it in the future. Even when I think I have a great idea that is marketable, I recently learned the publication process might still not turn out the way I thought. Now, I find ideas I’m excited to write about and then after fleshing them out a little bit, check with my agent and decide whether it’s publishable before getting too deep into the novel.
4. How detailed does your outline get? Do you leave space for changes, or are plot points written in stone?
My outlines are constantly changing and very rarely are plot points written in stone. On my first three projects, I knew one key event near the climax and it never changed during drafting. With my current work in progress, I had the opening scene right away but I still haven’t figured out exactly where I want to go. It’s a strange feeling but I’m trying to relax into the new process.
5. What's your personal technique for connecting to the younger person inside you and writing from that place?
I actually don’t connect to my younger person when I’m writing, but use the voice and experience of the kids around me to help me see the world as my character. My childhood experience strays very far from that of current readers so it doesn’t feel like the right place to start. For one thing, I didn’t have a phone or internet growing up and that’s an integral piece of kids’ experience today. I do rely on my emotions at the time—the way friends made me feel or my own insecurities, the essentially human traits that aren’t impacted much by the passage of time.
6. What are three or four books you would tell any writer to read who wanted to write middle grade? Why?
Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me showed me that middle grade books could be complicated and lyrical and still accessible.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang has perfect voice, character development, and the specific details that make the writing affecting and relatable.
7. How do you involve outside readers in your process? Do you keep your work to yourself? Do you share it with any kids to get their take?
I’ve been working with a book coach through a company called WriteByNight for the past 10 years. I send pages weekly or bimonthly and then have a one hour coaching session where the coach provides written and oral feedback. I’ve found this to be the most productive way for me to get feedback on my books. Outside of my book coach and my agent, I sometimes have a friend read the final draft before we send it out publishers.
I shared my first novel with one of my students but haven’t done that since. It’s hard to get a kid’s perspective on the novel because they aren’t really giving feedback on craft and their taste varies so widely. For kid feedback to be effective, I would have to find a kid I thought liked the genre already. I also read early on in my search for an agent that they do not want to see “I had a kid reader” on my query, so I stopped focusing on that, though I LOVE reviews from kids on my published work.
8. Do you start with character or plot, or do you see them as indistinguishable? Why?
I generally start with a singular plot point and a vague sense of the character. Usually, the character has a clear voice but a lot of the details aren’t certain. That can be a problem when I go back to revise because I often forget about details I’ve previously written about the character and have to reincorporate them into the story.
9. What about writing KidLit frustrates you? To put it another way... What are some of the roadblocks you encounter that are specific to writing for kids?
The hardest part of writing KidLit is the fact that I need adults not to solve the problem, and in most situations in the real world, an adult should be the one taking control and fixing things. For example, in Pavi Sharma’s Guide to Going Home, I needed adults to make small but realistic mistakes so that it made sense that Pavi’s the one to save the day. It often takes a lot of thinking about how to make an adult who is caring and intelligent but misses something that allows the kid to stay the hero. I understand why so many authors kill off the parents in middle grade so that there’s fewer adults to work around!
I also find it a challenge to balance the adult perception of kids—especially for adults in publishing who might not spend that much time with children—with actual kids today. A friend read Pavi Sharma’s Guide to Going Home and said it didn’t sound like the kids’ books he grew up reading. It’s too mature. But that’s how kids sound, at least ones I work with, so it’s a balance I work hard to find.
10. What are you working on now? If you’re at a point where you feel comfortable sharing the information, what inspired the project?
Right now, I’m working on revisions for my upcoming novel, The Truth about Everything, set to be published in fall of 2022. I’m also drafting another YA novel about twin sisters and a future draft. This project is unique because I have clear ideas for the characters, the setting, and the inciting incident but I have no idea what the climax will be. Wish me luck that I figure it out!