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 forthcoming middle grade novel FLIP TURNS
1. What initially inspired you to write for kids, and what motivates you to continue to write for that audience?
Middle school was miserable for me! I’ve long wanted to find a way to support middle schoolers in that time of growth and change and potential misery. For a short time, I worked as a middle school counselor, but I left that work after having my second child and haven’t been able to get back to it. Writing for middle schoolers is the perfect way to combine my interest in books with my interest in making life a tiny bit easier for middle school kids.
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?
Usually the idea comes suddenly, then I follow it to see if I can find a story there. For Flip Turns, I have a memory of a chlorine leak at my childhood swim practice. I thought, “what if it wasn’t an accident?” Then followed all the possibilities of non-accidental pool vandalism and came up with a fun mystery.
Once an idea comes to me, I try to figure out the quarter-point plot beats, and if I can do that, I know I can make it a book.
3. How much is your chosen idea for a story influenced by what is "marketable"
Now that I have an agent, I run ideas past her before writing them. If she doesn’t like it or doesn’t think it’s marketable, then it’s not worth it to me to put in the work. There will always be another idea. But I also think both my agent and I are willing to take a chance if the story is really great or takes on a topic in a fresh way. So, I guess the answer is: a lot, but with some flexibility.
4. How detailed does your outline get? Do you leave space for changes, or are plot points written in stone?
My outlines have become more detailed with each book! I used to just have 5 points – inciting incident, accept the quest, midpoint, all is lost, and conclusion. Now I outline based on 20 plot beats for MG, 40 for adult, though my outlines are still structured around those quarter-point beats. I had a very detailed outline for my most recent WIP and I was so happy I did. It made the drafting easy and fun.
5. What's your personal technique for connecting to the younger person inside you and writing from that place?
I have the great advantage of having MG-aged children. My oldest is 15 and helped with my first couple of MG books, and my youngest is 12 and helps a lot with current ones. Sometimes I picture her in a situation, sometimes I go back and picture myself at that age. Also, my mom still has all my school pictures, so sometimes I’ll take a look at my bad skin, braces, and 80s hair and remember exactly what it was like!
I also try to involve myself at the middle school as much as I can (again, advantage of having a middle schooler currently). I drive the carpool and listen to the kids talk. I volunteer with the PTO and listen to the teachers and principal talk about the issues. I volunteer at the book fair, and I loved chaperoning dances. It’s really helpful to see what kids wear, what they talk about and how they talk, how they relate to each other. Without being creepy, of course.
6. What are three or four books you would tell any writer to read who wanted to write for MG? Why?
I generally think writers should read as many recent books as possible in their age group and genre! The books I like the most for MG right now are the ones that take on an important topic but do it in a way that is engaging and interesting for the reader, so the kids get so wrapped up in the mystery or adventure of the story, or the humor, or even the romance, that they don’t realize they’re learning. A book that does this really well is Ashley Herring Blake’s IVY ABERDEEN’S LETTER TO THE WORLD. It’s a book about a girl realizing her sexuality while dealing with a natural disaster in her town. It’s not just about one thing. Another book that has stuck with me that probably isn’t making lists is KEEP IT TOGETHER KEIKO CARTER by Debbi Michiko Florence. It’s a romance with family drama. Yep, MG romance, and it’s really fun to read but also great at talking about middle school friendships and relationship issues. I buy it for all the family friends whose kids are into romance on TV and movies. Plus, it’s just fun. And because I like writing mysteries, I would also recommend THE AMELIA SIX by Kristin L. Gray and PEPPER’S RULES FOR SECRET SLEUTHING by Briana McDonald—both intriguing MG mysteries that tackle some important issues while still being fun to read.
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?
The only kids who have read my books so far are my own! And they are harsh critics! I’m fortunate to also have CPs with kids in middle school, so while their kids don’t usually read my books, they help with ideas about middle schoolers.
8. Do you start with character or plot, or do you see them as indistinguishable? Why?
Plot. I want to make sure I have a story before I develop a character to go in it. Even when the initial idea is about a character’s traits or gifts, I make sure the plot is there before going forward with the character.
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?
Adults! Seriously. I find that so much of the kidlit that is published isn’t what kids want to read, but what parents and teachers want them to read. Then the editors cater to the adults because that’s who’s buying. A lot of books that adults think provide lovely life lessons, kids find depressing and boring. Some of those books are wonderful. But my kid wouldn’t know because she won’t read them.
10. What are you working on now? If you’re at a point where you feel comfortable sharing the information, what inspired the project?
I’m working on a few things. I’m wrapping up my next MG—a mystery inspired by my family’s interest in geocaching during the pandemic when we were looking for new, outside activities. I’m excited about it! I’m also revising an adult novel that I started when my last MG didn’t sell, and my now-debut was struggling on sub. I wasn’t sure there was a place for me in MG, so I wanted to try something else, and I’m enjoying it!