The Craft of Kid Lit: 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
Every Shiny Thing, Up For Air, Saint Ivy, and Coming Up Short
1. What initially inspired you to write for kids, and what motivates you to continue to write for that audience?
My former middle school students were my first inspiration. There was something about teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th graders that brought me back to my own adolescence and unlocked my creativity. And my former students continue to inspire me, even though I’m no longer teaching, because I’m passionate about writing books for 6th-8th grade readers who sometimes feel a little too old for middle grade and a little too young for young adult. Upper middle grade readers are such a fun audience because they’re thoughtful, passionate, and ready to engage with big ideas.
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?
So, I’m not a writer who has lots of ideas—I usually only have one viable idea at a time, and sometimes it takes me a long time to figure out what an idea really is. But ideas can come when I’m puzzling over a complicated emotion or by noticing other media I’m drawn to. Sometimes I’ll think, “I love this book or show so much that and maybe I want to write my own story with a similar premise or theme or tone.” I do a lot of brainstorming in a notebook once I think I’m onto something—playing around with backstory and possibilities and asking myself questions.
3. How much is your chosen idea for a story influenced by what is “marketable”?
Not much. My most popular book so far is Up for Air, which I felt sure wouldn’t be marketable and would never sell. So now I realize I can’t predict what is or isn’t marketable, and I focus on what’s exciting to me and what I have something unique and meaningful to say about.
4. How detailed does your outline get? Do you leave space for changes, or are plot points written in stone?
In general, I create pretty detailed outlines, but I can’t outline too early. After the initial brainstorming, I try to figure out a few main plot points—the inciting incident, the midpoint, and the climax—and then I start drafting. After I’ve written somewhere between 20 and 50 pages, I’m usually ready to write out a detailed synopsis that includes most of the main beats in the story. But that outline is flexible, and it often changes as I go!
5. What’s your personal technique for connecting to the younger person inside you and writing from that place?
This is such a great question. The truth is, a lot of the feelings and challenges I had in middle school are ones I still deal with now. I’m often writing about characters who don’t know where they fit, or who feel left out or like they’ve let someone else down—and those are feelings I can relate to just as much now as I could when I was thirteen. So I try to pin down what my character believes and wants most, and I make sure those beliefs and desires ring true for the character’s age, but I also draw upon my current emotions and experiences. Any time I need to connect more deeply to my character and my younger self, I close my eyes and ground myself within the character’s body at a certain moment in the story, opening myself up to what the character would be looking at, focusing on, and physically doing and feeling. Something about that process gets me into the mindset I need.
6. What are three or four books you would tell any writer to read who wanted to write upper MG? Why?
There are so many, but I’ll say Paula Chase’s So Done, Debbi Michiko Florence’s Keep it Together, Keiko Carter, and Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You, because those books showcase all the exciting things authors are exploring in upper MG—complicated friendship and family dynamics, some romance, tough topics handled in an honest and age-appropriate way, with plenty of hope and humor. And your book The Prettiest is another of my favorites, for all those reasons!
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 occasionally share bits of works in progress with kids when I do virtual visits, but I mostly rely on my critique partners. I have writer friends read very early pages if I’m stuck, and then I always want their feedback once I have 50-60 pages and an outline, and then sometimes again at different points in the revision process when I need fresh eyes. I’ve also had some expert readers who are former students—for instance one of my former students who’s a great softball player read my next book Coming Up Short to weigh in on all the softball content.
8. Do you start with character or plot, or do you see them as indistinguishable? Why?
I see character as inseparable from story—though not necessarily from the actual plot. I usually start with the character and at least a piece of the situation the character will be dealing with or theme the story will explore.
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?
One challenge is that upper MG isn’t officially its own age category. I wish there were an easier and more consistent way to help readers and gatekeepers identify these books, because sometimes they’re hard to find, and I wish there were clearer consensus on what upper MG is, because it gets confusing!
10. What are you working on now? If you’re at a point where you feel comfortable sharing the information, what inspired the project?
My next upper middle grade novel, Coming Up Short, comes out on June 21, 2022 and was inspired by my experience with performance anxiety as a young athlete as well as some complicated beliefs about responsibility and control that I struggled to make sense of as a kid. And I’m working on a new upper MG about rival academic overachievers and distance running, which was inspired by my love of rom coms, my past experience running marathons (in what feels like another lifetime!), and some big thoughts I’ve been having about external validation and the drive for “success.”
You can find more on Laurie and her work here: