Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became an author.
People come to writing a book for many different reasons. Some have had a lifelong dream of sharing their stories. For others it’s their attempt to change the world. But for me, it was because I wanted a cappuccino.
Having struggled in school with reading when I was young, I had never dreamed of writing my own book. But as a third-grade teacher, I began writing stories for my students as part of teaching revision and grew to love it. I had written much for the kids but had not written anything for myself until I saw a sign at our local Barnes & Noble advertising a writers’ group. I remember thinking that a night out and a cappuccino would be nice.
And so it began. I showed up for that first meeting and began scheduling my other plans around their calendar. It turns out that writing filled a void I didn’t know was there.
With that Barnes & Noble group, I wrote a novel that I know will never be published but I learned a ton while writing and revising it. The assistant manager, a fellow member of the group, suggested that I write something for their newsletter so I did. It was a poem about a girl named Paige Turner who goes on a literary shopping spree. At the time, I joked that this meant I’d been published. I don’t know that I really believed I had the talent to land an actual contract. Then again, I’ve always been a big dreamer.
And then a girl named Carley Connors literally spoke to me. In the months that followed, I wrote a good deal of One for the Murphys—Carley’s story and my first published novel—in that Barnes & Noble Café. At a small table right next to the window.
Most mornings the book sellers found me waiting outside when they unlocked the doors. I didn’t have to order my coffee at the counter, as the baristas would begin making it is soon as came around the corner. When I received a contract from Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin the spectacular people of this Barnes & Noble threw me the best. Launch. Party. Ever.
So, what is your writing process like? How do you actually write something as long as a novel?
As a writer, I struggled in the beginning because I thought that writing was done the right way or the wrong way. I figured the right way was to write things in sequential order and the wrong way was the way I do it.
Thing was, characters dropped into me. I’d imagine things that would happen to them almost as if coming back to me as a memory. So, I started taking notes. Soon, those notes became scenes. The writing wasn’t great but it was better than it had been. So, I decided to try and go with this lack of form.
I wrote an entire novel that way. It’s a novel that will never be published but it taught me character development, plotting, pacing and–most importantly–to trust myself. To stop emulating my outline-loving friends and to embrace my own process even though it felt like that first white-knuckle hill on a roller coaster. Soon, I realized that at the end of a “writing ride” I was happy and wanted to ride again, so…
When I write a book I write the first two chapters and then I write the last chapter. All the middle chapters are written out of order. I don’t plan it that way—it comes to me that way. While I’m in the kitchen making coffee I have no idea what will leak out of my fingers that day.
I begin by reading some of what I’ve written the previous day and then begin writing—I just jump in even if it’s not coming easily. (I often cut the beginnings of scenes as those words were the map that helped me get to the important stuff.) When I’m finished with the chapter I give it a title and write it on a 3 x 5 card. Then I add three bullet points of important things that happen. Finally, I slap it on a giant magnetic whiteboard in my office.
So, by the time I finished the first draft of Murphys what I had was 50 chapters about a girl named Carley Connors who lands in foster care. Then I had the task of laying them all out on the floor in such an order as to make a novel. Was this hard for me? Very.
I use those cards to organize the book. In the upper left-hand corner of each card I use colored circles to represent each character. When all the chapters are laid out it tells me if I have left a character for too long. For example in the first draft of One for the Murphys I had 11 cards in a row without a green circle which stood for Daniel, an important character. So, I switched the cards around :-)
I also put the setting in the bottom right-hand corner and if I have too many similar chapters I consolidate them. For example in writing the Murphy’s I had four conversations between Carley and Toni take place in the bedroom. So I printed those four chapters out, highlighted the material I wanted to keep, and rewrote them to make two chapters.
When I have it all together in what I feel is novel-form, I put aside a day and read the entire thing out loud in one sitting. That really tells me the shape of it. Then I go back to those cards—still lined up on the floor and go through each card to think about questions, tension, repetition. I look at the length of the chapters, too.
Finally, I make cards of “scenes to write”—holes that need to be filled in the story. I spread those out on my desk upside down and pick from the pile. Then I take a stab at writing the one chosen. This approach to writing is not as smooth. These scenes start our clunkier than most but I smooth them over eventually—the ones I keep, anyway.
So, the beginning really is from the guts and the card part is cerebral. It’s a strange system but it has worked for both One for the Murphys and Fish in a Tree (Feb, 2015).
What are some special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle grade fiction?
I think one of the special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle grade are authenticity. At least for me. It takes courage to be honest but middle grade readers respond very well to it – in fact readers of all ages do.
So, as the writer we have to crawl into our own basement sometimes in order to get it on the page. Both of the books that I have written make me feel very vulnerable in this regard. They’re honest. And they are me. The vulnerability was difficult at first but now I see it as a gift and I’m grateful to be able to share those aspects of myself with readers.