Welcome back to my series on teaching analytical writing! Before I assign an analytical essay, I give students plenty of practice with the main building block of an analytical essay: the analytical body paragraph. I’ve tried a few different acronyms for the analytical paragraph format, such as PIE (point, illustration, explanation) or TEE + T (topic sentence, example, explanation plus transition). I now use TIQA (topic sentence, introduction of quote, quote, analysis of quote) and recommend it for students who are in seventh grade or older.
First, I remind students that analytical paragraphs show opinion, but without using first or second person, and that the convention is to use present tense to discuss the events of a literary work. Then I break down what each part of the acronym means (the starred elements are optional):
T: The topic sentence must lay out the main point for the whole paragraph. It is an umbrella sentence for the paragraph, meaning that everything in the paragraph fits underneath it.
I: The introduction of the quote establishes what has just happened before the quote, what is happening now, where the characters are, who’s involved in the conversation, etc.
Q: The quote must make sense on its own and be properly punctuated, with a signal phrase (such as “Mabel narrates”) or signal sentence (such as “Mabel explains what happens next”) before it and a page number in parentheses after it. The quote is the core of an analytical paragraph, not just an example that’s wedged into the writer’s thoughts. It should ideally be under four lines of text to avoid dealing with pesky block quote format.
A: The analysis of the quote should be the longest and most detailed part of the paragraph. In the analysis, the writer should focus on specific words and phrases from the quote and carefully explain how those words and phrases support the point from the topic sentence.
T*: The transition sentence offers a transition between the writer’s first and second quote.
I*: Introduction of quote 2
Q*: Quote 2
A*: Analysis of quote 2
With middle school students, I think it’s worth the time investment to do several practice analytical paragraphs before asking students to write a literary essay that includes multiple analytical paragraphs. I tend to follow the “I do, we do, you do” rule of teaching writing, so usually I will provide an example of a paragraph that I have written, then we will write one together as a class as I project it on the board, and then I will have students write their own. Lately I have also been doing some partnered paragraphs so that students can help each other grasp the concept.
I also provide scaffolding by providing options for topic sentences at first, because some students have a difficult time coming up with a statement that includes enough opinion and sets them up to analyze. Usually I don’t have students try TIQATIQA paragraphs with two quotes until they have mastered single TIQAs. Once they have started to practice writing these paragraphs, it’s a good idea to brainstorm lists of good verbs for analytical writing (such as show, convey, portray, depict, emphasize, hint, suggest, reveal, etc.).
It tends to take a lot of practice before students really grasp how to break down quotes into key parts and analyze them. We practice doing this in class discussions as well as in writing, and in my experience, this is a skill that most students are ready to work on in seventh grade, but in sixth grade I stick with a format like TEE + T (topic sentence, example, explanation plus transition) and don’t worry quite so much about introducing quotes with correct signal phrases or sentences or writing truly analytical explanations of quotes.
Here is a color-coded Example TIQA about the novel April Morning. Next time I’ll explain how I use “essay skeletons” to get students ready to write essays.
Ah, the analytical essay. Whether it’s five paragraphs or not, whether it’s called an essay or a paper or even a “theme,” it’s pretty much the default major assignment in high school and even college English classes. Because I teach middle school, and because I work at an independent school, I have quite a bit of flexibility in my writing curriculum. I can assign a lot of varied creative writing assignments, and I very happily do! But I also need to teach students how to write solid, carefully structured analytical essays about what they read. Both my seventh and eighth grade classes are working on essays now, so I’ve been thinking about how I teach students to do this kind of writing and what seems to work.
The thing is, this kind of writing isn’t intuitive, so students need a lot of explicit instruction and examples. They need to be told that they can’t use first or second person, and then they need to see examples of how to write a sentence that shows their opinion without using “I” but also without a whole lot of confusing passive voice. They need to be armed with helpful verbs for analytical writing (depict, convey, portray, imply, reveal, etc.). A cheat sheet of good transition words helps, too (first of all, in addition, therefore, however, etc.). They need to understand the structure of a solid essay, and they need a lot of scaffolding to grasp how to structure an analytical paragraph and how to deal with quotes from the text they are analyzing.
I don’t blame them. I can clearly remember a moment when I was in ninth grade and had been assigned to write an essay with at least three quotes in it. I had been taught how to structure an essay in general, but not what to do with the quotes. So I wrote the whole thing and then asked for my mom’s help to sandwich in some quotes somehow.
I had always read a lot, so I had soaked up all kinds of unspoken rules of writing by reading. But it’s not like I was reading other people’s five-paragraph essays, so I had no way to soak up the rules of using quotes. After that assignment, my ninth grade English teacher wrote an essay in front of us, in marker on a transparency sheet that she projected on the board. I saw how she handled the quotations, and after that I knew what to do. But that experience has stuck with me. Students need to see good, accessible examples of the kind of writing we want them to do, and many of them need more than just examples. However, I don’t want to simplify essay writing to a meaningless formula in which students are simply filling in sentences rather than developing their own ideas.
I’m only teaching seventh and eighth grade this year, but when I have taught sixth grade in the past, I’ve asked for a modified version of analytical writing from sixth graders. They can still use the first person in their essays, which I’ve referred to as reader’s response essays rather than analytical essays. I’ve had them write responses with three body paragraphs that discuss three different points, and I’ve asked for one quote per paragraph, but I haven’t worried too much about how they integrate or format their quotes or how detailed their discussion of the quotes are. For seventh and eighth graders, I ask for essays that follow all of the conventions that students need to have mastered by high school, but I break essay assignments down into several manageable steps.
I haven’t done many teaching-related posts this year, so I thought I’d start a short blog series on teaching analytical writing in a way that gives students the support they need without encouraging overly formulaic writing. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post about the following topics:
-Essay Building Blocks: The TIQA(TIQA) Paragraph
-Preparing to Write an Essay and Essay Skeletons
-Introductions and Conclusions
-Why Analytical Writing?
I hope this series proves helpful, and I have some more student-author interviews in the works, as well, so those will keep coming, too!
It’s time for another student-author interview, and I’m very excited to feature the tireless and talented Jen Malone! Jen’s debut novel, At Your Service, came out in 2014, and she is one busy author. She has several books for tweens and teens on the way, and you can find out more about them at jenmalonewrites.com (and in her interview below)!
In At Your Service, thirteen-year-old Chloe Turner already knows exactly what she wants to do with her life: she wants to follow in her dad’s footsteps as the concierge at a fabulous New York City hotel. After Chloe manages to entertain Marie, the extremely difficult daughter of one of her dad’s important guests, she earns the job of Junior Concierge. It’s up to Chloe to show a prince and two princesses around the city. But cute Prince Alex, unimpressed Princess Sophie, and mischievous Princess Ingrid might be more than Chloe can handle…especially since Ingrid has an uncanny talent for disappearing and goes missing on Chloe’s watch.
This is a fun, humorous, fast-paced story that takes readers on an exciting tour around New York City. Abby, Juliana, and Lucy read the book and had some great questions for Jen!
First, here’s what the girls liked best about AT YOUR SERVICE with Jen’s response:
Juliana: I like that Chloe works at a hotel as the Junior Concierge and gets to help with the kids who stay there. She has a really unique job.
Abby: I liked how Ingrid, the littlest princess that Chloe was in charge of, wants to get all of the souvenir pennies in the city!
Lucy: I liked the point of view that the book is written in and the way the characters are described.
Thank you, girls!! I love reading these so much- you’ve made my day!
Now for some questions about the book and about writing in general:
Lucy: What inspired you to write this book?
Two things were my big inspiration for this book, and both were jobs I once had. One was managing a youth hostel in Baltimore not long after I graduated college. It was nowhere near as fancy as the Hotel St. Michèle (guest slept in bunk beds and shared one big bathroom!) but I did get to put together fun itineraries of my hometown for visitors from all over the world and I loved sending them places where I knew they’d have fun. I also used to work as a publicist for the movie studio 20th Century Fox and part of my job was acting as a personal assistant of sorts for any visiting movie stars. I would set up all their media interviews and walk down the red carpet with them at movie screenings, but I also had to do really silly things, like make sure they had their favorite kind of bottled water, which was only available in France and had to be shipped in special. Writing the scenes with Marie were really fun because I have dealt with movie stars who were only slightly more reasonable in their demands!
Juliana: Did you grow up in New York City? How did you decide to set the book there? Did you do any research about the city to write the book?
I grew up in horse country, about 40 minutes outside Baltimore. But I visited NYC several times as a kid and now I go three or four times a year from Boston, where I currently live. I think it helped that I don’t live in NYC because I still see the magic of the city every time I go and could write about it with that sense of awe. If I lived there, I might be more ho-hum about it and that could have snuck into the story. I did have to do a lot of research for the book- I interviewed a Rockette to find out what a rehearsal was like, I spent a day “shadowing” a concierge at his hotel, and used Google maps streetview to trace all the steps my characters took. My husband was in NYC on a business trip when I was writing this, so I had him visit every penny machine in the city and take lots of photos of their surroundings so I could write the part where the characters go to the penny machines realistically. He got extra hugs for that! And then my editor and one of my close friends who read my first draft both live in New York City, so I relied on them to fact-check for me.
Abby: How did you get the idea for Ingrid wanting to collect the souvenir pennies?
Directly from my three kids, who all have collections of them! We have fun seeking out those machines on vacations. I was really stuck on how to give Chloe clues about where Ingrid might be when she disappeared and I just couldn’t figure out how to write the next part of the story once Ingrid made her getaway. One day I was driving and the idea of the pennies just came to me! It ended up working perfectly because it let Chloe and the others have a roadmap of sorts for where to look and also allowed me to write about all the great tourist spots in the city.
Juliana: Is the Hotel St. Michèle a real place? If so, how did you choose to write about that hotel, and if not how did you come up with it?
It’s not a real place and it was actually named by my editor, but when I worked for 20th Century Fox I spent a LOT of time in fancy hotels throughout Boston because a lot of the visiting actors’ interviews were done in hotel meeting rooms (or sometimes in the actors’ suites). Also, part of my job was to check into the hotel ahead of the actors and make sure all the room’s lamps worked and that the toilet flushed- all so the movie stars wouldn’t encounter any hassles when they arrived. Silly, right? The good part was that sometimes they would finish their interviews early and hop a flight back to LA and I would get to stay in their fancy suites since the room had already been paid for. I once spent the night in the Presidential Suite at the Four Seasons in Oprah Winfrey’s bed when she left early- she even left all her yummy food in the fridge! So I had lots of good fancy hotel experiences to draw from when coming up with the Hotel St. Michèle.
Lucy: How did you choose to make Chloe the age she is?
Her age actually changed from what it was in the first draft. She started out as thirteen going on fourteen, but my editor wanted to leave room open if there were ever to be a sequel and thirteen is sort of the top age a character would be before it would cross into YA and be in a different section of the bookstore. But we couldn’t make her too young because then it wouldn’t be believable that she’d be allowed to roam the city by herself and/or with her guests. So we settled on making her twelve at the start of the story and then having her turn thirteen just before the royal family arrives.
Abby: Is there going to be a sequel to this book? If not, what else are you writing?
No sequel yet, though I do have some ideas for one, if the publisher decides to go forward with it! It really comes down to how many copies of the first book sell. But in the meantime, I have six more books coming out. The next one is a series called You’re Invited, which I’m co-writing with one of my good friends. The first book in that series comes out in May and it follows four girls who live in a tiny beach town in North Carolina and decide to entertain themselves over the summer by forming a party planning “business” in their abandoned-sailboat clubhouse. They throw some rather, er, unique parties and everything that can go wrong does, but their friendship is really what the story is about! It’s perfect for kids who might have liked The Babysitters Club and not yet be ready for Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants– it falls right between those two series. Book 2 comes out next year and I also have three Young Adult books coming out with HarperCollins, one per summer starting this July.
Juliana: What inspired you to become a writer?
I skipped kindergarten because my mom had taught me to read already and I think that made me latch on very early to the idea that my reading skills (and soon after, my writing ability) was what made me special- it was “my thing” and the part of me that I had the most confidence in, even when I was a disaster at other things (gym class- I’m looking at you!). In 3rd grade I won a school-wide award for Best Halloween Story and that cemented it. After that though, I stopped writing fiction because I thought I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I was an editor on my school paper in high school and college, then switched to advertising (writing the copy for ads) and then public relations (where I wrote press releases). So I was always writing, just not fiction. It wasn’t until my youngest daughter showed a huge interest in reading as a kindergartener herself that I even thought about writing fiction again. I had an idea to write her a short story that she could read to me at bedtime and I set aside a few hours to work on it. A month later I had written an entire book (oops!) That was in 2012 and I haven’t looked back—it quickly took over my life! Part of me wishes I hadn’t taken such a long break between 3rd grade and now, but when I realize how much of my other life experiences make it into my stories, I don’t regret the zig-zag path to get back to writing one little bit!
And finally, some questions about when Jen was in middle school:
Juliana: Did you know you wanted to be a writer when you were in middle school?
Yes, but I thought I would be a journalist. Most of what appealed to me about journalism was that I loved getting to know a lot about one specific subject and then moving on to the next interesting thing for the next article (I’m really curious and I love to learn new things, but I also get bored sort of easily). However, I’m finding that to be completely possible with fiction writing too. Right now I’m writing a book that takes place during Hurricane Katrina. I’ve read probably twenty books on the storm and New Orleans and I love that part of the process. I’m even booking a trip there this winter so I can better describe the places I’m setting scenes. That kind of “formal excuse” to explore any subject that piques my curiosity is definitely something that would have appealed to my middle school self as much as it does my adult self.
Abby: Where did you live and what school did you go to?
I lived in Jacksonville, Maryland, in a really normal subdivision that happened to be surrounded by horse farms (I took riding lessons, but I never did get my wish of owning a pony!) and had to take the bus thirty minutes to the closest middle school. We sarcastically called our town “Actionville” instead of “Jacksonville” because nothing much happened there! We did get a McDonalds when I was in middle school, though. That was a big day.
Lucy: Is Chloe like you when you were in middle school at all, and if so how? Or are any of the other characters like you when you were in middle school?
Chloe is like me in middle school in that I sought approval from adults a lot and I always wanted to be seen as capable and mature, even when I didn’t always act that way. She has a good sense of adventure and I did too, but she’s much more confident in herself than I was. I wasn’t popular and I wasn’t unpopular- I was fairly “average,” if there even is such a thing. But I was so intrigued by the popular girls and I could never stop watching them (I think this trait is what makes me a good writer today- I people watch A LOT, but now I get to put those observations to use in developing characters) and I don’t think Chloe would care that much about popularity. For example, I definitely would have been much more intimidated by Princess Sophie than Chloe ever was. The times that I did hang out with the really popular kids were fine and no one was making fun of me or anything, but I just never had as much fun as I did around my other friends because I was never relaxed and being myself around those kids. I don’t think Chloe would have wasted five minutes trying to be popular—she was already looking to the future in a way I wasn’t at that age. However, I was totally boy crazy so, just like Chloe, I would have had a thing for Prince Alex and I also would have been so, so nervous and thinking things like, “Did I remember to turn off my curling iron” when he leaned in to kiss me!
Thank you, Jen, for visiting with us! We loved finding out about how you became a writer and how AT YOUR SERVICE became a book, and we’re looking forward to your upcoming releases!
Here it is—student-author interview number 10! I’m really excited to bring you this interview with Dianne Salerni, author of two YA novels and a smart, fun, imaginative, and suspenseful middle grade fantasy series. The Eighth Day, the first book in the MG series, introduces Jax Aubrey, a thirteen-year-old boy who has been sent to live with a very unlikely guardian: eighteen-year-old Riley Pendare. Jax is not impressed with his new life with Riley…until he wakes up one morning to a world without any people.
It turns out that Jax is in the eighth day, an extra day between Wednesday and Thursday that is linked back to Arthurian legend. Jax and Riley are Transitioners, which means they have connections to clans from Arthurian days and can live in all eight days. But there are other people, like a mysterious girl named Evangeline, who can only live on the eighth day. With Riley’s help, Jax suddenly has to deal with greedy people who want to use him to access the eighth day and dangerous people who want to use the magical Evangeline to destroy the regular, seven-day world and everyone in it.
The Eighth Day is a fantastic book. I devoured it, and so did several of my students. And lucky for us, The Inquisitor’s Mark, the second book in the series, is out on January 27th, and it’s just as terrific! (And a third book is forthcoming, too!)
Two seventh grade students, Silas and Jonah, and two fifth graders, Abby and Miles, interviewed Dianne about The Eighth Day and The Inquisitor’s Mark. I hope you enjoy the interview! When you’re finished reading it, you can find out more about Dianne and her other books at diannesalerni.com.
First, here’s what the students especially liked:
Silas: I really like the idea of an eighth day that only certain people can get to.
Jonah: I like the concept of an eighth day, too. I really like how it doesn’t seem like any time has gone by for the kin who are only in the eighth day, but really a number of days have gone by for everyone else.
Abby: I really liked how Jax had to get a tattoo to represent his clan and make his magical abilities stronger.
Miles: I liked how The Eighth Day connects the legends of King Arthur to the present time. I also liked how the book was told from both Jax and Evangeline’s perspectives but more from Jax’s, and I liked the descriptions of the characters because I could really picture them.
And now for the students’ questions about the books, and about writing in general:
Silas: How did you come up with the idea of an eighth day?
The idea came from a family joke. Whenever my daughters asked my husband when they could do something (like go to Hershey Park, or the beach, or ice skating) and he didn’t have a specific answer for them, he’d say, “We’ll do it on Grunsday!” And they would groan because that wasn’t a real day. Once, while they were making the usual joke, I thought to myself, “What if there really was a Grunsday, but not everyone knew about it?” And that’s how it all started!
Jonah: How did you come up with the name for Grunsday? We know that some other days are named after Norse gods–does this name have any meaning like that?
Grunsday is often used as a joke name for a day that doesn’t exist. As far as I can tell, it comes from an old Beetle Bailey comic strip. In one episode, Army private Beetle Bailey is on kitchen duty all week. In each frame, he eagerly crosses off days on his calendar. When he gets to Saturday, he says, “I’m glad there are no more days in this week!” Then he looks at the calendar, sees another day, and exclaims, “GRUNSDAY?!?!” I assume cartoonist Mort Walker made it up.
Abby: I really like Evangeline. How did you come up with her character?
After I got the idea for a secret day, I had to figure out a story to go along with it. Jax was the first character who came to me, then Riley. I knew Jax would be an orphan who discovered the secret day by accident and Riley would seem pretty clueless and not a good guardian at first — then turn out to be more important than Jax thought. (And a good guy.) I started planning out different events and characters. The bank robber and the twins were planned early on. Believe it or not, Evangeline was the last (important) character who came to me. I had an idea about Jax finding a girl who lived only on Grunsday – then started wondering who she was, why she was trapped in that day, where she came from … Once I invented Evangeline, the whole story came together, and I was ready to start the first draft. She was the key to the whole book!
Silas and Jonah: We read both The Eighth Day and The Inquisitor’s Mark, and we know that there is going to be a third book, too. How long did it take you to write the first book versus the second and third book? Did you write them all at once, or did you take a break between the books?
I started writing The Eighth Day (which I originally called Grunsday) in April of 2012. I finished the first draft in July of that year, then started revisions. That August, I went to Mexico to climb the Pyramid of the Sun so I could make sure I had that scene right. I shared the story with my agent in September, and by October, we had a deal with HarperCollins. (3 books, with a possible 4th and 5th if the series is popular)
I started writing The Inquisitor’s Mark not very long after signing the contract. It took me 11 weeks, the fastest I’ve ever written a first draft! By contrast, the third book took me about 7 months. I got interrupted a lot while working on it because of things I had to do for the other two books, like revisions and proof-reading. I didn’t take too long a break between writing each one because I had a pretty tight schedule for deadlines.
Miles: I like to write and my teacher tells me I’m a good writer, but I don’t know how you can just sit and write a whole novel with hundreds of pages. How do you do that? Are there any tricks?
When I was your age, I couldn’t write stories that long either. My stories gradually grew in length the more I wrote and the older I got. I don’t think there are any tricks I can recommend except to keep writing AND reading to learn everything you can about story-telling. More complex stories will come to you with experience. Writing short stories is a good way to begin!
Jonah: How did you come up with all of the names for the different families in the books? I noticed that some of the present-day families are named after ancient families’ last names, but then it seems like other families like the Morgans are named after the first names of the ancient people they’re descended from. How did you decide to do that?
I figured names would change over 1500 years, and some families might change their names to make them modern-sounding. For example, Sir Owain’s name was changed to Owens (although I gave Owens a first name that could also be a last name just so you wouldn’t know who he was when you met him.) As for Morgan LeFay, “le fay” means “the one with witch powers” so it was more of a nickname than a family name. Some legends say Morgan was Arthur’s half-sister; others say she wasn’t. None really give her a definite family name. Morgan made a good last name for a modern family, so I decided that Morgan LeFay’s line decided to use Morgan as their surname somewhere between Arthurian time and now.
Silas: Why did you switch from alternating Evangeline’s perspective with Jax’s in the first book to alternating another character named Dorian’s perspective with Jax’s in the second book? Will it be a different character’s perspective alternating with Jax’s perspective in the third book?
Such a great question! No adult reviewer has ever asked me why there is an alternate POV, let alone how I decide who it will be!
In each case, the alternate POV has to be someone who can provide the reader with information Jax doesn’t have – otherwise, there’s no reason to give them POV. In The Eighth Day, Evangeline gives the reader a glimpse of what life is like trapped in the eighth day. She shares the history of her family and her race, the Kin. Evangeline is the major focus in that book, because everything Riley and Jax do revolves around her.
In The Inquisitor’s Mark, Evangeline is still important, but her perspective doesn’t add anything to the story that Jax doesn’t already know. (FYI — One of my editors really loved Tegan and asked if I could make her the alternate POV character in Book 2, but like Evangeline, Tegan doesn’t have information to share that Jax doesn’t already know.) On the other hand, Dorian, as a member of Jax’s long-lost family and the Dulac clan, is full of information Jax doesn’t have but the reader needs. It was weird writing from his perspective at first, but the more I got to know him, the more I liked him. One of my favorite scenes in the book is the one with Dorian and Billy and the garbage chute!
Yes, in the third book, there will be a new alternate POV character who’ll give readers a perspective Jax doesn’t have. Based on the end of Book 2, you might be able to guess who it is, but rather than post a spoiler in this interview, I’ll tell your teacher who it is, and you can ask her if you want to know if you guessed right!
Miles: What does it feel like to spend a really long time working on a book and then wait to see if other people like it and if they think it’s a success or not?
It’s nerve-wracking!!! Since the popularity of the books will determine whether HarperCollins lets me write Books 4 and 5 (or if I have to end with Book 3), it’s scary, too. Also, because the books are written so far in advance of publication, I’m a walking, talking spoiler machine. I have to be careful what I say to people. The first draft of Book 3 was written before Book 1 even came out, but I can’t talk about it much. I can’t even share the title, because it hasn’t been officially approved yet!
And finally, some questions about when Dianne was in middle school:
Jonah: We heard that you were a teacher for a long time. When you were in middle school, did you want to teach, write, or do something else?
When I was growing up, the only two jobs I ever wanted to have were teaching or being an author. I am really lucky that I got to live both dreams!
Abby: What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?
I loved fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. (Still do, actually.) I read the novelized version of Star Wars a thousand times. (Yes, I was in middle school in 1977 when the first Star Wars came out.) I also loved mysteries written by Mary Stewart and Agatha Christie. Katherine Kurtz and Piers Anthony were my favorite fantasy authors.
Miles: How long were your fiction stories when you were in middle school? I want to know if you taught yourself to write for a really long time or if you could just do it even when you were a lot younger.
I’m so glad you asked that! I went digging in the back of a closet and found a story I wrote in 8th grade that won a creative writing contest at my school. Personal computers were only just getting invented back then, and I didn’t own a typewriter until I was in high school, so all my stories were handwritten. The Andromeda Treaty was a science fiction story, and it’s 37 notebook pages long, written in cursive.
If that was typed out, it wouldn’t be very many pages. So, as you see, I had to work up to writing novel-length works, just like you will some day!
Thank you so much for answering our questions, Dianne, and for showing us a glimpse of your middle school writing!
Dianne lives near Philadelphia and will be visiting our school for a Local Author Day this spring, which we’re very excited about. We highly recommend both THE EIGHTH DAY and THE INQUISITOR’S MARK! (And this is a great time to get and read THE EIGHTH DAY if you haven’t already, since you’ll be able to get your hands on THE INQUISITOR’S MARK at the end of this month!)
Welcome to the ninth student-author interview! I’m very excited to feature debut author Caroline Tung Richmond and her fabulous novel The Only Thing to Fear. The Only Thing to Fear takes place in an alternate reality in which the Nazis won World War II, thanks to their genetically engineered “Anomaly” super soldiers. Sixteen-year-old Zara, a stubborn girl of mixed heritage, longs to live in a free America and is eager to join the rebel group that is plotting to overthrow the Nazi leadership. She just might have the power to help bring down the Führer, if she’s allowed to join the rebels and if she can manage to survive.
I tore through the novel this summer and knew it would be a hit with students who like fantasy and dystopian novels as well as students who love history…and it certainly has been! It’s also been a pleasure connecting with Caroline since I read her book because she is such a friendly and generous writer! In addition to her great first novel, Caroline also has a wonderful blog with a very helpful “After the Call” series for agented writers; you can check it out here: http://carolineinspace.blogspot.com/
Now let’s get to the interview! Four eighth grade students–Geno, Casey, Jack, and Rudyard–read The Only Thing to Fear and had some terrific questions for Caroline.
First, here’s what the students wanted to tell Caroline about what they liked most about THE ONLY THING TO FEAR, with Caroline’s response:
Geno: I liked the fantasy part and how some characters had special powers. It was unexpected but cool.
Jack: I liked how there were so many plot twists, especially related to Zara’s character. I also liked that Zara is a powerful girl and that females in the book have positions of power.
Rudyard: I liked how the book was new and fresh. There were places where I thought I could predict what was going to happen or what a character (like Bastian) was going to turn out to be, but then there was a surprising plot twist instead.
Casey: I liked the alternate history. I loved how you thought about what if the Nazis had won WWII because it’s not something that many people would think about. I also liked how you made Zara really powerful, but she wasn’t too powerful and her powers couldn’t magically fix everything because it’s no fun when the main character is too powerful.
Thank you so much, you guys! This makes me so happy to hear, and I’m so glad that you enjoyed the book!
Now for some questions about the book, and about writing in general:
Casey: What inspired you to write the book?
Hi Casey! Thank you so much for reading my novel! To answer your question, I’m a big history geek and so I’ve always been interested in alternate histories and asking myself ‘What if?’—like what if Lincoln had lived and was able to oversee Reconstruction? Or what if Franz Ferdinand had never been assassinated before the start of WWI?
Then, back in 2010, I was looking for a new book to read and my husband recommended The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a memoir written by a North Korean refugee. I read the book in one sitting, and afterward I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What would it be like to live under such a cruel regime? How could someone fight against all of that oppression? I started imagining a girl living in such a place—and wanting so badly to fight back against her government. My imagination sort of went wild from there, and that is how Zara and The Only Thing to Fear were born!
Jack: How long did it take you to write the book?
Hi Jack! Thank you for reading my book too! Gosh, this novel has a strange backstory. I’m usually a very slow writer—my husband’s nickname for me is ‘the baby sloth’!—but I hammered out the first draft of The Only Thing to Fear (back then it was called Revolutionary) in about two months. This was really fast for me. But then it took me a LONG time to revise the novel—over a year!
Geno: How did you think of including Anomalies with special powers in the book? Did the book always have Anomalies with special powers, or did you add that part in later on in your writing process?
Hi there Geno! Thank you for your question! I’m a big fan of X-Men, and ever since I was in elementary school I’ve dreamt about having a super power. (I’d pick telekinesis! How about you?) And so, I’ve always envisioned having Anomalies in this book because I thought it’d be fun to write about people with super powers.
Rudyard: What process did you use to design the alternate history? Did you go back and make a chart of all the things that would have happened if the Nazis had won and then make a timeline for everything, or did you do something else to figure out the alternate history setup? I create alternate histories myself, and I use charts and timelines.
Wow, if I write another alternate history, maybe you can give me some advice on using charts and timelines, Rudyard! 🙂
To answer your question, I’m far less organized than you are! I wish I had created a cool chart but mostly I just jotted down notes in a Word document to keep track of dates and events. When I was revising the book with my editor at Scholastic, we also created a timeline to make sure that everything made sense and that the events fell in a logical pattern.
Jack: We don’t remember much about the concentration camps in the book. In your vision of this alternate history, what happened with the concentration camps?
In an earlier draft of the book, there were a few mentions of a “work camp” where people were sent if they did something that the Nazis didn’t like. But as for concentration camps specifically, I’ve envisioned that they existed very much in the same way in Zara’s world as they did in our own—with the Germans setting up camps like Auschwitz and Dachau where they killed so many innocent lives. Ultimately though, I ended up deleting the mentions of the camps to streamline the story, but now that you bring it up, I wish that I had kept them in because it’s an important point to address.
Casey: Did the book always have a romance element, or did you figure out that you wanted to add some romance partway through writing the book? Have you thought about what happens with Zara and Bastian after the ending, and would you ever write an epilogue or a second book to tell about what happens?
Yes, I always wanted there to be some sort of romantic element in the book! I had a lot of fun writing the kissing scene between Zara and Bastian—and my editor made sure that it wasn’t too mushy. Haha.
I’ve actually thought quite a lot about what happens to Zara and Bastian after the story ends! Originally, I had envisioned this book as the first in a trilogy. The second book would center around Zara and the Alliance pushing the Nazis out of the Eastern American Territories; and the third book would focus on Zara traveling to Germany to help Bastian stamp out the Nazis for good. So yes, the two of them do meet again, at least in my brain! There aren’t any plans to write a sequel for now since my publisher only bought The Only Thing to Fear, but maybe one day I will finish Zara’s and Bastian’s story!
Jack and Geno: Was Zara based on you in any way? Were any of the events in the book based on anything that happened to you?
Ah, that’s such a great question! I’ve never thought about Zara in that way before. I would say that I didn’t purposely base Zara on me—for one thing, I think she’s much braver than I ever could be!—but I do think we’re similar because we’re both stubborn and we don’t like people telling us what to do. 🙂
As for the second part of the question, I didn’t base any events in the book on my life either but I wouldn’t mind having a cool super power and using it to fight evil.
And finally, some questions about when Caroline was in middle school:
Casey: When you were in middle school, were you part of a writing club or anything like that?
Unfortunately, my middle schools (I attended two middle schools because my family moved between my sixth and seventh grade years) didn’t have a writing club, but I think I would’ve joined one if it had been available to me! My mom did send me to a writing camp one summer though. Does that count? 🙂
Jack: Were you ever bullied?
I was teased and made fun of at times from elementary school to high school, but I consider myself lucky because it didn’t happen to me too often. I think bullying has gotten worse since I was in school, maybe because cyber bullying is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. Have you ever felt bullied? Do you have any advice on how to counteract bullying? I have a nine-month-old baby daughter, and I’ve already started worrying about sending her to school because I know bullying can be a big problem! Maybe you can give me some pointers to give her when she’s older?
Casey and Rudyard: Did you like history class when you were in middle school? Did you like WWII history, specifically?
Yes, I’ve always loved learning about history! One of my favorite classes in high school was Ancient History because I loved learning about people who lived thousands of years ago. I’ve always been interested in WWII history too, because it’s one of those rarer instances in history where there definitely was a Good Guy versus a Bad Guy. I also admired the courage and bravery of the men and women who fought against the Axis powers—from soldiers to nurses to everyday people who fought however they could.
My new book is set in Occupied France (when the Nazis overtook a part of France during WWII) and it focuses on a group of spies who uncover a top-secret German operation that can turn the tide of the war. It was very much inspired by the courageous men and women I learned about in my history classes!
Thank you so much for answering our questions, Caroline! Your new book sounds fabulous and we can’t wait to read it! For anyone looking for holiday gifts for readers who are history buffs or who enjoy action-packed fantasy novels with fascinating premises and great characters, we definitely recommendTHE ONLY THING TO FEAR!
Last week, a couple of other teachers and I took the seventh grade to an author event with Holly Goldberg Sloan, the author of three fabulous middle grade and young adult books: Counting by 7s, I’ll Be There, and Just Call My Name. The event was part of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s amazing Teen Author Series, a program that’s funded by the extraordinarily generous Field family. Seventh to twelfth grade classes at schools in the area can reserve seats for these events. Participating students get their own copies of an author’s book, and then they hear the author speak and get their books signed.
When I found out that Holly Goldberg Sloan was going to be a part of this fall’s Teen Author Series, I was eager to sign up for her event. Some students had read Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s over the summer, as part of my summer reading book pair, and they loved the funny, poignant, and sweeping story as much as I did. I knew those students would love getting to see the author in person, and I had a feeling that many other students would enjoy the book, too.
When we’ve attended Teen Author Series events in the past, we’ve gone to the Central Branch of the library, but this event was at a different branch, a little bit farther away from our school. Because the events at the Central Branch have had such large audiences, I warned my students that if the event was too crowded, we might not be able to stay long enough to get our books signed. “If there are too many people in line ahead of us, we’ll have to leave our books instead of waiting in line,” I told them. “But don’t worry–I’ll go back to pick up the signed books later.” And I didn’t want them to be disappointed if they didn’t actually get to talk to Holly, or if they didn’t get a chance to ask a question during the Q and A, so I tried to keep their expectations in check. “There will probably be hundreds of people there,” I explained. “But it will still be great to hear her speak!”
So imagine my surprise when we made it to the other branch of the library and were guided into a small room that was completely empty except for around 50 chairs and a table at the front. It ended up being just us and the students from one other school! My students refrained from asking me what the heck I’d been talking about, but they were delighted when Holly perched at the edge of the table in front of the room and talked to them–just casually, personably told them stories and talked! They got to ask all of their questions, and they each got a special moment with Holly when she signed each book. The larger library events we’ve attended have also been wonderful (I mean, you really can’t argue with a free author event that includes a free book for every student!). But I loved the intimate tone of this smaller gathering.
Counting by 7s is a big, ambitious book, both in terms of its length and in terms of the scope of the story. There are many point of view characters whose ages span many years, and the story begins with a big, devastating event. Holly Goldberg Sloan was a screenwriter before she became a novelist, and Counting by 7s is going to be a movie; reading it, you can see how the cinematic story will work beautifully on the big screen. Holly’s YA books are similarly big and sweeping.
But during Holly’s informal talk, she not only talked about writing screenplays and novels, but she also spoke about how she enjoys poetry. She mentioned that the titles of her books can lead to some great book spine poetry and encouraged students to find books and stack them in different orders, to create small poems with the titles. She explained that sometimes, with an activity like book spine poetry, the small scope of the task (you only have book titles to work with) can lead to a lot of creativity.
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m a fan of giving students structured creative writing assignments because an assignment with tight, clear instructions can often yield amazingly creative results. I left the event thinking about the benefits of small events and small, tightly focused writing tasks and the awesome power of big programs like the Teen Author Series and big stories like the ones Holly tells.
The first quarter of my school year ended recently, so I’ve been talking to my seventh grade advisees about how things are going so far in their classes: what they’re proud of so far this year; how they learn and work best; and what strategies they might try out in this next quarter to improve their homework, test-taking, proofreading, class participation, etc.
Those conversations have led me to do some reflection of my own. I’m currently working on the first draft of a new novel, and while it’s slowly but surely coming along and I’m excited about it (most days), I know I could find new ways to maximize my productivity and make my drafting process go more smoothly. So I’ve been thinking about how I work best and what new strategies I might try out as fall moves into winter.
One great thing about my MFA program was that I worked closely with four different advisors, and they gave me lots of different writing techniques to try out. As I experimented with various ways of brainstorming and plotting and drafting, I learned plenty of things that work well for me, such as freewriting backstory scenes, determining a character’s controlling belief and vacuum, and figuring out a crossroads scene that my main character is moving towards.
But I also tried out some techniques that didn’t work so well for me. I like to plot out what will probably happen around the midpoint and at the end of a novel, but it just doesn’t work for me to write scenes out of order. I’ve tried to write those midpoint and ending scenes before I get to them, and I can’t do it. I know lots of people swear by writing out of order, but it makes me anxious and gets me stuck. The dynamics between characters are so important for me that I can’t seem to put my characters into a scene if I haven’t accompanied them through every stage of their journey to get there.
Similarly, I have a really hard time pushing forward with a draft if I have a new idea that influences something earlier in the story, or if I’m just feeling disconnected from a character’s voice. In both of those cases, it’s my very strong impulse to go back, re-read from page 1, and rework what’s already on the page before I keep writing new scenes. (I was relieved when I listened to Sara Zarr interview Siobhan Vivian on this excellent episode of This Creative Life and learned that Siobhan Vivian, whom I greatly admire, does something similar!)
There are times when this impulse doesn’t serve me well and I have to fight it. Sometimes I tell myself that I need to reread a bit from the beginning of my manuscript when really I’m just avoiding the next scene. But for the most part, I’m okay with this part of my process.
I’ve been talking to my students about how they learn best, and I think this is part of how I learn. I need to reconnect with the voice I’m going for from time to time, and I’m not able to say, “Oh, when I revise I’ll go back and change that, but for now I’m going to keep drafting as if I’ve made that change.” Some writers are, and that’s great. But I can’t write the later scenes as well unless I’ve had the physical experience of revising the earlier ones first.
I’m glad that I’ve come to understand some things about what works for me and what doesn’t work for me as a writer. The challenge, though, is to make sure I don’t fall into a rut and resist trying new strategies that might be difficult or tiring at first but ultimately really great (kind of like the Pilates classes that I stopped going to when my 10-class card ran out).
I know some writers who are pushing through 50,000 words of a novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) right now, and I really admire them. I make modest monthly word count goals when I’m drafting, but it doesn’t feel feasible for me to write that quickly in November because of my teaching workload (and my whole I-need-to-reread-this-from-page-1-again-now compulsion). But maybe I’ll get back into the habit of trying some early morning writing sessions here and there to switch things up, and I’m going to come up with a list of things I can try if I am feeling stuck before I give in to the impulse to reread my draft from the beginning. Things like writing by hand instead, or doing a quick relaxation exercise first, or trying a timed writing sprint.
How about you? How do you work best? What does and doesn’t work for you? What new techniques could you try?
I’ve been challenged by fellow VCFA alum (and Philadelphia area resident) Nicole Valentine to participate in the 777 Challenge. I’m supposed to share 7 lines of text, 7 lines down, on the 7th page of my work-in-progress. Here’s the link to Nicole’s post, where she shared seven lines from a smart and poignant middle-grade time-travel novel I’ve heard her read from a few times and can’t wait to read in its entirety!
I’m working on the first draft of a humorous middle-grade epistolary novel tentatively titled NOT SOME TRAGIC HEROINE, which features two very different main characters, Juliet and Claire. Claire is a PK (a preacher’s kid), and Jules is the daughter of two artistic parents with an unconventional relationship. Jules and Claire have been best friends throughout middle school, but now, in the spring of eighth grade, their friendship is falling apart. They used to dare each other to do silly things all the time, and in their first big fight, they each dare the other to do something huge, and completely uncharacteristic.
I’ve actually been feeling a bit discouraged and exhausted lately and have let myself take a couple of weeks off of drafting with the hope that I’d start to feel more energized before November, when I want to set a clear word-count goal and make some real progress. Nicole’s challenge came at a good time because I was just feeling ready to turn back to my draft (phew!), and this weekend I’ve been enjoying reading back through what I have so far and asking myself questions about what I want this story to be. Here’s the seven-line excerpt from page 7 (the last sentence cuts off because it continues on to line 8, which felt like cheating, and any of you who know me will know that I am nothing if not a rule follower):
“But, I mean, it was Lucas’s idea, right?” I asked.
She sighed and shook her head again. Her neck was probably getting achy. But that’s Claire for you. All about forgiveness. Except when it comes to herself.
“I knew it was wrong,” she said. “I should have been a better…person.” She paused before person, and I knew what that meant. She wanted to say “Christian,” but she’d censored herself for me, because she knows it weirds me out when she gets all Jesus-y. I’m trying to be less visibly weirded out by that kind of thing, though, because…
I’m supposed to tag other writers, but I’m not sure who’s already been tagged and who hasn’t. So please consider this an open invitation to share seven lines of text, seven lines down, on the seventh page of your work-in-progress if you’d like to!
Last spring, I was browsing online for some new classroom library books to purchase, and some of my sixth grade students were helping. I had recently happened upon this interview about the story behind the final cover design of Rebecca Behrens’s debut middle grade novel, When Audrey Met Alice, and I thought the book looked like a lot of fun. I showed the kids the interview, and then we checked out the description of the book.
When Audrey Met Alice features two first daughters—a fictional, contemporary first daughter named Audrey, who feels lonely and constrained in her White House life, and a real-life, historical first daughter, Alice Roosevelt. Audrey finds Alice’s hidden diary and finds both solace and inspiration in Alice’s lively, often humorous adventures.
“That book sounds amazing! You have to buy that!” my students said after we read the description. So I did. The book lived up to their enthusiastic expectations, and other students were eager to read it, too. As I began planning interviews for this year, I figured these students, who are now seventh graders, would be just as excited to interview Rebecca as they’d been to read her book. And I was thrilled that Rebecca wanted to answer questions from student interviewers Sophia, Alex, Nyeema, Poli, Sydney, and Olivia!
First, here’s what the girls liked best about the book, with some commentary from Rebecca:
Sydney: I liked the journal entries from Alice because they were funny. I liked how Audrey felt emotional and cried when she finished reading the diary. The book inspired me to start writing a similar story of my own!
That’s awesome! I love it when a book inspires writing. It was so much fun to write Alice because she was such a witty person.
Alex: I liked how the book is set in the White House. My favorite part was when Audrey got caught on the roof with…something she wasn’t supposed to have.
The roof scene is one of my favorites, too—and probably the one I enjoyed writing the most. Poor Audrey!
Poli: I think the storylines for both Audrey and Alice were really good. I liked when Alice brought the snake to the dinner.
Thanks! The snake, Emily Spinach, might be my favorite character.
Sophia: I liked how Audrey and Alice have a lot of different connections even though they live in different times.
Thank you! Some of the connections surprised me while writing—the things in Alice’s life that seemed very modern, and the ways in which she had more freedom than a first daughter today does.
Olivia: I like how the journal entries show how life as a first daughter was different for Alice than it is for Audrey.
I think about those differences a lot, whenever first daughters are in the news. It seems crazy how Alice got to go shopping on her own and could ride her bicycle around Washington while she was a first daughter—compared to the 24/7 security that a first daughter has today.
Nyeema: I like how you made the book current, like with references to gay marriage and the LGBT movement. I also thought it was funny when Audrey had to hide someone underneath her bed…
Thank you! I wanted to make sure that Audrey could share her voice on an issue that matters to people today. And I thought that scene in Audrey’s room was funny, too—it was another one that I loved to write.
And now some questions about WHEN AUDREY MET ALICE and writing in general:
Poli: What inspired you to write this book?
I was in middle and high school during the Clinton presidency. The idea of a girl my age living in the White House fascinated me. I always wondered what Chelsea Clinton’s life was like, living in such a historic and important place. Sure, she got to go to State Dinners . . . but did she still get to have sleepovers? Was a Secret Service agent sitting in a desk in her classroom at school? Did she still have to change Socks the (first) cat’s litter box? Writing When Audrey Met Alice let me answer some of those questions by imagining what life as a first daughter feels like.
Olivia: Why did you decide to write about a past first daughter in addition to a present-day one?
I knew I wanted to write a book about a girl living in the White House today, but I also wanted to write about Alice Roosevelt. She was a truly fascinating person, and I thought she would be a perfect protagonist. I couldn’t decide which story to write—until I had the idea to combine them by having a present-day daughter find Alice’s diary. (That was partly wish fulfillment—I’ve always wanted to find a hidden diary!)
Sophia: How long did it take you to write this book?
A long time! After a couple of months of research, I started writing a first draft of Alice’s diary. When I was done with that, I wrote Audrey’s story. Those drafts took about six months to write. After I had a complete (but very rough) draft of each girl’s story, I worked on combining them. And I revised the book about eight times before the final, published version. I think I wrote the first words in May 2010, and the book sold to my publisher, Sourcebooks, in September 2012. It made its way to bookstores in February 2014, close to four years after I started writing it. Publishing requires a lot of patience!
Olivia: What is your writing process like? Do you have a writing group?
I like to write first drafts “with the door closed”—an idea that comes from one of Stephen King’s books on writing. That means that when I’m working on a rough draft, I try not to show my writing to other people. Writing that exploratory draft without sharing it helps me feel okay with taking chances and trying new things that might not end up working. I take a little time off after finishing a first draft, and then I revise once by myself.
After that, I am happy to get opinions and insight from critique partners, my literary agent, and eventually my editor. My mom is usually the first person who gets to read a new book—and she is a helpful reader because she used to be an English teacher.
I meet up with a group of writers on Wednesday nights. Sometimes we read one another’s work, but mostly we get together to support and encourage each other—and share cookies. They are good writing fuel.
Nyeema: Was it complicated to write Alice’s point of view?
It was complicated! I wanted Alice’s story to be as close to the truth—the historical details—as possible. I also wanted her voice and opinions to be authentic. But at the same time, I was creating a fictional character. I had to balance when to stick with the facts and when to let myself imagine her feelings. I also wanted to make the language she used be true to her time period, but still enjoyable for a reader today. I spent a lot of time looking up words in the dictionary to make sure I wasn’t having her use slang that hadn’t been invented yet.
Alex and Poli: How much White House research did you have to do? Are all of the facts about the White House, like the chocolate shop, true? Did you get to take a behind-the-scenes tour?
I did a lot of research! There are many wonderful books, programs, and websites about White House history. Reading and watching them helped me imagine the White House. There really is a chocolate shop (here’s a video of the Executive Pastry Chef decorating treats in it: http://whitehouse.c-span.org/Video/ByRoom/Chocolate-Shop.aspx)—and a cookie tray. At the same time, Audrey’s White House world is fictional. One example is that golf carts aren’t used on the grounds for transportation. I added that detail because I really wanted to give her a chance to go driving, but I knew it would be implausible for Audrey to get into a car as a thirteen-year-old at the White House.
I took a private group tour of the grounds of the White House while I was revising the book. It was a wonderful experience, and being able to walk around the gardens and through the building helped me develop the setting. One of the things that surprised me when I was there was how quiet and calm it felt. I expected the grounds to be bustling and noisy, especially on a day with a big tour. But it felt very serene.
Sydney: We go to a Friends school and noticed that Audrey goes to a Friends school called Friends Academy. What do you know about Friends schools? How did you decide to set your book at a Friends school?
The idea for Friends School first came from the school that the Obama girls currently attend, and Chelsea Clinton attended: Sidwell Friends in the Washington, DC area. I didn’t know much about Friends schools before writing, but I had the opportunity to research them while working on the book and I enjoyed learning more about this type of school. I really admire the emphasis on community, spirituality, and social responsibility at Friends schools.
Poli and Sydney: Will there be a sequel? We think it would be cool to have a book with another new first daughter reading Audrey’s journal! If there won’t be a sequel, can you tell us anything about your next book?
I don’t have a sequel planned, although if I ever have the opportunity I’d love to write another book about Audrey or Alice. Alice had a lot of travel adventures that I didn’t cover in the first book . . . But I do have another book coming out, Summer of Lost and Found, which will publish in early 2016. Like When Audrey Met Alice, it blends contemporary and historical fiction. This story is about a girl who travels to Roanoke Island in North Carolina and starts to unravel the mystery of what happened to the Lost Colonists in 1587.
And finally, some questions about when Rebecca was in middle school:
Olivia: Were you bullied at all, the way Audrey is teased at school?
I was very shy throughout school, and rather sensitive. I wasn’t teased much, but I do remember how hard it was to navigate cliques, and sometimes I felt excluded by friends. Those experiences helped me write Audrey—I could empathize with the loneliness she felt in the book.
Poli: When you were in middle school, did you want to grow up to be a writer?
I wanted to be a lot of things when I was in middle school, and while I loved reading (it has always been my favorite thing!) I didn’t think I could be a writer. I enjoyed telling stories and creating characters but writers seemed like superheroes to me, and I was an ordinary book-loving girl. What really changed my mind was getting to meet one of my favorite writers (Sharon Creech) at a book event. She talked about her process for writing, and it suddenly occurred to me that it wasn’t magic or a superhuman storytelling ability that let her create such great books—it was hard work! After that, I started to believe that someday I could write a book, too.
Nyeema: Did you fantasize about living in the White House?
I definitely did! I could imagine the fancy dinners, having friends over to play in the bowling alley, and getting to do the White House Easter Egg Roll. But I also vividly remember watching the episodes of Saturday Night Live in which they poked fun at Chelsea Clinton, and feeling terrible for her. As much as I was a little jealous of all the cool things she got to do as a First Daughter, I thought it would be hard to live there, too, with all that attention on you.
Sophia and Alex: Was English your favorite subject? Was it your best subject?
English has always been my favorite subject, and probably my best. I was pretty good at math and science, too—I started college as a biology student and was sure that I would go to medical school. But eventually I realized that I really wanted to make books for a living, as an editor and an author. One of the coolest things about writing is that I can still study a lot of different subjects, to write about them.
Thanks, Rebecca, for answering our questions! We can’t wait for your next book!
A new school year means…more student-author interviews! I’m thrilled to feature Caroline Carlson for our first interview of the year. Caroline is the author of The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy. In the first book, Magic Marks the Spot, Hilary Westfield, who has always wanted to be a pirate, is not deterred when The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates denies her application because she is a girl. Her impossible-to-please father sends her off to Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Young Ladies instead, but Hilary and her talking gargoyle manage to escape. Hilary gets a job working for a freelance pirate known as the Terror of the Southlands, but on one condition: she has to find a very famous treasure or else she’ll get sent back to finishing school and she’ll never get to work as a pirate again. Hilary’s adventures continue in the brand-new second book in the series, The Terror of the Southlands, which is out now. My copy arrived yesterday, and there’s already a line of students eager to read it.
Magic Marks the Spot is hilarious, clever, and satisfying, and it practically begs to be read aloud. As a result, I read it aloud to my sixth grade class last spring. Three members of last year’s sixth grade class, current seventh graders Emmett, Max, and Silas, interviewed Caroline about Magic Marks the Spot and The Terror of the Southlands, writing, and middle school. Enjoy the interview!
First, what the boys liked best about MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT:
Silas: I like how funny it is and how it has a major plot twist at the end.
Emmett: I like how it’s kind of steampunk with people traveling by trains, and even the way people think of pirates feels old-fashioned.
Max: I liked the character development. I thought it was funny seeing how the characters’ personalities were developed.
Silas, Emmett, and Max: The gargoyle was funny!
Caroline: I’m so glad you all enjoyed the book! I agree about the gargoyle—writing his lines always made me laugh out loud.
Now for some questions about MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT and THE TERROR OF THE SOUTHLANDS:
Silas: About how long did it take to write Magic Marks the Spot? How about The Terror of the Southlands?
I wrote the first draft of Magic Marks the Spot in about 4 months. That’s pretty fast for me—I’m usually a fairly slow writer, but I think different books come at different speeds, and this one was a quick one! I did lots of revision, though, both by myself and with my editor at HarperCollins. The revisions took me almost a year. Then the editors, designers, and artists at the publishing company spent even more time turning the manuscript into a printed book. The total amount of time from the day I wrote the first pages of the book to the day it was published was 2 years and 9 months.
The sequel took me another 4 months to write and another year to revise. I just finished revisions for the third book in the trilogy; that one took me more than 6 months to write, but only 6 months to revise. Every book is different, so I have no idea how long it will take me to write the story I want to work on next!
Max: Where did you get the idea for the plot of this book? Was it prompted by anything specific or did it come to you out of the blue? Which came first: the idea of the plot or the characters?
I have always been interested in pirates, and I knew for years that I wanted to write a book about a pirate treasure hunt. The rest of the story started to come together when I visited an island in the Baltic Sea (off the coast of Sweden) called Gotland. Lots of tourists visit Gotland now, but in the middle ages, it was actually a real pirate stronghold. As soon as I learned that, I decided that my pirate story had to take place at least partly on an island like Gotland. I changed a few things about it (like the pirate statues and all the magic) and turned it into Gunpowder Island.
I love books with complicated, twisty, surprising plots, so my plot ideas usually come first. I didn’t know much about Hilary until I started writing about her. And I didn’t have any idea that the gargoyle would be in the book—he just showed up and refused to leave. Gargoyles are like that.
Emmett: How did you come up with the idea of a magic gargoyle?
The gargoyle was actually part of a story I wrote a long time ago, when I was a senior in high school. He lived over the main character’s bedroom door and liked hearing tales about piracy and true love. I was still learning how to be a writer when I wrote that story, so it wasn’t particularly good, but I always really liked the gargoyle. When I started writing Magic Marks the Spot, I realized I needed a friend for Hilary to talk to, and the gargoyle I’d created all those years ago decided that he would be the perfect character for the job.
Silas: What can you tell us about the sequel to Magic Marks the Spot?
It’s called The Terror of the Southlands, and it begins about a year after Magic Marks the Spot ends. Hilary has been sailing around the kingdom with Jasper, helping him distribute magical treasure—but she’s a little bit bored. To make matters worse, the president of the VNHLP tells Hilary that if she doesn’t go on a bold and daring adventure soon, he’ll kick her out of the League. When a mysterious group of villains called the Mutineers starts kidnapping important people, Hilary decides to stop them and prove to everyone that she’s a good pirate. Claire, Charlie, and the gargoyle all join her on her search for the Mutineers. There are also plenty of explosions, detectives, magical mishaps, ugly ball gowns, and new characters (both good and evil) along the way.
Max: Was Magic Marks the Spot your first book that you wrote? Did you write any other books or have other writing experience?
Magic Marks the Spot is the first book of mine that’s been published, but I wrote a bunch of stories before this. When I was growing up, I wrote the beginnings of five or six different books, but I always got bored and gave up after a few pages. Then, in high school and college, I took some creative writing courses and started thinking seriously about trying to be a writer. I applied to fiction workshops in college, but I kept getting rejected, so I took poetry classes instead. After college, I worked at an educational publishing company, where I wrote and edited textbooks. Finally, I went to graduate school to study writing for children, and I wrote two full novels while I was there. The second of those novels was Magic Marks the Spot.
Emmett: Who is your favorite character in the series and why?
I love all my characters! This question is sort of like asking your parents which of their kids is their favorite. Claire, Jasper, and the gargoyle are all particularly fun to write because they have so many funny lines. I think that if I were going to be a character in the book, I’d be Miss Greyson, because I really like rules and being proper, but I also secretly like adventure.
And finally, some questions about when Caroline was in middle school:
Emmett: What was middle school like for you?
I really didn’t like middle school at all. Kids in middle school can be pretty mean sometimes, and my friends from elementary school decided they didn’t want to hang out with me anymore. I wish I had been confident and brave enough to stand up to them, sort of like how Hilary stands up to Philomena in Magic Marks the Spot, but I was more like Claire: I didn’t know what to do, and I felt awful. I spent half of seventh grade and all of eighth grade without many friends. It wasn’t fun, but I learned a lot about trying to treat people nicely even if you don’t really want to, and since then I’ve tried to be kind to the people I meet because I know how hard it can be to feel alone. Things got better after a couple years—I made new friends, and people were a lot nicer once we all got to high school.
Max: Did you already like writing then?
I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but writing itself seemed really difficult! As I mentioned earlier, I tended to get bored with my stories after only a few pages. I worried that I would never be able to be a real writer since I couldn’t even write a whole story, let alone one that was any good. What I really loved was reading. I wanted to learn to write stories like the ones my favorite authors wrote.
Silas: Did you have any idea that you would become a writer when you grew up?
I hoped that I would be a writer, but I wasn’t ever entirely sure it would happen. Writers didn’t even seem like real people to me then—they seemed sort of like superheroes. I still feel that way about my favorite authors even now. When I get the chance to meet an author whose books I love, I get really nervous and I start saying ridiculous, embarrassing things. I’ll probably keep doing that for the rest of my life!
Thank you so much for answering our questions, Caroline, and thanks for writing such fun and original books!
Photo from carolinecarlsonbooks.com, courtesy of Amy Rose Capetta.
This past August, like most Augusts, my to-read pile was dominated by a certain kind of book: I was mostly reading new books that I thought might work well as middle school read alouds. I’ve blogged before about why I love to read aloud to middle schoolers and the criteria I use when selecting a good read aloud, so at first I thought I’d already written enough on the topic here on the blog. But then I thought back to when I first started teaching middle school. I was incredibly grateful to find some specific suggestions of books that had worked well as read alouds on The Reading Zone, because not every great book translates into a great class read aloud. In addition, I’ve been noticing recently that even though most of the people I know who read my blog are writers and not teachers, the posts that get the most hits are the ones that delve into specific teaching recommendations. So in the end, I decided to share this fall’s batch of read-aloud recommendations after all. If you’re not looking for books to read aloud to a group of young people, the good news is that these five books are equally fun to read on your own!
1.) Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Theodora Tenpenny is grieving for her grandfather and attempting to make do with the $463 he left behind. She has no idea what her grandfather meant just before he died, when he told her to look “under the egg” and said something about a treasure. But after she spills rubbing alcohol on one of her grandfather’s paintings and discovers another painting—a really old, potentially priceless painting—underneath, she sets out to discover where this painting came from and what other secrets her grandfather might have been hiding. I think this book makes a great read aloud because of Theo’s humorous voice, the opportunities for students to make inferences, and a subplot about the Holocaust, which will appeal to young history buffs. On a practical level, it also features a main character who’s going into eighth grade. That’s great for my purposes because it can be hard to get seventh and eighth graders invested in a book about a sixth grader (and there seem to be a lot of excellent books starring sixth graders!). I decided to use this book as my first seventh grade read aloud.
2.) I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora
During the summer after eighth grade, Lucy is determined to honor the memory of her beloved English teacher by getting everyone in her town excited about his favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird. She and her two best friends come up with a very unconventional plan that involves hiding copies of the book and convincing everyone that somebody is out to “destroy the mockingbird.” Thanks to the power of the internet, their plan quickly spirals out of their control. This is a funny, fast-paced book that will be a lot of fun to read aloud. It’s also a fairly short book with short chapters, which is helpful for a read aloud. (I can only read a bit at a time, so it’s tricky to maintain momentum with long books and to find good stopping points in books with long chapters.) Since we’ll be reading To Kill a Mockingbird at the end of the year, I decided to use this book as an eighth grade read aloud. I’m not sure that it will encourage students to make a lot of inferences, but it will balance out some of the heavier reading we do with something that’s a lot of fun and it will lead to some good discussions about book censorship and the way a topic can go viral.
3.) The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson
This book got a lot of well-deserved buzz last spring during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign because of its fabulously diverse cast of characters, and I think it would make a really fun read aloud. Jackson Greene is a reformed troublemaker who returns to his con-artist ways after discovering that the student council election is rigged against his friend Gaby. While it’s realistic fiction, this is the kind of book that requires readers to suspend disbelief in order to accept an incredibly corrupt principal and a group of incredibly talented, enterprising kids. I was more than willing to do that because of the fun tone, the humor, and the cleverly plotted story, and I’m sure middle school students will be, as well. It reminds me a bit of Kate Messner’s Capture the Flag, which was a very popular read aloud a couple of years ago. It’s also fairly short, and readers can make inferences as they piece together what happened in Jackson’s previous cons and guess how how he will pull off his election heist.
4.) Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth
Eleven-year-old Jarrett has a lot on his plate. He’s struggling through summer school, and he has to help with the foster babies his mom takes in. As if that weren’t enough to deal with, his mom starts taking care of a new baby…and this one has a twelve-year-old brother, Kevon. Suddenly, Jarrett has to share his room with Kevon, a slightly older boy who’s better than he is at everything. I love the way Coe Booth sets up the relationship between these two boys so that readers completely understand why Kevon pushes Jarrett’s buttons so much, but we also see how much Kevon is hurting and how Jarrett’s actions could end up being disastrous. This book has a lot of great suspense and tackles a lot of big issues, so it’s a page turner that will lead to productive conversations. However, it tackles those issues gently and incorporates plenty of humor, so that even sensitive middle grade students will be able to engage with the story. I’m not teaching sixth grade this year, but I think this book would be a perfect sixth grade read aloud.
5.) The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy
This delightful debut features the four funny and endearing Fletcher boys as well as their loving, often frazzled dads. I loved all of the Fletcher kids. The youngest, six-year-old Frog, is adorably hilarious, and I appreciated how the three older boys, twelve-year-old Sam, ten-year-old Jax, and ten-year-old (but younger than Jax) Eli, each have their own satisfying character arc throughout the story. It’s great that this book depicts a modern and diverse family, and it’s also great that the book doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to be politically correct. It’s just a humorous, big-hearted family story with lots of great shenanigans. It would be a really fun read aloud for fourth, fifth, or maybe sixth grade.
Happy reading (whether aloud or not), and feel free to weigh in with other suggestions!
Last June, a voracious seventh grade reader who mostly reads fantasy novels finished The Fault in Our Stars and lay down on the dirty floor of my classroom. She informed me that she had loved the book, but it had completely destroyed her and she was never going to recover (or something similarly dramatic). She needed a book that would make her feel good.
I could have encouraged her to find comfort in one of her favorite books, like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making or anything by Terry Pratchett. But I decided it would be great if I could hand her a layered, smart, light contemporary YA novel that she could happily lose herself in. Granted, students hadn’t cleaned out their lockers yet, so a lot of books from my classroom library were still checked out. But it took me a while to come up with a good option for her.
Recently, I came across an interview with author Kelly Fiore on fellow author Dahlia Adler’s entertaining and informative blog. I had read and really enjoyed Dahlia’s debut, Behind the Scenes, and Kelly’s second published novel, Just Like the Movies, so I was excited to read their interview. The whole post is great, but I especially enjoyed the “Dahliafied bio” for Kelly, which opens like this: “Kelly Fiore writes adorable light contemp (thank the freaking Lord) with seriously awesome premises…”
I laughed out loud when I read that, because I often feel similarly thankful when I discover a well done light YA book. Don’t get me wrong: I love sad, dark stories, too. But like my student who was heartbroken over The Fault in Our Stars, I need some balance in what I read. When I read a lot of contemporary YA with devastating deaths and heartbreaking circumstances, I begin to crave something fun.
But the thing is, by “fun” and “light” YA, I don’t mean simple or superficial. Light books can still feature characters with complex backstories who confront difficult feelings and face big challenges. But there’s something about the tone of light YA books that lets readers relax a little and feel pretty certain that everything will work out okay and nothing over-the-top devastating will happen during the book (although the characters might be recovering from devastating things that happened before the book starts).
Sarah Dessen is a master at creating comforting and fun, but still rich and complex, YA novels. I especially love The Truth about Forever and Along for the Ride—both summer novels that feature type-A girls who have to learn to let go of some of their control. In addition, here are some new contemporary YA books that are layered, smart, and also light.
1.) and 2.) Let’s start with the two books that got me thinking about this topic, Behind the Scenes by Dahlia Adler and Just Like the Movies by Kelly Fiore. These two novels share a focus on Hollywood. The main character in Behind the Scenes gets a job as an assistant on a TV set because she needs money for college after her dad is diagnosed with cancer, and the two main characters in Just Like the Movies decide to use strategies from their favorite romantic comedies to improve their own love lives. These characters have complex backstories and are dealing with real challenges (especially Ally in Behind the Scenes and Lily in Just Like the Movies), but their stories are romantic, mostly lighthearted, and just plain fun. I happily tore through both this summer. Just Like the Movies is fairly innocent while Behind the Scenes feels a little older and sexier in its tone…which is great! We need both kinds of stories.
3.) Speaking of Hollywood, Amy Finnegan’s Not in the Script is another fun read, coming out this fall. I’m impressed with how relatable the two main characters are, since one, Emma, is a very successful teen movie star and the other, Jake, is a gorgeous model-turned-actor. Amy Finnegan strikes a perfect balance between letting readers imagine themselves living an extremely glamorous and exciting lifestyle and showing that everyone has their own insecurities and traumas to deal with. (Incidentally, this is the third book in Bloomsbury’s “If Only” line, which I’m excited about since the books are billed as “clean teen” and appropriate for age 12 and up, so they’re great for middle schoolers.)
4.) And then shifting from Hollywood to the music industry, another great new book is Open Road Summer by Emery Lord. After a rough year, Reagan goes out on the road with her best friend, a country music superstar. Reagan is vulnerable, self-protective, and flawed but also loyal, smart, and brave. I like that Reagan is emerging from a dark place, so she is a layered character who has endured a lot and grown up fast, but readers are spending time with her when she is in a more hopeful place, and therefore the tone of the story feels lighter than it would if the book had taken place a few months earlier in Reagan’s life. The book has a fabulous romance, but it also focuses on the strong, fun relationship between Reagan and her best friend.
5.) and 6.) The last two books on my list also feature both satisfying romances and complex, important female friendships. Since You’ve Been Gone, by Morgan Matson, starts after Emily’s charismatic best friend, Sloane, disappears, leaving only a to-do list full of things Emily can’t imagine doing. And at the beginning of My Best Friend, Maybe, by Caela Carter, Colette’s estranged friend, Sadie, asks Coley to come along on a trip to Greece, claiming that she needs Coley to be there with her. Both of these novels have excellent character development, feature fun summer adventures, and address some interesting big ideas, like how friendships shift as people grow up.
Any other light contemporary YA you’d recommend? Any lighthearted realistic YA books that are more targeted toward an audience of boys? I’d love to hear any input.
Back in 2010, Mary Kole, who was then a literary agent, wrote a post called “Is it MG or YA?” on her excellent site kidlit.com. I should note that the publishing market has changed between 2010 and 2014, so I can’t say whether this post would be the same if Kole had written it today. But she was responding to a question from a writer who wondered whether to classify a novel with a 14-year-old protagonist as MG or YA, and she advised this writer to “Get out of that gray area!” She went on to acknowledge that there are certainly exceptions to the middle grade versus young adult distinctions. “But to give yourself the strongest chance at success (and publication),” she wrote, “I’d urge you to follow the rules for the project you hope will be your debut, and decide whether you’re writing MG or YA.” She encouraged the writer to make his protagonist 13 for a middle grade novel or 15 for young adult.
It’s extraordinarily difficult to get a novel published. I know that plenty of manuscripts with a whole lot going for them don’t sell because they aren’t right for the market, and publishing is a business. So this “make sure to fit into a category for your best shot at success” advice makes a lot of sense.
But as a middle school English teacher, I live in the gray area between MG and YA. My students are generally between 11 and 14. Many of the sixth graders read novels that would be shelved in the middle grade section, but many seventh and eighth graders do not. As literary agent Marie Lamba wrote in her Writer’s Digest article “Middle Grade vs. Young Adult: Making the Grade,”“Middle grade is not synonymous with middle school. Books for the middle-school audience tend to be divided between the MG and YA shelves.” In the second half of middle school, many readers are drawn to those YA shelves rather than the MG ones.
Most people realize that kids and teens like to read “up,” about characters who are a bit older than they are, but since there is so much edgy/sad/mature YA fiction with 17 or even 18-year-old protagonists, a lot of 12-14-year-olds are reading way up. Also, at both of the schools I have worked at (both pre-K to 12th grade private schools), the middle schoolers read more YA fiction than high schoolers do. There’s more flexibility in the curriculum to include contemporary YA and to encourage independent reading in middle school, whereas high school English classes at the schools I know focus more on the classics. Plus, students seem to get busier and busier the older they get, so many of them have less and less time for pleasure reading in high school. YA might be targeted at readers 14 and up, 13 and up, or 12 and up, depending on who’s doing the targeting, but sometimes those 12-14-year-old readers are reading more of it than their 15-18-year-old counterparts.
I am not saying there is anything wrong with mature, dark YA books at all. But I often wish there were more contemporary novels in that gray area between MG and YA *as well* because I know firsthand that there are readers who crave them. Probably not surprisingly, I also gravitate to writing stories that would appeal to this in-between, sixth-to-eighth-grader demographic.
I’ve been pleased to see that the in-between gray area is getting more attention recently. In her Writer’s Digest article, Marie Lamba distinguishes between younger middle grade, with protagonists who are around 10 years old, and “older, more complex” middle grade books with protagonists up to age 13, and she also distinguishes between “younger YA with cleaner content aimed at the middle-school crowd,” with protagonists who tend to be 14-15, and older, edgier YA with older main characters.
In the past few months, I’ve read a few new books that are upper MG or young YA. Rebecca Behrens’s When Audrey Met Alice and Paul Acampora’s I Kill the Mockingbird feature protagonists who are in eighth grade or about to enter ninth grade, respectively, and Gwendolyn Heasley’s Don’t Call Me Baby has a fifteen-year-old main character who is in ninth grade but feels pretty young. (She also is not yet in high school, since high school starts at tenth grade in her area.) Both Behrens’s and Heasley’s books have been a hit with my students, and I think Acampora’s will be, too, when I add it to my classroom library come September. Writer Carie Juettner also has a terrific blog post about the confusing MG and YA distinctions; she distills the MG vs. YA guidelines from several sources into a very helpful chart and shows how I Kill the Mockingbird walks the line between MG and YA.
So maybe things are changing, and the gray area isn’t such a tricky place for a writer to be anymore? But then again, literary agent John Rudolph wrote a post on July 31st in which he describes being surprised to hear a lot of writers pitch middle grade books with 13-year-old protagonists, because, to him, a 13-year-old main character would traditionally mean that a book is YA. (This is interesting in itself, since Marie Lamba and Mary Kole classify a book with a 13-year-old main character as MG.) John Rudolph explains that even if things are changing, “the last thing I want to hear from an editor is that they love the book but aren’t sure where it would live on the shelf–that’s a classic rejection line.”
So does dwelling in the gray area mean that writers are more likely to rack up rejections from editors and agents? Are there other books you know of that hit the upper-MG or young-YA note well? Are these categories at all different for fantasy and science fiction than for realistic fiction, which is what I tend to read? I’d love to hear what others think.
Some readers find Alice in SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY unlikable…but I think this is an important book BECAUSE Julie Murphy depicts Alice’s anger in such a raw, honest way.
If you’ve ever read reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, you know that readers find characters unlikable ALL THE TIME. The fact that some readers find a character unlikable doesn’t mean that a writer has done anything wrong. Certain characters simply elicit strong positive and negative reactions.
One of the most powerful things about reading is that readers can empathize with characters even when characters do unkind or unwise things. Readers can recognize themselves—even the parts of themselves that they’re not proud of—in characters, and that can be a huge relief.
While every reader does not need to like every main character in every moment, most writers probably don’t aim to create alienating characters. I’ve been thinking about character likability lately because I’ve been working on a book with a narrator who is a bit…prickly, at times. I was lucky to have a couple of very insightful writer friends read my manuscript earlier this summer, and they pointed out a few places where my character was off-putting in ways I hadn’t intended. That feedback was extremely valuable as I revised.
Based on my friends’ feedback on my story and the reviews I’ve read for other people’s stories, I think there are a variety of reasons why readers might struggle to like a character. Those reasons include:
1.) Whininess. If a character whines too much and feels sorry for him or herself, that’s often a turnoff.
2.) Lack of obstacles/antagonists. This one is related to whininess. If a character is having a hard time or complaining a lot but things seem to be going pretty well, readers may get impatient.
3.) Lack of growth. If the character doesn’t seem to be growing or changing at all throughout the story, that can also be frustrating.
4.) Cruelty to likable characters. If the protagonist thinks mean things about or does mean things to kind, generous secondary characters, then readers might begin to dislike the protagonist. (Unless the reader understands why the character is pushing others away and the character is likable in other ways.)
5.) ExtremeCluelessness. It can be compelling to read about a character who doesn’t yet realize something that the reader knows to be true. But if there are too many blatantly clear signs of something (such as another character’s affection), the reader is likely to get annoyed at the character’s cluelessness. (Again, unless the reader understands why the character cannot recognize something that seems obvious.)
Corey Ann Haydu doesn’t shy away from letting her characters do unsettling things, and I think her books are important for that reason (but can be tough to read at times).
6.) Extremely risky decisions. Some readers might also shut down when they read about a character who puts herself in physically or psychologically unsafe situations. That doesn’t mean that characters shouldn’t do ill-advised things, but I think it’s useful to know that some readers might put a book down when a character is doing a whole lot of dangerous, cringe-worthy things. (Although, again, if readers understand why the character is making those decisions, that will help.)
Now, this is all pretty subjective. One reader might have an especially low tolerance for whininess, and another reader might balk at too many dangerous situations. Writers can’t control everybody’s reactions. But when it’s time to revise, I find it helpful to look out for these six potential issues.
As I was working on my new manuscript, I found that it’s also a good idea to balance potentially off-putting moments with positive ones. I tried to create relationships and situations in which my character could be her kindest self. Often, in the moments that my writing friends flagged, too many pages had elapsed since I’d included a positive scene, so I needed to find a way to add one. (Last year, I mentioned how Lyn Miller-Lachmann effectively weaves in positive moments in Rogue in another post on character likability.)
I also found that I needed to incorporate moments when readers can clearly see my character’s vulnerability. Readers need to see what she yearns for and fears even if she doesn’t want to acknowledge those things. Because, as I suggested throughout my list of potential likability issues, if readers see deeply into our characters and understand the reasons for the characters’ thoughts and actions, they are likely to hang in there and love our characters even in moments when they don’t especially like them.
What do you think? Have you noticed any other likability issues? Have you read other books with characters who are occasionally unlikable but still lovable overall?
Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I have a good excuse! Or, actually, a few good excuses. First I was busy with the end of the school year, then I was busy getting married, and then I was in Maui and Kauai for a glorious two-week honeymoon! But now I have returned to moderately calm, regular life for the first time in a while, and here I am back on the blog.
For now, though, I’m focusing on revising a middle grade novel (which started off as one YA novel and then turned into a very different YA novel before finally shifting into MG). In this revision process, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to know yourself and what it means to know a character.
Us about to get married!
A few friends and family members who were there when my husband Mike and I got married at the end of June have commented that the wedding and all of the related details and festivities “felt like us.” It made me really happy that they said that. It’s incredibly exciting but not particularly easy to plan a wedding. I wanted the wedding to feel right to us, but I also wanted it to feel right and happy and comfortable for all of the people who are important to us. Ultimately, it felt like we were able to make the wedding a reflection of us as individuals and as a couple, and other people seemed to have a pretty good time, too (or were too polite to tell us if they didn’t).
Us on my first boat dive. Unsurprisingly, I was nervous the night before. It might be hard to tell with all of the stuff covering my face, but sure enough I was happy in the moment.
People throw around phrases like “be true to yourself,” and being true to myself is always a primary goal for me…but I don’t think I’ll shock anybody when I say that it’s an ongoing process to get to know yourself. I like to think I’m a pretty self-aware person, but occasionally other people will surprise me by articulating something about me that I hadn’t quite realized. On our honeymoon, we did some scuba diving, which is something new for me, and Mike noticed that I tend to express nervousness or uncertainty ahead of time with new things but then blow past what I thought were my limits when I actually try the new thing as long as I don’t feel any pressure to do it. I wouldn’t have been able to clearly state that tendency, but I recognized right away that he was right.
As complicated as it is to get to know yourself, it’s even more complicated to get to know a character you’re creating, especially because a writer often has to understand more about a character than a character understands about him or herself. During my MFA program, I learned to ask myself what my main character consciously wants and what she subconsciously wants. I learned to break down what drives her actions—to ask what she believes about herself and the world that causes her to think and act as she does, even if she isn’t aware of the reasons for her behavior. I learned to consider what the character lacks—what kind of void she feels inside, and what early experiences or relationships have carved out that void.
These are all things that we might consider about ourselves and others might help us to realize…but they’re hard questions that would take us a lot of time and emotional energy to figure out. Sure, maybe the stakes are lower when you’re asking these questions about a fictional person, but when you’ve been thinking about a character for many years and are invested in telling that character’s story, it feels important to get them right.
What I find especially challenging about writing is that I can attempt to answer all of the big questions about a character early in the writing process, but many of my initial answers have to change as I get to know the people and story better (or, you know, as I completely overhaul the set-up of a novel a couple of times). So I have to come up with some tentative answers about why my character is the way she is and why she wants what she wants, but then those answers crystallize or shift or even completely change throughout the writing and revision process. If I cling too tightly to my initial answers, the story I’m writing loses its vibrancy, but if I don’t have any answers in mind when I begin, then I have no idea where I’m going.
And aside from all of that, it’s also tricky (but thrilling) to write from a character’s perspective when I know things about a character that she doesn’t realize about herself. One of the things I’m working on right now is making it clear to a reader why a really kind and wonderful boy is interested in the main character in the book I’m currently working on. Now, I love this character even though she is certainly flawed and has some unkind thoughts that she is quick to share in her narrative. I see her from the inside and the outside, so I’m not surprised that this boy thinks she’s special. But I need to make sure that readers see all of the amazing, endearing things about her even though she doesn’t see them in herself yet. Otherwise, they may get tired of her or wonder what the heck other people see in her. Difficult stuff!
Can anyone think of books that do this especially well—subtly help readers to realize things about a character that the character doesn’t yet understand about him or herself? Or has anyone realized important things about a character after spending a lot of time getting to know the character and writing his or her story? I’d love to know your thoughts.
I’m excited to present the newest student-author interview, featuring Maria E. Andreu, author of The Secret Side of Empty. This is an extra special interview because Maria visited our school, so the student interviewers got to meet her in person and eat munchkins with her. In fact, here’s Maria with the gang, post munchkin-eating.
Maria with her student interviewers (one was absent, so we had another student fill in). If you look closely, you can see that they made a welcome sign on the whiteboard while I was escorting Maria to the classroom.
Maria’s debut novel, The Secret Side of Empty, is loosely based on her own experiences. It tells the story of M.T., a high school senior with a wonderful best friend, an exciting new crush…and a very big secret. M.T. and her family are undocumented immigrants, and as her friends get more and more excited about planning their futures, she feels more and more alienated and lost.
Maria spoke to seventh, tenth, and eleventh graders at Friends Select, and her visit was a great success. The Secret Side of Empty is an important book, and I was thrilled that Maria could share M.T.’s story with students at my school. There’s some difficult content in the book, so it isn’t the right fit for all 7th and 8th grade readers. However, four mature and thoughtful 7th and 8th grade girls—Lydia C., Lydia S., Mary, and Lili May—were eager to read the book, and they had some terrific questions for Maria.
More love for THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY!
First, here’s what the students like most about THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY, with some commentary from Maria interspersed:
Lydia C: There are very few books that I can read in front of the TV while my sister is watching TV, but this was one of those books that I could sit in the corner and read and the TV was on and it didn’t phase me.
I love reading in front of the TV too! Sometimes it’s the only way to hang out with someone when you don’t want to watch what they’re watching. I’m glad TSSoE held your attention.
Lili May: I liked the fact that it was really well-written, so even at points when I wanted to stop reading because it was making me sad or nervous, it was really believable so I didn’t want to put it down. It was so suspenseful and I was so worried about M.T. that I had to keep reading even though I had homework.
I’m sorry I made you worried! But I’m honored that you think the book is well-written.
Lydia S.: I liked that it involved biking, because I’ve found biking to be a good way of dealing with stress. I also liked M.T.’s relationship with Chelsea and how they could stay friends even though they’re in such different financial situations.
I like biking too! And I love that she had Chelsea in her life. Everyone deserves a good friend like that.
Mary: When I first looked at the book, I liked that the flap copy had a bunch of good things, like about the reasons M.T.’s life isn’t bad, but then the flap copy turned bad when it talked about her father and things like that. When I was reading the book, I liked the description the most.
Thank you! I like closing my eyes and picturing things, then trying to put those things into words.
Now for some questions about the book:
Lydia C.: I’m curious about M.T.’s mom. I’d like to know more about how you got the idea for the mom character. Was she inspired by your mom? Also, what happens to her after the end of the book?
Definitely some of the inspiration for the mom character came from my mom the way she was when I was growing up. But I’ve known a lot of women like that. It’s hard to move to another country and not know the language and leave your whole family behind. It leaves you isolated and vulnerable.
If M.T.’s mom is like most people who move here (and I think she is), after the years she spent being afraid of this new world she slowly started to try new things. (You can see the beginning of that in the book with the job and the English classes). I bet she goes on to do really great things.
I can share with you that my mom now owns her own house and has a business that provides jobs for about 5 other people. She’s touched thousands of lives with it. So I think there’s a lot of good things in M.T.’s mom’s future as well.
Mary: Did you ever have different expectations about M.T.’s future or a different outcome of the book?
Yes, I originally wanted her to get an amnesty, which means she would have been put on a path to citizenship. I had some conversations with my editor and we agreed that it probably wasn’t realistic to end it that way in today’s political climate. It felt like maybe today’s reader would consider it too much of an “easy” ending. But I do still hope that she and others like her eventually get the chance to be citizens.
Lydia S.: Did you base the friendship with Chelsea off of a real friendship that you had?
A lot of the details of what she does with Chelsea are fictional, but I definitely had my own “Chelseas” growing up. In high school, there were 3 of us that went everywhere together. We are still friends today.
Lili May: I really thought of giving up on the book when M.T. started thinking about killing herself. What were your thoughts as you added that part? How did you decide to do that? Did you have any worries about how readers would react?
Thank you for not giving up on it! I know it’s hard to read about that sometimes. It’s difficult to imagine why someone would consider suicide.
I put that in for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted people to understand the impact of how it feels to be living a life that seems to have no good options. I wanted people to understand the damage that can do inside. Second, I put it in because it was something I thought about as a teenager and young adult. I don’t think I really ever wanted to go through with it, but when I ran down the list of how to fix my situation, it sometimes popped up in my head. I’m so glad I found reasons not to do it because my life has been amazing. None of this would have been possible if I had made such a bad decision early on in my life.
I guess the other reason I put that in is in case anyone knows someone who is feeling that sad and hopeless they will know to tell someone and ask for help.
Lydia C.: Did you have worries about getting to go to college like M.T. does because of your undocumented immigrant status?
I absolutely did. Most of the years I was in high school I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to go. (When I was in middle school I hadn’t started to worry about it yet, because my parents kept telling me one day we’d move back to Argentina and, anyway, no one in my family had gone so I didn’t even know what it was).
Even once I became a legal resident and later a citizen, it took me longer than the average person to go to college. I had to work full time and go to school at night. It was hard, but I loved every minute of it.
Lili May: Did you also have a “secret side of yourself” and not tell people about your immigration status?
Absolutely. I was in my 30s when I finally started to tell people about my story. I was so scared to do it before then.
And finally, some questions about when Maria was in middle school:
Lili May: Did you always know you would be a writer? Did you always know you would write a story based off of your experience?
I did always know I wanted to be a writer, although, of course, I thought about lots of other things too. I had a great biology teacher who inspired me to be a scientist for a while. I can be kind of dramatic sometimes so I thought I might make a good actress 🙂 But writing always came kind of easily to me and I enjoyed it, so when I was twelve I wrote in my diary, “Most of all I want to be a writer.”
I never thought I’d write a story based on my experience of being undocumented, though. Never, ever! Remember, I thought it was an ugly secret to hide. I’m glad I figured out it wasn’t. The results have been amazing.
Lydia S: What were your favorite books when you were in middle school? Did any of those books inspire you later?
I loved Judy Blume. I probably read Tiger Eyes a little later in middle school or early in high school and absolutely loved it. I also loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She wasn’t undocumented or Hispanic, but Francie and I had a lot in common. And, of course, I just loved Anne Frank. I thought, like millions of people, that if we had just had a chance to get to know each other we’d have been friends.
Mary: What was the longest book or story that you wrote then?
I wrote in diaries a lot. I used to make up stories about what it would be like if I met my favorite singers and they fell madly in love with me or if the boys I liked from afar… also fell madly in love with me. I wrote a lot about boys falling madly in love with me, I guess.
Lydia C: How much did you understand when you were in middle school about how it impacted you to be an undocumented immigrant, and how much did you not realize until later?
I didn’t understand a lot about it. I knew we were undocumented, but I didn’t understand until later how it would impact my future. When I was in middle school I still thought I would have to move back to Argentina. I was twelve the first time I wrote in my diary that I didn’t want to move there. But it wasn’t until later in high school that I realized that my options here were limited too.
I got my legal permission to stay when I was 18. Even after that I didn’t think a lot about the issue of how being undocumented had affected my life and how many other lives it was affecting. It took almost 20 years for me to “get it.” I can be a slow learner sometimes!
Everyone, thank you SO much for taking the time to read the book and to put together your thoughtful questions. I hope I’ve answered them to your satisfaction. If there is anything that is still unclear or if you think of other questions, let me know! I hope I get to visit your school again one day soon.
Thank YOU, Maria, for visiting our school and for your fascinating answers! We hope we can have you visit again, too.
When I was a kid, I loved books that felt real. Judy Blume’s Just as Long as We’re Together and Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson were two of my favorites because I could completely relate to the main characters. Tara Altebrando’s middle grade debut The Battle of Darcy Lane is just the kind of book I adored most back then because of the sensitive, realistic portrayal of twelve-year-old girls and their dynamics with each other, boys, and their families. Don’t get me wrong—I still loved this book as an adult—but I was especially excited to share it with three sixth grade girls because I could picture my sixth-grade-self sympathizing with the main character, Julia, and cheering her on throughout the story.
In The Battle of Darcy Lane, Julia is looking forward to a summer of fun with her best friend Taylor, but a new girl named Alyssa moves to her neighborhood, introduces Julia and Taylor to a ball game called Russia, and criticizes everything Julia does. Pretty soon Taylor and Alyssa are acting like best friends, and Julia has to fight to be included. There is change everywhere Julia looks, so she throws all of her energy into the one thing she might be able to control: a giant Russia showdown where she’s determined to beat Alyssa once and for all.
Three sixth grade girls, Izzy, Nyeema, and Alex, read The Battle of Darcy Lane and had some questions for Tara about the book.
First, here’s what they liked most about the book:
Alex: I liked all the drama, because it felt really realistic. I liked when Julia saw her crush Peter with Alyssa and freaked out. I thought Julia and Peter were a cute couple.
Nyeema: I liked the Russia throw-down. I liked how we got to see Alyssa’s mom get so frustrated. It was funny but it also showed that Alyssa’s mom cares more about her daughter winning than about her daughter, which was sad.
Izzy: What stands out to me is how Alyssa sort of steals Taylor because it reminds me of things that really happen in middle school.
And now for some questions about THE BATTLE OF DARCY LANE!
Izzy: Will you write any more books about middle schoolers? How is it different to write books about middle school students versus older teenagers?
I’m really enjoying the experience of writing for middle schoolers so yes, I’m going to do it again. When I write for older teenagers, there is typically some kind of romance at the forefront of the story and it’s nice to be freed from that for a while. I remember my middle-school years as ones of big dreams and messy friendships and longing, before all the insanity of puberty and, eventually, dating, started, and I think there’s a lot of great material to work with in there.
Alex: How did you come up with the characters’ names?
I struggle with this! I usually end up going to the Social Security website, where they list popular baby names for each year. I read through the lists until I find a name that feels right for each character.
Nyeema: Will you write a sequel about what happens after? If not, what are you working on now?
I have so many ideas for different books that the notion of sequels has never appealed to me that much. I think I left Julia in a good spot and readers can imagine what the next few days and even years will be like for her. So I’m working on my next middle-grade novel, which is called My Life in Dioramas, and is about a girl who copes with moving out of her childhood home by making shoebox dioramas of her life there. She’s also secretly trying to sabotage the sale of the house.
Alex: How did you decide to include the game of Russia? Have you tried to play it and have you gotten all the way up to 13? We think it seems hard!
It is hard! But there was a time when I was great at it. It came through hours and hours and hours of practice. Would you believe when I shopped this book around to publishers it was called Russia? I thought that having that intense game in the book was a neat way to sort of highlight how friendship often feels like a competition. It really shouldn’t! And I don’t think it does when you get older, but in middle school totally.
Nyeema: Which character is which on the cover? I think it’s: Julia, Alyssa, then Taylor. Is that right?
Julia’s by the porch for sure. But Taylor’s the one in the middle. She’s described in the book as having super-blonde hair. Or wait, hmmn. Did that get edited out? I’m not sure! 🙂
And finally, some questions about when Tara was in middle school:
Alex: Did you have friend drama or play Russia when you were in middle school?
Yes and yes. Big time. The book is inspired by my own sort of toxic friendship triangle when I was twelve, and yes, we played Russia all the time. There was a never a big Russia showdown, but I definitely experienced a lot of what Julia’s experiencing.
Nyeema: Did you have a phone when you were in middle school?
I went to middle school a very, very long time ago. We didn’t even have cordless phones at home, and my parents didn’t let me have my own extension in my room until I was in high school. That must sound crazy to middle schoolers now! It sounds sort of crazy even to me and I was there.
Thank you, Tara, for answering these questions! We’re glad to hear you’ll be writing more middle grade novels!
Book cover from Goodreads. Photo of Tara by Peter Lutjen, from taraaltebrando.com.
Welcome back for the fourth installment of the Student-Author Interview series! This time, I’m excited to feature Trent Reedy, a fellow VCFA alum and a prolific author who writes brilliantly across genres. Trent was a member of the Iowa Army National Guard and served in Afghanistan. Trent’s first published novel is Words in the Dust, a powerful middle grade story that honors Zulaikha, a girl he met during his time in Afghanistan. He then wrote a second middle grade novel, Stealing Air, before making his young adult debut with Divided We Fall, an action-packed novel that kicks off a thrilling trilogy and takes place in the US in the near future.
In Divided We Fall, seventeen-year-old Danny has no idea what he’s getting into when he joins the National Guard. Danny is looking forward to spending his senior year playing football and hanging out with his girlfriend, but he finds himself in the middle of a major conflict that ultimately sets the stage for a second US civil war.
Three 8th grade boys—Saras, Jake, and Jacob—read Divided We Fall and had some questions for Trent about how he came to write this thought-provoking book.
First, here’s what the students liked most about DIVIDED WE FALL with some commentary from Trent interspersed:
Jake: I really like all of the action. It felt like I was there right with Danny, especially during the fighting. I also like how Trent incorporates blurbs from the news throughout the book. The blurbs give a good idea of what’s going on in the big picture and show the conflict among American citizens. I thought those blurbs were really unique—I’ve never read a book that had something like that.
Trent: Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed Divided We Fall. As I write this, I’m also hard at work on book two in the trilogy called Burning Nation. This book should be out in early 2015.
The blurbs you mention are what I call “media noise” sections. I think they come in handy getting a very big national story across to the reader even though the story is told from the point of view of Danny who doesn’t care about big national stories that much.
Saras: I liked that there were so many feelings in the book but they often weren’t stated right away—you had to figure out how Danny was feeling rather than being told. I also liked that Danny had conflicted ideas and didn’t know what he should do so often, and I liked the Facebook-like posts that are incorporated and how you could see how many stars people’s comments got.
Trent: Saras, you bring up a good point about Danny’s conflicted ideas. From the very beginning of my work on Divided We Fall I was determined to make a story in which not only the main character would be conflicted, but where the reader would also be a bit unsure of the right or wrong answers in several of the difficult situations. I hope I’ve portrayed a fairly complicated scenario that readers will enjoy puzzling out for themselves.
Jacob: What I liked best is how everybody in the community has conflicted ideas, but people still come together and Danny’s friends have his back, even when they are shocked about what’s going on and might disagree with him. It’s interesting to see who is backing him and who isn’t in the blurbs and news stories, too.
Trent: You bring up a great point, Jacob. I wanted Danny to have a rock solid group of friends. I remember really enjoying that sense of loyalty, and a family-like friendship among many of the characters in the Harry Potter series, and I wanted to bring that sense of friendship to my own series. I wish I had been blessed with such a great close group like that when I was growing up, but I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with all Danny must deal with.
Now for some questions about the book and Trent’s writing process:
Jake: How did you come up with the idea for this particular book? It seems like there are lots of things you could have written about involving the army, so what made you choose to set your story in the near future and have the country be on the verge of civil war?
Trent: Jake, I wish I had a good answer to your question. The idea for Divided We Fall slammed into my head one day while I was driving. Usually, I have to kick an idea around in my mind for a long time, maybe for years before I start writing. But one day I just thought about a teenage Guardsman assigned to pull guard duty on the state line between Washington and Idaho. For the next several hours, I could think of nothing else but circumstances that would make that state line standoff happen. That very day when I returned home, I started writing the first lines of the book. That almost never happens for me. As I said, most of the time, an idea has to hang around in my brain for a very long time before I start writing.
But I also wanted to write about a country on the verge of civil war because I’m troubled by a lot of the things I read about in the news. It seems like America is divided more now than it has been at any other time in my life, so it has been good exploring those concepts through the course of my work on the trilogy.
Saras: Why did you choose to set the book in Idaho?
Trent: I set the book in Idaho because, in general, Idaho is a fiercely independent-minded state. It is a state where many people are passionate about preserving their rights to own and carry firearms. More importantly, to make this story work, I needed a state where the geography provides some natural defenses against invasion. Idaho has some beautiful and rugged mountain terrain. I knew this would be important when my fictional Idaho National Guard set up its blockade to keep federal soldiers out. So I chose Idaho for several reasons, but the most important one was the state’s geography and topography.
Saras: If you wanted to write about a soldier, why did you choose to write about a high school student and not an adult?
Trent: I wrote about a high school student, first, because I find the growing up years to be the most interesting. Adults are boring! Also, there is this idea that young people are supposed to be mostly at peace, going to school, having fun with their friends, and all that. So putting this young person Danny Wright into the middle of this huge near-war feels even more jarring than it would have, I think, had I made the story about an adult soldier.
Jacob: Did you think of memories from your time in Afghanistan while you were writing this book and did your memories help you write this book?
Trent: Jacob, I have been home from my time in the war for about ten years now, and honestly, not one day passes when I do not think about it. I’m trying to move on, to leave the war behind, but it’s been really tough. Certainly my military experiences helped writing this book. I hope my knowledge of weapons systems and military culture come through in Divided We Fall. Also, during my time in the war, I spent a lot of time on guard duty. I tried to convey what that felt like when I put Danny on guard duty.
Jake: Do you like football, and if not, why did you make Danny a football player in the book?
Trent: I have a complicated relationship with sports. I was terrible at football in high school, but I do enjoy watching a good football game now and then. I put it in the book because I wanted to establish Danny is pretty tough. Also, as I said, football is pretty exciting, and anything can happen on any given play. It has a lot of potential for drama, which is what you want in a book.
Jacob: What can you tell us about the next two books in the trilogy?
Trent: The next two books are intense! I’m closing in on finishing Book 2, called Burning Nation. As you may have guessed it is all about a civil war, and the characters don’t get through it without serious cost. The third book will be called The Last Full Measure. I have a lot more work to do on that book, but it is going to bring the whole story to a surprising end.
Saras, Jacob, and Jake: Who is your favorite author? Are there any authors or books that have especially influenced this trilogy?
Trent: Wow. This question is very hard to answer. Who is my favorite author? Maybe Katherine Paterson because her books are amazing and really helped me out when I needed help. Katherine is a wonderful person. I read most of the YA dystopian books to prepare for writing Divided We Fall. I enjoyed The Hunger Games, Divergent, Legend, and books like that. I read those books to see how other writers dealt with a society that was holding on after the systems and rules that we now live by had collapsed.
Jacob: Was your decision to join the National Guard anything like Danny’s? It seemed like he joined because he wanted to be like his father and he thought being in the National Guard would help him with other things, like his mechanic job and football training. Did you also join because you thought being in the National Guard would help you do other things, or did you mostly want to be a soldier?
Trent: I joined the Iowa Army National Guard because my father was working hard and helping to pay for my college tuition. I wanted my dad to be able to keep more of his money, so I joined the Guard to pay for my school myself. Actually, I never dreamed I’d be a soldier before I wanted the tuition money. I’d always wanted to be a writer. That’s what it has all been about. It turned out my time as a soldier helped both with college and writing.
And finally, some questions about when Trent was in 8th grade:
Jake: Was it your plan to join the National Guard back in 8th grade?
Trent: I did not plan to join the National Guard until after my second year of college. When I was in 8th grade, I wanted to be a writer.
Saras: Did you plan on being a writer when you were in 8th grade?
Trent: I wanted to be a writer since I wrote this one fun short story when I was in the fourth grade. Writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It is the best job in the world!
Jacob: If not, what did you plan to do? (Or if so, what else did you think you might do?)
Trent: There was never really anything else I wanted to do besides writing. I earned a teaching license, and was very involved in the rigorous demands of teaching high school English for four years, but during that time I was always working on my fiction or attending writing school at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. For many many years now, it’s been all about the books.
Thank YOU, Trent, for these thoughtful and fascinating responses! We’re looking forward to the rest of the trilogy!
Writing can feel like a solitary endeavor, so I’m always eager for opportunities to talk shop (whether virtually or in person) with other writers. That’s why I was excited when A.B. Westrick invited me to join the #MyWritingProcess blog tour!
A.B. Westrick is the author of Brotherhood (Viking/Penguin 2013), an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and winner of the National Council for the Social Studies Notable Trade Book Award. She has been a teacher, paralegal, literacy volunteer, administrator, and coach for teams from Odyssey of the Mind to the Reading Olympics. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Divinity School, Westrick earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She and her family live near Richmond, Virginia. You can find her blog, with her own #MyWritingProcess post, and more information about her first book at http://abwestrick.com/
And now, for my turn to answer the four writing process blog tour questions.
1.) What are you working on?
I’m finishing up a draft of DEAR BABY, a contemporary young adult epistolary novel about a fifteen-year-old girl named Whitney, who’s had her sights set on getting into Princeton since before she could spell her own name. Everything is on track, until her mom gets pregnant with a miracle baby and Whitney has to leave her rigorous prep school and start over at the local public school. When she finds out about a creative writing scholarship to an elite boarding school that could be her ticket into Princeton (and out of her baby-crazed house), Whitney resolves to turn herself into a real writer. She begins to write every day, imagining the least intimidating audience she can think of: the baby that got her into this mess.
The book is written as an extended letter to her soon-to-be sibling, and it’s a completely different version of a manuscript I was working on back in 2010-2011. The main character stayed the same, but pretty much everything else about the story changed when I started it over. Nobody but me has seen any of the manuscript except the very beginning, so I’m looking forward to getting feedback from some writing friends soon.
2.) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
Most of my work is contemporary realistic young adult fiction, which is my favorite genre to read in addition to my favorite genre to write. I’d like to think there are a couple of things that make my work stand out within that genre.
First, my writing tends to be funny. Not riotously, over-the-top silly, but my protagonists make humorous observations and use humor to deal with difficult things. I’m grateful to the advisors I worked with at Vermont College for telling me, “Hey, you can do funny. Go with that!” because I think humor sharpens my characters’ voices and makes them easier to connect with.
Second, I tend to write for the younger end of the YA spectrum. That’s partly because when I think back to my own teen years, I can still feel the experiences of my freshman and sophomore years of high school most intensely. And also, I teach middle school. As I’ve said on this blog before, my 7th and 8th grade students like to read young adult books rather than middle grade books, and some of my 6th grade students do, too. Many of my students are ready for dark, edgy, older YA, but I see firsthand that there’s a need for slightly younger YA books, as well.
3.) Why do you write what you do?
In a wonderful interview with my friend L. Marie, author and teacher Martine Leavitt gives this advice for people who want to write: “Love the world, love the word, love your characters, love your readers, love the work. If you are not very good at loving any one of these things, you must change.”
I had never attempted to write creatively before I began teaching middle school English. I started writing young adult fiction because I love my students. I also love the characters I’ve created, and I love the uncomfortable fourteen-year-old version of myself that I often imagine as I write. I can’t say I love every moment of the writing process; I don’t love the challenge of finishing a novel draft when I have five hundred other things to do or the stress of worrying that a book I poured my heart into might not be marketable enough. But on the most basic level, I write young adult fiction out of love, and that’s how I know I’ll keep doing it even when it feels discouraging.
4.) What is your process like?
My process is still very much evolving. I don’t write every day, because there are times during the school year when I don’t have time. I write a whole lot during school vacations.
I’ve been trying to make writing more of a routine this year, and I’ve had the general goal of writing 500 words a day. Some weeks I really do write 500 words a day, and some weeks I skip a bunch of days and catch up on the weekend. It’s been helpful to have a specific but manageable word count goal, and I’ve kept track of my progress in a spreadsheet, which has given me some sense of control over the process. I find that comforting.
There are many parts of writing that I can’t control or predict. Sometimes I need to write longhand in a notebook, and sometimes I want to type. Sometimes I want to figure out exactly what’s going to happen in a scene before writing it, and other times I want to see what happens as I go. Sometimes I feel the very certain need to read back through the manuscript so far, revising and reconnecting to parts of it along the way. Some days I feel like I’m in a groove, and then I look back to see that what I wrote was garbage. Other days I have zero motivation and convince myself I just need to write a page so I won’t get too behind on word count, and then out of nowhere I’m on a roll.
My process is an imperfect blend of self-discipline and openness to what feels right to me.
And now I get to tag other writers so that we can all find out about their processes, too! Tune in on April 14th, one week from today, for #MyWritingProcess posts from Laura Sibson, Ellar Cooper, and Melanie Fishbane.
After years spent counseling undergrads on career issues, Laura Sibson discovered a passion for writing novels geared toward teens. This passion led to an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2012. When she’s not writing, counseling or drinking impossibly strong coffee, you can find Laura running miles around her home in suburban Philadelphia, walking her dog or ingesting pop culture (along with great take-out) with her hubby and two teen sons. She blogs at http://laurasibson.com/
Ellar Cooper holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the life-changing, heart-stealing Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she does her best to respect the hood. Ellar may or may not actually be the name that’s on her birth certificate—but she does have a birthmark, so she can prove that she was born, should the need arise. Otherwise, you can find her happily rambling on her blog about writing, reading, creativity, Dystropians, VCFA, mountains, movies, the bass in her car, and probably baseball. (And Robin Hood. She kinda has a thing for Robin Hood.) The trick is getting her to stop. She blogs at http://ellaroutloud.wordpress.com/
Melanie Fishbane’s YA novel based on the teen life of L.M. Montgomery will be published under the Razorbill imprint in 2015. She has 17 years of experience in publishing, specializing in children’s and teen lit, and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She loves talking about writing, books, old movies, classic women’s lit and anything that amuses her. Melanie blogs at http://melaniefishbane.wordpress.com/
And I’d love to hear about your writing process if you’d like to leave a comment!
The other day, I read Joe McGee’s powerful blog post about being the kind of hero who doesn’t need a cape: the kind of understated hero who reads books aloud to kids. I recommend reading the post in its entirety, but in one part of it, Joe describes reading to one of his three sons: “I sit at the bedside of my middle-schooler and read him a couple of pages of the Percy Jackson books he’s devouring. No, he doesn’t need me to read them to him (he tears through the books), but he just likes the experience of hearing my voice; of sharing a few minutes with me.”
As a middle school English teacher, I read aloud to my students, too, even though, like Joe’s middle-school-aged son, they can certainly read on their own. Reading to a classroom full of students is different than a quiet, pre-bedtime, father-son moment, obviously, but my students and I also enjoy the experience Joe describes: of sharing some time together in which we are all immersed in the same story. They know that I won’t give them reading quizzes or make them write essays about the books I read aloud, and it takes a long time for us to make it through a read-aloud novel, since I only read a little bit (between five and fifteen minutes) at a time. As a result, our read-aloud time allows us to savor a story in a way that most of us don’t have time to do when we are reading on our own.
In addition to the fact that my students enjoy read alouds (there is often cheering when I announce that we’re starting or finishing class with a read aloud, which makes me feel at least a tiny bit heroic), it’s useful for many of my students to hear how an experienced reader reads a text. I make sure to emphasize important words, I speak differently for different characters, and I pause to re-read a sentence if I don’t get the inflection quite right: all things that students can do inside their heads when they’re reading silently for better comprehension and more enjoyment. Reading aloud lets us appreciate the way a well-told story sounds, which can help students develop an ear for voice, that elusive but important trait that distinguishes wonderful writing.
But reading aloud does include some challenges. Sometimes it feels like one more thing to balance when I’m already trying to fit in a whole lot. The fact that it takes a long time to get through a read-aloud book also brings up two tricky issues: we’re not going to move on to another one for a while, which can be a bummer if a student isn’t into a book we’re reading aloud, and sometimes students get impatient and want to know what happens (which I can understand), so they get a copy of the book and finish it on their own. That can mean that they’re less engaged while we’re reading as a class, or that they give away plot developments to their classmates. I’ve been feeling discouraged by these challenges lately, but Joe’s blog post reminded me to stop and think about the tangible and intangible benefits of reading aloud.
When I choose read alouds, I do my best to think of books that will appeal to a range of students. Occasionally I offer different options and let students vote, but I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, because students whose first choice book doesn’t get chosen tend to take a little while to warm up to the class choice. Verse novels can be great for reading aloud, because they tend to include fewer words than prose novels and we can get through them more quickly. Books that have a mystery element and invite students to make lots of predictions also work well (although then if students can’t resist finishing the book on their own, they can’t participate in some of the conversations), and funny books are often a hit. Here are some of the books I’ve used, specifically with 6th and 7th grade classes.
Rules, by Cynthia Lord: This was the first read aloud I ever used. Looking back, I’m surprised I chose it because only girls tend to check it out from the classroom library, but the class loved it and it led to great conversations, so that’s a point in favor of good books just being good books, not “girl books” or “boy books.”
Home of the Brave, by Katherine Applegate: A funny and poignant verse novel.
All the Broken Pieces, by Ann E. Burg: Another poignant verse novel.
When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead: Both of these books have a great voice, a vivid setting, and a puzzle element for readers to put together.
Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay: A hilarious book with a lovable cast of characters, and the first book in a series.
Capture the Flag and Wake Up Missing by Kate Messner: Both suspenseful and action-packed, with lots of opportunities for readers to make inferences and varied casts of characters.
The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt: Schmidt’s funny, emotion-packed writing really lends itself to being read aloud.
Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson: At first I thought this delightful and humorous pirate adventure novel might feel too young for my sixth grade students (even though I, as an adult, adored it), but we’re reading it aloud now. It turns out, once again, that good books are good books, so I didn’t need to worry. Also, I let students take turns reading the fun letters, articles, signs, and excerpts that appear at the beginning or end of chapters, and they seem to love that.
What are some books you like to read aloud? I’d love to get suggestions from teachers, librarians, or parents about other books that work especially well.