Student-Author Interview 7: Caroline Carlson

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!boys with cc books

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!

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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.

Read-Aloud Recommendations, the Fall ’14 Edition

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 Fitzgerald18060008

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.

184656052.) 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 Johnsonjkt_9780545525527.indd

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.

205789394.) 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 Levy18769869

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!

Light Contemporary YA

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 19520993Scenes 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 18018509dealing 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 18480474the 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 16081202Open 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 18189606and 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 18594344Best 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.

The Gray Area Between Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction

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.

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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 18602791-1with 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.

In addition, there’s a recent Publishers Weekly article that addresses 18465605the challenge of how to shelve MG and YA novels now that age distinctions are becoming blurrier, and Bloombury launched its “If Only” line this spring. Publishing director Cindy Loh explained in a Publishers Weekly piece that “every novel will be aspirational and ‘clean teen’ – suitable for readers as young as 12.”

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.

Character Likability

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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.) Extreme Cluelessness. 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 some unsettling things, and I think her books are important for that reason (but may not be right for all readers).

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?

Knowing Yourself and Your Characters (Or Trying to, Anyway)

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.

Since we’re in the midst of summer vacation, I won’t have any new student-author interviews for a while, but my students and I had a lot of fun doing the first six interviews (with Amy Rose Capetta, K. A. Barson, Lisa Graff, Trent Reedy, Tara Altebrando, and Maria E. Andreu—check them out if you missed them!). I’m hoping to line up another batch come September!

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.

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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.

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.

Student-Author Interview 6: Maria E. Andreu

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 pic1

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!

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!

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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.