Student-Author Interview 4: Trent Reedy

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.

18114594In 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.

boys with DWFFirst, 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!!

Thank YOU, Trent, for these thoughtful and fascinating responses! We’re looking forward to the rest of the trilogy!

My Writing Process

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!

Brotherhood-COVER.low-res-200x300A.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.

laura-sibsonAfter 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,photo_00010 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/

melaniefishbane_1361122125_19Melanie 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!

 

 

Reading Aloud in a Middle School English Classroom

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.

222458Rules, 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.”

1835150Home of the Brave, by Katherine Applegate: A funny and poignant verse novel.

0-545-08092-4All the Broken Pieces, by Ann E. Burg: Another poignant verse novel.

17308183When 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.

324377Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay: A hilarious book with a lovable cast of characters, and the first book in a series.

17286690Capture 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.

556136The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt: Schmidt’s funny, emotion-packed writing really lends itself to being read aloud.

17349153Magic 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.

 

 

Student-Author Interview 3: Lisa Graff

I’m so excited to bring you the next installment of the Student-Author Interview Series! This time, three delightful sixth graders and two delightful seventh graders have interviewed the similarly delightful Lisa Graff, who has even shared some special bonus content with us! Poli, Sophia, Sydney, Dasha, and MaryElizabeth all read Lisa’s charming novel A Tangle of Knots, which is set in a slightly magical world where people have special Talents. It features an orphan girl named Cady with a Talent for baking people’s perfect cakes; a powder blue suitcase; a lost luggage emporium; and so much more. If you haven’t read it yet, it comes highly recommended (both by me and by these enthusiastic students)!

First, here’s what they love most about A TANGLE OF KNOTS: 

Sydney: What I really liked were the Talents and how almost everyone had a special sophia.poli.syd copyone.

Poli: I liked that at first everything was a bit confusing and then at the end it all fell together. I liked Cady the best because she was sweet and gave off a “main character” vibe.

Sophia: I liked how it was from all of the different character’s perspectives.

Dasha: I liked that Cady’s Talent was making perfect cakes. It’s so random and happy. I also like the old man with the knot-tying Talent. I liked how at the beginning it was about this guy who seemed like he had a bright future, and then he ended up being the villain. I also like ME.Dasha copyhow the bad guy used his favorite Talent of floating all the time.

MaryElizabeth: I liked how everything came together and the diversity of people’s Talents—how they were all random, like spitting and knot tying. I liked the cleverness of the story and the happy tone. I really liked the character of Toby.

Now, here’s what they wanted to know about the book:

Poli: If you lived in that world, what would your Talent be?

I could only wish it would be a tasty Talent, like Cady’s Talent for cake-baking. But more likely I’d end up with something boring but practical, like closet-organizing (already a specialty of mine—at least it comes in handy!).

MaryElizabeth: What would be your perfect cake? Also, how old were you when you first started baking cakes? Was your first cake a disaster, or did it turn out well?

My perfect cake would definitely be a lemon layer cake. I have a recipe for one with black tea frosting, and it takes forever to make, but it is worth the effort. (This may say that I, too, am sweet and sour and a lot of work, but I’m fine with that!)

Here's seven-year-old Lisa, helping with her birthday layer cake!

Here’s seven-year-old Lisa, helping with her birthday layer cake!

I probably first got the baking bug when I was seven years old. In my family we have a tradition where, when a child turns seven, he or she has an enormous party with all the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, and there is a seven layer cake, where every layer is a different color. No one seems to know where this tradition originated, but my family has been doing it for as long as anyone can remember, and it is a lot of fun. 

When I first started baking on my own, I definitely had a lot of disasters. Even trying out recipes for A Tangle of Knots, I made several cakes that didn’t work out at all, so obviously those recipes didn’t end up in the book! Baking can be a challenge, but I think that’s what I enjoy about it.

Dasha and Sophia: How did you come up with all of the Talents that seem so random? And how did you come up with the other random details, like the powder blue suitcase, ice cubes, and peanut butter?

A page from Lisa's brainstorming notebook.

A page from Lisa’s brainstorming notebook.

All of the Talents and details really just came from brainstorming. I kept a notebook when I was first working on this book, before I even wrote down a single word of the story, and I scribbled down every single idea I had about what might go in the story (whether I thought it was a particularly good idea or not).

notes 2

More from Lisa’s notebook.

I went through the notebook several times and crossed out ideas I didn’t like anymore, and added new ones in the margins, and asked questions about the ones that stuck, and then tried to answer them. I filled up an entire notebook this way—and that was before I even began to outline! This was definitely a change from the typical way I write. Usually I like to dive headfirst into a novel before I have any idea of what is going to happen, and learn about the characters and their stories by writing through them. But I knew that in this book, which I wanted to be so full of intricate, connecting details, I was going to have to decide on the majority of things before I started writing. It was a big challenge for me.

Poli: How did you come up with the characters’ names?

notes 3

Lisa’s name brainstorm. What fun to see the other name contenders that didn’t get picked!

This came from brainstorming too. It’s interesting to me to look back at my notebook, because I can see that most of the characters’ names I decided on right away, but a few of them, like Miss Mallory, had very different names (Delania Crisp? What was I thinking??)

I should also say that in my original outline, and for the first several drafts, there were two big characters that I eventually ended up cutting out of the story completely. The first was a fourth Asher sibling (Asher Arnold Asher IV), who had a Talent for playing baseball but desperately wanted to play the oboe instead, and a janitor (named “Mr. Epsilon” in my notes, but later called Juan), who had a Talent for fixing U-bend pipes, and was meant to be a love interest for Miss Mallory. What became apparent pretty quickly, though, was that I was simply dealing with too many characters and storylines, so these ones got cut—and I could tell they didn’t need to be there, because once I removed them, I didn’t miss them at all.

MaryElizabeth: What would you tell people who say they don’t have any Talents? What advice would you give them?

This was something I wanted to talk about in my book. I think there are plenty of us who feel like we’ll never be the best in the world at anything—and that’s perfectly fine, in my opinion. You don’t need to be the best in the world at anything to be a good person, or interesting, and being good at something doesn’t mean you’ll even necessarily enjoy doing that thing. Part of the reason I think I love writing so much is that I never felt like it came particularly easily to me—it was always something I had to work at, and because of that it still feels so satisfying when I hit upon an idea or sentence that I’m particularly proud of. So I guess my best advice, if you feel you are a person with no special Talents, is to find what you love, regardless of how amazing you are at it, and do it with gusto.

Sydney: What inspired you to write this book?

Several years ago I watched a television special about the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, where they buy unclaimed luggage from airports and bus depots and then sell the contents to the public. I thought this was the coolest, craziest thing I’d ever heard of, and I knew that I wanted to one day set a book in such a place. That idea rolled around in my brain for about three years, until I finally figured out the key to unlocking the story that should go with it—I’d had an image of a girl, opening a suitcase, searching for something inside, but all of a sudden I realized that the story would be so much better if there was something inside the suitcase searching for her. The story all fell into place around that one idea.

Sophia: How long did it take you to write the book?

Oddly enough, this was one of my quickest books that I’ve written to date. I spent three months brainstorming and outlining, then probably three months writing the rough draft, and then another two or three revising. Usually my books take anywhere from one year to two.

15780279

Dasha: How did the cover come to be?

The cover, which I absolutely love, was all the brainchild of the designer and editor at my publishing house. They came up with the general idea for it, and then suggested a few illustrators whose work they thought might be a good fit for it (I got to weigh in at this stage and help pick the artist). I think the process was fairly simple for this book—sometimes these things can be pretty painful!

And last but not least, here’s what the girls wanted to know about Lisa in middle school:

MaryElizabeth: What was your favorite subject?

In middle school my favorite subjects were art and chorus. I really liked science too (and I still do!). I enjoyed reading a lot, but I never felt like I was a particularly amazing writer when I was a kid.

Sydney: Do you remember anything you wrote when you were in middle school, and if you do can you tell us about it? Have you ever taken an idea you had in middle school and turned it into a book, or would you?

I wrote for fun a little bit when I was in middle school, but I didn’t start taking it more seriously until I joined my school’s writing club my freshman year of high school. When I was in middle school I thought it was lots of fun to write fake diaries from fictional characters’ points of view, and to illustrate them. That might be the thing I wrote the most of. I’ve never turned one of my childhood ideas into a book so far, but I have a picture book that’s been rolling around in my brain since I was fourteen—maybe one of these days I will finally figure out how to make it work!

Dasha: What was your favorite book?2657

My all-time favorite book is actually one I first read in middle school: To Kill a Mockingbird. I also really loved The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. And I was obsessed with the Baby-Sitters Club books when I was in middle school too. I must’ve owned about sixty of them! I couldn’t get enough.

Sophia: What did you want to be when you grew up? When did you start wanting to be a writer—was it before middle school or after?

I decided I was going to be a pediatrician when I was four years old (no joke!), and I still thought that’s what I was going to do until my freshman year of college, when I realized I enjoyed writing more than anything else. It was very hard for me to let go of that childhood dream, because it was the thing I’d wanted to do for so long, but in the end I knew that there was another dream I hadn’t really considered before, which was going to make me even happier. Once I made the decision to pursue writing, I never once regretted it.

Thank you, Lisa, for answering our questions and sharing your adorable photo and fascinating notebook pages with us! We can’t wait until your next novel, ABSOLUTELY ALMOST, comes out in June!

Cover Images from Goodreads.

An Inspiring Author Visit with Eliot Schrefer

It’s a logistical challenge to coordinate an author visit. Especially if the author is coming in from out of town and presenting to multiple groups. And especially especially when there’s a snow day on the originally scheduled date. So it’s really saying something that Eliot Schrefer’s author visit on February 20th was worth the logistical challenges and then some!

Eliot is the author of the National Book Award Finalist novel Endangered, which tells theEliot story of a fourteen-year-old girl trying to survive in war-time Congo with an orphaned bonobo, and the brand new novel Threatened, among other books. He charmed and inspired middle school students, high school students, and teachers as he presented about human-ape relationships and his research trip to Congo for Endangered. He also talked more informally about his writing process with the eighth grade.

I loved hearing about Eliot’s adventures in Congo, and I also appreciated the humble, unintimidating way he described his life as a writer. I thought it was especially interesting to hear about how he came up with the idea for Endangered. He began researching bonobos because of a pair of Bonobo brand pants, and when it came time to write the novel, he started off with the situation for the story in mind. He knew he’d tell the story of a teenager trying to take care of a bonobo during a time of violence and political unrest, and from there, he figured out what kind of character would fit the situation best.

It was also interesting to hear him talk about drafting versus revision (he doesn’t let himself look back above the cursor as he drafts and keeps moving forward, and he spends much longer revising a first draft than writing it) and about getting into the writing zone. One of the eighth grade students asked him if he feels like he’s really writing from a character’s perspective when he sits down to write, and he said that sometimes he gets into a flow state, in which the story comes to him easily from a character’s perspective, but sometimes he has to sit down and write even when he isn’t in that kind of zone.

My own writing process is different from Eliot’s in some ways: I tend to start a story with a character or a feeling instead of a situation, and I tend to go back to earlier parts of a story a lot as I’m getting a draft together rather than pushing onward without looking back. But the tone of Eliot’s talks made it clear that there isn’t just one way to do things: what’s important is to realize that writing, or any other kind of art, is going to take a whole lot of effort and discipline, and then to figure out what works best for each of us.

Oh, and in addition to all of those great takeaways from the visit? Bonobos are extraordinarily cute. Seriously. Look them up on YouTube. In the larger assemblies, the whole audience was enchanted each time Eliot showed a video clip of bonobos. Eliot is writing a quartet of YA novels about young people and their relationships with each of the four great apes: bonobos in Endangered, chimpanzees in Threatened, and then orangutans and gorillas in his next two books. As I looked out at the audience of students and teachers, all smiling and laughing as they watched these emotionally expressive, absolutely endearing apes, I realized that there is something fundamentally fascinating and resonant about these creatures Eliot has chosen to write about.

And so maybe that’s the biggest takeaway of all: that the best stories deal with subject matter that is in some way fascinating and resonant. That’s not to say that we should all go out and write about apes–I think Eliot has that under control. But I think we should all be on the lookout for potential topics that speak to us and might speak to others. We should all be on the lookout for our own “bonobos,” and we should be aware that the initial seed of inspiration could come from something as simple as a pair of pants.

Student-Author Interview 2: K.A. Barson

Welcome back for the second installment of the Student-Author Interview Series! This 9c5d2f301dfd09933880134e3ed29b36time, four terrific seventh grade readers are interviewing one terrific author: K.A. (Kelly) Barson. Kelly’s debut, the funny and poignant contemporary YA novel 45 Pounds (More or Less), tells the story of sixteen-year-old Ann Galardi, who resolves to lose 45 pounds in two and a half months so that she can fit into a bridesmaid dress that won’t humiliate her when her aunt gets married at the end of the summer. Like last time, the student interviewers will share their favorite things about Kelly’s book, then they’ll ask Kelly some questions about the book, and finally they’ll ask her some questions about when she was in middle school. We hope you enjoy the interview!

First, what the students especially love about 45 POUNDS (MORE OR LESS):

Sophia: I really loved how Ann thought of a goal to work towards. I liked the style of the book and that it’s realistic but shows something that’s not everybody’s reality. I liked Ann’s relationship with Jon, and it felt true when other girls were really mean to Ann. Sometimes people do things that they think are a joke, but they’re really mean.

Rachel: I love how relatable it is even if you don’t have 45 pounds to lose—it’s about parents and siblings and friends and things you can relate to.

Lili May: I agree that it’s relatable, and I also like how you can see how Ann changes, and how she changes who she’s friends with and meets some new people she really likes. I like how in her quest to teach her little sister Libby to be healthy and not freak out about eating she teaches herself that’s how you should live.

Breanna: I really like the little brother and sister, Justice and Liberty. Their names are cute and I liked how Libby was worried about food. Regina also was the perfect name for Ann’s mom’s awful mother-in-law!

Now for some questions about the book and about Kelly’s writing process:

13424250Rachel and Breanna: Did you struggle with weight since Ann’s character does and you write about it in such a believable way in the first person? Or if not, did you feel some of the same feelings that Ann has or go through any of the scenarios in the book? 

Yes and yes. I’ve struggled with weight all of my life. Like Ann, I always worried about what people were thinking. When I was younger I wasn’t as big as I felt I was, but because that’s how I thought about myself I made it come true even more. The battle with weight is often more of a mental battle than a physical one. That is true for Ann, her mother, as well as for me and my mother. My mom is a good mom—as is Ann’s; she just has her own struggles in her own head.

Breanna and Lili May: Are any of Ann’s family members based on anyone real? We especially want to know about Gram, because we love Gram and want to know if there’s a real Gram out there. Also Ann’s dad, because he’s so hurtful, and Regina, because she’s so horrible!

Kind of. Gram is a combination of my grandmother, my mother as a grandmother, and me as a grandmother. My grandma used to call people fat ass. She wasn’t trying to be mean, but it felt like it sometimes because that’s not a nice thing to say. She also used to speak her mind. I spent a lot of time with her growing up. She’s passed away now, and I miss her a lot. I loved writing this because it was like she was with me. My mom used to smoke a lot, so that part came from her. (She doesn’t smoke anymore.) She also speaks her mind. I like to wear bright colors and sometimes dress a little weird. Like my grandma and mom, I also don’t hold back on how I feel. All of us will fight for everyone to get along and love our kids and grandkids fiercely.

Ann’s dad is not based on anyone particular. He’s just a guy who gets caught up in his own day-to-day life and Ann just isn’t there every day. I think he loves her in his own way. He’s just selfish.

Regina is based on someone I know, but I can’t tell you who it is because she has no idea it’s her. You see, when someone is that judgmental and self-absorbed they don’t see the meanness even when it’s staring them in the face. They usually only see how people treat them wrongly. That’s true with Regina as well as the real-life “Regina.” 

Breanna: How did you choose the characters’ names, especially Liberty and Justice?

Ann comes from an earlier version of the story where she had a screen name of Ann_Onymous. She used that because she felt invisible. But that part of the story was updated and eliminated. I kept her name though because it felt weird to change it.

I’ve always liked the name Libby. Since Mike is a politician, I was brainstorming names that sounded patriotic. Liberty and Justice fit. Plus, I thought they were cute names, and kind of funny, too.

Regina is Latin for queen—the obvious choice.

The Knees started out as a coincidence. I loved the name Raynee, so I chose that to be the friend. Then I noticed that I’d called the other girl Courtney. I jumped on the similarity and added Tiffany and Melanie.

Rachel: Who would you say is the biggest antagonist in the book?

In my opinion, the biggest antagonist is Ann. I know that sounds weird because she’s the protagonist, but the biggest obstacles she had to overcome were her own misconceptions about herself and how others saw her. Yes, there were obstacles with other people—especially Courtney, but overall, those people were reacting from their own selfishness and issues. The biggest battle is within Ann’s own head.

Lili May: Is contemporary realistic fiction your favorite genre to write, and if so, why?

I love writing contemporary realistic fiction because those are the stories that speak to me. I like watching contemporary movies and reading that genre too. (I love John Green and Rainbow Rowell.) However, I also like writing historical fiction. I love history and stories from the past, but more than the facts, I like the people of history. I love that even though times and circumstances change, people are always people.

Rachel: How do you stay on track with your writing?

I don’t. Ha! Deadlines. If someone like my editor or agent gives me a deadline, I do whatever I can to meet it. Sometimes I write just because I need to know what happens to these characters that I think about all the time. I don’t write every day, even though I probably should. I tend to write in sprints and then rest before I sprint into the next story.

Sophia: How did you choose to end the book where you did rather than showing the rest of Ann’s aunt’s wedding and more of what happens with Ann and Jon? Will you make a sequel? I hope you do! (Note: this one includes spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet you might want to scroll past this answer for now!)

I ended it where I did because Ann had transformed. Just like in real life, she didn’t totally change, but her mindset and attitudes had changed. How she saw herself and how she saw Courtney and her mom had all changed. She understood that everyone has his or her own stories and issues and that she could only do something about her own. She was on the right track. And we found out that Jon really does like her! Readers can infer that they will start dating after the wedding. And that everything is finally working out for her.

As for a sequel, there isn’t one planned. HOWEVER, Ann and Raynee make cameo appearances in my next book that is due out summer 2015. It’s about a high school cosmetology student who thinks she has her whole life planned out, until it all falls apart. It takes place in the same city—a fictionalized version of my own town, so some of the same places and people are in it.

And finally, some questions about when Kelly was in middle school:

Lili May: Did you want to be a writer when you were in middle school?

I knew I liked writing when I was in middle school. But I didn’t think it was a real job. I thought of it like being a movie star or professional basketball player—sure, some people do it, but only really talented or lucky people can really do it for a living. And I never thought I was that talented or lucky. I’d always imagined myself as a teacher. I still like teaching and have taught grades 3-12 and now teach college writing. Now I know that I can teach AND write. And that it’s not all about luck and talent. It’s more about hard work and doing what you love.

Breanna: Was English your best subject?

Yes! I loved diagramming sentences and dissecting sentences as I read literature. But I also liked algebra and history. Science? Not so much.

Sophia: Did you have any hard writing assignments at school? Was there anything about writing that was a challenge for you then?

I’ve never liked answering essay questions where the teacher was looking for something specific. They always felt artificial to me, and I usually got frustrated trying to figure out what he or she wanted. I preferred to be able to talk about the stories and hear what other people noticed. I also preferred to create my own stories.

I also didn’t usually want to read something if a teacher assigned it. I was stubborn and bratty that way. I wanted to pick out my own books. I’ve gone back now and read most of the books I refused to read in middle school and high school. I like most of them and can see why the teachers picked them, but I still like to pick out my own books.

Thanks so much for reading 45 POUNDS and for taking the time to interview me! You all are awesome! Write on…

Thank YOU, Kelly, for writing 45 POUNDS and for answering our questions! We can’t wait for your next book!

girls with 45 pounds

Author photo from kellybarson.com (photo credit: Hal Folk). Book cover image from Goodreads.

Student-Author Interview 1: Amy Rose Capetta

I don’t know about you, but I love reading author interviews. I also love giving my students opportunities to interact with real-life authors. So I figured, why not bring these two things together and have students interview authors here on my blog! Welcome to ARCAuthorPhotoLake-200x300the first installment of this student-author interview series, featuring Amy Rose Capetta. Amy Rose is the author of Entangled, an awesome sci-fi adventure story about a girl named Cade who finds out that she’s entangled at a sub-atomic level with a guy she’s never met and has to travel through space to try to save him.

In this and other author interviews I feature here, my students will share what they liked most about the author’s book, ask questions about the book, and ask questions about what the author was like in middle school. Got it? Okay then! Let’s get started.

First, here’s what some of my middle school students love about Entangled:

Mary G.: I really like the way Amy Rose writes. I think it’s dreamy, surreal, and awesome. The way she writes sounds like the setting she’s writing about somehow. It fits. I also like that even though this book is in third-person, the narration sounds like Cade. I loved that at the beginning things are kind of confusing.  I love when books are confusing at first and you have to keep reading to figure things out!

Casey: I also liked that I had to figure things out at the beginning. When I got further on, after Xan was introduced, I liked the action and the adventure that started from there.

Mary D.: I liked how the events weren’t all happy, and I liked the ending, because it wasn’t just happy, but it wasn’t depressing. It was bittersweet.

17165987Now for some questions about Entangled and writing!

Madeline: I see on the first page that Cade wears lots of black and sometimes can’t stand other people. Do you wear black and are you antisocial, too? Or are you more like another character than like Cade?

Antisocial? Oh, yeah. I was a hundred different shades of antisocial. No black in my wardrobe, though! I loved bright colors. My original daydream of Cade (way before I knew anything about the plot,) was about a punk rock girl on a faraway desert planet. Black is traditional for punk and actually smart to wear in hot weather, so when Cade started getting dressed and all of her clothes were black, I went with it.

I wouldn’t say I’m outgoing now, but like Cade, I found a way to connect with people. A lot of what she goes through is a (big, adventurous, sci-fi) version of what I went through at seventeen.

But overall, the character I’m most like is Ayumi—nerdy to the core, buried in her notebooks, doing her own thing.

Quinn: How did you create the world that’s in this book?

The process of creating the world in the book was different from what I’m used to. Before, if a story I wanted to write took place in a fantasy or sci-fi world, I would keep notebooks (like Ayumi!) and make maps of places that didn’t exist. The process of creating that other place could take months. I did all of that for Entangled, but after I started. I let the universe of the story evolve as I wrote. When I had a draft, I went back and made sure it all worked—and I hadn’t changed the names of the planets halfway through.

Mary D.: How much time per day do you spend writing, and how long did it take to write this book?

I get in a good four-to-five hour stretch of writing every day, even when I have other work to do. Whenever I can, I’ll add a second session, which can be shorter, or longer if I’m almost at a deadline! It took me four months to write the first draft of Entangled, and another three to revise it. That was all before an editor bought it, and then there were more revisions, and copyedits. The process of writing Entangled, from start to finish, took eleven months.

Dasha: Do you procrastinate?

I used to procrastinate a lot more than I do now. But I also used to sit still for longer. Now, if I need a break, I’ll take one—get lunch, go for a walk, finally get out of my pajamas. (If people knew how much time writers spend in their pajamas, they would be horrified. Or jealous! Depending on how much you like pajamas.) But I’ve decided that when I’m in writing mode, I have to keep my words on the screen. It allows me to get deeper into the story, and that’s when a lot of the best stuff happens—the surprises, the character development, the humor—basically, the parts I can’t plan.

Casey: How and when did you get into writing?

I got into writing early. I had a third grade teacher who loved all things fantasy. I always loved to write, but combining it with the love of adventure and other worlds is what really made an impact. I had a hard time focusing on the “real world”—and I still do. I think that most adults narrow things down too much. The world is a lot stranger than we think it is. That’s why I love science! It’s a great reminder of that, and a great source to steal ideas for stories.

Mary G.: You say at one point that Cade has light brown skin, so I imagined her being biracial, but then on the cover she looks white. How did you imagine her looking? Does the girl on the cover look like the Cade you imagined?

That is a fantastic question. I could go on and on and on about this subject, but here’s the short answer:

In the future that I imagined, over 1,000 years from now, pretty much everyone is what we would now consider biracial (or, really, multiracial.) Leaving Earth in small numbers, and being lumped together as an undesirable group by nonhuman species, had a big effect on the humans. The remaining population is scattered, so there’s still a lot of genetic variation.

When I imagined the human characters, I wanted to make it clear we weren’t in an all-white future. (Which would be creepy and make no sense.) The publisher was totally on board with a cover that featured Cade’s light brown skin tone, but the original cover didn’t look very sci-fi or futuristic, so the blue was added. The thing that I’ve always liked about the girl in the picture is that her features read as somewhat Asian to me, and with a brown skin tone and a mix of Caucasian and Asian features, she would be a multiracial Cade, like I imagined. Is the Cade on the cover a little different than the Cade in my head? Sure. But I’ve always liked the idea that we can all have different but valid images of a character. The Cade in my head is probably different from the Cade in yours, too, and that’s sort of cool.

Dasha: Did you get ideas or inspiration from other authors or books? If so, which ones?

Definitely! I am always inspired by other books and authors. In this case, I read a lot of sci-fi when I was a teenager, but about 98% of it felt like it was written by male authors, about male characters, for male readers. I wanted to write a space epic that didn’t read like there should be a No Girls Allowed sign stapled to it.

Now for some questions about Amy Rose in middle school:

Dasha: What was your favorite class and your favorite book?

I loved science classes. I can still recite a lot of the periodic table and draw a mean Punnett square.

My favorite books around that time were the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, which starts with The Golden Compass. I was waiting for the third book to come out, and I read the first two over and over and over…Books in a trilogy didn’t come out a year apart from each other then! More like five.

Casey: Was there a writing or literature club in your middle school, and if there was were you in it?

There was no writing or literature club in my middle school. Do you have that? I would have loved it. In middle school I did start writing my first long stories. They were hand-written in multiple composition notebooks, then typed and shared with my best friend. He was amazing and actually read them. (Did I mention they were long? Really long. Like, longer than Entangled.) It was pretty great to send him a copy of a published book, and say thank you.

Mary D.: What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a writer. I was so single-minded. (I guess I still am.) And I was so lucky to be surrounded by supportive people who didn’t tell me that it was impossible.

Madeline: What was your favorite dessert then, and what is it now?

So hard to pick! I have a monstrous sweet tooth. I even worked as a baker for a while.

Then: strawberry shortcake

Now: dark chocolate, all the time, everywhere, with anything, on top of anything

Thanks for being our first guest, Amy Rose! students with Entangled

If you haven’t already, definitely check out Entangled, and then you can look forward to the upcoming sequel, Unmade!

Photo of Amy Rose from amyrosecapetta.com, photo credit: Cori McCarthy. Book cover image from Goodreads.com