Monday, January 13, 2014

Kate Messner: Pre-#NY14SCBWI Interview

Kate Messner is the award-winning author of more than twenty current and forthcoming books for young readers. Kate’s titles include picture books like Over and Under the Snow, the Marty McGuire chapter book series, and middle grade novels like Wake Up Missing, Capture The Flag, and Hide And Seek. Kate’s books have been honored with the E.B. White Read Aloud Medal, and SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text; included on the New York Times Notable, ALSC Notable, CBC Outstanding Trade Books for Science, and Bank Street College’s Best Books for Children lists; and nominated for fourteen state book awards.  Kate spoke at the 2012 TED Conference and is a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and conferences for writers and educators. Find her on Twitter @KateMessner and at

You were a middle school teacher, and, at least for a time, both writer and teacher. Can you share with us how teaching has influenced your writing, and how you balanced the two?

I spent fifteen years teaching middle school English and put, quite literally, thousands of books in kids’ hands during those years.  Handing a student that “just-right” book was one of my favorite parts of my job, and it led to me think a lot about what makes kids love a novel.  That’s one of the things that got me writing more seriously while I was teaching. In those days, my writing time was from about nine o’clock at night until midnight, and that’s how my first half dozen books were written.

Visiting schools to give presentations and do writing workshops with kids is still one of my favorite parts of my job. People ask me sometimes how I get the kids in my books to sound like real kids, and for me, it comes down to knowing how kids talk and think and what it feels like to be twelve. I still have all of those students’ voices in my head and their dreams and hopes and worries in my heart.

You have written many books for kids, ranging from picture books to novels. Is your process for each format the same, or does it change depending on the project?

It’s different for every project, and while I wish I could tell you that I have a “picture book process” or “novel-writing process” down pat, even that isn’t true.  While I do have a very general process (think and research – draft fast – revise fearlessly again and again) I’ve found that every book is different in what it demands of me.  If they’re at all unique, books can’t follow a cookie-cutter process, so I find myself inventing new planning and revision tools for every new book, and they’re not always useful later on.

Case in point: my science thriller WAKE UP MISSING has a main character with a concussion, which makes her narration shaky and unreliable at times. She’s receiving treatment through part of the book but not other parts, and when I was revising, I was worried that her actions and thoughts weren’t consistent with her post-concussion symptoms. The solution? I designed a chapter-day-symptom-treatment-thinking-emotion chart so that I could track, chapter by chapter, whether or not Cat’s symptoms were making sense with the other elements of the story. It was incredibly useful and helped me solve a lot of problems with that book, but is it going to come in handy again? Probably not!

In 2012 your picture book OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for picture book text. Can you share a little about that experience and the role SCBWI has played in your writing life?

I still remember getting that phone call from Lin Oliver. I was actually in California at the time, getting ready for the TED Talk I gave in 2012. Hearing all the other speakers at TED that week was a gift of an experience and I was quite literally walking back to my hotel room after one of the speaker sessions, thinking “Days don’t get much better than this,” when my cell phone rang and...well...the day got even better. Learning that OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW won the Golden Kite Award for picture book text was one of the most exciting things that’s happened in my writing life because it comes from my fellow writers in an organization that really forms the heart of our community. The New England SCBWI Conference is where I attended my first writing workshops and learned about agents and editors. It’s where I was inspired by speakers like Bruce Coville and Laurie Halse Anderson and Cynthia Lord.  It’s where I met my first writer pals – who are now not just critique buddies but some of my best friends in the world. So yes...that Golden Kite phone call made me a little weepy in the best possible way.

At the upcoming conference, you’ll be giving keynote, but you’ll also be presenting at the sold-out Plot Intensive. Do you tend to start your projects with plot?

I’m learning, answering your questions, that there aren’t a lot of “usuallys” in my writing world because my ideas come to me in all different shapes. SUGAR AND ICE, for example, started with character and setting – a figure skater and a maple farm. CAPTURE THE FLAG started with genre and setting – I remember thinking, “I want to write a mystery set in a snowed-in airport!” and taking it from there.  And Marty McGuire, of course, is all about character – Marty herself.

But plot is such an essential piece of the puzzle for any book we want kids to keep reading, so whether or not it’s the starting point, it’s something I always spend lots of time on. Usually, my plot outlines start out incredibly rough – a few scribbled lines in a notebook. From there, I do a rough outline in Scrivener, the writing software I use, and then I start writing.  Most days, after I write a scene or two, I go back and revise my outline, so it’s not a strict guideline but more of a fluid document that changes as I grow to understand my characters more fully. Plot that doesn’t grow out of character often feels forced to me, so it’s not often helpful for me to think about the two as if they’re separate elements of writing. I absolutely love to talk about planning and plotting, though, so I’m incredibly excited for the plot intensive. Any time I participate in a group workshop like this, I always learn so much preparing for my talk, and then on the day of the event, I inevitably learn at least as much as I teach. It should be a terrific day!

You can still register for the upcoming SCBWI Winter Conference HERE. It's right around the corner!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Matt de la Peña: SCBWI Pre-Conference Interview

The SCBWI summer conference is just days away. People are on planes, packing bags, and anticipating the event of the year. This year's conference is sold out, but you can still be there with us, just follow the live conference blog and tweets. We would love to have you join us.

Just before he flew out to California, I had the pleasure of asking Matt de la Peña a few questions. 

Matt de la Peña is the author of four critically-acclaimed YA novels—Ball Don't Lie, Mexican WhiteBoy, We Were Here and I Will Save You—and the award-winning picture book A Nation’s Hope: The story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis. This year his fifth YA novel, The Living, will be released as will his fist middle grade novel, Curse of the Ancients. Matt received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and his BA from the University of the Pacific.  He teaches creative writing at NYU and Vermont College and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country. 

I know you just met an intense deadline. Can you give us a little taste of what's coming soon from you?

My newest YA novel, THE LIVING, comes out in November. And I just finished the sequel to THE LIVING a couple days ago (tentatively titled THE FORGOTTEN). In this two-book series, my main character, Shy, lands a summer job on a cruise ship, and while he's out at sea the "big one" slams California (a massive earthquake). THE LIVING is part adventure story, part romance, with a little bit of class and race exploration thrown into the mix. I also have a picture book coming out next year called LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET (illustrated by the talented Christian Robinson).

Once you've turned in a manuscript, do you usually have another in the works or will you start the brainstorming and drafting now?
I have a file on my computer labeled "future novel ideas." Whenever I'm writing a book under contract, and I find myself beginning to fall under the spell of the "slutty new idea," I take a few rough notes about the idea, file it away, and get back to the story I'm supposed to be writing. As soon as I'm finished with a project my reward is that I get to open the "future novel ideas" file and sift through the descriptions, looking for my next journey. I love trying to figure out what to do next. Each story has so much possibility. (Some of them are dumb, of course). And luckily my memory isn't the best, so I never remember how incredibly long and arduous the process of writing a book is. This allows me to start with the same naive smile I've started every book with.  

You'll be presenting an Intensive on dialogue during the conference. Is there a common mistake you see writers make when it comes to writing dialogue?
I get bummed when I read dialogue that's too cute or too "on the nose." And I throw the book out the window when I come across exposition that's masquerading as dialogue. On the flip side, nothing makes me happier than reading a well-crafted scene with artful and organic dialogue that still manages to stay on point.

Speed Round:

Favorite part of the writing process?
I love revision so much!

Least favorite part of the writing process?
First draft. (This is where drugs and alcohol come into play. Not really. But something like that. Because the whole "white page" thing really hurts.)

Favorite writing snack?
Iced lattes.

Favorite place to write?
The Brooklyn Writers Space, where I've written my last six books.

How do you celebrate when you get to "the end"?
An old fashioned or two at my favorite bar in Brooklyn. Three if the book was especially hard to write. 

Follow Matt on Twitter: @mattdelapena
Follow SCBWI on Twitter: @scbwi
Official conference hashtag: #LA13SCBWI

Monday, July 15, 2013

Peter Lerangis: SCBWI Team Blog Pre-Conference Interview

Peter Lerangis is the award-winning author of more than 160 books for kids that have sold over 5 million copies, including the New York Times best-selling THE COLOSSUS RISES, Book 1 of The Seven Wonders Series. 

Peter took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions before the conference. I have no doubt we are in for a fun ride with him come August.

When you were a biochemistry major at Harvard, or working as a paralegal, was there ever an inkling of that writer of over 160 books somewhere inside of you?

Yes, it was just behind my spleen and a little toward the vertebrae.  I thought the doctors got it out, but they were not inklingectomy specialists and instead removed that little thingy that controls your ability to say no.  As it happened, one day I took a wrong turn for a biochemical paralegal party and found myself in a publishers party instead, and it was downhill from there.

Truth is, I always did want to be a writer and performer.  Biochemistry and law were things I thought I had to do, so I gave them a try.  It wasn’t until I was actually accepted into law school that I had the guts to try a career in musical theater, figuring I could defer admission and then go back if I wanted.  I developed a copyediting career in between shows, because I was a terrible waiter.  Which of course led me to the stable, sensible career of free-lance writer. 

I wonder if law school would still take me ...

After your many books and amazing successes, how has your writing process changed from when you first began your writing career?

I use neither charcoal nor crayons anymore, resulting in beautiful hands but a really crappy carpal tunnel.  Also, I develop and write ideas using my name along with my warped sensibility, instead of a pseudonym along with my warped sensibility. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing or the industry?

Marry rich.  But like every other really excellent piece of advice, I ignored it.  And I’m glad.

Want to see even more of Peter before the conference?

Peter on Twitter.

And, check him out rocking a toga at Comic Con NYC.