Blog Archive

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Writing for Tweens - An Interview with Margo Sorenson



We last interviewed author Margo Sorenson about writing for the school market and picture books.  She has authored twenty-eight books for young readers and has won recognition and awards for her work, including being honored by ALA nominations and being named a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award in YA Fiction. Today we’ll be focusing on her new tween e-book entitled Time of Honor.

First off, how about a brief synopsis of the story?
Thanks for inviting me again, Chris!  Fourteen-year-old Connor’s smart mouth gets her in and—luckily—out of trouble on her prep school’s debate team and in the classroom.  On a field trip to the U.K., when she is suddenly catapulted into the year 1272, she finds her royal new friends’ lives are threatened by a conspiracy fueled by greed.  When William and Maud learn that their father has been murdered on the Crusade, they beg her to help them find who is plotting against them.  

This sounds a bit like a kid’s version of "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." What drew you to this topic?
Growing up as a young child in Europe and being a medieval history major, I always wanted to live in the Middle Ages, so I just plunked myself down where I wanted to be!

What do you mean when you say Connor is sassy?
I love words and playing with words, just as you do -- and probably everyone who’s reading your blog does -- and I wanted to write a novel that featured a character who used words a little too well and got herself into trouble that way, not that it’s ever happened to me.

I coached speech and debate for many years (yep, I’m a retired NFL coach!), I drew on many of my former debaters’ characters for Connor.  They were always fun to coach. They kept me laughing and kept me on my toes, believe me, so I had lots of raw material from which to draw.  Courtesy and decorum were key in the Middle Ages, as you know, so Connor needs to confront this problem head-on, because she is so not courteous or decorous, and she has to learn how to deal with life in 1272… and keep from getting murdered at the same time.

How did you go from an NFL Coach (and a female one!)and debating to writing?   
Actually, I *was* one of the few female NFL coaches! J  The speech and debate coaching was extracurricular, and I taught speech and debate classes in addition to teaching high school and middle school English.  It was fun teaching kids to write, using the National Writing Project and many other wonderful resources and we invited well-known writing teachers to the schools. 

Some of my students’ parents encouraged me to write myself, since I was teaching their sons and daughters how to write – theoretically! When I retired early from teaching, I had a book contract for ten books that grew into another five additional books and two more for an educational publisher.  From there, I wrote picture books and more tween/YA manuscripts, many of which remain unpublished!

Have you ever done any sports writing?
I’ve not done any sports writing per se, but the sports writing I have done has been in my tween/YA novels, such as WHO STOLE THE BASES (baseball), SOCCER BATTLE, SOCCER BLASTER (both soccer, of course), CLUBHOUSE THREAT (golf), FUNNY MAN (football), and a number of others that include sports as an important part of a subplot.  One of my latest tween enovels, ISLAND DANGER, features Todd, a know-it-all soccer star. 

Our daughters were little jocks, I love baseball and golf, and my husband is a sports nut, so it’s natural to have lots of sports in my books.  Of course, my beta readers for accuracy were my family (“Mom!  You can’t say that!”), Sports add another dimension to the plots and can demonstrate character and conflict.

What research did you have to do for this book?
Your blog highlights “research,” so I’m glad you asked this question!  I majored in medieval history (read “geek,” here) and although I had lots of medieval history books, I had to repurchase many others that I’d given away in order to do the research I needed.  The internet has been great, of course, but one has to be careful about vetting the sources.

One of the fun resources I found on the internet was a cabinet-maker who specializes in medieval cabinetry, and he helped me with how drawers worked and with cabinet construction.  We can’t have a character opening up a closet when there were none in 1272!  Several of my other books (picture books AMBROSE AND THE PRINCESS, AMBROSE AND THE CATHEDRAL DREAM) are also set in that time period, so the food and dining research I did for those came in handy for TIME OF HONOR.  Connor is grossed out that she has to share a goblet with her dining companion!

How do you think someone from our day would really be able to handle the smells and lack of technology in the Middle Ages?
People from our day would really struggle with the smells and way of life, including no technology back in medieval history.  Connor has a hard time with the gross smells, definitely, with the sewers running down the middle of the lanes in the towns and the tannery on the outskirts of the village (think burning cow hides).

Connor has no GPS to find Akbar, the Spice-Seller, whom she has to trick into revealing critical information about a planned murder, without tipping him off that she’s really not who she pretends to be.  She rides her horse through the town to find his tent, putting herself in harm’s way, with no cell phone to use in case she needs to call 911.

What advice do you have for authors to improve their writing?
I enjoy reading your blog for its advice component, so I’m happy to chime in, here.  For me, the most important is Ellen Kozak’s first commandment for writers, “Thou Shalt Not Fall In Love With Thine Own Words.”  Oh, my, goodness, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve fallen prey to that feeling – “Wow!  What golden words I’ve just written!” 

Seriously, I should know better, but, I don’t, and it’s always a battle to put a manuscript away for a while and let it sit in the darkness, whimpering, all alone.  When I take it out again, I blush, and I’m so glad no one is looking over my shoulder, smirking and snorting at those words! 

Another piece of advice is to find a critique partner who understands your vision but also doesn’t hesitate to try and take you to the next level in a respectful way. My critique partner, Minnesotan and children’s author Bonnie Graves, is wonderful; she helps me by asking incisive questions about each part of my manuscript, giving me encouragement to try new ideas, and validating what is working.  Above all, just as you say in your blog, read, study, research, write, revise, submit, submit, submit!

What do you think writers should expect to learn from their critique groups?
I’m probably not a good person to answer this question, since I’ve never had a critique group (blush!), only a critique partner.  When I taught English, there were many great resources to use in setting up feedback groups for the kids, and those were very helpful, setting ground rules and methods for responding to each other’s writing.  From those experiences and from my own critique partner experiences, I’m thinking that writers should expect to find out that others don’t read their writing the same way they do. 

It’s so hard to translate the words in our heads on to the page so that others see the same pictures we see.  That’s what I used to tell my students, in any event, and it is so true for myself, as well.  We’re so sure we’ve been clear in what we’re writing that it’s a bit of a shock to discover that others don’t read it in the same way.  That factor is key; we writers need to accept that what we write isn’t always perceived by others in the way we want them to perceive it!  That’s what I think writers could expect to find out in critique groups, and, hopefully, they can use that feedback in revision for clarity – so they can improve -- and not leave their manuscripts on their hard drives, never to see the light of day, as so many of mine still are. J  Writing is indeed a process!

Thanks, again for stopping by and giving us your insights on writing.
Thanks so much, Chris, for the welcome to your blog, and congratulations on your inclusion in those great anthologies shown here on your website.  They sound wonderful!

Hope you enjoyed this interview and you might consider buying a book or two for Christmas gift.  If you'd like to learn more about her writing go to www.margosorenson.com or Twitter at @ipapaverison.