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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Embrace the Writing Process: Author Interview with Melanie Conklin

My interview today is with a middle-grade author whose first book won two awards --Bank Street Best Children’s Book and the International Literacy Association Teacher’s Choice Award. And she’s just published her second book. So, let’s move on and learn about her writing journey.

What made you decide to write a middle-grade geared novel?
The first novel-length project I attempted to write was from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old girl. At the time, I was reading a lot of young adult and middle-grade fiction. Once I finished my first draft of that trunk novel, it was clear that my voice was naturally suited to the blend of wonder and curiosity that you often find in middle-grade novels.

I stepped up my reading in the category and studied middle-grade voice closely for a long time before I wrote another novel so that I truly understood the dynamics in this specific niche of children’s literature.

How long did it take you to write your first book?
I am a relatively quick drafter, meaning I usually finish a draft in weeks rather than months, but I also have to revise many times. The writing process for Counting Thyme took about 3 years from start to on-sale date, and with Every Missing Piece, it took about two years. So, a bit faster the second time around.

Your first book, Counting Thyme (cute title!) deals with a couple of very stressful topics for kids. – moving and a sibling dealing with cancer. What made you zero in on these two issues?
At the time, I was reading a LOT of contemporary middle-grade fiction, and in many of those stories, the main character was dealing with a harrowing circumstance, such as a life-threatening illness. I had a moment where I wondered what it must be like to be the sibling of a gravely ill child. I have a sibling, and her presence factored into my childhood tremendously.

I imagined it would be a very complicated situation to have a sibling battling a deadly illness. I had some past experience raising funds for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, so naturally I thought of neuroblastoma as the illness I wanted to portray in Counting Thyme. Most families have to move for treatments for neuroblastoma, so that became part of the plot, too.

How did you go about finding an agent/publisher?
I studied publishing for quite a while before I queried. I consider the two years I spent writing and reading every writing blog I could find as my personal MFA in children’s lit (though of course, with deep respect to all real MFAers!). I participated in some pitch contests, including one on twitter that got me some requests.

The trouble was, I wasn’t finished revising Counting Thyme at that moment, so I had to hurry to fulfill the requests. I also reached out to other agents who had been on my radar at that time and ended up signing with my first agent from my cold query.

What is the hardest part of writing for you?
The hardest is whichever part I’m at. When I’m drafting, I wish I was revising. When I’m revising, I wish I was drafting. When I’m in copy edits, I wish I never had to see my book again, lol!

What does your editor remind you to do most often?

My relationship with my editors has been more of a dialogue back and forth rather than a to-do list for me. I’ve worked with a few different editors at this point, due to business matters, and I can say the process of revising with an editor is equally challenging and rewarding.

Edit letters can be long and hard to digest, but where there is smoke, there is always fire. I find that my editors are usually spot-on about trouble areas. It’s up to me to figure out how to address those trouble areas in a satisfying manner. Finding answers isn’t always easy, but that is how a book becomes the best version of itself. Editorial feedback is worth its weight in gold.

What’s the best encouragement you’ve had in your writing?
This is a great question. We writers are always looking to improve, so it can be easy not to give ourselves credit for what we have achieved. I’ve been told my characters are very “real” and relatable, and for me that is the best praise. I always strive for honest portrayals that acknowledge the deep complexities of being human. It’s a joy to hear someone found that kind of experience in reading my work.

We have all experienced rejection. How have you learned to write past it?
I have experienced some harsh feedback at the editorial level, and in that moment, it was hard not to doubt myself as a writer. What I had to remember is while I may have written those words that needed a lot of fixing, I also wrote a bunch of words that made my editor want to publish my book. Criticism stings, but it is necessary.

What do you know now about writing you wished you had known sooner?
Your process is your process. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you can move forward. Sometimes I wish I could write a draft of a story without getting the plot wrong the first time, but that’s not my process.

My process is to write many drafts. Rather than get frustrated with myself, I try to remember it’s a gift to have a process I can rely on to get the work done, even if I wish my creative process was more efficient.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received or could give?
My best advice is to be kind to yourself. Embrace your process. Trust your gut. Risk failure and be prepared to accept it when it comes. But through all of it, be kind to yourself. Fill the well with great diverse reads. Celebrate every achievement and milestone. Give yourself the same time and patience that you would give anyone else.

You just released your second book.  Can you give my readers a short synopsis?
In my new book, Every Missing Piece, eleven-year-old Maddy Gaines has had her share of heartache. She lost her father in a tragic accident a few years prior, which has made her a bit more diligent about safety than her family and friends would sometimes like her to be. When Maddy encounters a strange new boy living in her neighborhood, she wonders if he could be the same child who went missing from another town six months earlier.

As she tries to uncover the truth, ghosts from her own past surface, her best friend starts to slip away, and Maddy's world tilts once again. Can she put the pieces of her life back together, even if some of them are lost forever?

Sounds like some good plot twists! If you'd like to learn more about Melanie's writing, here are some links to get you started. 


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