Today on the blog I’m talking to Kit Grindstaff, author of the upcoming novel THE FLAME IN THE MIST (Delacorte Press) and fellow member of The Lucky 13s, an awesome group of children’s and young adult authors with novels debuting in 2013.
The pub date for THE FLAME IN THE MIST is right around the corner (April 9, 2013). Tell us about the novel and your journey toward writing for children and teens.
THE FLAME IN THE MIST is a dark middle grade fantasy set in Anglavia, a fictitious version of my native England. It’s the story of 13-year-old Jemma, a virtual prisoner Agromond Castle who’s thrown into a flight for her life when she discovers she’s not who she thinks she is, and that she has a destiny far greater and more dangerous than her mere dreams of freedom.
I’ve always loved to write, whether crummy stories when I was a kid, or angsty lovelorn poetry in my teens, or songs. In my early 20s I wrote a rhyming book illustrated by my artist sister, and the seed of writing for children was planted. But it took a while for it to really take root.
In the meantime, I took a long detour via another great love, music. I teamed up with an old school friend who played piano to form a duo. One hit record and a not-so-hit album later, we parted ways (amicably—he’s still one of my dearest friends). I recorded a couple of solo albums, moved to New York from London (I’m English), then decided to focus on song writing rather than being a recording artist.
Through those years, the thought about writing for children had never left me, and eventually I took a children’s writing course. Our first week’s homework was to write 3 short synopses, with no forethought. The first two were so forgettable that I instantly forgot them. The third threw up a fruity tidbit that had been in the back of my mind for years: girl trapped in a castle longs to see the world beyond its walls. But there was added juice: she’d been abducted as a baby, and didn’t know it. Ooh….that reached out from the page and grabbed me, and wouldn’t let go. And so THE FLAME IN THE MIST was born, hand in hand with its main character, Jemma.
How do your stories come to you? Do you begin a character? A concept? A plotline?
I’d say it’s an interplay between character and concept—either one could take precedence—and the plot line follows.
In the case of THE FLAME IN THE MIST, it came as the bare-bones character of Jemma surging into my consciousness pretty much simultaneously with the premise. Once that basic skeleton was in place, though, character was definitely the driving force to filling out the rest. Jemma’s predicament provided the plotline, and as she and the other characters started to move around on the pages, they filled in the details. Their environment provided a vital interplay too—setting can be a character itself, as the Mist is in Jemma’s world, and Agromond Castle, with its brooding ever-presence.
Do you work from an outline?
I like to outline to some degree. The beginning, middle and end come more or less as a whole piece—the desire, the hurdles, the outcome, if you like. And with FLAME, especially in the first section, I did write quite a detailed outline. But as I continued, while I still kept the big picture in mind, I wrote more and more off the cuff, allowing a lot of the plot twists and turns to present themselves as I went. So I’m kind of a pantser (i.e., writing by the seat of my pants!) who works within the broader strokes of an outline. Or a plotter with occasional flights of pantsing. I’m not sure which!
What time of day do you write? Do you have a certain process?
Ideally, but it rarely works out that way! My routine has been especially ragged these past few months whilst I’ve been doing so much in preparation for release. When I do manage to discipline myself, what works best for me is writing first thing in the morning—before checking email, Facebook, Twitter, anything. Turn off Airport, cup of tea, work space, go. I love the feeling of writing my minimum before breakfast. Not only does it give me a sense of achievement that lasts all day, it often calls me back to writing later on, because I’m already primed.
What does a good day of writing for you look like? How about a bad day?
A good day of writing isn’t necessarily about word count—though of course writing 5,000 is a fabulous feeling (and I know some writers who manage that every day…I wish!)—but for me, it’s as much about getting past a gnarly plot point, or finishing a difficult scene. I love it when I feel as though the plot is pulling me along rather than me squeezing it out of my head and onto the page. At those best-of-times it’s as though there’s a symbiosis between me and my manuscript: it fuels me, I make it grow.
A bad day? My instant response is, No words written. But actually, that’s not quite true. There really are times when other things have to take precedence, and I don’t (or try not to) beat myself up (too much) about that. Far worse is when my WIP is gnawing at me, yet I have no inspiration whatsoever. That kind of stuckness feels like my greatest enemy.
Talk about how music or other art forms influence your work?
Coming from a background of music, in some ways writing for children felt like a natural progression. In fact, though, the two forms couldn’t be more different. Also, oddly, unlike many authors I know of, I never write to music—perhaps because it’s been my “day job” for so long! If a song inspires me, it’s usually to write a song myself.
Classical music, however, transports me to a different creative space, one which for me is more in line with writing stories. The same is true of art, especially painting. I love the work of the Renaissance artists and Impressionists. I can get lost in an image, in its different time, imagining the story of the artist or his or her subject, and that gets me thinking about other lives, other stories. But when I’m actually writing, I like to be absorbed in the world I’m creating, with no distractions, musical or otherwise.
Do you juggle more than one work in progress at a time and if so, how?
So far, I’ve only worked on one at a time. I could only conceive of writing more than one WIP if they were at very different stages—for example, if one was a first draft, and the other, say, at the copy edit stage. But THE FLAME IN THE MIST is my first finished book, so I haven’t had to do any such juggling yet!
What are you working on now? What’s next?
I’m almost done with a first draft of novel 2, and am keeping the lid on that for the moment. Next in my mind is a toss-up between something I began when I first finished FLAME, then put aside when the book deal happened, and another idea that’s been brewing for many years. Both are either middle grade or YA – I’ll decide that once they’re a bit more developed – and both involve multiple points of view. I’m looking forward to tackling that.
How do you balance writing and family?
I don’t have children, so that part is easy! And my husband has always respected and supported my dreams, either as songwriter or author, so I feel very fortunate in that. Plus he’s amazing about doing laundry and housework during especially intense periods of writing or editing—a real gem. (He jokes that next time, he wants a by-line co-credit. Or maybe he’s serious…hmm.)
I do sometimes have to tear myself away from my laptop to spend time with him, though, especially when I’m hitting my stride. But if I’m absorbed for too long to the exclusion of all else, I begin to lose focus. So in a way, there’s a natural rebalancing mechanism cued by me becoming too crazed, and we don’t stay out of step for too long.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Ooh, that’s a tough one. There’s the broad-stroke advice of loving what you write—to me that’s a must, because you need that passion to get you through the tough periods—and there’s also craft advice.
For the latter, I’d have to say I got the best advice in a workshop I took with über-agent Donald Maass as part of the Lehigh Valley Write Stuff conference. I was in mid-revise—a major revise—and the thing that sticks with me the most is what he calls microtension: making every single paragraph contain some twist, some conflict, however minor. It might be external—an event that throws a monkey wrench into the action—or internal—a thought or emotion that ramps up the stakes. In other words, make each thought, action and scene count by giving it a consequence. That was a huge help at the stage I was at, and has probably given my writing the single biggest tweak of its life.
Do you have a favorite book about writing?
I’d have to go with Donald Maass again! WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL is terrific.
Are you at the point where, when people ask you what you do, do you say you’re an author? (I’m wondering when that will click in my brain!)
I know what you mean, Jen! For the longest time, I couldn’t even think of myself as an author, let alone label myself that way. I’d written one book, and it wasn’t published yet. But once I’d embarked on a second book, I began to relate to the idea differently.
During the past year of intense editing rounds—copy edits as well as proofreading—and then focusing on the social media aspect of supporting FLAME’s release, the fit has become more comfortable. So it’s been a gradual process, and it this point I do actually feel as though it has more meaning than saying “I’m a songwriter.” For the time being, “I’m a writer” covers both, so I tend to say that, or “I write children’s books”, which defines “doing” as separate from “being”. That way, I don’t have an identity crisis every time someone asks what I do!
Thanks, Jen, for hosting me on your blog, and for your fun questions!
Thank YOU, Kit!
You can read more about Kit on her website: www.kitgrindstaff.com