Shannon Messenger may have studied film and television production at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, but she was always a bit of an odd fit for Hollywood. Her screenplays were about boy bands and stuffed animals coming to life and lonely tumbleweeds finding true love, and her professors never quite knew what to make of them. So after a year trying to find her niche in television, she finally discovered that it made much more sense for her to try writing books for children. After all, she still watches cartoons, regularly eats candy or cupcakes for lunch, and cannot sleep without her bright blue stuffed elephant named Ella.
She currently lives in Southern California with her amazing husband and an embarrassing number of cats. KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES is her first novel, book one in a middle grade series launching Fall 2012 from Simon & Schuster (Aladdin). She is also one of the founding members of WriteOnCon, a free online Writer’s Conference for kidlit writers. To learn more, visit her blog, Facebook, or on Twitter.
Let the conversation begin!
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Honestly, it sounds really obvious—but the best advice was something an author friend shared with me, long before I was published (before I even had an agent). She said to treat writing like a career. Set deadlines—and force myself to stick to them. Write through the bad days and roadblocks in the draft. Find critique partners who would push me to refine my craft. And above all else: keep writing. It’s never too soon to start acting like a professional.
Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?
I’m actually a “connect-the-dotser.” I can’t work from a rigid outline—it sucks all the life right out of the story. But if I completely pantsed the draft, I would never find my way through the chaos. So I brainstorm until I know the beginning, ending, and at least 3 or 4 major turning points. Then I free-write the draft, connecting all those key moments together.
When are you the most productive?
Definitely night. Mornings and afternoons have too many distractions: emails I have to answer, calls I have to make, errands I need to run. When I’m on a deadline I’ll work all day, every day if I have to. But when I’m not on any specific sort of timeline, I won’t usually dive into writing until after dinner, and then I work until 1 or 2am. Sometimes later, if I’m on a roll. I’ve even been known to pull an all-nighter, if I’m at a crucial point in the story and want to get it down before I lose the momentum.
Do you let anyone read your WIP?
I’m very selective about who I let read my work—especially when it’s in progress, because my early drafts are … embarrassingly rough. But I have The Sara(h)s, two of my critique partners who’ve been working with me for a while now, and they’ve seen enough of my lame mistakes and plot holes that I’ve gotten to a point where I’m comfortable sending them a chapter as soon as I finish. But they know that at that stage I’m only looking for big picture notes (does the world make sense? Were these good decisions? Am I straying off course? Are the characters likeable? Etc.) and that the bulk of their job is to be my cheerleaders and not let me give up on the project when it gets hard. They can rip the draft to shreds once I’m ready to revise (and they do, believe me).
Do you begin with character or plot?
My stories always start with characters, which tend to come to me fully formed, with very strong voices. They basically take over my life and refuse to go away, and the longer they hang around, the more interested I get, until I HAVE to put their voices on paper. And yes, I realize how crazy that sounds. But most writers have a little bit of the crazy going on. It’s what makes us who we are.
What’s one rule you’re dying to break?
It’s actually a rule I’m *hopefully* in the process of breaking right now. There is a LOT of information out there online about word count in children’s literature, and most of it says that middle grade novels should never, ever, EVER be longer than a certain number of words. And…mine is longer. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not world record length or anything. But it definitely breaks that rule. And I had some people tell me it would be hard to land an agent based on the word count of my book. When I got one, those same people said the book would never sell. But it did—to an awesome editor who’s not concerned at all about the length. So I guess the last hurdle will be to see if middle grade readers are scared away by a slightly thicker book. But considering how many kids devour brick thick books these days (take a look at how thick the most popular series are) I’m not too worried about it.
Tell us about the book you’re working on.
I’m actually at the copyedit stage of KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES, book one in a middle grade fantasy series launching Fall 2012 from Simon & Schuster (Aladdin). It’s about a twelve-year-old girl who has always been different — she’s years ahead of the other kids in school and can read minds. She’s always assumed there’s some kind of logical explanation for her talents, but when she meets an adorable and mysterious boy, she finds out the shocking truth. She’s never felt at home because she, well, … isn’t. There are secrets buried deep in her memory, secrets about her true identity and why she was hidden among humans, that others desperately want and would even kill for. And she must figure out why she is the key to her brand-new world, before the wrong person finds the answer first.