Kate Messner is the author of E.B. White Read Aloud Award winner THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. and SUGAR AND ICE (Walker/Bloomsbury), the new MARTY MCGUIRE chapter book series illustrated by Brian Floca (Scholastic), and SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY, a new first-day-of-school picture book illustrated by Andy Rash (Chronicle). Kate is also a National Board Certified middle school English teacher. She lives on Lake Champlain with her husband and two kids and enjoys hiking, kayaking, skiing, and traveling. For more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
Are your characters completely fictional? Or do you base them off real people?
My characters are all fictional, but most are also inspired by someone I’ve known or someone I’ve seen, and I tend to borrow tiny traits from lots of different people to make up a character. In The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., for example, Gianna’s best friend Zig shares my son’s trait of being fascinating by engineering and electricity, but his physical traits are like one of my former student’s, and the kind of friendship he shares with Gianna is like some of my friendships in middle school years ago.
What advice would you give young writers?
Read. Read everything you can get your hands on, especially in the genre in which you’d like to write. It will tune your ear to the music of really great writing, the rhythm of elegant sentences and powerful language, and it’s one of the best ways to learn what works and what doesn’t.
And write. Write every day if you can, even if it’s only for a few minutes. It keeps the creative part of your brain churning and even if much of what you write ends up living quietly on your hard drive forever, it’s the habit of writing that makes us writers…and makes it more likely that something we produce is going to be magical.
How many words do you write each day?
When I’m drafting a new book, I aim for a minimum of a thousand words a day.
Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?
I’m both, depending on the book. With my more plot-driven novels, I tend to start with an outline, but that always changes as the story develops. With some of my other books, I fly by the seat of my pants, but then I tend to have more messes to clean up during the revision process!
When are you the most productive?
Definitely night, because that’s my usual writing time – from about 9-11 after my kids have gone to bed.
What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?
It’s really important for me to “fill the well” after I’ve finished a project. I love to travel, and that always gives me great ideas for writing, and I also find that visiting museums is a huge inspiration.
Tell us about the book you’re working on.
Right now, I’m working on a book that’s currently titled PROJECT 51. Like my 2012 Walker/Bloomsbury novel EYE OF THE STORM, it’s a science-gone-wrong story, and this one is set in the Everglades. I’m having fun with it!
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
It’s about voice, and it’s a story I’ve shared on my website because it’s been so important to me as a writer. Interestingly enough, it came from a co-worker in my former career as a broadcast journalist.
When I was just starting in tv news – reporting my very first stories as an intern at the NBC affiliate in Syracuse, NY, there was an anchorman who read all the scripts before the show. He was not particularly gentle or kind in his feedback, but I’ll always be thankful to him for the day he threw one of my scripts in the trash can next to his desk. I fought back tears and fished it back out.
“I’m not going to get better at this if you don’t tell me what’s wrong with it,” I said.
He stared at me for a second. “Do you want to learn?”
“Yes.” I stared back.
“Okay then.” He put the script down on his desk, smoothed it out, and proceeded to tear it apart. He was a brilliant writer and pointed out many things that I could do better, but his comment about voice is the one that has stayed with me.
“Why did you write this line like this?” he asked, pointing to one line that I thought sounded especially tough and journalistic. I thought it sounded like Sheryl Nathans, an investigative reporter for a competing station whose work I admired immensely, and I told him so.
“Well, there’s your problem,” he said. “because the job of being Sheryl Nathans is taken. By Sheryl Nathans. You’re going to have to figure out how to say things your own way.”
That advice applies to writing books for kids, too. There are lots of terrific voices out there, and it’s fine to admire them and even emulate them once in a while, but ultimately, you need to find your own style and write in a voice that belongs to you and your unique characters alone.