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Friday, March 15, 2013

Advice You Don't Want To Miss: Author Linda Urban Talks Character Development

Friends, we have a treat today! Linda Urban, a queen of contemporary/realistic middle grade fiction, is going to talk about character development and middle grade protagonists.

Linda has been one of my favorite middle grade authors since I picked up A Crooked Kind of Perfect. Her new book (which I am GIVING AWAY TO A LUCKY SOMEONE) is called The Center of Everything:

For Ruby Pepperdine, the “center of everything” is on the rooftop of Pepperdine Motors in her donut-obsessed town of Bunning, New Hampshire, stargazing from the circle of her grandmother Gigi’s hug. That’s how everything is supposed to be—until Ruby messes up and things spin out of control. But she has one last hope. It all depends on what happens on Bunning Day, when the entire town will hear Ruby read her winning essay. And it depends on her twelfth birthday wish—unless she messes that up too. Can Ruby’s wish set everything straight in her topsy-turvy world?

Hi Linda, thanks for joining us! You now have 3 wonderful middle grade books in the world. How has your writing process evolved from Zoe (A Crooked Kind of Perfect) to Ruby Pepperdine (TCOE)?

Zoe’s book began as a picture book which ended up serving as a brief outline for the novel.  With Ruby’s book, I had no idea what it was to be when I started.   I had an image of a girl standing on the side of a parade route.  I had no idea where it would lead.  So in that way, they were different.

But in general, the processes were similar.  When I’m really engaged, I write every day – but only in short bursts and usually early in the morning before my family is awake.  I reread the previous day’s pages, making edits as I go, and then continue with the new stuff.  Most of the time I write scenes in the order that I expect they will occur in the book, though every once in a while things get rearranged in revision. 

After about 30-40 pages of drafting, I have a pretty clear understanding of how I want the ending to feel and where it might take place.  Then the job is to build a bridge between what I’ve written and that ideal ending.  Often this takes the form of bullet points.  You know: this happens, then this, then this . . .  I try not to think about it too much, but rather to think in it, to stay in the story and with the character and let things spool out.  Too much analysis too early makes me self-conscious.


How do you come up with your middle grade protagonists and tap into their unique voice and perspective?

I don’t know, exactly.  It’s not a very satisfying answer, is it? 
New books often appear to me in first lines, sometimes in images.  If I’m open to them, I can just start typing and discover what is behind them.  It’s not a conscious process, for the most part.  Not until revision, anyway. 

I know there are a lot of writers who use character worksheets or use stock photos to get clear about their character’s physical traits.  Neither of those things work for me.  I work from the inside out and I only come to know my characters by writing them.  They come alive as they move around their world and encounter other characters. 

Agents and editors have said that the middle grade voice is one of the hardest to write. What advice would you give a middle grade writer who has plenty of plot ideas, but struggles to find their characters' authentic voice?

Character usually comes first for me, but if I had a great plot idea and no clear voice or character, I would start writing in first person.  I’d let my main character explain things and try to understand how she felt about them.  Is she proud of what happened?  Embarrassed?  Is she reluctant to tell?  Is she lying?

The answers to those questions don’t always show up in the content of the response, but in the manner that response is given -- in sentence structure and language choice.  I mean, a girl who thinks of herself as brainy, but who has done a stupid thing will describe that action in terms quite different from one who has little confidence and believes that stupid thing she did was par for the course.  One might try to hide her actions or overcompensate by using particularly large words and complicated sentences.  The other might sound resigned to her fate. 

I really think that if we let ourselves get into character and then let that character speak from his or her unique situation, voice will appear.  Most of the time we just have to get out of our own way.
  
In your opinion, what are three elements that should be part of any middle grade novel? 

First: honesty.  I think we owe it to each other to be truthful.  This idea comes up a lot when we talk about books with difficult subject matter, but it is just important to be truthful about small things.  How does it really feel to have salami for lunch when all around you kids are eating ham and cheese?  It seems like such a small thing and maybe even petty, but if we are honest, we might admit that it matters more than we would like.  And being truthful about the small stuff earns the trust we need to talk honestly about the larger issues.

Second: hope.  This may be a personal thing, but I want even the most despondent dystopia to have a flicker of hope – even if it is only a moment of meaning or connection.

Third: a character the reader wants to spend time with.  I don’t believe this character needs to be “likeable.”  In fact, I think we’ve done ourselves a disservice by suggesting that likeability is the most important character trait in a novel for kids.  But I do think that there has to be something about a character – something intriguing or companionable or engaging – that gives readers a reason to stick around and figure him or her out.

What is your favorite kind of donut?

 I’m a die-hard cider donut fan – fresh out of the grease.  It’s one of my favorite things about Fall in Vermont.

*That's my favorite kind, too (I'm not a big frosting or sprinkles fan)

For a chance of winning a copy of Linda Urban's The Center of Everything, leave a comment for Linda and include your favorite kind of donut! I'll announce the winner next Friday.

LINKS:
Linda's website

Other middle grade books by Linda are:
 

42 comments:

  1. This is such a fantastic post!! My writing process is a lot like Linda's but I never could have put it into such clear, concise terms. Thank you!

    My favorite doughnuts are without question Dunford's Chocolate Cake Doughnuts with Chocolate Frosting. But there are no Dunford stores in Virginia. I miss them!!

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    1. Thanks, Becky. Dunford's Doughnuts sound like they might make me break my no-frosting preference :)

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  2. I thought I was reading an interview with myself! Linda and I are eerily alike in so many ways. I totally get this. Thanks for a great chat with my soul sister.

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    1. Very cool! You should read her books if you haven't already~ they're a great study in how to present a great MG character :)

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  3. Great interview. I loved reading about Linda's writing process and her advice on voice. It was so great. And thanks for the giveaway.

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  4. Thanks again to Linda for stopping by the blog!

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  5. What a great interview. I love the three elements for middle grade fiction. I'd love to know what Linda's working on next.

    I'm not really a doughnut person (though that won't keep me from reading this book) - but I do approve of pretty much anything that's covered in chocolate.

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    1. Thanks, Joy~ and you're right! I should have asked what she's working on next...

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  6. My favorite kind of donut is vanilla creme. Thanks for sharing your process!

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    1. Vanilla is my favorite base flavor :) Thanks for stopping by!

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  7. Really great post. I know sometimes it's hard to articulate our process, but this is really helpful. :)

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    1. I thought it was so helpful, too! She has a way with words :)

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  8. This is so lovely. Both of you! Thanks for sharing.

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  9. Great interview! I love how Linda talks about how she creates character from the inside out--that approach really resonated with me.

    Favorite donut? Today it is the cruller.

    Shelley

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    1. Ah, the mighty cruller (that word always makes me think of the donut shop from the Wayne's World movie...)! Linda certainly knows how to create a memorable character :)

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  10. Wow.
    "I really think that if we let ourselves get into character and then let that character speak from his or her unique situation, voice will appear."

    That is hands down the best advice I've ever heard about voice. It's going right to a sticky note!

    And my favorite donut is ALSO a cider donut. I can practically taste the crisp fall air around it -- because I believe they are always eaten outside. Yay for Vermont!

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    1. Voice is tricky to nail down in terms of advice and I agree with you~ Linda did a great job of making it accessible!

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  11. What an amazing blurb - I love Ruby already! I enjoyed reading the interview, and I found Linda's "three elements" ideas very interesting. I wish Linda much success! :-)

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  12. Thanks for the interview! I'm intrigued by middle grade, and the three elements are great pieces of advice - I'd love to read Linda's books! Favorite donut? Yes, living in New England, it's hard to do better than a freshly made Apple Cider donut. Drive-through at Dunkin' Donuts? Always Boston Creme.

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    1. Apple cider donuts seem to be the big favorite!

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  13. Great interview and I can understand about learning about our characters as we write them. Altho I have become a fan of character questionnaires, sometimes you don't know your character until you throw her into a situation. Then you find out what she's really made of.

    As for my favorite donut, well, I admit it changes but if Dunkin Donuts had cinnamon twists all year round those would be my first choice, especially when they're nice and warm. Yummy!

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    1. I've tried character questionnaires and they didn't work as well for me, but I may be giving them another try with my new WIP. And YES, cinnamon twist! Love those.

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  14. My favorite doughnut would probably be cinnamon and sugar. I'm getting a craving just thinking about it! Loved this interview; thanks for sharing.

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    1. You and my husband are donut buddies~ he loves those too!

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  15. What a terrific interview, Jess! I love hearing about other authors' processes--especially when "I try not to think about it too much" is part of the answer. =)

    My favorite donuts come from Square Donuts in Terre Haute, Indiana, and it's a tie between peanut butter and jelly (grape jelly filling, pb icing) and strawberries & cream (white cream filling, strawberry icing). Yum!

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    1. I love hearing about authors' processes as well. Those donuts sound crazy! Sounds like a cool shop :)

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  16. This is a great interview! Your questions were really good and well thought out, and Linda's answers were very interesting and thought-provoking. I have to say, that last question was such a fantastic addition- donuts in all interviews. (:

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    1. Thanks, Romi! Linda was so nice to do the interview :)

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  17. I love the notion of writing a character readers want to spend time with rather than one that is strictly likeable. I suspect we are all too concerned with likeability when we start out, and we end up writing vanilla characters instead of interesting ones. At least I did.

    And can I just say CIDER DONUT? Yum.

    Thanks for a great interview! :)

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    1. I agree with tendency to sometimes write vanilla characters (at least I've had that problem) And yes, if there was a winner in the comments, it would be CIDER donut!

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  18. I was your lucky winner last time, so please don't count me in. But my fav donut usually involves chocolate and sprinkles. And a big glass of milk. 've never tried a cider donut, I'll have to keep an eye out for one of those. Nice meeting you, Linda!

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