Welcome! Please sit down, make yourself comfortable, and have a brownie or three...

Friday, November 15, 2013

Author Anne Ursu: Characters, Writing, and Voice in Middle Grade Literature

How do successful authors go about developing their characters? 

As writers, we are in a (privileged and somewhat daunting) position of being able to touch readers with our stories~ to have them find connections and parallels to their own lives within the pages of a book. To have them be inspired by characters who are real and flawed and frightened and brave, who face the dark and scary things in life, not without fear, but in spite of it. Characters who feel things, and think things. Characters who you'd like to hold hands with and bundle into your backpack to take with you for courage when facing your own challenges.


I'm absolutely thrilled to have Anne Ursu on the blog to talk about character development in middle grade literature. In addition to her novels for adults (Spilling Clarence, The Disapparition of James), Anne has written the middle grade books The Cronus Chronicles (a trilogy), Breadcrumbs, and The Real Boy. All of her MG books have characters who have stayed in my mind and heart long after I've turned the final pages. Anne teaches at Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and lives in Minneapolis with her son and cats.

If you don't already own a copy of The Real Boy (beautifully illustrated by Erin McGuire), leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a hardcover. It is a very special book. And now, here's Anne:

How has your writing process evolved from The Cronus Chronicles to The Real Boy?

 
Breadcrumbs drawing: Erin McGuire
I wish I could say that I’ve really refined my process over these five books, learned from my mistakes and grown each time. But it’s always the same: I start with an idea, take some scattered notes, and then just plunge into the deep end. It usually occurs to me a couple of chapters in that I have no idea what I’m doing, and then I start snacking a lot to mask my despair.

I suppose the thing I have learned is that the fear is okay. I’m always terrified—but I’ve realized there’s no point in knowing how to write a book you already know how to write. You learn how to write a book by writing the book, that’s all. This doesn’t make it any easier when you’re staring down an endless tunnel with only the sputtering light of your own ignorance to guide you, of course.

Once you have a character in mind and a situation to challenge him/her with, how do you go about developing that character?

From The Real Boy
As you may have guessed from the above, I’m a very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer. It’s more intuition than planning for me—I just start the book with a feel for the character and see what happens. I tend not to worry too much about what a character would or wouldn’t do, at least during the first draft—if they are doing it, then they would do it.

So, for example, with Hazel in Breadcrumbs, I was thinking of a comment a friend got on a report card in elementary school—“She’s doing better but she still stares out of the window and appears stupid.” That summed up the whole character to me; she had a strong imagination but no one really appreciated it. And then I just started writing, and everything unfolded.

You learn a bunch about your character by the end of the book, and usually most of my rewriting happens at the beginning.  Also, I seem to have a tendency in my first drafts to make my characters, in my editor’s words, more pitiable than sympathetic. So that requires a little bit of attention.

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?

From The Real Boy
Read. Read out loud, and listen to audio books. Take apart the books you like—what elements make up the voice? How did this author create the sound of the character?

We treat voice like an abstract concept, but it’s just the expression of character on the page. How does your character talk? What kind of analogies might she use—what are her interests and preoccupations? How self-reflective is she? What’s her sense of humor like? What are her favorite words? Does she exaggerate? How do her emotions affect her voice? 

Sometimes I have students write bits of journal entries from their protagonist. It sounds cheesy, but every time I’ve done it the student captures something essential. It’s just a great way to get a feel for how your character really expresses herself, especially when she is living in a certain emotion.

In your opinion, what are three elements that should be part of any middle grade novel (i.e. action, humor, heart, ninjas, brownies, etc.)?

From Breadcrumbs
I want all my books to be summed up with the words “heart, ninjas, brownies.”

To me, middle-grade is entirely character-driven. I think one of the reasons that genre fiction is mainstream in books for young readers and not in books for adults is that kids and YA books have richer characters at the center of the story. The books still have a beating heart, someone to care about.

I can’t think of a middle grade book that doesn’t offer kids strength or hope somehow. I despise the idea that every middle grade book needs a perfect happily-ever-after ending, but I think you want the main character to have something from the experience of the book that’s changed her and you want to know she’s going to be all right.

And cats. There should be cats in every middle grade book. My prescription for middle grade success: Character, hope, cats.

What’s your favorite thing about teaching MFA courses in creative writing at Hamline University?

My program is a low-residency program in children’s book writing, and so most of the time I’m at home writing editorial letters on student work—we communicate by email. And then twice a year everyone in the program meets on campus for very intense ten-day residencies with workshops and seminars and lectures. I adore my job. When you go to residency, you realize everyone around you loves writing and children’s books and so “gets” you on that level—this is not an experience writers get very often. And no one asks you when you are going to start writing real books.  

I love the chance to be analytical about these books—as I said I tend to go by instinct and feel, but it turns out saying to students, “Oh, you know, you just…do it,” and flailing your arms around isn’t that helpful.

And so I’m learning along with the students, and the chance to dive deep into someone else’s writing helps your own grow by leaps and bounds. But my very favorite thing is watching someone’s writing transform in the program—they just find their spark. It’s amazing to watch.



 

A huge thanks to Anne for answering questions! Please leave a comment to be entered in The Real Boy giveaway (the winner will be announced next Friday). To find out more about Anne and her books, you can visit the following places:

Anne Ursu's Website

Anne Ursu on Twitter 

And here are two recent essays by Anne that you don't want to miss:


But What About the Children (an essay on how we talk about middle grade)


On Gender and Boys Read Panel



39 comments:

  1. What utterly fabulous advice and insight. Thank you, Ann, and Jess for the great questions!

    And I agree completely about MG and character. (Isn't Jess's Becky Thatcher one of the best ever? :) )

    ReplyDelete
    Replies

    1. Has a guy ever given you mixed signals?

      One minute he’s crazy about you and the next minute you have no clue if he ever wants to see you again?

      And it’s especially hard when there’s something special between you and you have no idea what went wrong.

      I assure you it’s nothing that you did.

      In fact, he may even care about you a great deal and still not be able to stop himself from acting this way.

      But why does this happen?

      There’s one BIG reason why men do this...

      And I discovered this eye opening video that will shed some light on this bizarre behaviour.

      Insert subject line here and link it to: <=========> Your ex won’t be able to resist?

      It all comes down to a missing “secret ingredient” that not one in a thousand women knows about...

      And it’s the biggest factor that determines whether a man just “likes” you...

      ...or if he sees you as “The One.”

      You see, this “secret ingredient” is so important to a man that no matter how attracted to you he is, or how strong your chemistry is...

      If it’s missing, he’ll never be able to truly give his heart to you...

      And he will always have an unshakeable urge to seek out a woman who has this one “secret ingredient.”

      Here’s what I’m talking about: <=========> The difference between “like” and “love” (most women miss this)

      On the other hand, when you know this powerful “secret ingredient”...

      ...you won’t believe how effortless, passionate and bulletproof your relationship can be.

      Trust me, this is going to blow you away.

      Discover it here: ==> Men fall in love with women who have this “secret ingredient”

      Thanks again.





















































      Delete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great advice! Thanks for the great interview and insight into middle grade. And wow, I can't believe that comment on a student's report card...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Loved Anne's advice. I write a fair amount as a panster so glad to see that it can work with character development.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I adored Hazel in Breadcrumbs! Anne has such an amazing gift for characterization and I loved reading about her process. And thanks to Jess for asking the questions, and letting us all reap the rewards. Wonderful interview.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Loved this interview! As the mother of a child who named his Lego man Philonecron (from Cronus Chronicles) I definitely agree that her characters stay with the reader. I can't wait to read The Real Boy - I'm waiting on my library hold!

    ReplyDelete
  8. What a great interview. I love the idea of wring a journal entry from your character - such a cool idea.

    (P.S. don't enter me for book, since I won Breadcrumbs already. :) And love it, by the way. )

    ReplyDelete
  9. “heart, ninjas, brownies”

    I love MG novels because they are so stinkin creative. (Plus I can read them OUT LOUD with my kids.) I once heard a prolific MG author say you can't write for them if you don't remember what it's like to be a kid. Some of us never grow up, eh?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Sounds like a wonderful MFA program. Thanks for this interview!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I loved Anne's interview - she's so funny! I tried pantsing once, and it wasn't pretty. Kudos to anyone who can do it and especially as successfully as Anne. Have a great weekend! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  12. I loved, loved this interview.
    I didn't know about Anne Ursu until Breadcrumbs came out and now any book with her name on it makes me go "I want!!!".
    Thank you for a chance at winning The Real Boy.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I enjoyed the interview! And yes to heart, ninjas and brownies!

    ReplyDelete
  14. That's such a great point about how much more fleshed out kid and YA characters are compared to adult characters. I no longer read MG and YA just for the research, but because I honestly prefer Kid Lit.

    Thanks, Jess!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Lovely interview with tons of good tips, especially the journal one. Sounds like exactly what I needed for a certain character I have. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Can you please, please, please write another book in the cronus chronicles series? I love books about Greek Mythology and as soon as I found this series I literally stayed up until midnight reading them for almost a week straight! I've fallen in love with all of your characters, they're all so brave and inspiring. I hope I can look forward to more stories about Charlotte, Mew, and Zee. (Please bring back Jason too)

    ReplyDelete
  17. بيت العز شركة تنظيف بالبخار بمكة
    الكثير لا يعلمون انهم بكل سهولة يستطيعوا ان يقوموا بتنظيف منزلهم وهذا عن طريق استخدام البخار في التنظيف ويوجد ايضا العديد من المميزات نتيجة استخدام البخار في التنظيف ،بيت العز بمكة المكرمة افضل
    شركة تنظيف بالبخار بمكة
    شركة تنظيف سجاد بالبخار بمكة
    شركة تنظيف سجاد بمكة
    شركة تنظيف موكيت بمكة
    شركة تنظيف موكيت بالبخار بمكة
    شركة تنظيف مجالس بالبخار بمكة

    http://beit-alezz.com/%d8%b4%d8%b1%d9%83%d8%a9-%d8%aa%d9%86%d8%b8%d9%8a%d9%81-%d8%a8%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a8%d8%ae%d8%a7%d8%b1-%d8%a8%d9%85%d9%83%d8%a9/

    ReplyDelete
  18. فرسان المثالى افضل شركة كشف تسربات المياه بالدمام 0506070763


    من اكبر شركات كشف تسرب المياه بدون تكسير فرسان المثالى
    شركة كشف تسربات بالدمام
    شركة تنظيف خزانات بالدمام
    وايضا

    شركة عزل خزانات بالدمام
    وكذلك
    شركة عزل اسطح بالدمام

    شركة عوازل الدمام
    شركات العزل المائي بالدمام
    شركات العزل الحراري بالدمام

    http://forsan-almthaly.com/%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%83%D8%A9-%D9%83%D8%B4%D9%81-%D8%AA%D8%B3%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%85/

    ReplyDelete
  19. فرسان المثالى افضل شركة كشف تسربات المياه بالقطيف0506070763

    هل تعانى من تسرب المياه فلا داعى للقلق مع فرسان المثالى
    شركة كشف تسريبات المياه بالقطيف

    وباقل الاسعار ولنا خدمتنا بمدن اخرى
    شركة كشف تسربات بالاحساء
    وايضا
    شركة كشف تسربات المياه بالخبر



    http://forsan-almthaly.com/%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%83%D8%A9-%D9%83%D8%B4%D9%81-%D8%AA%D8%B3%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%87-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D8%B7%D9%8A%D9%81/


    ReplyDelete
  20. شركة تنظيف منازل جديدة بالدمام :
    من خدمات التنظيف شائعة الطلب من قبل العملاء ، خدمة تنظيف المنازل الجديدة ، والتي تعتبر تتويجا لختام تأسيس المنزل وإذن للاستمتاع بالعيش فيه ، ربما لكثرة ما يجب تنظيفه في أي منزل جديد ، أتربة وغبار يعم الأسطح والنوافذ والأبواب ، بقع دهانات على الأرضيات ، أحواض ومغاسل تستدعي التطهير ، نفايات من أعمال التشطيب .

    أفضل شركة تنظيف بالدمام
    ـ والهاجس الذي يسيطر علينا أثناء العمل في تنظيف المنازل الجديدة هو أهمية الحفاظ على العناصر الجديدة التي تم تشطيبها للتو ، مثل الجدران المدهونة حديثا والأبواب وخلاطات المياه لذلك فإن أول ما نقوم به هو وقاية هذه العناصر أولا من خلال :
    ـ تغطية الصنابير وخلاطات المياه بغطاء بلاستيك سميك لوقايتها من المنظفات الشديدة التي يتم تطبيقها على جدران وأرضيات الحمامات والمطابخ .
    ـ خلع أبواب الغرف أو كسوتها بالمشمع البلاستيك بعد تنظيفها وكذلك الأمر مع أسفل الجدران لتجنب اتساخها من اندفاع المياه عند تنظيف الأرضيات .
    ـ شفط الغبار على نطاق واسع اعتمادا على مكانس الغبار الكهربائية .
    ـ غسيل الأرضيات والدرج وجليها وتلميعها ومعالجة البقع الصعبة باستخدام التنر والمركبات النفطية .
    ـ تنظيف كامل لمرافق المنزل الجديد ( المطابخ والحمامات ) و إعداد مكوناتها للاستخدام .

    ReplyDelete
  21. I don't apperceive what it is about the bendable blow and matte finish, but I accept a anemic atom for printed suede Louboutin Outlet. One of the best brands to cull this off is YSL Outlet. I accept to acquaint you about a backpack attraction of mine. I am in fact mad at myself that I did not splurge on the YSL Wallet Outlet Croc Muse Two which has two colors that I admire with a sueced croc pattern. To see a formed suede accomplishment off a Red Bottoms Outlet that I already adore, my affection melts. Replica Watches are additionally pretty reflective of their user's persona. Amazing furthermore multi-colored Rolex Replica Watches are commonly worn because of the younger. Conversely, exquisite dress Swiss Rolex Replica are regularly sported by highly developed gentlemen. And then usually there's the luxurious Swiss Replica Watches worn by the individuals who're properly to complete. Check out observing your mates furthermore you can before long see how the layouts are actually ranging.

    ReplyDelete