Friday, May 4, 2012

"Each One Teach One" Author Interview: Stephen Messer

For this week’s “Each One Teach One” Interview we’ll be hearing from Middle Grade Author Stephen Messer.
For those of us authors, editors, and agents who secretly feel that “using imagination and thinking outside of the box” on plot and setting in children’s lit, especially in fantasy, is extremely important but that thinking so far out of the box that readers might not be able to wrap their minds about your fantasy world is a bit crazy

Well, to those people, I present, StephenMesser. He’s an author who obviously understands that the minds of middle graders do not function within the same silly limits as the minds of adults.
Stephen is currently working on his 4th novel. His first three – all with his succinct, distinctly recognizable “authorial voice” have featured 1.) a boy who lives in a world of kites (Windblown),  2.) a boy who is murdered on the first page and is immediately roped into life as a not very successful ghost (The Death of Yorik Mortwell,) and 3.) kids commanding giant robots who must fight to determine the future at the end of time (Colossus).  He knows how to make “outside the box” just perfect for middle grade readers.
 He’ll be on the panel of authors critiquing first pages at the upcoming SCBWI Schmooze in Raleigh, NC, May 20th, 2012. And for anyone who wishes to make sure that Stephen knows how to write a good first page, I suggest an immediate trip to to read the first pages of Windblowne and Yorik Mortwell. J  I was hooked at line 1 with: “Twelve year old Yorik Mortwell lay on the hard, cold ground, dead.”

So Stephen, what author or other industry professional reached out to help you improve your craft when you were just starting out in Children’s literature?

Josh Adams, now my agent, provided me with a generous critique of my eventual debut novel, WINDBLOWNE, when it was still in an early draft. I did a complete revision based on this critique, eventually signed with Josh, and am now working on my fourth novel as a client of Adams Literary. I credit him with a willingness to work with me in spite of my rather unpolished initial offering.
             It's definitely so hard to do those major revisions, Stephen, yet we all learn over time how 
            important that is. It’s great that Josh took the time to work with you in the early stages – to              give you suggestions on what to improve!

So what did going through that detailed revision process, and the more recent major revisions with your other books teach you?  
I think that since then I’ve been better able to approach my work as a reader, as opposed to a “writer” who has read a lot of how-to books and is focusing too much on craft and not enough on engaging and entertaining.
Ah. Good point, Stephen. We’ve all been there.  We want to use the most in-vogue plot and genre and the most effective tricks of the trade – so the book will sell. Yet somewhere along the way I guess we have to pause to remember that it’s really all about letting the reader enter the story -- allowing them to forget that they’re reading a book at all, and to instead lose themselves in the character’s journey, becoming part of the story themselves

 So, your first book was published in 2010, and now in 2012 you’re working on your 4th.     that’s a great row of books coming out back to back! As your writing/illustrating career has progressed how have you intentionally “reached back” or “reached out” to other new authors to help them learn new skills and give tips?  Why do you think doing this is important? 
I stay involved with SCBWI and engage with other writers via online forums and Facebook. There’s a continuity of writers and mentors stretching back through to the mists of children’s literature, and it is a privilege to participate in that.
Here’s a fun question.  You write for middle graders.  How old were you when you first started writing?
I’ve written stories since before I can remember. Once, in junior high, I wrote the first page (first page only) of a horror novel, inspired by Stephen King. I promptly forgot about it. Later, my younger brother found it and came to me to ask eagerly what happened next. This gave me the impression that I could interest people with my writing.
Go little brother!  So, do you now give him half of your writing earnings to thank him for his help in pointing you toward the right profession early on? : ) Ack! And there I’ve just gone and put the idea in his head, well, um…. moving on.
So tell us about your 3rd book, which will be released into the hands of happy readers soon.
I’m currently in revisions for my Fall 2013 release, COLOSSUS. It’s a scifi/fantasy adventure set at the end of time, in which children commanding giant robots are battling for a key which will determine the nature of the next universe to come. I’m quite excited about it.
                Like I said, ya’ll.  Kids and giant robots determining the future of the universe. Awesome!
So tell me.  How have writing conferences, your critique group, SCBWI Schmoozes, or other chances to network and discuss the craft with other writers helped you in your career as a writer.  Is there one particular experience you’ve had that you’d like to highlight?
I participated in a First Pages panel at an SCBWI Carolinas conference in 2007. The first page was from WINDBLOWNE, and the feedback was enormously helpful. This is why I’m excited to be on the panel for the Quail Ridge First Pages event.

And everyone’s excited to have you as well! Just one final question:  Who are a few children’s or MG/YA authors whose books you love, now, as an adult. 
I’m excited about John Claude Bemis’s new release on May 22nd – THE PRINCE WHO FELL FROM THE SKY, which has been called a post-apocalyptic Jungle Book. It’s a fantastic book that is getting great reviews. I’m also looking forward to J.J. Johnson’s THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, a follow-up to her exemplary debut. And there’s going to be a third book in Hilary Wagner’s NIGHTSHADE CHRONICLES series, which is excellent news for anyone who likes adventure and rats. 
Adventure AND rats?  We’ll have to check those out!
Thanks so much, Stephen, for your thoughts on the importance of revision and keeping the focus of our writing on “engaging and entertaining” our readers! Thanks for your books’ examples of some great first pages too!
We’ll see you at Quail Ridge Books on May 20th at 3pm. Remember the 1st pagesrules everybody!
Our next “Each One Teach One” author interview victim will be author and professional writing teacher Kami Kinard on Friday, May 11th.


Jenny said...

Great interview Janelle and Stephen. I'll have to check out some of the new releases mentioned!

Janelle said...

Thanks, Jenny!

Crafterdays said...

Great interview. Stephen's books have beautiful voice and engaging characters. Any chance for audio versions anytime soon?

Liz Hollar said...

Oh! I can't wait to read about the giant robots. Great interview. It's nice to hear how writing is not an isolating art.

Janelle said...

Thanks Crafterday and Liz!

Janelle said...

I also asked Stephen one more question after the interview was posted. Here's the question. His answer is below:

Hey Stephen, in looking at the
ideas behind all 3 of your novels (a youth who builds a kite and
accidentally flies away from home, a kid who gets murdered then is sent back to haunt the murderer and has all kinds of problems doing that, and a battle
of kids and robots against other kids and robots to decide what the next world will be like...) all of your ideas are so "think outside of the box."
Who would ever have thought of writing a middle grade book about a kid who builds a kite? Yet from that simple beginning your book is about so much more than that. I think your creative plots are great! Can you give any
suggestions or tips to those of us who may think that an idea that's just a little too wierd or abstract just might not fly with publishers or readers? What do you think helps you make these very unusual plots gripping
to readers and publishers?

Janelle said...

Hi Janelle, (Stephen says)

Thanks so much for your kind comments about my books. I really
appreciate it. I used to write stories where the 'weirdness' itself
was the point of the story. Those never turned out very well. I think
that's a problem a lot of fantasy/scifi writers encounter when they first start writing. I think readers will get interested in a story,however strange or unusual, if the focus of the story is not the concept itself, but the characters and their quirks and relationships set against the backdrop of the weird. The characters should have some
everyday problems they are struggling with, problems the reader can relate to, which have nothing to do with the strange circumstances in which they find themselves. In The Death of Yorik Mortwell, the
Princess of the Aviary Glade is a being of limitless power, yet she is still frustrated and unhappy because she cannot come to terms with mistakes she has made in the past and cannot bring herself to ask for forgiveness. This is something all readers will be familiar with, despite the fact that we are only ordinary humans who can't turn ourselves into comets.

Stephen Messer said...

Thanks for the interview, Janelle. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone at the Quail Ridge event on Sunday.

Janelle said...

It was great to have you, Stephen!

Karen said...

Stephen-- your comment about setting characters with relatable concerns against the backdrop of the wired rings very true to me. Thanks for putting it so succinctly -- it is not about the weirdess, it is about the characters. Thanks for a great interview.

Carol Baldwin said...

Writing so that your reader is involved in the journey--great point, Janelle. And Stephen, you do give back to the writing community; I'm always impressed with you much you encourage others on FB. But obviously you leave time to write!!! Thanks for the interview to both of you. Carol Baldwin

Bonnie J. Doerr said...

It's a relief to hear such a talented and successful writer say that (my interpretation here)sometimes applying all of our craft and technique lessons can get in the way of the story. It's the story that most grips the reader. Of course, we can mess up a good story with shoddy craft. It's all about balance and Stephen definitely has a fine balance! Thanks for bringing more of him to us.