This week’s “Each on Teach One” Interviewee is YA/MG author Alan Gratz of Western NC. Alan is the author of 4 award-winning YA books and his most recent book, FANTASY BASEBALL, is a middle grade. Alan is one of those great authors who is able to bond with middle graders one minute and put on his professional hat to teach brilliant workshops on plotting and other aspects of the craft to other authors the next. His book SOMETHING ROTTEN was an ALA 2008 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers and a YALSA 2010 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults: Twists on the Tale Book. His second book in that series SOMETHING WICKED was labeled one of the Best Children’s Books of 2008. His YA novel THE BROOKLYN NINE was nominated for so many awards that there’s not enough space to name them all here, but it was chosen as one of Booklist's 2009 Top Ten Sports Books for Youth, Booklist's 2009 Top Ten Historical Books for Youth, and was a 2009 Junior Library Guild Selection. His YA novel SAMURAI SHORTSTOP also won so many awards that we can’t name them here. : ) So, when Alan writes a book, he writes a good one. He’ll share plotting advice for all of us a little farther down in this interview.
But first, Alan, please tell us who was the more experienced author, teacher, or publishing professional who helped you learn more about the craft when you were just starting out?
The teacher who had the most profound effect on me and my writing has to be Jon Manchip White, who taught creative writing when I was at the University of Tennessee. Professor White became a sort of personal mentor to me as I worked on a novel-length “thesis” as a part of a specialized undergraduate degree. He was a published author with TV, non-fiction, and novel credits to his name, and his work ran the gamut from historical fiction to contemporary thrillers to paranormal mysteries. He was the first example I had of a real working writer. I hovered around him like a gnat, and he demonstrated far more patience and grace with me than my unpolished writing deserved. Professor White's career has been an inspiration to me.
It sounds like Prof. Manchip White really inspired you, Alan! It really is always helpful to see a working professional writer and learn what the writing life is really like when you’re first starting out. I remember one of the first times I met you was at the SCBWI Spring Writer’s Retreat in Chapel Hill NC several years ago, and I remember being inspired by your work ethic, as you were at your computer late at night after others had gone to bed, and during all the breaks when other people were outside in the sunshine – you were pumping out that next novel. Yet you still had time to help those of us who were newer to the profession when we asked you questions about plot and structure. That inspired me! So, thanks for that!
Can you give a specific example related to one of your published or agented works where the knowledge you learned from Professor Manchip White helped you?
I learned a lot from Professor White, but the one thing he told me that's had the biggest impact on my writing came as a comment on one of the many short stories I turned in to him. He wrote, “Alan, you write well, but you lack discipline.” I was 19 years old when I got that note from Professor White, and my head was full of visions of bestselling novels and blockbuster screenplays. All I heard at the time was, “Alan, you write well.” I totally ignored the last half of his note, which of course was the most important part. It took me fifteen years after graduating from UT to finally understand what he'd been telling me. In college, I never edited. I never wrote second drafts. I never outlined my stories or knew where I was going. I never did research. I never prepared myself to be creative. That was a lesson Professor White tried to teach me, but I was too young and inexperienced to hear it then. It was only when I got serious about writing for publication—and pay!—that I finally started treating writing like a craft and not a talent.
Brilliantly stated! What an important lesson for all of us!
So Alan, I think I’ve already answered this question for you (above, accidentally) : ) but tell us, as your writing career has progressed how have you been intentional about staying connected with newer authors to help them along?
As a published author, I've remained active in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, where I meet a lot of people who are exactly where I was twelve years ago. Back then I was attending regional conferences, meeting editors, taking writing workshops—all things I still do now, but of course then it was as an author trying to write my first sellable book. I don't always have the opportunity to teach at SCWBI events, but do try to make myself available to anyone and everyone with questions about the craft or business of writing. I certainly don't know everything, but I'm always happy to tell anyone who'll listen what I've learned—often the hard way!
I have seen you do that many times, Alan, and I know that so many new authors have really appreciated it!
So, 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've long been jealous of the way the adult science fiction and fantasy community comes together for various writing retreats and workshops. Clarion, Viable Paradise, Blue Heaven, Rio Hondo, Sycamore Hill—the list goes on and on. The workshops range from a weekend to six weeks, and allow the participants to focus full-time on craft. There wasn't something comparable for kidlit, at least not something I was aware of, so I set one up myself. This past April, eight other published children's book writers and I got together at a cabin in Bat Cave, North Carolina for a week of group critiques, craft discussion, and hot tubbing. It was terrific! The children's book community is already a friendly, tight-knit one, but getting nine Southeastern kidlit writers together to compare notes and talk shop was a real highlight of my year—and we're already talking about doing it again in 2013. I came away with so much great advice, inspiration, and enthusiasm for my current book!
That sounds like a wonderful experience, Alan. What a great way to get work done on your own writing while also bonding and learning from other writers!
So, with all that writing and brainstorming around the hot tub, what soon to be released publication do you have coming up?
I have a young adult Star Trek novel coming out in June, 2012—Starfleet Academy: The Assassination Game. I'm super-excited about it. I've been a Trek fan for a long time, and I was thrilled when I learned they were doing a young adult series based on the recent reboot with the re-imagined Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Bones, and the rest. Due to the aggressive scheduling of licensed work like this, I had very little time to write it too—just about two months of actual plotting and writing time! It was a deadline I was happy to take on, and I had a lot of fun writing for characters I've loved for a long time. Right now the pub date is set for June 26.
Congratulations, Alan! Wow, that really was a quickly written book! We look forward to reading it!
Congratulations, Alan! Wow, that really was a quickly written book! We look forward to reading it!
Now, tell us. What one book that someone else wrote do you wish you had written, and why?
Oh. I think I might say Howl's Moving Castle for this one. That book has such terrific humor, and it's a really amazing riff on some of the cliches of fantasy. It chuckles at the tropes of fantasy novels while reveling in them. And I wish I'd invented Howl, Calcifer, and Sophie.
That IS a great choice, Alan. I’m sure that author Diana Wynne Jones would be honored that you loved her book.
Before we get to the plot suggestions, here’s one more fun question. It seems that many children’s writers actually began writing when they were children. Is this true of you as well?Yes. When I was in second grade, I wrote, illustrated, and distributed a newspaper to my street—creatively called “The Blue Spring Lane News.” I typed it up on my grandfather's old typewriter we had out in the garage, and my mom, a teacher, mimeographed it for me at school. In fifth grade, I wrote my first book. There was a bestselling humor book out at the time called Real Men Don't Eat Quiche, so I wrote a book called Real Kids Don't Eat Spinach, wherein I listed all the things cool kids should and shouldn't do. It was pretty obvious from the start that I was going to end up a writer, I think. :-)
That’s great! I love your childhood twist on the adult book. You were clearly already understanding niche marketing, even during childhood! J
Ok. Now for some great advice in less than 100 words, please: When I first met you, you gave me some great pointers on plotting a novel. Can you summarize here some of the things you keep in mind when planning out and outlining the plot for a new novel before you begin writing it?100 words or less! Whoo. In short, I'm a big believer in three act structure. The first act, roughly 25% of your book, is the Decision to Act. By the 1/4 mark, your character has been presented with a problem and makes the conscious decision to set out to achieve that goal--think Dorothy resolving to travel down the yellow brick road to see the Wizard and get home. The second act, the biggest chunk of your book, the middle 50%, is the Action. This is your character doing what he/she set out to do. Dorothy travels along the yellow brick road, making friends and enemies and having adventures. At the end of Act Two comes another turning point--she gets to the Wizard, but he demands she kill the Wicked Witch before he'll grant her wish. Act Three, the last 25% of your story, is the Consequences of the Action. Because Dorothy has gone to the Wizard, he has sent her on a new quest. Because Luke Skywalker saves the princess in Act Two of Star Wars, he sets off on the new work of Act Three: blow up the Death Star. The main character deals with the consequences of the decisions he or she has made all along the way. I also like the "tent pole" smack dab in the middle of the story to prop up the long second act, a place where the main character undergoes a metaphorical death and rebirth. In Star Wars, for example, this is the trash compactor scene. In Fantasy Baseball, I drop my main character off a building and kill him. (He gets better.)
I think that was more than 100 words, but I'm not going to go back and count. :-) I have a LOT more to say about plot. I talk about plot at a lot at conferences, and will be teaching this structure (in much greater detail) July 21, 2012 at a writers’ conference in Greenville, South Carolina. You can find more info about the conference at www.thewritersplot.com. Maybe some of your readers can come out and see me!
That sounds great, Alan! Having attended one of your presentations on Plot at the SCBWI Carolinas Fall conference, I’d definitely recommend your plot presentations to anyone! Everyone can also follow Alan at his Blog http://alangratz.blogspot.com/ or on twitter: @AlanGratz
Thanks so much for being here with us today and sharing great stories, a photo of your great beanie hat, and some wonderful tips on plot!
Next week’s “Each One Teach One Author” will be picture book author and “The Brown Bookshelf” blogger, the delightful Kelly Starling Lyons. See you then!