I have yet to meet Katie Kennedy in person but I can't wait until our paths cross in a corn-field or at a writing retreat. It's been great getting to know her behind the curtain on the SCBWI Message Board where we both serve as moderators and where she brings a lot of levity to even serious topics. A professor of history, she's also the author of WHAT GOES UP as well as LEARNING TO SWEAR IN AMERICA (a title I will steal someday because it's true :), both action-packed stories of smart kids who save the world. Please join me with a cup of tea for a chat with Katie.
Katie, I loved WHAT GOES UP, your sophomore novel. And I must say you bested yourself. Way to go! I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.
What I don’t know is how you managed to write such a fast-paced book with some weighty subjects like parallel universes and extra-dimensions along with many philosophical implications in just a little over 300 pages!
I’ve always been fascinated by ethical issues, so including trolleyology in WHAT GOES UP was natural for me. My first book, LEARNING TO SWEAR IN AMERICA, was sparked by an Immanuel Kant quotation: Do what is right, though the world should perish. I thought, What if it really would perish? So I tend to include a little philosophy in with the sci fi hijinks, because that’s what catches my own imagination.
These are the questions that matter and it makes your books that much richer. For readers who don’t know what trolleyology is, here’s a video showing a toddler solving this moral dilemma: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-N_RZJUAQY4. There are variations, like throwing a fat man off a bridge to stop the trolley. But I was really impressed with how you solved the problem, Katie.
There’s a LOT of action in your books. I’d love some tips for writing believable action scenes.
One thing to remember is that people don’t have long conversations while they’re falling out a window. The character’s focus will be pretty sharply on the action.
It helps to have cooperative children, too. When I was doing revisions for LTSIA I knocked on our son’s door.
Me: Got a minute?
Him: What for?
Me: I want to dangle you off a bridge.
Him: Yeah, okay.When I was revising WGU we had the same conversation, only with me asking to throw him down a staircase. I’m a little concerned at how readily he agreed.
Laughing. You do have cooperative children!
Of course I didn’t really do those things, but it did help to have him hang off our staircase railing—with his feet a couple of inches off the floor—so I could see if Dovie really could haul Yuri off the bridge the way I said, or for WGU, if the staircase tumble scene would work. In both cases I changed something slightly, because it turns out the human arm isn’t long enough for what I had written. Stupid arms.
You always make me laugh, Katie. Did you have the most fun making up the competition? I loved Schroedinger's Scorpion!!! Pure genius.
I sure did! I thought about what would be fun and I always enjoy reading about tests or trials, so I thought I’d write some. It was a blast! I came up with more tests than I could use in about an hour—the brainstorming was a breeze.
So now you have some challenges for future characters!
Your characters came alive for me from the beginning. I loved that you didn’t make Rosa act like a guy. I get so tired of the trope with smart girls relegated to acting like boys. Not only is she pretty and feminine and has a purse that she carries to the parallel universe, she even bleeds like a regular girl. Please tell me how she developed for you.
Sometimes characters just present themselves to you, but Rosa wasn’t one of them. So I sat down to try to figure her out, got frustrated, but pressed on, spending hours going through character-development worksheets, and…no, I’m just kidding. I got on Facebook.
And a friend had just posted a photo of her daughter as a bridesmaid, walking with the bride in a garden after the service. They had their heads together and were looking down, laughing—it was such a sweet moment, and it was all magazine-level beautiful. I looked at my friend’s daughter and thought, That’s Rosa! I made her shorter, but it was that photo that gave me the starting point for the character. Some of Rosa’s femininity may spring from that—because they were wearing gorgeous dresses and carrying flowers, and that may have spilled over into her character.
Lovely story! Next is Eddie with Daddy issues. I didn’t expect the twists and turns you took with him, but everywhere you took me, it felt right. Did you know from the start the complications with his Dad? Or did you make it up as you went along?
Eddie is one of those characters who came to me pretty much in his entirety right from the beginning. Once I realized his name was Eddie, I knew almost everything about him—and his father was a big part of that.
That is fascinating, how he came fully formed to you, whereas Rosa needed some work. They’re both extremely believable and such a joy to spend time with.
With November right around the corner, I must ask if you are a pantser or a plotter, and if you have any tips for Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month--the goal being to write a 50K novel in the month of Nov.)?
I’m a hybrid. I need to have the hook—what’s it about?—and some idea of the midpoint, the end, and what I like about it. I just spent two days of really hard work outlining a book in more detail than usual, and when I looked at the outline it had all the elements—character arcs, stakes, etc. But it didn’t look fun, so I scrapped it and came up with another idea. I don’t have it outlined as well—and I know I’ll hate myself when I hit the spot I always have in my outlines where it says, “Write something interesting for a hundred pages,”—but I’m excited about writing this one.
Yay!I guess my advice for Nanowrimo is to remember your goal. The word count is a task, but the goal is to come up with a first draft. If you know a scene isn’t working or you have to spend a day rethinking something, it’s okay to go backward a little if it brings you closer to the goal. It’s like taking a coat off a hook—sometimes you can’t get it down until it’s gone up a little.
Good distinctions. I love the stage when everything is possible. But hate when the middle sags and I'm easily distracted by every shiny new idea.
How long does it take for you to write a first draft? Revisions?
It takes four or five months for a draft for me. Revisions depend a lot on what is being requested, but it's usually fairly fast because there are people waiting. One thing I find very helpful is not to read the editor's letter on my phone or at work even though the suspense is deadly. I wait till I'm home, and alone, and get a clipboard and lots of clean paper and as I read her letter I write down absolutely everything that occurs to me. Dancing kangaroos? I write it down. There's something about that first burst of creativity when you get a revision letter that's incredibly fruitful. I looked back at my tangle of clipboard notes after I'd revised LTSIA--and she had me add ten thousand words--and every single change of any size came in that first spurt of imagination.
Great advice to not squander the creativity that comes with the editorial letter. Dancing kangaroos?!Your father is a storyteller too. How about your children? Do you ever brainstorm with them? I wonder what your family gatherings are like.
Yeah, Dad is a very gifted oral storyteller and our family gatherings are full of stories. As for the kids, one is talkative and the other is quiet, but they both have a sly wit and are tremendously funny.
Aha! So humor runs in your family too. It is a great gift, my friend. And someday I hope you write a memoir of all your adventures.
I never brainstormed with anyone until the book I just wrote (the one after WHAT GOES UP)—I’m very secretive about my ideas, not because I don’t trust people, but just because I need to protect my creative space. But something wasn’t working and I was frustrated and ran into both kids in the kitchen as we converged for a late night snack. So I unloaded on them and they fired off ideas faster than I could write them down, and I realized they have an incredible understanding of story structure. I’ve been missing out by not asking for their advice before. Now part of my process will be to bake more pies so I can lure them into the kitchen for brainstorming sessions.
That sounds so good. Now you'll have all the neighbors coming over too. I agree with you about keeping works-in-progress, especially in the early stages, close to your heart, not talk it away. There's a delicious tension in carrying about an idea in secret, playing what if with it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
I have a scene with an inflatable snake, and that was adapted from my own life. When I was in grad school I shared a house with a bunch of other students. A couple of the engineers got an extremely realistic inflatable snake and calculated its volume, how the temperature of my refrigerator would change its pressure, etc. Then they inflated it to the correct poundage, crammed it in my refrigerator, and studied in the dining room until I walked in and opened my refrigerator door. This lifelike cobra sprang out at me and oh, there was screaming.
Laughing!!! That's a great scene.
Think twice before you live with an engineer.
Too late for me. Who knows what's lurking in the attic?
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this Katie. What’s next on the horizon?
I just finished one YA (young adult novel) and am starting another, revising a MG (middle grade), have a NF (nonfiction) proposal out, and am working on a secret book.
Boy, you are fast!!! And I love secret books!!! Any chance one of these is a historical? I’m always a little bit surprised you don’t have one out already, given your amazing background in history. Which brings me to another question—are you pegged as a sci fi writer? Does your editor only want those kinds of stories or would she look at something completely different?
The nonfiction proposal is historical and the MG I'm revising has a medieval setting, but I do think people expect something sciency from my novels--if not space, at least something STEM-related (science/technology/engineering/medicine). I have a fantasy outlined and ready to go if that ever seems like a viable project.
Ah yes, the power of the brand. I hope ALL your projects find good homes and faithful readers. Good luck!!! And thank you for sharing so much here. To learn more, visit Katie at http://www.katiekennedybooks.com/home.html