Please welcome Tara Gilboy, a Middle Grade author whose novel, Unwritten, comes out on October 16*. My review of it is here. Stay tuned for her upcoming blog post on writing for Middle Grades, too!
Tara Gilboy: I am, first and foremost, a reader. Books and stories have always been one of the most important things in my life, and I’ve wanted to write pretty much since I learned to read. I still have some of the stories I wrote in elementary school. My mom recently gave me a letter I wrote to a publisher when I was in third grade, asking if I could write books for their series. (Apparently she never mailed it!) Unfortunately, until I was in my twenties, I had never actually met a writer, and so writing started to seem like this kind of “impossible dream.” Then in college, I took some creative writing classes, published a couple short stories, and worked as an editor at a literary journal, and I realized: “Hey, I can really do this!” I completed my MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, which ended up being very humbling and also one of the most formative experiences of my writing life.
DJR: What led you to write MG and how is it different from YA or adult fantasy?
TG: Even though I have always loved children’s books and read tons of middle grade (and actually my first ventures into writing were always in middle grade, which is what I wrote for fun), when I was in college and started seriously pursuing writing, I focused on adult fiction. I am embarrassed to admit that I was a bit of a literary snob, and I had these really pretentious ideas about writing. My sense of story was virtually nonexistent, I sneered at plot, and I was writing a lot of “purple prose,” these kind of overwritten sentences, way too much description and exposition. But a lot of my stories left me feeling cold. I wasn’t in love with the stories and characters. I remember in my first year of my MFA at UBC, I was taking a novel-writing workshop and working on an adult novel that was this really serious historical piece about a marriage and a woman finding herself within her marriage. I was really struggling with it and couldn’t wait for the workshop to be over so I never had to look at the novel again. At the same time, I was taking a class on writing children’s books and reading all these amazing middle grade novels and having wonderful class discussions about them, and I realized that I was happiest when I was writing these kinds of stories. At the end of the first year, I changed my thesis genre and never looked back.
I think middle grade differs from adult fantasy (and to some extent, YA), in that it is really condensed into its essential elements – there is no room to digress or go off on tangents or you risk losing your reader. Middle grade readers have great eyes for what actually needs to be there in the text, and when I am writing middle grade, I am ruthless about cutting. I am also very careful about structure and pacing when I am revising. I want to keep the reader turning pages without making things feel too rushed. The focus is always on telling a good story, which is what I love so much about these books. I also think middle grade tends to look inward, where characters really make sense of their own identities, who they are, whereas in YA, the books tend to look outward, with the main characters finding their place in the world, which makes sense, since YA readers are often on the cusp of leaving home in just a few short years.
DJR: What inspired your book, Unwritten? How do you see it in relation to current MG?
TG:Unwritten started in a rather unusual way. I had written a different book for my MFA thesis, and I found an agent for it pretty quickly, so I really had my hopes up when it went out on submission, and then …. Nothing. It didn’t sell. This shook my confidence as a writer, and I was starting and stopping a lot of projects and feeling insecure about my writing. Finally I decided to write something just for fun, something that was just for me, that I never planned on showing anyone, as a way to make writing fun for myself again. Unwritten was my “just for fun” project.
At the same time, I kept having this recurring nightmare where some sort of supernatural entity was coming after me, and I had to pack up whatever I could fit into my car and run away forever. That dream was initially my starting point in the story; in the early drafts, the story opened with a stranger arriving in the middle of the night and telling Gracie and her mother that they have to flee. (I think my original opening line was “The pounding shook the house” as this stranger knocks on the door.) Later, as I continued working on the novel, I realized that in order for readers to feel invested in that moment, they needed to know more about Gracie first, so the scene got pushed back into what I think is now chapter four or five, and it eventually evolved into something completely different. But the origin of this story was me exploring who Gracie was running from and why, as well as giving myself permission to play around with these ideas without pressuring myself to write something with the end goal of publication in mind. I think because of the premise of the book, people often assume I must have started with the “story-within-a-story” idea, but that actually wasn’t the case.
There is so much wonderful middle grade coming out right now, so much of it turning inward to explore themes like identity and where we belong within our families and friendship groups. I think Unwritten fits within current MG in that it really focuses on Gracie’s inner journey as she figures out (quite literally) who she is, where she comes from, who she will be going forward. Though her situation is unusual, the universal emotions she explores are ones that recur frequently in middle grade because they are so important to this age group (and to all readers).
DJR: What authors have most influenced your writing? What about them do you find inspiring?
TG: I think this answer varies depending on the project I am working on. With every project I write, I always have a set of “mentor texts,” books that may be similar in style or theme or premise to the one I am undertaking, and I study them closely to examine what worked well in these books and how the authors handled different issues that I may be struggling with. When I was writing Unwritten, I read every book with a “story within a story” and characters coming to life that I could get my hands on (they were surprisingly hard to find!). For the project I’m working on now, which has some gothic elements, I’ve been reading classics like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as middle grade books with gothic undertones like Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors and Glooms and Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener. For overall influence, though, JK Rowling and Kate DiCamillo have been big influences on me. Their books have this lovely classic feel to them, in the language, in the sense of wonder, in the magic.
DJR: Why do you write what you do, and how does your work differ from others in your genre?
TG: I never thought I’d be a fantasy writer. When I was in elementary school, I was fascinated by historical fiction. I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books over and over again, as well as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, and if a book had pioneers in it, it was for me. I love learning about history (Colonial Williamsburg is my absolute favorite place in the world!), and so when I first began writing for children, I assumed that I would write historical fiction. I started and stopped many, many historical fiction projects, but I kept petering out in the middle. I’d stall in the researching phase, or I’d freeze if I couldn’t get a detail right, or I simply would get stuck devising a plot. Writing was beginning to feel like “work” for me, but I was reading a lot of fantasy at the time, and so I started playing around with writing some. I loved the fun and freedom and magic of asking myself these completely off-the-wall “what if?” questions and then exploring how I could possibly pull them off in a story. What if a doll was alive? What if a girl was really a storybook character? What if I could travel in time? They were the kinds of questions I realized I had been asking myself and daydreaming about ever since I was a little girl, the kinds of questions we all ask ourselves as children when we have this enormous capacity for curiosity and wonder. I think that’s what draws me to fantasy. The story possibilities are endless, and I never struggle to find ideas the way I did when I was writing historical or contemporary realistic fiction.
I’m not really sure how my work differs from others in my genre. I tend to write fantasy rooted in reality, rather than high fantasy where there is so much world-building involved. I deeply admire writers who can create these wonderful magical worlds (JK Rowling immediately comes to mind), but I’ve always written about worlds very similar to our own, with just a few magical elements.
DJR: How does your writing process work?
TG: I am a huge fan of Anne Lamotte and swear by her “sh---y rough draft” advice. My first drafts are the biggest piles of garbage you’ve ever seen, and I am always secretly terrified that someone is going to see them before I have a chance to revise and think “wow, she’s a terrible writer.” I play around A LOT when I am writing, and my first drafts are all about exploring my plot and characters and letting them take the story in different directions rather than trying to stick to a rigid outline. Once I start getting further into the story, and have a solid fifty pages or so, I start to do a bit more outlining, but usually it’s only a brief list of the next few scenes and what needs to happen in each. I may have a general idea of where the book is headed, but when I try to force a book to end a certain way, things start to unravel pretty quickly because my characters’ actions don’t feel natural to them. Anne Lamotte writes in Bird by Bird about an E.L. Doctorow quote: “'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.” That’s pretty much how I write. And I always start my writing day by reading for half an hour or so of a book I love. It’s the only way I can get into the right frame of mind to write.
DJR: What have you written recently? What lies ahead?
TG: When I finished Unwritten, I went through a long stretch of time where I was starting and stopping projects and not being able to stick with any one story. I worked on a ghost story about a haunted doll, nonfiction, some picture books, a historical fiction about pirates, science fiction set in the near future, and a middle grade about a mermaid. I may return to some of these projects at one point, but none of them were really holding my attention the way they needed to: I was drifting and feeling a bit lost. I am now halfway through the first draft of a book I am really excited about. It’s a fantasy, and it has a lot of gothic elements. I am having a lot of fun playing around with the creepy setting and gothic tropes.
DJR: What advice would you give an aspiring writer?
TG: Find a workshop group full of people you trust. It will be your most valuable asset as a writer. They should love your work but also push you to make it better. I have a very difficult time developing a revision plan on my own, and my critique partners are always helping me, by closely reading my work, suggesting what needs to change, and also helping me find the “gems” in my stories – the best parts that I can flesh out more and bring to the forefront. The people in my workshop group have become some of my dearest friends, and we are always cheering one another on, commiserating one another on failures, and chatting for hours about storytelling. They are the best! I don’t think I could have written this book without their support. It can be tough to find the right workshop group, though. My number one rule is this: you should always leave a workshop session feeling energized and excited to get to work on your revisions. If you feel dispirited and discouraged, something may be off about the dynamic of the group. They shouldn’t be giving only praise, but they should definitely be telling you what you are doing WELL along with what needs to change. And that’s not just because of ego or hurt feelings. There is no way a writer can successfully revise without being aware of what parts work well and resonate with readers. Those are the parts we want to expand on and strengthen.
Middle Grade author Tara Gilboy holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, where she specialized in writing for children and young adults. She teaches creative writing in San Diego Community College's Continuing Education Program and for the PEN Writers in Prisons Program.
*You can order signed copies through Mysterious Galaxy: https://www.mystgalaxy.
Otherwise, it's also available at Amazon https://www.amazon.com/
and Barnes and Noble: https://www.
barnesandnoble.com/w/ unwritten-tara-gilboy/ 1128015977