Katy Upperman on Letting Ideas Stew For Years

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today’s guest for the WHAT is Katy Upperman, author of contemporary YA romances Kissing Max Holden, The Impossibility of Us, and How the Light Gets In.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book? 

I started working on How the Light Gets In in 2010, and have returned to the story numerous times in the years it took to sell the manuscript. Way back in the beginning, the book had a different title, different characters, and a very different plot. But it’s always been a story about ghosts (literal and figurative) set on the Oregon coast. The point of origin was a combination of elements that inspire me: the beach, a run-down Victorian, a haunting, a decades-old mystery, swimming, and a layered romance.

I also found inspiration in themes that fascinate me: families moving forward after tragedy, the way some people can help us wade through grief while others hinder forward motion, and how sister relationships can grow and change and, sometimes, bend to the point of breaking. So, the point of origin for How the Light Gets In was really a whole bunch of different components that I eventually pieced together to form a story.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I wanted to write about a girl who was sad, confused, and angry, but by the end of the story, I knew she’d need to have gained understanding and perspective, and that she should be taking steps to reclaim the parts of herself she lost along with her sister.

The plot of How the Light Gets In was built around moments that would challenge its main character, Callie, and help her grow. Those include interactions with her aunt, with whom she has a complicated relationship, interactions with Tucker, a local boy she meets on her first morning back in Bell Cove, and interactions with her sister, Chloe, in the past and the (ghostly) present. Additionally, I wanted Callie to discover a mystery within her aunt’s Victorian, one that would parallel her current situation in important ways, as well as keep the reader guessing. Because it was endlessly challenging to fit all of this into a cohesive, compelling narrative, I kept Callie’s character arc in mind while plotting, as it’s what brings the whole story together.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Yes—every single time! My process is this: Let a new idea stew. Map out characters’ goals, motivations, and the main conflicts. Write a detailed outline. Feel incredibly confident. Begin drafting. Flail. Flail some more. Revisit and revise the outline. Draft. Revisit and revise outline. Draft. Revisit and revise outline. Draft. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until the first draft is done.

For me, epiphanies come as first drafts grow. Characters surprise me. Seemingly brilliant plot twists start to seem cliché. New ideas—better ideas—burst forth as I get to know the story on a deeper level. So, while I outline, my outlines are flexible and always changing.

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Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Fresh material is very hard to come by. I envy writers who have notebooks full of hooky ideas—that is so not me. I’m character-focused; interesting people pop up in my imagination all the time. Interesting circumstances do sometimes, too. But weaving a workable plot around those fragments of ideas is tough! It takes me months or even years to have an idea fully-formed enough to attempt a first draft.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I work on whatever is inspiring me most. On the rare occasion I have more than one idea percolating, I choose the one that makes me want to write—the one that feels the least like “work”.

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I have two cats, and they’re most definitely my writing buddies. One or both of them almost always ends up on my lap when I’m writing, which is pretty perfect, actually, because they keep me pinned to my seat, forcing me to do nothing but work. I can’t imagine making a go at a manuscript without my furry officemates nearby. J

Ethan Long on Offering Your Work For Free

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always included in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today’s guest is Ethan Long, author of the Tales of True Mythology series, self-published in 2012. He used his love of theater and experiences traveling to create the fantasy series that is now widely available on his website, Tomehaven. He lives in central Ohio where he tries to stay stocked up on good books, board games, and popcorn. You can usually find him scrolling through Instagram.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

Yes, I can remember when I had the first inkling for the story. It was summer break from college and I was watching TV. A commercial I don’t remember popped an idea into my head: What if people from myths really lived? What if there really was a Zeus or an Artemis and their stories just got exaggerated over the years? What would that look like?

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I did it over a long time period. There wasn’t truly a story in place for probably a year or more after I started working on it. I built the world first. Trying to figure out how mythological people and stories and creatures have lived over the centuries and why no one has seen them in millennia took a lot of trial and error. But once I started cementing things like the Olympians not being gods but more like superheroes, and my main character being a bookworm, theater-loving doubter, the story started to fall into place.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Oh yeah. Talk about drafts. It really is true that the more you get to know your characters the more they take over the story. For the first book, I had an end goal in mind to reach a certain place in the woods. But everything before that changed probably a half dozen times. My first draft didn’t include the Mirrorwind Theatre at all, which is a big part of pushing Logan along his journey. But as time went by, I started meeting new characters, discovering new places, and finding new insightful back-stories to my characters that I had never planned at the beginning. I like the ever-changing flow to story building.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

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I have more ideas than time. I’ve got a list of other books, movie ideas, and even a cartoon series that I’d love to do. Plus, I’m always jotting down ideas for the True Mythology series since there’s going to be five books total. The hardest part is trying to figure out where each idea should go.

That’s actually been one of the benefits to my new website, Tomehaven. Not only are my first two books available to read there, but I can also start posting a new story I’ve been working on. Favor is an art deco, fantasy, superhero adventure story that has nothing to do with True Mythology, so it gives me a little refreshment to write something different and the ability to finally put down on paper some of those other ideas that have been sitting in a notebook for too long. 

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I’m a bit of a writing butterfly. I flit and dart from one thing to the next. I write what I’m most inspired to write. Even when I working on a novel, I write whatever part of the story is really hitting me at the moment. Once I get enough of a story put together, I squish it into one piece and then edit it a million times.

I guess I’m the same way with other stories. I tried working on a movie script for a while but realized it was going to require a large amount of research which I did not have the time for at the moment. So I went over to Favor and worked on it for a while. Then I jumped back over Atlantis, the second True Mythology book, to finally finish it up.

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

When it comes to reading, you have to yell my name to get my attention. When it comes to writing, everything is a distraction. I can easily get pulled away by the littlest thing. I don’t have a writing buddy (or any pet at the moment), but that’s probably for the best. Although, I do have a figure of Scrooge McDuck and a tiny Atari controller on my desk that I sometimes play with when I need to just think for a while. They seem to help.

Jess Redman On Turning Questions Into Middle Grade Fiction

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today’s guest for the WHAT is Jess Redman, whose middle-grade debut, The Miraculous, will be published by FSG/Macmillan on July 30, 2019. Her second middle-grade novel, Quintessence, will be out on July 28, 2020. You can find her at www.JessRedman.com, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book? 

I didn’t have a specific point, but rather lots of different inspirations from all over the course of my life. I think this may be especially true because this is my debut. This story has been a long time in the making.

The Miraculous is a middle-grade contemporary about an 11-year-old miracle-collector named Wunder Ellis who stops believing in the extraordinary and the magical after the death of his newborn sister.

When I was around Wunder’s age, I faced several losses. In the grand scheme of life, they were smaller losses, but I found myself asking a lot of questions about death and life and meaning—you know, those Big Questions. 

Then, in the year prior to writing The Miraculous, there were lots of losses—and near losses—in my friend group and in my own life. And those questions, always in the background, came up again in new ways.

The Miraculous is about grief, but it’s also about community and love and connection and memory and mystery. And more than anything, I think, it’s about asking questions—even when answers aren’t easy or clear—which is what I hope readers will do.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I don’t have a lot of time to write, so I don’t do a lot of pre-writing.

Instead, I do a lot of thinking. This is my FAVORITE part of the process.

Mostly, I like to think about the characters. When I’m stuck, it’s usually because I don’t know my characters well enough. When I really know them, know them through and through, then I don’t have to wonder what they would say or do next. The story flows and the characters can lead it. 

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Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

All. The. Time.

I tend to start by sticking my characters in very complex, word-consuming storylines. And then there isn’t enough time and space for their internal development. So then I have to cut and cut and condense and condense until I’m left with something almost manageable. And then I have to cut some more.

Luckily, I have gotten a little better at eyeballing my outline and determining how many words I will realistically end up with.

And then there are changes that come because the characters are not going to do the things I had planned for them. Their dialogue feels phony, their motivations ring false, and then I know that the plot needs to shift.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

In my experience, the more I look for stories and the more I tell myself stories and the more I listen to the stories around me, the more I find to write about. Which seems obvious, but I just mean that sometimes a storyteller mindset is all you need. There is no lack of stories in this world.

I am not an idea a day person, however. I could not write multiple books a year. But I think I will have enough stories to last for a lifetime of writing (at a fairly slow pace).

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

That can be really hard! My contract was for two books. I had one older completed manuscript and two new ideas that I was tinkering with. I ended up outlining and writing about 50 pages of the new ones and submitting all three to my editor. Then I let her make the call!

She chose Quintessence, which is a middle-grade contemporary sci-fi-fantasy about falling stars and astronomy and alchemy and features a main character with an anxiety disorder. It’s full of magic and feeling, and I love it deeply! It publishes on July 28, 2020, and you can already add it on Goodreads.

Eventually, I hope to complete (and publish—fingers crossed!) all three stories. But I also have plenty of false-starts and half-written messes stored away in files and notebooks that I will probably never touch again.

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I have a cat, a fish, two small children, and a husband, and my preference is to have none of them around when I’m writing!

Well, the fish is okay. She’s very quiet. And she never crawls on my keyboard or asks me to make her a snack.