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, 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. 


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.