A Peek at the Creative Space of Kate Messner

Joining us this week for Creative Spaces is author Kate Messner. In addition to being a middle school English teacher, Kate is the author of The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., which won the E. B. White Read Aloud Award in 2009, and the historical fiction novels Spitfire and Champlain and the Silent One.

Hot off the presses this week is her latest middle grade novel, Sugar and Ice. The description from the publisher reads: For Claire Boucher, life is all about skating on the frozen cow pond and in the annual Maple Show right before the big pancake breakfast on her family’s maple farm. But all that changes when Claire is offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity-a scholarship to train with the elite skaters in Lake Placid. Tossed into a world of mean girls on ice, where competition is everything, Claire soon realizes that her sweet dream-come-true has sharper edges than she could have imagined. Can she find the strength to stand up to the people who want her to fail and the courage to decide which dream she wants to follow?

Sugar and Ice isn’t officially released until tomorrow, December 7, but it’s already garnering high praise. New York public librarian and School Library Journal blogger Betsy Bird included it on her list of 100 Magnificent Children’s Books of 2010 and Amazon included it among their selections for Best Books of December 2010. Booklist wrote, “Even those who don’t know their double toe loops from their single salchows will enjoy reading about what it takes to make it on the ice. . . . Satisfying and likely to have wide appeal.”

You will likely hear much more about Kate Messner in 2011 as she has three books scheduled for publication. Two picture books are forthcoming from Chronicle Books, Sea Monster’s First Day and Over and Under the Snow, as well as the chapter book, Marty McGuire, due out in spring from Scholastic Press. If you would like to learn more about Kate, visit her website and her blog.

Describe your workspace.

Which one?  While I do have a writing room in the back of our house that I love, my real workspace varies from day to day.  As a teacher and mom, I sneak writing time whenever I can, so you’ll find me writing in the bleachers at my daughter’s ice skating practice as often as you’ll find me working in my office!

Describe a typical workday.

Because I teach middle school and have kids, my writing workday is actually more of a work night.  After my kids are in bed, I settle in for about two hours of writing each night, usually from 9-11.  That’s straight writing time–no interruptions, no stopping to tweet or check email–so those hours add up.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

I love my desk because it has a huge work surface where I can spread out revisions and outlines and planners, and also because it has one big drawer with compartments for things like pens, paper clips, and Post-It notes. (Love my sticky notes!)

I also love the bookshelves in my office, which I’ve filled with a few different kinds of books–research titles that I need when I’m working on a project and books that inspire me because they’re amazing (and many are written by friends!)

I keep some gifts from kids whose schools I’ve visited in my office, too, like this beautiful maple leaf mosaic that students from Isle la Motte School in Vermont made for me.  Besides being beautiful, it reminds me of the reason I’m writing–the kids!

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I don’t really think I have any rituals. I’m so used to sneaking in writing time wherever I can that I’ve gotten much more flexible about the conditions in which I write. I can work almost anywhere.

What do you listen to while you work?

Usually silence works best for me, though when I was writing Sugar and Ice, I always played the main character Claire’s skating music while I was writing those scenes.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Green tea. 

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

I think knowing that I only have those two hours a night to devote to my writing is a huge incentive to stay focused, and I want to write, so I rarely find myself distracted during that time.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

On my MacBook.  I’ll scribble notes & outlines on paper, usually with colored pens, but when it comes time to draft, it’s always on the computer.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

It totally depends on the project!  Some books, like Sugar and Ice, started without an outline; I just dove into the story and ended up going back to organize and plan as part of the revision process. Other books require more planning up front. 

And I love Scrivener writing software.  It’s helped me become more of a planner than a plunger!

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

I do share my workspace sometimes… My daughter, who loves books as much as I do, often joins me with her book in my writing room if I’m working on a weekend.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

Find your unique voice. Here’s a story that I share in the writers section of my website:

When I was just starting in tv news – reporting my very first stories as an intern at the NBC affiliate in Syracuse, NY, there was an anchorman who read all the scripts before the show. He was not particularly gentle or kind in his feedback, but I’ll always be thankful to him for the day he threw one of my scripts in the trash can next to his desk. I fought back tears and fished it back out.

“I’m not going to get better at this if you don’t tell me what’s wrong with it,” I said.

He stared at me for a second. “Do you want to learn?”

“Yes.” I stared back.

“Okay then.” He put the script down on his desk, smoothed it out, and proceeded to tear it apart. He was a brilliant writer and pointed out many things that I could do better, but his comment about voice is the one that has stayed with me.

“Why did you write this line like this?” he asked, pointing to one line that I thought sounded especially tough and journalistic. I thought it sounded like Sheryl Nathans, an investigative reporter for a competing station whose work I admired immensely, and I told him so.

“Well, there’s your problem,” he said. “because the job of being Sheryl Nathans is taken. By Sheryl Nathans. You’re going to have to figure out how to say things your own way.”

That advice applies to writing books for kids, too. There are lots of terrific voices out there, and it’s fine to admire them and even emulate them once in a while, but ultimately, you need to find your own style and write in a voice that belongs to you and your unique characters alone.

5 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Kate Messner”

  1. Janet Johnson

    Love the advice on voice! So true. And great interview. I need to take a page from your book about setting a time to write and not letting anything distract you.

  2. Clara

    Wow, that was an interesting interview, loved the story about finding your own voice! Thanks 🙂

  3. Sally

    Thanks for another great interview! I always enjoy seeing and reading how other writers work – and where their motivation comes from.