Kate Messner

On your website you talk about carrying a notebook so you can scribble down ideas before you forget.  Can you talk about how those scribbles could become a draft of a story? (Our kids have topics or ideas jotted in notebooks but often struggle with how to create an interesting story or informational piece.  Do you have some tips that could help them?)

One huge benefit of a writer’s notebook is that is trains us to think like writers. When we’re carrying a notebook, we look at the world differently — more closely, for starters, but also through the lens of a writer, and we begin to see stories everywhere.

Just as an example, I remember a day a few years ago when I was worrying about something. (I do that more than I should – I’m very good at it.) I don’t remember now what it was, but I remember how I felt. I was worrying and wondering about questions to which I just couldn’t know the answer, and I thought, “You know what I need? I want a magic pen so that whenever I have a question, I can write it down, and the pen will somehow, magically, give me the answer.”

I quickly realized that a) this wish wasn’t likely to come true any time soon, but b) that sure was a great idea for a story. So I scribbled in my writer’s notebook “MAGIC PEN – ALL THE ANSWERS.” Those five words stayed with me, and I ended up writing a middle grade novel about an anxiety-prone seventh grader who finds a magic pencil that answers any question she writes with it.

What are some writing routines or habits that support your writing?  ( How could kids be inspired or think about their own helpful habits/routines from what ‘grown up’ authors do?)

Aside from carrying a notebook, I think the best habit for a writer to have is a reading habit. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but I’ve found that the more I write, the more I read like a writer, too – noticing the craft of writing as I read. How did that author build suspense? How did this one create a character who was so flawed but so likeable? Reading to answer questions like those is also a skill that kids can develop. Everything we read makes us better writers. 

It is obvious from the details in your books that you do a lot of research to make the stories so realistic and engaging.  I always learn so much, while being entertained. How could young authors begin to do a little research to support their own writing?

(What are some research questions they could ask themselves depending on the genre- or what are some details they could begin to think about that they could observe, interview or research? Maybe just a few tips to get them thinking about trying a little research in genres other than informational)

When I tell kids about my research habits – which involve not only heaps of reading but pretty extensive “field trips” to places like Costa Rica and Rome – they’re quick to point out that school assignments don’t often come with plane tickets attached. That said, there are still lots of ways that kids can explore the world of research beyond their school libraries.

Picking up the phone or emailing an expert on a topic is a great way to fill in gaps in book and internet research, and this is something that kids can do with supervision. It’s a great experience for them to have – calling or emailing a stranger with a polite, clear explanation of the kind of help they’re requesting – and most people who are approached in this way are friendly and helpful.

And this kind of research goes far beyond nonfiction. A student writer a story about a soccer player could interview a local high school goalie or college coach. A student working on a poem about butterflies might visit a local science center to observe them first-hand, rather than relying on images and ideas that come to mind. Often, the best details in a piece of writing are the unexpected gems that are uncovered during research. 

When you go back to reread your work, what are you typically looking or listening for that can help you reflect or revise? (Do you reread it multiple times with specific purpose or focus?  Do you read it aloud?  Do you have others read it aloud to you? Trying to get young writers to see the importance of rereading their work closely)

 While I’m writing a first draft, I don’t stop to revise, but I do keep a list of “Known Issues,” which is my way of saying, “These are the things that I already know can be improved.” A recent list of these issues included directives such as “Rewrite beginning to add scene with Mom,” “Make Danny more rounded – what are his hobbies/friends?” and “Add more goats!”

Once I tackle that list, I always read my manuscript aloud. This takes time, but it’s amazing how many things we notice when we read aloud. Our ears catch awkward sentences that our eyes would skim right past. And of course, another step in my writing/revision process is having a critique partner read my work as well, offering suggestions on what works and asking questions about what might not be effective or clear.

Who are your mentor authors?  How has their work inspired or influenced your writing? (Please feel free to reference your Teacher’s Write group, 59 Reasons or Real Revision since it is obvious that you have gotten a lot of advice and inspiration from so many authors.  But also at NCTE you touched on mentor texts that have inspired/supported your writing.)

From a very young age, I felt as if I had mentors in writing – in the form of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, whose books I read and reread over and over. But those “mentors” were in the form of mentor texts – their Ramona and Fudge books that taught so much about lively characters and real families. Today, I’m lucky enough to have a pack of author friends – people like Linda Urban, Loree Griffin Burns, and Laurel Snyder – whose work inspires me and whose friendship supports me. We trade manuscripts and talk writing as often as we can, and whether you’re a published author or a student, just being around other writers and talking shop is a great way to develop your craft.