Children’s Author Interview: Paula Kay McLaughlin on Young Adult, Middle Grade and How Characters Drive the Story

Children’s author Paula Kay McLaughlin is one of those writers who always has worlds spinning in her head. I haven’t met her, but I can just tell from the novels she’s working on right now. (That’s right, novels.) She’s a self-professed character-driven author who lives in Connecticut. And you’ll be amazed at the depth and breadth of her young adult and middle grade projects, which she has been gracious enough to discuss today as part of the Seven Questions series.

Paula Kay McLaughlin's website is full of beautiful images, including this one.

Paula’s blog, Write Now, has three stated goals—to inspire, entertain and inform. With those ends in mind, she recently launched an original writing interview series, Writer Spotlights. It’s intended as a platform for writers who have “never-ever-been published” and who have a query-ready manuscript. She asks participants questions about their work, including some really creative, thought-provoking ones. So go check it out, and if you fit the criteria, pop her a note asking to be featured.

Without further ado, it’s my pleasure to interview the interviewer. Welcome to Seven Questions, Paula!

1. Tell us about your young adult thriller, UNTIL DEATH.

I’d love to, thanks for asking. Here’s the blurb:

Since Jake Rioux’s near-death-experience (NDE) he sees visions of how others will die, but despite trying to warn them, he can’t change fate.

All Emma Connors wants is an answer to what happens to the soul after death, specifically her father’s. She follows recent NDE accounts, trying to understand what comes next, but so far the answers about life-after-death are not the ones she hoped for.

When Emma and Jake fall in love and Jake sees a vision of her death, he’s determined to change fate and save her—or die trying. But Jake’s visions take their toll and Emma’s desperate to save Jake from himself, even if it means risking her own life.

You can read my first page here.

2. You’ve also completed a middle-grade fantasy, SYDNEY PARKS AND THE BAYAB TREE. What’s it about?

Twelve-year-old Sydney Parks should be having a birthday party, but instead she’s in the midst of a pity-party. She’s lost her mother, her father and pet parrot–always on her birthday. This time it’s her uncle. But unlike the others, he left behind a book that only Sydney can read, and an enigmatic message that suggests her mother is not dead.

Sydney, her best friend, Pete, and an unlikely band of new friends have seven days to untangle riddles, learn to use their flares (magic), and race across Renala on a life and death scavenger hunt. If they fail, all the adults will remain zombie-like muckers, and Sydney will lose her only chance to find her mother. But to succeed, Sydney might have to face that not everyone is perfect, even her mother.

I decided, after only a smattering of queries sent (with a few requests) that I needed to work on this one a bit more. It is still too long for a MG and there are a few things I’d like to do to make it more marketable. So, I have put it aside while working on UNTIL DEATH so I can see it with fresh eyes when I pull it out again.

3a. Why young adult? Why middle grade? 

I write MG and YA because I’m so drawn to the conflicts and the coming of age issues that children and teens face. To see, feel, or be something for the very first time, as kids do, is really cool to me. I love that I get to experience these things with my characters, but through new eyes. In addition, like so many others, after reading the Harry Potter series I knew children’s literature was where I wanted to be (how cliché, right?).

3b. What are some of the differences between the two categories?

Paula and her husband Kevin pause during a picturesque Vermont hike.

The characters in MG are between the ages of nine and twelve, maybe thirteen. The issues they’re faced with can be dark, humorous, scary, adventurous, sad . . . as long as they are always told from the viewpoint of the character and in a way someone that age would view their world. One of my favorite MG books is WHAT JAMIE SAW by Carolyn Coman. The stepfather is abusive to Jamie’s mother in this story. The way Jamie interprets the events is totally different than if we were to see things through the mother’s eyes.

For YA, the main character is usually between fourteen and nineteen. Even if the main plot is not a romance, there is usually some romance mixed in for obvious reasons. With YA the stories address tougher issues and can be (but don’t have to be) darker, scarier, gorier, you name it. For example COFFEEHOUSE ANGEL by Suzanne Selfors is a very sweet, fun, romantic, and uplifting YA novel. In contrast, Ellen Hopkins YA free verse novels are dark, explicit, address sex, violence, drugs, incest. Both great writers, great books, both YA, both totally different.

3c. Does the age of your audience affect how you develop characters or the kind of story you decide to tell?

Not at all. The characters drive the story. They’re the ones that tell me what’s going to happen next, how they see their world, and their age dictates the situations they get themselves into.

Writers (as you know) are a strange lot in that characters tell us the story and we write it down. I know, I know we’re the one’s thinking and writing about them, but there’s this out of mind experience that happens that is unexplainable. There’ve been times where I’ll write something, stop and think, oh my gosh, I can’t believe he (my character) just said that or did that. Yeah, I know, like I said, strange. But it is one of the things that are so magical about the process.

4. As a blogger, Paula, you’ve recently launched Writer Spotlights, an interview series featuring authors with finished manuscripts who are seeking representation. It’s a really interesting concept. How do the interviews speak to the mission of your blog? What has the reaction been so far?

Interesting that you picked the world mission, because that is exactly what I’ve been searching for, a mission for my blog. When I first started blogging I did it because, well, everyone else was. As I got closer to querying for an agent I decided I needed to take my blog more seriously and really think hard about what I wanted my blog to be about, what I wanted it to say about me, and how I could bring something different. That’s when I came up with doing a Writer Spotlight series where I interview writers who are searching for agents and allow them another venue to pitch and talk about their completed manuscripts. But it is still a work-in-progress.

I am currently seeking writers to interview for the series, should you have an interest, check out the 411 on my blog page. In fact, the writer you interviewed last Monday, Michael Gettel-Gilmartin, made an appearance on my blog, too.

5. Your great aunt and great uncle were literary agents. Can you tell us a little bit about them? Have any family stories been passed down about their successes?

My cousin, Kristin Bailey Murphy, is in the process of writing a book in letters about Annie Laurie Williams, my great aunt, which includes a running narrative in between the letters. It’s taken two years of research, but she’s done with the first draft and now beginning the revisions process. Here is what Kristin has to say about our aunt:

Annie Laurie Williams (ALW) was a dramatic and motion picture agent whose biggest clients were John Steinbeck, Margaret Mitchell, Lloyd C. Douglas, Kathleen Windsor, and Harper Lee. After her husband, Maurice Crain, was released from the German prison camp Stalag 17, he started working with Annie Laurie handling the literary side of her company. His very first clients were Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, who had written “Cheaper by the Dozen,” and which made the Book of the Month Club selection. He was an immediate success. Together they handled many famous authors — he’d sell the literary rights, and then she’d sell the movie rights. Most notable was Harper Lee: she initially came to Maurice with some short stories, and it was he who suggested she try writing a novel because it would be easier to sell. A week later she was back in his office with the first 100 pages of “Go Set a Watchman,” which was later to become “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He and Tay Hohoff of Lippincott encouraged her through two years of writing it. Once Maurice had sold the novel to Lippincott, ALW sold it to Hollywood.

As for a cool story: Annie Laurie brought John Steinbeck up to the farm (our family summer home) to write the play form of OF MICE AND MEN. They only had a few days to complete it–John Steinbeck was supposed to have done it on the first leg of his Scandinavian cruise (CA to NY), but he put it off, unsure how to put the story into play form. So when Annie Laurie met his boat, she packed him up and brought him to the farm. She sat at the kitchen table while John told her what to type. But even at the farm he was a procrastinator. Annie Laurie had to call him in from ‘playing’ with Anne and Fern and their brother Bobby (neighborhood kids) to get back to work. He enjoyed the kids so much he bought them a couple of mice to keep as pets. By the time the play came out at the Music Box theatre, the mice he’d given them bred. Little Bobby sent two of them to John Steinbeck in California for good luck (named Lennie and George), but they died in transit (surprise). “I hope Bobby didn’t mind that the mice died—certainly I didn’t . . .” John Steinbeck wrote to Annie Laurie.

This is one of many great stories Kristin shares in her book. I’m anxious to read it and hope others will be, as well.

6. Why do you write? And how do you fit creating other worlds into your everyday life?

As for how I fit writing into my life, a better question would be how I fit life into my writing world(s)? There are times when I have to make myself go out into the “real” world and, well, DO something. Pathetic, I know, but true. Thank goodness for family and friends who beckon and sometimes demand I leave my laptop behind and go out and play.

I’m lucky enough to work three days a week. I write the other two. This is a conscious decision/sacrifice. I could make more money; I could get a job with benefits; I often feel guilty about NOT working more hours. But I’m giving myself two more years, with my husband’s blessing. If I don’t make any money from my writing to supplement my other part-time job within two years, then I will need to rethink the work situation. But let’s hope that doesn’t happen, yes?

Besides my two “free” writing days, I stay up too late and get up too early to get writing time in. It’s usually my sleep that suffers most.

As for why I write, I write because I can’t NOT write, simple as that. It calms me, it makes me happy, in the same way I imagine playing an instrument, singing, or painting does for other artists. And if I go too many days (like two) without writing, I am a MAJOR grump, just ask my family.

7. What are you working on now?

Well, lots, actually.

I’m almost done polishing up UNTIL DEATH and hope to start querying by July. My kids are always saying, “But, I thought you were done?” To which I explain done doesn’t mean done-done.

That’s one thing that’s difficult for me to determine, when is it good enough? Never, is the most honest answer. I heard Jerry Spinelli speak, author of many great children’s books including one of my favorites, STARGIRL. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he doesn’t read his books once they’re in print if he can help it because he always sees something he wants to change and can’t.

On my to do list: The MG fantasy I spoke of above, of course. I also have a YA dystopian manuscript, presently titled TORNADO, percolating. The idea and characters for it came to me during a recent and scary storm we had in our area. Another MG, set in Ireland in the 1940’s, THE SAVING OF BRIDGETTE MCGHEE, is a third done and outlined, and I would like to get back to work on that sometime soon. And I do have a sequel to UNTIL DEATH, titled ESSENCE, that I’m laying the brick work for should I have the good fortune to sell book one.

Doesn’t look like I’ll be getting much sleep, does it? Good thing I love coffee.

Laura, thank you so much for inviting me and allowing me to share my thoughts on your blog. I hope I wasn’t too long winded for, but that’s how I get when it comes to chatting about anything writing related. Wish you all the best with your writing and thanks again.

Thank you so much for participating in the Seven Questions series, Paula! It’s been great to hear about your books, your creative process and your strong drive to write. To learn more about Paula, check out her website, www.paulakaymclaughlin.com, and her blog, www.PaulaKayMac.blogspot.com. And remember, if you’re a writer with a finished manuscript, get in touch with her about possibly being featured on Writer Spotlights.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Seven Questions, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Children’s Author Interview: Paula Kay McLaughlin on Young Adult, Middle Grade and How Characters Drive the Story

  1. Great interview and I love the back story with her aunt being a literary agent to such HUGE names. Wow! Fascinating stuff! Both of Paula’s books sound intriguing! Good luck!!

  2. Kristen says:

    Finally with a little time today…read your interviews of Paula and Michael. Both very well done, and interesting. I follow their blogs so now I have a little more info on their pre-quels.(by that I mean life before the last month) ;)
    Great job!

  3. Great interview. Paula, it’s so great learning more about you and your writing projects. And I love your mission of spotlighting other authors and inspiring us to write on Mondays.

    • Thanks for commenting, Natalie! I agree, Paula’s Writer Spotlight is a wonderful feature, and the results are a lot of fun to read. Everybody should pop over and take a look at what she’s doing–or offer themselves as interview candidates!

  4. Michael G-G says:

    Great interview, Laura. I learned a lot about Paula–she is one busy woman!

    • Thanks for checking out the interview, Michael! Paula’s productivity is amazing, isn’t it? I can’t imagine working on several big projects at once, not to mention her writer interviews, which, as I know from my own series, can take a lot of time!

  5. Thanks Kiki, Kristen, Natalie, and Michael for you comments. BIG thanks to Laura for having me!

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