I’m pleased to feature middle-grade author Michael Gettel-Gilmartin today on Seven Questions, my interview series that features writers and other creative professionals.
While Michael and I are neighbors here in Portland, Oregon, and we have a friend in common, we haven’t actually met. I’m sure that’ll happen at some point, but in the meantime, I’m getting to know him and his views on the craft through The Year of Writing Dangerously. Michael is one of the most effective bloggers I know in terms of producing consistent quality content there and on his middle-grade blog, Middle Grade Mafioso. His hard work and thoughtful posts have paid off in a substantial readership and a loyal following.
Although I haven’t read any of Michael’s fiction, if it’s anywhere near as smart and funny as his blogging voice, then it must be pretty wonderful.
Welcome to Seven Questions, Michael!
1. What are you working on now?
I’m in the middle of a first draft of a middle grade novel I’m tentatively titling THE FRIDAY NIGHT FRIGHT CLUB, sort of a cross between THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB and GOOSEBUMPS. Three best friends, an interloper, and a murderous ghost.
I finished another middle grade a while back (SHAKESPEARE ON THE LAM), sent out a few queries, got no takers, retooled, and am on the verge of sending out queries again. This is by far the worst part of the writing process. I am a reluctant salesperson and probably couldn’t sell a Girl Scout cookie if you paid me. And I dislike the emotional energy it takes stalking one’s e-mail inbox. I’d much rather be writing.
2. Why middle grade? What are some of the challenges of writing for this age group? How does middle grade differ from young adult? And have you always written middle grade?
When I started writing, many moons ago, I had no kids. I wrote adult fiction—a couple of humorous novels, and a couple of novels set in Japan, where I once lived, (one a “coming of age” and the other a P.I. mystery), all of them now safely trunked.
Then I had kids. I spent a lot of time reading to my kids. And I fell in love with the voices in middle grade fiction. Of course, the main challenge is one of authenticity, of remembering what it was like being a kid, and of not “writing down” to your audience.
As mentioned above, I really like humor. And middle grade fiction seems the perfect venue for that. As for the differences between MG and YA, I’ll let agent Mary Kole (who writes the wonderful kidlit.com blog) tell it:
MG books are shorter than YA, deal with any “issues” or “content” (edgy stuff) but only secondhand (like the kid’s mom is an alcoholic, not the kid herself), have less darkness and often a sweeter ending than most books for older readers, are sophisticated but still accessible for reluctant readers, are more open to curriculum tie-ins and educational content, and are written to appeal to 10-12 year-old readers, at their heart.
YA books are longer, darker, edgier, less about education and more about a riveting story (though MG should have one, too, of course), and written to appeal to readers 14+.
3. How do you write? On the computer or longhand? With a beverage or snack of choice? With or without music? At a certain time of day? Do you jump right in or do you warm up with exercises or email?
I have written on everything from a typewriter to my spanking new laptop. When my oldest started preschool I went through a Starbucks phase, where I would write everything down longhand while eavesdropping on coffee drinkers. (Starbucks was way better than going home, where the laundry would call plaintively to me. Yes, even folding laundry was preferable to staring at the blank page/screen.)
I am a tea addict and drink gallons when writing. No snacking, or my waistline would be synonymous with urban sprawl. No music either, since dancing is the devil’s playground. I’m a morning person, so once the kids are shipped to school I launch myself at my manuscript.
I have a mantra of “A Page-A-Day” which I have found highly successful. Daily writing means that it doesn’t take me long to warm my engines. Just a quick read-through of the previous day’s page, and I’m ready to roll. (When I’m revising, the page often gets completely rewritten.) Typically, I don’t use exercises to warm up. I guess my fingers are lubed by my early morning e-mail and blogging habit!
4. Michael, you are prolific blogger. Tell us about The Year of Writing Dangerously and Middle Grade Mafioso. Why did you start these blogs and what are your primary goals? Do you publish posts on a certain schedule—and if so, why?
I came late to blogging. My wife, Marie, is a blogger extraordinaire and for years I let her do all the heavy lifting. However, I kept seeing publishing types talking about “platform” and how to get one’s name out there. So I took the plunge in early 2010.
The Year of Writing Dangerously was supposed to show how I continually pushed myself out of my comfort zone for a dazzling twelve-month span. However, I realized soon enough that I don’t often stray from my tried-and-true routines. So I started to focus on reviewing “craft books,” by such writers as James Scott Bell, Nancy Kress, and James N. Frey—as well as agents like Donald Maass and Noah Lukeman.
For Middle Grade Mafioso, it started as a spoof after the furor about a possible “YA Mafia.” I really just liked the blog name and didn’t do anything with it, until someone found it on my Blogger profile, became a follower, and then prodded me with a “when are you going to get this blog off the ground?” I now use it mainly for middle grade book reviews.
I realized, eventually, that successful bloggers write on a schedule. For Writing Dangerously, I post a “Monday Musing,” which is really whatever takes my fancy; a “Craft Book of the Month” piece on Wednesdays; and something I call “Friday Fabulosity,” which is usually a quote from a writer about their practice, and a short comment from me on what I think about it.
For Middle Grade Mafioso, I post my book review on Mondays. I write each post the evening before publication.
5. You’re really successful not just in getting folks to follow your blogs, but in actually creating a sense of community around them. Any advice on how to engage readers to subscribe, return and comment regularly?
I think I’ve been lucky. I have a band of regular commenters, many of whom I found while being part of a now-defunct meme called “Microfiction Monday.” I’ve also found that when I comment on others’ blogs, they often return to comment on mine. I try very hard to reply to each comment, which keeps the conversation going. (This can be time-consuming, especially if I have to track down e-mails.)
Like everything worthwhile, blogging takes time. The more you put in, the more you get out.
Oh, and I try never to say anything negative or disparaging online. If I don’t like a book I won’t review it. If someone’s going ballistic out in the blogosphere, I tend not to chime in.
6. Has blogging about writing, and reviewing craft books, changed the way you approach your fiction? If so, how?
By writing about craft, I have found myself becoming much more adept at technique. Writing is like any other activity: the mechanics can be learned, and the more you do the better you get. That’s not to say, to use a musical analogy, that everybody can win the International Piano Competition (for writers, that would be the Pulitzer/Nobel). But there are a whole bunch of darned good piano players out there (and published writers too).
7. You read a lot of middle-grade fiction. Please name a few of your favorite books and tell us why they inspire you.
My all-time favorite is CHARLOTTE’S WEB. I can’t get through that sucker without bawling.
I tend to like novels set in interesting places. (I was the son of a diplomat and got dragged all over the globe when young.) A recent find was WORDS IN THE DUST by Trent Reedy, about an Afghan girl with a cleft lip and palate. Reedy did an awesome job of “humanizing” Afghanistan for me. I am also a big Harry Potter fan. I’m currently reading a funny novel about three children raised as wolves who are now being civilized in a grand manor in England. It’s called THE MYSTERIOUS HOWLING by Maryrose Wood. It’s got to the point where I’m thinking, “Why can’t I write like that?” When I start marveling and feeling envious, I know I’m in good hands. (You’ll be able to read the review soon on Middle Grade Mafioso.)
Thanks so much for the interview, Laura. These were all very thoughtful questions!