April 12, 2016

Thursday, December 12, 2013

5 Questions for Kelly Bingham (Part 1)

Writerly Friends, the holidays are a time of delicious treats. Last week it was my favorite cookie recipe. This week's Author Amok treat is not edible. But it will fill you up with writerly goodness.

Kelly Bingham is visiting today and tomorrow!

Kelly's website is here.
Kelly Bingham has been a storyboard artist, story supervisor, and director and is now a writer. Shark Girl, her first novel, was named a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association. Its sequel is Formerly Shark Girl. Kelly is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program.

If you haven't read Kelly's Shark Girl novels -- which are YA and *in verse* -- make sure both books are on your "gifts to self" list. Because you have been so nice.

This year, Kelly ventured into picture books and oh my gosh, she knocked it out of the park with Z is for Moose

I heard about Z is for Moose at my local SCBWI conference last March. Illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky gave a talk about creating the art for Kelly's manuscript. This hilarious twist on ABC books charmed me, but I was also impressed with Zelinsky's attention to detail as he worked on the book. Even the page borders went through draft after draft until it was perfect.

Here's the book trailer, with Kelly and Paul.

I rushed to the conference book sales to buy a copy for every child under seven in my family, but everyone else had the same idea. Z is for Moose was sold out.

When I attended SCBWI Eastern PA's Critique Fest this fall, I was so excited to see Kelly's name on the faculty list. I loved her YA verse novel Shark Girl -- about a gifted teen artist who loses her arm in a shark attack -- for its depth of characterization. And then, I was lucky enough to earn a critique with Kelly.

Of course, I snagged this brilliant lady -- along with several copies of Z is for Moose -- immediately. And here she is! At Author Amok!

Please welcome author Kelly Bingham.

5 Questions for Kelly Bingham

Amok: I have heard that verse novels are a good fit for the teen voice. Why do you think that might be true? Was Shark Girl written in verse from the outset? If not, what prompted you to switch from prose to poetry as a way to tell Jane's story?

Bingham: I think poetry novels are a good fit for most people, teens or not. There is something inviting about the poetry novel form. You jump right in and off you go. There are not a lot of barriers between the reader and the main character, so you tend to step right into a main character's shoes, and action usually clips right along. Poetry novels also often deal with emotionally heavy subjects, and the brevity of each constructed scene can keep you from growing bored. Most people like that, I think. I have heard many people say, after reading a particularly good poetry novel, "I don't normally like poetry or poetry novels, but this one was good." I think they are responding to the intimate, unique form that poetry lends to storytelling.

Having said that, I never set out to write a poetry novel with Shark Girl. I was not familiar with the format except for having read Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust. I began writing Shark Girl as a prose novel.

But I struggled with it a long time. I could not get the story off the ground or find Jane's voice.

Then, while i was studying at Vermont College, we had a whole weekend devoted ot YA poetry novels. I read a lot, listened to a lot of lectures, and became intrigued. At that point, a friend said, "Why don't you try writing your book as a poetry novel?"

When he said that, something instantly clicked. At home, the words poured out onto the page and I began to find character and story.

Eventually, I had to slow down, back up, and actually learn HOW to write poetry, since I knew nothing about it. I spent a long time working with my instructors, studying and practicing poetry. I worried that I would not write my book as well as I wanted because I didn't have years and year of poetry writing under my belt.

My instructors were hugely helpful, and in time (nearly three years) I completed the book! And now I can't imagine Shark Girl in any other way but as a poetry novel!

Amok: Shark Girl has such a clear trajectory and timeline -- the  shark attack, then Jane's recovery.  How did you plan a narrative arc for the sequel, Formerly Shark Girl?

Bingham: That was a tough one, because there was no obvious, heavily emotion-driven event, like there was in the first book.

The entire reason I decided to write the sequel was because so many readers wrote to me, asking for one. The number one question everyone had was, "Does Jane choose nursing or art?" (In the first book, Jane ended her story by toying with both options [for college and career]).

So I set out to write the sequel with the goal of answering that question, along with the handful of other questions that popped up over and over in my notes from readers. 

"Does Jane go back to the ocean?"

"Does she swim again?"

"Does she ever see Max again?"

But how do you make that compelling? A 17-year-old girl trying to decide what to study in college doesn't naturally make for gripping reading. That's what I had the hardest time with: just getting started, figuring out how to make the story absorbing, interesting, and how to create suspense.

I don't know exactly how to describe how I figured out my dramatic arc. I will say there was a ton of trial and error. In the end, I decided the arc would work best if I had more than one storyline unraveling as the book progressed, that I needed to keep the focus simple and true -- not contrived and dramatically demanding -- and that if we cared enough about the honest, sincere way Jane approached the confusing milestones and decisions in her life, then we'd be engaged. I reminded myself I was writing this book for the readers who wrote to me. They cared about Jane. I would trust them to keep caring about her long enough to see how she struggled her way through the continuing challenges of moving forward after  her life-changing shark attack.

I decided that tension might be aided by continuously touching back and forth between the developing storylines, and leaving the resolution to all the storylines until the very end, having them all wrap up at the same time in their own, domino-effect way. I wanted the reader to keep guessing on everything right up til the end.

So I have a storyline where Jane is trying to decide what do do after she graduates, which path to follow. She explores both options by attending lots of medical classes, and also by taking extra art sessions after school, always pushing herself to learn and grow in each area.

I also have a storyline with Jane's first romance, a boy in school she has mixed feelings about. Then along comes a boy she has definite feelings for, but is he interest in her or just being nice?

Max is a totally hot swimmer with irresistible curls, kind of like a teenage
Ryan Lochte. But he has problems of his own.
I also put some time inter her relationship with Justin [a younger brother figure Jane met in Shark Girl, while both are rehabbing in the hospital], and have the two characters paint a long, involved mural in Justin's bedroom. Each time we check back in on that thread, the mural advances a little, and in each mural scene, something happens that deepens the relationship those two characters have.

Once I got all those threads ironed out and rolling along, I spent time at my bulletin board, making sure that parts of the story didn't sag or balloon out of proportion or get short-changed. My "bulletin board" is a big board where I pin up a tiny summary of every scene I've drafted so far, in order. I have a ridiculously complicated system of color coding my tiny slips of paper so that they each match a particular storyline. So, at any given time, I can study my board and realize that the "blue" storyline (Jane and Justin's mural painting progress, for example) has too many scenes compared to everything else. Or maybe the "pink" storyline (the love story) has too few scenes, too much length between checkpoints, and those checkpoints need to be closer together.

When I'm in the final stages of drafting, I use my bulletin board as reference to hone tighter and tighter, until all the story threads have the amount of time needed to fully arc and resolve, and that all the threads are successfully woven together in a smooth way.

Would it be quicker to outline the story before I begin writing? Of course. But I am unable to work that way and, believe me, I've tried. I discover my story as I write. I never know the ending until I get that! The rewards are the fun in watching the story unfold before my eyes. The non-fun part is all the time and effort spent spinning my wheels on plotlines and characters that ultimately get cut. [Hmm. Sounds familiar. Reader, have you been following Author Amok's Kill Your Darlings series?]

So: A lot of thought. A lot of preliminary, loose note-taking, exploration, decision-making, months and months of drafting, and finally a crazy, messy, jumbled up bulletin board of colored paper that changes and changes and changes as I draft. That's how I do it.

Author Amok approves of Kelly's method.
Here is my "planning island" for an issue
of Little Patuxent Review.
If anyone comments on this interview, I'd love to hear how THEY do it. I'm always interested in hearing other author's processes!

Kelly, thank you so much for these insightful answers.

Writerly friends, Kelly will be back for Poetry Friday. We'll talk more about Shark Girl, discuss Z is for Moose, and get Kelly's advice for would-be picture book authors.


Ellen L. Ramsey said...

Fascinating interview. I'm another person who didn't think I'd like a verse novel, then I read several of Jen Bryant's verse novels and loved them. Look forward to reading Shark Girl!

Author Amok said...

Ellen, if you're a fan of Jen Bryant's verse novels, you will love the Shark Girl books. I also recommend Holly Thompson's YA novels in verse.

Robyn Hood Black said...

LOVE this behind-the-scenes peek. Thanks to both of you for sharing; I'll be back to take in this one again. (And Z is for Moose looks hilarious - great trailor!)