In her latest middle grade novel, Any Day With You, as well as her debut, The House that Lou Built, Mae Respicio tells deeply engaging stories steeped in themes around family and home. In the interview below, Respicio shares what she loves about writing middle grade novels and how craft has informed her writing. Next week, we’ll post an analysis of how Respicio explores these themes of family and home through mood and her highly relatable multi-generational ensemble cast of characters.
KidLit Craft: What do you love about writing middle grade novels?
Mae Respicio: I love finding and writing the joy in middle grade! Our readers are at an age where they’re beginning to thoughtfully explore who they are and form their own opinions of the world—it’s magical when novels inspire them to do so, and my goal is to bring a little of that into my books.
KLC: How has craft study informed your writing?
MR: I managed a creative writing program at UCLA for many years, so I love this question! Learning craft will always set writers off on the strongest foot—no matter your genre. Craft study has informed my writer’s journey in every way: it’s given me a solid writing foundation, helped me learn how to give and receive critiques, taught me what it means to be a good “literary citizen,” and gifted me a community. It’s one thing you can control along your publication path and for me an ongoing part of my creative process.
KLC: Your main character is easy to love. Can you offer some tips for how to build a relatable/lovable character?
MR: Thank you for those kind words! I have two kids and they’re both in their prime middle grade reading age, so observing how they are in the world has helped me understand my characters better. If you can, spending time with kids or even watching middle graders onscreen can give inspiration for tone and spark relatable, kid-friendly details. I’m on my fourth book now and realized the thread among my protagonists: they each have a strong passion and a seemingly unachievable goal, which makes them fun to root for. I also try to give my main characters realistic flaws and challenges to prompt them to ask questions about themselves, so that we can better understand their arc. For me, watching a character’s growth—however big or small—is key to connecting with them in a meaningful way. We feel invested in their journey when we know where they started and when we can see how they’ve changed.
KLC: You did a great job of telling a story with multiple generations of fully-formed characters. Do you have any tips for creating a large cast that spans a broad age range?
MR: For big casts, I aim to give each character something of an arc, no matter how light. One thing I do with minor characters is try to reveal new, interesting details about them throughout the book so even if they don’t have a fully developed arc, the reader feels like there’s some layering and nuance to that character. I’ve found with large ensembles that some characters can start to feel the same. That’s when I ask which of those characters are truly needed to move the story forward—or if I can somehow combine them to serve the same purpose. In my upcoming (2021) novel, one of the minor kid characters felt weirdly similar to a grown-up character, and I realized it was because they were both challenging my protagonist in the exact same way. I had to decide whether to cut one, or revise them to serve different purposes… I kept them both because I like big ensembles!
KLC: What was your biggest learning when you started working with an editor at a publishing house?
MR: It’s been a dream come true to work with two extraordinary, seasoned editors—Wendy Lamb and Dana Carey. Wendy has her own imprint at Random House and she’s published many of my favorite books and authors, so it’s been like a “master class” learning from her deep experience. One craft element I’ve honed while collaborating with them is how to think about theme. I spend a lot of time trying to understand my book’s themes before jumping into drafting, which can bring richness and a meaningful layer to a story. For example in ANY DAY WITH YOU, one theme is resiliency, which I used as a touch point: Does this scene reflect my theme? How does this situation relate to the theme? How do my characters grow from it? What challenges can I throw my main character’s way that gives the story higher stakes around the theme? Those kinds of questions help me not feel as overwhelmed during revision because they help me focus on the heart of the story.
KLC: What advice would now-twice-published-you like to give to unpublished-you about one or more of the following stages of writing: book idea, drafting, revising, etc?
MR: For the drafting process, I’ve learned not to let my editorial eye come in. In my work as a communications writer and journalist I usually edit as I draft in order to “produce” tight, quick work, which is needed for that kind of writing. When I first started writing novels, I tried to use that same process except my mind would get in the way and stall the story. Now, I try to initially draft without doing any editing as I’m drafting—almost stream of consciousness (basically narrating what I see in my head)—simply to get the story out without second guessing myself. That part actually feels freeing and fun! It isn’t until the first revision (on my own without any CPs or my editors) that I begin to refine and look at those words critically. I know other writers who feel the opposite, so sometimes you have to experiment with whatever feels natural for your project.
KLC: What do you wish you had known about the publishing industry that you know now?
MR: One question I hear often is whether a pre-published author needs a social media presence before signing with an agent. You don’t! If you have a platform, that’s great, but it’s not required. I had none when I started. It’s been helpful to me now that I have books out in the world, but there are lots of published writers who aren’t active on social media. If social media feels good, fun, or helpful to you—use it. If not, kids will still find your book. And as for agents and editors, ultimately it’s the strength of your work that will hook them… which goes back to the craft foundation.
KLC: How has being published changed your writing practice/writing process?
MR: I worked as a communications writer and journalist long before publishing my first novel, so I’ve always had that regular “butt-in-chair” time. However with book projects added to the mix, the tough part now is there are only so many hours in a day! It’s definitely changed how I guard my writing time. I try to set strict boundaries around my writing practice with those close to me, because it’s the only way I can focus on deadlines. As a writer-mom, sometimes that means cereal for dinner. (Luckily my family understands!)
KLC: What new things are you trying craft-wise in your current WIP that you haven’t tried before?
MR: I’m attempting multiple POV while switching back and forth between present and past tense! (If that sounds excruciating—it’s because it is!) With multiple POV my challenge has been their voices mushing together and feeling so similar. I’ve been trying to concentrate now on writing only one character at a time, which has helped me sharpen the voice and make each one feel more distinct. I’ll try to refine the voices even more come revision time.
KLC: What do you feel you’ve gained from being a part of the KidLitCraft community?
MR: Support, commiseration, and motivation. The act of writing can be so solitary, and I’m grateful for the camaraderie of my fellow writers—you all inspire me!
If you liked our craft-focused interview with Mae Respicio, we have more for you to enjoy:
Kristi Wright (co-editor) writes picture books and middle grade novels. Her goal as a writer is to give children a sense of wonder, a hopefulness about humanity, and a belief in their future. She is represented by Kurestin Armada at Root Literary. She is an active volunteer for SCBWI and a 12 X 12 member. Find her at www.kristiwrightauthor.com and on Twitter @KristiWrite.