In January of 2020, Janae Marks debuted as a middle grade author with her highly anticipated and much celebrated novel, From the Desk of Zoe Washington. Two months later, the pandemic hit and Marks had to navigate all the challenges of having a 2020 debut as well as the difficulties of being a parent and writing on deadline through COVID-19. This January, the paperback version came out. And in September, Marks’ second middle grade novel will arrive in bookstores everywhere. Here, she chats with us about craft and publishing. We hope you find her words as inspiring as we have!
KidLit Craft: What do you love about writing middle grade novels?
Janae Marks: I sort of fell into writing middle grade, since I originally planned for From the Desk of Zoe Washington to be a young adult novel. A critique partner helped me realize that the story made more sense as middle grade. I’m so happy I made the switch. I love exploring what it’s like to be twelve years old, an age where you’re not quite a kid or a teenager. It’s such a transitional time, and can be full of so much drama. (My middle school days certainly were!) I also love connecting with middle grade readers – the kids, as well as teachers and librarians. It’s such a wonderful community!
KLC: What inspired you to write From the Desk of Zoe Washington?
I was actually inspired by a podcast. In 2014, I was obsessed with the first season of the podcast Serial, which told the story of a young man who’s serving a prison sentence for murder, but many believe could be innocent of the crime. I started thinking about wrongful convictions and how often they happen. I started researching the Innocence Project, an organization that helps overturn wrongful convictions. Since I write for kids, I started to wonder what it’s like to have a parent in prison, and what it would be like to find out that they might actually be innocent. From there, Zoe Washington was born.
KLC: Your characters are easy to love. Can you offer some tips for how to build a relatable/lovable character?
Thank you! One tip when creating characters is to be specific. When describing a character’s world, don’t just focus on what things look like. What would they smell, hear, touch or taste? Your character will come alive as they engage with their surroundings in specific ways.
Characters, even minor ones, will also be more memorable if you’re specific when describing their interests/likes/dislikes, etc. within your scenes. For example, in the first chapter of From the Desk of Zoe Washington, I don’t just say Zoe likes pizza; I write she loves “Hawaiian-ish pizza.”
Of course, do this within reason! Don’t spend too long describing everything about your character. But as they are going through your scenes, you can look for moments when you can add a key detail here and there to make your character come more alive.
KLC: You wrote your novel as a bit of a mystery. What techniques did you use to build tension and suspense?
Once I established what mystery Zoe wanted to solve, I plotted out a few “try/fail cycles.” Basically, I thought of different steps she might take to uncover the mystery, and planned how each of those could go wrong, leading her to decide on a next step. To build tension and suspense, you want your character to constantly encounter roadblocks that make solving the mystery harder and harder to achieve. It also helps to incorporate some sort of ticking clock, like a specific deadline for solving the mystery. Then your readers will turn the pages to see if your character can solve the mystery before they run out of time.
KLC: How has craft study informed your writing?
It’s made me a better writer! I love reading craft books, especially in between projects when I need inspiration. A lot of publishing is out of authors’ control, but you can always control your writing. I’m always looking for ways to improve my craft, so I can make my next book even better than my last.
KLC: What was your biggest learning when you started working with an editor at a publishing house?
I learned how to be an even better writer! Any craft feedback that my editor gives me, I make sure to also use in future books. As a result, the early drafts of my second middle grade book were much cleaner than my early drafts of From the Desk of Zoe Washington.
KLC: What do you wish you had known about the publishing industry that you know now?
I worked in book publishing for several years before being published, so I knew a lot going in, but right now I’m still learning about the business side of being an author. I wish there was a crash course for new authors on how to handle it all, like juggling writing and marketing, and how to deal with finances. Thankfully, the kid lit author community is very generous and shares a lot of advice on these subjects.
KLC: How has being published changed your writing practice/writing process?
I had to write my second book on a deadline, so I had to learn how to write faster, while also promoting my debut novel. It was a challenge! But the biggest thing that changed my writing process in 2020 was the pandemic, which started a couple of months after From the Desk of Zoe Washington released. Between not being able to write at coffee shops or the library, and having my daughter home all the time, I’ve had to be creative in finding time to write.
KLC: What’s next on the horizon for Janae Marks fans?
My second middle grade novel, A Soft Place to Land, comes out on September 14! I’m really excited to share more about it soon. In the meantime, it’s available to add on Goodreads.
Janae Marks is the author of the critically acclaimed middle grade novel From the Desk of Zoe Washington and the forthcoming novel A Soft Place to Land. She has an MFA in Writing for Children from The New School, and lives in Connecticut with her husband and daughter. Find out more about Marks at her website.
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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.