Writers@Work: An Interview with Author Karla Manternach on Writing the Middle Grade Novel
April 7, 2020
Note From Rochelle
I’m thinking about offering more writing workshops, but I’m not sure what topics to offer. If you have suggestions, please take a moment to fill out my Write Now! Coach survey. In mid-April, when I’m sure everyone has had a chance to weigh in, I’ll throw your names in a hat and choose five of you to receive a complimentary e-copy of my new book, Level Up.
If you’re struggling to be productive during this time, I have a few tools for you.
+On Keeping a Positivity Journal. Practice positivity and Thrive talks about the benefits of recording positive experiences.
+Write through Worry. This post offers tips and tools for writing during lockdown.
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Today I’m delighted to welcome Karla Manternach, author of the middle grade novels, Meena Meets Her Match and Never Fear, Meena’s Here! .
Writers@Work: An Interview with Author Karla Manternach
On Writing the Middle Grade Novel
Congratulations on your new book, Never Fear, Meena’s Here! Can you tell our readers a bit about Meena, the series, and what we can look forward to in the new book?
Sure! Meena is a scrappy, imaginative 3rd grader with a big heart and a big personality. She loves looking for interesting trash and turning recyclables into art. In the first book, Meena wants to outshine her former best friend, Sofia, by making the best Valentine box in the class…until an unexpected seizure lands her in the ER and turns her whole life on its head.
In the second book. a found object seems to give Meena powers, so she sets out to prove she’s a superhero. She’s bent on saving her friends and family from peril—whether they like it or not! But living with epilepsy seems to make people think that she’s the one who needs to be saved.
When you wrote and submitted Meena, did you envision a series or did that happen later?
I wrote and pitched Meena Meets Her Match as a stand-alone story, but I always thought of Meena as a character with “series potential.” When Krista Vitola at Simon & Schuster made an offer on the book, she actually asked me to write another. Of course I jumped at the chance!
Meena has epilepsy. Can you talk about what prompted you to write about a young girl with seizure disorder?
My daughter Amelia started having seizures when she was nine years old. It was an incredibly scary time for our whole family, especially in the early days when we didn’t know how serious her condition was. Amelia handled it in a way that was totally kid-like but also insightful beyond her years. She was brave and terrified, silly and serious. She loved the attention she got because of it, but she also hated being singled out. Her fear was sort of like groundwater, though. It was deep and pervasive and came out in unexpected ways. I wanted to show that with Meena. Sometimes her fear looks like fear. She feels small and needs comfort. Other times her fear comes out as anger or numbness or desperation. It really drives her need to get back at the friend she thinks has abandoned her. But in the end, Meena has to make a choice about what kind of person she’s going to be in the face of her fear and uncertainty. It’s a very grown-up decision to make, but kids are capable of astonishing emotional maturity when they’re hurting.
Can you talk about your process of writing and finding an agent? How did that go for you?
I had queried a novel for adults before I ever wrote Meena, so I knew a bit about the process. I originally wrote Meena as a chapter book, but when I started querying it, I didn’t get any response. Around that time, I attended an SCBWI conference and got a critique from an editor. She didn’t represent chapter books but said if I ever revised it as a middle grade novel, she’d love to see it again. After that, I did some research on the market. I remember going to Barnes and Noble and looking at their selection of chapter books. They carried so few of them! Most of their shelf space was taken up by well-established series fiction like The Magic Tree House and The Boxcar Children. I decided Meena would have a better shot at getting published as a stand-alone middle grade novel, so I rewrote the whole story. I had to double the word count, which meant adding a lot of new plot and complexity. When it was ready, I sent it out again and found a match with Emily Mitchell at Wernick & Pratt.
What’s your writing process like? How do you stay productive?
When I have an idea for a story, I start out writing by hand. I basically fill a notebook with musings and what-ifs. It’s completely disorganized. I just jot down snippets of dialogue and half-baked scenes as they occur to me. After that, I transfer what I think I can use or develop into a Word document. I put everything in a very rough order and start filling in what’s missing. I get through a whole draft that way as I find my way to the end of the story. Then I go back and make it better and start getting feedback. I do that as many times as it takes until it feels finished.
How are you managing to stay productive and sane during the “safer at home” lockdown?
For starters, I’ve had to lower my expectations! Initially, I thought this could be a very productive time, because I’d be home and with all these extra hours on my hands. I didn’t know how discombobulated I’d feel. I’m worried about our world and the publishing industry—not to mention the safety of people I love. Also, many of the routines that fed and supported my writing life (like working when I had the house to myself) went out the window in an instant. So I’ve had to lower the bar. Instead of working the whole school day, I might only get in a couple of hours of writing…and it’s exhausting. So I’m making my peace with the fact that I’m just not going to be as productive now as I’d like to be. Instead, I’m prioritizing walks and family activities and anything else that supports my mental and physical health.
How are you marketing your book in this new normal?
It’s been a challenge. I’ve had to suspend all in-person visits. A lot of bookstores are temporarily closed. Frankly, it also feels a little inconsiderate to promote a book when so many people have lost income or feel insecure about the future. I’ve tried to fill the gap a little by getting my publisher’s permission to share read-aloud videos online. (You can find those here.) Ultimately, though, book buying could make or break some of our independent sellers. I have to get behind it for that reason alone. I also genuinely believe in the stories I’ve written. They’re all about helping kids deal with fear and uncertainty. I hope they can make a difference in the times we’re living in now.
What are you reading now?
Actually, I’ve read a ton of picture books this year. I keep thinking I want to make the leap into writing those, too, so I’ve been studying up. I love middle grade, but when I’ve finished a novel, I’m really spent. That feels like a good time to focus on something shorter. So far, I haven’t written anything I’m happy with, but I keep learning, and I keep trying!
About the author. Karla Manternach grew up in small-town Iowa, a grubby kid in tube socks who once stopped a parade by running in front of a fire truck for candy. When she was older, Karla detasseled corn, read Star Trek novels, and studied languages nobody speaks anymore. Today, Karla lives with her family in small-town Wisconsin where she creates books for young readers and works as a freelance writer. She is currently at work on a new middle grade novel.
On the book links: Yes, those are affiliate links. If you click on them and purchase a book, I’ll receive a few pennies. But I recommend you order these books from your local independent bookstore.