Writers on Writing, Volume 9: Kate O'Shaughnessy

Kate O'Shaughnessy writes middle grade fiction. Her debut novel, The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane, will be published with Knopf/Random House in the spring of 2020. She is a graduate of Yale University and an active member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). When Kate’s not writing, you can find her in her garden, eating good food, hiking with her dog, and chronically mispronouncing words she’s read but never heard said aloud.

Your first book, The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane, is coming out next year. How would you describe your experience writing it?

Fast! I wrote the first draft of this book in about two months, like a woman possessed. I pulled a lot from my own heart for this story, so it was also very cathartic to write. This wasn’t my first novel, though. Before writing Maybelle, I’d spent more than a year toiling on another middle grade manuscript that just wasn’t working. And before that, I’d worked on many other story ideas but couldn’t seem to develop them past the first opening chapters. It was really frustrating.

But then writing this book felt completely different—I achieved that “flow state” I’d heard other writers talking about, but had never experienced myself. I wrote a lot of the first draft longhand in the early mornings, listening to music. Obviously the book has been through many revisions since the first draft, but the bones of the story are still the same.

How would you describe your querying experience?

Honestly, also pretty fast! But I didn’t send queries out right after finishing the first draft. I did a number of revisions and then sat on the manuscript for about a year, which I’m very grateful for. Nothing gives you perspective on your own writing quite like time. Then I did a ton of research and revision on my query before I sent it out. I queried Maybelle in January 2018 and had an offer of representation from my agent, Peter Knapp, in a couple of weeks. I wrote about my querying experience in depth here.

Have you become connected with any writing communities?

Yes. I joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) a couple of years ago, and have been to a number of their conferences. I highly recommend joining SCBWI for anyone trying to break into the kidlit community. There’s a monthly middle grade book club in Palo Alto I attend, and all the other folks are middle grade writers, too.

I also jumped at the chance to become a part of the Left Margin LIT community as soon as I moved to Berkeley, and I’m so grateful that I did. Community is so important when it comes to writing, because it can be such a lonely endeavor otherwise.

What advice or idea has been most helpful for your writing?

Oh man. This is a tough one. A couple of things. First, trust the process. Unless you’re some kind of freaky genius, your writing is going to be bad when you start.

But that’s okay! That’s all just a part of the process. Because writing is a craft. Like, imagine if we were talking about building cabinets instead of writing books. You walk into a kitchen with absolutely gorgeous custom cabinetry. You think to yourself, “Those look great! I’ve always been good with my hands. I want to build cabinets, too.” And then imagine sitting down in a woodshop and trying to build cabinets as good as those professional ones you admired, without any training or experience or know-how. No offense, but your cabinets would probably suck.

I feel like that’s what a lot of writers do. They read a book they love and admire, which inspires them to try to write something themselves—and then are dismayed when it’s not as good as the books they read on the shelves. Of course it isn’t! Which is why you just have to keep learning, keep reading, keep writing. That’s how you get to be a good writer. With practice, lots of focus, and an understanding that it isn’t magic or alchemy or 100% “natural talent” that creates a successful book. It’s a lot of study and hard work.

Which is your favorite middle grade book from young adulthood?

I mean, I hate to be cliché, but definitely Harry Potter. My eleven-year-old brain was blown after reading it for the first time. I convinced myself an owl might come for me, if I only wished for it hard enough. The magic of that feeling—of being totally lost in a world within a book, of thinking it could maybe be real—has stuck with me ever since. A couple of more current middle grade titles that I love are When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore, and The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Also, anything Kate DiCamillo writes. She’s amazing.

How would you describe your experience with the Left Margin LIT community?

Just so wonderful. I write at the Left Margin LIT office space three times a week, and it has transformed my writing life. I was getting lonely working and writing from home every day, but I didn’t want to spend money on any tech or start-up focused co-working spaces because the energy of those places didn’t feel exactly right for me.

I found Left Margin LIT right as they were launching their co-writing space. I signed up right away and have never looked back! I love sitting in a (blissfully quiet) room with other writers, poets, memoirists, journalists, anthropologists, historians, and non-fiction writers. The focus and intent in the room feels so much different than a coffee shop or a business-focused workspace. We gather for lunch once a month or so, and Rachel (Richardson) and David (Roderick) are always putting together readings with local authors or interesting discussions on different literary topics. I really love it there.

Would you like to see your work adapted to another medium? If so, what medium?

A big dream of mine is to see something I wrote adapted to the screen. To see life breathed into story with actors and music and cinematography, whether television or film—that would be so surreal and magical. But from what I understand, every step along the way of a book-to-screen adaption is rife with obstacles, which makes adaptions quite rare. I still allow myself to dream about it, though.

Among your own characters, do you have a favorite?

I couldn’t possibly choose—I love them all the same! But I do have a soft spot right now for a character from my current work-in-progress. She’s the older sister of my main character, and she begins the story pretty closed-off and hostile. But as the story unfolds and we see more of her wounds, she softens. I love her. I want to give her a big hug.

What do you hope children learn from your book?

I’m not so sure “learn” is the right word. I’m not necessarily trying to preach or teach or do anything like that. I think the word “show” is a little better, because the connection between a book and a reader is a two-way street. I can show them something, and hopefully they’ll respond to it and interpret it in their own way, for their own lives. In The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane, I’m trying to show readers that the journey is often what heals or fulfills you, not the achievement of a goal. And also that love comes in many forms, from a lot of different kinds of relationships, if we can find a way to open our hearts to it. How readers will interpret any of it is up to them. But if I had to pick one thing, I would hope that whatever books I write help kids feel a little less alone.

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