Monday, July 29, 2013

Inkpot Interviews: Naomi Kinsman

Naomi Kinsman is a January 2011 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. The four volumes of her middle grade series From Sadie's Sketchbook were published by Zonderkidz in 2011-2012. The individual titles are Shades of Truth, Flickering Hope, Waves of Light, Brilliant Hues. 

Please describe the book in under fifty words.

The From Sadie’s Sketchbook Series follows Sadie Douglas through her seventh grade year, as she moves from Northern California to a small town in upper Michigan and back home again. 

Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development?
Shades of Truth was the first realistic fiction I attempted, being a fantasist at heart. I remember thinking I might not have enough of a story, with only real people doing real things with which to work. One of my strengths was world-building, so I felt most comfortable using an unusual and intriguing setting. My first choice was Yellowstone National Park. I started the story this way, and when the story was about halfway developed, went on a trip to Michigan with my husband to observe black bears in the wild under the direction of a wildlife biologist. After listening to the biologist’s stories about the community and the deep-seated conflicts between residents, hunters, and the research team, I knew I’d found my story. Sadie’s character didn’t change much when I changed settings: she was still creative, spunky and resilient. However, the situation grew deep and wide enough to give her enough conflict to rub up against in order to grow and change. I started work on Shades of Truth before I started my Hamline MFA, and considered working on it in my second semester, but chose a fantasy instead. I completed the draft I sent to an editor in the August before my final semester began. 

How did it come to the attention of its editor? (slush pile, agent, etc.)
I went to an SCBWI regional conference and dared to show an editor from Zondervan a memoir about my growing up years as a double pastor’s kid. This editor had been brought in at the last moment and had some empty slots in her critique schedule, so I thought it couldn’t hurt to try showing her my work. I remember, she looked at me across the table and said, “Well, this is so intriguing. I don’t think it works as is, but have you considered using the metaphors in this to develop a picture book? Or might you write a YA devotional? Or could you write a middle grade series for tween girls?” No editor had ever asked to see anything from me after a critique, so I took this as a sign that maybe I should try at least one of the things she was asking me to write. At that same conference, I showed a different editor the fantasy I’d been working on at Hamline. She said, “You know, I wonder if you might write a middle grade realistic novel about a girl who had some experiences like yours growing up?

They both seemed to be saying the same thing. So, I set my fantasy aside and tried out the picture book, and when I sent it in, the Zondervan editor again asked me to propose a middle grade fantasy series. So, I pitched a few, including From Sadie’s Sketchbook, and she asked for Sadie. So, I buckled down and started writing. I never would have been able to revise Shades of Truth and get it in shape in time (from the time she asked for it in mid-June, until I turned it in, in mid-August) had it not been for my experience at Hamline, with packet deadlines, etc.

What research was involved?
 A major part of my research was unintentional: my trip to study the black bears with scientist, Lynn Rogers. Once I’d determined I wanted to change the setting of my story, I studied locations where black bears and humans live in close proximity, and chose, finally, to use the upper peninsula of Northern Michigan as my setting. Then, I needed to do research to discover what was similar about this location and the community I’d been in with Lynn Rogers, and what was unique.
Also, in the story, Sadie is learning how to draw, so another large part of my research was to learn how to draw along with her. The process helped me understand the moment-by-moment discoveries a new artist might have while learning the process.

Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
I brought the first pages of this story to my second residency workshop, and I think the biggest thing I took away from the feedback was the importance of the mom character, and finding the balance between her role in the story and keeping Sadie solidly in the driver’s seat in the story.

What was your critical thesis on? My critical thesis was a fully staged production exploring my personal discovery of the importance of play in the creative process. Researching play, and then allowing what I learned to develop into a play was one of the most transformative experiences in my creative life.

What was your creative thesis? I just finished another revision of my creative thesis, Reflecting Hours, a YA fantasy, and it is finally on my agent’s desk. I learned more than I can explain from the writing of the book. Most importantly, I learned to be courageous, to be willing to try to write a book that is beyond one’s current skill. You will learn and grow to meet the challenge.

Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
Many of the books I already loved were on our required reading list. However, I did fall in love with The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby, and with Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu.

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?
I work with an online writing group of Hamline grads, and we meet on Google+ once a month or so. I also send first drafts to my best friend, who is a passionate reader and actress. In fact, she is so passionate about books that she organizes her bookshelves by placing those books that might choose to be friends next to one another on the shelf. My Hamline friends give me specific critical feedback and my best friend gives me that gut feel. Does the book work? Does it have the potential to work?
I share a piece of writing when I reach a point where I need outside perspective, usually after finishing at least one draft. I like to gather a lot of feedback before launching into a revision, and then let that feedback steep internally for a while before I start pulling the book apart. I find this process allows me to be more open with my revision and let the story grow and change in a more substantial way.

Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?
I generally write in the mornings, but I also use Fridays as a day to write as often as I can. I find diving into a long writing session to be extremely luxurious. This schedule is the one I established while I was at Hamline, and it’s still working for me. The only thing that has changed since I graduated is that I sometimes take a break in my writing when other work becomes urgent, and on the flip side sometimes have to drop all outside work to meet a deadline.

What are you working on now?
I’m starting a revision of a book with the working title Imagica. I worked on this book quite a bit during my first and second semesters at Hamline. Imagica is a middle grade fantasy.

What would you like to say to current or prospective students?
Two things. Savor your experience while you’re in the program. Hamline’s MFAC program has the potential to transform your writing and you, personally, as an artist. The more risks you take, the more open you can be to feedback, the more time you can invest in the process, the better.
The other is more practical. Take your career seriously. As a writer, you’ll need to have a presence. You will want to connect online, and also in person. No matter where you are in your development, start to build your professional community. Go to conferences, meet teachers, librarians, bookstore owners and publishing professionals whenever you can do so. That way, when your book does come out, you have a professional community who will celebrate with you and help you launch your book into the larger market.
To learn more about Naomi and her writing ...

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