For September’s issue of the Ink Splat, we had a blast talking to Janae Marks, author of From the Desk of Zoe Washington and A Soft Place to Land, releasing in Fall 2021. She has some tried-and-true strategies about what to do when you’re writing and can’t focus. She suggests, “one strategy is to take advantage of my other writing friends and critique partners to talk out what I’m writing and help brainstorm possible solutions of what should happen next…another thing that I like to do sometimes is switch the way that I’m writing. So if I’m typing, and I’m feeling like I just can’t focus or I’m stuck, I will switch to writing by hand, which sometimes gets your brain working in a different way.”
One of Janae’s favorite pieces of advice when it comes to developing characters is to be specific. Specific details are what make a character feel like a real person. For example, in From the Desk of Zoe Washington, instead of saying Zoe loves pizza, she wrote that Zoe loves “Hawaiian-ish” pizza, which has pepperoni and pineapples. This detail tells you more about her than simply saying she enjoys pizza.
This month’s challenge: Write a new scene or return to an existing one, and see where you can add specific details that will make your character come alive. If they’re wearing a baseball hat, what team is it? If they are eating a bowl of cereal for breakfast, what kind?
An Interview with Janae Marks
Tell us how you were inspired to write each of your books.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington, my first book that was published, was inspired by a podcast called Serial that told the story of a man who is in prison for murder, but a lot of people believe that he was innocent of the crime and that the case was not handled properly. And that brought to the forefront of my mind the idea of wrongful convictions, that sometimes people go to prison for crimes they didn’t actually commit. I started doing some research, and I found the website for the Innocence Project, which is an organization that helps overturn these convictions, and I ended up reading some stories where the Innocence Project was able to retry people’s cases and get them released. And, because I like writing for young readers, I thought, What would it be like to be the kid of somebody in this position? You don’t often hear from the family members. What would it be like to find out your parent might not have been guilty of the crime that they went to prison for?
For A Soft Place to Land, I actually pulled more from personal experience. So in that book, twelve year old Joy starts off abruptly moving from her childhood home where she lived with her parents and her sister her entire life because her dad has just lost his job. And so their financial situation has changed, and they have to quickly sell the house to avoid foreclosure and move to an apartment in the same town, but across town. This is a similar experience to something I went through in high school, where we had to move abruptly. My parents actually got separated, so it’s a little bit of a different scenario. But, essentially, that was a move from my house that I loved into this apartment that was foreign and strange and small, and had way more noises that I wasn’t used to. And I wanted to write about the ripple effect of how all these changes going on in my family impacted the rest of my experience that school year. The feelings around that move inspired the story.
Do you have any strategies you use when you’re feeling stuck in any way with your writing?
Especially with this pandemic, I feel like this happens to me a lot, where I just have the hardest time focusing. One strategy is to take advantage of my other writing friends and critique partners to talk out what I’m writing and help brainstorm possible solutions of what should happen next. And sometimes it can be that you honestly just need to take a break and step away from it for that day. But another thing that I like to do sometimes is switch the way that I’m writing. So if I’m typing, and I’m feeling like I just can’t focus or I’m stuck, I will switch to writing by hand, which sometimes gets your brain working in a different way. And getting a change of scenery in general might inspire you. During the pandemic, I definitely felt this because I spent all those months in the same place, every day the same, like Groundhog Day. But I would say the two strategies I do the most are talk it out with somebody or switch the way that I’m writing.
How do you approach laying out and unveiling the mystery in your stories? How do you structure that?
The mysteries in both books are not the traditional mystery, like an Agatha Christie type of mystery. I thought of it as the character trying to solve a question. In From the Desk of Zoe Washington, for example, she’s trying to solve the question of whether or not her father, who is in prison, is innocent or not. I used what’s known in plotting as try-fail cycles, when the character tries something and then fails and then tries it again, does something different, and then fails again. But at some point, they finally do get it. And with each fail, they still have something to learn or something that might help the next time they try. So, as I was outlining, I’d just try to think of which steps Zoe could realistically take to try to answer this question or figure this out, and I tried to build off of each one. And it was the same idea for A Soft Place to Land. In that book Joy makes a new friend who introduces her to the secret hideout for the kids in the building. And then she starts exchanging messages on the wall where all the kids doodle, and she realizes that this person is also going through something tough, and she’s finding comfort in them helping each other. But then the person stops writing back abruptly. So that mystery is: Who is this person I’ve been writing to, and are they okay? And that mystery actually became a little bit easier because she has a list of suspects who she thinks that it might be. So it’s a matter of talking to each and trying to figure out clues based on what she’s learning. So that was the format of me thinking about that mystery.
Do you have any strategies for finding a title?
Sometimes there might be a phrase in the book that, as you’re writing, you realize, Oh, that could be a title. And it’s always kind of fun when you read a book, and you see the title mentioned somewhere, and say to yourself, Oh, that’s why. It could also be an image from the book that inspires a title. In fantasy, imagery from the world building might inspire a title. You can also think about the tone of the book when you’re thinking about the title. Is it going to be a funny book? Then you maybe have a title that has some humor in it–a pun, or something like that. Or, if it’s going to be a serious book, think about that. I think the tone of the title should definitely match the story.
“A Soft Place to Land” is the name of a song from the Broadway musical Waitress. I saw that musical years ago, and I love the music, and I listen to it all the time. And that song says, “A dream is a soft place to land.” So it’s a song about how you should never stop dreaming because, even if you’re going through tough times, that dream can be a soft place to land, imagining how things can get better. And that sentiment ties into my story. I was coming up with the idea of the hideout and the story around Joy being in this new home and it not really feeling like home. So the theme inspired the title because the theme of the book is how, ultimately, home isn’t about the place, it’s about the people, and I wanted the title to go along with that sentiment. It wasn’t even in the book, but my editor suggested adding it. And now Joy says something to the effect of,I feel like somebody’s shot me with a slingshot. And now I’m just flailing around. And I’m just looking for a soft place to land. And that’s how she feels in the book.
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We appreciate Janae Marks for sharing with us! Check out all of her work on her website: http://www.janaemarks.com/
Janae Marks is an author of middle grade novels. Her debut From the Desk of Zoe Washington is an indie bestseller and was named a Best Book of the Year by Parents Magazine, Book Riot, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Chicago Public Library and the Boston Globe. Her second novel A Soft Place to Land releases in Fall 2021. She has an MFA in Writing for Children from The New School, and lives in Connecticut with her husband, daughter and miniature schnauzer named Cookie.
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