A Conversation with K.M. Walton

A Conversation with K.M. Walton: Author of Cracked

K.M. Walton is not only a talented writer, but she’s also an inspiration—and we’re not just saying that because she shares a literary agent with one of our coeditors.  Despite years of rejections, she finally had her breakthrough last year when she nabbed an agent and a book deal within a two-month window. Her debut novel, Cracked, will be released by Simon Pulse on January 3, 2010. She also coauthored the nonfiction book, TEACHING NUMERACY:  9 Critical Habits to Ignite Mathematical Thinking, which was released earlier this year.

 

BF: About two months after nabbing an agent, you landed a book deal for Cracked. Some may assume that you were an overnight success. Can you please share your journey to publication?

KMW: I have the tissue pile to prove I was anything but an overnight success. Not really, that would be gross, but I do have the memories of querying etched (more like gouged) into my brain. I queried for nearly two-and-a-half years, racked up 148 rejections on three different novels and officially gave up one day. Then a funny thing happened the next day—Ms. Sarah LaPolla requested the rest of Cracked. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But let me back up just a little bit here, to the querying for 2.4 years part. I wanted to share what that “looked” like for me, because I think there are some things every querying writer must do. First and foremost, keep writing. During my query period I wrote four more novels. Cracked was the third one, and I knew it was the one that would land me my agent. How did I know that, well, I got better as a writer with each novel. As with anything that matters, practice helps. A lot. So keep writing, a lot. Second thing, take classes and/or go to writing conferences while querying. I did both and again, it helped to improve my craft. Third, put your query and/or your first chapter “out there” either online (if you visit kmwalton.com and click on the trashcan, I link to a ton of places where you can do just that) or in contests such as the Miss Snark’s First Victim blog where Authoress organizes Secret Agent contests. I got into many of those contests, took my punches and learned heaps.

Last, to any writer reading this, and who is doing everything in their power to land their agent: DO NOT GIVE UP! Never give up. Only you can make it happen. The power is in your hands to research and query and write and revise and query some more. Believe it will happen. Envision it happening. Make it happen.

Also, anyone reading this who thinks, “It will never be me! Why can’t it be me?” Know this: I’ve been there and felt your pain, desperation and self-doubt. I say again, never give up. Only you can make it happen.

Tell your inner voice to shove it and get back to work. It’s always about the work and the writing. Get out there, get your work out there, get feedback, become a better writer, learn about the craft of writing, try new things on in your own stories, read everything you can in the genre in which you write, build your own buzz, join groups, visit every site you can and make comments. You can do it.

 

BF: There has been some debate between seeking an agent and self-publishing. What made you decide to query agents for your projects?

KMW: I always wanted an agent –it was my goal, something I literally daydreamed about. Who would it be? How would “the call” sound when I got it? I wanted the whole shebang, and as I said above, I never stopped wanting it. I like to think I did everything humanly possible to bring that outcome to me, and it wasn’t easy.

Being traditionally published was also part of my dream, and I knew I’d never get there without a brilliant agent leading the way. Sarah LaPolla is everything I dreamed of, and more.

Towards the end of my query hell frustration I came close to submitting directly to editors, but after hearing an agent give a presentation at the SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC, I immediately changed my mind. He explained that when an un-agented writer submits their work directly to editors, many times, the deals are not as lucrative or “pro-author” as when an agent negotiates on the writer’s behalf. Also—and this was the big deterrent for me—when an un-agented writer submits directly to an editor or publisher, and they land an agent farther down the road, the agent then can’t submit that same book on behalf of the writer. It has already been submitted, by the writer.

All I know is that I’m glad I stayed on my path, especially when it got dark and depressing, because when I look back, I appreciated “the now” even more.

 

BF: Cracked explores the world of bullying—something which, as a former teacher, I’m sure you’ve witnessed firsthand. How has teaching influenced your own writing for young adults?

KMW: I dedicated the core principals of my teaching career to anti-bullying and social action. I never shied away from facing or addressing bullying. I believed it was my job, as the adult, to discuss and address bullying every single time it reared its hideous head. I crafted language arts units with focuses on human rights and social action, wrote and directed The Peace Play, held countless lunch meetings with the bully and the victim, started dialogue journals with both victims and bullies (in which we would write back and forth to each other every week), conducted whole class and small group meetings where we had what I called “Explicit Conversations” on many social issues— whatever it took. My entire purpose was that I wanted kids to see each other for the human beings that they were, not the labels or assumptions they attached to each other. Adults that turn the other way or expect children to “work it out on their own,” baffle me. They’re kids, they need to be taught and many times, re-taught, how to either be kind and tolerant or how to handle situations when they are the victim. With many children, empathy and tolerance don’t just magically happen on their own. It takes the adults (parents, teachers, coaches) to lead the way.

Cracked was a natural write for me because I have always been so passionate about the subject. However, books that preach or intentionally try and “teach a lesson” make me want to, oh I don’t know, barf. Cracked definitely isn’t that kind of book. It lets you inside the bully’s head and the victim’s and allows the reader to experience both sides of bullying. I wanted my characters’ voices to speak to the reader, not mine.

 

BF: Cracked is told in two points-of-view (one from the bully, and the other from his victim). Was it difficult to tell the story this way? Do you have any tips for other writers considering writing with multiple POVs?

KMW: Remember when I advised that querying writers attend writing conferences? Well, here’s a prime example of why it’s so important. While at the Eastern SCBWI Pocono Writer’s Retreat I sat in on a character development session given by an editor. She had us do a whole bunch of exercises on how to develop fully realized characters. The main characters of Cracked—Victor and Bull—were deepened through those exercises. I had already come up with the book’s premise back at my second SCBWI Winter Conference (another editor gave a talk on writing books from multiple perspectives and I went back to my hotel room and toyed around with—via T-chart—a book with a bully-victim focus). Cracked was born from attending one conference and then my MCs were fully fleshed out from attending another. Yay conferences!

Wildly enough, I never struggled with either boy’s voice while writing. Those boys were and are extremely real to me. Perhaps I was a teenage boy in a past life.

 

BF: Cracked will be your first published novel, but not your first published book. You also co-wrote Teaching Numeracy:  9 Critical Habits to Ignite Mathematical Thinking, which was published this past March. First of all, congratulations! Second, how is the process of writing nonfiction different from writing fiction? Do you have a preference?

KMW: Thank you for highlighting the book on Numeracy. That book came about from the brilliant educational and research-driven mind of my former teaching colleague Margie Pearse. I taught sixth grade language arts alongside Margie for ten years (she taught math). We shared the same passion for our subject areas and most times abandoned our text books and created the curriculum ourselves. We had been told for years, “You have to write a book on your teaching methods!” So we did.

Our process? We met nearly every Sunday at Panera Bread for months and months. We brainstormed chapter ideas together, and then Margie would gather and organize quotes from educational books and email them to me. Then, I would craft the first draft of the chapter and email it back to her. She’d revise (anything she revised, she would turn it red) and email it back to me. Anything I revised would be in blue and emailed back to her. Then our final pass would have Margie either adding new research, or new thoughts or revising and she’d turn it purple.

We coined our process “Red-Blue-Purple” and we’d say, “Okay, let’s red-blue-purple it.”

Despite how much fun we had writing together, it was the most difficult writing I’ve ever done—like brain squishing hard. I’m a language arts gal through and through and this book is about how to teach mathematics. It confirmed that I am a fiction writer!

 

BF: What books have most influenced your life?

KMW: The Bridge to Terebithia by Katherine Patterson. This book was the first of many to evoke a deep emotional response from me. I remember crying my eyes out for the main character and having the story stick with me for months. To this day I love a good cry while reading. It cleanses the soul.

Forever by Judy Blume. This book was racy, talked about sex and *gulp* had sex in it. In her best parenting mode, my mother explicitly said I was not allowed to read it. Yeah. So I enlisted the help of our housekeeper. She smuggled it into my house in a plain, brown paper bag and I got to reading. That book made a tremendous impact on me in ways not evident for years to come. It taught me that it’s okay to ask questions and be your own advocate. It taught me that girls are sexual beings too—and that’s okay. No, that’s normal.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.  This book is magical, and I don’t say that lightly or flippantly. I’m completely serious. It’s a fable about a shepherd boy named Santiago who ends up on a whirl wind journey. It is a simple story that continues to haunt my thoughts in moments of quiet.

Now, for all you Naysayers and “Whatever’ers” and “Oh-please’ers” I say, read it and then go about your naysaying lives. But read it.

One of the people Santiago encounters is an old man who calls himself The King of Salem. He tells Santiago of his Personal Legend:

“It prepares your spirit and your will, because there is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.”

I actually put a box around this line in my book and then highlighted it and then put stars around it. It spoke to me, deeply.

For all you fellow writers reaching for the elusive agent-publishing stars, this book will uplift you, make you realize your dreams will come true. But only if you work your tail off and NEVER, EVER, NEVER-EVER give up the dream.

 

BF: Do you have any new favorite authors? Please share!

KMW: I just finished two very different books and absolutely loved both of them. Everybody Sees The Ants by A. S. King is a brilliant contemporary YA with fully developed characters, a heartbreaking and raw plotline and costumed, dancing ants—in other words, it’s pure A. S. King—and that means it’s one hell of a read.

The other book is The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Before I gush, I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of fantasy books. I love me my Harry Potter but that’s about it. This book is pure fantasy and sweet mother of mercy is it incredible. I had writer-envy about 50 times as I read because I was blown away by the depth of the story, the creative genius of it all, and the gorgeousness of her writing. It’s a wowzer of a book.

 

BF: What do you feel is the most challenging part of the writing process? Conversely, what is your favorite part?

KMW: Most challenging part: The moments (alright days) just before I start a new project because I do everything I can to avoid diving in.

Favorite part: When I’m lost in writing a first draft, like, the story is forming and flowing and my fingers can’t keep up. Oh, how I love that part.

 

BF: How would you describe your writing routine?

KMW: I definitely listen and watch the world for ideas. Sometimes it’ll be a snippet of overheard conversation, or something I see, and BAM, a new idea for a novel clocks me in the jaw. I am never without post-its and I’m forever jotting new ideas down.

Some ideas fall asleep in the file folder while others continue to pester and poke me for weeks or months, forming themselves, deepening. I know I have something real when I go to write out my stream-of-conscious-brainstormed and bullet-pointed list. The list is where I dump it all out—characters, setting ideas, plot points, endings. Everything. Then that sometimes sits for a while and coagulates or sometimes I bang out a first chapter right then and there.

I’m a Pantser all the way and nothing blows my mind more than when something comes to me while I’m writing that wasn’t there in the brainstormed list. It’s so exciting to see the story unfold AS I WRITE IT. It gives me chills. And yes, I’m aware of how completely dorky that sounds.

 

BF: Finally, can you share any details on projects you have on the horizon?

KMW: I’m actually diving back into an old project and revising it to go out on submission. The main character’s best friend needs a bigger presence and the dad needs less. Our agent shared this nugget of wisdom with me yesterday: “Write what you think is important to the MC’s story.”  I am revising with that perched in the back of my mind.

Finally, and most importantly, thank you very much, Pam, for asking for this interview. I am honored. I wish you the best of luck with this new publication!

 

For more information on K.M., please visit her website: kmwalton.com, or blog, www.skateorbate.blogspot.com.

 

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