Sarah McElrath calls herself, “…one of those weird kids who liked to write school papers,” and credits her second daughter and the long, cold Michigan nights for her first completed YA manuscript, BLACK DRAGON. Sarah grew up in Grand Rapids, and was the second child of four. She attended graduate school in Ann Arbor, and her first job landed her on the Michigan shoreline in Grand Haven. You’re going to love Sarah’s story, so let’s jump right in. . .
Mitten: OK Sarah, when did you start writing for children, and how did you know it was something you wanted to do?
Sarah: I was one of those weird kids who liked to write school papers. As for writing for young adults, I don’t know that I decided it so much as the stories I needed to tell decided for me.
After I was married, I spent several years messing around trying to write about my experience with clinical depression, all without much success. Everything I wrote was… well, depressing. While nursing my second child in the middle of the night — freezing because it was February in Michigan—my brain spit out the idea to write about depression as I had in my journal at the time. Back then I had no idea what was wrong with me, and only knew it as this dark horror, this black dragon that stalked me, intent on consuming me whole. It took on a life of it’s own after that.
Mitten: How did you find out about SCBWI and how long have you been a member?
Sarah: Oh boy, a memory test. Well, I think I first found out about SCBWI through a writer friend of mine. Robyn Ford also writes YA fiction, and she told me about a conference for writers who wrote for children and teens. I’ve been a member since 2009.
Mitten: What genres are you most interested in and why? Picture books, middle grade, YA, chapter books, poetry, nonfiction?
Sarah: The manuscript I’m currently revising was intended to be middle grade. That lasted about a week. I’m drawn to YA. Not that I’ll never try middle grade or younger, but the possible plot lines I’m most interested in are all YA. That age is so complex, so difficult. There is the desire for independence, the knowledge that you are unique, not exactly like your family or friends. And yet, there is the pull to fit in, the fear to separate from family, the fear that you might not make it, people might not like you. It is that juxtaposition, that push-pull that fascinates me. How one handles it can determine the rest of that persons’ life.
Mitten: Tell us about your publishing journey. Are you pre-published or published, and if so where?
Sarah: I’d say I’m in the Still Hopeful stage of my publishing journey - that is, the part where I have a completed manuscript, but haven’t yet found the right editor/agent. It sounds better than saying that so far, all I’ve received are nice rejection letters. Black Dragon is currently out to an editor (sigh, the process is slow and requires much patience), a second manuscript awaits more editing, and I’m revising a third manuscript, trying to tighten up the plot.
Mitten: Many of us have a job other than writing for children. Tell us something about what you do outside of writing.
I’m a dual personality in my day job—Library Media Specialist at White Pines Intermediate School AND at Lakeshore Middle School. Each building has over nine hundred students, so I am blessed with many, many chances to nurture a love of story, of reading and writing in these kids. Not only do I share awesome books with students and staff, but also I have many opportunities to talk to them about the power of words—spoken, written, and online.
Mitten: How does this occupation inform your writing?
Sarah: I dare say being a school librarian just might be the best job for a YA fiction writer. Some of the dialog I hear in the library or in the hall has me scrambling for my notepad. I still remember one phrase of dialog that came from shamelessly eavesdropping when I worked at the alternative high school in our district. It was after lunch and a group of students were talking about their weekend. A thin-faced girl with high cheekbones and incredible cornrows dominated the conversation, gushing about her boyfriend. Finally the young man sitting across from her interrupted. “Girl, I swear if you talk about him any more, I’M going to fall in love with him.” I wrote the sentence down thinking someday I’d use it in a story.
Mitten: Where do you get most of your writing ideas? Do you write them down, keep them in a computer file or just store them in your memory?
Sarah: My ideas come from everywhere—my experiences, what I observe happening around me, what I read. I am curious by nature, and ideas come to me when I wonder why. Why would someone do, or say, or think, or not do/say/think what they did? What would happen if that person had done something different? Those are the seeds of ideas. Sometimes it takes the dirt in life to grow them—I mean, the fears, the angers—stuff like that.
Memory is a fallible thing for me, so if I want to keep an idea, I have to write it down. I have a half dozen journals lying around at home and at work where I write my ideas, phrases, words, quotes, bits of story. For some reason, it’s easier for me to use a physical journal rather than the computer. The computer makes me too worried about whether or not the idea is good. Plus, it is easier to randomly flip through a journal when I’m searching for inspiration.
Mitten: We all have favorite writers that inspire us. Name two of yours and why you like them.
Sarah: Whenever anyone asks me this I feel like I should be listing some of the classics, the greats. And those books/authors have inspired me. My dad was a librarian as well, and after supper he’d read aloud to us. Treasure Island, Lad—a Dog, Shane, The Swiss Family Robinson… he read almost all classics.
But the books I have read and re-read are more modern. Megan Whalen Turner is probably my all-time favorite writer. The way her plot unfolds in The Thief, twists in Queen of Attolia, twists again in King of Attolia, weaving together in Conspiracy of Kings is awe-inspiring. The choices she made about point-of-view in each of her books is masterful—even though I knew the characters, the changed perspective fooled me.
I have also read Anne McCaffrey’s books many times. She is a master at world building. Whether it is Pern in her Dragonrider series, or the future earth presented in The Talent Saga, Anne McCaffrey excels at making that world and its characters real. Grounding her stories in scientific fact, she extrapolates to the next level, using specific details to make it interesting and believable.
With both authors, it is their ability to create interesting characters that draws me to their books again and again. Turner and McCaffrey create characters that are fully human in needs, wants, flaws, and strengths. The characters have traits I can relate to, and traits I would like to develop in myself. These are books I re-read because I want to visit my friends again.
Mitten: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a writer for children? Why?
Don’t worry about teaching a lesson — just tell a good story. Kids are smart, they’ll get it.
The advice came after I’d finished my second manuscript. I wasn’t happy with it, but I didn’t know why. When a friend of mine read it, she pin-pointed that problem. I’d been trying too hard to connect the dots, to teach a lesson. It made the story seem forced.
Thank you so much for sharing your writing journey with us Sarah (I told you she had a great story)! You can learn more about Sarah by visiting her atthe following: