Friday, May 4, 2018

Introducing Novel Mentor, Kelly Barson! An Interview by Ann Finkelstein

SCBWI-MI’s second novel mentorship is coming up fast. This mentorship with Kelly Barson is for Associate and Full Members (non-Published And Listed, aka non-PAL).

The submission window for the non-PAL mentorship is June 4-25, 2018. (This is sooner than you think.) We require that all applicants have completed a draft of their novels, so get cracking, people. You won’t want to miss this opportunity.

Complete submission instructions can be found on the SCBWI-Michigan website.

For questions about eligibility or submissions please contact SCBWI-MI Mentorship Coordinator, Ann Finkelstein.

Kelly is the author of 45 POUNDS MORE OR LESS and CHARLOTTE CUTS IT OUT. Kelly’s books will make you laugh and cry. They’ll show you the truth. They may even give you a glimpse inside yourself. Kelly teaches classes on writing Middle Grade and Young Adult novels at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

What do you like best about writing novels?
The best part about writing novels is being surprised. I always start writing thinking that I know everything about the characters and their stories. But there’s a point in every novel where I’m surprised by something. Either a story twist or a theme I hadn’t intended or a character doing something within character but not from my imagining. It’s a reminder that the magical part of writing—the muse—is beyond me. That the art of story isn’t about the writer at all, but the story itself needing to come to life.

What do you like least?
Fear and self-doubt. What if I’m wasting my time? What if nobody likes this story? What happens next? How can I be a writer when I don’t know? What if I never figure it out? How long has this mustard stain been on my sleeve? When was the last time I ate mustard? Should I pre-soak it? And distraction. It’s too easy to get off track.

Describe a typical writing day.
Let the dogs out. Make coffee. Shower. Let the dogs in. Toast a bagel. Drink coffee and eat while talking to my mom on the phone about news, politics, and miscellany. Let the dogs out. Start a load of laundry. Let the dogs in. Head upstairs to my office with my water, my phone, and the dogs. Check email. Star something to get back to later. Open manuscript file. Ponder. Pet a dog. Ponder more. Write some words. Backspace. Swear. Write more words. Stare into space. Notice dry hands. Put lotion on. Check the news and/or social media. Get angry about something. Swear more. Go back to file. Write a few more words. Just when words start to flow, phone rings. Swear. Answer the phone. Forget what I was writing. Let the dogs out. Put clothes in the dryer. Let dogs back in. Make a sandwich. Go back to office. Check online banking. Swear more. Get back to file. Wonder what in the heck that sentence was supposed to be. Backspace. Ponder. Write another half sentence. Swear. Close laptop.

Which of your books was the most fun to write? Why?
Probably 45 POUNDS because it was my first. I was able to play and rewrite it several times, several ways, and I learned a lot in the process.

When you’re reading for pleasure, what features of a book typically impress you the most? 
If a book can make me laugh and cry, I’m a fan for life.

What brings you joy?
Mischievous children and animals. I don’t know why, but when a toddler throws every piece of clean laundry out of a basket with total abandon or my cat knocks the magnets off the fridge and walks away satisfied, I smile. Making mischief is a delightful art.

What inspires you?
Pain inspires me. I’m always amazed at the resiliency of the human spirit. So, I guess it’s not the pain itself. It’s more about how human beings overcome it, how they manage to remain upright in the face of insurmountable odds, how they heal “strong in the broken places.” (Hemingway)

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I would love to tour Europe. But whenever I’m able to get away, I find myself in Northern Michigan. My heart wanders there. As soon as I cross the 45th Parallel, I breathe deeper and relax.

If you could have dinner with any person throughout history who would it be? What would you discuss? 
Jesus Christ. Yes, I know, as a Christian, I can talk to Him through prayer. But that’s not what I’m talking about. When I read The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare, I was overtaken by emotion when the main character had an encounter with Jesus. I couldn’t imagine being one of the actual human beings who experienced hearing him, seeing him, talking with him in person. Maybe we’d talk about religion and politics and where and how things go awry. Maybe we’d talk about how English teachers sometimes attribute meaning to literature that the author didn’t intend, and how some Biblical scholars do the same thing. Maybe we’d talk about the secrets of the universe—like about the origin of Earth, eternity, and how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop.

What kind of compliment means the most to you?
The genuine kind.

What aspects of being a novel mentor are you most looking forward to? 
Ooh! This is the best question!

At one of the first SCBWI conferences I attended, I paid for an editor critique. It was from Michael Stearns (back when he was an editor). Like many newbie critique seekers, I vacillated between knowing he was going to buy my novel on the spot and also knowing that he’d forbid me from ever writing again because I was a hack who should never put word to paper. Lucky for me, he did neither of those things.

Instead, I got an honest critique—what I’d actually paid for! He pointed out areas where I’d nailed voice and character and scene. “Gold,” he called it. Then, he said, “Now make all of it like this.” While that sounded easy—after all, I’d written nuggets of gold, right?—it was about as simple as adding an egg to a baked cake. I had no idea what was gold and what was garbage. How would I ever know? I was both encouraged and frustrated.

About fifteen years have passed since that critique. I now have a better sense of what works, what doesn’t, and why. I’ve read more. I’ve written more. I’ve published more. I want to help other writers recognize their gold nuggets. To mine them. To polish them. And to celebrate the superpowers that created them. I also want to help them spot the areas that need more work and give them the tools to do it. I want to inspire them to keep going when the work gets hard. Because it will get hard. But their stories are worth telling. And they are the only ones able to tell them.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
I have a middle grade Christmas story out on submission right now. I’m nearly finished with an early chapter book about Mother Goose. And I’m planning out a couple more YA novels.

I’m also teaching classes at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Writing the Middle Grade Novel, Writing the YA Novel I, and Writing the YA Novel II, depending on the quarter.

Ann Finkelstein is a former scientist who discovered that writing novels is more fun than wrangling test tubes. She coordinates the SCBWI-MI mentorship program and helps Charlie Barshaw host Lansing Area Shop Talks.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: how to know if your art is ready, pitching podcasts, and take-aways from our SCBWI-MI spring conference.

See you tomorrow in Detroit for the spring conference!


  1. Great to learn more about Kelly! Thank you!

  2. Love the answer about your first critique--finding the spots that are gold and making the whole manuscript that way. Great interview, Kelly.