Saturday, June 25, 2022

An Interview with Children's Author Lisa Harkrader

by Suzanne Lieurance


It’s always fun to learn how other writers work, so recently I interviewed children’s author Lisa Harkrader.

 

Lisa has written all sorts of materials for the children’s market, but she loves to focus mainly on middle grade fiction. 


Her middle grade novels include:

 

CROAKED!—sequel to CRUMBLED! available now
THE ADVENTURES OF BEANBOY, starred review—School Library Journal, William Allen White Award nominee

AIRBALL: MY LIFE IN BRIEFS, William Allen White Award winner

 

Here are the questions I asked Lisa, and her answers.

 

Q: Lisa, please tell us a little bit about yourself as an author. How did you get started? What is your most recent published book.  


Lisa: I've wanted to be a writer since third grade, when it suddenly dawned on me that somebody had to write all those books I love to read. 

 

When I began pursuing a writing career as an adult, I started with short stories. I had young children at the time, and a short story was something I could hold in my head all at once and work on in short snippets of time. 

 

My first book was a nonfiction travel books for kids—Kidding Around Kansas City, co-written with writer and writing coach extraordinaire Suzanne Lieurance! 

 

I also ghostwrote three books in the then-madly-popular Animorphs series, which was great practice for writing my own first novel, Airball: My Life in Briefs.

 

Q: Do you have an agent? If so, what do you think are the advantages of having an agent?  Are there any reasons not to have an agent? 


Lisa: I do have an agent, Steven Chudney of The Chudney Agency. 

 

For me, the advantages of having an agent include having someone on your side who knows the business end of publishing much better than I ever will, someone who knows editors personally, knows their tastes and what they're looking for, who can call them, nudge them, ask them questions, someone who knows all the minutiae of a publishing contract and can negotiate to get the best terms for my books, and who can take all the drudgery of sending and tracking submissions off my shoulders. (An example: For my latest books, a series of fairy tale detective novels called The Misadventures of Nobbin Swill, I had written the first book and had ideas for several more. My publisher initially offered a two-book contract, but my agent negotiated it to three books with a higher advance.) 

 

Plus, once upon a time, writers could send manuscripts to book editors directly, but in today's market, it's very difficult to get editors to read unagented work. 

 

The main reasons I can think for not having an agent would be if you are focusing on magazine pieces, nonfiction books for the school and library market, educational publishing (e.g., classroom materials, assessment passages and items, etc.), or you plan to self-publish.

Q: How do you get your ideas for stories and books? Do you keep a notebook with you at all times, so you can jot down ideas as they come to you, for example?

 

Lisa: I know this is not going to sound very helpful, but when someone asks how I get story ideas, my first thought is, "How could I NOT get story ideas? They're everywhere." 

 

I got the idea for my first published short story from trying to park my car on a residential street and noticing a sprinkler on the curb, but instead of sprinkling into the yard, it was sprinkling into the street. 

 

I kept wondering why it was aimed that way—and yes, I did write it down; I've always got paper and pencil handy—until I ended up writing a story about a woman who put a sprinkler out to keep people from parking in front of her house and the neighborhood kids who turned the sprinkler into a car wash. 

 

I get ideas every day, more than I will ever be able to turn into stories or books. 

 

I've also written a lot of work-for-hire stories (such as reading passages for educational publishers), and for those, I've had to come up with story ideas that  fit specific parameters in a very short time period, such as an hour or two! 

 

I've found that even when my mind is totally blank, if I set a timer for 15 minutes and tell myself I must come up with 10 story ideas, no matter how terrible, by idea 5 or 6, I've come up with something I'm excited about writing.

 

Q: What is the most difficult part of writing for you?


Lisa: Oh, gosh, first drafts are excruciating for me. 

 

I love, love, love editing. 

 

I love when I have a finished draft before me, like a lump of clay that I can mold and form into something so much better than my initial output. 

 

But starting out, especially in the first few chapters, when I haven't built up any steam, is hard. 

 

To get over the hump, I usually do sprints of 15 or 20 minutes each, just to get words on the page. 

 

I also participate in Zoom write-ins with a few other authors, where we get together, chat for a few minutes, then mute ourselves and write for 25 minutes before coming back to discuss our progress. 

 

I find that very helpful.

 

Q: What do you think are your greatest strengths as a writer?


Lisa: That's a tough question because I'm always trying to grow. 

 

I try to take something I think is a weakness and turn it into a strength. 

 

When I first began writing, I noticed that I hardly described anything, probably because, as a reader, I tend to skip long passages of description. 

 

So I made it a mission to conquer description, and I think I'm pretty good at it now because I sort of make it stealth description, weaving it into the action, with my characters experiencing sights, sounds, smells (I love describing smells), tastes, feels, as they go about their business. 

 

But for my greatest strength as a children's writer, I think it's that I'm still pretty much a twelve-year-old kid on the inside, so it's not that difficult for me to see things from a middle-grade character's point of view.

 

Q: Who are your favorite middle grade authors? What do you like about their books/writing style, etc.?  

 

Lisa: There are so many great middle grade authors and books that I know I'm going to leave some out. 

 

I love fellow Kansas authors Clare Vanderpool (whose Moon Over Manifest won the Newbery Medal) and Elizabeth Bunce (Edgar Award winnder for her mystery series starring middle-grade Victorian sleuth Myrtle Hardcastle). 

 

I love Vivian Vande Velde, who writes everything from mystery to fantasy to science fiction. 

 

I think I'm drawn to books that, in addition to being a delightful journey with characters I love, are works I can learn from. 

 

Clare's Moon Over Manifest is a historical novel set in two different time periods, and I love studying the way she seemlessly moved back and forth in time and wove the two stories together. 

 

In Elizabeth's Myrtle books, I love seeing how she weaves forensic science, which was just starting to be an actual thing in that time period, and other historical details into a rip-roaring mystery adventure.


Q: When you are going to write a book, how much planning do you do ahead of time? For example, do you make a complete outline of the book? Do you interview your characters or create character profiles to get to know them better?  


Lisa: I plan. A lot. 

 

I do interviews with my main characters. 

 

I make outlines. 

 

Sometimes I start writing before I have completely finished outlining to the end, but I always have a good idea how the book will end so I know what to write toward. 

 

In my two latest books, Croaked! and Clocked! (books 2 and 3 in The Misadventures of Nobbin Swill series), I had to write a detailed outline of each to send to my editor, and having that much detail all the way to the end made writing the actual book so much faster and so much less stressful. 

 

It doesn't mean I stick strictly to the outline or that I have no room for creativity, but it does mean I have a path for a solid story, and I can just let go and write. 


Q: Voice is very important in middle grade stories. Do you have any tips for creating strong character voices?  


Lisa: I have to actually be able to hear my characters' voices in my head before I can start writing. 

 

I work on fleshing out my characters before I begin the actual manuscript, and when I can hear their voices—especially the main character's voice—clearly and authentically in my head, that's when I know I can start writing. 

 

And I think the key word there is "authentically." 

 

I think a strong voice is always the voice that is authentic to that specific character.

 

Q: What are you working on right now?


Lisa: Right now I'm working on a middle grade novel about a girl who accidentally orders a fairy godmother on the internet, and when she shows up—as a lunch lady at my main character's new school—she's the worst fairy godmother in godmother history.


Q: What is your biggest tip for beginning writers who hope to get published?  


Lisa: My biggest tip is the old tried and true READ. 

 

Read the kinds of books you want to write. 

 

Read the books that truly speak to you and try to figure out why. 

 

Make a note of which publishers publish the books you love, and do an internet search to see if you can find out which editors edited them and which agents represented them.




For more author interviews and tips and resources for writers, visit writebythesea.com.


Suzanne Lieurance is the author of over 40 published books and a writing coach.

 

4 comments:

Karen Cioffi said...

Suzanne, thanks for sharing Lisa Harkrader's interview. She has lots of good pointers as an agented author. I agree about the story ideas all over the place; you just have to keep your eyes and ears on alert!

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Hi, Karen,

I love that she said first drafts are hard. They are! But once the first draft is done, the rewriting and rewriting can be fun.

Suzanne

Terry Whalin said...

Suzanne,

What a great wide ranging interview--with information for every type of writer--beginner or experienced. Thank you for posting it.

Terry

Rosi said...

Wonderful interview with lots of great tips. Thanks for the post.

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