Hey everyone! Today I have a special guest post from author Christyne Morrell. Her middle-grade novel, Kingdom of Secrets, is slated for publication in the summer of 2021 by Delacorte Press. I met Christyne almost 3 years ago through SCBWI, where we swapped early drafts of our novels. Now both of our manuscripts are going to be published!
I’ve read the early drafts of Christyne’s book, and I say verifiably that 12-year-old me would have loved this book. It’s full of clever girls and witty scenes. Read on to learn more about Christyne’s inspiration, writing process, and advice for aspiring writers.
Can you tell us a little more about your book?
Kingdom of Secrets is about a girl named Prismena who lives in a fictional kingdom called Oren, where her father is a hot-air balloonist. Prismena longs to build and fly the complicated machines herself, but her father doesn’t approve. One day, a waif named Abi steals Prismena’s only remaining memento of her deceased mother – a silk scarf – and promises to return it only if Prismena smuggles a mysterious box onto one of her father’s flights. Since balloon travel is strictly regulated in Oren, that single act of rebellion results in her father’s arrest and kicks off a spiraling series of events that will yank Prismena out of her predictable life. Along the way to free her father from jail, she’ll get caught up in a bar fight, nabbed by a sadistic schoolmistress, tossed into a home for unwanted children, schooled in the art of stealing, and thrust into the center of a brewing rebellion. On her journey through Oren, Prismena will uncover secrets that change the way she views her family, her kingdom, herself, and even her beloved hot air balloons. She’ll have to break a few rules – and even forge metal – to save the people she loves, but she may also get a chance to soar.
Where did the inspiration for your book come from?
A middle school research paper, of all places! A few years ago, my husband mentioned that he’d written a report in 6th grade about the use of hot-air balloons in the Civil War (it’s real – look it up!). Don’t ask me why that random fact came up in conversation, but for some reason it stuck with me. I was captivated by the contrast of bright, lovely objects in the sky with an ugly war going on below. I knew there was a story there, but it took me three years and three different manuscripts to find it!
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
How much revising I would have to do after my manuscript sold. As I mentioned, I rewrote this book three times before I got an agent. During that time, it was read by many, many critique partners (including you, Gail!) and went through many, many rounds of revision. Then my agent had even more changes. By the time it was acquired by Delacorte, I thought it was as good as it could get. Boy, was I wrong! My editor gave me a 12-page edit letter – that’s 12 single-spaced pages – and I spent an entire month making structural changes to the story. The book is so much better as a result, but I continue to be amazed at editors’ ability to see the potential in a manuscript and to purchase it on that basis.
What comes first, the plot or characters?
I’m definitely a plot-first writer. As a reader, nothing frustrates me more than a book without a satisfying payoff, even if the characters are delightful along the way. So as a writer, plot is always my priority. Once I pin down what’s going to happen, it’s easier for me to tailor the characters to the plot than vise versa. I’ve had to abandon several manuscripts 100 pages in because the story didn’t have an ending, but I’ve never been unable to create a character to fit my plot – though admittedly it’s not always easy!
What’s your biggest tip for writing fantasy?
Something I had to learn when writing KINGDOM OF SECRETS: lean into the fantasy of it! My book is “low” or “grounded” fantasy, which means it takes place in a fictional world, but it doesn’t include any magic or imagined creatures (no dragons, elves, etc.). Since my book features hot-air balloons, I started by researching their history and using that as a guidepost for my setting. In other words, I was trying to be historically accurate, even within my made-up world. Finally, one of my critique partners snapped me out of it and told me to let the story lead. After that, I gave myself permission to depart from the real world and the story took off from there. (Sorry, I had to!)
Writing can be an emotionally draining and stressful pursuit. Any tips for aspiring writers?
There’s tons of great writing advice out there, and most of it touches on the same points. I can’t say I’ve come up with anything ground-breaking, but I have created a handy mnemonic device to remember the tips I consider most important – the Four Ps.
People: Make writing friends, and do it early! Not only will your critique partners make your writing better, they’ll also become the only people in your life who “get it.” No matter how well-meaning and engaged your non-writing friends are, they just won’t understand the ups and downs of your writing journey. When you get a full request, for example, you’ll want someone to celebrate with who knows what that means and why it’s a big deal!
Patience: The pace of the writing process is slow, and I’m not just talking about waiting for responses from agents, editors, and others. Aspiring writers must also be patient with themselves and with the process. It can be tempting to send out a draft the moment you reach “The End” because you’re on such a high. But trust me on this – take the time to make your MS great! Always let your work simmer as much as you can!
Perseverance: There are no definitive numbers on this, but anecdotally I’ve heard it typically takes five to ten years to get a book deal once you start writing seriously, and my own journey fits that pattern. There’s no way I’ve found to take the sting out of rejection, but if you consider each no something you must earn before you get to yes, the rejections become almost worth celebrating (almost!). Think of it like one of those loyalty cards you get at a sandwich shop. You have to get all your punches before you get the reward.
Perspective: This is the most important piece of advice I can give, hands down: Remember why you started writing! It should be rewarding, if not always fun. If it’s making you miserable, ask yourself why. If you’re consumed with the extraneous parts of it – posting on social media, hunting for an agent, comparing your progress to others’ – take a step back and regain your perspective. I’m guessing you didn’t start writing so you could earn likes on Instagram and maybe not even so you could get published. Chances are you got into it because you loved to write. Stay connected to that motivation.
As part of this guest post, Christyne is offering a free query letter critique for aspiring authors. For more info, head over to her page and follow the instructions. I’m also giving away a copy of my upcoming novel, No Ordinary Thing! The book follows the adventures of 12-year-old Adam Tripp after he discovers a snow globe that allows him to travel back in time. If you like whimsical stories about time traveling, sneaky villains, and odd clockmakers who talk in cryptic tones, follow my blog for a chance to win. I’ll choose a winner in 2 weeks!