Author Interview: Kelly Bingham on Shark Girl

Kelly Bingham on Kelly Bingham: “I started my career as a story artist for Walt Disney Feature Animation, where I worked for twelve years on films such as ‘Hercules,’ ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire,’ ‘The Emperor’s New Groove,’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ I received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College in 2004, and then moved to Georgia to spend more time with my family and writing. I live in north Georgia with my husband and our five children. Shark Girl (Candlewick, 2007)(excerpt) is my first novel.”

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I spent over ten years trying to “learn” how to write for children. I took classes and workshops, had a critique group, and wrote a lot. After a long time, I realized my level of writing had plateaued…and it wasn’t that good. I then enrolled in something I had wanted to do for years…the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College.

I learned more there in the first semester than I had in the previous ten years of self-teaching. And I began working in earnest on the story I had brought with me to my first workshop…the manuscript that would become Shark Girl.

I finished the first draft of Shark Girl nearly two years later, just before graduation. And within a few days of finishing this, a girl in Hawaii was attacked by a shark while surfing and lost her right arm.

The coincidence was too much, and I couldn’t bear the thought of appearing as though I’d capitalized on her loss. So I put the book away for a while.

I sold a picture book and continued working on other projects, and two years later, took Shark Girl out of its drawer, largely because I was urged to do so by my mentors and friends and family. I revised for several months, then submitted it to the editor I had already sold a book to. He didn’t want it. I was disappointed but knew better than to give up too soon—rejection is part of the process, right? I tried again and submitted to Candlewick in the summer.

Liz Bicknell was too busy to read the story at that time. She asked me to resubmit in the fall, and in the meantime, she would understand if I wanted to submit it elsewhere rather than wait. But I was more than willing to wait for her, and when the time came, she read the first thirty pages, asked for the rest, and then sent me an e-mail saying she wanted to publish the book! I was thrilled, shocked, and overjoyed!

We started off agreeing the book would be published in 2008. But very soon Liz let me know they were bumping it to 2007. Great news! We tackled revisions, which were minimal, and then shipped it all off in short order. It was a fun, whirlwind experience.

So…from idea to publication took six years. But from submission to publication took only eight months!

Was there anything during your apprenticeship that you felt was especially helpful? Was there anything you wish you’d skipped?

Especially helpful was attending Vermont College. The program is fabulous, eye-opening, and for me, it was life changing as well! I found it helpful to really delve into the structure of story–for me that’s always the hard part. Turning points, plotting, sub-plots, psychic distance, point of view—all that stuff was a foreign language to me until I really got into the work of doing the MFA alongside amazing and generous faculty.

I can’t think of anything I wish I’d skipped, because it was all necessary to get me where I needed to be. All the mistakes, the floundering, the craft books that I’d read that didn’t do much for me, the form rejection letters for sub-par manuscripts….all that stuff was a road I had to travel before I was ready to acknowledge I not only needed to get serious about learning more, but I was willing to work hard to do so, as well.

Congratulations on the publication of Shark Girl (Candlewick, 2007)! Where did you get the initial idea for this book?

In the summer of 2001, there was a rash of shark attacks across the country. Among the victims was a little boy who had his arm bitten off and later reattached. I started thinking about the situation and thought, what a horrible thing to happen. And how much worse to have it on the news, and forever after be known for only that one thing that happened to you.

So I started writing the story from the point of view of a young boy. But Jane, the fifteen-year old girl from Shark Girl, kept stepping into my story. I found myself wanting to write for an older audience and to write from this girl’s point of view. I finally abandoned my original plan and went with Jane. She guided me the whole way.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life? I’m especially interested in the use of poetry, newspaper articles, etc.

Well, I hadn’t written much poetry before writing this book. And I did not set out to write Shark Girl in poetry form, by the way. I wrote in prose, but just groped and fumbled and couldn’t get a toehold for six months. Then a friend suggested writing it as a poetry novel, and right away I knew that was the best way to do the book. But I told myself, “you’re not a poet. Don’t even try it. You’ll look so stupid and you’ll feel like a fraud.” (This is how I talk to myself, isn’t it awful?)

Fortunately, I got past that, studied poetry and poets, and began writing volumes and volumes of poems for the book. The experience was electrifying. I love writing in poetry.

There were a few stumbles along the way. I wandered down many wrong roads while writing–I tried multiple point of view, for one thing, and then I experimented with several story lines that eventually petered out into nothing. I included characters I did not need. I had to go through this process to find what I did need, if that makes sense. And another problem I ran into was not knowing how to mix it up–an advisor of mine pointed out that having only poems in the book made it a bit flat. I couldn’t figure out what else to do, but eventually expanded the book to include conversations and newspaper clippings, as well as more letters from the public than I had originally intended. This seemed to work well and give another dimension to the story.

I also had to overcome the fear of writing about being an amputee. I thought, “I don’t know what that’s like. Isn’t it wrong of me to write about it? Am I trivializing what people actually go through?” I finally decided I wasn’t going to waffle around in indecision, and I jumped into extensive research. The more research I did, the more confident I felt that, yes, I could write about this without being offensive or insensitive.

And logistically, writing the book was tough simply because of the demands on my time back then. I was working full time, going to school for a master’s degree, and I had two children. It was always easier to do something else; anything else. And there were those days of discouragement; that whole, “I’ll never get this finished” attitude to push aside.

Also, while I wrote the book, many people cautioned me that a poetry novel would be a “tough” sale. And they were right; I think in general poetry novels are approached by editors a bit more cautiously than prose. But in my case, I was fortunate enough to find Liz Bicknell at Candlewick almost right away, and she was so enthusiastic about the book! I feel very lucky to have landed with the right editor.

What is it like to be a debut author in 2007? What moments already stand out?

Being a debut author in 2007 is terrific!! As for stand-out moments: This is the first book I’ve ever published. So everything is a stand out! I couldn’t wait to see the cover…and was thrilled with it, too. (I was amazed at the attention to detail, too. I had one line in the whole book about Jane wearing a pink bikini that day, and there on the cover she is, in a pink bikini. Wow.) I couldn’t wait to hold the galley in my hands, and show it to my family. That was fun, fun, fun. And finding my book on the Internet, at bookstore websites (and even on E-bay, apparently,) that was exciting, too. And going out for the big celebratory dinner with my family….what a pleasure. I have enjoyed every minute of this whole experience.

Are you doing anything special to promote your new release?

I have joined up with thirty-eight other debut authors, and we call ourselves the class of 2k7. We’re helping each other promote our books by appearing at conferences, writing articles for newsletters like the SCBWI Bulletin, sharing a website, blog, and forum, giving away ARC’s, and things like that. It’s been wonderful to be linked with such talented and diverse authors. You can check us out at

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I love it when an initial idea for a book comes along, and it’s so exciting it makes my toes tingle. That’s when I know I need to sit down and write about it. I love it when a character begins to take shape in my writing and in my mind, and even begins to “speak” to me and tell me her own story; what has happened, how she feels, where she’s going, what she wants to do. That’s very exciting. And I love it when a draft is coming together and almost “there,” because it seems to me at that point, everywhere I look, I find inspiration for the final pieces of the puzzle–characters to add to the story, a scene, a snatch of dialogue, an event, or some small thread to go back and weave into the manuscript. A simple trip to the store at that point can lead to a great idea to go back and weave into chapter one, for example. When the manuscript reaches a certain point, it all seems to come together rather quickly for me. I love that part.

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

I wish I could skip all the agony, the self-doubt, the frustration when months trail past and nothing worthwhile has made itself into words. The floundering part is the hard part for me.

Once I start to find my character, get rooted in her world, and roll along, then I’m okay. But that whole first part–where I have an idea but can’t figure out how to unlock it and get going—that’s like fumbling at a treasure chest with no key in sight and an imaginary clock ticking. I worry I’m wasting time and not getting anywhere, I worry I will never write another book, that the inspiration won’t come. It often takes me several months to find my story and start making real progress. I wouldn’t mind skipping that part.

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

So far, I love almost all of it! Getting published is very exciting and certainly the high points make up for many of the low points along the writing process and submission process. I love seeing my book in print, I love discovering what the cover looks like, writing my thank-you page, working with my editor, and seeing my book for sale. But best of all is the knowledge that people are reading the book and getting something from it!! If I hear from one reader that the book moved them, entertained them, or gave them anything to think about at all, that alone is worth every bad writing day along the way.

The part I’m not so crazy about is the possibility that when you sell a book, you may not actually see it in print. Every once in a while a book is bought and for whatever reasons, does not actually get made. Once a manuscript is gone from our hands, there’s not much we can do. But as writers we certainly want our creations read–not just bought by a publisher. The other part of the publishing process that is hard is the whole submission process. It is very difficult to get work read these days, especially without an agent. Frustration is part of the business.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

I would say study your craft. Read all the books you can in your genre. Read the good ones and bad ones and figure out why you like them or don’t like them. Get yourself a critique group and offer each other support, but also a little push to dig deeper and go further. Take some classes. Look into SCBWI. And write for the fun of it first and foremost.

You can’t write “for publication.” Write about the things that matter to you. Be open to constructive criticism, but don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. If you are willing to work hard enough, you can do anything. Just understand that writing is hard work and can be frustrating at times. Find yourself a community of writers, if you can–it helps so much to have others to talk to about the craft and business.

I would also suggest to people to be kind to themselves. If your kids are really young, this may not be the time to decide you’re going to write a novel in a space of six months. Give yourself realistic goals. I think it’s more important to write regularly than to write often, if that makes sense. If you can only squeeze in an hour two days a week, then take it. Don’t beat yourself up for not getting up at five a.m and writing every day because that is what “real” writers do.

Real writers do what works for them. Set yourself a time and stick to it. And don’t worry when that time is up and you can’t write for a while. Also, don’t worry if you sit down to write and nothing “usuable” comes. It’s okay. Not every day can be productive. Understand that all writers feel discouraged at times. Just free write and keep going. And keep reading. Do not compare yourself to others. Given enough time and persistence, you will get where you are going.

How about those interested in writing for the young adult audience in particular?

Know your audience. Know your genre. If you don’t have kids at home or feel you aren’t familiar with young adults, then get in their shoes a bit before you write. Watch them at malls, surf teen websites, eavesdrop when you’re in line behind a couple of teens at the movies. Write your story first and foremost; let the editor tell you if it’s out of bounds or too sophisticated. Young adults today are more savvy than ever and subject matter for teens is pretty much wide open.

As with any audience, respect your reader. Never dumb things down, or tread lightly around touchy topics. Your reader’s feelings are real, their life is real, and I think any reader appreciates an author who is blunt and honest with their character’s emotions and flaws.

The more real you are, the more your reader can connect. And isn’t that why we read in the first place? I know I do–I love that connection to a book; that sense of, “I know exactly how that character feels!” And then going on a journey with that character to see what they do and how they do it.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

When I started writing Shark Girl, I honestly thought I wasn’t a “real” writer, and that it would be a miracle if I ever finished a manuscript. When I finished the manuscript, I thought it would be a miracle if it ever got published.

I suspect I’m not the only writer who started out this way. I think lack of confidence may be an issue for many of us. I just want to say, do not let that stop you, whatever you do. Just go for it. Just write. And worry about the results later.

If you can’t sit down and write a novel from start to finish, as a mentor of mine used to say–then just write two pages a day. Every day. When enough days pass, you will have a two hundred page manuscript.

Stick to it. Put yourself in that chair and do it. Take time to smell the roses, regroup, refresh the well, and find inspiration…but then get back to work. Don’t let yourself get too discouraged for too long. And always keep your eyes open for that new idea, that untold story, that character that needs a voice. Be open to trying new forms of writing, and have fun!