New Voice: K.M. Walton on Cracked

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

K. M. Walton is the first-time author of Cracked (Simon Pulse, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Victor hates his life. He’s relentlessly bullied at school and his parents ridicule him for not being perfect. He’s tired of being weak, so he takes a bottle of his mother’s sleeping pills — only to wake up in the hospital.

Bull is angry, and takes all of his rage out on Victor. He’s the opposite of weak. And he’s tired of his grandfather’s drunken beatings, so he tries to defend himself with a loaded gun.

When Victor and Bull end up as roommates in the same psych ward, things go from bad to worse. Until they discover they just might have something in common: a reason to live.

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

Not until I read The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown, 2007) did I realize that young adult fiction could be so real. Or so raw. I was blown away by that book and how authentically the main character was written.

Then I read Going Bovine by Libba Bray (Delacorte Books (2009) and Looking for Alaska by John Green (Dutton Books, 2005) in succession and experienced not only severe writer envy, but also an overwhelming desire to try my hand at contemporary YA. Up to that point I’d only written middle grade suspense manuscripts.

The perfect storm occurred in my hotel room while attending my second SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC:

  1. I had those three amazing books rattling around inside my head throughout the conference.
  2. I heard one of the speakers talk about books written from alternating perspectives.
  3. Libba Bray gave her keynote, in which she repeatedly told the room full of writers to ask themselves “Is it true yet?

KM Walton in 1985

Lighting struck.

A bully and his victim rushed into my head, and I rushed back to my hotel room and got a T-chart going. I brainstormed a list of character details and plot points. Cracked was born.

I wrote Cracked with abandon—the two main characters demanded it. Victor and Bull became living breathing human beings with important stories to tell–painful and sometimes raw stories–but important nonetheless.

I never put a swear word or an edgy scene in for sensationalistic purposes. If it’s in there, it’s because it needs to be.

I wanted it to be true.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

Once I have my “big picture” plot points reasoned out in my head, I move onto character development. My characters start out as bullet-pointed lists. Personality traits, quirks, physical descriptions all get brainstormed into a sloppy, handwritten inventory. However, I don’t intimately know my characters until revisions. The questioning, revisiting and fine tuning of revisions are when their human nuances surface. That’s when they come alive for me as their creator.

During revisions I’ll find myself asking, “Would he really say that?”

Libba Bray’s directive to ask yourself “Is it true yet?” always sits on my shoulder as I revise.

I support my answer to Libba’s question by asking myself a few pointed questions:

  1. Based on who this character is and what they’re going through in the novel, would he/she truly have the voice I created?
  2. Am “I” coming through at all in the character’s voice?

I am a huge fan of writers that disappear from their writing and let the characters take front and center. Nothing throws me out of story more than when characters break character.

I believe the best way to create an authentic character’s voice is to have confidence in your characters—let them be themselves. Let them act, think, do and feel exactly how they would if they were standing right in front of you.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

Do you have an hour or so? Kidding.

I queried for nearly two-and-a-half years, racked up 148 rejections on three different novels and officially gave up one day. Then a funny thing happened the next day – Ms. Sarah LaPolla from Curtis Brown Ltd. requested the full of Cracked. And the rest, as they say, is history.

KM Walton

But let me back up just a little bit here, to the “querying for 2.4 years part”. I’d like to share what that looked like for me. I lived on and, scouring for information, anything that could help me break through. I put my query letters on a few key places for proper public floggings, and despite the black eyes I sustained, my query letters got better and better and better.

But the most important thing I did while querying was to continue writing. During my query period I wrote four more novels. Cracked was the third, and I knew it was the one that would land me my agent. With each new novel, my craft improved. So keep writing, a lot.

Lastly, to writers doing everything in their power to land their agent: Do Note Give Up!

The power is in your hands to research and query and write and revise and query some more.

It’s always about the work and the writing. Get out there, get your work out there, get feedback, become a better writer, learn about the craft of writing, try new techniques in your own stories, read everything you can in the genre in which you write, build your own buzz, join groups, visit every site you can and make comments. You can do it.

Believe it will happen. Envision it happening. Make it happen.

Cynsational Notes

Read an excerpt of chapter one from Simon & Schuster.

Apocalypsies Button

Your Mindset and Critique by K.M. Walton from The Apocalypsies.

Live Action Book Trailer Contest for Film-making Enthusiasts from K.M. Walton (click flyer on the bulletin board). Prizes include $500 cash and personal film critiques by top industry professionals. Deadline: Jan. 17.

Follow K.M. on her online book tour. See also K.M.’s site for teacher guides (click teacher drawer), excerpts (click pile of books), and writer resources (click trashcan under desk).

Check out Cracked at Goodreads and Cracked at Facebook.

Of the video below, K.M. says: “This bit of fun is dedicated to unpublished writers everywhere refusing to abandon their dream.”

7 thoughts on “New Voice: K.M. Walton on Cracked

  1. That sounds fantastic! Her story is inspiring and very much mirrors aspects of my own writing journey. Although I'm pretty old school and love the heft of a book in my hand, after reading this interview I had to buy it immediately for my Kindle because I need to read this, like, yesterday. Thanks for sharing this great interview, and I wish her much success! Sounds like an amazing book.

  2. There are so many exciting books coming out, even in contemporary (I'd been on a fantasy kick in 2011, but 2012 is bringing Contemp Back)! This is a book I can't wait to get my hands on!

  3. Robin, how great that the interview inspired you to get the book right away. Happy reading, and best wishes on your writing journey!

    Elisa, I adore the video, too. Very creative! And, yes, she can sing!

    Kimberly & S., happy reading!

    Karen, I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the interview.

    Donna, it sounds like a wonderful speech. Libba is terrific at the podium (or really anywhere). I wish I'd been there with y'all that day.

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