New Voice: K.A. Barson on 45 Pounds (More or Less)

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

K.A. Barson is the first-time author of 45 Pounds (More or Less)(Viking, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Here are the numbers of Ann Galardi’s life:

She is 16.
And a size 17.
Her perfect mother is a size 6.
Her Aunt Jackie is getting married in 2 months, and wants Ann to be a bridesmaid.
So Ann makes up her mind: Time to lose 45 pounds (more or less).

Welcome to the world of informercial diet plans, wedding dance lessons, endless run-ins with the cutest guy Ann’s ever seen—and some surprises about her not-so-perfect mother.

And there’s one more thing—it’s all about feeling comfortable in your own skin—no matter how you add it up!

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

Photo of K.A. by Hal Folk
More on Martine

I’d have to say that my most influential writing teacher was Martine Leavitt.

As my second semester advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, she made me think about characters and motivation and how it relates to plot more than I ever had before.

Before I even started the semester, Martine had me write a letter to her from my main character. The letter needed to reflect the character’s voice and contain both an abstract and concrete desire.

For some reason, I always balk at writing exercises, even though historically, they’ve helped me a lot. I did it though, and it really solidified where the story was going.

In my contemporary work, I sometimes have a tendency to let my characters wander in circles and naval gaze. They may do things, but that doesn’t mean those actions have meaning or purpose in the story. Martine encouraged me to really look at not only what my characters do, but why. Now for every project I start, I ask these questions to my characters:

  • What do you want? Even when I think I know, I still need to probe deeper. What do you really want—acceptance, love, friendship? What will you do to get it? The quest for a certain feeling is the emotional arc, and the action creates plot.
  • What happens if you don’t get it? It’s the stakes that keep readers invested and turning pages. It doesn’t have to be dangerous, but it needs to be important.

Having a firm grasp on what characters want, how they try to get it, and how they react when something or someone gets in their way, helps me know what happens next.

Sometimes, though, simply asking the question isn’t enough. Sometimes I just don’t know. So that’s when those writing exercises that don’t seem like they’re going to help actually do.

Sometimes the only way to get to the heart of the story is to step out of it and spend time with the characters somewhere beyond the pages of the draft, using things like letters, interviews, journal entries, and scenes outside of this story.

In my first workshop at VCFA, another faculty member helped me discover the motivations of a secondary character that was a little flat. That workshop leader, whose initials are C.L.S., asked me to interview that character. That exercise uncovered some hidden resentment toward my main character that I didn’t know existed. Those feelings helped shape my revision. I now had reasons behind the actions.

Motivation propels the plot. Once I learned that, I found plot much less baffling. Every character wants something. If it’s in line with the main character, they’re probably an ally. If their desires are in contrast with the protagonist, they’re probably one of the antagonists.

I know this is basic stuff, but really all writing concepts are basic. It’s putting them all together that’s hard. Good writers and teachers know and do this. Because of their generosity, now I do too.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

When I’m writing, I tend to rely a lot on humor. Because my debut novel 45 Pounds (More or Less) stems from being self-conscious, a certain level of self-deprecating humor naturally arises.

The problem with humor is that it can dilute or lighten a more serious topic. With my book, I wanted to lighten the serious topic. It’s about weight and body image. I didn’t want my character to dwell in this heavy place—both literally and figuratively—the whole time.

But every time I choose funny, I lose a little of the emotional depth.

Humor needs to be carefully placed. It should give a reprieve from heartbreak or a break the tension from an emotional scene.

It’s important to allow the reader to feel the full effect of the pain before cutting it with something funny though.

What makes something funny? I don’t know if something is funny to readers, but if it makes me laugh, it usually makes it into the draft. (I say draft because it doesn’t always make it to the final round.) The unexpected is what usually cracks me up.

When writing, I try to think about what would make this scene or conversation embarrassing or different. Sometimes the characters naturally do those things based on their motivation and personality. It’s wonderful when that happens, but if it doesn’t, there are books that can help.

One is The Comic Toolbox: How To Be Funny Even If You’re Not by John Vorhaus (Silman-James Press, 1994) and How To Write Funny: Add Humor To Every Kind of Writing edited by John B. Kachuba (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001).

The latter is a collection of essays by some of funniest writers of our time. I also study sitcoms and movies.

How many other professionals can be working while being entertained and laughing?

That’s just one of the many reasons I love being a writer.

Cynsational Notes

K.A. Barson from Note: audio name reading and novel reading. See also K.A. at Skype an Author Network.

Check out this video feature with K.A. from Ed Spicer at Spicy Reads.

5 thoughts on “New Voice: K.A. Barson on 45 Pounds (More or Less)

  1. My pleasure, Linda! And yes, I'm likewise a fan.

    Kelly, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, and congratulations on your success!

    Ed, what a wonderful video! I'm adding it to the post. Thanks for the heads up and for all you do for writers and readers!

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