New Voice: Kim Ventrella on Improving Your Writing Skills & Skeleton Tree

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Kim Ventrella is the debut author of Skeleton Tree (Scholastic, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Stanly knows the bone growing in his yard is a little weird, but that’s okay, because now he’ll have the perfect photo to submit to the Young Discoverer’s Competition. 

With such a unique find, he’s sure to win the grand prize. But, oddly, the bone doesn’t appear in any photos. Even stranger, it seems to be growing into a full skeleton . . . one that only children can see. 

There’s just one person who doesn’t find any of this weird — Stanly’s little sister. Mischievous Miren, adopts the skeleton as a friend, and soon, the two become inseparable playmates. 

When Miren starts to grow sick, Stanly suspects that the skeleton is responsible and does everything in his power to drive the creature away. 

However, Miren is desperate not to lose her friend, forcing Stanly to question everything he’s ever believed about life, love, and the mysterious forces that connect us.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

I wrote a lot of manuscripts, and I kept writing. This one summer in particular—I had reluctantly returned to my hometown because of money—I was in a job I didn’t love and I was desperate to do something more meaningful with my life. 

I wrote four novels in a row that summer and fall. They were all completed manuscripts, but nothing that I could honestly say constituted a good story. 
Then, early the following year, I wrote this weird, creepy middle grade manuscript called “Quimby,” and that was the first time I’d ever written something that felt to me like a ‘good’ book. I submitted it to agents, but I didn’t stop writing. 
I ended up getting a request to revise and resubmit “Quimby” from one of my top agents, and she also said she’d be happy to read anything else I’d written. I sent her Skeleton Tree, which I’d started writing as soon as I’d finished “Quimby,” and she signed me on that story.

Halloween in Naryn City, Kyrgyzstan, hometown of Kim’s favorite character in Skeleton Tree, Ms. Francine.
Kim served in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan from 2010 to 2012. (She’s the one holding a cleaver.)

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

I planned a launch party for Skeleton Tree at a local bookstore, but when I arrived nothing was set up like it was supposed to be. 

The staff members were rushing around to help me get everything ready on time, and they broke this huge wooden table. And that wasn’t even the funniest part. The table was covered in those hardcover special editions of classic books, the really heavy ones.

It was basically a book avalanche, but thankfully my friends and family pitched in and we got everything set up on time, though just barely.

Kim with her critique group: Gwendolyn Hooks, Pati Hailey, Todd Hardin and Regina Garvie

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

  • Understand and embrace the failure-success cycle. 
In order to master a skill, you have to try, fail, learn from your failure and repeat. If you’re not failing sometimes, then you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to improve.
  • Make sure that you’re continuously learning and evolving as a writer. 
Learning expert Eduardo Briceño has this awesome TED Talk where he says that the way to get better at the things you love is to spend time in the learning zone in addition to the performance zone.

The performance zone is where writers live when we’re actively crafting stories in order to meet deadlines. There’s high pressure, high stakes and a looming deadline. 
It’s important to operate well in this zone for sure, but that’s not how we grow as writers.

We also need to make time for the learning zone, where we break writing down into its component parts and work on improving our ability in each of these areas. That might involve analyzing the work of other authors, doing focused writing exercises, reading for enjoyment, practicing our observational skills, etc.

  • Emphasize the process rather than the outcome. 
Kim’s dog and co-writer, Hera

You write because you love it (maybe even more than you love yourself), and chances are that the part you love most is creating something new and magical that has never existed in the world before. 

Focus on those exhilarating moments of creation when it feels like the Muse has slipped into your body and taken control of your fingers.

That’s the joy of writing and the part that you can control. The outcome (whether it sells, fails or totally tanks) is completely out of your hands, and it won’t make you happy anyway. 

Author Elizabeth Gilbert‘s amazing TED Talk, Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating, elaborates on this very topic.

Basically, write because you love it, and if you do that, then you’ll never be shut down by outside forces.

Cynsational Notes

See the discussion guide for Skeleton Tree.

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “(An) emotional roller coaster tempered by a touch of magic and a resilient, likable protagonist.”

Kim Ventrella is the author of the middle grade novels Skeleton Tree (Fall 2017) and Bone Hollow (Spring 2019), both with Scholastic.

She loves sharing weird, whimsical stories with readers of all ages.

Find her on Twitter @KimVentrella.

See the book trailer for Skeleton Tree, created by SCBWI Oklahoma Illustrator Coordinator Jerry Bennett and Zac Davis.