Welcome to middle grade authors Arianne Costner and Sarah Kapit who discuss both their publication journeys, starting from the inspiration for their debut novels, as well as their favorite craft books. And we want to wish Arianne a very happy book birthday as her debut, My Life as a Potato (Random House, 2020), comes out today!
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
As a teacher, I felt there was a shortage in the market of lighthearted, funny books that read like novels. I wanted to see more of them on the shelves, especially for my reluctant readers.
I knew I’d like to write a book myself, but I was seriously lacking in the idea department. I started drafting a couple stories, but something wasn’t clicking. I just wasn’t excited about them.
Then one evening at a college sports game, as I watched the mascot perform on the court, I started wondering about the identity of that famously-anonymous Cougar.
I turned to my husband and said, “You know what would make a funny book? Something where a kid was a secret mascot.”
We decided that the mascot would have to be super dorky. “I hear there’s a potato mascot in Idaho,” my husband suggested.
I’d heard enough. The fire was lit. I had to write this book.
Once I started writing My Life as a Potato (Random House, 2020), I couldn’t stop. I got totally lost in the world and laughed harder to myself than I had in a long time. I hope I can translate some of that fun to the readers.
What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?
I’m still amused by the incredibly random things I had to research while writing My Life as a Potato. I became a semi-expert on skateboarding moves and different potato-themed exhibits around Idaho. As authors, we want to get everything right, so we’ll often look up the silliest details. Like, I had to mathematically figure out how many boxes of mashed potatoes it would take to fill up a kiddie pool. Lots of math was involved.
What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?
What I’ve most enjoyed is getting feedback from kids who read and loved the book. Kids’ opinions are the ones that matter most! If I can make them smile or laugh while reading, I feel like I’ve done my job. A couple of teacher friends read the book to their classes, and hearing that the students would beg for the next chapter makes everything worth it.
The hardest part of my publishing journey by far has been balancing being a mother with being an author. I have three small children at home, and honestly, there are moments where I feel incredibly inadequate to take on both roles.
Being an author requires a lot of time and causes a lot of stress—and being a mom requires even more time and causes even more stress! It’s so easy to look at the Instagram moms who have pristine houses and make cute themed lunches and compare that to how I can barely finish the dishes every night. (We’ve all been there, right?)
The truth is, I have to make sacrifices on both ends to get by. I have to drop some balls here and there and accept that I won’t get everything done that I’d like. I wish I could say I’ve learned the trick to being at peace with that, but I’m still learning and growing and struggling each day as I try to prioritize my time. But I love what I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
First, read a lot in your genre, especially books that have been published in the past five years. This is vital, and I wish I had learned it sooner. Something about immersing yourself in the type of literature you hope to write opens up something in your brain that allows you to draft with more fluidity. I don’t understand how it works, but it does.
Second, study craft and learn how to outline. It saves so much time to have an idea of the plot points your story needs to hit before you start.
I highly recommend the book Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody (Ten Speed Press, 2018).
Third, find an idea you are passionate about, and have fun! Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get published in the beginning. It could stifle your creativity. Take risks, allow yourself to have terrible first drafts, and write like no one is watching!
Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?
For a long time I didn’t think that I could write fiction. I am a very good academic writer, but I just didn’t think the skills would translate. (In my pre-author life, I earned a PhD in History.)
After I didn’t get an academic job, I decided to try my hand at writing fiction. My first book was deeply flawed from a craft perspective, but I proved to myself that I could finish a story and that was a victory.
I didn’t quite know how to fix that book, so I wrote another one—my first middle grade. I did some revisions with critique partners, but I knew it still needed work.
Working with Gail was a total game-changer for me. She believed in my writing, but she also pushed me to get better. Getting a detailed edit letter from her was inspiring. She also came up with a solution to the pacing problem that had been plaguing me throughout the entire process.
While I was finishing up revising that book, I started working on a new one. That was Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! (Dial, 2020) I shared it with Gail, and she encouraged me to submit it to Pitch Wars. That was in 2017.
Then I was selected by Mike Grosso as a mentee. He was fantastic to work with and gave me really great notes for revision. It was also great to connect to other mentees who were at a similar place in the publication journey.
As I improved my writing, I read a ton in the categories I wanted to write. I also pursued several podcasts and books related to writing. Some of my favorites are Writing Excuses and Lisa Cron‘s Story Genius (Ten Speed Press, 2016).
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
I knew from the very beginning that I wanted Vivy to be an epistolary novel. It just felt right to me and connected to the themes I wanted to explore.
However, there are certain challenges with an epistolary book. My early drafts were very short because I didn’t go into enough detail about what happened during many scenes. This was realistic in some ways—most people today don’t write detailed letters or emails describing their lives. However, this meant that readers weren’t fully immersed in Vivy’s story.
At Mike’s suggestion I added more depth to the scenes. This meant the letters are a little less realistic, but the benefits far outweigh that.
Vivy writes her letters to VJ Capello, a (fictitious) Major League Baseball pitcher. Early on in the book, he starts responding to her and their relationship is critical. However, figuring out what to do with VJ was a challenge. It’s not typical to have an adult point-of-view in middle-grade, yet VJ’s letters are probably around 30 percent of the book. I wanted him to be a fully realized character with his own arc. He couldn’t exist just to be a sounding board for Vivy. At the same time, the book still had to be Vivy’s story and the relationship between them needed to be appropriate.
Striking that balance required a lot of work and revisions. In some versions, he was just too mean. I needed him to be flawed enough to be real yet still an entirely appropriate mentor figure for Vivy.
What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?
One of the best moments so far was definitely looking at the wonderful book cover and then getting the advanced reader copies in the mail. That really made the book’s publication real to me. Going into a bookstore and seeing my books on display was also fantastic. I had a wonderful book launch event with many of my friends and family members present.
In terms of worst moments: Although participating in Pitch Wars was and is a great experience for me, the agent showcase was stressful. I kept refreshing my page and stressing out that I didn’t have as much agent requests as I wanted.
After the showcase, a lot of my fellow mentees signed with agents immediately, and that brought up ugly feelings of jealousy. It can be hard not to feel as though your work just isn’t as good and that you missed your chance. That’s really silly, destructive thinking, and I ended up signing with my agent about two and a half months after Pitch Wars ended. But it can sometimes be easy to fall into an illogical thought pattern in a high-intensity environment.
As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your perspective bring to your story?
Although there are an increasing number of #ownvoices autistic books, there still aren’t as many as I’d like. Many books with autistic characters rely on tired stereotypes. Even non-#ownvoices books that are well-done sometimes just don’t feel completely authentic to me.
I think as an autistic writer I was able to write a character that felt authentic and non-stereotypical (or so I am told). I also think I was able to bring attention to issues that are often overlooked in literature. So many people think being autistic is just about struggling with social skills, but that’s really an incredibly limited perspective of what the disability actually is. And a lot of issues arise because of other people’s ableism, which I wanted to highlight in my book.
I also wanted to make Vivy Jewish. I think many of the autistic characters I’ve seen in books tend to be white, Christian, and usually boys. That isn’t representative of my experience and so many other people that I know. I was thrilled when PJ Our Way, a Jewish book program, awarded the book an Author Incentive Award because I worked to include more Jewish-specific content.
Arianne Costner lives in the middle of the desert with her husband and three children. She is a former English teacher who believes that writers should crack up at their own jokes.
When she isn’t writing, she can be found playing the piano and composing music. Her favorite kind of potato is the tater tot, with mashed potatoes coming in close second—as long as they’re not gluey.
Sarah Kapit is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Her first novel, Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! was published by Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in 2020. The novel received three starred trade reviews. Her second novel, The Many Mysteries of The Finkel Family, is coming from Dial in spring of 2021. In her work, Sarah enjoys exploring disability, family, and Jewish identity.
Currently, Sarah also works as a freelance writer in content marketing and educational articles. In Sarah’s past life, she earned a PhD in History from the University of California, Los Angeles. Currently, she lives with her partner (and goofy orange cat) in Bellevue, Washington. She serves as chairperson for the Association for Autistic Community.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.