By Laura Sibson
Last fall, Christine Kendall and I kept running into one another at book festivals in and around the Philadelphia area. Finally, I decided I needed to learn more about this delightful West Philly author so I’ve invited her to take part in our exploration of the writing process.
Thank you so much for joining us today to talk about your writing process and the ways it’s evolved. Your newest novel is full of Philly love and positive body image messages and wonderful intergenerational family dynamics. At the same time, it’s a story about friendships and learning how to speak up about important topics. For those who haven’t yet read the book, could you tell us about The True Definition of Neva Beane (Scholastic, 2020)?
The True Definition of Neva Beane is the story of a twelve-year-old girl’s political awakening as she comes to grips with the changes taking place in her pre-adolescent body and struggles to regain the confidence she had as a younger child. The book isn’t autobiographical but I did write one important scene, the inciting incident which I call “the mirror scene,” based on something that happened to me.
I was a young girl when the original “Star Trek” came on TV. I admired all of the characters on the show, but I adored Lieutenant Uhura, Communications Officer aboard the USS Enterprise. I liked everything about her–the way she always kept her cool no matter what was happening, the way she was so sophisticated and smart. And, of course, I loved the black leather boots. But, I was also intrigued by Lieutenant Uhura’s bustline. That’s because my body was changing and I had just started wearing a bra.
I loved that bra so much. I loved it as much as I loved tearing down the street on my pink bike. That’s really saying something ‘cause I was fabulous on that bike. I was fascinated by my body, and I wanted to admire myself several times a day. Well, long story short, one of my brothers saw me posing in front of the mirror and nearly died laughing. Needless to say, I was humiliated. I think lots of kids have experienced moments like that, and I wanted them to know there’s no shame in acknowledging your own beauty.
I also wanted to explore how young teens, especially girls, are seen by others and how those notions may or may not click with how they see themselves.
So, the recollection of how it felt to be seen by someone in a personal moment was the inspiration for the book. I began writing and discovered through research that many pre-adolescent girls suffer from a loss of confidence at the onset of puberty much more so than boys. This can happen even when, like Neva, they know they’re smart and beautiful. They spend a lot of time ruminating about what could go wrong in any given situation instead of taking action. And, sadly, the research shows these feelings of insecurity can last through adulthood if girls don’t have opportunities to take risks and to fail. They need to do that because that’s how resilience is developed.
In the book, Neva’s musician parents go on tour in Europe for the summer and leave her and her brother at home with their very traditional grandparents. There’s a lot of intergenerational conflict with Neva paying very close attention to words and how they’re used. She sees that words can be used to wound or to elevate. In the end she finds the right words to define herself.
Your use of a powerful personal moment lends so much power to Neva’s story. Many authors say the process for writing each book is often different from the last. This has been true for me as well. How has the process of creating your most recent project differed from your previous projects?
I consider my two books Riding Chance (Scholastic, 2016) and The True Definition of Neva Beane to be companion novels, but the process for writing each book was very different.
Riding Chance is fiction but it was inspired by a real mentoring program in Philadelphia that pairs city kids with horses. I heard about the program on NPR and was totally blown away by the fact that these kids won the US Polo Association’s Open Nationals back in 2011.
I hadn’t planned to write a novel. I didn’t even know I could write a novel, but I was moved by what these kids were doing. I couldn’t get it out of my mind so I put my picture book manuscripts aside and jumped into writing a novel.
Trust me when I say there were moments when I didn’t think I was going to make it to the other side. I, somehow, managed to complete a first draft but then I realized I needed to do a lot more research in order to really bring the world of the story—horseback riding, the smell of the stables, the thrill of the game of polo—to life. I pantsed my way through the entire writing process and vowed never to throw myself into a project so recklessly again.
In terms of Neva Beane, the memory of my own “mirror scene” was still rattling around in my brain. I wrote a brief personal essay about it and realized there was a lot more to say about the experience. That’s what led me to create the character of Neva and to write her story. But, this time, instead of pantsing I created a loose outline of the story before putting anything on the page. ‘
I still wanted to give my protagonist room to breathe so I told myself the outline was not set in stone. I knew the story would change and it did. But having spent more time getting to know my protagonist and mapping out a beginning, middle, and end definitely helped alleviate a lot of the stress that I’d experienced in getting through an initial draft of my first book.
I don’t consider myself an outliner at this point. I follow more of a hybrid model so I can still enjoy the fun that comes along with some measure of reckless abandon.
Each time I begin a project, I challenge myself on some level whether it’s by including flashbacks or creating an interlocking grief narrative. In what ways did your latest project challenge you and what did you learn from a writing craft standpoint?
I can’t say that I intentionally set out to create challenges for myself, but there were many opportunities to try new things with the second novel. The tone of the book is different and it’s geared toward a younger age group.
I think I had more fun with the second novel because, unlike with the first book, I knew I could write one. Having that knowledge was freeing. For instance, Neva Beane is a wordsmith so I thought it would be interesting to play with words throughout the book. One way I did that was to select a word to name each of the chapters instead of just numbering them. But, as you can imagine, once I started naming the chapters I realized the significance of the headings. Besides setting the scene for the action in each chapter they also needed to tell a story on their own. Some of the chapter headings came easily but others were a real challenge. At one point I even considered giving up on the whole idea, but I’m glad I didn’t.
The chapter headings were a clever way to weave in one of the themes of the book. I’m so glad you didn’t give up on them! There is an abundance of professional advice available to writers from guidance on developing craft elements to suggestions on how to avoid distractions. If you turn to a particular craft book or approach (e.g., David Macinnis Gill’s sticky-note plotting or the Pomodoro method) during your drafting process, would you share with us what you use and how it’s helpful to you?
I’m always on the look-out for good craft programs and, boy, did I hit the jackpot when I went to a Cheryl B. Klein masterclass on plotting and structure. I took her class pretty early on in my writing career after I had just completed the first draft of Riding Chance. I knew the book had a unique voice and an inspiring story, but I had no clue as to how to proceed.
Cheryl’s class covered many elements of novel writing but the most important thing I learned was how to bookmap. Specifically, how to analyze a manuscript, scene-by-scene, to identify what action is taking place, where and when the action is happening, what characters are involved, and what change takes place by the end of the scene. Yes, it is a lot of work. But, once you’ve done a bookmap you have the skeleton of your entire book in compact form.
I’ve bookmapped both of my novels and the process enables me to more clearly see my protagonists’ character arcs, dropped plot lines, mistakes in the story’s chronology, etc. You don’t need anything fancy to create a bookmap. I simply create a word document but you can use a spreadsheet, index cards, or whatever works best for you.
Cheryl Klein is currently an Editorial Director with Lee & Low Books. I highly recommend her book, The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.) She covers bookmapping and tons of other interesting topics like the fundamentals of voice and writing outside your groundwork.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. Thanks to your advice, I’ve just started bookmapping my current project. Best of luck to you on your next book!
Christine Kendall grew up in a family of artists, the fourth of six children, where everyone studied the piano along with one other instrument. She still feels sorry for the neighbors. They woke up one morning and found themselves living next door to a flute, two clarinets, a French horn, a cello, a set of drums, and always, always somebody on the piano. Christine wasn’t any good on the piano or the clarinet but she loved writing.
She is the author of the award-winning novel, Riding Chance, which was nominated for a NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens. Her Second novel, The True Definition of Neva Beane, was published by Scholastic in the fall of 2020. Christine’s short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals.
After a career in undergraduate counseling, Laura Sibson pursued an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not writing, you can find her running the streets of her Philadelphia neighborhood or hiking with her dog. She teaches creative writing at Arcadia University and at the Highlights Foundation; she also leads creative writing workshops for middle schoolers, teens and adults. Sibson is the author of young adult novels The Art of Breaking Things and Edie In Between.