Kidlit Interview with Amy Makechnie

DANNA ZEIGER: As a homeschooling mama of three young kids, the opportunity to read for myself is precious! When I found myself devouring an entire book (Ten Thousand Tries) in a single day, I needed to hear more from the magician who had crafted this truly un-put-downable book with resonating characters. Slight spoiler alert: I definitely cried at the end.

Diving into middle grade writing (from mainly picture book writing) myself, I reached out to Amy with burning writing questions, and she kindly agreed to chat. For anyone broaching novel-writing, this interview is for you!

DZ: Can you tell me a little about your writing journey and how you came to write (fabulous, gripping, and heart-wrenching) children’s books? Was this always the plan? And, do you plan to stick to MG?

AMY MAKECHNIE: Well, thank you for that set-up! I so appreciate the descriptive adjectives. I have always loved reading, writing, and listening to my mother’s delightful storytelling. At the age of ten I published my first piece of journalism: a family newsletter that required spying on my siblings and typing it up (on my typewriter!) But because of my huge interest in sports and athletics, I was a science major in college, with an English minor. After marrying and moving to New Hampshire, I began teaching Anatomy and Physiology, had four children in eight years, and then…writing really began calling my name.

I started a blog and wrote articles for local magazines and online parenting sites, and on a whim – a book! I wrote during nap times, queried for years, and FINALLY found Zoe Sandler, my wonderful literary agent. It took me well into adulthood to find “my calling,” but I’ll write for the rest of my life. 

My first published novel, THE UNFORGETTABLE GUINEVERE ST CLAIR was actually written for adults. It was only after a reader suggested it would be a great middle grade book (my protagonist is 11), that I switched it up. I had to cut thousands of words and a lot of science and facts about the brain, but it worked. Middle grade is my wheelhouse, though I also have ambitions to write in many other genres.

DZ: As a mom, how do you balance the writing with the rest of mom-life? Especially since writing a novel often needs immersion into that world, how do you find the time? Do you have a writing routine? Writing a book like Ten Thousand Tries is probably an emotional journey, so how do you make the switch between author and mom/other roles every day?

AM: Oh, that elusive word, balance.

When my kids were young, I wrote down one very simple writing goal every day: “write one hour.” Sometimes that would turn into two hours, sometimes only fifteen minutes, and other times it just didn’t happen, but that was the goal. To paraphrase James Clear of ATOMIC HABITS, “1% better” is how dreams come true – including writing a book.

As a woman totally immersed in family life, it’s important for me to have what writer Dani Shapiro calls “the third thing” that has nothing to do with home and family – something that’s just yours. Writing is that thing for me. My kids are older and I have a lot more writing hours, but I still include “write one hour” in my planner each week day. 

As for constantly switching from mother to writer and back to mother, it can be difficult to disengage from either, but women are adept at this – switching up roles, wearing many hats, and doing many things well!

DZ: What is your ideation process like? Do you run ideas by your agent, critique partners, or do you rely on your own gut instinct for which idea to pursue and write next? Have any of your books been ‘shelved’?

AM: I’m definitely a gut instinct type of writer, and most of my ideas are pulled from personal experience. When I get really excited about an idea for a book, I’ll begin writing down ideas on random pieces of paper, which eventually become full paragraphs at the computer. When the idea just won’t leave me, I know I have something. 

For the last decade, I’ve started nearly every novel in November because I like the structure of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and the goal of writing 1667 words a day. By the end of the month you have a really bad 50,000 word novel – but it’s a novel! 

As for books getting shelved – all the time. I just had a very disappointing email from my editor who doesn’t see a way forward with my current idea. But I believe in writing what you’re passionate about writing and finding a way forward, even when no one else can see your vision.

DZ: What was your writing/editing process like for Ten Thousand Tries (TTT)? Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, how long did it take you to write TTT, and then to edit it? Did you write the whole novel first, then revise chapter-by-chapter, or did you write each chapter iteratively?  If so, how do you know when a chapter is complete? Are there any craft books that have guided you that you would recommend to aspiring writers?

AM:TTT was a book my editor sent back to me several times before finally acquiring it. It took years to write and rewrite, and convince my editor and publishing house to take this book! 

I’m both a plotter and pantser, meaning I have a rough idea and usually know my ending, but for the first draft, I write really fast and quite recklessly, with very little idea of the messy middle. With each draft, I’ll add chapters, get to know my characters better, and work on the plot. When I think I have a pretty good draft, I’ll show it to my first two readers (my sister and a writing friend). This initial process can take well over a year.

I know when a chapter is done when it’s not too long and it leaves the reader with some finality – but also wanting to turn the page. I have a lot of favorite writing books but here are three: Writing Irresistible KidLit by Mary Kole, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, and Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody.

DZ: I understand that your friend Eric’s experience with ALS inspired this story. I must say… certain scenes, like when Golden’s dad is flying down the hill in the bike, had me at the edge of my seat and terrified that he would fall, or worse! Have you spoken with others living with ALS? How did you test whether such imagined scenarios, scenes, or situations could be realistic? What sort of research on the biology/experience of having ALS did you do?

AM: Eric is the only person I’ve known with ALS, and I doubt I ever would have written about this subject without personal experience. It helped that I have a science background, and Eric’s wife, Heide, is a biologist. I was able to spend a lot of time with the family before and during his time living with the disease. After his diagnosis, we’d often go for walks – me walking and Eric in his motorized wheelchair. I was one of many people who had the privilege (and it really was a privilege) to help care for a dear friend in his last year of life. 

Caring included making smoothies, putting the straw to Eric’s lips, using the suction when it became hard to swallow, and helping him in the bathroom. It was so difficult but also an amazing gift to see how graceful he was about losing all motor function. He was excited to know I wanted to write about the subject, and I like to think he would have loved this book. Because of my experience, it wasn’t hard to write the scenes in terms of realism, though it certainly was emotional. My last reader was Heide, and when she gave the green light, I knew that what we had was true and real and okay to put into the world.

DZ: I loved “the squirrels” – and what a hilarious and sweet bunch all of the siblings were! I also felt both awed by, and sad for, Golden as his relationship changed and he needed to parent his youngest siblings. What inspired you to create such different relationship dynamics in general (siblings, friendships for a teen boy, etc.) when you can’t have experienced them all yourself? People say to, ‘write what you know’ and yet, you must be drawing from experiences other than your own… in the most genuine, believable way, with characters that keep resonating with me, the reader, long after I’ve put your book down. How do you do this magic?

AM: Thank you! It’s not easy to get inside a character’s head, but I find that part the most fun. I grew up in a big family, have four children, have been a teacher and coach for 25+ years – children are my world. But it does take a lot of time to get to know a specific character – even when you’ve created them! I do write what I know, but also what I observe and what I imagine. When it’s not landing right, you’ll feel it, or your first readers will. 

Golden and “the squirrels” are like real people to me because I’ve spent so much time with them, putting them in situations in which they have to respond. I know what they look like and act like, and can see them in their house and school settings. And then characters start to behave in ways you might not have anticipated, which is just wild because didn’t I make them up? That’s the really fun thing about writing though. It’s constantly surprising and if you stick with it long enough, the story and the characters show up. To hear that a character has made a real impression on someone feels so rewarding. 

DZ: Please share your upcoming projects and announcements!

AM: My third book is coming June 20, 2023! It’s called THE MCNIFFICENTS and tells the story of six rambunctious children and their nanny (who happens to be a miniature schnauzer). It’s funny, but also might cause you to shed a tear or two 🙂 It’s different from my first two books in that it’s geared toward a younger reader (grades 3-7), and doesn’t have the human body/anatomy slant, but it still has a lot of heart and a lot of character growth! I’ve just painted a story map of their world as a preorder bonus, which was very fun.

Amy Makechnie is the author of the critically acclaimed middle grade novels The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair and Ten Thousand Tries. Her third novel, The McNifficents is coming June 2023. She lives in New Hampshire with her family. Stay in touch with Amy by subscribing to her newsletter at amymakechnie.com, and Instagram @amymakechnie.

16 comments

  1. Amy and Danna, thank you for an inspiring interview. amy your process is hilarious: surround yourself with kids, have a bunch of your own, then squeeze in writing time every day. Seriously, though, your tips about resources and the story of how you develop your work, including NaNoWriMo, are valuable. I wish you success!

    Liked by 1 person

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