by P.J. McIlvane
(note: these are selected excerpts from a longer interview that appears in the January edition of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers)
If your destiny is to write, you usually find a way to do it, even though you might take a couple of detours down life’s Yellow Brick Road along the way. Debut middle grade author Will Taylor (Maggie and Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort, Harper Collins, 2018) is a sterling example of following one’s muse. Will’s enthusiasm and passion for his craft and life is infectious.
PJ McIlvaine: You have quite a colorful resume, per your bio: “a reader, writer, bee enthusiast, and former trapeze flailer.” And let’s not forget the years playing the French Horn and how much you’re obsessed with bees. How did you evolve from ex-trapeze artist to middle grade author?
Will Taylor: I should start by saying I’m a former trapeze flailer, not artist. I did static trapeze for three years or so, but was never good enough to perform for money or suchlike. Noooowhere near good enough. The studio I went to had tons of performance opportunities for date nights and that sort of thing, though, so I did get to do a duo routine to Heavy in Your Arms by Florence + The Machine and solos to We Belong Together by Mariah Carey and Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid before shoulder troubles grounded me. Videos of all these can be found somewhere on the Internet and I refuse to tell you where 😉
I do miss trapeze dearly. Those were a good three years. As for the rest, I left the French Horn behind in college, and started collecting bee tattoos when I graduated, but writing for kids was always lurking in the background, waiting for me to notice it while I went about my random day jobs. Then in my late twenties I finally realized reading and writing middle grade were my real, actual, forget-what-you-think-you’re-supposed-to-do-and-be-honest favorite things ever, and I sat down with a notebook and got started.
PJ: How did you get the idea for your debut novel Maggie and Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort? How long did it take you to write it, and how did you map out the sequel?
WT: The idea popped almost fully formed into my head one day, or at least the image of kids with linked up forts did. (I know, that’s the worst answer.) I’ve realized since that it owes a partial debt to the Hyperion sci-fi series by Dan Simmons, in which portals called “farcasters” let rich people have houses where each room is physically on a different planet. I loved that image when I read those books, and the linked up pillow forts in my book are similar. They allow kids to move from fort to fort around town, without, as far as their parents know, ever leaving home. Commence shenanigans.
The timeline question gets messy. The short answer is three years, but this book has been rewritten start to finish many, many times during those years. Blank page, start from scratch rewrites. The kind that require ice cream.
I started the first version in the fall of 2013. It was called Peacock Apocalypse and mercifully died a quick death after the first draft. (It was so, so bad. But it did let me sort out the rules of fort linking, which made starting over easier.)
The next version was called Fortress, and was about a boy called Mark who had bully troubles. I finished it in five months and got it ready for querying, then got some very direct notes from my beta readers—most of which were the word NO—so I started over on a brand new draft called Camp Sofa Fort in the summer of 2014. That became the draft that got me an R&R (revise and resubmit), and after several more rewrites, the complete removal of three main characters, and a switch to a female protagonist named Maggie, it got me my agent. One more heavy rewrite after that it sold. Which of course meant a whole new world of rewrites with my editor. And that meant more delicious ice cream.
I feel like it’s important to mention that I’d been writing with the intention of getting published for three years before starting this project. Fortress was the fourth full-length book I’d written, and I’d already shopped one book around to agents with no success. Not to say that I had much more of an idea what I was doing with the pillow fort idea, but at least I had my feet under me a bit.
Wait, what was the sequel question? How did I map out the sequel?
Hahahaha! Yesss…how did I…do that thing I’m not still totally doing…*grabs ice cream and runs away*
PJ: What is your writing process like? Do you outline or are you a pantster?
WT: Ohhh, I never know how to answer this question. I tend to think in scenes more than plots, so I just hork them up on the page as soon as they show up in my head. (Scrivener has been a lifesaver. I can slap up scenes or snippets or even just a few lines and move it all around later until it looks like a book. I always draft in Scrivener and edit in Word.)
Does that make me a pantster? I do need to know what the book’s about, in that “what emotional touch or heart moment or relationship aspect are we playing with, here?” way. Otherwise it’s just a big collection of scenes and a skeleton with no pulse. And I do like knowing the ending ahead of time. But I try not to force an outline on my plot or characters. That’s usually a path to a really bad story, as my first three books can definitely demonstrate.
PJ: If you could give your younger self some writing advice or tips, what would it be?
WT: Ooo, “Stop trying to impress anyone!” It never, ever works. That silly, chatty, totally embarrassing voice you use sometimes when you’re telling a funny story? Yeah, start there.
Also, make a list of anything and everything that seriously, truly, legit tugs at your heartstrings and tape it up by your computer. Keep reminding yourself of those things. Every time your heart sits up and takes notice of something add it to the list. Let those things into your writing.
PJ: Where do you see yourself, writing-wise, five years from now?
WT: Okay, late 2021… The pillow fort books will be out, and I’d love to have at least two more middle grades out or in the works. Also at least two picture books, which hold a massive place in my heart. But they take longer.
I guess I just want to be doing the writer thing, you know? I can’t WAIT to get to do school visits and talk about books and hopefully help kids feel more confident playing with writing and creating books themselves. I’d love to go around to a few conferences and be on a panel someday.
As for the writing, I hope my first drafts get better, or at least more coherent. Writing is editing, as the saying goes, but I wouldn’t mind not having to do quite so much of it for every project. I also hope my writing is looser and more fun, and I hope more of those heartstring items are making their way onto every page. That’d be the good kind of shiny.
Tags: author interview, middle grade