Stumbling Into Story

When I visit schools, I always tell kids about my writing process, and I always say that I’m a plotter: I won’t start writing a book until I know exactly what happens at the beginning, what happens at the end, and a number of details about the scenes in between. I tell kids that at some point early in the drafting process–certainly no more than halfway through the first draft–I outline my story. I tell kids that I can’t sit down, stare at a blank page, and start typing away without knowing what will happen to my characters on that page.

It turns out, though, that I haven’t been telling the complete truth. Not that I’m a liar! The process I’ve just described is, in fact, how I wrote my first four books, and it’s how I’m writing the story I’m working on right now. But that’s not at all how I wrote my upcoming book, THE DOOR AT THE END OF THE WORLD.

It was the middle of 2016. I’d just finished copyedits for THE WORLD’S GREATEST DETECTIVE. My daughter was an infant; I was intensely sleep-deprived and covered in spit-up. I owed my editor a book that was going to be uncomfortably late. And when I finally sat down to begin working on the middle grade fantasy I’d been thinking about for a year or two, I only had to write one page before I knew: the book was not going to work. The idea didn’t excite me. The words weren’t flowing. I wasn’t having fun. This was not the story I needed or wanted to tell.

Now, I can’t remember the exact details, but I think that around this time, I talked with my agent, Sarah. It might have been months earlier; all time runs together when you’re sleep-deprived and covered in spit-up. Anyway, Sarah asked if I had any book ideas in the pipeline, and I told her the truth: I only have one idea at a time. I’m not a writer who has a million stories bubbling up in her brain, just begging to be told. I get passionately excited about one story, and I write it (or try to), and then when it’s at the end of its life cycle (ideally a published book, but sometimes an abandoned computer file stuffed into a folder I’ve optimistically called “Incubating Projects”), I hope that somewhere in my imagination, a green shoot for one more story will sprout. It feels a lot like faith.

But I also told Sarah that I can sometimes prompt these ideas to sprout by assigning a tiny, unconscious part of my brain to work on them. And when the book I’d been planning for a couple years fizzled after only one page, that’s what I knew I had to do. Actually, this time, I needed to assign a much larger and more conscious part of my brain to come up with a new idea. Forget tiny story sprouts that self-seed as if by magic; I needed to visit a story nursery, buy a mature story hosta, and stick that thing in the ground ASAP. “I need a new idea!” I told my husband. “I need a new idea!” I told my baby. “I’m going to take a shower.”

I took a shower.

If you are ever stuck in your creative life, you should take a shower.

(You should shower for other reasons as well, of course.)

Anyway, by the time I got out of the shower, my new story idea had announced itself.

It was a distant relative of the story that hadn’t worked, which had been about a girl who travels to a place so remote that she thinks it’s the end of the world. In the shower, I realized: what if I wrote a fantasy novel about the literal end of the world? The place where our world, the real world, bumps into the next world over? And what if there was a door between the two worlds? You’d need someone to guard the door, of course, or you’d have people constantly stumbling from one world to the next without understanding what they were doing. You’d need a Gatekeeper. And a Gatekeeper’s assistant, a girl who’s trying to learn the ropes….

That was pretty much all I knew after my shower. But I also had a strong sense that this idea was going to work. It felt like a book that would be a joy to write–if only I could figure out what happened next.

I never outlined; I never had the time. When I sat down to write each morning, I didn’t know much about what I’d write that day. I certainly didn’t know what I’d write the next day. For a plotter like me, it should have been terrifying. But this was the book I wanted and needed to write, so I kept on going. And, mostly, it was a sheer delight. When I got to the end of my first draft, despite a few wrong turns, I could tell: it was a book-shaped thing. Somehow, stumbling from blank page to blank page without a map or a flashlight, I’d found my way through the story.

(Then I ended up completely rewriting a good 40% of the book in revisions. But that always happens!)

Now, a couple years later, I can share that THE DOOR AT THE END OF THE WORLD will be published by the crackerjack team at HarperCollins next spring, in April of 2019. I can’t wait for you all to read it. And I really can’t wait to share the cover art with you, so I’ll be posting it here on my website on Monday morning! Stay tuned….

Who Are We Writing About? Who Are We Writing For?

#KidlitWomen logoThis post is part of the #kidlitwomen initiative. We’re celebrating Women’s History Month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community. Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

I’ve always loved snuggling up with a good book, and now that I’m a mom to a toddler, I love it even more. There’s not much I can think of that’s nicer than letting my daughter crawl into my lap, drawing a blanket around us both, and reading stories together. When we point at objects we recognize in the illustrations, talk about the characters, and recite our favorite lines from memory, I hope I’m teaching my daughter to love books just as much as I do.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if she’s learning unintended lessons from the books we share. In more than a few of the stories we’ve read together, most of the characters are male. Sometimes they’re all male. In one recently published book we love about animals at a zoo, every character in the book—animal and human—is identified in the text with male pronouns. The first time we read that book together, I was genuinely surprised it hadn’t been written decades ago. None of us live in an entirely male world. There are women in our lives, whether they’re our mothers, siblings, children, friends, colleagues, mentors, or enemies. There are genderqueer and nonbinary people in our lives, too. In a world as diverse as ours, if you write a book in which the vast majority of characters are male, you are making a political statement whether or not you intend to.

And most of us don’t intend to. All of us who’ve been raised in American culture have been taught—implicitly if not explicitly—that the “default” gender is male. This is a bias that anyone of any gender can hold. I notice it in my own thinking constantly: when I’m reading wordless picture books with my daughter and we’re pointing out the animals in the illustrations, I have to consciously remind myself not to call them all “him.” Holding this bias doesn’t make me a bad feminist, a bad writer, or a bad person; it’s a reflection of the culture I’ve grown up in, and it makes me want to work as hard as possible to change that culture for today’s and tomorrow’s readers.

If you’re a writer who feels the same way, I hope you’ll join me in making a conscious effort to notice the characters who populate our fiction. Take a close look at your cast: not just the protagonists, but also the people wandering around in the background of your story. If you’ve written a book with a fantastic female protagonist surrounded mostly by men, you have more work to do. If your only female characters are love interests, or if they’re described only in terms of their relationship to the men in the story, you have more work to do. If you’ve written a book full of characters who hew to gender stereotypes, you have more work to do. If you describe a strong, smart, brave female character as being “not like other girls,” you have more work to do. Challenge yourself to introduce a non-male character with a speaking role in the first chapter of every book you write. Challenge yourself to write only books that pass the Bechdel test. If a character’s gender isn’t an important part of their role in your story, don’t automatically make that character male. Remember that not everyone identifies as male or female; that gender doesn’t determine a person’s interests, skills, or qualities; and that kids of all genders will be reading your stories and learning unintended lessons from them. I’m doing this tough work right alongside you. Let’s help one another change the default.

A New Book in 2017

One of my favorite parts of being a writer is getting mail from readers, and one question that a lot of readers have been asking lately is whether there will be any more books in the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series. I always feel a little sad when I reply that THE BUCCANEERS’ CODE is the final book about Hilary, the gargoyle, and their friends… at least for now. But I hope you’ll be as excited as I am that I have a brand-new book coming out next May, full of new characters, new mysteries, and new adventures. It’s a detective story, sort of an homage to some of my favorite murder mystery tales by authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Ellen Raskin. It’s called THE WORLD’S GREATEST DETECTIVE. I’ve been working on it for a long time now, but today I’m finally allowed to share the cover and jacket copy with you!

Here is the gorgeous cover, illustrated by artist Júlia Sardà:


And here’s what the story is all about:

By the end of our time together, someone in this house will be rich. Someone will be the World’s Greatest Detective. And someone, well, someone might be dead.

Detectives’ Row is full of talented investigators, but Toby Montrose isn’t one of them. He’s only an assistant at his uncle’s crime-solving business, and he’s not sure he’s even very good at that. But he sees his chance to prove he could be by entering Hugh Abernathy’s crime-solving contest in his uncle’s place.

Toby’s friend Ivy is the best detective around—or at least she thinks so. But she can’t show off her sleuthing skills and take the title because she’s not allowed to join the investigators’ ranks. Even though the competition is being held at her house.

Then a detective is found murdered before the games begin and his death becomes the World’s Greatest Mystery. And Toby and Ivy may be the only two who can crack the case.

In Caroline Carlson’s newest novel, hilarity and hijinks abound as the greatest detectives around try to solve the greatest mystery they’ve ever come across.

THE WORLD’S GREATEST DETECTIVE will be on sale in May 2017, and I can’t wait to share it with you! Right now, you can preorder it from your favorite bookstore or add it on Goodreads.

A Piratical Finale: THE BUCCANEERS’ CODE

Hi there! It’s been a long winter already for a lot of us in the northeast, and I’ve been spending the chilly days deep in the drafts of a new book. But I’m told that spring will be here eventually, and then summer, and after THAT…well, naturally, it will be pirate season.

The third and final installment in the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy is called THE BUCCANEERS’ CODE, and it’ll be available for you to read in September of this year. I had a ridiculous amount of fun writing this book, taking Hilary and the gargoyle to new parts of the kingdom, bringing back old characters and introducing a few new ones, and ending the series in a way that feels right to me–with plenty of jokes, two big ocean battles, a little romance, a lot of gargoyle attitude, good etiquette, new career directions for some old friends, and a pitcher of molasses. I hope you’ll like it, too.

Here’s the official synopsis:

Hilary Westfield is a freelance pirate now. When Captain Blacktooth showed his entirely dishonorable side by teaming up with the Mutineers and threatening the kingdom, Hilary forfeited her sword and hoped that the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates would one day secure a new leader—an honorable one (or very nearly).

Hilary’s devoted crew—including the talking gargoyle—believes she’s the perfect person for the job, so she picks up her sword again and challenges Captain Blacktooth and his villainous friends to a High Seas battle. If she wins, Hilary will become the new president of the League. If she loses? She’ll perish or, at best, she’ll be forced to spend the rest of her days at the Pestilent Home for Foul-Tempered Pirates while the Mutineers steal all the kingdom’s magic. To gather supporters, Hilary and her crew set sail on a quest that may or may not involve fearsome pirates, even more fearsome finishing school girls, and . . . chickens.

Caroline Carlson returns once again to the world of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates in the conclusion to this fantastically funny and adventure-filled series.

And here is the cover! I adore it. It’s illustrated once again by the brilliant Petur Antonsson and designed by one of my many heroes at HarperCollins, Amy Ryan:

VNHLP3 hc c

I’m really excited that this scene (from Chapter 3) was the one chosen for the cover, since it was one of the scenes that popped into my head fully formed when I first came up with the idea for this book. You can see that the pirates are ON LAND this time–in Gunpowder Square, to be precise. (Check out the Maps store on the left and the Traps store on the right! I just noticed them as I was writing this blog post.)

THE BUCCANEERS’ CODE goes on sale in the US on September 8th, 2015, but you can pre-order it now from the usual sources (B&N, Indigo, Amazon, or your favorite local bookstore).



Official VNHLP Statement Regarding Talk Like A Pirate Day

Ahoy, and greetings from the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates!

It has come to the League’s attention that once a year, on the nineteenth of September, landlubbers around the world are abandonin’ their usual turns of phrase and adoptin’ the language of pirates. When the League first heard of this phenomenon, called “Talk Like a Pirate Day” in landlubber-speak, we were thoroughly baffled. Why talk like a pirate for one day when ye could talk like a pirate for the rest of yer life?

After takin’ a vote ‘round the groggery, however, we at the VNHLP have decided to issue our hearty endorsement of Talk Like a Pirate Day. Though we be the most fearsome buccaneers on the High Seas, not a soul has ever arranged a holiday in our honor before, and we admit to bein’ flattered.

At the VNHLP, we believe in forgin’ cross-cultural connections, and we hope that exposin’ more folks to our language will encourage communication between pirates and landlubbers. As it is, we find yer manner of speech to be rather confusin’. Landlubbers have far too many words for things: They say, “Good morning,” “Goodbye,” “Congratulations!” and “Have ye seen me parrot?” but any true pirate knows that all these thoughts—and hundreds more—can be conveyed through a good strong, “Arr!”

Once landlubbers learn how handy and economical it is to talk like a pirate, they’re sure to be tempted by a life of adventure on the High Seas. If ye find that ye simply can’t stop talkin’ like a pirate after the nineteenth of September has passed, please remember that the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates is currently acceptin’ applications for our Piracy Apprenticeship Program.

Arr!, and best wishes,

Hugo St. Augustine

VNHLP Community Outreach Coordinator