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Brittany Hughes graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor's degree in Creative Writing, and subsequently earned a Masters in Teaching. She recently spent two years living in the Midwest, a landscape that inspired the setting of her novel, "Breaking Clay." ... [more]

As a kid, A.L. Torres fell in love with fantastic stories of worlds beyond our own such as "Animal Farm," "On the Beach" and "Metamorphosis." More recently, he's added "The Giver," "The Road" and "Hunger Games" as some of his favorites, ... [more]

Robert Steedman is a proud native New Yorker, receiving his B.A. in Art History from State University of New York at Geneseo and an M.S. Ed. in Art Education from Nazareth College. His first YA manuscript, FALLING, took First Place ... [more]

Janet Zupan earned her M.F.A. from the University of Montana in 1996. Her work appears in the collection, MONTANA WOMEN WRITERS: A GEOGRAPHY OF THE HEART (Far Country) ... [more]


• The Six Act Two-Goal Novel

• Maximizing Opps For Verve

• A Dose of Antagonism

• Guide to Best Comparables

• Crossing the Epiphany Line

• Novel Coverage Counts

• Storyboarding Scenes

• Sympathy Factors in Hook

• Third Person Point of View

Algonkian Emerging Author Interviews            More Emerging Author Interviews

A Talk With Janet Zupan About Her Writing Life and Novel

GENRE: Middle Grade
WORDS: 60,000+

Janet Zupan earned her M.F.A. (Creative Writing/Poetry) from the University of Montana in 1996. Her poems have appeared in various journals, including Apple Valley Review and Talking River Review and her work was included in the collection, MONTANA WOMEN WRITERS: A GEOGRAPHY OF THE HEART (Far Country Press, 2006). Her essay, Vertigo, is part of the collection, I THOUGHT MY FATHER WAS GOD, edited by Paul Auster (Henry Holt and Company, 2001). She presently divides her time between a novel-in-progress, entitled MISSING PARTS, and her job as an instructor at the University of Montana. Janet resides in Missoula with her husband and novelist, Kim Zupan.

I have a passion for and belief in the importance of excellent middle grade literature, having read many books as a child and, more recently, as a parent and working writer. Ages nine through thirteen are most vivid in my memory and I find an energy and excitement when I return to that life period through the written word.

- Janet Zupan

A: Tell us something about yourself as it relates to your writing life. Also, what inspired you to begin the novel?

Like many of us, I have to earn a steady paycheck in conjunction with a writing career. So, during my 8-5 months, I keep a writing grip by stealing a few evening hours, mulling over characters and developing new scenes. As I walk to work each day, I often listen to audio books, focusing on award-winning, middle grade literature, listening and re-listening to stretches of dialog and narration, and working to break codes on things like plot and tension from the works of the best authors.

But two months each summer, the days are set aside for my own writing and I accelerate on the fumes of those winter ruminations. I'm often slammed by waves of vapidity but I have no desire to give up the struggle because, for me, writing feeds the Body Electric.

For the past three years, I've chipped away at a middle-grade manuscript, discovering there a passion for delving into that time of life--vital with struggle and conflict. The idea for the novel was inspired by a secondhand account about cheating on a test. I began wondering what it would take, at age 11, to move on from such a moment.

A: Who are you reading now? Which authors and novels have been an inspiration to you, and why?

I just finished reading A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY (Grodstein) and recently completed THE YELLOW BIRDS (Powers), CITY OF BOHANE (Barry), and CARRY ME DOWN (Hyland). Next in the stack, are SON (Meyer), SHOOTING KABUL (Senzai), and BENEDICTION (Haruf). Authors that top my list of middle grade writers, include Paula Fox, Ann Gonzalez, Gennifer Choldenko, Patricia Reilly Giff and Kevin Henkes. I've read (and re-read) Fox's ONE-EYED CAT, stunned by her facility with silence and compression in building the inner turmoil and conflict for her young protagonist. Gonzalez's novel (RUNNING FOR MY LIFE) succeeds in walking the wire between hope and grief. Giff and Henkes are master storytellers, with authentic main characters that awe and inspire me. I've studied closely how Choldenko develops family interactions in AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS, especially through the relationship between Moose and Natalie, which I see as one, fine success.

A: Can you tell us about your novel?

MISSING PARTS is about an 11-year old girl, Dusty Diamond, who takes her Dad's knife to school and tries to grapple with the consequences of that mistake, including expulsion from school and her mother's silent and ongoing disapproval. Her recovery from this incident is complicated by something else she has done, something that no one knows about but that has left her guilt-ridden and ashamed. The protagonist is part of an American family impacted by the invasion of Iraq--a father serving a lengthy tour of duty and a mother trying to make ends meet on the home front.

A: What gives you a passion for this story and why are you the one who needs to tell it?

I have a passion for and belief in the importance of excellent middle grade literature, having read many books as a child and, more recently, as a parent and working writer. Ages nine through thirteen are most vivid in my memory and I find an energy and excitement when I return to that life period through the written word. Up front experience that is helpful, includes my work as a poet in the schools with 5th and 6th graders; stints as a reader on our local Pea Green Boat; and as a volunteer in a fifth grade classroom. Like Dusty, my father served tours of duty (in Vietnam). This helps me in terms of empathy and with the details of that experience. Finally, I'm determined to work this manuscript until I'm satisfied that I've given it my all, my best.

A: What have you found to be your biggest challenges to writing a successful commercial novel?

The biggest challenge to writing a commercial novel involved my initial misconception that writing a masterpiece is largely an intuitive effort. I should have known better, true, but it's an easy leap when one reads a fine work that seems poured onto the pages with ease. I now know that to write with "breakout" aspirations, I have to hammer and nail, level and measure, bring precision and build skill as I go. I have already sketched out the plots to two novels ahead; I feel that, with the skill I'll gain through writing MISSING PARTS (via the help of the 16 module series), I'll move more efficiently and effectively into and through subsequent stories.

A: Is there any particular facet of the Algonkian novel writing program that has helped you more than any other? If so, why? How would you review it?

The Plot Line in Six Act Program program has helped me to more clearly understand the critical elements of good storytelling. I'm close to completing the fourth module and have already realized important strides toward a better book. I already see MISSING PARTS as a more compelling tale, with more interesting characters, and a protagonist I want to see through to the end.

Through the work involved in ACT ZERO, I've become a believer in backstory. The going has been challenging--at first, I worried that I didn't have time to write anecdotes that may or may not come into the book. But then the effort paid in spades when I saw a significant opportunity (through one of those anecdotes) to deepen the inner conflict of the main character and allow for a link to the antagonist that I would never have imagined without this intense groundwork.

The Sympathetic Character Factors in the Hook, forced me to more closely examine my protagonist. She was/is a sympathetic character to me, but the assignment requires that I articulate and then give evidence that reflects sympathetic character traits. Again, that work resulted in a richer grab; this facet of the program has helped me create stronger main and supporting characters.

A: What bit of advice can you give to other aspiring authors just getting started?

At this young point in my novel-writing career, I've discovered that developing a compelling and thorough backstory is crucial to the later drafting of your novel. I spent the last two years working from beginning to end, the first and second drafts of MISSING PARTS. The results were squishy at best, and embarrassing, at worst. I enrolled in this program because I still cared about the story, still believed in the characters and the conflicts. I am evolving, with the help of the Commercial Novel Writing Program, to see the process of writing a novel with a far more structured eye.

One bit of advice: build a solid foundation (i.e., comprehensive backstory) and you'll write a stronger novel.

Two bits: Work to clarify your protagonist's goal. Sounds simple, but it takes brainstorming and time to hone it to a winning edge.

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