The Season of Styx Malone: Q&A with Kekla Magoon

This week, we’ve been learning from Kekla Magoon’s award-winning novel, THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE, and to wrap up Teachers Write today, Kekla herself joins us for some Q&A.

What craft questions would you like to ask her?  Are you wondering if she uses any special kind of outline or planning tool for her novels? Want to know how she revised this one? Now’s the time to ask! 
 
Kekla will be stopping by the blog periodically today to respond, so feel free to post your questions in the comments.
 
This is our last Teachers Write post for now, but if you signed up to get the newsletters, you’ll still hear from me once in a while throughout the school year with some mentor texts, mini-lessons, and prompts to keep the writing going. Thanks so much for writing with us this summer!

16 Replies on “The Season of Styx Malone: Q&A with Kekla Magoon

  1. Kekla,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Season of Styx Malone! Your characters and dialogue felt so authentic. How did you maintain that authenticity given the age and gender differences between you and your characters?

    Also, what part of the writing process do you enjoy the most? What is still a struggle for you? My students will enjoy hearing these responses, too.
    Thank you for your time and this great book!

    Betsy

    1. Hi Betsy,
      I like the initial drafting phase of the novel, when the ideas are flowing and I can write anything that comes to mind. That glee only lasts about halfway through a novel draft…at some point things stop feeling so random and have to start making sense! That’s when first drafting gets harder and slower for me. I start having fun again when I’m on the home stretch of finishing the draft, and all the pieces start falling into place and it’s just a matter of writing them all down! I like revision process for separate reasons—at that point I can see what the “whole” should look like and I can work on honing section by section.

      Dialogue is fun…when it’s flowing! I find I have to be inspired to write the dialogue sections. I can write exposition anytime, but something has to spark for the dialogue really to take off. I try hard to close off the real world around me and really SEE my characters in my mind. How they talk, how they move. I don’t type with my eyes closed, but almost! My first draft of scenes with heavy dialogue will have mostly just the dialogue and maybe a few physical beats, like crossing arms or raising eyebrows. Anything that directly punctuates the speech. In revision, I have to go back and write the exposition, action, setting, etc., and fill in the gaps in the conversation. I’m glad the boys feel as real to you as they do to me!

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Loved this book for the story, but I’ve been so inspired by the elements that make it an amazing mentor text.

    I was wondering how you begin, when all of those ideas are floating around in your head. How do you organize and begin your process?

    Thanks for this book. Excited to read more of your work!

    1. Hi Sue,

      Thanks! I’m a bit of a haphazard writer at the beginning of the process. I draft scenes out of order in whatever way they come. Once I have a sense of the bigger picture of the narrative, then I go back and put things in order, and identify and fill in the gaps. When I know what the arc of the story is going to be, it gets clearer but more challenging, because I must write directly into the gaps, rather than following my whims. It’s sort of like doing a jigsaw puzzle without a box lid, and with only one or two pieces appearing on the table at a time. At first I have a collection of scenes or scene fragments that are various shades of blue and green, and eventually I figure out that I’m looking at a landscape: sky, water, leaves, grass? Eventually some brown shows up and suddenly HOORAY! TREE TRUNKS, and things start falling into place.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Hi Kekla,
    I loved this book so much. I teach 5th grade, and I’m thinking that this will be a perfect book to read aloud at the beginning of the year. I’ve already shared it with my teammates. So much to discuss about characters, growing up, society, and craft.
    I was wondering if this story began in your mind with a character or with the Indiana setting or with the idea of the escalator deal. Hoping you could share how it grew.

    1. Hi Peter,

      The best stories are built on not just one idea, but several ideas colliding in an interesting way. The idea of kids trading their baby sister for some kind of prize was one idea, which I heard told as a humorous family anecdote from a random barista in Raleigh, NC, quite a few years ago. The other idea was the escalator trade, which I had heard told as an urban legend, but turns out to be based on a book called One Red Paperclip. So, my question was, what happens if you trade your sister for a cool prize but somehow got to keep it anyway, then escalator traded it away for something even better? Of course that’s the surface story, and the underlying emotional arc of kids pushing boundaries, wanting to be seen and special, etc., comes from a lot of different places for me.

      I wanted to set the story in Indiana because that’s where I grew up, and the Children’s Museum Indianapolis was familiar to me and made a perfectly good fantasy destination for my small town boys. The pieces for the story began falling into place when Styx Malone wandered out of the woods of my imagination and insisted that I follow him on an adventure. And who wouldn’t?

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Kate,
    Just want to say thank you for these three weeks. I’ve really enjoyed the books, the mini-lessons, the exercises and the Q and As. I have so many new books to share in my class…and lots of minilessons to pilfer. Looking forward to your visit to our school in Westport this year.

  5. Hi Kate,
    Thank you so much for offering this writing experience for all of us. It has been wonderful diving into all these mentor texts and hearing from the author’s on their crafts. Kudos for putting this all together!

  6. Your handling of dialogue is masterful, Kekla! What tips might you have for establishing different voices for characters? Thanks so much! I absolutely adore Styx and my students do, too!!

    1. Hi Lisa,

      This is a hard one, as it is partly instinctive. Getting to know your characters will help you (or your students) be able to hear your characters’ voices in your head. For some writers, character building exercises to get to know the character can help. What do they like? What do they value?Write about a time they felt happy, or a time they felt scared. What is their favorite object?

      Thinking about how they move through the world is useful, too. What do they notice about the world? What is their vantage point? For example, a tall character might notice people’s hair color first. A short character might notice people’s shirts. A shy character who looks down might notice people’s shoes or the color of every carpet. A kid who loves LEGO may study the lines of buildings out the classroom window, while a kid in the same room who just desperately wants to make a friend may be carefully observing what every other child in the room is doing. If you find a defining characteristic or two for each character, it will help you see the world through their eyes.

      In dialogue, it helps to think about each character’s vocabulary. Maybe one character loves to say “That’s rad!” And that should be the only character who uses that phrase in the book. Or, more subtly, an aggressive or blunt character may speak with hard sounds (“Great to have you back.”) while a gentle character may use softer syllables. (“How nice to see you.”)

      Thanks for reading!

  7. Hello, all! Thanks for your questions. I’ve attempted to post responses to each of you, but I’m only seeing one of my answers actually up at the moment. I will keep trying!

  8. Hi Lisa,

    This is a hard one, as it is partly instinctive. Getting to know your characters will help you (or your students) be able to hear your characters’ voices in your head. For some writers, character building exercises to get to know the character can help. What do they like? What do they value?Write about a time they felt happy, a time they felt scared. What is their favorite object?

    Thinking about how they move through the world is useful, too. What do they notice about the world? What is their vantage point? For example, a tall character might notice people’s hair color first. A short character might notice people’s shirts. A shy character who looks down might notice people’s shoes or the color of every carpet. A kid who loves LEGO may study the lines of buildings out the classroom window, while a kid in the same room who just desperately wants to make a friend may be carefully observing what every other child in the room is doing. If you find a defining characteristic or two for each character, it will help you see the world through their eyes.

    In dialogue, it helps to think about each character’s vocabulary. Maybe one character loves to say “That’s rad!” And that should be the only character who uses that phrase in the book. Or, more subtly, an aggressive or blunt character may speak with hard sounds (“Great to have you back.”) while a gentle character may use softer syllables. (“How nice to see you.”)

    Thanks for reading!

  9. Thanks to you writers who have taken time away from your first priority to share meaningful ideas with those of us who work with young readers. When our library copy arrived this spring, it went out right away with someone who would not classify himself as a “reader,” but then I feared it was lost. I think it was one of those I don’t want to lt this book go because it was so good. Now I don’t even have to booktalk it because students are spreading the word.
    Each of your characters is so fully developed. Do you usually start by developing a character or plop them into the middle of action and work from there?

  10. Hi Kekla & thanks for doing this! I will be adding Styx Malone to our school library for sure, but I’ve noticed you write in a variety of genre, like realistic fiction with Styx or adventure in the Robin Hood series (both for kids/middle), but also young adult realism in How it Went Down and historical fiction in The Rock & the River and in X. My questions are (1) Do you have a different process depending on the genre, a different planning and outlining? (2) How do you consciously stay aware of whether what you’re writing is for the middle grades or the young adults? And (3) What was it like to write collaboratively with Malcolm X’s daughter? Thank you so much.

  11. Kate,

    Thank you so much for Teachers Write. I teach college writing in the high school, and many of these prompts are great for my students. But more importantly, they help me become a better writer. I really appreciate the Mentor texts, and usually purchase most of the books and/or ask for them at our local library. Can’t wait for your newsletters. Thanks again!!

  12. How wonderful to get to have conversation with the author of such a delightful book! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you for visiting with us, Kekla!
    Also thank you to Kate for all the wonderful insights and examples you gave us. I expect my writing to improve as I now have so much more to be mindful of! I appreciate the time and effort you took to creative this summer adventure for us!

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