Q&A With YA Novelist Kimberly Reid

Kimberly Reid is author of the Langdon Prep series of YA novels about a girl detective named Chanti Evans whose mom is an undercover cop. Chanti lives in the hood but goes to a private school in a swanky neighborhood. The 2nd in the series, Creeping With the Enemy, pubs today!

A little of what people had to say about My Own Worst Frenemy, the first in the series:

“Chanti is smart and funny, and this multicultural cast is a welcome addition to the world of teen mysteries. The story is well paced and full of surprises…This clever mystery with a biting look at class and privilege is a breath of fresh air.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Reid’s debut, which kicks off her Langdon Prep series, perfectly nails what it’s like to be a scholarship student at a chi-chi private school, let alone being the new girl at school. Really apropos title. The amateur sleuth high jinks are fun. A great start to a promising new series.RT Book Reviews, 4 stars

Kim’s mother was a police officer and served as a detective on some of the Atlanta Child Murder cases. Kim wrote an award-winning memoir called No Place Safe about growing up in Atlanta during that time. I’m so happy to have her here today to chat with us about plotting and selling a YA series. Enjoy!

How did you develop your sleuth, Chanti Evans?

I stole from my life. I was watching an episode of Veronica Mars, a TV show about the teen daughter of a cop. Veronica learned a lot about crime-solving from her dad and was always playing amateur detective and getting into trouble. She reminded me of myself at 16, except I mostly avoided trouble and was not especially brave. My mother was a detective, I learned a lot about police work from her. With Chanti, I could create a character fearless enough to do all the things I wanted to as a teen but never had the nerve.

How did you know you had a series and not just one title?

Once I began writing, I knew I couldn’t tell everything I wanted to about the character in one story. Each book has Chanti solving a new crime, but her backstory also involves a mystery that at first she isn’t even aware of. But she begins to suspect her mother hasn’t been truthful about something in her past. That backstory mystery evolves with each book in the series. Besides that, I just have so many crime topics to explore. Not only was my mom a cop, my stepfather is a criminal attorney and my husband worked in a police department for over a decade and now works in the court system. In my old corporate job, my customers were cops. I’ll probably always be writing crime stories.

You must have to plot beforehand for a mystery, yes? How do you map out/plot a series?

Before this series, I always wrote as it came into my head. I needed to know how the story ended, but beyond that, I didn’t do much plotting. I was once a software project manager so I knew all about being organized but somehow I never considered applying those skills to writing. I guess it didn’t seem very arty to use Gantt charts as part of the creative process. But I got over myself and now spend almost as much time outlining as I do writing, which means I can usually get a very clean manuscript to my editor in only two or three drafts.

For draft one of the outline, I use a whiteboard or those big Post-it easel pads to flowchart the timeline of the story. I use a different color marker for the main storyline and the subplots. Since my books aren’t pure mysteries (crime happens at the start, now our hero has to solve it) but involve some thriller elements (the bad guy escalates his criminal activity and our hero must figure out who he is and what he’s doing before all hell breaks loose), I also use the flow chart to make sure the pacing is on target.

Then I break out the Excel spreadsheet for the second outline draft and write a single sentence synopsis for each chapter, color coded to match the flowchart. I use a spreadsheet because I find it easier to later move things around and add plot details like red herrings and clues. The color coding helps keep the main and subplots balanced. Once I feel good about the spreadsheet, the last draft of outlining involves turning the single-sentence synopses into one-page synopses. This draft is all about the action in each chapter. By the time I’m done, my outline is about 20% of the finished book in terms of YA word count. Once I begin the real writing, I develop and integrate settings, characters, and dialogue into the action I’ve already written in the outline phase.

And of course, I deviate from the outline as I write and the characters want to do something I didn’t anticipate or I realize the clues make no sense. Still, the outline keeps me from straying too much. This process is really helpful when writing under deadline.

When you pitched the book to your agent did you pitch it as a series? If so, how much did you need to know about the rest of the novels?

Yes, but by then, I’d been with my agent a few years so I didn’t have to worry about don’t ever pitch a series in a query letter! She wanted the first book to work as a standalone, but asked me to have a one-page synopsis of the next book ready before she took it out on submission, just in case an interested editor also thought it had series potential. For myself, I created a high-level outline of the third and fourth books.

What’s the scoop on the YA market? Is it as red hot as people seem to think?

I think so – it’s been red hot for a few years now and I don’t see it ebbing anytime soon – or maybe that’s just wishful thinking since I write YA. Publisher’s Weekly did a good article on this last fall called YA Comes of Age by Sue Corbett.  

You can learn more about Kimberly Reid on her website and her page on Facebook.

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About Carleen Brice

Carleen Brice writes nonfiction and fiction. Her most recent books are the novels Orange Mint and Honey, which was made into a Lifetime television movie called “Sins of the Mother,” and Children of the Waters. She’s currently at work on a novel called Every Good Wish.

Comments

  1. says

    Kimberly,
    Congratulations on the publication of your book. It’s an interesting twist on a YA story. I’m impressed with your level of organization in outlining and assembling your plot. It puts a pantser like me to shame. Good luck with your book. Carleen, thanks for the great interview.

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  2. says

    Thanks CG. I can be a pantser when I want to be, but my first attempt at writing YA mystery was so all over the place with multiple plots, subplots and too many characters that my agent didn’t want to pitch the manuscript. It really was a mess. With my second attempt, I figured I’d better do more plotting.

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  3. says

    Wow, what a great premise for a book series, and a fascinating approach to developing your books.

    Thanks for sharing your techniques with us – I’m always looking for better ways to project-manage the daunting task of writing a book.

    Best of luck to you!

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  4. says

    Loved this interview. Kimberly, I envy anyone who can be organized and creative at the same time. I am anything but organized about how I construct a story, but I need to try something new for the next book. Thanks for inspiring! And congratulations on your new book series; your protagonist sounds like a winner and the series seems to have real legs.

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    • says

      Hi Therese, thanks for having me on WU. Every time I start a new manuscript and think I have my process down, I find something new to do. I don’t think I can get more organized, so the next ms. I may have to go the other direction and be more spontaneous.

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  5. says

    I love this post! I’m almost finished drafting my YA novel, which has a crime element to it, as well. I love your advice on plotting and organizing. I’ve stumbled along the way, but finally I’m using short chapter outlines and it’s helping. I’ll start out using something similar to your method next time. I’d also love to hear candid reports on what it’s like to look for an agent for YA. Thanks! Cheers, Aimee

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    • says

      Aimee, short chapters worked for me, too. They helped me make sure each chapter’s action was focused and moved the story along. I can’t tell you much about looking for a YA agent since mine signed me up for my memoir, and we stayed together when I moved to fiction. I pitched her at a conference, which is not the typical way of finding an agent, but please e-mail me if you have a question (from my website). Maybe I’ll know the answer!

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  6. says

    The series sounds great, Kimberly! I really liked hearing about your writing process. I write picture books and would like to try something longer, but have a hard time getting a handle on a longer story arc and subplots. Your plan sounds like something that could work! Thanks for sharing!

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    • says

      I’m glad. I was worried it sounded crazy complicated. Planning small tasks that add up to a book-length project just feels less daunting than, “Think I’ll start a 70K word story today.” Sometimes you have to play tricks on yourself.

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  7. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    Thank you for sharing your organized method of plotting and planning. Your series sounds like it would make a wonderful TV show!

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  8. says

    What a joy to read about an author writing from the very heart of her subject matter!

    Knowing the real truth about your characters’ world is so incredibly important, especially these days when the competition for every single precious spot on a publisher’s list has thousands of first-time amateurs lined up among all those long-term writers whose work is smart, creative, professional, almost just right. . .but not quite strong enough for today’s marketing climate.

    Authenticity is the bedrock of fiction. It’s lovely to see you, Kim, fictionalizing your own exceptional adolescence for teen readers now!

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  9. says

    WU readers are so cool! Thanks for all your comments. Bernadette, I think this would make an excellent TV show! Hollywood, are you listening? Victoria, fictionalizing her “exceptional adolescence” was a great way to put it! Kim is a fun person to talk with because her take on things is so influenced by the crime-fighters in her family. I think it comes through really well in her books.

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  10. says

    Congratulations, Kimberly. This techie is still working on applying her organizational skills to finishing a book. Excel is my friend. I’ve played around a bit with Scrivener and think I’ll spend some more time with that.

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    • says

      I like Scrivener but sometimes I feel like it’s a lot of stuff to learn. But I’m going to try to start and finish a whole book with it and see what I think then.

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    • says

      Thanks Khara. I think one of the most important (and difficult) things a writer must do is find your voice, trust that it’s yours, and then have fun letting it loose. It ranks right up there with growing a thick skin and persevering against all odds. Those last two are cliches (yep, I used them) but so true.

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  11. Allison says

    As a YA writer, I found this interview so fun to read! Congratulations on Creeping with the Enemy; I really like the voice of your narrator.
    About queries: I’m writing a YA fantasy trilogy. Should I *not* mention that it’s a trilogy when I send out queries for the first book?

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    • says

      Thanks Allison. It’s been several years since I sent agent query letters, but back then the common wisdom was to focus on one book in a query letter and when an agent expressed interest or offered rep, tell them about your other planned books. I’ve never pitched a trilogy, which I think is a little different than a series in terms of pitching. A series might be three books or ten, or not a series at all if an agent or editor you’re interested in sees it only as a standalone, at which point you have to consider if they’re the right agent/editor for you (also consider they might be right). Since a trilogy must be three books, I’m guessing it’s okay to pitch a trilogy. But I suggest checking each agent’s website for the most current and appropriate guidelines. You probably know all the agent and writing blogs, but some of my favorites for basic query guidance include a few linked in the Writer Unboxed sidebar: Pub Rants, Nathan Bransford, Agent Query. Also try agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog. Check their archives for the latest and greatest query info, but always defer to the guidelines of each agent you query. They usually list them on their websites.

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      • Allison says

        Thanks for such thoughtful advice, Kimberly! It’s weird, but I’m starting to have fun with queries. Long live YA!

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  12. says

    Congratulations on Creeping with the Enemy! I love YA heroines with a little edge, and the mystery aspect is going to keep the readers coming back for more.

    Your writing process is fascinating too — I’m a plotter but no where near as organized!

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    • says

      Thank you Kathleen. I tend to be a serious planner in everything but writing. But for some reason it took me a while to apply this to writing. I think I was hung up on it not being a very “creative” process. I had this idea of what the writing life should look like, and it didn’t include flow charts and spreadsheets. But once I stopped thinking that way, I found having a structure in place actually freed me up to be creative, especially when working under tight contract deadlines (three books being published over 18 months!). I knew the outline would keep me from going too far off the rails as far as the plot, which freed me to have creative fun with the characters, setting, etc.

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  13. Crichardwriter says

    This sounds like a great YA series. I tend to gravitate towards literary fiction, but I will read YA if it grabs my attention – Chanti sounds like a hot ticket :) I enjoyed your thorough description of your writing process. It took me awhile to get comfortable with being a major planner – binders, index cards, color coding, the whole bit. I didn’t feel like it was very “writerly” either for a long time. But, I know my story so well now that I can focus on the words and developing ideas versus wrestling with structure at the same time that I am trying to write. Congratulations on the publication of your new book, and I wish you the best of luck!

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  14. says

    Love reading about the way you plot and plan ahead with your writing! It’s been a long and arduous road for me, learning that in order to write my own mystery story, I must plan ahead!

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