Behind the Scenes with Shannon Messenger

This week on the blog we’re lucky to have Fantasy writer Shannon Messenger sharing her thoughts with us. Shannon is the New York Times and USA Today best-selling author of the award-winning middle grade series, Keeper of the Lost Cities, as well as the Sky Fall series for young adults. Shannon is the host of Storybird’s newest creative course: Fantasy.

In this post, Shannon explains how she got her start in writing, where she finds her inspiration, and the journey of writing her best-selling series, Keeper of the Lost Cities.

Storybird: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

Shannon Messenger: When I was younger, I actually wanted to be a Disney animator. And then I realized that my hands just didn’t draw that way. I can’t really draw from my own imagination. I can only draw if I can look at something—which makes me about as useful as a camera. 

So I sort of had this freak out, and my mom said, “Okay. You’re sixteen and in college. How about you just take a fun class?”

And so I took a class called broadcast writing and production. I took it mostly because it sounded like the kind of class where I might get college credit for watching TV. And it was. But we also had to write stories—and for the first time, what was in my head was coming out on the page. I couldn’t get my hands to draw it. But if I used words I could get people to see exactly what I wanted them to see. And I was hooked on writing.

You write for middle grade and young adult audiences. As an adult, how do you get yourself back in the mindset of your readers?

It helps that I’m still immature for my age. (Laughter.) But you know, I have moments in my life that I go back to. When I write for middle grade, I think about how huge everything feels! And one of those things that I go back to was my hatred of cooked carrots.

There were certain dinners that my mom made that had cooked carrots with them, and they were the kind of dinners that had to be in the oven all day. So all day, I would know that I would have to eat cooked carrots tonight. And then like it would be so built up in my head that when I’d go to eat it, it would be the most horrible thing on the planet. 

And that’s because as a kid, that’s your worldview! Everything feels so big because you have a smaller pool of experiences to draw on. 

Well, whatever you’re doing is definitely working, because people can’t wait for the next book in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series. You’ve just published Book 7—Flashback—and you’re still writing! Where do you get inspiration for your story ideas?

Some of the inspiration came from things that I loved, but also sometimes the inspiration came from things that I would have done differently. 

That’s so interesting! What do you mean by “things you would have done differently?

For example, when I was reading Harry Potter, I absolutely loved Hogwarts. I’m still waiting for my owl. But I also was curious about the rest of the world! I wanted to know what was going on outside the walls of those school. So I kind of realized, “okay, so when I write a story I want to make sure that we aren’t in the same place all the time.” That’s why the Keeper world is very global.

It sure is! Did you know when you first started that Keeper would be such a long series?

So originally, Keeper of the Lost Cities was supposed to be a short story. I had created Fitz for another book as a side character for just a couple of scenes, and I got stuck. And one of the things that I had learned was that if you’re stuck, sometimes getting to know your side characters will bring you the answer. And so I thought, “okay, this elf guy that I created is pretty cool. Why don’t I write a short story with him?”

And so I put him into this short story and I realized that he was going to meet a little girl and he was going to realize that the reason she’s so different is because she’s an elf like him. And that was the end of the short story, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that little girl. I kept thinking, “why didn’t she know?” “why did she think she was human?” and “why would she be hidden away?”

And the more I started thinking about that, the more I realized this is the story that I should be telling. 

Wow, that’s quite a journey! Sounds like the road to writing stardom isn’t always smooth. 

Honestly, writing is rewriting. And the published version of Keeper is draft 20, so I know that writing is rewriting better than most writers do. It was intense, but it was worth it because it taught me how to write a book. And ever since then all my published books are either a draft 2 or draft 3. It was just that I had a big 20-draft learning curve. And then once I knew what I was doing, it wasn’t so daunting anymore. 

Thanks for sharing that with us, Shannon! Are there any parting words of advice that you’d like to share with our Storybird writers?

One thing that I have found when I talk to writers is that they seem to think you either sit down and every word you write is perfect, or you’re just not a writer. And it’s really weird that we put that pressure on ourselves because we don’t do that with other talents. We don’t think that the first time we pick up a basketball we’re gonna be able to slam dunk it.

Writing is rewriting, so don’t put pressure on yourself to get it perfect, because you’re not going to.

And that’s okay! That is the process of writing. So just make it your goal to write. Write every day. Write a lot, write a little, just write.

Feeling inspired? Begin writing your own fantasy novel today! Start Shannon’s creative course and Learn to Write Fantasy.

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