First Draft Podcast Episode 105: Jeramey Kraatz
Date: August 15, 2017
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Jeramey Kraatz, author of the middle grade series THE CLOAK SOCIETY, and his new series SPACE RUNNERS. I first met Jeramey a few years ago at the North Texas Teen Book Festival, where we talked about the apocalyptic zombie novel THE PASSAGE, and also our cats. Then I discovered that he was writing superhero middle grade novels, dubbed an anime series on the side, and wrote his grad school thesis on the X-Men. Also, he has great hair. Listener, I was smitten.
So, we met up on one of Jeramey’s trips to Los Angeles. However, my plan to persuade him to move here was little bit thwarted by the massive heatwave we were experiencing at the time. For lack of air conditioned space, Jeramey agreed to sit down and chat at an outdoor coffee shop down the road. The breeze saved our afternoon, but it does mean that, once again, I have to warn you about sound quality. The conversation can be a little bit hard to hear at times, and there are background sounds. But, a transcript of our conversation will be posted later this week, because I think you really want to hear what Jeramey has to say about how time passes, and comics. What anime taught him about editing, and publishing as a business. So, imagine you’re laying in a field of bluebonnets under a Texas sky, resting your head on a stack of back-issue X-Men Comics, and enjoy the conversation.
[Background of moving traffic and conversation]
ENNI: So, how are you doing?
Jeramey KRAATZ: Fine! How are you?
ENNI: I’m so good. How are you doing?
KRAATZ: I’m doing great. I’m excited to be in Los Angeles, even though it’s really hot here right now.
ENNI: It’s so hot! It feels Texas-y. So, Jeramey was kind enough to come to my neck-of-the-woods, and I was like, “But we’re not allowed to step foot in my house because there’s no A/C, and it’s horrible.”
KRAATZ: No, it’s wonderful out here in the shade.
ENNI: Yes. This is good. We are next to a road, so there’s car sounds. I’m prepping the listener. “Just don’t yell at me about the audio… we know! But we had to be outside.” So, I like to start at the beginning, as you know, which is: where were you born and raised?
KRAATZ: I was actually born in a tiny town called Merkel, Texas. Which is like 1,500 people. And then moved around small town Texas for a while, but did all of my schooling in Odessa, Texas. And back in Texas, that’s the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
ENNI: So, I’m interested in small town Texas because, I mean, we’re gonna get to it, because I want to get to the setting in THE CLOAK SOCIETY, but that’s so specific.
KRAATZ: It’s an interesting place. In West Texas, the closest town from where I grew up, was Lubbick. Which was two-and-a-half hours away. So, it very much feels like its own little bubble.
ENNI: It’s its own culture. We can kind of talk about this in the context of the books, too. Because I know it interacts. But you were not a part of the dominant culture, which is football. That’s not just a stereotype, right?
KRAATZ: No, not at all. It is very much the culture. To the point where, we haven’t had a great football team since the early nineties, I don’t think. But there are still people who hold their kids back a year from starting kindergarten, so that they’ll be just a little bit bigger by the time they’re seniors, to play football. So, it is still very much alive and well. The people who I think were in high school when all of that was happening, they all have kids now who are in high school. And so, it travels down. The nice thing though, because I was an arts kid - that’s how I rebelled against the things I didn’t like about my city - I was in theater and jazz choir, and stuff like that. The nice thing though, and this is something that I didn’t realize was unique to West Texas, or a small-town culture like that until I moved away, was that all of that school spirit, and pride filters down into every aspect of the town.
So, it was like: “I’m gonna go for the All-State Choir. If I’m gonna go, I’m gonna do it as hard as I can, because I want to make my school proud.” Everyone was like: “Oh! We’re so excited that your one-act play is advancing to state! You’re doing it for Permian [High School]!” And stuff like that. It’s kind of weird that that sort of school spirit mentality filters down into the arts, too.
ENNI: Yeah! That’s really sweet.
KRAATZ: It was really wonderful, and really lovely, and something that I didn’t realize was kind of strange until I moved to Dallas or Fort Worth. It’s weird, because growing up in West Texas, all I wanted to do was get out. I didn’t feel like I fit in. I was a liberal kid, and it’s a very conservative area. It felt like I could never be who I wanted to be there, or who I was there. And so, all I wanted to do was leave. And it wasn’t until I was in grad school in New York that I started writing about Texas.
I was actually in grad school for non-fiction. I was writing about Texas, a lot. Starting out writing about myself, and what it was like to grow up in Texas. And then moving on to culture critique, because it turns out, it’s kind of boring to write about yourself all the time [laughs]. That’s when I realized that this place has its charms. There’s a wonderful kind of spirit about it. It was the only time I finally was like, “Oh, I kind of miss West Texas.”
ENNI: I’m gonna come back to that, but first I do want to hear a little bit about reading and writing when you were growing up.
ENNI: What kind of things were you reading? How did that factor into your life?
KRAATZ: I wasn’t always a huge reader. Mostly because I hated Johnny Tremain. I hated the stuff that we were supposed to be reading in school. And that is very much the kind of stuff we were always reading in school. It actually wasn’t until I was seven or eight-years-old, that the X-Men cartoon series started airing on Fox Kids. And I fell in love with it. I was so obsessed with it. And the Batman animated series started too, and it was really a golden age for superhero cartoons. And when those shows went on hiatus, I was like, “I want to know what these characters are doing.” And so, I talked my mom into buying me my first comic book, which was X-Men Volume Two, Number Twenty-two, at Walmart. I went home and I read it, and I had no idea what was going on, because I was jumping into the middle of it. But I was like, “I love this art. I love these characters.” And I know enough about them from these cartoons, I can kind of intuit what’s going on.
ENNI: You can piece it together.
KRAATZ: Yeah, who’s good and who’s bad, and stuff like that. So, I became, over the course of one summer, this rabid comic book reader. And it turned into one of those things where my parents eventually said, “We have to stop buying you backissues of comics.” It’s like, “We’ve had to mortgage our house for a second time” [laughing]. So, I remember going into my school library, and being like: “Hey, do you have any books? I love comics.” This was before—there were no graphic novels or anything in school libraries, really. Which is always my favorite thing to see in libraries whenever I do school visits now. You know? I said, “I love comics. Do you have anything that reads like a comic?”
And so my librarian, Mrs. Hall, was like: “You know, The Hobbit. Maybe try that? There’s some magic. There’s dragons. There’s adventure.” And so, I read The Hobbit, and that was kind of my entry point into reading. And slowly but surely, I found my niche and I started reading stuff that I wanted to read. Then I became a library assistant, and I was super into it. In a weird way too, reading comics made me a writer. In the sense that, what I would do is, I had a super hero notebook. Just a Five-Star notebook. And I’d read an X-Men comic, and I would know it would always end on a cliffhanger. And I would know that it would be another month before I could figure out what happened. So, I’d write a couple of notes down about like, “Here’s what I think is gonna happen.” So, it was like: “Oh, it looks like Wolverine got killed. But I bet it was a Cyborg.” Or, “It was a hologram,” or something like that. Or, “His healing factor is gonna kick in.” And then I’d read the next comic and look up later to see if I was right or not. And slowly but surely, that started getting longer and longer. I’d write whole paragraphs about what I thought would happen. Or, what I thought should happen. I was basically writing fanfiction.
Also, a lot of stories about me fighting vampires with the X-Men [laughing]. I got to do crossovers where like “Oh, Batman and Jean Gray are going on an adventure.” That could ever happen in the comics. And that just got longer and longer. And so, when I finally sat down, I was in grad school for non-fiction writing, and I kind of stumbled into writing for kids. And since I was working for Marvel - I was interning at the time in the X-Men department – which was my geeky dream come true! And I thought that I was gonna write a non-fiction book about gender and masculinity and sexuality through the lens of modern comics. It’s a very grad school sort of book to write [laughs]. And I’m super fascinated by things like that.
While I was bored at Marvel one day, I was trying to come up with things to pitch them, and I was thinking critically about comics at the time. And thinking a lot about supervillains and really asking myself: “How can you tell a story where the super villain is the main character? How do you get someone to root for the bad guy, if that’s the main character? Is that possible?” So, I landed on… if it was a kid supervillain, and being a villain was all he or she knew, that’s how you can trick the audience into it. And then you have a whole problem you can unwind. What happens when the supervillain realizes he’s a supervillain? Realizes that he’s a bad guy? And what does that say about when it’s an issue with your family? It’s all you know. It’s your community, really. That was kind of the entry points for me, writing for kids. And it wasn’t until I thought I might pitch this to Marvel as a comic book, and of course, they don’t need any original characters, or things like that!
ENNI: [laughing] They’re like, “We’re good.”
KRAATZ: Yeah! It became the thing I was working on instead of my thesis. And at some point, I realized that this was what I wanted to do. What I was doing, is I was writing a book for Jeramey at twelve-years-old, who was going into libraries and going, “Do you have any books that read like comics?” So: “Yeah, of course we do! We have this book that is just a comic book in novel form.” That was when it finally clicked that: “Oh. This is something I actually want to do. And something I can do.”
I also remember very specific moments writing the first draft of THE CLOAK SOCIETY, feeling like the writing was so familiar, in a weird way. I realized that: “I’ve written this thing before. I’ve done this. I’ve written this fanfiction before!” I’d gone in and thrown all these people with superpowers together and seen how those powers bounce off of one another. It’s one of those things, in looking back on it, of course this is how I got into writing. I never would have thought, as a kid reading comic books, was what would turn into my career and my passion.
It’s my favorite thing, actually, to talk about at schools. Because I’m like, “Look…you know?” Especially now. Graphic novels have such a different place, and they’re in a lot of libraries. Which is great, especially in a place like Texas where we have a lot of English as a second language students. It’s a way of reading. If you can get them into reading in a way - and they are just learning English too - put a picture with this and it will help them figure it out.
ENNI: And reluctant readers.
ENNI: Like you, you were not reading or finding the other books that would have been interesting to you.
KRAATZ: It’s such a great gateway. So, I’m really always excited whenever I go into libraries today, and there’s a big graphic novel section. And the librarians and teachers seem to have caught on to that, too. Which is wonderful, because they’re the gatekeepers. So, if they can get that book in the right hands then everything…
ENNI: You open the world to someone.
KRAATZ: Exactly! Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ENNI: Okay, I have approximately one million questions based on everything you just said. First, I really am so interested in – this is kind of not a question, I just want to hear your thoughts on this – I was talking to a friend of mine recently who writes movies, and he is a huge comic book person. And I was trying to recommend books to him. I was like: “So, what does that mean? Do you like action? Do you like adventure stories?” And he was like, “No, no.” It was the first time I was really like, “Oh. Comic books are their own genre.” Like, superhero movies, all that stuff, that is its own thing.
KRAATZ: It really is. Especially when CLOAK was coming out and so, a couple of years ago, there were a lot of superhero inspired books in middle grade and YA coming out. STEELHEART was coming out, and Super, and POWERLESS, and stuff like that. My books, obviously, are very superhero inspired. It’s such a different world with graphic novels. And if I can recommend a book… there’s this amazing book called UNDERSTANDING COMICS by Scott McCloud. It’s pretty old, but it’s kind of a textbook of how to read a comic. And it’s something I didn’t read until I was in school. I had to read it for class. And I had been reading comics for fifteen years, at that point. And I never really sat down to think about the importance of how a comic book is set up.
It’s one of those things where it makes so much sense if you just take the time to look at a page. You have the panels, and you have what’s usually called the gutter between two panels. There’s so much happening in that blank space, that white space, that’s only in your imagination. That’s such an active form of reading. I always tell a story about when I was growing up. We had the picture Bible, which, the Bible was a comic book, basically.
ENNI: Oh, yeah! Yeah, yeah.
KRAATZ: Yeah, there’s all these infomercials for it. My mom, she was like, “You loved the story of Cane and Abel, it was really strange.” And so, for most of my adult life, I have this very vivid image of what that page looked like. And it was Cain sneaking up on Abel with a club. And then bashing Abel over the head with it, and then running off, or something like that. And I finally got my hands on my old picture Bible, five years ago, and that image doesn’t exist. It’s like a close-up of Cain holding a cudgel of some sort, and then the next thing is him looking scared, saying like, “What have I done?” And it’s the perfect example of the type of active imagination of reading a comic book, or graphic novel that, you know? You have to read between the lines, obviously. And you’re imagining things as you’re reading, just like prose. But it is such a different space. Whenever you have to see, “Okay, my mind is automatically connecting, but if this character started out a punch in this panel, and of guys on the ground on the next one, I am visualizing that happening.” So, Scott McCloud’s book, UNDERSTANDING COMICS, is so incredible. Because it lays it out, chapter-by-chapter. “Oh. Here’s how time works in a still image. Here’s how our minds complete the circle of action, that we don’t actually see on the page.” So, it’s great.
ENNI: That’s amazing!
KRAATZ: Yeah, it’s really wonderful. I taught creative writing at University for a couple of semesters, and I always made my students read it. Even if I wasn’t doing comics. There is so much interesting information in there that can be applied to any type of writing.
ENNI: I’d love to hear how you decided to… what was the pull to nonfiction for studying?
KRAATZ: I always knew that I wanted to do something with words, and storytelling. I never thought I would be a writer. I never thought I would write books. I was just too scared of it. I was horrified by the idea of graduating from college, and saying, “Oh, well, I’m gonna be a writer now.” Where do I even begin? It seemed like such an impossible goal.
ENNI: Do you think that was a conscious thing? Where you were like, “Well, I can’t do that.”
KRAATZ: I don’t really believe in astrology, but I’m a total Virgo. I have a backup plan for every backup plan, for every backup plan. And I am a planner, one-hundred percent. It was just one of those things, I can never make it fit in my where my life was going. But I knew I wanted to write in some way, so my undergrad degree was in Public Relations and Advertising.
A weird thing happened to me. I ended up taking a class, Creative Essay. Kind of on a whim. I’m honestly not sure why I took it. It was a nonfiction personal essay. That was something I did not know existed in the world, outside of magazine feature stories, or something like that. So, we read Joan Didion. We read Meghan Daum. We read David Sedaris. And David Sedaris… I read that and was like, “This is what I like to do.” To the point where, I was a broke college kid, and so for my friends, for their birthdays, I would write stories for them about my hamsters when I was growing up. I wrote this forty-page short story at the end of my freshman year for all of our friends, it was like a loose retelling of Clash of the Titans, the Perseus myth basically, but with all of us in it as the characters. And all kinds of inside jokes from the year. Again, it’s another thing, but looking back on it, of course I wanted to write stories.
ENNI: [Laughing] That’s such an intense thing to do, even as a gift, it’s so intense.
KRAATZ: I know! I know. And it’s one of those things. I think I was just so scared, that I refused to realize that’s what I really wanted to do. So, I took this essay course. I started writing personal essays. I thought I wanted to be the next David Sedaris. And so that was kind of what got me into writing for reals. I was in the Honors program, and for my final project, I had the choice of doing a creative project. So I wrote a very small… it was like five personal essays.
And here’s how delusional I was about the state of the world. This would have been… I graduated in 2008. So, we were at the beginning of the economic collapse, basically. The new Great Depression. And so, I was so scared still, but … I learned about M.F.A. programs. And I said: “All my friends have moved to New York. I like New York. I’m going to apply to four different programs in New York. If I get into one, great. Maybe this writing thing will be a thing that I do. If not, I’ll just move up to New York and get a PR job, not a problem.” [Chuckles] At the beginning of a depression? I’m so glad my life took this turn, because what would I have done?
And so, I went out to Columbia. And I started out, like I said, wanting to be the next David Sedaris. I was writing about myself, my family, and crazy stuff in West Texas. And slowly, but surely, got tired of that and started to work on a cultural critique. Landmarks in West Texas, and what they mean to each city. And stuff like that. I wrote a lot about comic books. How me reading the X-Men made it okay for me to be gay when I finally realized that I was. Because I wanted to be a superhero, and reading those comics again as an adult… and saying like: “It’s not the superpower that’s making this person grow, it’s what they are fighting for. And fighting to just be themselves.”
I was really fascinated in all of that. It’s one of those things where… CLOAK, I got the idea for my first book. And that sort of took over. And then I had a couple of things published, nonfiction essays. And publishing, generally speaking, is a hustle to get anything done. To make money. To survive. I sold a piece to Salon, which was a big venue for me, and I was very excited about it. And it was a piece that I had workshopped twice at Columbia, and I had originally written it in that Honors Essay work class when I was a kid. So, I had worked on this for years and years and years. It was the essay that taught me how to write, basically. It was one of those things that went from being twenty-five pages to nine pages with the back and forth. And so, I sold it. And I think I got paid, maybe, two hundred bucks for it.
ENNI: And that’s honestly more than I thought you were gonna say.
KRAATZ: Yeah, and it was great, but it was also… I had a terrible experience with it, with my editor. It was the first time I sold anything, and I didn’t understand the idea that I don’t own this anymore. And so, they changed the title. They cut a third of it out. They made a bunch of edits, that were people, like me, speaking in that thing. The comment section, Salon’s little comment section, was horrifying. And it’s all about my family. And so that kind of hit at the same time that I was working on CLOAK. It was another excuse for me to say like, “Okay. Maybe fiction’s where it’s at.” I was such a newbie to children’s publishing. I knew nothing about it. I knew YA was having a moment and was popular. I read Harry Potter growing up. But I had no idea that middle grade was a thing. I didn’t know what the balances were between middle grade and YA. And it was one of those things when my editor said that she was going to take the project, she said – and one of the characters was fourteen or fifteen, so I thought, “That seems like a good medium age.” And she said, “Well this is middle grade, so we need to age everyone down.” And that was the first time I’d ever heard the term middle grade before.
ENNI: Interesting, when you already…
KRAATZ: Yeah. And she was like, “Is that okay?” And at that point I was like, “Yes, of course. Yeah.” And it was that long essay, that I had kept revising over the years, was me just kind of figuring out how to string words together. The revision process for THE CLOAK SOCIETY, was me learning how to write a book, and how to edit a book. Because the first draft was like ninety-five thousand words, I think.
ENNI: Oh my god!
KRAATZ: Which was far too long for middle grade, as it turns out. Well, not too long. I mean Soman Chainaniwrites…
ENNI: Oh, that’s true. He has door-stoppers.
KRAATZ: Yeah, actually, the last book I turned in, I texted him before I turned it in. Because I thought it was too long. And I said, “Hey, how many words was the first SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL book?” And he said, “Oh, I think it was maybe one-hundred-and-eleven-thousand, or something?” And I said, “Great. I just want to have that number in the back of my head, so if my editor pushes back on this seventy-five-thousand-word book I’m turning in I can say, ‘Well, Soman… we’re in the same publishing house, and…’”
ENNI: This is how I feel about Morgan Matson.
ENNI: I’m turning in my contemporary YA and I’m like, “Listen.” [Both laughing]. It was so interesting to me to hear you talking about almost backing into the idea for THE CLOAK SOCIETY. Because to me, when I look at that series, it feels like such an obvious allegory for a young person realizing that they are different from their peers, and their community. And that is so tied into what you just said about X-Men, and that making you feel welcome.
KRAATZ: It’s funny that you say that, because I’m realizing in this interview, that I’m really dumb [laughing]. And I don’t really get things that are very obvious until way after the fact.
ENNI: [Laughing] That’s how books are, I feel like.
KRAATZ: The question authors always get is like: “Is there a piece of you in this character? Is this character you?” And I never thought that. I never believed, like we were talking about. It is very much a story about a kid realizing: “Oh. I’m different from my family, [from] everything I know in my world.” So, CLOAK is a dozen supervillains underground, it’s basically all he knows. [He realizes that] I don’t think I agree with that. I think they’re wrong. And how do you reconcile that? And how do you reconcile what’s good, and what’s bad?
ENNI: And how do I rebel completely.
KRAATZ: Yes, exactly! And something we can talk about later, because I think it’s very interesting. The difference between middle grade stories, and YA stories. I think the heart of middle grade is just figuring out who you are. When you think about the middle grade audience, when you’re thinking about the twelve-year-old who’s thinking about what their place is in the world, for the most part. What it means to be a human? What do they value? I was doing an interview with a gay newspaper in Tennessee, like in Nashville, at The Southern Festival of Books. He’s asking me all about growing up in Odessa, and growing up in West Texas, and what that was like. And he asked me if I can I pitch the book for him? And I do. And he’s like: “So, it sounds like this is a perfect allegory for what it was like for you growing up in this conservative, very religious town. Not feeling like you fit in, or anything like that.” And it was the first moment that I was like, “Oh! You’re right!”
ENNI: That’s completely what it is.
KRAATZ: Yeah, “That’s completely what this book is about.” It’s one of the things that I find beautiful about middle grade writing. It’s that we all have gone through this moment, no matter who you are, of trying to come to the understanding of what it means to be you. Who you are. What your identity is.
ENNI: Someone said to me, and I say this often, and I forget who to credit with it, which I hate. But, said that the difference between middle grade and YA is that middle grade is about a kid realizing how they fit into a broader culture, and that YA is almost how you fit into your own mind. It’s total naval-gazing. Individual stuff. And middle grade is a little bit more broad world stuff, almost.
KRAATZ: Yes. I think it all comes down to the issue of where the conflict is. I think great middle grade stories are all rooted in internal conflict. So, “Who am I? What’s my place?” Whereas, in YA, I try and think about the audience with a twelve-year-old, versus a seventeen-year-old. A seventeen-year-old thinks so much more about the world-at-large. So, you can have a big global conflict. You can have Katniss versus the capital and, obviously, Katniss is dealing with a lot of internal conflicts. But, you can have this much larger, sort of overarching world changing conflict as well. Because that audience knows about it.
Just thinking of great middle grade stories, if you think about what a middle grade kid knows, it’s basically just family, school, maybe a club, or church or sport, or something like that. So, looking at middle grade books, it’s obviously that’s where these conflicts are going to derive out of. Even something, like take THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. That’s a big - allegories aside - it’s a very big fantasy book. And there’s a real good versus evil, but the conflict is derived out of that one brother who turns on his family. It’s all derived out of something a middle grade kid would be familiar with. That betrayal of a family member.
ENNI: It’s understandable.
KRAATZ: Yeah, they can relate to it. It’s like the perfect example everyone uses, but I’ll use it as well, is the Harry Potter Series. You take those first three books, and they’re slimmer. If you think about it, they don’t really leave Hogwarts, in most of the books. It’s not until the fourth book that they do the tri-wizard tournament…
ENNI: [The first time] anyone from outside is allowed in.
KRAATZ: Yeah. And that’s when people start dying. And that’s when crushes happen. That’s the first-time Voldemort makes an appearance. And that’s when events finally become an issue of not just Harry, what it means to be ‘the one.’ Or, what it means to be a wizard. It becomes more of an issue of, “Oh. We have a world to save.” And you can see that grow, and grow, and grow as the book becomes more YA and eventually, a YA novel.
ENNI: You’ve been a comic book reader your whole life. You’re working at Marvel. You understand the context of all those worlds, and then you get to make your own. How did you even begin?
KRAATZ: The first thing I did, I made a list of superpowers I thought were cool.
KRAATZ: That’s actually how I started character building. And that’s where I started the story, is characters, and trying to figure out who these people might be. It was one of two ways where I’d say, “Okay, I have a character that I know is going to be Alex’s foil.” Alex has telekinesis. He totally has that because that was the power I always wanted growing up.
ENNI: Because it’s the coolest one.
KRAATZ: Yeah, also I’m a huge Jean Grey fan, and I have a Phoenix tattoo. I know this power really well. And so, I was like, that’s mental, that’s sort of a mental power. So, I wanted his foil to have something more physical. I always liked the idea of colossus. He has metal skin, and stuff like that. I did not do near enough preplanning for the series, when I first started writing it. But the one thing I did plan ended up being the book cover for the third thing. I wanted Titan – that’s the big guy’s name – I wanted him to have metal underneath his skin. And I was like: “I can write the coolest scene, where he’s in an explosion, and just walks out. It looks like a Terminator.” Or something like that. Which is really gruesome when you think about it? But, oh, his skin is gonna get blown off.
ENNI: That’s so cool!
KRAATZ: Yeah, it’s on the third cover. I’m so impressed that I got away with it. I think they did tone it down a little bit. I think I had a charred flesh on one part of his face, and my editor was like, “Strike this.” [laughing] But coming up with that character was an issue of me being able to sit down and say: “Okay. What would it be like if I had never been able to be hurt physically? And I was always bigger than everyone that surrounded me? How might that have shaped who I was? What would that character be like, if they had that superpower?”
The other way is kind of like a reverse of saying: “Okay, I know I have a character type. I have this little sister sort of character who really is too young to be on this kid supervillain team, but really wants to be. And really wants to prove her worth. What superpower can I give her, that would kind of reflect that?” So, her name is The Mist, and people call her Misty. And she breaks into a million pieces. And that was a reflection of letting her personality decide what her power was.
It’s actually something that I think The Incredibles does so well. I think her name is Violet, who disappears whenever she gets shy. So, taking a look at that and thinking, how these two ideas of identity and superpowers can grow off of one another.
Actually, I write anime dub scripts. And the show I’m working on right now is called My Hero Academia, and it’s basically about kids in a superhero training school. And that’s a great way of getting these weird-ass powers that kind of reflect something about that character. To the point where the main character has to hurt himself to use his power. It’s one of those things that’s like, “Okay.” That’s such a great allegory for self-sacrifice, heroism. I’m fascinated by how superpowers kind of denote who you are.
ENNI: Which is what the X-Men is all about. They’re so good at that.
KRAATZ: Sure, yeah.
ENNI: So, let’s get to SPACE RUNNERS. From THE CLOAK SOCIETY, your first book, and a trilogy too! Talk me through tackling all of that and then get into your new series.
KRAATZ: Sure, now we’re getting into the brass tacks of publishing. SPACE RUNNERS is kind of a weird deal. I wrote THE CLOAK SOCIETY, and then I immediately wrote a contemporary YA, that I thought was amazing. I was very excited about it. And I was really excited to go into the YA world. And, it didn’t sell. My agent loved it. I loved it. And we sent it out to eight editors. And I got one reply to resubmit. And then I had, I think, four different editors say: “I really liked a lot of this. I would have bought it last year. But it’s too similar to FANGIRLby Rainbow Rowell. And so, we have three books like this in our slate.”
Because after that book hit so big, they had so many books like that being written. And this was all about the comic book fandom. It was one of those kind of crushing moments that is unavoidable in publishing, to have someone say, “This could have been a book.” It’s something you have no control over.
So, I got really depressed about it. And it’s hard to bounce back from something like that. It became one of those issues where, by that point, I’d quit my day job. I wasn’t writing anime dub scripts, or anything like that. I think I was teaching creative writing at the time as an adjunct. So, I was getting paid basically in free cookies and ice cream. And so, it became a thing not of, “Oh, I can take my time on a book, write whatever, and just sit around and dilly-dally.” To, “I have to sell a book now! This next one has to sell.” SPACE RUNNERS is weird because I’d done some ghost writing for Harper and some other publishing houses, and I had one of them come to me and say, “We have an idea for a middle grade series. Would you be interested in writing it?” And it was basically a one page outline, not really an outline even. It was basically a lot of like: “Oh, they’re flying cars. And there’s a resort on the moon. And aliens are involved.”
ENNI: Yeah, like bits.
KRAATZ: Yeah, it’s a log-line, it’s a pitch-line. I remember, I was mowing my lawn in Texas. It was very soon after I had quit my job, and I was kind of freaking out. And I got that email, and I read the pitch and I said: “This is so outside of my wheelhouse. Space – I’m afraid of it. It would have to be set in the future, obviously. I don’t want to write anything that’s set in the future, that’s a lot of work.” And so, I was like, “But, I’ll wait a couple of days.” It was a Friday, and I was like, “I’ll wait through the weekend, and respond on Monday.”
There’s something about it that just stuck with me. And I started thinking about just logistically, the mechanics, of like: “Okay. Well, if there was this trillionaire, who builds a resort on the moon. And he’s inviting all of these kids, scholarship winners, who are poor or impoverished kids. People who would actually never be able to afford to go. What’s driving that?” Just the idea of saying like: “Okay, if this is set forty years in the future, what does the world look like at that point? Is that something that we’re going to have to worry about?”
This is all in the middle of the drought in California, and thinking…
ENNI: And didn’t Texas, around that time, Texas was having that crazy deluge?
KRAATZ: Yeah, yeah. And so, a lot was going on. I had also just seen Mad Max: Fury Road [chuckles]. And so, I was like: “Okay, what if California was… the western third of the United States was kind of gone. It was just dry lands.”
ENNI: Yeah, unlivable.
KRAATZ: And so, what does a city look like at that point? This was pre-election, and there were a lot of people talking about immigration, not that we’re not talking about it now. But in Texas especially, you have the Mexican border. So, I started thinking about: “Well, if a third of the population of the United States in the West has to finally move into these cities. What happens to the people who can barely afford to live in those cities to begin with?” And the idea of like, “Oh, well, these are basically refugees, then.” And then it becomes much bigger with big, complicated issues.
I kind of fell in love with it. I was like: “Oh, there’s actually a lot of stuff. This isn’t a book about flying cars. It’s not about living on the moon. It’s a book about humanity.” Of course, it’s a book about humanity, that’s what all books are about. Then I realized that I had loved Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the Gene Wilder version, growing up. And I was like, “Okay, that’s kind of fun.” And the thing I loved about that movie was, you could always tell that there was something weird behind Wonka…
ENNI: Yeah, he’s not right.
KRAATZ: Yeah, and so, then I started asking: “What if Elijah West, this trillionaire… what if there is something sinister? Or, there is something more behind this than he’s just trying to be a philanthropist?” I started thinking about the main characters, and I wrote a fifty-page sample. And it was from the point of view from four different characters. I ended up changing it to just focus on Benny. It was one of those issues where he’s from the Dry Lands. He knows what it’s like to have to go into a city for food and to have people be like, “We don’t want you.” Imagine being this kid who has to live in a caravan out in the desert, and you’re looking at the moon every night and you know there’s a place up there. And you know there’s something else up there. And it just seems so far out of reach.
I said I didn’t like cars, I don’t. I drive five miles under the speed limit half the time. But my dad, when I was growing up, built race cars. He drag-raced. And so I spent a lot of weekends out in Penwell, Texas – that flat terrain – just watching. Sitting around in the sun baking, waiting for my dad to do one drag race. It was so boring. I hated it. But he had this beautiful 1957 Chevelle. I remember the feeling of him taking me out to one of these desert roads in Odessa, and putting me in his lap behind it, and putting my hands on the steering wheel, and just flooring it. Just the vibration of that car, it felt like we were gonna shoot off into space just doing that. That feeling, that rush of excitement and adrenaline, I was like: “I can tap into that. I don’t like cars, but I can tap into that.”
Also, this came later in the story, about the development of how this idea was gonna end up working, but if CLOAK was all about family, especially the relationship between a mother and a son, I made a conscious decision that this was gonna be a story about family, and father and son. So, at the beginning, Benny’s dad is dead. And that is the impetus for him to go to even apply for this scholarship to the moon, is that he can do something for his family, if he goes and does this. It’s very different than CLOAK. Because in CLOAK, Alex has his mother who is the most evil supervillain, and is very much the center of the Cloak Society, telling him exactly what he should be doing. Whereas in SPACE RUNNERS, a lot of Benny’s strife comes from his thinking about his father, who isn’t there anymore, and what his father would want to do. And how to make his family proud.
ENNI: Him having to make sense of the absence.
KRAATZ: Exactly! And suddenly being – he has a grandmother, who has two little kids – but suddenly being the parental figure in a weird way. Of course, all of this is taking place… the book starts out with him racing to the moon. But it’s threaded in there. Especially the guilt of sitting at a table on the moon, in this crazy resort, with a pitcher of water in front of you. Watching it sweat and condense, and thinking, knowing, that: “Oh, my family is back in the desert right now. And I have to make sure I don’t screw up anything here.” As the story goes along, that gets much bigger in the sense that there are asteroids, and it looks like Earth might be in trouble. You can take that, sort of one more facet of a character. He is there for his family, and doing everything for them. And then that blows up into a much bigger problem.
ENNI: It becomes his emotional driver.
KRAATZ: Yeah, it becomes an issue of, if Earth is in danger, if he’s gonna save his family, he has to save the entire world in order to do that. So, taking that one small facet and blowing that up into a much bigger, again, internal conflict of: “Who am I? How do I do this? Is this my place?” Once I realized all of those things, I ended up saying, “Oh, let me write a bigger outline and see what I can do.” Once I kind of realized a lot of those fundamental elements of the story, I said, “Yeah, sign me up. I love this.”
I know a lot of people who write packaging books, or books like this that are pitched to you. Even if you are writing your own idea, I think there comes a time where something just clicks and it’s no longer an idea that someone gave you, it’s an idea that you love. Packaging, or a publisher pitching you an idea, or telling you what kind of book they want you to write, sometimes gets into a murky territory. Because it’s a creative process. Whose story is this? But I always think of it in terms of… you could pitch Romeo and Juliet to a hundred different authors, and the books they’re gonna turn in, those are gonna all be very different books. I think there is a time when you’re writing - even if it’s something like an idea that you sold, or someone pitches to you – it clicks, and it no longer is this foreign thing. It’s something that is wholly yours.
ENNI: I really appreciate you talking about that process, because it’s really something that, for many reasons, people don’t talk about. Or, aren’t allowed to talk about. But it is something that also goes part and parcel with being like: “I want to be a professional in this world. And this is a huge part of how things get done now.” Whether or not people want to talk about it, that’s what’s happening. And it is the kind of thing where if you have the opportunity, and you can make something your own, there ain’t no shame in that game.
KRAATZ: Yeah! It’s never been an issue. I always forget that that initial elevator pitch wasn’t mine, because I’ve been working with it for so long.
ENNI: That’s such an interesting thing. Because when you have, especially sort of an odd collection of ideas, this is when you… I feel like that example is a good one of… this is why you are an author. And the editor who came up with that, is the editor. And you are the one who was like, “I’m gonna find an emotional thread that connects all of these disparate parts, and build it into a story.”
KRAATZ: Yeah, and you know how publishing works. No book is written by one person, it is a village effort. So, I have my M.F. A. And I think that one of the issues that I have with M.F.A. Programs, or at least my program… And a lot of people I’ve talked to feel the same way. That there’s the idea that if you want to be a writer, and you want to write professionally – I get a lot of questions from aspiring writers, saying, “Should I go into M.F.A.?” And I think it’s different for everyone. One of the things I find really problematic about the way the M.F.A. system at a lot of schools are set up, is the idea that you’re instilled with this concept that if you want to write professionally, and you want to be a capital-A author, if you just write long enough, and you just work on your craft long enough, everything will just happen for you. Don’t worry about agents. Don’t worry about market. Don’t worry about the publishing industry. Don’t worry about what taxes are. Just keep working on this craft. It will all just kind of work out.
When I look at the people that I know in YA, and middle grade, and people from school who are successful and managed to have a career that is working in publishing in some way, it’s people who realized that: “Okay, well yes. The craft is, obviously, important, that’s the heart of this. But, you also have to remember this is an industry.”
ENNI: It’s a job.
KRAATZ: And it’s a job. Writing isn’t a mystical process that like, “I pray to the muse, and then it comes to me.” Half of it is making it a daily routine, and making sure you’re responding to emails. That’s one thing that I hear a lot of authors say, and something I totally agree with, is, “I didn’t realize how much of my life as an author wouldn’t be me writing.” You know? It would be filling out a marketing packet, or going to a festival, or just trying to sit down and figure out my taxes, and stuff like that.
ENNI: Oh, my god. Responding to emails.
KRAATZ: Oh, so many emails! Trying to keep some sort of semblance of a social media presence.
ENNI: So, you feel that a M.F.A. did not really…
KRAATZ: The M.F.A. definitely made me a better writer, one-hundred percent. But, [when] I left my program - and it was an issue of, if you had a full manuscript, you could go to an agent’s soiree - but that was it. So, I didn’t know anything about publishing as a business. There was a whole course, I think, that was about how to make up a proposal. But, unless you’re doing a nonfiction book, I’m not gonna pitch a middle grade novel proposal as a debut author, who’s never written anything before.
ENNI: That’s not how it works.
KRAATZ: Yeah, I think that that is kind of… and especially the middle grade and YA markets. The industry moves so quickly. SPACE RUNNERS is going to be the death of me, because it’s four books, and they’re nine months apart. Right now, book one came out a month ago. Book two is in copy edits, I’ll get those back soon. Book three is due in two months. So, it moves very quickly. And you have to treat it like a job. Because if you don’t, if I just wait until I feel inspired every day, I’d never get anything written, or anything done.
ENNI: We were talking a little bit before we started recording, that I’m in a position where I am going to be able to quit the day job soon, which is so exciting, and also really scary [laughing]. So, I’d love to hear how you tackled that? Or how you found a balance for yourself.
KRAATZ: This is the worst thing to say, because I know how horrible it sounds. Especially to anyone who all they want to do is quit their job to be able to write. [But] I think I was so much more productive when I had a full-time job. I wrote the three books in the CLOAK SOCIETY while I was working a normal 9-5 job. It was one of those issues where I knew I had to write for three hours on every week night, and for eight hours on Saturday. Because if I didn’t, there literally was no other time to do it. That was the only time I had. So, I had it scheduled. And as you know, having that writing schedule, if you’re writing every night after dinner, something in your brain clicks and you’re like, “Oh, this is writing time.”
ENNI: This is the time.
KRAATZ: Yeah, exactly. And so, after I quit my job, one, I immediately freaked out. So, I took on four different free-lance jobs. I was ghost-writing, and teaching, and I was getting into script writing at the time. I was way overcommitted. Now, I’m very fortunate in the sense that I get to be a fulltime writer. But there are those days where it’s like, “Oh, I could just not write two-thousand words today, and watch all of House of Cards. And I’ll just write more tomorrow.” Or, “Um, I could just play this video game right now, instead of finishing my draft.” It’s hard. It’s difficult to set up that self-discipline. How are you looking at it?
ENNI: It’s really interesting because, I think what actually is the problem, is that right now I have three jobs. I have a day job, and then the podcast, and then the writing. So, I do well with two jobs. And not so much with three, though the fact that I’ll be able to… I think it’s gonna work, because I think it’s gonna be writing in the morning, podcast in the afternoon, and then probably writing… we’ll see [laughs]. But, I wrote five books while I had a day job, before I was doing the podcast. So, that was the x-factor that kind of tripped me up. I was like, “Oh, why do I feel like I have no time?” And it’s like, “Because you don’t.” You can do two things at once, but not three. So, I feel like discipline isn’t going to be a problem, but I’m also… I don’t know. I’ve never not had a day job.
KRAATZ: It’s also the fear of suddenly, this thing that was something you’d done on the side, something you did as a hobby or a passion…
ENNI: With joy.
KRAATZ: Yeah, with joy. It’s the thing that’s putting food on the table, and something that’s paying your rent. So, there’s this huge pressure suddenly, that like I said earlier, the realization that, the next book I write has to sell. Or else, I have to get another job, and this section of my life is over. And it has to go back to being a thing I do in my spare time, and for funsies, or as a passion. And not something I’m devoting all my time and energy to.
ENNI: That’s such a good point, and a way to frame it. The issue is, then you’re in a place of having to do it out of fear. Fear that it’s gonna be taken away from you.
KRAATZ: And it’s so hard to write under that. There was a moment, I am trying to remember, when SPACE RUNNERS sold. It may have been 2015, and I knew it was out. So, I was in that horrible moment where I knew it was on submission and trying to distract myself, and I was working on this other passion project that I really want to take off. And, the writing is just not coming, not coming, not coming. And it was the moment that I got a call saying, “The book sold.” I celebrated… I woke up the next morning and sat down to work on this other project, and it was such a relief. Because it was like: “Okay. I have these four books coming.” And suddenly I can do this one for fun. I can write SPACE RUNNERS and not have to worry that, “Oh, I’m doing something horribly wrong here, and it’s all gonna fall apart.” It is such a relief, a sudden strange relief, that you don’t even always notice it’s there, or realize it’s happening. Until it is suddenly taken away, if you’re very lucky.
ENNI: I’m very hopeful that with the day job gone, I’ll be able to potentially work on two things at once. And I’m really nervous that that just isn’t something I can do.
KRAATZ: I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s always, I’m never working on the project I want to be working on. And that’s how every project I’ve ever done, basically, has gotten its start. It’s what I was working on, instead of what I am on deadline for. Even CLOAK, I wrote that book while, hopefully, writing my grad school thesis. But, I think that’s always the issue.
ENNI: [Laughing] Yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna go away, unfortunately. Someone the other day, was saying, like, “Oh, the book I love the most is always the one I’m working on at the time.” And I was like, “What? For whom is that true?”
KRAATZ: Oh god, I wish that were the case.
ENNI: Yeah, I was like, “That’s the first time I’ve heard that.”
KRAATZ: In the same way that when people ask what the worst part of the publishing process is? I’m always like, “Whatever part I’m in right now!”
ENNI: Whatever you’re dealing with at that moment, is the worst.
KRAATZ: I would much rather be revising a book, than drafting a book.
ENNI: Drafting is terrible. But also, - I don’t know if you feel this way - but I can revise for many more hours than I can draft. Usually, every day, I’m like, “I want to get to two-thousand words.” That’s my session target. And then sometimes it takes two-hours, or it can happen in an hour. But then, you are just mentally wrung out. You’re done.
KRAATZ: I do the same thing, it’s usually about two-thousand words. But, I wish I didn’t. Because there is that thing, like if it’s an amazing, good writing day, and I get to that so quickly… then something in my brain is like, “Well, you’re done!” I could keep working, I could keep writing.
ENNI: Our organization is backfiring. Okay, thank you for giving me advice [laughing].
KRAATZ: No, I mean, take it with a grain of salt, because it’s different for everyone.
ENNI: You’re like, “I’ll check in with you in a month, and we’ll see where we are at.”
ENNI: I do want to talk a little bit about… you said you wrote that YA novel. You stayed in the middle grade space. But, how are you feeling about jumping between those two genres? Or, how do you think about that going forward?
KRAATZ: I have two more books in the SPACE RUNNERS series to write and one to edit, so I’m still very much in middle grade. I’m working on another project right now that’s YA. And it’s one of those things where, I want to have characters who can cuss, and make-out. And that larger world implication that we were talking about earlier. I want those conflicts to be a little bigger, and I want to write something with maybe a love story in it, or something like that. It’s freeing in some ways, but at the same time, middle grade has its own perks that are freeing compared to YA.
I’m always interested in looking at how authors can bounce back-and-forth. Do they take a penname? Do they abbreviate their name? And it is such a weird, nebulous, gray area on some books. Where it’s like what is the difference, really? Besides ages, and conflict. We’re really straddling the line between middle grade and YA.
ENNI: Yeah, some middle grade is so adult.
KRAATZ: Yeah, and to the point where, I always tell people, they’re like, “Don’t you feel like you can’t write real, important stuff in middle grade?” And I’m like, “No. Look at GEORGE.” Or, I don’t know what SPEAK falls under?
ENNI: Oh, probably younger YA, I guess.
KRAATZ: It’s a fourteen, or a fifteen-year-old protagonist. Any issue in the world right now is being written about in the middle grade. One of the things my first editor told me, and it’s something that I hold in my heart any time I think about middle grade characterization. This is when we were having a conversation, and she was like, “We need to age these characters down a little bit.” And I said: “I don’t know if I can do that. I don’t know that I’m comfortable… I don’t know how a twelve-year-old feels.” As opposed to a fifteen-year-old… like I know what a fifteen-year-old feels or thinks! And she said: “No. You’re approaching this the wrong way. You don’t need to dumb anything down.” These characters are still having these same feelings, they just don’t understand the feeling they’re having. They don’t have the self-awareness to say like, “Oh! I’m feeling very upset right now because of x-y-z.” They’re just upset. It’s a lot of my tooling, whenever it came back from scaling these characters down in ages, was like: “Oh. This character is still really frustrated. But, maybe can’t really vocalize exactly what that frustration is, or where that frustration is stemming from, in the way that a seventeen-year-old would be able to.”
ENNI: It’s a different set of vocabulary that you’re able to work with.
KRAATZ: Yeah, and it’s not an issue of a literal vocabulary, it’s an emotional vocabulary. They don’t have the concept of what these emotions mean. Also, they’re going into puberty, and their lives are about to be ruined [both laughing]. It’s all these new emotions, and feelings. How do you swim through that tide, and pick out what you’re actually feeling?
ENNI: Do you feel like… you’re talking about romantic plotlines and things like that as well. Do you feel like you want the opportunity to write a book that’s about a coming out story? Or, something that is maybe more explicit about that?
KRAATZ: Oh yeah. Especially – as I mentioned a little bit earlier – especially after the election, and state politics. As soon as the election happened, I was like, “I’m gonna write the gayest book I could possibly write.”
ENNI: I think a lot of people felt like that.
KRAATZ: Yeah, I know. Yeah, yeah. I was talking to Alex London [a.k.a. C.A. London. Listen to his First Draft interview here] around that time. I also feel like everyone stopped writing for several months. So, I was talking to Alex London, who I adore. I just mentioned that it was really difficult for me to write right now. He responded to my email, like, “Yeah, this book I’m writing just took a real dark turn.” [Both laughing].
This is something that I struggle with. I’ll talk to you about it. So, I’m working on this book that I don’t really want to talk about, because I hate talking about things that are in progress. But the core tenet was a love story. I started writing it, and I had ten-thousand words of it, and it’s a book I’m taking my time with. It’s my first big love story and I really want this to work. It’s a book about grieving, and stuff like that. So, a couple of things happened. It was last summer, I guess, the Pulse Nightclub shooting happened, and politics were really heating up. And I had to take a real long look at myself. I sat down to work on this book one day, and I said, “Okay, why is this character a straight love story?” Because it was a boy and a girl. “Why have I done this? Is it because it’s necessary for it to be? Or, is it because that’s just the story that I grew up hearing?”
And what is my responsibility, as a gay man, to write a gay love story? It’s something I struggle with. I went through it, and I realized that there was no reason for this to be a straight love story. In fact, it was kind of boring with it as it was. To the point where, all I did was go through - and the prologue for this book was eight-hundred words – and the only time that the gender of the character that the guy is talking about is revealed, is when he asks her name, at the end.
So, all I did was change the name from Amy to Adam. And I reread it, and there’s a section toward the end of that, where he’s talking about like, “I fell in love very slowly, but then I loved how comfortable I was with her.” And just changing the gender of that character, I reread it, and I was like, “Oh my god! This opens up such a different facet of this character, and what this character has gone through.”
It’s one of those things where, I have no real desire to write a coming out story, or anything like that. But, I struggle with this when I read about representation. I look at issues of representation, and talking about my responsibility as a gay man, and what I should be doing. And it is one of those things where, I make this argument to myself too, where it’s like I say, “Okay, if I have a gay character, what does it matter?” Do I offhandedly have to say that he’s gay? Who cares? Which is how the world should work. But no, if that character, if you don’t say it, if you don’t really address that fact, the things that character has gone through are so different than what a straight character would have gone through.
Just in the same way that reading that eight-hundred words, that character changed so drastically [by] just changing the name of the person who he was talking about. And suddenly, it was a much more complex issue.
ENNI: I love that it’s almost like you had planted that already. You had to change so little, to really transform the story.
KRAATZ: Yeah. Well, like I said, I guess I’m the king of realizing things way after the fact, of what I was doing.
ENNI: I think I’m usually in the third revision when I’m like, “Oh, I think I know what this book is about.”
KRAATZ: The way I approach revisions in dub scripts that I write, has really helped me as a writer in other ways. Because what I do is, I work off of crib sheets. I work off of a straight translation. And the first time I go through, I’m basically just looking at how I can take this translation, and change it to where it means the same thing, basically. But, it fits the animated mouth movements in English. And the second time, I throw out the translation completely, and I go through and I’m just making sure that it flows well, and it sounds good in English. It sounds like real people speaking. The voices are true to the character. And it’s not until the third revision, that I really start to realize what that episode is about, in turns of like, “Oh, I see now how this conversation, five-minutes in, is directly related dramatically to where this ends eighteen minutes in.”
ENNI: Oh, that’s so interesting, getting to kind of deconstruct it.
KRAATZ: It’s such a technical way of approaching storytelling, it’s changed the way that I write. It took me a long time to realize that the first drafts could be trash. That it’s fine. That it was something that’s going to change. That it was okay for it to not make any sense, because the third draft, or the tenth draft, or whatever, is where it ends deconstructing, and comes together.
When I was teaching writing students in undergrad, one of the fundamental things that we did every day is we sat down and I said: “We’re free-writing. Just word vomit on the page, that’s fine.” Because I know what it’s like to sit down and be so stuck on perfecting that first paragraph, that first sentence, that we’re never gonna finish the book that way.
ENNI: I do feel like it’s taken ten years, or however long I’ve been writing, to be like, I know about myself. That I have to write what it isn’t first. And then almost every single second draft is completely a rewrite. Because it’s so much of just feeling it out, and getting the character, and figuring it out. It’s frustrating to know that this time-consuming way seems to be what needs to happen. Especially when you’re dealing with – I think you and I are similar in that – I come with ideas. I come with like, “What do I want to talk about? What does this all mean?”
There’s a lot of complex, bigger issue things. And then, it just takes time to whittle down how does that align with the character? And then you just kind of end up realizing you’re telling yourself this whole other story. So, there’s a lot of self-discovery involved in it too. And I can’t be rushed in some ways. Or, premeditated. It’s like your subconscious jumping in there, and doing what it wants.
KRAATZ: Of course, that’s easy to say until we’re on deadline. And it’s like, “Okay, well, I have to write ten-thousand words, and it has to be on the page at some point.”
ENNI: Literally, part of having to get rid of this day job, is because, I realized not only can I not do three jobs - I did three jobs okay - until the writing had a deadline. And then I was like, “Oh, now I’m a disaster.”
KRAATZ: Because now it’s a real thing.
ENNI: Yeah, and now all three jobs have these crazy deadlines, and that’s just too much logistics for my brain. I can’t figure it out! We wrap up with advice. I would love to hear…
KRAATZ: You know what I like to do? And it really helped me. And it seems so simple, but I think it’s something that we don’t really think about. If you’re having a good writing day, sit down and really think about the logistics of what that day looked like. In terms of, what time of day was it? When did you eat? What was the temperature? Was it silent? Were there people around? Did you play with your cat right before? Because all those kind of factors… this job is horrible. You’re alone, and you’re stuck at your computer, and haven’t showered, sometimes, in days. And you’re on deadline. So, any way that you can help yourself, I say do it.
I always tell my students, “Make a list of all those things, and see if you can replicate that.” So, I know that I have to eat right before I write, because if I don’t, I’ll just be thinking about what snack I can go make, and that’s an excuse for me to get up and go to the kitchen. I put a water and a coffee, so I don’t have to get up and get anything from the kitchen again. Any reason to not do it. I have to write in complete silence. I have to be a little cold. It’s all these [things]. I know it’s kind of dumb to think like, “Oh, I have to set the thermostat to a specific temperature before I can sit down to write.” But, it’s another one of those things that are routine. Where, if your body feels like it’s writing time, if I’m full, and I have water, and I don’t have excuses to get up and get the right temperature, and it’s the right time of day. Then it’s that much easier to slide into it.
ENNI: It is like world class athletes do the same thing. And it’s not to say that we’re… whatever. It feels funny to compare the two things, but they understand that that is their job. And they have to get this much sleep, and to have the right shoes, and take the ice bath. They have to set up all of these things, to make sure that in the moment, when it matters, they can perform at their peak.
ENNI: Now you say your Joan Didion thing.
KRAATZ: Now, I’m thinking, is it Joan Didion? But, I think that she talks about sleeping in the same room with her manuscript, and that’s crazy. But, I kind of focus the way that I go about writing the next day in the way she did, I think. Where she would start by editing what she wrote the day before, and using that as a segue to get back into it. And maybe not start… I hate not stopping at the end of a chapter, I’d much rather stop in the middle of it, so it’s easier to get into.
ENNI: Some people stop in the middle of a sentence.
KRAATZ: Oh now, I couldn’t do that! That would drive me insane. I would be up in the middle of the night because I didn’t put a period at the end of it.
ENNI: I’ll get to the end of something, and, you know that feeling when you’re like, “I’m winding down. I can’t keep going”? I’ll go to caps lock and I’ll do bullets. And I’ll be like, “This happens next, and this happens next,” and little snippets of dialogue. And be like, this is what the next scene is gonna look like. And the next day, it’s always such a relief to be like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.” And then I have a visual for it, and you can kind of dive back in so much more easily.
KRAATZ: I do something like that too. Where, if I’m in a section, and it’s like, “Oh, this is kind of boring, I don’t want to have to write this part.” I’ll do all caps, and I’m like, “Description goes here, and I’m going to skip to something interesting.” And the next day, it’s like, “Oh. Well, if this is boring for me, does it even need to be in there?” It’s a nice segue of self-assessment at a job where you have such little comprehension if something’s working or not.
ENNI: It’s completely true, yeah! The boring stuff, transitions and things like that, it’s like, “How can I avoid this?” You know?
KRAATZ: I have a much more technical piece of advice for anyone writing middle grade, especially if you’re doing action adventure, and stuff like that. CLOAK series is about supervillains. At the end of the first book, these kids end up stealing a car. You don’t see it, but you know it happens. And my editor kind of had a problem with it, and so it all happened… it kind of cut to the window, and it all happened off screen.
And so, there was a moment, in the second book when I was drafting it, that I knew, for a fact, that I had to have these kids steal a car. It’s like, they were trapped in an underground lair, and they could only get to the garage, and there’s only one way out of there. And they’ve got to go all the way across town to get away from the bad guys. And so, I didn’t know what to do. I’d written myself into a corner. And so, what I did was, I was like: “I know my editor is going to have a problem with this. I’m going to put three different instances in this book, of these kids having to steal a car and drive, and then I’ll see what she says.”
And sure enough. I got my editorial letter, and you can see her getting more and more frustrated. She’s like, “I don’t know about this.” And then the second time, she’s like, “Well, I don’t think we should have them driving.” And then by the third time, she’s like, “We really cannot have them driving.” And so, I said: “Oh, okay. That’s fine. What if I took out two of them, and we left only one?” That was me, and the preplanning in my head, about how can I get this by my editor.
But the weird thing too was, once we finally were on the phone together, she’s like, “I’m still not really into them driving.” And so, she said, “What if we cut the chapter, after this line of dialogue?” And I reread it, and I said, “Okay.” So, they go. And someone says, “I’m gonna hotwire the car” basically. They put everyone in the car. They close the door. And that’s it.
ENNI: And then, it’s cut to black.
KRAATZ: Yeah, and then the next chapter starts with them back at their secret hideout. And she says, “Yeah, let’s do that.” I said, “So, we’re just cutting the part where they start the car. They still steal a car.” And she goes, “Ah, but Jeramey, we don’t see it. So, we really have no idea how they got back.” I was like, “Okay. I can deal with this.” Which is so funny too, because SPACE RUNNERS is all about kids in cars in space. Flying cars everywhere.
ENNI: It’s the unseen panels.
KRAATZ: Yeah, exactly! Yeah, yeah, yeah. Tying it all back, I love it!
ENNI: Love it, love it! That’s so interesting, I love that. Your editor is like, “This will make me feel comfortable.” [Both laughing] That’s so sweet, almost. This has been so fun, thank you so much.
KRAATZ: Oh, this is wonderful.
ENNI: I’m so happy we could finally make it happen.
KRAATZ: I know!
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Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent; Linda Holmes, author and host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast; Jonny Sun, internet superstar, illustrator of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Gmorning, Gnight! and author and illustrator of Everyone’s an Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too; Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender; John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; or Rhett Miller, musician and frontman for The Old 97s. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.
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