Author Archives: Kat Shepherd

About Kat Shepherd

Reader. Author. Educator. Animal person. Math lover. Ardent do-gooder and DIY philanthropist.

Help from Hollywood

Long before I ever started writing fiction, I worked as a script reader for studios specializing in children and family entertainment. It was a low-level freelance job that paid just enough to cover my monthly cellphone bill, but it was perhaps the best education I could ever have asked for as a writer.

My job was to read and provide “coverage” of screenplays that had been submitted to the studios, i.e. giving a brief summary of each script’s story, critiquing it, and determining whether it was a good potential fit for the studio. One of the most important things coverage did for me was it moved me away from thinking of a story as either something I liked or didn’t like, and instead moved me to approach every story as a potential problem to solve. Whether a script was initially a strong one or a weak one, my number one job was to approach it with the goal of figuring out how to make it better. That’s right; one of the first lessons that Hollywood taught me is that nothing is perfect, and almost everything is fixable.

Like a lot of writers, I tend to be a perfectionist with a flair for the dramatic. When I’m writing it feels like every sentence is a high-stakes decision that will determine the ultimate fate of the book, my career, and possibly even my ability to survive another day on this planet. While it can be paralyzing, before I sold anything that wasn’t that necessarily a big a problem for me. If I wanted to take years to write a book I could. But when deadlines come into the picture, perfectionism is no longer a workable plan, especially when those deadlines usually aren’t that far apart. Now when I’m working on a first draft, my husband and I have a joke in our house: “We’ll fix it in post.” It’s a reference to the cherished Hollywood tradition of fixing errors in the post-production editing process, after the movie has finished shooting. In the film and TV business, nothing is ever considered a perfect finished product up until the very moment it’s released, and then the audience and critics can gleefully start ripping it apart.

Hollywood is known for its short attention span. Studio execs are inundated with hundreds of scripts a month, and they might hear several dozen pitches a day. As a result, they wanted their notes broken down in easily-distilled categories. The execs I worked with were most interested in four main elements: premise, plot structure, characterization, and dialogue. By focusing on specific elements rather than the piece as a whole, it allowed me to determine what made a particular story resonate or fall flat. I could quickly identify strengths, and if something didn’t land, it gave me an efficient way to figure out what wasn’t working and why.

This has been invaluable in my own work. I always start with the story’s concept or premise. Hollywood is big on “high concept” ideas. This simply means that your story’s premise can easily be pitched and communicated. It succinctly answers the question, “What is this about?” Because I write for kids, having a high concept idea is a pretty good place to start. If a bunch of kids want to know what my book series is about, I want to make sure I can pitch it to them in one sentence and grab their attention before they lose interest and scatter. Not every great idea has to be high-concept, but I have found in my own work that if I can’t easily communicate my premise, it might be a sign that my story has problems.

Highlighting the importance of plot might be the Captain Obvious move of the year, but in screenwriting when we talk about plot we’re really talking about structure and pacing. Everyone’s writing process is different, but working as a script reader turned me into a dedicated outliner. In screenwriting, structure is everything; lots of times if a story isn’t working, it is likely a problem with either the structure or the pacing. My mom always used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there.” Focusing on structure keeps me focused on where I’m going and how I’m getting there. It’s purposeful, and it makes for efficient and effective storytelling. I think of the plot structure as the skeleton of the story. If the skeleton isn’t solid, then it’s going to cause problems down the line when we start adding the rest of the body.

If the plot is the skeleton, the characters are the muscle. They do the moving and the heavy lifting. Because I was reading for a kids’ network, my job was to find kid-driven stories. If the kids weren’t driving the plot, it was a pass. As a writer I always have to make sure that my characters are driving the plot, and not the other way around. Beyond the inciting event, the story shouldn’t just happen to characters; we want it to be driven by the characters’ choices and actions. Characters also have to be rich and nuanced and feel authentic. Scripts where a character felt more like a prop, or seemed to be there solely to stand in for an idea or lesson of some kind, were less successful. For novels I lump voice in with characterization. When reading for character, I was always look for honesty and authenticity. In other words, it’s the character’s voice we want to hear, not the author’s.

Because screenplays are so reliant on dialogue, working as a reader gave me a lot of insight into how dialogue can make or break a story. Dialogue is our best way of getting to know characters and build conflicts that keep the story moving. One of the main stumbling blocks for dialogue is when it doesn’t feel natural. Readers can spot inauthentic dialogue from a mile away. My biggest pet peeve as a reader was when kids didn’t talk like real kids. It immediately pulled me out of the story, and each time your reader gets pulled out of your story, it makes it that much harder to bring them back. The other problem is when characters don’t have distinct voices. I struggled with this in Babysitting Nightmares: The Shadow Hand, because I had four preteen girls with common interests. It took a lot of extra character work and revision to make sure that each girl felt distinct, and I’m still not sure I got there.

If you’re worried about how your dialogue is landing, a table read is a really easy way to test it out. In Hollywood screenwriters often host table reads, where they invite actors or friends sit around a table and read a screenplay out loud. Invite a few folks over and have them do the dialogue of your scene. Listen to how they sound. Ask them how they felt reading it. This is a really effective and fast way to spot and fix dialogue problems. If you’re feeling shy or short on time, act out the scenes yourself. I do this all the time when I’m workshopping dialogue in my books. I’ll use physical gestures, move around the room, and speak in different voices so I can imagine how the characters might talk about what they’re feeling in the scene. Unlike film and TV where actors bring the writing to life, books have to rely on the reader’s imagination to bring the authors’ words to life. Don’t be shy about channelling your inner actor to make sure that your character’s voices will be heard.

The time I spent reading for film and TV was a huge gift I gave my writer self, because it forced me to look at my own work through a completely different lens. Many writers dedicate time and energy to reading within their lane, but consuming content outside your lane is a really effective way to inject some much-needed outside perspective on your own work. If you’re feeling stuck in a rut or uncertain of what your own story needs, go check out something completely different. And don’t just read; watch movies and watch TV. Watch what your audience watches, and take notes. Definitely watch the good stuff, but make sure you cover the bad stuff, too. I read a lot of great screenplays, but I also read a lot terrible screenplays, and every one of them taught me something different. The beauty of writing is that every experience brings an opportunity to learn something new.

 

Author PhotoKat Shepherd is a writer and former classroom teacher living in Minnesota with her husband, two dogs, and a rotating series of foster dogs. Her Babysitting Nightmares series (Macmillan/Imprint) debuts June 5, 2018. You can find Kat at katshepherd.com or connect with her on Twitter @bookatshepherd.

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Filed under Advice, Character Development, Characters, craft~writing, Deadlines, Editing and Revising, middle grade, Middle Grade, Plotting, process, Screenwriting, series, Uncategorized, Writing

Stories that Resonate

Darcey Rosenblatt’s debut novel, LOST BOYS, is the story of a young boy who is pulled into the very adult world of war. It is heartbreaking imagine any child suffering the horror of violent conflict, but for many children across the world, living through war is a daily reality. UNICEF reports that about half of all civilian casualties in armed conflict are children, but the ravages of war go beyond injury and death: hunger, disease, psychological trauma, and disruption of schooling are just a few of the painful scars that war leaves in its wake.

As authors, parents, and educators, we often struggle with how to expose our own children to the realities of the world without overwhelming them. Books offer a window that allow kids to explore frightening or difficult subjects from a place of relative safety. Several years ago I was in the audience of a panel discussion that explored the topic of writing about war for young people. Each author on the panel could recall a book they had read in childhood that was pivotal in building their childhood understanding of armed conflict.

For me, the most memorable books about war were those I used in my own classroom teaching. Deborah Ellis’ THE BREADWINNER and Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ SO FAR FROM THE BAMBOO GROVE both showed the devastating impact of conflict on children and families, regardless of which “side” the family was on. My students found Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ book particularly powerful, as our study of the novel always culminated in a visit from the author. There were hugs, tears, and questions after questions. Even years later my students talk about what Yoko’s story meant to them.

Today I asked fellow Emus to share their own memories of books about war that resonated with them. Here are their thoughts.

Sarvinder Naberhaus says:

NUMBER THE STARS is a wonderful story of a nation and children’s heroism. I love how children were part of the process of risking their lives to save others.

Debbi Michiko Florence writes:

FAREWELL TO MANZANAR was the first book that taught me about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. I was in 4th grade and I had a billion questions. Fortunately I had a Japanese American teacher. Then I learned my dad and his family had been interned. I still have that book today on my shelf. I bought a copy for my daughter to read as well.

Terry Pierce writes:

I can’t recall a single book about war from my childhood, but if songs could count, I’d say that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young influenced me. I can still recite many of their anti-war songs. The simplicity of the lyrics, harmony and guitar in “Find the Cost of Freedom” are powerful. The other song that resonated strongly with me was “Ohio”. I still remember sitting in shock watching the news of the four Kent State student protesters being killed by the Ohio national guard. It was an eye-opening moment for me to realize that peaceful protesters could be murdered by our own military. Ohio was a strong reflection of the anger and sorrow so many people experienced during that time.

Christina Uss says:

I feel like I was woefully unexposed to books that about war or conflict when I was young. All that pops into my mind was Johnny Tremain, a tale which I remember felt hard to understand and archaic. War appeared to be something that happened elsewhere, long ago, and would never touch me or anyone I knew. The kidlit books I’m reading now and discussing with my kids are enlightening us both about the resilience and vulnerability of children in countries hit by war – I was particularly touched by Ibtisam Barakat’s TASTING THE SKY and BALCONY ON THE MOON about coming of age in Israeli-occupied Palestine. I wrote to Ibtisam and she ended up sending a postcard to my daughter to say hello in Arabic (one of her favorite things as a child was having pen pals from around the world. Even if she couldn’t travel, her words could.)

We are so happy that Darcey Rosenblatt and LOST BOYS have added to the rich list of titles that help young readers begin to grasp the impact of war. Congratulations, Darcey!


Kat Shepherd is a writer and former classroom teacher living in Los Angeles with her husband, two dogs, and a rotating series of foster dogs. Her Babysitting Nightmares series (Macmillan/Imprint) debuts in fall 2018. You can find Kat at katshepherd.com or connect with her on Twitter @bookatshepherd.

 

 

 

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Robots on Parade!

THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY is an action-packed sci-fi adventure that will keep middle-graders turning the pages to follow every nail-biting twist and turn of this thrilling tale. Kids will also be won over by protagonist Miranda’s unforgettable robot, Ruby. I certainly was! In fact, Amazon listed THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY as its Number One New Release in Children’s Robot Fiction Books, so to celebrate I thought I’d ask other EMLA debut authors about their favorite robots.

Hayley Barrett says:

I’ll take the Jetson’s wise-cracking, big-hearted, all-capable Rosey. She’d roll in on her one leg, red eyes blinking and antennae bing-bing-binging, taking care of household business and not hesitating give rude Mr. Spacely his pineapple-upside-down comeuppance. “The opinions expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers.” Gotta love Rosey’s gumption!

Darcy Rosenblatt says:

I loved Lost in Space but I also love and fear the Cylons from The remake of Battlestar Galactica. As a writer they are such deep and interesting characters. Frightening because they are part of a history that could happen.

 

Jason Gallaher says:

I mean, I have to go with WALL-E! A robot who is also a hopeless romantic and just wants to find true love? Yes, please! Also who’s environmentally friendly? WALL-E, me and FernGully sounds like a recipe for a perfect vacation!

Christina Uss says:

I feel like L. Frank Baum’s Tin Man was the first robot-ish character with whom I really connected. Our library had these big Wizard of Oz books with excellent pen-and-ink illustrations and I always thought the Tin Man looked nicer and more trustworthy than any of Dorothy’s other traveling companions.

Then my older brother was Star Wars-obsessed when we were growing up, and I remember occasionally being invited into his room to listen to “The Story of Star Wars” record on his tiny record player, and looking at the album cover of R2-D2 and C3PO while listening to their dialog. Was there ever a robot who communicated so much without a single word as R2? I wanted him for my very own.

Lately, I’ve fallen for a new literary robot: Roz, from Peter Brown’s THE WILD ROBOT. I read this novel out loud to my kids this summer and it was a real page-turner – not only to see how Roz would learn to adapt and survive with each new challenge that came her way, but also to see how Brown chose to draw her in all kinds of odd circumstances. I think Roz and THE CONSPIRACY COUNTDOWN’S Ruby would become friends if their book worlds ever collide and they meet!

And finally, let’s hear from THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY’s author herself!

 

Katie Slivensky says:

C-3PO and R2D2 will forever be my top robots. As a kid, I lived and breathed Star Wars. It’s no surprise at all a mechanical sidekick found its way into my debut novel. 😉 Ruby definitely came from the part of my brain that always longed for my own R2 unit!

 

As robots continue to become a more integral part of our everyday lives, there is no doubt that we’ll see more robots in fiction, too. But THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY’s Ruby will certainly be an unforgettable addition to the world of beloved robots. Congratulations, Katie!


Kat Shepherd is a writer and educator living in Los Angeles with her husband, two dogs, and a rotating series of foster dogs. Currently the only robot in her life is a vacuum cleaner. Her Babysitting Nightmares series (Macmillan/Imprint) debuts in fall 2018. You can find Kat at katshepherd.com or connect with her on Twitter @bookatshepherd.

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Embracing the Imperfect

Our lives are set up around milestones: memorable, noteworthy events that we mark with rituals and celebrations. In my own life, I can recall events that mark those big occasions: important birthdays, graduations, weddings, my godson’s baptism. There was a set moment for each of those, a moment that I can look back at and say, “Oh, yeah. I’ll never forget where I was and what I felt when that happened.”

For many writers, the journey to publication is marked with the same joyful celebratory dinners, champagne toasts, and group hugs as any of the more traditional life milestones. I love hearing friends’ stories of getting that agent phone call and bursting into tears, their families beaming with pride beside them. Their stories are beautiful, and my own heart bursts with happiness to cheer and celebrate all of that magic. But what if your own journey looks different?

Through circumstances beyond anyone’s control, my own first book milestones have been bittersweet. That heart-stopping call from my agent? I was on my way to work, and my husband was 3000 miles away on a business trip. He happened to fall asleep that night without charging his phone, so I carried my bottled-up joy to work with me. I finally couldn’t keep it in anymore, so I eagerly spilled the beans to my ten-year-old student, who could not have been any less impressed or interested. Humbling, to say the least.

A few weeks later my deal announcement appeared in the trades; seeing my photo and name in there made everything feel so real, and it meant I was finally free to share the news publicly.  However, just minutes after I saw the announcement, my husband called to tell me that his dad had been diagnosed with cancer. As our family worked together to help my father-in-law navigate the complicated world of cancer treatment, celebration couldn’t have been further from our minds. And now that he has successfully completed chemotherapy, his improved health and happiness feels like a much more special milestone for our family to mark.

I am incredibly lucky to have a publishing deal, and I am beyond grateful to have the chance to earn money as a writer. But, much as it pains me to admit it, when I remember these first Big Author Moments, while there is joy and gratitude in those memories, there is also loneliness, worry, and disappointment.  I have a book deal and a supportive circle of friends and family, but I still can’t help but wish that those first moments had been a little different. And then I can’t help but feel ashamed of myself for wishing that. It shouldn’t matter, I think. I am a jerk for caring about this.

Every writer I know has worked incredibly hard to get this far, and we all remember the wistful feeling of seeing other writers ahead of us, hitting those milestones. And while everything might look rosy and golden from a distance, there is no doubt that up close, everyone’s road is littered with frustrations and slights and missed opportunities.

So, and I’m saying this as much to myself as I am to anyone else, the journey toward publication is magical and thrilling and awesome and inspiring. But a lot of it can also be kind of sucky. That’s OK. Embrace the suck.  The disappointing, difficult, exhausting moments mean that all of this is actually happening. Living the Dream doesn’t mean turning your life into a dream; it means you’re turning your dream into real life. Your very own messy, imperfect, glorious life.


Kat Shepherd is a writer and educator living in Los Angeles with her husband, two dogs, and a rotating series of foster dogs. Her wonderful father-in-law lives nearby. They are planning a massive celebration when the first book from her Babysitting Nightmares series (Macmillan/Imprint) debuts in fall 2018. You’re all invited. You can find Kat at katshepherd.com or connect with her on Twitter @bookatshepherd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Celebrations, Dreams Come True, Families, Guilt, Happiness, Inspiration, Thankfulness, Writing and Life

There is Room for All of Us

My first real fiction writing was in college, when I wrote and performed in a sketch comedy group.  It’s been twenty years since I’ve seen or read anything we wrote back then, so I have no perspective on whether what we produced was good or terrible. But I know that we believed in the work we were doing, and we were always driven by the simple motto of our group’s president: Something for Everyone. Every show was a melange of of slapstick, satire, jokes that landed, and jokes that didn’t.

It’s the kind of motto that’s so simple that it seems almost silly to repeat.  Of course there should be something for everyone.  Of course. But back then it was a reminder that there isn’t just one kind of comedy. An audience is made up of a lot of different people; what’s eye-rollingly lame for one person may be hilarious to someone else, so don’t yuck anyone’s yum.  There’s room for all of it.

I was recently at a writing retreat with brilliant, inspirational speakers.  One speaker gave a beautiful presentation, and she told a story about an art student who was devastated when a professor told her, “Your art looks like something I could find at Crate & Barrel.” Part of the talk was about how to avoid writing a Crate & Barrel book. After the lecture, my friend turned to me and said, “But I like Crate & Barrel.”

I laughed and said, “Dude, Crate & Barrel is all I write.”  My forthcoming book series, Babysitting Nightmares, is a fairly-commercial spooky adventure series that is billed as Babysitters Club meets Goosebumps.  I love poignant, thought-provoking symbolic writing; reading a beautifully-written book is like savoring a gourmet meal.  It’s just not what I happen to be interested in writing right now.

That same speaker reminded us of the resonance and impact of writing. She said that once her first book was published, she realized that sales numbers didn’t matter; awards didn’t matter. If just one kid could read her book and say, “This means something to me,” then that is enough.  That is the reason to write.

In my mind, I write the books I write for a specific imaginary kid. It’s the kid who flounders during free reading time, because she can’t find a book that pulls her in.  It’s the kid who has almost no stars on the classroom reading chart. It’s the kid who says I don’t really like to read. I hated seeing those kids feel like they were always missing out on something, like reading was a punchline that everyone else seemed to get. Somewhere out there is a book that that kid will pick up and be able to say, Yes, I am a reader, too.

What I love about kidlit is also what I loved about comedy: the bandwidth is almost unlimited. We have so much freedom to tell the stories we want to tell.  We need every kind of story to be out in the world, because we have every kind of kid looking for a way to connect.  Something for everyone.  There’s room for all of it.  And I think that is why the kidlit community is such a supportive one.  We celebrate one another because we know that with every new book comes a new opportunity for a child to find the reader within.

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Kat Shepherd is a writer and educator living in Los Angeles with her husband, two dogs, and a rotating series of foster dogs. She has been an avid reader since childhood, and as a teacher she worked to bring that same joy to her students. She is thrilled to be creating fast-paced, spooky stories that can engage all types of readers. The first book from her Babysitting Nightmares series (Macmillan/Imprint) debuts in fall 2018. You can find Kat at katshepherd.com or connect with her on Twitter @bookatshepherd.

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