Occupation: award winning children’s author
Family: married with two children
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Broadcast Journalism from the Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University, Master of Science in Teaching from SUNY Plattsburgh
Hometown: Medina, NY
Community Involvement: Volunteer work with
the Skating Club of the Adirondacks, outreach to schools teaching writing and speaking about being an author.
Ever since she was a little girl, Kate Messner loved reading and writing stories. When it was time to choose a career path in high school, the idea of becoming a children’s author was never presented to her as a solid option. “I grew up in a really small town,” she explained. “No one I knew was a writer for their job. When I was in high school my guidance counselor suggested that since I loved writing, I should go into journalism because it was the closest thing to doing what I loved.” As luck would have it, starting her career as a news reporter and producer gave Messner valuable skills that she now uses as a successful children’s author.
News reporting nurtured her innate curiosity about people and the world. It also taught her how to write fast and meet deadlines. From there, she moved on to her second career where she spent 15 years teaching English at Stafford Middle School. This occupation also proved very valuable to her current career as a writer of children’s books. “I have the voices of a thousand 12-year-olds in my head,” said Messner. “They don’t leave me when they move on, and that helps a lot!”
Messner began writing for publication while she was still teaching. After some years of trial and error—and revisions too numerous to count—her writing career took off. She has written 24 books that are published, and as of the date of our interview, is in the process of moving 12 others toward that goal. She recently sat down with Strictly Business to share some of her career journey with our readers.
SB: What are some qualities that were necessary for your success?
KM: Perseverance is a big one with a writing career. I have been writ- ing actively for publication since about 2001 and my first book came out in 2007. My first nationally published book that gained traction was in 2009. A lot of times, I think what looks like an overnight success is a lot of very quiet failures. I was working on the first book, and kept getting rejections. I worked on it for about 7 years before getting it published. At the time I was also working on other things. Then all of a sudden my first book came out and quickly there were 2 more that soon followed. Most authors write for anywhere from 5 to 15 years before their first book gets published.
Success takes a long time. Before I stated writing for publication I had no idea how much rewriting went on. And I was an English teacher, so I taught revisions. My books that are on the shelves now are not 2nd or 3rd drafts. They are more like 16th or 20th drafts. Having the tenacity to stick with a project and see it through that long is important.
SB: What important lessons did you learn early on in your career?
KM: I had to find a willingness to see my work in a new way. When you write something, you work on it until you think it is really good and you’re ready to send it out. Then you get an email back from an agent who suggests that you take a totally different direction with it. It is about learning that your work can always be better. Having that willingness—not only that, but excitement—to revise and move it to that next level is really important. My first book that was published nationally—The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z—got rejected by 26 agents before I found somebody to represent it. It just takes time, and a lot of people get discouraged along the way.
SB: How did you stay above the discouragement?
KM: At that point in my career I had developed some friendships in the writing community. I think that is really valuable, because this can be a lonely job. Most of the time you are sitting in your writing room by yourself with only the voices in your head to keep you company. It can be isolating if you don’t develop some kind of community. It is important to have people around you who are engaged in writing too. They can help you see that the rejection feedback you get is actually a good thing.
SB: Who was your most influential mentor?
KM: My mentors growing up were the authors of the books that I read. I loved Beverly Cleary, who wrote the Ramona books, and Judy Blume. In a lot of cases we learn to write by reading the work that we love.
SB: Where does your creativity come from?
KM: My ideas don’t come when I am sitting in my writing room at home. They tend to come when I am off somewhere climbing a mountain, or talking to somebody that I have never met, or digging in my garden. They come when I am living my life and having adventures. For me, that is an important part of the writing process. I don’t have as many good ideas sitting in my writing room. I do the work in my room, but the ideas happen elsewhere. This is why I always have my notebook with me.
SB: What are you most proud of professionally?
KM: I should probably tell you the name of my most successful series—but honestly, I am always the most proud of whatever it is I am working on right now. It is always the hardest thing. When you finish a book, it means you’ve finally got it figured out. Then you start the next book and it presents a completely different set of challenges. I have heard other writers say that when you write a book, it teaches you how to write that book. As soon as that book is over, you start a new book and that requires a completely new set of tools.
SB: So tell us, what are you working on right now?
KM: I am working on a bunch of things now, which is pretty much always the case. I am contracted to write a series for Scholastic called Ranger In Time and that comes out every six months. The series is about a time travelling search and rescue dog. It started two years ago and I am scheduled to write two books per year through the end of 2018. Right now I’m working on the eighth one, which is going to be a Hurricane Katrina book, set in New Orleans. I will be travelling there some time this winter to do the research for that one.
I am also finishing a new novel that I’m really excited about, it’s called Breakout. It is not a true story but it was inspired by the Dannemora prison break last summer. It is about what happens in a small town when an inmate breaks out of prison. Finally, I am co-writing a picture book biography of Ann Lowe, the African American dress designer who designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress but never got any of the credit for it.
SB: Where else has your research taken you?
KM: The Ranger In Time series is historical, so each book requires a lot of research. I travelled for almost all of those books. For the book set on the Oregon Trail, I spent time in a research library in Independence, Missouri. Another was set in ancient Rome. There are no diaries and letters from that period of time, but what we do have is art and archaeology. We spent a week in Italy, in Rome and Pompeii. For the book set in Viking age Iceland, I spent a week there to experience the landscape. It is so unique; it is hard to imagine anything happening in Iceland without the land being part of the story. The sixth book is set in 1906 and it’s about the Great California earthquake, so I spent some time in San Francisco. This past sum- mer I spent some time in France to research the book about D-Day and Normandy.
SB: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
KM: It is not glamorous. If you want to be a writer there are two big things you need to do. One of them is to write. Writing is about putting in hours. I had to write a lot of bad books to get to the level where I could write something publishable. Also for writing, read- ing is super important. We learn from reading in the genres that we want to write in. You get a sense for the music of sentences, and you get a sense for how story works.
For me, curiosity is the fuel for what I do. I have always had curiosity about the natural world, about history, about people whose lives are different from mine. I think that is the biggest connection I have with the kids who read my books. We have that same wonder about what it would be like to be living a life that is different from our own. That is really at the heart of what I do. I think books do that for us.