Nancy Sondel's Pacific Coast Children's Writers Workshop
16th Annual    September 28-30, 2018    Master Class to Masterpiece
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“I hate my life. When I catch a pass and start running, all I can think of is
if the end zone is as far as I can go with this sucker, what’s the point?”
— High school football star Lucas in Shoup’s Stranded in Harmony

pencil bullet  Like our workshop, these faculty interviews focus on youth novels. To read all years’ faculty interviews, see our Directory.


Faculty Author

Martha Alderson, Author/ConsultantBarbara Shoup has been a multiple-award-winning youth novelist since 1994 (awards include ALA, VOYA, and more); she is also co-author of Story Matters (Houghton Mifflin College Division, 2006) and Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process (Alpha Books, 2001) with Margaret-Love Denman.

Being a successful author and literary magazine editor does not guarantee an insightful, articulate teacher. But Barbara Shoup is all three. The Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Workshop welcomes “Barb” to our 2007 faculty. Here, through in-depth, hands-on sessions, enrollees may enjoy the fruits of her several decades teaching high school, university, and adult groups nationwide. The following interview offers a taste of this writer’s seasoned, savvy (and fun) approach.


When applying to our workshop, writers craft a one-sentence summary of their novels that reflects both internal and external conflict. How would you describe each of your teen novels in one sentence?

Here are my four teen novels, published and forthcoming:

  • Wish You Were Here (Hyperion Books for Children, 1994; FLUX paperback reissue, 2008): When Jackson’s best friend Brady runs away at the beginning of their senior year, a series of experiences—his mom’s remarriage, his dad’s serious accident, falling in love—forces him to come to terms with the grief he still feels about his parents’ divorce.

  • Stranded in Harmony (Hyperion Books for Children, 1997): High school football star Lucas Cantrell doesn’t want the life his girlfriend and family have planned for him, but a stranger in town helps him dare to become his true self.

  • Vermeer’s Daughter (Guild Press, 2003): When plain, independent Carelina Vermeer defies her controlling grandmother and convinces her father to let her be his apprentice, her life opens into the wider world of art.

  • Everything You Want (FLUX, 2008): When college freshman Emma Hammond’s dad wins $50,000,000 playing Lotto Cash, she drops out of school and embarks on adventures that bring her face-to-face with her insecurities, finally setting her on her own path.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I recently completed After Lydia, a YA novel about friendship in the aftermath of a tragic event. I am working on Looking for Jack Kerouac, set in 1964, about a recent high school graduate who leaves his steel mill job to go to Florida in search of the famous Beat writer and finds...his life. (This novel was published by Lacewing Books in 2014.)



How do you get to know your characters?

Usually, my characters just present themselves and I proceed intuitively to figure out who they are and why they’re in the story. In Wish You Were Here, Jackson Watt is very loosely patterned after my teen student who wrote about a friend who ran away. But once I got past that triggering event, Jackson became a person in his own right. In Stranded in Harmony, Lucas Cantrell appeared in my mind’s eye wearing levis, a blue oxford shirt, swinging a scythe to the rhythm to whatever music he was hearing through his earphones. For my historical novel, Vermeer’s Daughter, I was walking in the very early morning in Delft, imagining the walk Vermeer took to the place where he painted “View of Delft”, when I sensed the presence of a girl following him—his daughter, Carelina.

The process by which characters are revealed to me is rather like meeting a person in real life. There’s a first impression, then subsequent encounters reveal more and more about who they are. Each time I put my characters in a scene, I learn something new about them. In time, they become more predictable. But, as with the most interesting real people I know, they always have the capacity to surprise me—sometimes at the very end of a story.


Do you outline before you begin, or plot/subplot intuitively—or both?

The one time I tried to outline before beginning, it was a complete waste of time. I’ve never tried it again. I just...go. That said, I often stop at various points through the first draft and make a kind of outline of where I’ve been and try to get a fix on where the book is going. In process, I might use outlines, scene lists, freewriting, charts, calendars, index cards, maps and other measures to help me clarify the story and keep it on track. For me, plot grows from character. So when I’m thinking in terms of developing plot, I think, what might happen to “X”, and does it make psychological, logistical sense based on what I have so far?

I don’t think about subplots when working through a first draft, but let them develop organically. Once I know what they are, I revise toward making them serve the main story effectively. When a subplot develops that I realize the story doesn’t need, I simply cut it.


What’s the key to writing (and revising) a successful novel?  

There’s no formula for writing good fiction. Writers just do the best they can in the process of wrestling an idea for a book to the page, and are more often than not surprised by what the book turns out to be. For example, I once spent a month working on character profiles and making a narrative outline of a new novel from beginning to end. But when I finally started it, a character I’d never imagined burst into the story. She was red-haired, freckled, and so full of life that I abandoned my original idea and let her lead me through the story.

I edit heavily as I write, often going back to the beginning to add or fine-tune scenes as character and story are revealed to me. Working this way helps me find the right pace for the story and keep it on track.

“Barbara is a terrific source of insights, techniques and strategies
that transform our work.” — Joan Corwin; The Writers of Glencoe, Illinois

At the 2007 Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Workshop, you’ll help novelists probe their subplots and secondary characters. Please give us a preview of your approach, and show how it has helped you.

Often I come to a place in my novel where I know something must happen, but I don’t know what. So I ask, “What if?”—and keep asking it until something seems possible. Asking this question often leads to ideas for secondary characters and subplots that never would have occurred to me when I started the novel.

For example: Halfway through the first draft of my adult novel Faithful Woman, I got my two principal characters on an outing and had no idea what could happen when they returned. It seemed I’d written all I could write about these characters and their developing relationship. I thought, what if...somebody was waiting for the main character when she returned? Suddenly, her teenage niece appeared in my mind’s eye, introducing not only a secondary character, but a subplot that complicated the main character’s life in an interesting way—and provided the direction I needed to complete the novel.

If you begin a novel by mapping out its direction, ask ‘“What if?” when you can’t imagine some part of the story—and every time you get stuck throughout the whole process of writing and revising the novel. Always remain open to character and subplot possibilities you haven’t already imagined. Stay fluid!”

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To read more of Shoup’s “novel ideas,” visit her website.

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