Kelly Barson chats with young writers 2014.01.15


Kelly Barson wanted to be a writer when she was young, but not as much as she wanted to work as a musician. An assessment test suggested that music was not the direction for her to take, but that didn't push her right into the written word.

kelly barson"I did want to write, but I took a LONG time to decide to do it professionally," Barson said.

Barson visited Stair Public Library on Saturday to have lunch with Sally Kruger and two of her clubs—the Teen Writers Group and the Teen Book Club. The Jackson native told about her personal history as a writer and she kept the group busy taking notes as she dished out tips for writers.

Barson never thought she could become a published writer, so she didn’t try. Instead she worked in an office and as a debt collector and a dog trainer. She always made the mistake of listening to the debtor’s story and feeling sorry for the the predicament of their lives. And her dog still sleeps on her bed.

"I tried lots of things, but I kept coming back to writing and coming back to writing," she said, "but I thought, 'You know you can't really be a writer, just do it for fun, do it as a hobby.'"

She finally gave into the urge, and at nearly 40 years of age, she started on her first novel.

"I started this book in 2005 or 06," she said, holding a copy of "45 Pounds (more or less)". "The story changed so many times that it's not even the same book as it was in 2005. The only thing the same is the characters."

Write, re-write, re-write, re-write—it's the nature of the thing, Barson says.

"I didn't mind rewriting because I think sometimes you have to do it to discover what the story is," she said. "I knew the characters, but I didn't know the story. The more I write and learn, the more I figure out the story, and a lot of the focus changed."

She finally finished her first young adult novel in August 2011 and it took two years to get it into print through Viking Press.

A lot goes on in the background, she said, ranging from design of the book and cover to distribution.

"If you want complete control, you can't do that with traditional publishing," Barson said, but she's pleased to be free of the many chores that self-publishing poses. 

She loves working with her editor and doesn't see it as an adversarial relationship at all.

"Editors don't change your work," she said. "They'll tell you what isn't working and you will fix it, but all of the work is done by the author."

Barson said she's written many book-length manuscripts that never went anywhere. Some of them she might rework; others she will chalk up to writing practice.

After receiving plenty of rejections, she decided to push publishing from her mind and concentrate on the craft of writing. She started attending writers workshops sponsored by the Highlights Foundation and eventually enrolled in a masters program with the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She learned last May that Viking will publish her second young adult novel, the story of a high school cosmetology student growing up in a fictionalized version of Barson's home town of Jackson.

She continues to teach writing classes at Spring Arbor College, but she's planning to spend more time writing in 2014.

Tidbits from the author chat:

• Rejections are horrible, Barson said. 

You get your hopes up and then, "No." Then you don't want to write anymore, and then you do write but you don't want to share it with anyone. It's a vicious cycle.

• Talk to other writers. Review each other's work. Listen to criticism. Choose harsh friends who will question your work.

• You get an agent by sending a query letter. Now it's done by e-mail and they can reject you immediately.

• When I was pantsing [writing by the seat of her pants], I didn't always know what the story was. At some point you need to know what the characters want—especially the bad guys—and know what they're doing. You need to know this.

• Try interviewing your characters, including some of the lesser known ones such as the main character's brother. Put them in a situation where they aren't comfortable and see how they react. Put them in an embarrassing situation.

• There's the main plot and there's also the emotional sub-plot. What is the character trying to get? How is he trying to get it?

• Initially I thought that outlining would stifle creativity, but that's not the case. I figure out the main points that are going to happen, the main obstacles. I don't know the actual resolution, but I know what it feels like. If I know those things, all the stuff that happens in the middle can be really cool. You explore as you write. 

I know I have to get from here to here to here. I write to the next point and to the next point. I won't get stuck in the middle, I won't get bored with it. I know I want to get to the end.

• Barson has sold many articles to Highlights magazine, but much of what she writes would never make it into print in the well-known children's magazine.

"Is there an edgier version of Highlights?" asked library director Colleen Leddy.

"I wish there were," Barson replied. "I've longed for an edgier magazine for kids. There's a huge market there."

"Let's start that magazine," said student Hunter Nino.