Coe Booth graduated from The New School MFA program in Writing for Children in 2005. Her books include Tyrell, Kendra, and Bronxwood. She has won numerous awards including 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction, 2007 New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age, 2007 American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults, and the 2007 American Library Association Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.
MF: Every writer has their own process. Some outline, some compose ad hoc. What's your process?
CB: I don’t really have a process, well, not a consistent one anyway! For the most part, I write by the seat of my pants, never really knowing where I’m going or what it all means. I like to keep notes about my characters along the way, but I don’t really outline. To me, it’s impossible to outline before I know my characters well enough to know what they would do in various situations.
Writing without a plan can get scary though; I have this constant fear my story is going nowhere. So sometimes I create a little calendar and try to figure out how many days or weeks the novel will span. Then, on the calendar, I mark the events I know will happen, keeping in mind that some things have to happen before or after others. While the calendar only includes the main story points (and never the ending since I never, ever know that until I get there!), having an idea of the placement of the key scenes helps me stay on track.
Writers need to find what works for them, but they should always approach their work with flexibility. Each novel is its own thing, and writers need to adjust accordingly. Don’t get locked into having a specific process.
MF: Where do you get inspiration for your books?
CB: I usually get inspiration from experiences I’ve had in my own life, either in childhood or when I was a Child Protective Specialist working with children and families in the Bronx. The children I worked with were going through such hard times, but underneath all of that, they were just regular kids trying their best to figure out their own lives and be happy. My characters are usually a blend of the kids I worked with, the kids I grew up with, and myself. I try to stay as close to myself as possible, so my characters’ emotions are ones I’ve had myself.
MF: Tyrell and Bronxwood use language and narrative structures that emotionally resonate with the reader. Why do you think your choice of “dialect” and voice for Tyrell affects readers so much? Do you have any suggestions for how to write in a dialect?
CB: I really love writing in Tyrell’s voice because he sounds like the guys I grew up with, the kids in my neighborhood. His way of speaking comes very naturally for me. I think writing in this “dialect” worked for these books because it’s written in a very close first-person POV. I wanted to keep the focus tight so the reader only reads words Tyrell would use and only experiences the world as Tyrell would experience it. I didn’t want to filter those experiences and present them to the reader in my own words. Sometimes it’s fun giving yourself constraints like this.
My main reason for writing those books this way was that I wanted my books to appeal to boys, especially the guys from inner-city neighborhoods. I wanted them to open the book and immediately connect with Tyrell, to know he was one of them. Obviously, the downside is that the language could alienate readers who are unfamiliar with it, but I didn’t really think that would happen. Rap music and hip-hop culture are so popular now, in all parts of the country, so I didn’t think Tyrell’s voice would seem too foreign, even to those who have never stepped foot in a neighborhood like Tyrell’s.
Writing in dialect can be tricky, and it’s something to think about seriously before attempting it. If the dialect is one you feel absolutely comfortable writing, try it and see if it works. But don’t overdo it. Heavy-handed, over-the-top dialect is not only bad writing; it can feel pretty offensive to those whose speech you’re mocking. If you’re going to do it, make sure you approach the dialect with knowledge and respect.
MF: Could you tell us a bit about your current project?
CB: I just finished writing my first middle-grade novel, Kinda Like Brothers. It’s the story of 11-year-old Jarrett Crawford and how his life gets turned upside down when his mom takes in a 12-year-old foster kid who seems to be good at everything Jarrett isn’t, and whose problems only highlight what’s missing in Jarrett’s life.
I’m now getting ready to start my next YA novel, but I’m still at the thinking/note-taking stage. I have only a vague idea what it’s going to be about, so I can’t jump into actually writing it yet. I wish I had a “process” to get into a new book faster, but it’s not that easy. I’m going to stay with this new bud of an idea until that moment when I can’t wait anymore — when I just need to open that new document and get started writing it!
Coe Booth is the author of Bronxwood, Kendra and Tyrell, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Young Adult Novel, and was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. She was born in the Bronx and still lives there. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. For more, check out www.coebooth.com.
Matthew Futterman is a first year Writing for Children MFA candidate at The New School. He is a native New Yorker and holds a Masters in Mechanical Engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology.