Thursday, May 3, 2012

Magic Marks the Spot: An interview with new author Caroline Carlson

Caroline Carlson just added another book to my to-read list. Three books, actually.

Magic Marks the Spot (working title), the first book in her middle-grade adventure trilogy, will be published by HarperCollins (in the US) and by Simon & Schuster (in the UK) on their Summer 2013 lists. There are pirates. There's a main character who really doesn't want to be in finishing school. 

Caroline was kind enough to indulge this former co-worker's questions with great, insightful answers. Looking for more? Caroline's website is here, and she can also be found here and here.
What should we know about Magic Marks the Spot? What will booksellers everywhere be telling their customers about it?

Magic Marks the Spot is about Hilary Westfield, who has always dreamed of being a pirate and sailing the High Seas in search of magic treasure. But girls aren’t allowed to be pirates—the thought is too shocking to contemplate!—so Hilary is shipped off to finishing school instead. With the help of her beloved gargoyle, Hilary decides to escape from finishing school and prove her talent for piracy by digging up the kingdom’s most valuable treasure: a stockpile of hidden magic. Unfortunately, however, Hilary isn’t the only scallywag on the High Seas who’s after that treasure….

The story is told partially through letters, forms and newspaper clippings, and it will be illustrated, though I’m still waiting to find out who the illustrators will be.
Where did the idea for the novel come from? How has the manuscript changed since the original idea?

I’ve always loved pirates, and I’ve known for a while that I wanted to write a book about a treasure hunt. (Treasure-hunt books like Key to the Treasure by Peggy Parish and Spiderweb for Two by Elizabeth Enright were some of my favorites growing up.) Then, on our honeymoon, my husband and I visited an island called Gotland, which is off the coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. In a museum there, I learned that Gotland—and its beautiful walled medieval town, Visby—had once been a pirate stronghold, and I knew I’d found the perfect setting for a book about pirates. The pirate stronghold in my book, Gunpowder Island, is very loosely based on Visby, although I’m not sure anyone would recognize it!

That was in 2008, but I didn’t actually start writing the book until a few years later, when I was a student at Vermont College. I was working on another project at the time, but I had to submit 20 pages of new material to school for our summer workshop, and I decided to play with the pirate idea that had been poking around in my brain for a while. I’d been rereading Jaclyn Moriarty’s brilliant book Feeling Sorry for Celia, and I wanted to experiment with Moriarty’s technique of using letters and documents to tell a story, so the first page of the book became a letter to my main character, Hilary, from the Membership Coordinator of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates. (I have to admit that part of my motivation for writing those first few pages in documents was that they filled the page quickly, and I had to have 20 pages written for workshop in less than a week!)

While I knew from the start that I wanted to write a funny pirate fantasy for middle grade readers, most of the story’s world (and many of its plot twists) grew as I wrote the first draft and talked about it with other writers. For example, in that first draft, I didn’t expect that Hilary would actually attend Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies; I thought she would escape to become a pirate before she ever reached the school. But my brilliant workshop colleagues read my first 20 pages and told me they couldn’t wait for Hilary to get to Miss Pimm’s. Once I began to think about the events that might take place at finishing school—and what those events might have to do with piracy—the story took off in a new and exciting direction, and I never looked back.

You've mentioned that this will be published as the first in a trilogy (woohoo!). Did you have that in mind early on, or did the idea come with the contract? If you didn't know ahead of time that it would be a trilogy, how has that affected your revisions of the first book?

I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, but as I was writing the first draft, I realized that the world and the characters I’d created had lots of possibilities—more than I could hope to explore in a single book. (I think this is what publishers mean when they say a book has “series potential.”) The manuscript I worked on before Magic Marks the Spot always felt like a stand-alone story to me—the characters didn’t have anything more to say at the end of the book, and I wasn’t all that interested in learning more about them, either—but Magic Marks the Spot felt different, and I was aware of that almost from the beginning.

I certainly never expected that I’d actually end up writing more than one book in the series, though, so I gave my pirates a nice, tidy ending and pitched the story to my agent as a stand-alone novel. She asked if I could see myself writing a sequel, and I said yes, so she had me write up a very brief synopsis for a second book. When MMtS was on submission, my agent let editors know that I’d be open to writing more than one book in the series, and she sent the synopsis for the second book to anyone who requested it. I was blown away when HarperCollins asked for three pirate books! It was a little terrifying—I barely had any idea of what would happen in the second book, let alone the third!—but I felt confident that my characters and plot could support two additional books, and I was excited to have a chance to jump back into my pirates’ world.

The end of the first book is still neat and tidy—I’m not crazy about books that end on cliffhangers—but during revision, I added a few more loose ends and planted a couple of hints about what might happen in the next two books. I’m outlining the second book right now, and I have a very general idea of how the whole series will end, but I suspect I’ll discover most of the details as I write.

What was your path to finding a publisher? How did Vermont College fit in?

Attending Vermont College’s MFA program in Writing for Children was one of the best things I did for my writing, both creatively and professionally. The program at Vermont is very focused on craft—in my two years there, I wrote and revised something like 800 pages of fiction and 100 pages of critical work, and I read almost 200 books—so there’s hardly any time to think about things like finding an agent or landing a book deal. I decided that I wouldn’t worry about the publishing industry during my time in the program, and that decision gave me the freedom I needed to play around, make plenty of mistakes, and learn as much as I could about how to tell a good story. Magic Marks the Spot was actually my graduate thesis, and it’s where everything I learned during my MFA finally came together in the space of one story.

The Vermont College community is filled with people—students, faculty, and alums—who are smart and knowledgeable about the publishing industry, and talking to those people helped me get a better idea of what I could expect as I went out on submission. Vermont alums read my manuscript for me, gave me great feedback, and told me what they loved about their agents. An MFA is no guarantee of a book deal, of course, but my MFA experience certainly made my path to publication much smoother than it might have been otherwise.

After graduation, I took a few weeks off to catch up on two years’ worth of sleep. Then I revised my manuscript, sent it to readers, and revised some more. I only queried three agents—I’d done a fair amount of research and had a good idea of who my top choices were—and a week later, I signed with Sarah Davies at the Greenhouse Literary Agency. About a week after that, Sarah sent the manuscript out to editors, and a week after that—when I had bitten all my fingernails to stubs—we had a pre-empt from HarperCollins. The whole thing was a bit of a whirlwind, and my fingernails still haven’t quite recovered.

Now that you've been through one round of revisions with your editor, what can you tell us about that part of the process? What's been the biggest surprise so far?

My editor at HarperCollins, Toni Markiet, is wise and encouraging and all-around fantastic, but my favorite thing about her is that she really gets my book. Right before Christmas, she sent me a four-page letter filled with her questions and suggestions, and while some of those questions were tough to answer, I knew immediately that her vision for my book was the same as my own. I took a couple of weeks to work out how I’d address her comments, and then I put my revision plan into action. I started on page 1 and worked straight through to the end, revising about five pages a day. Some scenes only required minor tweaks; others had to be rewritten entirely. I turned a minor character into a major character, and I did a ton of world-building, which I hadn’t had time to do when I wrote the draft of the book in school. I loved the book before, but now it’s becoming the story I always wanted to tell, and that’s incredibly exciting.

The biggest surprise might be that having a book published does not magically transform you a flawless writer and exquisitely perfect person. I’ve learned a lot about writing, but I still have so much more to learn. Some days I wake up, sit down at my desk, and write five pages of shimmering prose, but a hundred times more often, I procrastinate, whine, and delete three words for every one I type. I knew intellectually that this would be true, but there was a part of me that didn’t quite believe it. That part of me, the part that believed writing would always be easy and fun and glamorous once I became a Published Author, is currently sulking in the corner and looking embarrassed. Soon enough, though, it’ll stand up, sit down at the desk, put its fingers grudgingly on the keyboard, and start to figure out what happens next.


  1. Fab interview, Caroline and Shoshana - thanks for posting! It's really interesting to read a bit more about MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT, and how it came to be. I can't wait to read it!

  2. You and me both, Emma. Glad you enjoyed the interview!

  3. Really great interview, Caroline!

  4. Great interview--can't wait for Magic Marks the Spot to pub!