For as long as she can remember, Verily contributor Claire Swinarski knew the answer to the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A fiction writer. Specifically, a children’s fiction writer. The path to becoming one, however, was anything but straight. Swinarski’s first novel for middle-grade readers, What Happens Next, was published last May, and her second novel, The Kate In Between, comes out next month. I spoke with Swinarski about her new novel, her writing process, and the fiction that inspires her.
What does “being a writer” look like on a day-to-day basis for you?
Every day looks really different. I’m also a part-time stay-at-home mom. I only have two mornings of childcare a week, so the work I’ll do on any given day depends on if I have childcare that day or not.
If my kids are going to a babysitter in the morning, I’ll go to a coffee shop and pound out whatever needs to get done that day. It could be a writing day. It could be an editing day. Or it could be what I call an “admin day,” in which I do things like tracking my finances, doing any marketing work, doing interviews like this.
On the days where I am a full-time mom, I am usually doing smaller things that I can get done quickly, maybe mocking up some social media content and stuff like that. A lot of people might not realize that self-promotion is a huge part of being a writer. The vast majority of writers are in charge of the vast majority of their promotion. I spend a lot of time on that as well.
When you go to a coffee shop to write, what does that look like for you? Do you have a particular goal for each day of writing? Or is it just seeing what comes?
I write all my books in order. I’ve found that to be the best way to really get a flow going. If I want to skip a chapter or skip a part, usually what that means is that that chapter isn’t any good or interesting, and I should find a way to take it out of the book. On a morning my kids go to daycare, I’ll have a plan for what I want to get done. For example, “I want to write chapter four; that’s going to be around two thousand words. I want to sit down and pound that out.”
I think some people are a little more reliant on “the muse,” waiting for the words to come. But when you have really limited time, it just doesn’t work that way. If the muse doesn’t come, I can’t waste four hours of childcare.
If you are not working on a novel, what does the work of being a writer look like?
I usually am working on a novel, even if it’s not sold or it’s just an idea. Writing fiction is just in my blood. I really don’t take much time off. So, I usually have some kind of active book. But if I’m not working on a book, I do some freelance writing. I also have a Substack newsletter for Christian women that I’ll work on. I pretty much always have some kind of writing that needs to get done, whether it’s fiction or not.
I also make sure that I make a lot of time for reading, because I think that’s really important to the life of a writer, both to know the market, and to be inspired. There is also the occasional day, usually in the summer, where I’ll go on a really long walk to try to get creative. I don’t do that a lot because, again, limited childcare; I can’t waste it. But I do have a couple of those days a year where I try to keep myself open to inspiration.
Can you talk a little bit about how you came to write fiction? You wrote nonfiction first, and you also created a podcast, The Catholic Feminist, before you started writing fiction.
I have wanted to be a fiction writer my entire life. I saw a thing on Twitter recently that asked, “If you were doing your dream job in kindergarten, what would you be doing now?” And everyone had these funny answers, like, “I’d be a SeaWorld whale instructor.” And I was like, “I’d be a writer of books!”
But once I started to learn how books get published, I realized I couldn’t jump right into that. It’s not a lot of money; it’s a ton of time; and you can’t go to college and get a major in “book writing” and automatically have a job writing books.
I majored in journalism and political science in college thinking I’d be a reporter and write books on the weekends and eventually become a published author. But I learned quickly that the reporter life was not for me. Honestly, I also realized being an employee was not really for me. I wanted to work for myself.
I am very fortunate to have married a man who is a software engineer who also goes along with a lot of my half-schemed, half-planned ideas—including my proposal that I quit my job as a marketing assistant and try being a freelance writer. During that time, I would write anything for anybody during the week. I was writing articles on being a dog foster parent and cloth diapering (even though I didn’t have kids). If you would pay me to write it, I was writing it, as long as it wasn’t immoral. On the weekends I worked on my fiction.
When I finished writing my first novel, I queried it and got a literary agent. But when he tried to sell that book to editors, nobody bought it. That was really hard, and I was feeling kind of down about myself creatively. That actually led me to start the Catholic Feminist podcast.
That podcast was such a blessing in so many ways. One of them was that financially it did really well with advertisers. I was able to cut back on my freelance load, do the podcast, and then write another book, and that book did sell.That’s the long, crazy journey. It might look like I waited a long time to become an author. But I was trying that whole time. It’s just really hard.
Do you think the fiction builds or draws on any of your previous work, like the Catholic Feminist podcast? Or are they completely separate creative projects?
My fiction books are not Catholic. You’re not going to find them in the Catholic section of the bookstore. They’re not talking about theology. But my faith colors everything I do. I mean, it colors the way I parent, it colors the way I make dinner. It colors the way I do everything. I try to make my books point towards greater truths that I believe. In that sense, a lot of my faith and a lot of what I talk about in the Catholic Feminist about empowerment and forgiveness, these are very big universal ideas and truths that I can then put into my books.
What's the process of writing like? Does it start with a character or a topic? And do you have an audience in mind?
My audience for my fiction so far has always been middle grade, which is defined as eight- to 12-year-olds. I would stretch that to eight- to 15-year-olds.
I’d say my books usually start with a feeling, an emotion that I want to evoke. For my first book, What Happens Next? I was thinking a lot about the feeling of helplessness you have when you really want to help another person, but they’re making choices that are just not good. When you love someone so much and are watching them doing that and how hard that is, that’s kind of the feeling I started from. I then get into my daydreaming mode, and I listen to a ton of music and go on a lot of walks. It sounds kind of “woo woo,” but that’s how it starts.
Then there’s a lot of trial and error. There’s a lot of starting books, getting two paragraphs in, and realizing this is garbage. Or, pounding out scenes that are never going see the light of day. But it feels good to get them out on paper. Before I commit to a project, I have a lot of days that may seem wasted, but they’re really not. I’ve written enough books to know that those daydreaming days aren’t wasted days; they’re super important.
Once I get something out that I think could really be something, I write a synopsis. I send that to my agent and get his opinion. That’s really important, because he’s the one taking it out to editors to try to get them to buy it. If he can’t think of any editors who would like it, I can write it for fun, but it can’t be during work time. If he likes it, we’ll talk through a more detailed chapter breakdown, and then I’ll get to writing it.
Tell me about the experience of selling your first book.
When I sold What Happens Next?, there was a lot of interest in it, so we had an auction. Each editor had to present their plan for publishing. For example, how much the advance would be, what the marketing plan would be. It was probably the best week of my life. After living through so much rejection, to have editors bidding for my work made me feel, for once, like I’d made it.
I went with HarperCollins, because they were the only publisher that offered me a two-book deal. I liked that because to me, consistency is key. So, they bought What Happens Next? and my next book, which is The Kate In Between.
Can you tell us a little bit about The Kate In Between, which is coming out next month?
The Kate In Between is about a 12-year-old named Kate who lives in Wisconsin. She has recently joined a more popular group of girls and kind of ditched her old best friend, and her new group of friends isn’t very nice to that old best friend. There’s a lot of tension within her, witnessing these acts of bullying, wondering what she should do.
When her old best friend finds herself in a dangerous situation, Kate ends up saving her life, and it gets filmed, and it goes viral. Suddenly the entire world is putting her up on this pedestal and calling her “Kate the Great” when she knows the truth: she hasn’t been so great to this friend, and she hasn’t really been so great her entire seventh-grade year.
It’s a lot about figuring out who you are when the world has given you an identity and deciding for yourself what actions you’re going to take to become the person you want to be rather than letting other people decide for you. That’s a very broad overview.
You said that your books usually start with an emotion. What emotion did this book start with?
I was thinking back to my middle school days, which were very tumultuous. I was thinking about the way that our culture is quick to place people in these “good” and “bad” boxes, even kids. I think we’re really quick to be like, “That 12-year-old is a good kid. That twelve-year-old is a bad kid.” And I don’t think 12-year-olds are bad. They’re kids. They’re learning so much. Honestly, it was definitely the worst time in my life so far. And it really bothered me how we are putting these kids into boxes.
I passionately believe in the power of growth and redemption and that people can make horrible choices, and then they can make things right. I believe that really firmly. One of the characters in the book is kind of a bully. Kate’s new best friend is not a nice girl. She’s not doing the right things; she is bringing people down. But I find myself rooting for her to make better choices.
How much research do you end up doing for a book?
What Happens Next? had quite a bit more research because it did have a couple of topics that I thought were very important to get correct, like eating disorders. I was able to talk to a doctor who specializes in eating disorders, and I have a couple of friends who have walked through that. So, it was great to talk to them as well. I learned that a lot of fiction books about eating disorders do some things that are actually pretty harmful. That was really helpful for me, because I could avoid those pitfalls. I also had to research ballet, because the main character’s sister is a big ballet dancer, and astronomy, because the main character lives next door to a scientist, which plays a big part in the story.
The Kate In Between, required less research, because a lot of it is pulled from my own experience. Also, I have a handful of great babysitters and mother’s helpers, who are twelve or thirteen. I love talking to them about what is going on in their lives. One of them recently told me that a group of girls at her school had created an Instagram account, the sole purpose of which was to make fun of another girl. Hearing stories like that helps form my books.
I also will occasionally turn on a TV show for middle schoolers to try to make sure I know how they’re talking and what they’re wearing. Doing things like that helps me get in the right voice.
Who are some of the writers you admire most? Have any of them shaped your own writing?
When it comes to middle grade, probably my all-time favorite author is Sharon Creech, whom I’ve loved since I was a kid. She wrote Walk Two Moons and The Wanderer, and a lot of really popular children’s books. I don’t know that she’s shaped my writing so much as she just inspires me. To me, she’s the pinnacle of authorship, and her wonderful characters inspire me.
I think my writing is shaped more by some of my more recent reads. For example, adult authors like J. Ryan Stradal, who is one of my all-time favorite authors. He wrote The Lager Queen of Minnesota, which is my favorite novel. The way that he brings out the power of redemption in his stories and gives great details is inspiring to me.
Another of my favorite adult authors is Deb Caletti. She describes scenery and places super well. That’s probably my number one struggle as a writer. I think I can write a great dialog, but I am not good at explaining the weather or what a room looks like. So, I try to read a lot of Caletti’s work to get inspired by that.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of the job?
When I hear from actual kids that like the book. When an actual kid tells me how much the book meant to them, how much they enjoyed it, that’s a feeling you can’t put a price on. I can’t even put into words how great that feels when someone tells me, “My 13-year-old was reading this all night on Saturday.” That’s all I’ve ever wanted, to write books that made 13-year-olds stay up all night reading!
Doing school visits is also really fun. Kids are fascinated by authors. They thought I was like Beyoncé. That was really fun and encouraging.
What are some of the most challenging parts?
That there is so much rejection. You have to be so tenacious. Even when I was a freelance writer, I would maybe get one “Yes” for 15 pitches. It’s a lot of “noes,” and that can wear you down.
Juggling my responsibilities as a mom with work is another challenge, as any working mom could tell you. I can do some of the admin-type work when my kids are up, but I really can’t get into the writing zone when I have kids running around.
What are some of your five-year goals as an author?
I’d love to do more school visits. The last year, with COVID, that hasn’t really been possible. But hopefully those will start happening again soon, if not this year, maybe next.
Another goal would be to write a historical fiction book. That terrifies me, because you have to do so much research; it would be a hefty and long project. It’s one of those challenges that I am really excited for, but also nervous about.
What sort of interests or passions might lead a woman to this kind of career?
I would say two things. The first would be to be a very curious, creative person. If you’re the kind of person who daydreams a lot, that’s probably a good sign for being a writer. Or if you’re someone who just wonders, “What if? What if this happened? What if that happened?” I think that natural curiosity is super helpful for writers.
The second thing is almost on the opposite end of the spectrum. You need to be extremely disciplined. I think that’s why being a writer feels so unattainable for people. Because often those really creative types struggle with being disciplined, or the really disciplined types struggle with being creative. But if you’re going be a paid writer, you need that discipline. Because it takes a lot of time to query literary agents, to write, to edit, to self-promote.
Having both that natural creativity and curiosity and a really disciplined spirit, that’s kind of the golden ticket.
At Verily, we love our “Daily Doses”—quotes or phrases that motivate or inspire us. Do you have a mantra or phrase that you love or live by?
One of my all-time favorite quotes is by C.S. Lewis. “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I like it because I really do enjoy books for eleven-year-olds, and I think about that while I’m writing, too. I believe adults can enjoy my book every bit as much as kids.
It also reminds me that children’s literature is really important. The years that these kids are reading these books are so foundational and important to their development. They’re making a lot of decisions about who they’re going to be. Stories can guide us in a special way. That reminds me that the work I’m doing is really important, and I need to steward it well.