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  • Writer's pictureElnora Gunter

Writing Across Age Groups and Genres: Katie Zhao

In my day (which wasn't that long ago), most kidlit authors were known for writing in a specific age group and genre. Rarely, if ever, did they venture away from their brand. But in recent times, it is becoming increasingly common for authors to write across literary genres and even make the great leap to different age groups. Our second guest of the week, author Katie Zhao, has done this with EIGHT books! I am more than excited to share her words of wisdom for keeping your sanity while doing this, her answer for why this is more common, and our brief discussion about writing within the diaspora.

1. Your debut middle-grade series, The Dragon Warrior, was released in 2019. You also have two forthcoming YA novels, How We Fall Apart and The Last Gamer Standing coming out later this year. Writing and publishing multiple novels in different age categories and genres in a little over a year within each other is IMPRESSIVE (seriously, can I have just an ounce of your creative power?). How did your writing journey go from querying to what is now?

Well, thank you so much for the kind words! I have been writing short stories and later novels ever since I could hold a pen to paper, but I didn’t take my writing really seriously until late high school. That was when I wrote my fourth novel. It was the first novel I wrote with a Chinese American protagonist, and it’s still a novel I reflect on dearly today, because it was the first one I wrote that I truly thought had the potential to be published. I started querying in late 2014 with that novel and managed to get a few full requests from agents, but ultimately none of them offered, though a couple gave encouraging feedback telling me that I had the talent and to keep going. I was tired of rejections, though, and I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know how to revise this novel properly. I took 3 years off of writing and just enjoyed college life - and truthfully I’m very glad I did, because in college I had so many exciting life experiences and grew into the strong, confident, thick-skinned person I needed to become to break into the publishing industry. In 2017, I was doing a 1-year Masters of Accounting program and knew my heart wasn’t with accounting, so I began to dream about writing again. It was like a fire had been lit under me, and I rediscovered my passion and an urgency to get my life back on track toward my actual dream career. I wrote a YA thriller (not HOW WE FALL APART) that I tried querying, but didn’t ultimately pan out. But I didn’t waste time moping over this book. Immediately after, I wrote THE DRAGON WARRIOR, and began finding critique partners and writer friends on Twitter. This time, I learned how to research agents, how to deeply revise my book, and just overall how to navigate the publishing industry better. I queried only a handful of agents (the smallest round I did) in January 2018 and quickly got an offer from my current agent Penny Moore. I signed with her, we revised THE DRAGON WARRIOR in 2 weeks, and we were on submission to publishers and went to auction by February 2018. Yup, it was an absolute whirlwind of a month. I signed a 2-book deal for THE DRAGON WARRIOR and THE FALLEN HERO with Bloomsbury, and then focused on finishing my accounting program that spring. In the summer, I began writing heavily again, because I wanted to sell new work before starting my first full-time job at a Big 4 firm in the fall. I drafted HOW WE FALL APART, and after doing revisions, we sold it in a 2-book deal to Bloomsbury in the fall of 2018. 2019 was my debut year, with THE DRAGON WARRIOR releasing that year and THE FALLEN HERO coming out in 2020. I also made a huge move out to New York City and continued working a 9-5 while all this was going on. In 2020, I wrote and sold LAST GAMER STANDING, a MG sci-fi gaming book, to Scholastic. Then I wrote a proposal for WINNIE ZENG AND THE MAGIC MOONCAKE, which I envisioned as a new middle grade contemporary fantasy series, and it sold at auction to Penguin Random House in a 3-book deal (my biggest yet!) So in 3 years, my agent and I have worked tirelessly and sold 8 books together, and I look forward to selling more work - my next projects will be YA and adult fantasy.

2. As of late, there seem to be many authors who are choosing to write young adult and middle-grade novels. What are the biggest differences in writing between these age categories?

You’re certainly right that a lot of authors are writing across genres and age categories in a way that we didn’t really see a couple of decades ago, which personally I love seeing because I’m always curious how an author whose work I’ve loved in one genre will handle a totally different genre. For me, the biggest differences in writing across age categories are voice and theme - especially handling darker themes. The middle grade voice is younger and often very humorous, and while humor can certainly be (and is!) present in young adult works as well, I tend to find that YA does take itself more seriously and that the handling of the humor is different. For example, a middle grade character might shout out something very silly during a serious battle moment, but we don’t typically see that happen with serious moments in YA. Additionally, the themes in middle grade skew more toward kids finding their place in the world, and YA expands on that theme with more focus on coming-of-age too. Typically YA doesn’t shy away from darker themes like death, grief, mental health, etc. but it’s more rare to find middle grade that confronts these darker moments. Those books are still out there, but I’ve noticed gatekeepers tend to say “this is too dark for middle grade” in response to the aforementioned themes.

3. Did you ever feel any pressure to stick to one genre or age category for the sake of your ‘brand’? Why or why not?

I don’t feel the pressure to stick to one genre or age category, and I think that’s pretty evident from my list of published and upcoming work so far (which includes middle grade contemporary fantasy, middle grade sci-fi, and young adult thriller). I think the advice of telling authors to stick to one genre or age category doesn’t apply any longer, because now we see plenty of authors branching out into different spaces, though of course there are still some authors who make their careers solely writing in one space. It’s important to note that the industry has changed, with publishers buying more duologies and one-book deals than series, so it’s a different landscape for writers to navigate, requiring us to branch out into writing multiple projects. I just write what I like to read, and I’m a voracious mood reader who doesn’t have a favorite genre necessarily - I read whatever suits my mood at the moment. When it comes to writing, I write whatever story idea compels me at the moment, and it just so happens that I’ve hopped around genres for this early part of my career.

4. When you write in different genres, do you have a method or some sort of routine for ‘getting in the zone’? For instance, do you binge-watch fantasy shows before writing a fantasy book?

Yes! Every genre and age category has a different voice and/or style (i.e. my middle grade contemporary fantasy is filled with more silly humor and hijinks than my young adult thriller, which is more serious and dark). In order to get myself into the right mindset or zone, I will usually read within that genre right before writing it. As an example, for my new middle grade series WINNIE ZENG, I’m currently deep in revisions for book 1 since I got my latest edit letter a week ago. Before even attempting to revise, I spent a couple of days immersing myself into middle grade fantasy like AMARI AND THE NIGHT BROTHERS to get myself into the proper voice and tone again.

3. Concerning representation, there has been much talk about the type of narratives publishers acquire from diverse voices. Do you feel as if publishers tend to favor a certain narrative for Asian stories? If so, do you think this hinders progress in Asian representation in books?

Oh, I’m glad you asked this question. It’s so timely given current industry conversations, and it’s something I think about a lot. In the past 5 years or so, we’re seeing an increase in the acquisition of diverse titles at major publishers, but often those stories center marginalized characters who undergo trauma, who engage with racism, who offer the one narrative that publishing seems to value from diverse authors: the struggle narrative. But, as any author of color will tell you, our experiences aren’t all about struggle and trauma, and we deserve and need happy and uplifting stories centering our cultures too. To buy only painful narratives from BIPOC and shove those at young readers is harmful, too. My hope is that publishing considers how valuable those happy narratives are to readers of color when they’re buying new books from Asian authors. Otherwise, writers and readers aren’t getting stories that are actually reflective of Asian experiences across the spectrum, from the happy to the sad, and it does hinder the progress of representation in these books.

4. Being a part of the Chinese-American diaspora, do you ever feel a certain pressure to create characters who represent Chinese-Americans or Chinese culture in a ‘good’ light? Do you think writers of the diaspora face a purity test when it comes to writing their experience that wouldn’t be given to someone such as, a white American writing an Irish folktale-inspired retelling?

Absolutely, I feel the pressure to be accurate about depicting Chinese American narratives, and to present the characters in a positive light as well, which I had to grapple with a lot with my mythology-influenced debut THE DRAGON WARRIOR as well as my dark academia thriller HOW WE FALL APART. In my debut, I researched Chinese mythology as best I could, and had Chinese sensitivity readers to ensure that the use of Mandarin in the text was accurate. With HOW WE FALL APART, I worried (and continue to worry, since the book isn’t out yet) over the depiction of the main cast as toxic and competitive students who do bad things - a.k.a., not exactly the “model minority” stereotype society enforces on Asian Americans. This choice was intentional, but I do worry about reviewers criticizing how the Asian characters are portrayed negatively in the book. As for the idea of authors of color facing “purity tests”, I definitely feel as though we are under way more pressure (whether from ourselves or the book community) to pass this “purity test” and be exactly of the same background as our characters and be 100% accurate with the mythology or language or any other part of the narrative. It’s something that’s very familiar to BIPOC in other aspects of life - being held to much higher standards than our white counterparts, and this is something we unfortunately see in publishing as well.

5. Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions: A year on the NYT or HBO adapting How We Fall Apart into a limited series?

Is there a third option to have both of these? Haha. It’s so tough to choose, but I would probably choose a year on the NYT to be strategic, just because it feels like being such a bestseller would force studios to pay attention to the book (eventually leading to an adaptation!)

6. Describe your dream book launch party (let’s say this exists in a world in which COVID restrictions aren’t a worry).

At this point, nearing quarantine anniversary, any kind of in-person book launch party would be a dream. I was already fortunate enough to launch THE DRAGON WARRIOR at Books of Wonder back in October 2019, but my dream would be to one day go back for another book launch party with all my friends and family able to attend, and readers who have stuck with me since my debut. I hope my books continue reaching more readers, because I really think it’s the people who make book launch parties wonderful. And also, lots of cake.

Bio: Katie Zhao is the author of the Chinese-inspired middle grade fantasy The Dragon Warrior and its sequel, The Fallen Hero. She’s also the author of the forthcoming Asian American young adult thriller How We Fall Apart and middle grade sci-fi Last Gamer Standing. Katie grew up in Michigan, where there was little for her to do besides bury her nose in a good book or a writing journal. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in English and a minor in political science; she also completed her master’s in accounting there. In her spare time, Katie enjoys reading, singing, dancing (badly), and checking out new Instagram-worthy restaurants. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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