A.J. Cattapan is an award-winning author, speaker, and middle school English teacher. Her debut young adult novel, Angelhood, has been an Amazon bestseller in Christian teen fiction and won two awards (Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards and Readers’ Favorite Book Awards). She has also been a finalist in many other competitions, including the Carol Awards, INSPY Awards, and Grace Awards. Her second novel, Seven Riddles to Nowhere, tells the story of a boy trying to save his school from closing. She has also been published in numerous children’s magazines and Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Follow her writing and travel adventures at www.ajcattapan.com.
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You and Writing
I started writing stories in the third grade, but they were all suspiciously about a girl named Amy. I guess I was starting early on the whole “write what you know about” thing. However, I didn’t seriously pursue getting published until after I’d been teaching for several years. That’s when I enrolled in a correspondence course through the Institute for Children’s Literature. It took eleven years from the time I signed up for that first course to having my first novel published, but God kept encouraging me along the way with small success in magazines like Pockets and Highlights. Eventually, when His plan (not mine!) was ready, I found a publisher for Angelhood, which became my debut novel.
Do you have a favorite character in this work? If so, why?
What I love about Seven Riddles to Nowhere is that it has a cast of quirky seventh graders, so picking a favorite is impossible. Essentially, there’s a gang of four friends. Kam, our protagonist, suffers from selective mutism. He can’t speak to adults outside his home. However, that challenge hasn’t kept him from being a world-class competitive yo-yoer. (And yes, that’s a real thing! I once taught an eighth grade boy who competed in yo-yo competitions around the world.) His best friend Vin is a genius who skipped a grade level, but he’s also a total germaphobe who keeps hand sanitizer in his pockets all the time. Vin’s sister Analyn is exuberant and dramatic. She’s destined for a career on the stage. Finally, Analyn’s best friend Nakia is quiet and calm, but she’s the gang’s resident theology expert, and nothing—I mean nothing—ruffles her feathers. It must come from the fact that her trust is totally in God. (By the way, that’s a character development thing I just figured out while answering this question for you!)
What was a challenge you faced while writing it?
The biggest challenge was getting all the riddles to work the way I wanted them to. I made multiple trips to multiple churches in Chicago in order to study their artwork and then had to devise riddles that would come together for the final result that I wanted. This task was so challenging that I nearly gave up writing the book. In fact, after several months, I got so frustrated that I was sure my writing career was finished before it had even really begun. That’s when I got the idea for my young adult novel Angelhood. It’s the story of a girl who feels her acting career is over before it’s begun. The idea of Angelhood came so fast that I ended up setting aside Seven Riddles and writing Angelhood instead. Once I started submitting Angelhood, I went back to working on Seven Riddles. So if it wasn’t for the struggles I had with Seven Riddles, Angelhood never would have happened—which I guess is why I need to learn to trust in God’s plan! He had a way of making this whole thing work out!
Was there a passage of scripture you came across or used while writing it that you’d like to share?
The scripture passage I used is right on the back cover above the book blurb: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) While this story may seem on its surface to be about children trying to win a fortune, it’s actually so much more than that. It’s really about money not being the important thing. I’d explain more but I’d ruin some of the riddles in the book, and I hate it when people give away the endings. :-)
What’s your encouragement for younger writers aside from “keep writing”?
Keep reading. It’s so important to read widely. In other words, read many different kinds of books. Decide what you like and then read widely in that genre. I think it’s also very important for Christian writers to read a lot of secular books. We don’t have to agree with the values portrayed in some of those books, but we do need to study their craft. We do need to figure out what connects with readers and what sells. Then we have to be better than those writers. We need to combine their technical know-how with our Christian perspective.
How many rejection letters did you get before being accepted by a publisher?
Uh, I lost count. Seriously, I don’t even know at this point. I can tell you that I wrote two novel manuscripts that were never published before I wrote Angelhood and Seven Riddles, and I submitted all four novel manuscripts to many, many different literary agents and publishers.
Are you a Panster or Plotter?
Plotter. I use the Save the Cat method (by Blake Snyder) for plotting my books. It has the effect of making my books read a bit like movies because Snyder was a screenwriter. However, I think it just works for general story structure because it forces the writer to think about the key elements of plot, including two that I think a lot of writers miss: How do I make people care about my main character and how do I make things worse and worse and worse for my main character so that the reader keeps turning the page to figure out how on earth the main character is going to get out of this jam?
What does your writing process look like?
I’m a binge writer. Usually, I mull over the ideas while brainstorming, sometimes for a really long time, but then after I’ve plotted, I do the actual writing really fast. For example, I was working on a short story this summer. I did some research in May. Then I did a little brainstorming in July. I didn’t actually start writing until the end of August, and then I wrote the whole thing (6,000 words) in two days. Angelhood and Seven Riddles were both written within a month. Well, at least the rough drafts were. Then I let them sit. Then I revise. Then I find critique partners, and then I revise some more.
Are there any books or resources you could recommend to younger writers looking to grow in their craft?
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. As I mentioned before, it’s really a book about screenwriting, but it’s the best thing I’ve found for learning how to plot a compelling story. People tell me they can’t put my books down. Save the Cat is the reason why.
When you get an idea for a novel, what is the first thing that you do?
I write it down. Hopefully! Otherwise, it ends up forgotten, and it’s gone with the wind!
September is Classical Music Month (who knew?). In keeping with that theme, do you have a favorite character from a classical novel?
Not sure if this counts or not, but I’m a huge Anne of Green Gables fan. The book’s over 100 years old, so that’s classical, right?
What is your favorite fall snack food?
Apple Crisp. I guess that’s really a dessert, not a snack, but I still love it!
What are you currently reading?
An advanced copy of my friend Leslea Wahl’s next YA novel An Unexpected Role. I think it comes out in October. I really enjoyed her first book The Perfect Blindside about a snowboarding Olympic medalist who gets a little full of himself and his parents whisk him away to a small Colorado town to get away from the paparazzi and the screaming teenage girls. In this small town, he meets a girl who isn’t impressed by him, but the two have to team up together to solve a mystery that’s plaguing the town.
Winner get's their choice of these novels by Amy: Angelhood, Seven Riddles to Nowhere, or Chicken Soup for the Soul: From Lemons to Lemonade