I’m thrilled to interview Mixed-Up Files member Dorian Cirrone! She always shares a wealth of writing knowledge, and I’m excited to celebrate her new middle grade novel, The First Last Day. Congratulations, Dorian! I’d love to know how you came up with the idea for this novel.
First, let me say thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about my new book and my favorite topic, the craft of writing.
I got the idea for the novel during the summer of 2007, when I was lying in bed thinking about how it was probably the last time both my kids would be home together. My daughter was going to start her senior year of college, and I knew she might not be living with us ever again. At that moment, I wished summer didn’t have to end. When it occurred to me that I’d had similar feelings about summer when I was a child, I decided the whole premise might make a good children’s book. I thought about the novel A Portrait of Dorian Gray, one I was very familiar with because my mother named me after the character. In the novel, Dorian Gray’s image in a painting grows older while he stays young. For that reason, I decided to make my main character an artist. But because that novel’s ending was way too gruesome, I changed the plot and made it so Haleigh’s painting causes her to live the same day over and over, like in the movie Groundhog Day.
How did The First Last Day change during revisions?
The novel that’s being published barely resembles the original version. I revised the manuscript over a period of about seven years. During that time, I would have my agent send it out once in a while, and then after a few rejections, I would revise and/or let it sit for long periods of time before going back to it. Even though I had already published four books, getting this one right was tricky. While the manuscript sat idle in my computer, I read a lot, wrote other things, studied tons of books on the writing craft, attended workshops, and put together material for workshops I taught. Finally, I came to the conclusion that the whole thing needed to be overhauled. The first version, which was written in third person past tense, was not a mystery at all. Once I decided to change it to first person and make it a mystery, things started to come together. The voice became more engaging in first person, and the plot became more complex. I added three major characters and a few minor ones as suspects who might have given Haleigh the magic paints. And in the final version, the person who gave Haleigh the paints is totally different with different motivation. Much was taken out of the original version of the novel, and most of the second half was added. Even after that major revision, I kept refining the language over time so it was true to Haleigh’s voice.
I also made Kevin a little more quirky, and turned him into a sci-fi film buff. And I added his cow suit and the cow puns that he and Haleigh exchange. It might seem unbelievable, but Kevin is slightly based on my daughter’s best friend, Brett, who used to wear a cow suit for fun—all the way up until college!
I absolutely loved The First Last Day and can’t believe it didn’t start out as a mystery! All your hard work over the past seven years definitely shows. Your characters are beautifully fleshed out and you had so many sensory details, I definitely felt like I experienced the Jersey Shore. As a writer, I know details like this don’t appear in a book without putting a lot of thought into them. Do you have any tricks to share about adding details like these to a book or story?
During the writing and revising, I paid a lot of attention to what I thought Haleigh would smell, taste, touch, and hear. I had spent some time at the Jersey Shore one summer and visited a couple of other times, so those things were something I experienced personally. There’s really no trick except to put yourself in your character’s shoes and figure out what he or she might be experiencing at each moment. The tricky part is that you have to take your adult author self out of the equation and be true to what the character would honestly notice in each scene. Sometimes that’s harder than it seems. One thing I paid attention to in this novel was the sensation of touch because I think it’s one of those overlooked senses that can make a story more vivid and help the reader identify even more with a character. I looked for opportunities where Haleigh would realistically experience tactile sensations. And I don’t want to sound all English major-y, but I also tried to incorporate a lot of the sensory imagery into the novel’s themes. For example, Haleigh’s fingertips tingle when she runs them across the rough surface of the mysterious blank canvas for the first time. This not only gives readers a chance to feel what Haleigh is feeling, but it also creates tension. Since readers already have an idea from the flap copy that the canvas is magical, they know even more than Haleigh does what that tingling sensation foreshadows. In addition, when she traces the outline of a fish imbedded in a rock with her finger, the action connects with her being an artist. Later when Kevin’s grandmother talks about fossils being nature’s way of reminding us to remember the past, the relationship between nature, fossils, art, and memory all come together.
Those were some of my favorite moments in the book! I especially loved what Kevin’s grandmother said about fossils. It gave me chills.
You’ve done a great job writing middle grade, chapter books, and young adult novels. What advice do you have for people who are switching between categories?
The thing about switching is that you have to read many more books to familiarize yourself with not only what’s already been written in a specific category but also what the characters care about and what their issues are at certain ages. For example, in my young adult novels, the characters are much more concerned about romantic relationships and future plans for college and a profession. While Haleigh in The First Last Day is also worried about what will happen in the future and whether her relationship with Kevin will change, it’s more about friendship and family rather than love and success. I’ve read that kids in elementary school and early middle school are more concerned with fitting in and finding their place within the family and school, whereas teens care more about being independent and finding an identity apart from family and other institutions. I think that’s pretty accurate. Then, of course, there’s voice. And the only way to really get the distinction between a middle grade voice and a teen voice is to read—a lot.
Thanks, Dorian! You always give great advice. Do you have a writing exercise to share with everyone?
Before I even start to write, I like to know about my main character’s backstory and how it will relate to his or her motivation for taking the journey toward a specific goal. That backstory is so important for understanding why a character does certain things and acts certain ways. It also helps your audience identify and empathize. Here are three questions to ask your main character:
- If you could go back in time and change one incident in your life, what would it be?
- How would you change it?
- How do you think your life would have been if that incident hadn’t happened or if you’d reacted in a different way?
I love this exercise, and can’t wait to use it. Thank you so much for all your great advice and for celebrating your new middle grade novel, The First Last Day, on the Mixed-Up Files.
Dorian Cirrone worked as a door-to-door survey taker, a dance teacher, a choreographer, a journalist, and a college writing instructor before writing books for young readers. She is also the author of several poems, stories, chapter books, and young adult novels. She has never been trapped in a time loop, but because she has lived in south Florida most of her life, sometimes she feels caught in an endless summer.
You can find more of Dorian’s advice on her blog (she has great giveaways there, too). Plus you can find Dorian on her website, Facebook, and Twitter. Teachers and librarians can contact Dorian via her website to request an Educator’s Guide for The First Last Day.
Great news! Dorian has generously donated TWO amazing giveaways. Enter the Rafflecopter widgets below for a chance to win:
- A signed copy of The First Last Day. If a teacher or librarian wins this, Dorian would be happy to send up to 30 bookmarks, too!
When Haleigh finds a mysterious set of oil paints in her backpack, she uses them to paint a picture of her last day at the Jersey Shore. The next morning, she wakes up and discovers that her wish for an endless summer has come true. She’s caught in a time loop, and nothing has to change.
But Haleigh soon learns that staying in one place and time comes with a price, and she has to make a choice: do nothing and miss out on some good things the future has to offer, or find the secret of the time loop and possibly face some bad things. As she and Kevin set out to find the source of the magic paints, Haleigh wonders if she’s making the biggest mistake of her life.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
- A critique of up to 10 pages of a middle grade novel, young adult novel, or picture book.
Winners will be announced on June 14th. Good luck, everyone!
*Anyone can win the 10 page critique, but the signed book is only available in the United States.
Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s Twitter, Facebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.