Three Questions For Children's Book Writers and Illustrators

Welcome to Inkygirl: Reading, Writing and Illustrating Children's Books (archive list here) which includes my Writer's and Illustrator's Guide To Twitter, interviews, #BookADay, writing/publishing industry surveysWriting & Illustrating a Picture Book For Simon & Schuster BFYR post series and 250, 500, 1000 Words/Day Writing Challenge. Also see my Inkygirl archives,  and comics for writers (including Will Write For Chocolate).

I tweet about the craft and business of writing and illustrating at @inkyelbows. If you're interested in my art or other projects, please do visit DebbieOhi.com. Thanks for visiting! -- Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Entries in process (7)

Friday
Feb082013

Interview with Jo Knowles on writing process, writer advice & SEE YOU AT HARRY'S

I've been a fan of Jo Knowles ever since reading Lessons From A Dead Girl and even more so after See You At Harry’s (Candlewick, 2012) plus I love her fun and positive tweets from @JoKnowles on Twitter. I've also heard great things about Jo's Pearl and Jumping Off Swings, so am looking forward to reading those next!

 Jo has a master’s degree in children’s literature and taught writing for children in the MFA program at Simmons College for several years. Some of her awards include a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, Amazon's Best Middle Grade Books of 2012, An International Reading Association Favorite 2012 Book, an SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, the PEN New England Children's Book Discovery Award, and YALSA's Best Fiction for Young Adults. Jo lives in Vermont with her husband and son. Her next book, Living With Jackie Chan, a companion to Jumping Off Swings, will be available September 2013.

Q: What's your writing process? What was your writing process for SEE YOU AT HARRY'S?

So far for all of my books, I've just started writing and discovered the book as I went. Not surprisingly, my first drafts are big messes. After I clean things up a bit and have a basic rough draft, I create a storyboard to help me get organized and figure out the themes, plot and rhythm of the book.

Storyboard from Jumping Off Swings.

The storyboard process I use I learned at a workshop with Carolyn Coman. Basically, you get a sheet of paper that's large enough to fit enough squares to represent each chapter of the book. Then you follow these steps:

1. Think of a scene with the strongest image that best represents that chapter. Draw it as best you can in the first box.

Part of a storyboard series from READ BETWEEN THE LINES, Jo's newest project.

2. Write a very brief phrase that describes the point of that chapter and write it in the bottom of the box.

3. Think of the strongest emotion conveyed in the chapter and write it at the top of the box.

Repeat for each chapter, one per box.

Part of a storyboard series from READ BETWEEN THE LINES, Jo's newest project.

This leaves you with a big visual that illustrates the movement of the book both actively and emotionally.

Part of a storyboard series from READ BETWEEN THE LINES, Jo's newest project.

Since my books tend to be less action driven and more emotionally driven, seeing the book this way is a big help. I can see the spikes of emotion and how they play out in the text, and where I need to insert more or less action, or emotional peeks.

Seeing the images also helps me to think about how stagnant certain chapters or groups of chapters might be, and helps me pinpoint where I need to move my character around more. (For example, in PEARL, Bean spent way too much time on the roof, which was her place to escape. I don't know that I would have realized this if I hadn't drawn a storyboard and had that visual.)

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Remember that getting published is not a race. I recently read a blog post by someone who had taken three years to sell her first book, referring to her journey as "The Long Road to Publication." Long road? Three years?? Oh my.

In reality, I think the average time it takes most people going the traditional publishing route is more like ten. I think people tend to measure success on how quickly they can sell their first book. This is a shame because speed has nothing to do with it. I think longevity AFTER you sell your book would be a better marker.

Childhood restaurant that inspired Harry's in SEE YOU AT HARRY'S.If you want to be an author, you need to take time to learn the craft and learn it well. Read a thousand picture books. Study the rhythms of your favorites. Type out the text and close- read it without the pictures. Pay attention to the types of details that are in the text versus the ones that are implied or easily and more effectively shown in the illustrations.

The next step is to learn how to revise. To learn how to listen to feedback and make the best use of it. I can't tell you how many aspiring writers I've met who have told me they didn't want feedback because they felt their work was as polished as it could get. But they hadn't shared it with anyone but family members!

One of the hard lessons I learned when I first started out was that I really didn't understand what revision meant. When an editor suggested a revision without a contract, I happily addressed the changes she proposed, but not to the degree I should have. I tweaked, I didn't revise. There is a very big difference.

Revising is rewriting. Not rearranging. Not fixing typos. Not deleting a sentence here and there. That’s what you do at the copyediting stage. Better to learn this with critique partners guiding you than with an editor who doesn’t have the time or patience to teach you him- or herself.

There is just so much to learn and so many early mistakes to be made when you're first starting out. It's worth it to take your time and get lots of feedback from other writers (and make those mistakes with them, not an agent or editor). Not only that, you will develop some wonderful relationships and create a community–a support network–which will be invaluable when you DO start submitting.

I am as impatient as the next person, but for new writers, I can't emphasize this enough: Please don't treat the time it takes you to get published as a race, or measure your journey against someone else's and use that as a marker for success and failure. Instead, think of your journey to publication as a travel experience to savor. The more you learn, the more people you connect with, the better prepared you will be for your final destination. And the more people you will have to celebrate your success with!

Q. What are you working on now? Any other upcoming events or other info you'd like to share?

I'm currently working on two projects. One is a contemporary YA novel called READ BETWEEN THE LINES. After writing JUMPING OFF SWINGS I swore I'd never write another book with multiple points of view, so naturally this book has ten. It's kind of a "day in the life" sort of story about how each character's actions affect the next. While I wait for my editor's comments on that, I've started a humorous middle grade/tween novel tentatively called FROM THE COMPLAINT BOX, about a boy who goes to a funky independent school and the adventures/mischief he gets into with his two best friends. When I told my agent I was writing something funny he said, "That's how you described SEE YOU AT HARRY'S and it made everyone weep!" So, he's suspicious. We'll see!

Where can find out more about Jo Knowles:

Jo Knowles website - Jo Knowles blog - Twitter (@JoKnowles) - Facebook

SEE YOU AT HARRY'S book page

TWEETABLES:

Don't compare w/someone else's progress as your success/fail marker. Savor the journey. @JoKnowles bit.ly/11UDU4K (Tweet this)

Writers: Remember that getting published is not a race. - @JoKnowles: bit.ly/11UDU4K (Tweet this)

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Also see other Inkygirl Interviews.

Friday
Jan252013

Interview With YA Author S.J. Laidlaw About Process, Persistence and AN INFIDEL IN PARADISE

 

I met Susan Laidlaw through the MiG Writer Critique Group and was excited to hear about the publication of her upcoming book, AN INFIDEL IN PARADISE, which comes out from Tundra on February 12th, 2013. I'm so looking forwarding to meeting Susan in person for the first time when all the MiGs get together at the SCBWI Winter Conference next week!

Set in Pakistan, AN INFIDEL IN PARADISE is the story of a teen girl living with her mother and siblings in a diplomatic compound. As if getting used to another new country and set of customs and friends isn't enough, she must cope with an increasingly tense political situation that becomes dangerous with alarming speed. Her life and those of her sister and brother depend on her resourcefulness and the unexpected help of an enigmatic Muslim classmate.

Q. What is your writing process?

In terms of scheduling my writing, I’m a very early riser and I’m always most creative first thing in the morning. Ideas percolate throughout the night. I often wake up in the night thinking about my stories, but I only rarely get up to write down my thoughts. Usually, I wait till morning.

I don’t set out a specific number of hours to write but I do try to write every morning and keep going until I feel I’m no longer being productive. Sometimes that’s only 3-4 hours but sometimes I’ll keep going all day. If I’m having a really good writing day, dishes are piled in the sink and we’re having tuna sandwiches for dinner.

I do a basic outline and a basic character sketch of my main characters. I find it helpful to have an idea where I’m going, even if I diverge, which I often do. I like to really think about all my characters’ backstories and motivations. Even if they aren’t central to the plot, I need to understand who they are to bring them to life.

Getting comfortable with the character’s way of looking at the world is also important. I’ve worked as an adolescent counselor for most of my career, so looking at life from a teen perspective is actually very natural to me but when I was writing AN INFIDEL IN PARADISE, I made a point of immersing myself in books with similarly aged main characters. I particularly liked reading books whose main characters were angry or a little snarky, as Emma, my main character, is both.

For about a year now, I’ve been working on my second novel. I wrote it, sold it, and now I’m in revisions with my wonderful editor, Sue Tate, from Tundra Books. This time I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult novels with male protagonists, since the main character of my second novel is a 17-year-old boy. I particularly like novels with a bit of humor, since that’s an element of my writing, but I’ll really read anything from the young adult male perspective.

If I find a book that is particularly inspiring, I’ll keep it close at hand and re-read sections of it when I feel stalled on my own writing. If I’m really blocked I may take multiple writing breaks to just curl up and read. That’s one of the things I love about being a writer, you can fritter away hours doing your favourite activity and still call it work.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one book that I re-read many times while writing my second novel. I’m also a massive, nerdy, John Green fan. I truly hope I never meet him because I know I’ll make a total fool of myself.

Q. If you could give your younger self advice about the craft or business of writing, what would you tell her?

Over twenty years ago I wrote my first book. I sent it off to one publisher. It was turned down but the editor wrote me a very nice handwritten note saying the book wasn’t a good fit for her publishing house but she’d like to see more of my work. I was devastated and didn’t try sending out my work again until just a few years ago. I realize now that that personal note was actually quite an endorsement and I shouldn’t have given up for twenty years.

So I guess my advice to anyone who enjoys writing is, don’t give up. You’re going to suffer rejection along the way. Look at it as part of the process and just keep sending your work out there.

One second piece of advice and it’s equally important is find a good writer’s support group. Being part of MiG Writers has been hugely beneficial to me and it’s not even for the critiquing so much as all the other things, sharing information, encouraging each other, celebrating each other successes, interviewing each other – Thanks for this, by the way.

Writing is by definition something you do by yourself. It’s a reflective, contemplative, process, as is it should be, but publishing is the opposite. It’s all about getting your name out there, getting people to notice you. This isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally to most writers – it certainly doesn’t to me - but having writing friends can make it a lot less intimidating.

Q. Any upcoming projects or events you'd like to mention?

I'm very excited about my second book, which I'm currently revising. It's set in Utila, a tiny island off the coast of Honduras, where my husband and I have a cottage. I've always used Utila as a place to write because there are no distractions, but it's also an ideal location for a mystery. More than half the island is completely deserted, just jungle and mangrove swamp. It's also a bit of a lawless place, particularly in recent months, though Utilans are working hard to keep the problems under control.

In my second novel, the main character's sister goes to Utila to study whale sharks. Utila's also one of the best places in the world to actually snorkel with whale sharks. I've done it myself. Anyway, Luke's sister goes to Utila to work at the whale shark research center - which does actually exist - but one night she disappears without a trace. The authorities think she must have drowned but they can't produce a body and Luke doesn't believe it, so he sets out to Utila to find her.

If everything goes according to schedule, that novel will be out in 2014. I just need to finish these revisions by March!

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You can find out more about Susan Laidlaw and her work at:

S.J. Laidlaw website

On Facebook

On Twitter: @SusanLaidlaw1

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15767359-an-infidel-in-paradise

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Also see other Inkygirl Interviews.

Saturday
Dec082012

I'M BORED Process: How a picture book is translated into other languages

 

 I was thrilled to find out that the French version of I'M BORED was available for ordering online, and then got curious about the process.

How does a picture book get translated? Are there any issues that children's book writers and illustrators need to be aware of, when working a project?

I interviewed Tracy Philips from the S&S UK Translation Rights team about the process, over the I'M BORED Scrapbook Blog.

Tuesday
May152012

Writing & Illustrating A Picture Book For Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers (Part 2: Brainstorming, Story Pitch, Thumbnail Assignment)

Continuing my series on working with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers on two new books...

POSTS SO FAR: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

(Summary: After I finished illustrations for I'M BORED, Simon & Schuster BFYR offered me two blank contracts. This series is about my own experience working with S&S BFYR on my two new books; if you're interested in the process for I'M BORED, please see How I'M BORED Was Created: A Guide For Young Readers. Neither of these series are meant to The Definitive Guide of how a picture book is created. Your own publishing experience may differ, depending on your situation and people involved. Thanks for following along! -- Debbie)

And here is what has happened so far:

I brainstormed picture book ideas.

I've been compiling picture book ideas for a while now, inspired by Paula Yoo's NaPiBoWriWee, Tara Lazar's PiBoIdMo and #KidLitArt's Picture Book Dummy Challenge. I've turned some of these into picture book manuscripts.

What I discovered: it's easy to come up with ideas for picture books. The challenge: to come up with picture book ideas that are different from anything else already out there.

This is one of the common misconceptions held by newbie picture book writers, I find: that their story is unique. I still consider myself a newbie picture book writer, by the way, so I speak from experience.

Child nervous about their first day at school but then finds out another child feels the same / makes new friends / discovers it's not so bad after all? Done.

Child has trouble making new friends because they are too shy / insecure / mean / stubborn / family just moved? Done.

Child loses a beloved object / pet / toy and is totally distraught but then formulates plan / enlists help / searches everywhere? Done.

Child having a horrible day where nothing goes right but then takes action & everything turns out ok? Done.

Child resents the fact that he is always overlooked / ignored and decides to do something about it? Done.

Child hates doing something that parents always want her to do so finds a way around it but then discovers why it was a good idea? Done.

Child resents older or younger sibling so decides to run away / get rid of sibling somehow but starts missing the sibling despite himself and reunites? Done.

Child...well, you get the idea.

The bottom line: It's very tough to come up with a story that is totally unique.

But still:

I tried to figure out how to make my story stand out in the marketplace.

At this point, I can already imagine some of you shaking your fingers at me and saying, "Just focus on making a good story. Worry about the marketing/publishing part later."

However, I'm already assuming that having a good story is an essential. My end goal, however, is to not only get the book published but to have the book sell well. If the story is too much like others already out there, a publisher is less likely to want to take a risk on it. And if the book doesn't sell well, then the publisher is less likely to offer me more contracts.

So yes, there needs to be a good story BUT  I also want to help an editor convince their sales team that the book should be published.

An aside: I've already gone through this several times with my novels for young people, in which various editors liked my story enough to take to the next step, but then the projects were nixed by sales/marketing. It's one reason I spent way more time in the plotting/outlining process for my current YA mss before starting to actually write it (and it got nominated for an SCBWI Sue Alexander "Most Promising For Publication Award"! It didn't win...but still! Now I just need to finish it).

So yes, I was discouraged. But then I thought, hold on. Surely I can't be the only one despairing about finding a unique story idea. And there are new picture books coming out all the time! 

And that brings to me to another essential part of my "newbie picture book writer/illustrator" self-education:

I read many, many picture books.

Since the career-changing events of 2010, I've been immersing myself in the world of picture books. I have no children and hadn't really read many picture books since my nephews and nieces grew past that stage.

Once Simon & Schuster BFYR offered me my first picture book illustration contract, that all changed. I started going to the library and local bookstores every week to read as many picture books as I could. I read everything I could get my hands on -- old and new.

I looked at both the text and the illustrations, and how they enhanced each other. I didn't always like the picture books I read, but tried to analyze exactly WHY I didn't like them. And when I really enjoyed a picture book, then I'd reread it and ask myself similar questions: WHY did I like it?

I needed to figure out a unique spin for my stories.

 I looked especially closely at new releases. Obviously these publishers had faith in these books, so what was it about the stories that made the publishers willing to invest money into these projects? The answer: a unique spin. In almost every case, the basic story was enhanced with a framework made unique in either the setting, characters, voice, format or other aspect.

Once I realized this, I went over my list of picture book stories and started working on expanding some of them into full manuscripts with the whole "unique spin" aspect in mind.

But still, I wasn't completely happy with any of them yet. 

I realized that I needed to get my head into "pitch" mode.

When I last visited Simon & Schuster BFYR in NYC to talk about I'M BORED promotion, Justin asked me if I had any picture book stories to show him. I hesitated, saying that I had written about 25 picture book manuscripts but wasn't yet happy with any of them.

Justin interrupted my babbling excuses and suggested that I needed to change my mindset. Having worked with S&S BFYR on I'm Bored, I already had my foot in the door. Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers was my publisher. He was my editor. So how about I pick out 4-5 of what I considered my best stories and send them to him, even if I didn't think they were perfect yet?

Whoa. Really?!?

Ok, I admit I was pretty clueless. I had figured that even though I had illustrated a book for S&S BFYR, that I was still starting from scratch when it came to submitting my own stories. And that if they said no, that was it.

I was wrong.

Anyway, I promised Justin I'd send something very soon. Of course I was STILL paranoid about sending stories that I considered early drafts, so I enlisted the help of my MiG Writers critique group for some feedback and suggestions for tweaks.

Then...I took a deep breath and send my stories to Justin.

He picked one he thought had the most potential. I'm very happy he picked the idea that he did; of all the stories I sent him, this is going to be the most fun to draw!

We had a phone meeting about my story, with editorial assistant Dani Young sitting in. It was a TRULY EXCELLENT phone meeting. I was all "omigod, you're absolutely RIGHT" and "YES! I love that!!" and Justin was all "it's all right there in your story" (I just hadn't seen it).

What Justin was able to do, which I hadn't, was to identify the essence of my picture book as well as see the potential of what it could be. AND he was able to communicate that to me.

By the end of the phone call, I was incredibly inspired and eager to get started.

THE NEXT STEP: I need to show my story visually, in thumbnails.

 Justin asked me to forget about working on the text but just to focus on figuring out how to tell my story visually in very rough thumbnail sketches -- knowing that will help determine my text. I'm not going to worry about character sketches or detailed illustrations yet.

To do this, I've created a template which fits on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. In case any of you would like to use it for your own picture book planning, I've provided a print-ready PDF version (click thumbnail below):

 

There seem to be many different templates for book dummies out there, but I wanted to make sure I was using one that Justin approved since I'll be printing out quite a few copies for me to scribble on. Justin said the endpapers are separate for a 32-page book, so I'm not going to worry about those for now.

I've filled up nearly a dozen of these sheets with my scribbled thumbnails already. Working out a story this way is GREAT for exposing bad pacing and other storytelling problems; I've already discovered that the mss I sent Justin just doesn't work. I'm working non-digitally for these sketches using just a pile of printed sheets, a mechanical pencil and a big eraser. The eraser is getting a LOT of use. :-)

Even if you don't draw but are just writing a picture book story, I still recommend you try this method. Just use stick figures or a scribbled phrase (e.g. "Sam throws marmite at Emma" etc.).

Other resources you might find helpful:

Bob Staake's Picture Book Templates (though reader Michael Johnson had issues with that template and proposed a revision)

Tara Lazaar's Picture Book Layout Dummy

Sarah McIntyre's Book Dummy

How To Mock Up A Picture Book, by Darcy Pattison

FAQ: Making A Picture Book Dummy, by Tina Burke

How To Make A Storyboard, by Uri Shulevitz

If you know any other resources that could help picture book writer/illustrators in the early creation stages, feel free to post below!

There is no set schedule to this blog post series. I'll only post in the series if I have something useful or interesting to say. To make it easier to follow this particular thread, I'll tag related posts with "pbcreation."

Wednesday
May092012

Writing & Illustrating A Picture Book For Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers (Part 1: Intro)

I'm pleased to announce the launch of a new series of blog posts:

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POSTS SO FAR: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

As some of you may already know, I'm writing and illustrating my very first picture book for Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers: I'm going to call this Picture Book X until I have an official title. I'm going to be blogging about the process of creating Picture Book X, from start to finish, in Inkygirl. An aside: if you're curious about my blog posts about the creation of I'M BORED, new picture book by Michael Ian Black that I was asked to illustrate, I recommend you follow my I'M BORED Scrapbook. That blog also details how I started working with Simon & Schuster BFYR.

Because my book is still in its early stages, I won't be talking about its content at all -- not even its title, which has yet to be finalized.

Instead, I'm going to be talking about the process with a perspective that I hope will help aspiring picture book writer/illustrators. I also figure this blog post series may be of interest to those curious about what it's like to work with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers.

I'll be posting about the process, what I'm learning, what happens at various steps and what they mean, the people I interact with at S&S and what they do. I'll be sharing some of the templates I create for myself to help with workflow, plus give you a peek of what goes on inside Simon & Schuster BFYR later on in the process, after I've handed in my finals.

Keep in mind that this is going to be based on just one particular project and from one perspective (mine). Your book project may have been -- or could be -- very different, depending on the circumstances and the people involved.

My editor, Justin Chanda, has given me the go-ahead to blog about the process (thanks, Justin!). I worked with Justin on I'M BORED illustration discussions, but this will be the first time I've worked with him on story text. 

I haven't yet been assigned an art director; the project is still in its very early stages.

There is no set schedule to this blog post series. I'll only post in the series if I have something useful or interesting to say. To make it easier to follow this particular thread, I'll tag related posts with "pbcreation." Whenever possible, I'll also be including related resources to help you find additional info on the topic, and will also be encouraging you all to share your own experiences.

I hope you'll join me! :-)

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Header photo credits: My photo - Beckett Gladney, Justin's photo - Sonya Sones

 

 

Thursday
Apr052012

Interview With Lee Wardlaw, My First Writing Mentor: Children's Books, Advice and a Book Giveaway

Photo: Craig Jaffurs

Book Giveaway: Post a comment below to be entered in a prize draw for a copy of Lee's 101 Ways To Bug Your Friends and Enemies and a buggy doodle from Debbie.

Way back when I started pursuing getting my novels published, Lee Wardlaw offered to read what I had written and give me feedback. It was first time I had received a critique from a professional in the industry, and I was blown away by her generosity, encouragement and advice.

I worked hard on revamping my manuscript and after another round or two, Lee passed my work on to her agent, Ginger Knowlton. Ginger took me on as a client! I'll always be grateful to Lee for that early encouragement and for taking that time with me.

Lee has written over two dozen books for young people and has won many awards and award nominations for her work. Most recently: 2012 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award (for Won Ton), 2012 NCTE/CLA Notable Children's books in the English Language Arts, 2012 Best Children's Book Award - Los Angeles Book Festival, 2012 ALSC Notable Children's Book , 2012 CCBC Choices as well as nominations for the 2012-13 Chickadee (Maine) Reader's Choice Award, Pennsylvania Young Reader's Choice Award and Rhode Island Reader's Choice Award.

You can find more info about Lee and her work at:

http://www.leewardlaw.com/

and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/leewardlaw

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Photo: Lisa Yee

Q. How did you make your first sale?

Plucked from the Slush Pile! Yep, it happens. And I will never, E.V.E.R., forget the day I received that first acceptance. I screamed. I babbled. I called my mom. I might’ve even kissed the mailman…

Q. How did you get your agent?

I met her at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, just a couple of days after I sold that first book. I hadn’t yet written a feigned nonchalant “Why, yes, if you’d like to publish my novel, by all means please feel free to do so” response to the editor, because I was still too busy screaming and babbling. So the agent stepped in and negotiated the contract for me. We worked together for about three years; in that time, she sold two more YA novels and a nonfiction book of mine.

When I decided I wanted to challenge myself by writing picture books, we parted ways. (She specialized in the teen and adult markets.) Over the next few months, I asked every author I met – at school visits, book festivals, SCBWI functions, conferences, etc. – which agents they would recommend. Again and again I heard: “Ginger Knowlton”. She was newish to the agenting world, but she worked at a highly respected New York agency, was learning the ropes from Marilyn Marlow (the Grand Dame of children’s book agents), and had a background in Early Childhood Education. Sold! I queried her with a couple of manuscripts, and she called not long after that, saying she’d like to represent me. I screamed. I babbled. I called my mom. I kissed my husband. (Our new mailman wasn’t nearly as cute.) Ginger and I have worked together now for almost 24 years. She’s stuck by me through thick and thin and anorexic. I adore her.

Q. You've written in so many genres in the children's book world. Which feels the most comfortable for you?

None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. If I feel ‘comfortable’ when I’m writing, then I know I’m not challenging myself.

Instead of ‘comfort’, I prefer to experience what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls flow. In his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Dr. C. (didn’t want to attempt that spelling twice!) describes flow as an intense focus on an activity – a concentration so deep that you’re unaware of yourself, your surroundings, of time passing. You see flow most often in Montessori schools. There’s an intense joy on the face of a young child who is wholly immersed in tackling and mastering a task. I experience flow when I’m writing something I love, whether it’s a poem or a picture book, a novel or nonfiction. It happens a lot, too, when I’m creating humorous dialogue for my middle grade characters. Their conversations just, uh, flow…

Q. How much time (or percentage of your time?) do you spend promoting?

In 2011, I had two new books published: a picture book, Won Ton – A Cat Tale Told in Haiku, and the third novel in my middle grade series, 101 Ways to Bug Your Friends and Enemies. It had been almost seven years (!) since I’d last had a new book out, so I really felt invisible. To offset that, I spent the majority of 2011 promoting like crazy.

My year-end totals were: 18 bookstore events, 17 school visits, 7 speaking engagements, 3 Skype visits, 3 blog interviews, 3 TV/radio/print interviews, 3 articles written, and 2 miscellaneous events. Miles driven: 3,500+. WHEW! I did all my own coordinating and publicity for these events, too, so that meant creating/printing/mailing flyers, sending info to schools, contacting newspapers, magazines, events websites, etc., etc. It was a huge job. Won Ton went into a third printing in less than a year, so I have to think the effort was worth it!

Coming April 22nd, 2012Usually, though, I’d say I spend 50% of my time writing and 50% promoting. The latter is usually through school visits, which I love. Put a microphone in my hand, and I turn into a total ham - - with cloves and brown sugar on top! But the balancing act is a constant struggle. It’s great fun working with and talking to my readers…but sometimes I’d really rather be at home, writing.

Q. Do you work on more than one project at a time? If so, how do you manage your time?

Eek. No. If I’m working on a novel, that’s really all I can handle. I tend to juggle a lot of characters and subplots, and I do a lot of research for each book, which means a full-to-overflowing brain. Ditto for my office, which needs shoveling out frequently. Add another novel or picture book to that mix, and I might implode - -or end up on that TV show “Hoarders”.

Sometimes, I can work on a couple of picture books at the same time, but that’s only in the early stages of each, where I’m mainly banging out ideas or plot lines.

Because I have A.D.H.D., I tend to get easily distracted. If I’m distracted, I don’t finish projects. So it’s best if I stick with one project at a time. That being said, I’ve learned that I need to be distracted now and then, otherwise I get bored and don’t finish projects. (Kind of a Catch-22.) So I treat my brain by entertaining it with writing in the mornings and promo stuff in the afternoons. The variety helps.

Q. What are your writing habits? (wordcount goals? rituals? favourite place? etc.)

If I’m working on poetry or a picture book, I need to use a pen and notebook, and I need to sit somewhere comfy: curled up on the sofa, outside on the deck, etc. But if I’m writing a novel, I MUST work in my office. I’ve never done well working outdoors or in coffee shops. (Too many distractions.) My office is painted and decorated in shades of green (teal, seafoam, jade, forest), which calms me so I can focus.

Other Must-haves:

1. A Mac. Forever and always. And it must have a 27” screen.

2. An Aeron chair (I have neck and lower back issues)

3. An ergonomic keyboard (wrist issues)

4. Natural lighting or a desk lamp with a 100-watt incandescent light bulb (government intervention issues. I’m stockpiling my 100’s! I hate CFLs. They make me squint.)

5. Plenty of protein snacks. (hypoglycemia issues)

6. A glass of iced tea with extra lemon, mint leaves and Splenda.

7. A cat or two curled up on my printer or on the floor heat vent.

I start work early-ish: 8:00 a.m. (I prefer between 5 and 6 a.m., but with a husband and teenaged son at home, those times aren’t optimal.) I write until noon; take an hour break; then go back to work until 2:40 when I leave to pick up my son at the high school.

My habits have changed over the years. In the past, my minimum goal was three hours or three pages, whichever came first. Now, if I’m working on a novel, I’ll set a different goal for myself every day, depending on where I am in the story. If I think I can rough out two or three major scenes in a particular chapter, then that’s my goal. If I know it’s going to be a particularly difficult chapter, for whatever reason, then I may set a goal of writing only one scene.

It’s that variety that keeps me from getting distracted!

When working on 101 Ways to Bug Your Friends and Enemies, I was really having a hard time focusing. (For some people, like me, ADHD gets worse asyou get older.) So instead of writing the book sequentially, I allowed myself to hop around, writing chapters out of order. That was great fun, and it kept me motivated.

Q. How much prep do you do before you start writing?

Tons.

Whether it’s a picture book or a novel, I write pages and pages about all the central characters, asking myself questions about who they are, what they want, why they want it, how they’re prevented from getting it, etc. It’s crucial to know what motivates your characters – what values move them to action – and why. Otherwise, you won’t know how they’ll act or react in every situation you put them in.

Each book also involves research. Take, for example, WON TON – A CATTALE TOLD IN HAIKU, the story of a wary shelter cat and the boy who adopts him. Now I know cats. My first spoken word was ‘kitty’ and I’ve shared my life with probably 30 cats over the years. BUT, I still needed to research cat behavior, specifically that of adult cats who’ve spent most of their lives in an animal shelter. I researched shelters, too, and how best to introduce a cat to a new home. (I thought it important for the book to be accurate so shelters would get behind it, maybe even carry it in their gift shops.) I also researched haiku - - American haiku is different from Japanese haiku - - and that’s when I realized I’d actually written the book in senryu! That was an important distinction for me to be awareof if I wanted elementary schools to use the book as a teaching supplement.

After the character work and the research, then I do a rough outline of the book. I ALWAYS know how the story is going to end before I start writing. For me, writing a novel is like taking a trip. You don’t just get in the car and start driving willy-nilly. (Well, in real life you might, if you’re the adventurous sort, but if you do that in fiction, you’ll end up with stream of consciousness stuff, not a novel.)

Before you back out of the garage, you need a destination and you need a road map. The road map is the plot outline. My outlines tend to change along the way, taking little detours here and there, picking up extra passengers (characters), maybe getting a flat tire (more conflict!), but I make sure the basic road map stays the same. That way, I and my story get to The End in one piece.

Q. What's the biggest mistake that new writers tend to make?

Ha. I don’t know. There are so many from which to choose! Not having read a children’s book since before the invention of dirt…not having been around children since being children themselves…worrying too much about contracts and agents and merchandising instead of focusing on their craft…submitting stories that aren’t stories at all, but incidents or anecdotes…the list goes on.

My biggest mistake, way back when, was writing picture books that featured inanimate, anthropomorphic characters. Kind of like The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein – but without his wit, intelligence, heart and drawing talents! My early picture books were awful. Of course, I didn’t know that then…

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring picture book writers?

1. Read, read, read, read, read picture books. Pick out your favorites and take them apart, analyzing what you like about them and why; what about them resonates within you; what’s their unique tone, their style; what makes their characters fresh; what is special about their voice; and what gives them enough appeal to be read and re-read up to 500 times;

2. Take a poetry-writing class. Learning how to distill a story’s essence; using rhythmic, evocative language and vivid imagery; creating something that cries to be read aloud - - all of that is what you need to write poetry and picture books. I don’t think it’s an accident that WON TON is my most successful picture book. I started writing it while taking a poetry class from children’s book author and poet Ellen Kelley.

Q. For your picture books, how much interaction did you have (if any) with the illustrator?

None. Well, I might send them an email, introducing myself and saying I’m looking forward to the publication of ‘our’ book. But that’s it. Typically, the author and illustrator don’t collaborate on a picture book project. The author writes the story, the editor picks the illustrator, then the illustrator draws the pictures.

People are always surprised by this. But it makes sense. I wouldn’t want an illustrator standing over me, saying: “Gosh, I don’t know how to draw cats. Could you make your story about dogs, instead?” And I’m sure an illustrator wouldn’t want me dictating to him/her what kind of style, medium, etc., should be used. Of course, this means you have to have an extremely savvy editor, one with a clear vision of what kind of art will best complement and enhance the story.

Q. What are three things you wish you had known when you first started your writing career?

1. That rejections aren’t personal

2. That an editor’s suggestions aren’t set in stone

3. How much publicity and promotion I’d have to do!

Q. Any news about current or upcoming projects you'd like to share?

RED, WHITE & BOOM! (Holt, ages 2-6, illustrated by Huy Voun Lee) will debut in April. It’s a rhyming picture book about the ways families from different cultures celebrate our country’s independence.

I’m finishing up a sequel to WON TON…and making notes for 101 WAYS TO BUG YOUR BROTHER AND SISTER…and I have a cool idea for a nonfiction project (but I’m not saying what it is!).

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Also see other Inkygirl Interviews.

Wednesday
Jan112012

Picture Book Creation Process: I'M BORED Sneak Peek

Monster28 29notes Oct2011bw

Just posted a step-by-step photo essay on Pixel Shavings about how I created the "little girl as rampaging monster" image for I'M BORED, a new picture book by Michael Ian Black (coming out from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers this September).