Author Interview: Josephine Nobisso on Show; Don’t Tell! Secrets of Writing

Show; Don’t Tell! Secrets of Writing by Josephine Nobisso, illustrated by Eva Montanari (Gingerbread House, 2004). An interactive picture book. Gorgeously illustrated. Ages 7-up.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

For eighteen years, I’d been going into schools, speaking at conferences, etc., limiting myself to conducting 100 writing workshops per year. These figures suggest that I travel quite a lot, but the fact is that I have never had to leave my home turf of Long Island to get that many bookings. It was clear that I had come up with some very serviceable and accessible insights on writing that could help so many people. Putting these strategic tips into book form seemed the logical outreach.

Show; Don’t Tell! Secrets of Writing explores the intrinsic nature of nouns and their modifiers. The next book will cover another of my workshop topics: verbs, adverbs–and surprisingly, perhaps–prepositions, to give writers more tools for expressing what they intend.

My approach is grammar-based: applying grammar in its most elegant and authentic way in order to become the most creative and individual writer.

I used to think what I have heard many writers say–that writing is somehow magical or miraculous. Well, wrangling story (fiction or non) into a communicable and interesting form is certainly one of the mysteries of human life, but the tools for accomplishing that are neither magic nor miracle, and once internalized, they liberate the writer to speak in his own voice.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I was the child of hard-working immigrant parents who provided me with an education that today would be called “classical.” I attended Catholic schools where the nuns taught me the architecture of language. Later in life, when I was working on my fourth novel and wanted to take a blow torch to it, it occurred to me to diagram some sentences to see why I was boring myself. Bingo!

I published many books and short pieces before I was able to isolate and articulate the precepts that became so clear to me on that day. These insights seemed too much to put into an appealing picture book form, but that was the dream I had for them–to become a book that was artistically illustrative, one that connected writing to reading to visual arts.

One Spring evening, my daughter (Maria Nicotra, whom I’ve affectionately dubbed our “Art Dictator”) handed me a portable tape recorder and suggested I take a walk along my favorite dirt lanes. I hadn’t been gone ten minutes before I called her with the triumphant news that I had the format figured out. So, how long did it take? A lifetime. Or ten minutes.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

My workshops progress sequentially. They go from a quick diagnostic, to verbal proofs about the tendencies that weaken our writing, to a modeled experiment that tests my points, to the participants’ putting pen to paper, to editing and rewriting. I wanted the book to take readers on that same sequential journey. That challenge was the easy one.

The larger challenge was to take a text that has no characters, no plot, no setting, no nuthin’ but a lesson that could be converted into a conversation, and work with the artist to create story elements from just the underlying thrust of the precepts. It took Maria, Eva Montanari, and me over 300 emails back and forth–this is largely how Maria learned Italian, this, and Italian rock songs–to bring it all into shape. Eva did a such a marvelous job of creating a self-referential universe that one doesn’t much notice that there is no story.

Then, there were the challenges with sourcing the touch and feel swatches, the scratch and sniff patch, the sound module, etc., but those are the challenges of the publisher and of the printer, and not of the writer.

Cynsational Notes

Awards and Honors for Show; Don’t Tell! Secrets of Writing: an International Reading Association-Children’s Book Council “Children’s Choices Award,” a National Parenting Publications “Honors Award,” a Learning Magazine “Parents’ Choice Award,” and it has been named to the American Booksellers’ Association’s Book Sense “Picks List,” and is a ForeWord Magazine “Book of the Year” Finalist.

Cynsational News & Links

“Do I Need an Agent and How Will I Know If I Do?”: a chat with Sharene Martin, co-founder of the Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency from the Institute of Children’s Literature. See also Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency.

“It’s Only Pink on the Outside” by Rosemary Graham from Not-So-Terrible After All. Rosemary talks about pink cover art, feminism, the associations of the “chick lit” label, and acknowledges its market power and limitations. Rosemary is the author of Thou Shalt Not Dump The Skater Dude (And Other Commandments I Have Broken)(Viking, 2005). Read a recent cynsations interview with her on the novel.

See also Author2Author: Megan Crane and E. Lockhart from Beatrice. See recent cynsational interviews with E. Lockhart on The Boyfriend List (15 guys, 11 shrink appointments, 4 ceramic frogs and me, ruby oliver)(Delacorte, 2005) and Fly on the Wall (Delacorte, 2006).