The Writing Across Formats interview series features conversations with well established children’s-YA authors about creating a range of books–why they do so, what it’s taught them, and the pressures of author branding.
Click link from author name for more information about that contributor. Click link from “see WAF interview” to read more of their thoughts.
What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?
“It’s like when you’re writing with a graphite pencil. After a while, the tip gets worn on one side, so the line is flat and broad and sloppy. Then you turn the pencil a bit, exercise a different part of the point, and the line is thin and tense again.”
“Actually, my writing began to ‘grow’ with my kids. As I found myself reading older books to my boys, I also found myself wanting to write for those older audiences. Nothing more mysterious than that.
“And there is the boredom factor. Maybe I have ADD and just can’t seem to concentrate on one form for too long.”
“When I first started writing, I wanted to write a historical fiction novel. But with two little boys underfoot, progress on the first novel was very slow.
“At the same time, I was reading and enjoying dozens of picture books each week with my sons. Soon I found myself with several picture book ideas of my own (inspired by the boys), which gave me a fun break from the more serious subject of the novel.”
“…the ideas came first, and they dictated the form and the age level. I don’t think I ever sat down and said, ‘Now I’m going to write a mystery,’ for example, or ‘Now I’m going to write a nonfiction book–what shall it be about?'”
“I’m a waste-not/want not kind of person, so after doing three years of research for a non-fiction fifth grade book about Vietnam, I had accumulated lots of information that I didn’t want to ‘throw away.’ Since I am a fiction writer first and foremost, I began to think of several fiction projects about Vietnam.”
“For several years I continued to write in those forms I had come to know best, mostly board books and beginning readers. When I began trying to write picture books, it took me a long time to write one that actually worked. And it took me a very long time to feel ready to try writing a novel.
“I’d actually always wanted to write novels, even before I knew I wanted to write for children. But it was so different from all the writing I’d done so far, and I went into it very cautiously, taking a lot of time to figure things out as I went along. I don’t know if it was so much about being inspired to write across forms as to work up the courage to try things outside my comfort zone.”
“…I do recall having a moment in which I gave myself permission to switch gears.
“My career began as an editor of children’s nonfiction, primarily for the school library market–and those were the kinds of books I naturally wrote first when I transitioned from editor to writer.
“And then there came a point when I needed to stretch as a writer and find my own stories to tell–what was I passionate about–what was I yearning to say?
“Then it became about the right form for the right story. Sometimes that is picture book, and sometimes it is a longer form.”
What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?
“At the end of the day, they all require a good story. Even a concept book has to have a narrative arc. That sounds cliche in a way, but with every book I write I learn something new that informs the next book, regardless of the subject or the form.”
“…the need to be clever and creative in a 32-page fiction picture book–to make that book stand out in the marketplace and on bookshelves–has made me more aware of the possibilities for that same sort of cleverness and creativity in other genres and formats, even in nonfiction. Maybe especially in nonfiction.”
“…all of my writing is more lyrical because I write picture books. It is more concentrated for having written 150-word nonfiction. It is more intense for the experience of the shorter chapter books. And when I climb into something longer, the sprawl is utterly satisfying.”
“Writing in itself is a learning experience. Picture books have taught me about rhythm; easy-to-reads have taught me to write a story using fewer words; novels have taught about story arc; nonfiction books have taught me that they can be as interesting as fiction; and poetry has taught me that I’ve discovered a voice I didn’t know that I had.”
“I can see the whole of a picture book at once, unlike a novel; I can focus on the level of the word in a picture book (you can do that when you have 500 words and not 75,000); I can leave breathing holes for the illustrator. It was so restful in a funny kind of way.”
“…poetry taught me to choose words carefully and to a deep awareness of imagery, which has helped me in writing novels. The structure of fiction, even such devices as foreshadowing and character development, helped me be a better writer of nonfiction. Poetry also taught me about voice, finding my own voice and finding the voices of the characters who have come to inhabit my fiction.”
“In the thirteen years I’ve been writing for children, I’ve now dabbled in several genres and formats: poetry, picture books, historical fiction, humor, fantasy, and nonfiction.
“What I’ve learned is that, while each has its own particular requirements in terms of structure and technique, first and foremost they all require a compelling story.
“A great story trumps all.”
“…poetry has had the greatest impact on all my writing. We write so our readers will enjoy what we have written. And if we can write with a sense of poetry–a feeling for the musicality of the language (rhythm, sound)–whatever we write will be much more elegant, pared down, to the point and enjoyable. This happens even if the reader is not aware of it.”
“When I wrote my (so far!) only picture book, for example, Molly’s Family, illustrated by Sharon Wooding (FSG, 2004), I had to concentrate so much on learning how to do it that I didn’t think much at first about what I was learning that would be useful elsewhere.
“But I know it helped me become even more conscious of the need for economy in all other forms, for I tend to be, er, long winded. Short stories help me practice that skill, too.”
“One thing I learned was to respect the picture book format. With picture books, you do not have the luxury of 60,000 words to evoke emotions, describe scenes or use pithy dialog.
“For example, my forty page historical picture book about Texas history took just as much research as my middle grade novel or YA novel about Texas history.
“It was the same topic and same research, but with the picture book format, I had to get across an historical event in just a few stanzas, and cover a time period from 1500 to present day in about a thousand words. The words had to be poetical and emotional, yet at the same time convey history accurately.
“The picture book process of culling down, cutting back, and selecting the most powerful words, helped me learn to keep the novels more tight.”
“I’m an auditory person. The voice and dialogue of my stories usually comes easier for me. Adding the visual details is not as easy. Picture books remind me that visual details matter (even if the illustrator is the one providing those).”
“I would like to say that working in shorter formats with strict word and page limits taught me to write succinctly, but I’m afraid that didn’t happen.
“On the contrary, once I started writing things without strict limits, I found myself writing really long manuscripts and having to work at cutting them down later on. I do think the shorter formats taught me to think really carefully about word choice, because when you’re only allowed a few lines on a page, you really need to make every word count. They also taught me to think visually, because if you know you need to have an illustration on every page, you need to make sure there is something different for the artist to work with from page to page or spread to spread.”
“One good thing about publishing in all genres is that it makes you more hire-able for schools who want an author who can speak to every grade level K-12, and has books to sell for every age. Also, at conferences, I’ve been needed a few times to ‘fill in the gaps’ (e.g.: speak about writing for teenagers when the other speakers are picture book or middle grade writers only).”
“Fiction has taught me to embrace point of view in my nonfiction. If I’m investing tons of time and energy into telling a complicated piece of history, for example, there must be a compelling reason for me to do so.
“It is the ‘why is this story important to you’ question I always kept in the forefront of my mind for fiction that I now let be the driving force in my nonfiction as well.
“And the short form of picture books has taught me how to capture an essence of a person or an emotion, which is certainly helpful in any form of writing.”
What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?
“I really don’t like the idea of an agent applying pressure to their clients to stick to the same thing (which I hear happens occasionally). The agent should be there to serve you and your inspiration, not to shoehorn you.
“And frankly, I think many writers actually achieve their popularity by writing for various different age levels and in various different forms. While in my case it hasn’t specifically helped my career, it certainly hasn’t hurt it.
“And no, I don’t think it’s done much damage to, say, Kate DiCamillo‘s career, or E. Lockhart‘s (though she oddly publishes under different names), or Kevin Henkes‘ career, or Adam Rex‘s, or Kathi Appelt‘s, or Alison McGhee‘s. (To name a few off the top of my head.)
“For some of these writers, I actually feel that it helps in that kids start to love them as early readers and stick with them as they grow into their teenage years. That’s a beautiful thing.”
“I can understand, from a marketing standpoint, how a publisher might want to create a ‘brand.’ But to me, that undermines the basic human drive for creativity.
“I think humans are larger and wider than brands. This is not to say that a good mystery writer is going to necessarily be successful writing a romance, any more than Madonna can be successful writing a children’s book (and I had such high hopes).
“But I resent and resist the urge for anyone to be cornered into a pigeonhole. I think it underestimates what is possible in our human ability to stretch and discover and to create.
“Imagine what might have happened if E.B. White had been branded? He was an excellent, well known author of adult letters before he ever wrote Charlotte’s Web (HarperCollins, 1952). What a loss to the world it would have been if his publisher had refused to publish that book because it might have damaged his brand.”
“I’ve never felt any pressure to brand myself that way. Are other writers receiving that pressure? From whom? Who would do such an awful thing? And why would a writer let that happen?
“If I couldn’t have the freedom to write whatever type of book I feel drawn to writing, I’d have a hard time seeing the point in pursuing this line of work. It’s supposed to be fun.”
“…we all should be writing whatever we most need to write for whatever audience we are best equipped to reach. But in the early years of a career, I suppose the realities of the market support a certain amount of ‘branding,’ though I dislike the term and all its implications.
“My pattern–a pattern that was forced on me rather than chosen–was to get myself established with one kind of book, the hard-hitting, realistic, upper-middle-grade novel, before I turned to anything else It’s what I came into the field needing to write.
“When my children were grown and grandchildren became part of my life, my emotional focus shifted, and I began to have a real need–not just a passing desire–to write younger.
“I’m approaching my 71st birthday, and I find myself feeling farther and farther removed from the world of tweets and twitters and text messages and all that is so integral a part of the lives of the kids I used to write for. I don’t think the emotional reality has changed for our young people, but the same emotional realities are being housed in very different vessels.
“I find myself, even when I write novels, moving younger, back into the space where family is central, because that has always been the only territory I know how to write out of. And its harder, these days, to spin a story totally out of family if you are writing about older kids.
“Thus, I have turned to animal stories or to novellas about younger kids.”
“I’ll add another piece that isn’t often spoken of. It’s enormously difficult to support yourself solely with writing novels. They take too long to write and, unless they are unusually successful, they often don’t sell enough to pay for the time committed to them. My collection of YA short stories, Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins (Clarion, 2007), took me two years to write.
“The publisher and I had great expectations it, but we quickly discovered that it was an equal-opportunity book. There was something in there to offend just about everyone. And while the books flowed out quickly with the first buzz that surrounded the collection, they came flowing back to the publisher with equal speed. So considered solely in financial terms, those two years were a bust.
“For the last twenty-two years of my career, I’ve been supporting myself exclusively with my writing and a little teaching on the side. Being able to sell the younger pieces has made that possible.”
“For years I wrote just what came to my heart, in the form it wanted to be. I published an easy-to-read, a biography in prose, a novel in prose, and a collection of folklore from Puerto Rico.
“Editors kept telling me that readers wouldn’t know me unless I wrote in a genre or specific form. I, however, know well-known authors who, from the very beginning of their careers, wrote in different forms. Why couldn’t I do the same?
“I want to write whatever my heart dictates.”
“…this sort of pressure is not healthy. It can lead to writers repeating themselves, literally imitating themselves in the hopes of holding on to an audience.
“I’d rather think of the demands of the story itself, the form itself, rather than the imagined or expected audience you would be trying to please.
“No author should be expected to always write the same sort of book or focus on the same subject each time.
“The danger of this is especially great when a writer’s early work finds a wide and eager audience that expects more of the same. The curse of the successful first book.
“Writers need to have space to hear their own stories, their own poems, while they are writing them. I know that I often feel in the midst of a story as if I am not creating but listening, not crafting a tale, but taking dictation.”
“…it’s very unfortunate, unless the author truly wants to write just one kind of book. For me, it would take away what I most love about writing: the ability to express myself in many different ways.
“Just as my reading choices are eclectic, so are my writing habits. Some days I want to be silly, other days I want to slow down and be more reflective.
“What I write is who I am. And I am not a brand.”
“Like many authors, I do not think it is a good thing for an author to be ‘branded,’ though I do understand why some publishers do it. I’ve even been told in rejection letters that a particular manuscript isn’t ‘Shutta.’ How can that be? I wrote it!”
“I don’t like it much; it’s like typecasting in theater. I’m known primarily for writing LGBTQ YAs, and in a way that’s been very helpful to me, and of course in many ways I’m proud of being know for it.
“But I fear my other books have suffered, because reviewers especially and perhaps some publishers as well expect me to write only LGBTQ books.
“Don’t get me wrong; those books are very important to me! But so are the others that I write!”
“Because I had so many books about Vietnam, for a while I was branded as a ‘multicultural’ author. It was a good thing for me at the time because there was a market for the kinds of books I wrote.
“When that market went soft and I switched to writing books that were not about Vietnam, it was difficult to adjust. It was almost like starting over. Likewise, my most recent books have been picture books.
“Now, I’m finding it difficult to re-enter the YA market because a few years have gone by. Readers (even librarians) will forget you if you don’t keep producing.”
“There are certainly advantages to sticking to the same kind of book. Folks come to expect a certain type of story for a certain age group and the writer delivers. But that’s not the kind of writing life I want.
“Thank goodness I write for a publisher that has allowed me to explore outside of the box. When I turn in a complex novel, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to focus on Piper Reed (Scholastic, 2008-). I owe my sanity to that character.
“The downside to writing for different ages is that, after almost 12 years of being published, there are still a lot of people out there who don’t know my name. I think some of that has to do with my exploring different forms. That being said, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“I started out writing all different kinds of books, and never really felt the pressure to write any particular thing until after Library Lion (Candlewick, 2006) was published and began receiving some attention.
“Then people were asking me when my next picture book would be coming out, and I suddenly felt a lot of pressure to write another picture book.
“I think that pressure definitely worked against me. It took me a long time to write another picture book manuscript that I felt good about. My second picture book, which will be called Argus, is scheduled for Spring 2011 — four and a half years after the publication of Library Lion.”
“…for some, it’s not any one particular book, but a body of work.
“For example, Nancy Werlin is a definite YA author, yet each book is different. Teachers know that a new Nancy Werlin book is not going to be a picture book, but an intriguing novel for teenagers. Her fans know what to expect. Likewise, a Mo Willems book is going to be a simple picture book or early reader, with fun animal characters. An April Pulley Sayre book is going to be a nonfiction picture book about natural history. A book any teacher can tie into curriculum.
“So in that respect, I think it’s a good thing to have a ‘corner of the market’ in which you excel.
“I used to be known for writing funny/scary monster books, but again, I have to keep myself entertained and growing as a writer, so I continue to try new things.
“My ‘advantage’ now after publishing over 50 books is name recognition and longevity in the marketplace. Even though my books do not fall into only one genre, I’d like to think that by now, teachers, librarians, and book reviewers take note when they see a new ‘Dian Curtis Regan book’–whatever it may be.”
“Well, I’m resistant to pressure of any kind, so…
“But for me, I suspect that some people do now connect me with a certain kind of book; for example, I often write about strong women or issues of female empowerment. It’s not branding in the traditional sense of the word, and it came about organically, but that is probably the closest I will ever come to that concept.”
The Writing Across Formats interviews were conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference. They were posted occasionally on Cynsations over 2010.