Author Interview: Greg Fishbone on From the Desk of Septina Nash: The Penguins of Doom and the Class of 2k7

Greg Fishbone on Greg Fishbone: “My mother is a microbiologist and my father is an electronics engineer. I hope I’ve inherited some of their attention to detail even without having to peer through scopes at tiny organisms or circuits. I grew up admiring Dad’s work ethic and Mom’s storytelling skills, including her ability to describe her daily events in a perfect narrative arc. I have one sister, younger, so it was often up to me to keep her entertained. I developed my sense of humor, in part, from trying so hard to make her laugh.

“I was born in Boston and grew up in Massachusetts. Connecticut was the Deep South, Albany was the Wild West, and Maine was Way Up North. There was nothing to the east but the cold green ocean and cloud formations that we took to be Wales or Ireland. I have lived elsewhere, but I’m always drawn back to clambakes in the summer, foliage in the fall, snow in the winter, and baseball in the spring. My wife is from Philadelphia, but she becomes a rabid Bostonian during Red Sox games–I couldn’t be more proud!”

What about the writing life first called to you?

Writing is just something I’ve always done. I think every child starts out as a writer, as well as an artist, a singer, an acrobat, and many other things. As we grow up, our creative passions tend escape, one by one, with finger-painting as probably the first to go. Most people can hold onto one or two creative outlets as weekend hobbies, but I’ve always admired those few who pour their hearts and souls into one art form or another and try to build it into a career. I’ve chosen writing because it lets me create and destroy entire worlds.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

I tried to write for people my own age when I was in my teens and twenties, but readers would tell me, “That’s great! I bet my little nephew would love that story!” It annoyed the heck out of me at first, but then I gave in and discovered that middle grade speculative fiction is a hub of creativity and quality in the publishing industry. It’s also a huge challenge to write, which is perfect for me because I enjoy a huge challenge–but not too huge. The main reason I don’t write picture books is that they’re even more challenging than midgrades, and I know my limits.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

For me, the path to publication was a quick walk up the front steps followed by a frustrating wait at the door. I’d hear activity on the other side, and sometimes a personal rejection letter would slip through the crack underneath, but the door itself remained closed, locked, barred, and sealed.

I used that time I spent on the doorstep to improve my craft, and today I’m actually grateful to all those editors who refused to put my early submissions into print. They weren’t the best that I could do, so it’s a relief that they only exist in manuscript form.

Your debut title is From the Desk of Septina Nash: The Penguins of Doom (Blooming Tree, 2007). Congratulations! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Back in the 1990s, I wrote a serialized superhero story for an online project called Superguy. It was a lot of fun and, amazingly enough, it had readers! After the series ended, somebody asked me what had become of the characters. I hadn’t thought about it before then but instantly I knew that Sal and Viyayai would be married and would have seven children. The entire story came to me all at once, with the purple-haired seventh child, the missing triplet, the penguins, the mad scientist, and everything else.

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

I first wrote The Penguins of Doom as a comic book script but couldn’t find anyone willing to draw or publish it. Meanwhile, I started adapting some of my other Superguy stories into novels. In 1998, my first novel submission to a publisher led to a series of requested revisions until my first rejection in 2001. After that came a series of rejections on a bunch of different books, including The Penguins of Doom. In 2004, I rewrote The Penguins of Doom in the form of letters from Septina’s point of view, and the book sold in 2005.

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

The biggest challenge I faced was finding a voice and writing style for this story, because I already had the characters and plot. A third-person omniscient “Rod Serling” type of narrator worked great for the comic book script but not for the novel. I tried again in Quinn’s voice and–no offense to Quinn–it went nowhere. Septina’s voice worked better, but it took a while for me to realize that she should be writing the book as a series of letters to the people in her life. I actually sprang awake at five in the morning and shouted, “Letters! She could be writing letters!”

It’s the same story it’s always been but now it works.

Your publisher, Blooming Tree, is based here in my home city of Austin, Texas. Could you describe your experience with the house? How would you describe it to another author?

Blooming Tree Press is an independent publisher that’s small but growing fast. I originally had my heart set on a larger publisher but now I’d tell other authors to keep the smaller houses in mind. Everyone at BTP is so talented and professional, and the books get a lot of personal attention. The company is putting out more books each year, becoming better recognized, and launching a graphic novel imprint, so it’s an exciting time to be working with them.

You’re involved with the Class of 2k7 cooperative promotional effort. Could you give us some insight into the history of this campaign?

Sure. I had the idea to start a marketing collective in early 2006, when I was totally overwhelmed by all the marketing and promotional work that authors are expected to do these days. I figured that a group of authors working together would be able to accomplish things that no one of us would be able to do alone, and I was lucky enough to attract a group of awesomely talented classmates to join in.

The Class of 2k7 is a group of 39 children’s and YA authors who have joined together to help promote each other’s debut novels to booksellers, librarians, and teachers. We’re all being published for the first time in 2007, so we’re like a graduating class–hence the Class of 2k7.

How would you describe your role?

I’ve been elected class president, and that’s been a great honor and a whole lot of work. We’ve delegated a lot of the tasks to organizing committees and regional coordinators, but I do most of the website coding and serve as a point of contact for inquiries that come in.

What have been the joys and challenges along the way?

We’ve been rolling out elements of the Class of 2k7 campaign one at a time–the website, a collective blog, a discussion forum, a chat room, a media folder, etc. Each item has been a challenge, but it’s also given us new ways to make our group into a “one stop shop” for booksellers, librarians, and teachers looking for fresh new books from fresh new voices.

We’ve gotten a nice write-up in Publishers Weekly, a podcast, and mentions on a whole bunch of great blogs including yours. Every time someone’s taken notice of the group, it’s been a huge buzz of excitement for all of us.

What are the plans for the future?

We’re about to distribute the first issue of our quarterly ezine and there will be events and tours throughout the year. Our biggest plans are to celebrate the release of our books, starting with Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr (Little Brown, 2007)(author interview), which is out right now. Hopefully we can make enough noise for all of us to stand out among all the other choices out there.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

I feel like I’m too green at this to be giving advice to anyone else but here goes… Be professional. Be patient. Be humble. Learn something from every book you read, and never stop trying to improve your craft. Most important: Never give up!

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I spend my days in a law office, staring at legal documents and wishing that I could be writing instead.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m continuing to develop a consistent style while branching out in new directions. My agent is shopping around a sports series of mine and is looking at a fantasy novel I just sent her, and my current work-in-process is a mystery featuring a pair of young detectives.

In the immediate future, I’m working on an audiobook/podcast companion to The Penguins of Doom which will be available for free download at (http://septinanash.com). It will be called The Love Song of Prescott T. Goode and will take place at the same time as the printed book and with the same set of characters. I’m really psyched that Blooming Tree Press is letting me try something with this that’s never quite been done before.

Cynsational Notes

Publisher Interview: Miriam Hees on Blooming Tree Press from Cynsations.

Blogger Transition

Cynsations is caught in some kind of limbo between Blogger 1 and Blogger 2 (on the off-chance that someone can help, my dashboard is on 2, but, after a few days, the blogs themselves still haven’t been moved over).

Following the troubleshooting directions has been hit or miss. I have managed to log in at least once daily, but I’m not sure that will continue to be the case. Apparently larger blogs are being moved over latter in the queue.

All of this is to say, if Cynsations goes quiet for a while, please don’t think I’m abandoning the blog. I’m simply waiting for it to be sprung from purgatory by the Google gods. I’m hopeful that everything is resolved in a somewhat timely manner so I don’t have to re-evaluate where I blog.

Cross fingers though that my luck holds, and I’ll do my best to keep posting. My apologies for any delays to my interviewees.

Bookseller Insights: Elizabeth Bluemle on Promotional Bookmarks and Postcards

by Elizabeth Bluemle

Many bookmarks and get overlooked, thrown away, or otherwise ignored. You don’t want your hard-earned money to be wasted. Here are some tips:

(1) Make them as pretty/handsome as possible.

(2) A simple, striking image from the cover is always successful.

(3) Three book covers can work beautifully, especially if the text is on the back (as you all suggest), but quickly becomes too much if you’re also trying to fit lots of text along with the covers.

(4) Most of the info should go on the back, or be so tastefully designed that it doesn’t interfere with the artistic appeal of the bookmark.

(5) Try to resist the temptation to do much more than a one-line blurb or review on the front. We get zillions of publisher-created bookmarks that are so cluttered with information that the eye skitters right over them and moves on. No one reaches for them, child or adult.

(6) Information that reads as marketing promotion rather than an evocation and celebration of the books is also a turn-off.

Last year, I took a poll of fellow booksellers, and it was surprising how many didn’t like or want bookmarks (or postcards). I think that’s a result of some of the design flaws noted above, because booksellers and readers sure do love a colorful Maisy bookmark, or a YA bookmark with just the cover image on the front, and simple tasteful title, publisher, ISBN info (and maybe the best review quote or a teaser quote from the book) on the back.

Note: you are trying to reach schools and consumers in addition to booksellers, so you can weigh the above against what you are trying to accomplish with the bookmarks. But we see the info-overload glaze-over even in schools where you’d think teachers would love informative bookmarks. They mostly don’t, unless the info is a list of Printz winners, etc.

Happy designing!

Cynsational Notes

Elizabeth Bluemle is the owner of The Flying Pig in Shelburne, Vermont. She also is the author of My Father The Dog, illustrated by Randy Cecil (Candlewick, 2006). Of late, Elizabeth informally offered her insights on this topic to an online writing discussion group, and she graciously agreed to allow me to share her comments.

Author-Illustrator Interview: Wallace Edwards on The EXtinct Files: My Science Project

Wallace Edwards on Wallace Edwards: “born in Ottawa, Ontario in 1957; graduated Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto, Ontario 1980; worked as freelance illustrator for magazines and books and a variety of clients for 25 years; work primarily in watercolour and pencil; paintings hang in private and public collections in Canada and abroad; love doing children’s books.” Note: scroll agency page for more information.

What made you decide to create books for young readers?

I have drawn all my life and loved books when I was little. I thought children would be an excellent audience for picture books because they look so carefully at things.

What training–formal or informal–did you elect? As a writer? As an illustrator?

Informal training–I love to draw and have done so since I was able to hold a pencil. Formal training–four years at Ontario College of Art and Design, graduated in 1980.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

My first book, Alphabeasts, published in 2002 by Kids Can Press, was an independent project done for personal entertainment in my spare time. An art director I knew recommended an agent, who was willing to promote the book and this is how it found a home at Kids Can.

Congratulations on the publication of The EXtinct Files: My Science Project (Kids Can, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for this book?

Thank you for your kind congratulations. I had a collection of dinosaur paintings which inspired the story. In addition, I was fortunate to have a very good editor and designer at Kids Can, so we worked together well to shape the book.

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

The EXtinct Files took about a year from inception to publication. However, some of the paintings were done beforehand. There was a lot of ‘back and forth’ with the publisher refining the manuscript, and a lot of time spent sitting in a room at the old drawing board.

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

The main challenge was in finding a story which fit the images and which could appeal to kids. Psychologically, when the creation of a book is in midstream, you are always walking around with a feeling that something needs to be done. It’s sort of like you are in the middle of remembering the book, and yet you don’t know what you have forgotten because you haven’t remembered it yet!

What advice do you have for beginning writer-illustrators?

Never give up. Don’t become discouraged. Just put things away and come back when you are refreshed. If one path fails, try another. Do the things you like to do. Find the subject matter which interests you the most, and then enjoy the sense of discovery in the creation.

How about those building a career?

There is no set map for building a career as we are all unique and the world changes fast. Just work hard and try to see the areas you would like to work in and approach them. Do the best you can do and always be honest.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I am presently working on a fifth book with Kids Can Press, which (without giving too much away) might involve a circus…

Cynsational Notes

Alphabeasts won the 2002 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Book Illustration.

Storming the Castle: Blacks in Children’s Literature

The January 2007 issue of Children’s Writer: Newsletter of Writing and Publishing Trends (Vol. 16. No. 6) offers a recommended article, “Storming the Castle: Blacks in Children’s Literature” by Chris Eboch.

It briefly chronicles the history of African American children’s literature and then highlights its state today. Sources include Don Tate, illustrator of Summer Sun Risin’ by W. Nikola-Lisa (Lee & Low, 2002), author Allison Whittenberg, author/editor Andrea Pinkney, and author Coe Booth.

Arguably, no historically underrepresented group in youth literature has made as significant recent gains as the African-American community–sparkling with creative talent, led by inspiring champions. As we celebrate this success, we also can consider it as a role model for others and an indicator of where the hardest fought battles await. Yet, as is noted in the article, even this, our most successful group, still struggles against industry and societal challenges.

Black History Month in February offers many opportunities to learn more about voices and visions in African American children’s and YA literature. That said, let’s all commit to raising awareness of wonderful books in this area both next month and throughout the year.

Cynsational News & Links

Hot Off the Press: A Sneak Peek at Publishers’ Newest and Hottest Titles from Children’s Book Council. Highlights include: Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Scholastic, 2007)(illustrator interview); Holbrook: A Lizard’s Tale by Bonny Becker, illustrated by Abby Carter (Clarion, 2007); and Sophie Hartley on Strike by Stephanie Greene (Clarion, 2007).

“‘If I Can’ Gets Native Youth Reading for Fun” by Julie Rave of the Missoulian. Learn more about If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything, a national reading club for Native American Children. Note: I’m honored that my tween novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) is highlighted among recommended books by Native authors.

“Super Cool Kid Non-fiction” with Kelly Milner Halls: a chat transcript from the Institute of Children’s Literature. Read a Cynsations interview with Kelly.

Author Interview: Lauren Myracle on ttyl and ttfn

Lauren Myracle is the author of six novels for tweens and teens with many more in the works. Her breakout success came with the publication of ttyl (Abrams, 2004), the first-ever novel written entirely in instant messages. Both ttyl and its sequel, ttfn (Amulet, 2006), are New York Times Best-Sellers, and readers eagerly await the third instant messaging book, l8r, g8r, which is due out in March 07.

Lauren holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College, and her work has been described by teens as “awesome,” “the best ever,” and “sooo funny.” She was perhaps most pleased, however, by the reader who said of her work, “I can’t believe it was written by a (cough, cough) grown-up.”

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

Oh, baby. I’ve loved books since the day I first learned to read, which for the record was October 15th of my first grade year. (Just kidding! It might have been October 16th. It was definitely when I was in the first grade, though.)

Anyway, I started writing my own stuff around that same time, and I have journals on top of journals of my stories and blatherings and lists of unachieved New Year’s resolutions.

I started writing for real (and by “for real,” I mean with the intent of actually reaching the end of a honest-to-God book) when I was twenty-three. +sighs and looks back nostalgically at young self+ Ah, what a long road it’s been.

What made you decide to write for teens?

I didn’t decide. I just did. I love teenagers; I love books for teenagers; I love my whole teenage psyche, which is quite alive and well, thanks very much. For me, this was one of those “it’s just part of my constitution” things. And to that I say…yay!

What were you like as a teenager?

Er…awkward. Skinny. Bookish, but only when it came to stuff I picked out to read on my own. In terms of school, I was an underachiever, although I did enough to float by.

And finally, I have come to realize in my dotage that as a teenager, I was cuter than I realized at the time, which I say because if you’re a teenager and by chance you’re reading this, you are also cuter than you realize. And smarter and funnier and cooler all around. Give yourself some credit, girl! Or boy!

For those new to your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

Okey-doke! +takes deep breath and recites in order+ Kissing Kate, Eleven, ttyl, Rhymes with Witches, The Fashion Disaster that Changed My Life, ttfn. There! Did it! And they’re all lovely, and you should read them all. If you want dark and troubled, try Rhymes with Witches. If you want sweet and clean, try Eleven. If you’re an IM freak (don’t be ashamed!), read ttyl and ttfn. And then just go on and read Kissing Kate and Fashion Disaster for the heck of it.

Congratulations on the success of ttyl and ttfn! What was your initial inspiration for writing these books?

Merci, merci! You are a sweetie. The credit for inspiration all goes to my fabulous and adorable and brilliant-beyond-words editor, the great Susan Van Metre.

One day, she and I were having a talk about how different things are for girls now than when we were teenagers, and we circled around to the whole IM thing. You know, how when we were in school, we’d come home and phone our buds and go over the day (who wore what, who said what, etc.), but now, girls come home and IM their buds to do their post-op.

And Susan said, “Someone should write a book all told in IMs.”

And, being no dummy, I said, “Okay!” And so I did.

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

Thank you for asking that, because I would just like to say here and now that they were frickin’ hard to write!!!! No tools of conventional fiction–well, okay, few tools of conventional fiction–were at my disposal, and that made it tricky.

The research part wasn’t hard; it was the logistics of telling a story without using blatant exposition or straightforward narrative or even just “moving the story along” techniques like, “And then, the next day, a big monster came down and swallowed the city whole.”

It turned out to be rather like writing a play, I guess, but different even than that, because my characters weren’t on the stage interacting together. They were all sitting at their computers, typing. And do you know how potentially boring that is?

I mean, okay, I should shut up now, but sometimes I feel like people (critics) pooh-pooh my books because they’re written in (gasp!) IMs, and they look easy-peasy and quick. But to them I say: you try it, and then we’ll talk! 🙂

Did you intend for there to be more than one of these novels? How did that evolve?

Well, I hoped there’d be more than one, but when I suggested to Susan that we do a sequel, she politely and sweetly said, “Sorry, Charlie.” But nicer. And she used my actual name. And then when ttyl did well, she came back and said, “Erm, any chance you’d like to do a sequel?” And I beamed and got to work.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

Read, read, read and write, write, write.

How about those building a career?

Same.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I hang out with my three little kittens, who are really human children. I just call them “kittens.” And I do laundry. And take food out of its packaging, plonk it on a plate, and pretend I cooked it. Basically, I do all the mundane activities of life, all the while fantasizing about a week long vacay where I can lie in the sun and just read!

What can your fans look forward to next?

More and more and more! Twelve comes out in March, as does l8r, g8r. And I’m having an absolute blast working on a novel called How to Be Bad with two fabulous authors, Sarah Mlynowski and E. Lockhart (author interview). Ooo boy, is that fun. And it looks like I’ll be starting a middle grade IM-ish series called Love Ya Bunches which I’m tres excited about. I love my job! I love my job! I love my job!!!

Cynsational Links

In Their Own Words: Interviews with Children’s and YA Authors and Illustrators from my web site. See also YA Literature Reading Links and Young Adult Books Bibliography.

Thank you, St. Francis School

Thank you to everyone at St. Francis School in Austin for a wonderful visit!

Keep reading! Keep writing! Keep those goldfish flying!

Cynsational Notes

After presenting information on my own writing life and published books, it was my great pleasure to work with the students on a writing exercise that was a spin-off of my character-building process for Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002). I was so impressed with their enthusiasm, creativity, and willingness to share their work.

Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

Look for Story of a Girl by debut YA novelist Sara Zarr (Little Brown, 2007). This is another fabulous book for which I had the honor of offering a blurb.

I also met Sara in person this past fall at NCTE/ALAN, and she’s not only a talented author, but also the kind of newcomer we all really want to cheer–smart, sweet, funny, and a book person through and through.

Sara says: “As I got older, I never lost my love for YA, and every story that emerged from my own mind featured characters in that strange place that adolescence is. Someone (I can’t remember who) has said that childhood is like living in occupied territory. Adolescence is when you start to grope and grasp for your own piece of land outside of that, and the issues of identity that surround that are just ripe for stories.” Read a Cynsations interview with Sara.

Read also a more recent interview with Sara from Debbi Michiko Florence at One Writer’s Journey.

More News & Links

Are you an author or illustrator published by a Children’s Book Council member publisher? If so, you may request a link on the CBC website.

“Don’t Get Slighted” by Jan Fields from the Institute of Children’s Literature. “Learn how conflict and theme work together to help you avoid ‘slight’ writing.”

Congratulations to Jennifer Lynn Barnes, author of Tattoo (Delacorte, 2007); Alma Fullerton, author of Walking on Glass (HarperCollins, 2007); Brent Hartinger, author of Split Screen: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Zombies/Bride of the Soul Sucking Zombies (HarperCollins, 2007) (author interview) on their January releases.

Beauty Shop For Rent by Laura Bowers

Of late, I had the honor of offering a blurb for Beauty Shop for Rent by debut author Laura Bowers (Harcourt, 2007)(excerpt). My take?

“Beauty Shop for Rent is a down-home, whole-heart story. It’s about a strong girl bolstered by love, shaking off lies, and finding the courage to take chances. It’s about the wrong dream, the right guy, righteous gossip, and the power of a good spa treatment. Funny, aching, and authentic, Laura Bowers’ debut is one of the finest, most entertaining I’ve ever read.”

Put mildly, I loved it, and so I surfed over to the author’s website to learn more about her. I especially enjoyed A History of Hair Lessons Learned. Take a Beauty Shop for Rent Quiz. Visit Laura’s LJ. Visit Laura’s MySpace.

Nebraska-Based Series of Novel-Writing Retreats

Fremont, Neb.–Nebraska children’s author N. L. Sharp is hosting a series of writing retreats entitled “Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts” at the St. Benedict Retreat Center in Schuyler, Nebraska.

Unique in the world of writing retreats, the intent of this series of three retreats it to help writers move from the first inklings of an idea toward a publishable novel in twelve intensive months.

Presenters for the series of retreats are published authors Elaine Marie Alphin and Darcy Pattison, Simon & Schuster editor Alexandra Penfold, and Writers House literary agent Rebecca Sherman. The retreats are designed for maximum participation and advance preparation for each retreat is required. Brief lectures are followed by time to work on individual projects, then reinforced by group discussions.

The first retreat, scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 25 to Saturday, Oct. 27, 2007, will be led by Elaine Marie Alphin and will focus on brainstorming techniques to get the writer started with the plotting, character development, and pacing of the novel.

The second retreat, scheduled for Friday, April 4 to Sunday, April 6, 2008, will be led by Darcy Pattison. The goal of this retreat is that every writer leave with strategies and tools for revising and strengthening the novel.

The final retreat is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 24 to Sunday, Oct. 26, 2008, and will be led by Alexandra Penfold, an editor at Simon & Schuster, and Rebecca Sherman, a senior agent at Writers House Literary Agency.

The focus for this retreat will be marketing strategies and submission secrets, and each participant will have a one-on-one critique session with either the editor or the agent. Time will also be spent discussing the process of letting go of this novel and starting again with a new project.

Complete descriptions of all retreats can be found at www.NLSharp.com, along with registration details. For additional information or questions, contact Nancy Sharp Wagner.