Craft, Career & Cheer: Kelly Milner Halls

Learn about Kelly Milner Halls.

What do you love most about your creative life? Why?

Because my topics are so unusual, two things tie as my favorite elements of my creative life — the research and how the kids receive it. They’re undeniably linked, so I feel at ease with listing them both.

As I research, as I am now for In Search of Sasquatch (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), I’ll find a piece of treasure and think, “Man, the kids are going to love this.”

I went to a Bigfoot gathering a few weeks ago and interviewed a college professor who had studied encoded language for the military for more than 20 years. He had analyzed Bigfoot vocalization tapes and had concluded they shared language, not just sounds–Bigfoot to Bigfoot. I was astonished, listening to his research, and I knew the kids would be electrified too.

I measure each page I write against that milestone. If it doesn’t rise to my own level of expectation, it doesn’t make it into the book. Because I want those kids excited about discovery and research, and I feel I have the chance to spark their flames through exposure to my own enthusiasm.

I don’t imagine all kids will love what they see. But I see that one kid in my head, and I’m so excited.

When I sat down to write that passage–and others–this summer, I wrote feeling super charged with that thought in mind. Then, when I do a series of school visits and get to talk to kids about that piece of treasure, it’s like finding it all over again, this time with the kid I was picturing by my side. It’s the ultimate pay-off for the hard work I do.

Awards are nice, and they are always appreciated. But that kid’s reaction, that’s the real measure of my success. I hope I can do this forever.

What do you love most about being an author? Why?

I love what I described in my previous answer, meeting the kids and sharing the wonders with them most, but I also love meeting other authors and illustrators.

Writing is such a solitary career choice. Even writing nonfiction, with all the travel and research and interviews that involves, is solitary. Because the people you meet to build a book are professional associates, not personal friends. They are wonderful, and some actually become friends after a book is completed. But the focus is somewhat narrow talking to each subject. It has to be to stay on track with the outlined book. Even if we get off track, it’s for the good of the project, which is in itself fairly narrow. So those human connections are limited.

Meeting other authors–just for the joy of it–is practically the opposite in nature. You may or may not make a real connection, but the possibility is always there. They, at the very least, understand the work you’ve chosen to do and all the unique demands that go with it. And that’s a comfort in an otherwise alien world. But once in a while, you make a friend — a real soul mate. And that’s such a special gift.

Whether I find a friend for life or a friend for the moment, every author I’ve had the chance to meet and talk with has been a treasure to me. That, along with the kids, is my favorite part of being a writer.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Saving the Baghdad Zoo: A True Story of Hope and Heroes, illustrated by William Sumner (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2009) will be out this fall. After that will be In Search of Sasquatch (Houghton Mifflin, 2010 or 2011). Then I’ll finish up Alien Encounters, a follow-up to Tales of the Cryptids, co-authored by Rick Spears and Roxyanne Young (Darby Creek, 2006).

I don’t have a publisher for Aliens yet, but I will soon, if only by sheer determination. The kids want it, so I’ll find a way to deliver it.

After that, I’m headed to Australia to a bat rescue hospital for a book project. And I have an early picture book about a T.rex family I hope to have firm news about soon, as well. Also, a book series proposal I’m shopping. To be continued.

As always, I have a lot of new projects in the works. Wish there were more hours in the day.

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Coming Soon

Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P.C. Cast (BenBella) is being re-released (with a new cover–shown here–and a new short story by Rachel Vincent) at stores nation-wide on Oct. 6!

This vampire-themed YA anthology will also include short stories by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Kristin Cast, Rachel Caine, Tanith Lee, Nancy Holder, Richelle Mead, Rachel Vincent, and Claudia Gray.

Read a PDF excerpt, which includes a peek at my own contribution, “Haunted Love.”

Some of you may remember that this anthology was released exclusively to Borders/Walden last year, so if you weren’t able to get a copy then, your opportunity is just around the corner!

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win a contributor-signed copy of Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci (Little, Brown, 2009)! From the promotional copy:

“Acclaimed authors Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci have united in geekdom to edit short stories from some of the best-selling and most promising geeks in young adult literature: M.T. Anderson, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Tracy Lynn, Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, David Levithan, Kelly Link, Barry Lyga, Wendy Mass, Garth Nix, Scott Westerfield, Lisa Yee, and Sara Zarr.

“With illustrated interstitials from comic book artists Hope Larson and Bryan Lee O’Malley, Geektastic covers all things geeky, from Klingons and Jedi Knights to fan fiction, theater geeks, and cosplayers.

“Whether you’re a former, current, or future geek, or if you just want to get in touch with your inner geek, Geektastic will help you get your geek on.”

My short story, “The Wrath of Dawn,” co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith, is included in the collection, and we are happy to sign and personalize the book, if the winner so desires.

To enter this giveaway, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Geektastic” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, and MySpace readers are welcome to just message me with the name in the header). Deadline: Sept. 30.


Enter to win one of four paperback copies of Not Like You by Deborah Davis (Graphia/Houghton Mifflin, 2009). One copy will be reserved for a teacher, librarian and/or university professor of children’s-YA literature, and three will go to any Cynsations readers! From the promotional copy:

“‘Starting a new chapter’ is how Kayla’s mother, Marilyn, has always referred to their abrupt moves—five in the past two years. But what Kayla hates even more than moving is Marilyn’s drinking. It once landed Kayla in foster care, so she’ll do whatever it takes to keep her mother from falling apart again. Just until she turns eighteen, less than three years away.

“Now Marilyn has moved them to New Mexico, and promised, yet again, to quit booze for good. Kayla knows better than to believe her, but something about this move does feel different. Kayla is putting down roots, earning money as a dog walker, and spending time with Remy, a twenty-four-year-old musician. He’s her refuge from Marilyn’s daily struggle to stay sober.

“And after years of taking care of her mother, Kayla is starting to think of herself and who she wants to be. She knows for sure who she doesn’t want to be. But is she willing to do whatever it takes to create her own life—even if it means leaving her mother behind?”

Read an excerpt, listen to an excerpt, see discussion guide. Read a Cynsations interview with Deborah.

To enter this giveaway, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Not Like You” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, and MySpace readers are welcome to just message me with the name in the header). Deadline: Sept. 30. Reminder: teachers, librarians, and professors should ID themselves in their entries!


Enter to win Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Cycle by John Abbott Nez (Putnam, 2009). From the promotional copy:

“In the years and decades following the Wright Brothers’ famous first flight, an obsession with aviation gripped the nation. Thousands caught the bug. In an era of innovation and invention, scores of people pursued their own personal dreams of building a flying machine, and many did so right in their own backyards.

“Few stories, though, are as remarkable as that of Cromwell Dixon, a fourteen-year-old boy who successfully designed, built and flew what he dubbed his ‘Sky-Cycle’—literally a flying bicycle, that he could fully steer, and that he flew thousands of feet in the air.”

To enter this giveaway, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Cromwell Dixon” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, and MySpace readers are welcome to just message me with the name in the header). Deadline: Sept. 30.

Cynsational Winners

The winner of Tsunami! by Kimiko Kajikawa, illustrated by Ed Young (Philomel, 2009) and Hook by Ed Young (Roaring Brook, 2009) was Jessica in Vermont.

The winner of Countdown to Summer: A Poem for Every Day of the School Year by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Ethan Long (Little, Brown, 2009) was Frances in Illinois.

The winner of Stealing Heaven (Harper, 2008) and a hardcover of Love You Hate You Miss You (Harper, 2009), both by Elizabeth Scott, was Munnaza in New York.

The winners of the Eternal audio (Listening Library, 2009) were Erica at Emmet O’Neal Library in Alabama and Jake in New York.

More Giveaways

Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia by Cindy Pon Giveaway from Miss Attitude at Reading in Color. Deadline: Sept. 5. Read a Cynsations interview with Cindy.

More News

Happy Writer Appreciation Week! Literary agent Nathan Bransford says: “It’s sometimes a thankless pursuit with uncertain odds, so this week: let’s hear it for the writers out there, published and unpublished.” Note: first in a series of posts. Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

Writers Against Racism: a series from Amy Bowllan at School Library Journal. See posts from Neesha Meminger, Arianna (AKA Miss Attitude), Jesse Joshua Watson, Doret, Don Tate, and more! Source: TheHappyNappyBookseller.

The Ring (Westside, 2009) Bobbie Pyron Interview from Doret at TheHappyNappyBookseller. Peek: “I think probably somewhere in the back of my mind, I suspected he was gay. So when I wrote that scene where Megan tells Mardie everyone knows he’s gay, I was a bit surprised, but not entirely. What I was more surprised by was that he didn’t deny it at first.”

Book Launch: Dreaming Anastasia by Joy Preble from Janet S. Fox at Through the Wardrobe. Peek: “I love tapping into that piece of me that’s forever eighteen. All that amazing intensity of experience, all that newness, all that emotion.”

Details by Brian Yansky at Brian’s Blog: Random thoughts on the art and craft of fiction writing. Peek: “It’s not enough just to stuff a scene with generic sights, sounds, smells, etc. They have to be ones that add to what the scene is doing, what the character is experiencing.” See also Brian’s post, Subtle But Savage. Peek: “You move a little too slow or a little too fast, you arrive a second too soon or a second too late, and you fail. You do it all right and you have the chance for success.” Read a Cynsations interview with Brian.

Featuring Jean Gralley by Eisha and Jules from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: “I like this book, and I really like the humor and art, both of them wonderfully wry.”

Membership Reminder: Oct 1 last day to join from Lindsey Leavitt at 2010: A Book Odyssey. Peek: “Because we’d like a little huddle time before our debut year begins, the tenners will no long be accepting new members after Oct. 1. That means if you are a debut author and have been holding off on joining, now is the time. After Oct. 1, we will not look at requests.”

Round-Table Discussion: Agents with Linda Joy Singleton, Joni Sensel, and Parker Peevyhouse and Round-Table Discussion Continues with P.J. Hoover and Jo Whittemore from The Spectacle. Note: insights on their own agent-acquisition process. Read Cynsations interviews with P.J. and Jo.

What Are You Reading? by Sarah Aronson from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “My appetite is pretty simple. In every book, the plots are truly dictated by what that character wants. Yes, they are character driven, but they all….” Note: the first post in a week-long discussion. See also Helen Hemphill on The Anatomy of a Page-Turner as she takes a look at The Hunger Games (2008) and Catching Fire (2009), both by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic), and Kelly Bingham on The Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, 2008).

Ask the Author: Mark Herr asks “I know there is no ‘right answer’ to this, but in your opinions, how much research is enough research before you start putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)?” from Melissa Stewart at I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids.

Messing Around on the Monkey Bars (Poetry) and New Back-to-School Books: recommendations from Esme Raji Codell at The PlanetEsme Plan.

Congratulations on to Esme Raji Codell on the ten-year anniversary of Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year (Algonquin)! Peek: “My publisher has just reissued the book to include a brand new guide I wrote for first year teachers, ‘Hit the Ground Running,’ featuring 25 pieces of practical advice and a ‘new teacher shopping list.’ The reissue also includes a new foreword by Katherine Paterson.” See also Hit the Ground Running: The Educating Esme Teacher Blog. Peek: “…in the coming weeks there will be conversation about the teaching experience, helpful hints, giveaways, inspiring artwork, links both useful and unique, book recommendations (well, of course!) and probably some things to eat (it’s still me, after all).”

Notes to a Young Immigrant by Mitali Perkins at Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “You realize early that virtues are not the property of one heritage; you discover a self powerful enough to balance the best of many worlds.” Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali.

Collaborating Takes Work by Vicki Cobb at I.N.K. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Also an affectionate tribute to her late co-author Kathy Darling.

Pacifiers or Catalysts: Your Choice from Kristi Holl at Writers First Aid. Peek: “The next time you feel anxious about your writing and want to fill your time with something to soothe the fear, why not try a positive change agent?” See also Borrowing Habits, Forget About Age, and Running on Parallel Tracks from Kristi.

What makes a successful writer? by Glenda Larke from Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels. Peek: “So when people ask me, ‘When should I give up?’, I am genuinely puzzled. Why would they want to give up? Don’t they enjoy what they do? Isn’t writing stories what it’s all about?” Source Elizabeth Scott, who also recommends Where Children’s Authors Work from Janette Rallison’s Blog.

Reminder: Kid’s Book Revisions: Online Class and Manuscript Help: taught by Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson. Now taking registrations for a September to November session. Peek: “We are experienced children’s book editors, working together to teach an online manuscript revision class three or four times annually. We also provide a variety of editorial services.” Note: “late registration through Labor Day is available!” More personally: during my apprenticeship, Harold critiqued the first full novel manuscript I’d ever written and helped put me on the path to publishing success! Read a Cynsations interview with Harold.

Screening Room

Congratulations to Jessica Verday on the release of The Hollow (Simon Pulse, 2009)! Read The Story Behind The Story and a PDF of chapter one.

Check out the book trailer for Devouring: Solstice by Simon Holt (Little, Brown, 2009).

Check out the book trailer for Rage: A Love Story by Julie Ann Peters (Knopf, 2009), produced by Rose Curley, Rhode Island School of Design.

Chicken Dance by Tammi Sauer and Dan Santat (Sterling, 2009): “offers freebies, dance lessons, contest information, and much, much more. It’ll have you all shook up.” In the video below, check out the staff of Sterling as you’ve never seen them before!


Vote now for Teens Top Ten!: “Teens will vote online from Aug. 24 through Sept. 18 at for their favorite books. The winners of the 2009 Teens’ Top Ten will be announced in a webcast featuring WWE Superstars and Divas during Teen Read Week, Oct. 18-24. Tell your book group, youth organizations you work with, and any other groups you know that work with teens to come to between Aug. 24 and Sept. 18 and vote.” Note: I’m honored to report that Eternal (Candlewick, 2009) has been included among the 25 nominees!

More Personally

Of late, I’ve been on deadline with Blessed (Candlewick, 2011), which I’ll be sending to my editor on Tuesday! Yay!

When I’m self-editing, I tend to migrate around the house. Even a slight shift in environment helps me to focus. Here are a few shots of my reading/editing space on the sleeping porch.

Here’s Mercury, the alpha gray tabby, sleeping on a blanket that Grandma Melba gave me years ago and is one of my all-time favorite things.

Mercury is later joined by Bashi, the smaller of the gray tabbies, who’s half resting on the manuscript, and Blizzard Bentley, the friendly snow beast.

The fourth and most high-strung writer kitty, Galileo “Leo,” always needs his own space, but doesn’t stray far.

Here’s a closer look at Leo!

I have no idea how people write without cats. Or read either, for that matter!

See Kit Lit: Children’s Literature for Human Kittens and Official Writer Feline Biographies. Note: these are the most popular pages on the main site for elementary classroom visitors.

Thanks to author-teacher Debbie Gonzales for featuring my books in her photo at Simple Saturdays: Private Pen Pals. Read a Cynsations interview with Debbie, and learn more about her latest venture, The Student Author Book Publishing Program. Note: here, Debbie (white shirt) is featured with fellow Austin writer Erin Edwards.

Thanks to pal Liz Garton Scanlon at Liz In Ink for cheering Eternal (Candlewick, 2009). Liz says: “I love the cover, I love the alternating viewpoints, and I love being totally shocked at the end of a good book!” Note: Liz’s latest picture book is All The World, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, 2009)–don’t miss it! Here, Liz is pictured with Austin SCBWI RA Tim Crow.

Just FYI, Cynsations will not post on Labor Day, but will return on Tuesday!

Even More Personally

Cheers to my very cute husband and sometimes co-author, Greg Leitich Smith, on our 15th wedding anniversary, which is today! We met at The University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor and married in Kansas City two and a half years later. Here, Greg is working on his work-in-progress at the Cedar Park (Texas) Public Library.

Cynsational Events

SCBWI-Illinois’ Fifth Annual Prairie Writer’s Day: Brick by Brick: The Architecture of Our Stories will be from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 14 at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois. Speakers include: Stacy Cantor, associate editor at Walker; Nick Eliopulos, associate editor at Random House; T.S. Ferguson, assistant editor at Little, Brown; Yolanda LeRoy, editorial director at Charlesbridge; Cynthia Leitich Smith, award-winning author and Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty member; and Michael Stearns, agent and co-founder of Upstart Crow Literary. Read Cynsations interviews with Yolanda and Michael. Note: Mark has recently changed literary agencies.

Texas Events

“Why You (Yes, You) Should Write a Picture Book Biography–with Chris Barton” an Austin SCBWI monthly program at 11 a.m. Sept. 12 at BookPeople, 603 North Lamar, in Austin. Peek: “There’s somebody out there whose life story would be best told by you–and as a picture book, no less. Austin author Chris Barton will help you figure out who the heck that person is and what on earth you should do about it.” Note: Chris also will be speaking at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 18 at the Sulphur Springs (Texas) Public Library. Read a Cynsations interview with Chris.

Liz Garton Scanlon will celebrate the release of her picture book, All the World, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane/S&S), with story-time at 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 26 at BookPeople in Austin.

Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Day in the Lone Star State: acclaimed authors Kathi Appelt and Sharon Darrow will lead a conference on the craft of writing for young readers on Oct. 2 and Oct. 3 at Teravista (4333 Teravista Club Dr.) in Round Rock, which is located just 20 minutes north of Austin. Note: open to alumni and all other serious writers for young readers! Participants are incoming from nation wide. Spots are filling fast–only 7 more spots available!–register today! See more information. Read Cynsations interviews with Kathi and Sharon.

“The Main Elements of Story: Plot, Character, Setting, and Theme” with author Chris Eboch sponsored by Austin SCBWI is scheduled for Oct. 10. Attendees will receive a $10 discount when registering for the local January 2010 conference. Seating is limited. Registration opens July 6. Note: Austin SCBWI events often sell out. From the author site: Chris has a new series, Haunted, debuting August 2009 [from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin] with two books: The Ghost on the Stairs and The Riverboat Phantom. Note: last I heard, there were only 10 more spots available!

Jessica Lee Anderson (Border Crossings (Milkweed, 2009)) and P.J. Hoover (The Forgotten Worlds Book 2: The Navel of the World (CBAY, 2009)) will have a joint book release party at 2 p.m. Oct. 18 at BookPeople. Read previous Cynsations interviews with Jessica and P.J.

Brazos Valley SCBWI presents–Connections & Craft 2009: Writing & Illustrating for Children and Young Adults from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at the A&M United Methodist Church in College Station. Peek: “Editor Joy Neaves from namelos opens our day-long conference with a discussion of craft: ‘Making Connections with Young Readers.’ Award-winning author Carla Killough McClafferty will follow with two sessions: ‘Once Upon a Time There Was a Story that Really Happened’ and ‘More, Please’ –- Hands-on writing exercises. Editor Samantha McFerrin from Harcourt Children’s Books completes the faculty presentations with ‘A Willingness to Be Enchanted.’ The day will close with a panel discussion: ‘Inside the Industry.'” Read a Cynsations interview with Carla.

Author-Illustrator Feature: John Abbott Nez on Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Cycle

John Abbott Nez is the author-illustrator of Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Cycle (Putnam, 2009). See also John Nez Illustration: Tidbits from the studio of a children’s book illustrator.

John’s recent books include The Grandma Cure, written by Pamela Mayer (Dutton, 2005); Otto and the Bird Charmers, written by Charlotte Haptie (Holiday House, 2005); One Smart Cookie (Albert Whitman, 2006); The Dragon Painter, written by Rosie Dickins (Usborne, 2006); and The Twelve Days of Christmas in Washington (Sterling, 2010).

What do you love most about your creative life? Why?

I’d have to say it’s the freedom of creating books that I like best about my life as an artist.

I searched online for synonyms for freedom to find the following terms: ease, liberty, security, latitude, independence, exemption, peace, abandon, leisure, simplicity, leeway, license and carte blanche. I think all those things are critical to keeping one’s creative life alive.

If the creative spark remains bright, it keeps me working. It stops being work once I’ve found my way into that “zone.” When the creative focus is really humming along, making art or writing doesn’t seem like work at all. I might redraw an image eight times, and it scarcely occurs to me that I’m working. I can spend two days writing up in a new book idea and it never seems like work.

Contrarily, if that key initial inspiration was lacking…then each new drawing would seem like endless drudgery.

So I guess it’s the freedom to pursue my fascinations that probably makes my creative life most enjoyable.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

My favorite book ideas often arrive about 3:45 am. If I like them enough, then I’ll find it worth my while to crawl out to the kitchen table and scribble them down on the back of a grocery list.

I’ve had ideas for books appear in the oddest places….some of them out of thin air almost. Ideas might appear as a doodle. I was inspired by the the shape of a shadow on my living room chair for the character of one book I wrote.

One day I walked through a parking lot in the rain and the shape of a crumpled piece of paper inspired an entire idea for a story. So inspiration can be weird to say the least! Of course art needs limits and order, but the initial origins of ideas remains mysterious and amazing to me.

My previous book, One Smart Cookie (Albert Whitman, 2005), was inspired by the title to a post on the Internet.

I was reading a title that had the phrase “Good read, Dog!” in it. Somehow just this phrase clicked together instantly to inspire a story about a dog who could read. The story mostly fell into place from that odd beginning.

One Smart Cookie is a story about a family where it’s Cookie, the dog, who is the main reader in the family, since the children are preoccupied with video games and painting. I think it was a very timely theme…since there is a lot of that going on in the modern electronic world today with people attached more to their cell phone texting than to the real world.

How have you come to thrive in such a competitive, unpredictable industry?

It’s the richness of imagination that enables one to thrive, I think…though that may be more a thriving of imagination than finances. Often it seems one is lucky to just survive in this business, especially in this current economic time of cutbacks.

With freelancing it’s always feast or famine. So very often just surviving ought to be considered something of a victory. I do think it’s always important to keep as many irons in the fire as possible.

I know that for me, having the ability to work doing a range of illustration styles, licensed character illustration, digital art, and my own writing helps to keep me busy.

If you were writing your recipe for success, how would you proportion out the time and effort you spend researching, writing, marketing manuscripts, dealing with business correspondence, doing online promotion, doing real-space publicity, speaking at events, and/or teaching/critiquing? What about this combination works for you?

I think I might have to rewrite that recipe actually.

By far my favorite aspect of bookmaking is working on new stories and drawings. Believe it or not, I’ve only had two book signings in the last 20 years…so plainly I’m not so great at that.

Luckily, I’m usually too busy working on a new project to do much else…which is what I’d much rather do.

As for the nuts-and-bolts of career promotion, I find that the U.S. Postal service seems to be the most effective and least expensive means of getting things accomplished. When I’m not working on a project, I’ll be busy with new direct mail promotions, updating my website or sending new dummies around to editors. The world of children’s-book publishing seems to be a very small place, so my mailing list is usually under a hundred.

I think a freelance working life in publishing is a lot like fishing. One puts out the bait…setting out a lot of lines…and then we wait for a nibble. Sometimes it ends with just a nibble. Other times the bobber goes all the way under and you’ve landed a big fish. Sometimes the process can be exciting…or dispiriting.

Often getting results can be a cumulative process. Maybe after getting three rejections from an editor, I’ll finally get invited to do something new. But it might not have happened without the first three rejections.

And speaking of rejections…they are a dismal fact of life for freelancers. The freelancer’s life is filled with rejections. Sometimes they roll off my back like water off a duck’s back… and sometimes they don’t. I know even world-class artists and authors get rejected…so it’s a constant psychological battle. But we just have to keep plugging away.

What do you love most about being an author-illustrator? Why?

I love the imagination involved. I like that quote of Einstein‘s–“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Call it freedom…call it escapism…the two seem related I suppose. But if it wasn’t for the freedom of being able to imagine our own dreams, I’d think we bookmakers would be in a terrible fix. Without freedom of imagination, we might as well be writing product manuals for linoleum installation.

I believe it’s a privilege and honor to work making books for children. I think childhood is an ideal and magical time of life. It’s when the wonders of the world seem the most real and accessible, before life gets bogged down with the cares of being a grownup. So I definitely think anyone is lucky to be making pictures and stories for children’s books.

So far, what has been the highlight of your professional career? Why?

I’d say the highlight of my professional career has been getting my own authored books published and to be recognized for my writing. Maybe I’m just used to being an illustrator, but I think authors get more respect and attention than artists.

Since the majority of my career has been in illustration, it’s been a struggle to be taken seriously as a writer.

My college degree was in English, and my illustration has been 95% self taught. I dropped out of art school after one semester because I couldn’t afford it…though I did get to take a class with Maurice Sendak. That class was definitely a highlight.

Most of my professional highlights have been personal accomplishments of my own…when I feel like I’m on the right path and possibly doing something worthwhile as a creative artist.

When I finish a book, and it finally arrives on the porch in a box from UPS…and I’m pleased with how it came out…that would certainly qualify a highlight.

And I’d say another highlight was the first time I tried illustrating a book with a computer and it all worked out just as I had planned.

Of course this business definitely has it’s flip-side. For me, making a living with publishing and freelancing is a Pandora’s Box.

There are all sorts of awful things about it–unpredictable income, always wracking your brain for a new direction, never knowing where the next project will come from. And then there are days when I literally don’t have a clue what to do next.

Finally, there’s always hope…the fact that sometimes all it takes is one new client and you’re happily busy for the next year. But like riding a flying bicycle, I’d say freelancing is not an advisable activity for everyone.

How do you define professional success?

When you know who you are and it’s easy to decide what’s important and what to say “no” to. Then it can sort of feel like you’re on the right path of success.

One thing I really find difficult about publishing is that no matter how successful you are, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the tidal wave of books in the crowded marketplace.

When I walked around the mid-winter ALA in Seattle I was totally overwhelmed by the zillions of books everywhere. I hear the summer ALA and Book Expo are ever more crowded. So how is it possible for anyone to ever stand out?

I think it’s a better idea to look at things through the lens of our own personal achievements instead. And maybe the most important thing of all is to remember to find a way to enjoy the process without expectations too far beyond that. Nevermind who’s winning what prize or whose book is on the top of the heap. We are lucky we can spend our days working on the ideas and images that make books.

I think the artists and authors I admire most are those who have succeeded in both realms…business and art. The skill set required to do that is extremely rare, I think.

In your own words, could you tell us about your latest book?

Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Cycle was a very fun book to do. And I just loved trying to capture all the elaborate fashions and settings of the period.

This book is the amazing true story of America’s forgotten “Boy Aeronaut,” who actually built and flew his own flying bicycle over the skyscrapers of Columbus, Ohio in 1907. It’s a real “boy’s book,” filled with amazing homemade inventions in Cromwell Dixon’s workshop.

It’s a true story of adventure, determination, courage and perseverance. 1907 was an amazing age. It was a period when an obsession with flying swept the nation. For the first time in history, people were flying and even building flying machines in their own backyards.

I’d hope it might encourage today’s children to get out from behind their computers and go build something out in their backyards.

What role did Cynsations play in your acquisition process?

One day I was totally stumped about where to send a new dummy book I had made–(Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Cycle). I was searching online and happened across this great list of editors on the Cynsations site. It was a lifesaver.

Maybe it was just luck, but following that lead, I somehow managed to have my book forwarded to Timothy Travaglini at Putnam, who liked the book enough to buy it.

I greatly appreciate the informal yet very informative interviews about the various editors listed on Cynsations. So often I am flummoxed wondering where to send a new book dummy, so this helpful information source was wonderful to find.

New Voice: John C. Ford on The Morgue and Me

John C. Ford is the first-time author of The Morgue and Me (Viking, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Christopher just needed a job to kill time the summer after high school graduation. He didn’t expect it to be in the morgue. Or that he would accidentally discover a murder cover-up.

Or that his discovery would lead him to a full-blown investigation involving bribery, kidnappings, more murders…and his best friend.

And he certainly could never have predicted that Tina—loud, insanely hot, ambitious newspaper reporter Tina—would be his partner.

But all of that did happen. And Christopher’s life will never be the same.

With plenty of plot twists, red herrings, and dry wit, The Morgue and Me is a page-turning modern take on the classic detective genre.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first-person protagonist?

I won’t say it was magic, but I was lucky to tap into my main character’s voice right from the opening lines of my first draft. The book starts with a prologue in which an 18-year-old boy, Christopher, reveals that he has shot someone. (You don’t know why or how, and I’m not about to spoil things here.)

I liked the idea for the prologue–if nothing else, it’s dramatic. As a bonus, it had shades of the opening scene in the noir film “Double Indemnity,” and The Morgue and Me is something of a YA update on those great noir stories.

Nobody would (or should) care about the “Double Indemnity” allusion, but it got me thinking. In “Double Indemnity,” the main character is a jaded insurance salesman. Certainly, an 18-year-old’s frame of mind would be much different than his, but how? And then I thought…he’s embarrassed. He’s an 18-year-old kid, embarrassed by all the attention this shooting is getting in the press. So I wrote:

When you’re eighteen years old and you shoot somebody in a public place at two in the morning, of course you expect some attention. Especially when it’s the person I shot, and especially when you’re found on the scene with that person at your feet, gasping away in a pool of blood that seeps around your shoes. Still, I find it really embarrassing.

It’s a wildly inappropriate reaction (someone’s been shot, after all), but it also rang true. And more than anything else did, it really keyed me in to what this kid’s voice was going to be like.

One other thing I did is make a list of 20 things that indicated something to me about Christopher’s character. He’s a photographer, for instance, because he’s an observer of people. And he has an MP3 version of Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, because he’s attracted to crazy tales.

Some of these things made it into the novel (photography) and some didn’t (“War of the Worlds”), but all of them helped me see him more clearly. For other significant characters, I did lists of 10.

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

I love this question, because it isn’t even close.

Without doubt, the book that proved most useful to me was How to Write a Mystery by Larry Beinhart (Ballantine Books, 1996). The title, I hasten to add, is not its greatest strength. It sounds like the book wouldn’t be useful to people who aren’t writing mysteries. Don’t be fooled! Virtually all of its lessons (in chapters on Scene Construction, Openings, Clarity, Character, etc. etc.) apply to all novels.

What makes the book so wonderful is the extreme specificity with which Mr. Beinhart breaks down abstract concepts.

Now of course, we writers like to feed our souls with inspirational words on the mystical writing process, and rightly so. And for those purposes, I would direct everyone to Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (Anchor Books, 1995) and On Writing by Stephen King (Scribner, 2000).

But at a certain point, you want to know the nitty gritty. The nuts-and-bolts of, say, plotting a novel. This is where I found many writing guides lacking, but How to Write a Mystery contains endless riches.

Take, for instance, the subject of sex scenes. A topic that would seem to elude useful, specific instruction. But here’s what the book says:

“A good sex scene, like any other good scene, is a matter of construction. Problem, movement toward a solution (setup), a surprise solution (payoff). If it’s not the end of the book, it should create a new problem that will require a new solution . . . .”

It goes on to give examples. This is concrete advice that, to me at least, gave a whole new insight into how a sex scene (or, since I don’t really write sex scenes, any scene with a romantic angle) should function. Plotting, character, and anything else you’d want to know about get this same treatment.

The book is extremely smart about the writing process, and also very funny. And, in its own, plain-spoken way, it also provides some of that good old soul-feeding stuff.

As an unpublished writer getting beaten over the head with statistics on how hard it is get published, I found this passage tremendously encouraging: “If you can write a clear sentence, if you can organize your thoughts, if you know the field and love it, and if you will make the commitment, you can probably write a salable book.”

I highlighted it in my copy. But really, you could highlight the whole book.

Cynsational Notes

Read “Cover Story: The Morgue and Me” by John C. Ford from Crowe’s Nest. Peek: “The cover of my book has a home here. It could fit, of one piece with my ramshackle library. The one that fed my imagination in high school, that took me to dangerous places, that made me think in exciting ways, that made me want to write.”

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.

Craft, Career & Cheer: April Halprin Wayland

Learn more about April Halprin Wayland and check out her team blog, Teaching Authors.

Peek: “We are six children’s book authors with a wide range (and many years) of experience teaching writing to children, teens, and adults.

“Here, we share our unique perspective as writing teachers who are also working writers. Our regular features include writing exercises (our ‘Writing Workouts’), teaching tips, author interviews, book reviews, and answers to your ‘Ask the Teaching Authors’ questions.”

So far, what’s the most fun you’ve ever had working on a book? Why?

This is an interesting question. If you’d asked me this earlier in my career, I would have chosen my first book, To Rabbittown (Scholastic, 1989), which was exquisitely illustrated by Robin Spowart.

It’s the story of a child who runs away to live with rabbits…and slowly turns into one.

(Years later I realized that this story was a metaphor for how much I wanted to escape my life in the corporate world!)

The first draft came to me almost effortlessly—through the ether, down from the clouds, bypassing my brain, directly to my hand, onto the page.

Someone else thought it up, and I took dictation.

When I look at the question this morning, however, my answer is quite different.

The novel in poems I’m currently working on has gone through nine-trazillion drafts over many years. I’ve worked on it like a dutiful work horse, head down, slogging through mud. Uphill. Ten miles from the barn. In a hailstorm.

I lost the pleasure of writing.

But now? I’ve found it again! I’m back on the Great Trampoline of Writing, puzzling over alignment, rhythm, rhyme, meter, mood; arranging words, lines, poems.

Right now I’m in the middle of a big PR push for my new book and of course there’s way too much for one human being to do. It’s that crazy quicksand of life and the unrealistic demands of the Internet that I’m sure you know too well.

When I’m overwhelmed, I step on the Great Trampoline, the writing drug kicks in, and nothing else matters. Wheee!

How do you reach out to teachers and librarians?

I’m one of six authors-who-teach-writing at Our target audience is teachers, librarians, homeschoolers, and both seasoned and aspiring writers.

My fellow Teaching Authors are: Carmela Martino, Esther Hershenhorn, Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford, JoAnn Early Macken, and Mary Ann Rodman.

Talk about the Great Trampoline of Writing! We’re having a blast tackling topics on the writing life, include writing lesson plans and writing and poetry exercises, interviewing other children’s authors who teach writing, answering reader questions, reviewing books, and holding contests.

I post every other Friday and try to include a poem each week because it’s Poetry Friday in the blogosphere.

In your own words, could you tell us about your latest book?

During Rosh Hashanah, there is a joyous waterside ritual called Tashlich which helps us clear the slate for the coming year. We walk to the pier, sing songs, then toss pieces of bread into the ocean for each of the mistakes we’ve made in the past year.

I love tashlich.

New Year at the Pier—A Rosh Hashanah Story (Dial, 2009) is about a young boy named Izzy who, while learning to apologize and forgive, wrestles with his hardest “I’m sorry” of all.

It’s gorgeously illustrated by Stephané Jorisch, who’s won the equivalent of the Caldecott in Canada twice.

And can I glow here? It got a starred review in Publishers Weekly and more terrific reviews.

Oh, how I love the author/illustrator duet of picture books!

Cynsational Notes

Enter to win an autographed copy of New Year at the Pier at by Sept. 7! See more information.

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.