Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Author Darcy Pattison

Darcy Pattison is the author of both picture books and novels. Her books include Nineteen Girls and Me (Philomel, Summer 2006), Searching for Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt, 2005), The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt, 2003), The Wayfinder (Greenwillow, 2000) and The River Dragon (Lothrop, Lee & Shephard, 1991). Her books have been recognized for excellence by starred reviews in Kirkus and BCCB, Child magazine Best Books of the Year 2003, Nick Jr. Family Magazine Best Books of the Year 2003, and several state awards reading lists. The video version of The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Nutneg Media Children’s Picture Books on Video, June 2005) was named an ALA Notable Video 2006.

Darcy is also widely published in periodicals, usually writing about quilting or creative writing. Darcy holds an M.A. from Kansas State University and a B.A. from the University of Arkansas. Currently she is an Adjunct Professor teaching Freshman Composition, Introduction to Creative Writing, and Creative Writing for Children at the University of Central Arkansas, Conway, AR. She travels throughout the U.S. teaching the Darcy Pattison Novel Revision Retreat.

Darcy Pattison on Darcy Pattison: “I grew up on a 1000-acre ranch, 100 miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico in the Jemez Mountains. I am fifth out of seven children. That background of the ranching life and being in the middle of a large family seems to be a thread through much of what I write.”

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

The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt) is my most popular picture book to date. It’s about a wooden man who crosses the country to connect a family. I didn’t consciously do it, but most of my books have some sort of travel; maps seem to be important in my inspiration process, even though I’m not a good navigator when we travel.

My current picturebook, 19 Girls and Me (Philomel), is most often cited as a favorite read-aloud. It’s about friendship in a kindergarten classroom with 19 girls and one lone boy. The “high concept” helped the book, but I also worked hard on the language. Teachers tell me that kids request it over and over–and they don’t mind, because it’s fun to read aloud.

You are one of the author-teachers associated with Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts, and your focus will be revising a novel. Could you tell us more about that?

One participant in a recent Novel Revision Retreat said, “This was an amazing workshop that has me actually excited about revising already revised stories.”

Another said, “My revised chapter has moved from nice to richer, deeper, funnier. And the finest part is that I feel so empowered – like I have the tools to make my writing the writing of my dreams, the writing I love to read. It is wildly exciting.”

After twelve years as the conference director for the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Children’s Bookwriters and Illustrators (SCBWI), I realized that the hardest thing to get help with is a novel. Most conferences are one-day events in which many different topics are covered briefly. Yet, year after year, someone would hold out a novel and ask, “What do you think of this?”

I finally designed a format where this question could be answered, the Darcy Pattison Novel Revision Retreat. The Novel Revision Retreat was the beginning point for this special set of retreats, A Novel in Three Acts.

Author Nancy Sharp had wanted to host my retreat, but at a conference, she had a brainstorm to create three linked retreats in which a novel would be taken from conception, through a first draft, a major revision and then marketing. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity for writers who were willing to take the leap.

Will you be lecturing, offering writing exercises, critiquing?

Each participant receives a 75+ page workbook to accompany lectures. Brief lectures are followed by time to work on your own novel, then reinforced by group discussions.

Here’s some comments from participants about the different sessions of the retreat:
Inventory Session:

“Maybe the most helpful part. From the moment I started filling the worksheet out, I knew I was in trouble.”

“I will use this tool for all projects.”

Plotting Sessions:

“Coming in, I had the book knowledge about plots, subplots, climax…but this workshop put it all into a working perspective. Something I could grab hold of. Exercises forced me to look at things I was avoiding.”

“It was a more enhanced description of plotting than I have ever seen.”

Sensory Details Session:

“Very helpful. I already thought I was employing sensory details, but now I have a clearer picture of what I need to be doing.”

“Excellent examples chosen to illustrate points. This is a piece of writing without good sensory details; this is a piece with good sensory details.”

“A jewel! I wish someone had explained ‘show don’t tell’ in terms of sensory details language.”

Characterization Session:

“I’m looking forward to using the checklists on all my characters.”

“Helped me give more dimension to weaker characters.”

Setting/Mood Session:

“Helpful because I learned to connect this to the characters’ emotional journey in a scene rather than just through something on the page.”

“Again–I learned to think of this in a new way.”

Specific Words Session:

“Helped me see beyond the meaning of words–a new concept.”

“Makes the story ring true.”

Narrative Patterning Session:

“This was excellent–deep, powerful, something I’ll always use now.”

“The narrative patterning, imagery and epiphany sections were especially wonderful. I’ve never met a writing teacher who was willing to tackle these head on.”

Imagery Session:

“Word list approach very helpful, real graphic. Something I can wrap my hands around.”

Overall Comments:

“As a whole–these exercises were brilliant because they helped me see how each aspect of novel writing connects to or is attached to the other.”

“The workbook is one of the most useful things I’ll take away.”

“You made things we already knew into a tool instead of a concept.”

“I think I’ll look back on this weekend as a turning point in my growth as a novelist. I wish we could do this every year!”

Could you share one revision tip?

I’ve posted on my blog an interview with Kirby Larson about the revision story for her 2007 Newbery Honor book, Hattie’s Big Sky. An exercise that helped her was the Shrunken Manuscript exercise. Basically, you single space a manuscript and then shrink the manuscript to a small font and print it out. This allows you to mark and see the overall structure of a long story like a novel.

Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Author Elaine Marie Alphin

Elaine Marie Alphin on Elaine Marie Alphin: “I was born in San Francisco in 1955 and knew from the time I was three that I wanted to become a writer. My dad and I would go for walks in the early morning on weekends, and tell each other stories we’d made up, and I decided that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: make up stories and share them with other people.

“We moved to New York City when I was nine, and I fell in love with Broadway and with the American Museum of Natural History. I was heartbroken when we moved to Houston when I was thirteen, but grew to feel very much at home there, so much so that I chose Rice University for my college years.

“I was awarded a Watson Research Fellowship, so after I graduated I lived in England for a year, doing research on a novel about Richard III and the murder of the Princes in the Tower. I imagined that the book would be for adults, because all the lit I’d studied at Rice had been for adults–but when I returned to America I met Arthur Alphin, who would become my husband, and he told me he thought I ought to consider writing for young readers instead.

“I’m still grateful for this insight. I wrote Tournament of Time (Bluegrass Books, 1994) for middle graders and decided that kids were my real audience after all. I write for a wide range of ages, from beginning readers through teenagers. The only book I’ve ended up writing for adults is a book on how to write for young readers!”

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

Although Tournament of Time was the first book I wrote for young readers, The Ghost Cadet (Henry Holt, 1991) was the first book I published for young readers. It placed on fourteen state award lists and won the 1995 Virginia Best Book Award, and it was so successful that Henry Holt asked me to write a companion book some years later. Ghost Soldier (Henry Holt, 2001) was nominated for the 2002 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, has placed on six state lists and won the 2002 Society of Midland Authors Children’s Fiction Award and the 2004 Young Hoosier Book Award.

In addition to writing novels for middle graders, I also write novels for young adults. Probably my most successful YA novel to date has been Counterfeit Son (Harcourt, 2000), which won the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Young Adult mystery, has been placed on numerous state award lists and Best Of… lists, and has just been optioned for film.

Simon Says (Harcourt, 2002) is another YA novel that’s very special to me. I wrote the first draft of that book in 1977, while I was still in college, when I was struggling with the realities of wanting to live the creative life. It’s probably the book that brings in the most correspondence from readers, who have been touched by the characters’ struggles to find ways to be true to themselves.

My most recent novel, The Perfect Shot (Carolrhoda, 2005) won the 2006 ForeWard Book of the Year Gold Medal in the Young Adult category, and it’s very special to me because it centers on my passions for history and its impact on the present, and for justice. I’ve gotten intense reactions from teen readers about this one, both to the basketball subplot and to the whole idea of struggling to prevent injustice. There’s more information about these and my other books at my website: www.elainemariealphin.com

You are one of the author-teachers associated with Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts, and your focus will be starting and developing a novel. Could you tell us more about that?

Nancy L. Sharp and I met at a conference in North Dakota where I’d led an interactive session on developing plot and character, and she came up with this wonderful idea for a retreat that would carry participants through actually writing a first draft of a new novel, revising it, and then learning how to market it, and how to move forward to the next novel.

She asked me if I’d be willing to lead the first Act of the Retreat on planning your novel and getting to work on your first draft. I’ve written about developing plot and characters in Creating Characters Kids Will Love (Writer’s Digest Books, 2000) and I’ve led workshops getting writers started before at several SCBWI conferences, but always in a small way, as part of a conference program in which other speakers offered other subjects (in case attendees were more interested in writing picture books or getting an agent, for example), so I was thrilled by the idea of focusing on a single novel for the whole weekend.

I’m sure some writers will come to the retreat with ideas in mind, and others will come hoping to find ideas, so I plan to take everyone through the process of delving into their passions to find inspiration for their writing, and then crafting a plan for their book. It’s amazing how much writers can accomplish when they’re inspired and free from the daily domestic routine!

Will you be lecturing, offering writing exercises, critiquing?

I’ll be doing some lecturing, but everything will be geared to getting participants writing and bonding together in small critique groups. My sessions will be accompanied by lots of worksheets with exercises to help participants develop main and secondary characters and plot, structure and pace their novel, and then deepen the original plot skeleton–what I like to call the roller coaster track since the experience of writing a novel (as well as the experience of reading it!) is a lot like a roller coaster ride.

Everybody who attends can look forward to doing a lot of writing during the retreat, first making notes on their novel, and building up to actually writing some of that novel before they leave (we have free time set aside to write), so that they have a good start to carry them over their return to home, family, and the interruption of the pure creative writing life we’ll enjoy at the retreat.

What are a few of the challenges in starting a novel?

The biggest challenge is getting an idea that will support a novel–the second biggest challenge is holding off charging ahead with that idea before you have a chance to work out what you really want to do with it–what voice you want to use, where your story actually begins, what background research needs doing so you can write naturally about what your characters are doing and thinking.

I really struggled to hold myself back from plunging into writing Counterfeit Son until I researched serial killers and sailing, for example.

Some writers feel comfortable plunging in right away, understanding that means they’ll have to do considerable revision later on as the novel comes into clearer focus in their minds, but other writers, especially beginning novelists, get frustrated when their idea peters out on them, and may just stop. Or they keep trying doggedly, but they want to retain what they wrote in the first flush of enthusiasm, even though it no longer fits with the way the book is evolving, because they worked hard on it. So I advocate doing a great deal of planning and getting to know your characters so that once you plunge in you find it easy to return to your writing and keep moving forward.

How do the psychological and the professional fit together…or not?

This question made me scratch my head–at first I interpreted it as the characters’ psychological lives fitting together with the writer’s professional life, which can be challenging because as you live more and more in the world of your novel, with your characters, thinking their thoughts and feeling their emotions, their psyches can impinge on your day-to-day world, to the point where you may answer a question or write a letter in a tone or in words that your characters might use. This can be embarrassing when you’re speaking with or writing to an editor…

However, then I was told that the question was intended to mean the way the writer’s psychological life fits with her professional life. Oops. You can see just how character driven I am. Anyway–in the first place there’s something about a writer’s psyche that drives her to write, to explore ideas on paper in the guise of characters, so the two fit together very well.

However, in everyday life we have a lot of distractions. There’s our personal life (caring for families, cooking (or buying take-out), perhaps a paying job to cover bills, etc.) and then there’s our professional, or business, life (dealing with editors, perhaps teaching, perhaps writing other, short, projects separate from our novel, maintaining our website, corresponding with readers, etc.).

The artistic psyche often gets frustrated with these less creative sides of life, because there are only so many hours in a day. It’s a juggling act for us all, and one of the things we’ll be talking about at the retreat is a writing plan that allows time for both the creative side and the less creative side of living.

However, there’s another aspect to the writer’s psychological life. We’re all affected by things that happen to us, for good or for bad, and these things shape our psychological lives–they give us our hang-ups. Strong novels grow from strong hang-ups, as writers explore aspects of our psychological lives through their characters. So, in the end, the psychological life feeds the professional life.

Could you share one tip for beginning novelists?

Care passionately about your subject matter and about your characters, especially your main character. You’re going to be taking a long journey with your characters for quite some time, and you should want to enter into their world, not dread going there.

Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Author N.L. Sharp

N.L. Sharp on N.L. Sharp: “I am married to Larry and am the mother of three sons and one daughter-in-law. I am a former elementary teacher (grades K-3) as well as library media specialist and elementary reading/writing consultant. I am currently taking some time away from the classroom to concentrate on my writing career.”

What about the writing life first called to you?

I have known since second grade that I wanted to be a writer. I was born in Valentine, Nebraska, and attended a one-room country school, located two miles from the South Dakota border. My favorite time of the day was when my teacher would read to us. I still remember many of the books that she read–Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Brighty of Grand Canyon, The House of Sixty Fathers.

But when I was in second grade, our teacher read the book that changed my life. She read The Little House on the Prairie. And I realized, for the very first time, that anyone can be a writer. You don’t have to be smart and write about things I know nothing about, like penguins, or travel to exotic places, like the Grand Canyon, or have lived through a horrific experience, like war.

You can be a kid from an ordinary place like Nebraska or South Dakota and write about ordinary things like your mom and your dad and your brothers and sisters, and you can be a writer. So I have been writing “Nancy” stories since about second or third grade–although I didn’t try to get any of them published until well into my adult years.

Could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

I am the author of three picture books.

My most recent book is Effie’s Image, illustrated by Dorothia Rohner (Prairieland Press, 2005). It was selected by Learning Magazine as a 2006 Teachers’ Choice award winner and is on Nebraska’s Golden Sower list for 2007-2008.

My two other titles are: Today I’m Going Fishing with My Dad, illustrated by Chris Demarest (Boyds Mills Press, 1993) and The Ring Bear, illustrated by Michael Hassler (Dageforde Publishing, 2003).

You are the mastermind behind Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts. Could you give us a brief overview of the program?

I would love to. Basically, this series consists of three individual retreat weekends that will occur in the span of one-year’s time. The intent of this series is to help the writer move from the first inklings of an idea toward a publishable novel in twelve intensive months. The retreats are designed for maximum participation and advance preparation for each one is required.

The first retreat, scheduled from Thursday, October 25 to Saturday, October 27, 2007, will be led by Elaine Marie Alphin, and will focus on brainstorming techniques related to plotting, character development, and pacing. We will leave this retreat with a basic outline and a plan for turning that outline into a novel.

The requirement to attend Retreat 1: Read Elaine’s book, Creating Characters Kids Will Love, published by Writers’ Digest Books. Elaine is the author of more than twenty published books for children and young adult readers, many of them award-winners.

The second retreat, scheduled from Friday, April 4 to Sunday, April 6, 2008, will be led by Darcy Pattison. The goal of this retreat is that every author will go home with strategies and tools for revising their novels.

Requirements to attend Retreat 2: 1) have a completed draft of a novel, 2) submit four copies of that manuscript to be read by three other members of the Retreat 3) agree to read three other drafts of novels before the retreat, and 4) read Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King and The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

Darcy Pattison served as the Arkansas Regional Advisor for the SCBWI from 1991-96. In 1999, Darcy created the Novel Revision Retreat, which she now teaches nationwide.

The final retreat is scheduled from Friday, October 24 to Sunday, October 26, 2008, and will be led by Alexandra Penfold, an editor at Simon and Schuster and Rebecca Sherman, a senior agent at Writers House Literary Agency. The focus for this retreat will be marketing strategies and submission secrets. We will also discuss the process of letting go of this novel and starting again with a new project.

Requirements to attend Retreat 3: 1) Attend at least one of the other two retreats, 2) Read the book Art and Fear by David Bayles, and 3) Submit a cover letter, a synopsis of your novel, and the first three chapters for critique by either Alexandra or Rebecca.

What inspired you to initiate this effort?

I have a draft of a novel that I have been playing with for several years. I contacted Darcy Pattison about her Revision Retreat with the idea that, perhaps, we could offer that retreat in Nebraska. But, as you can see, one of the requirements to attend Darcy’s retreat is that you have a novel written. In order to offer this in our area, I needed to find eight-to-twelve people that met that requirement. And I was struggling to do so. I spoke with several people who were interested in writing novels–but few that actually had a novel written.

Then, this fall,I attended an SCBWI-sponsored conference in North Dakota where Elaine Alphin was speaking. She did a two-hour brainstorming session with us, focused on character development and plotting. After the session, I asked Elaine if she would be interested in expanding that session to an entire weekend. It was my idea, at that time, to offer the retreats as a two-weekend series. The first retreat would be designed for getting us started (creating a plan to move the novel from an idea to a finished draft). The second retreat, held six-to-eight months later, would provide us with the tools to revise that novel.

As we were discussing the possibilities for such a retreat series, editor Alexandra Penfold, another conference speaker, joined us. We shared our vision with her, and soon the two-weekend retreat became a three-weekend retreat. We felt like offering participants the opportunity to have their manuscript packages critiqued by an editor would encourage participants to leave Darcy’s retreat with not only the tools they need to revise their manuscripts, but the incentive to do so.

After I returned home and began to work on the specific details regarding these retreats, I began to think about the third retreat more and more. I wanted to make it more than just a “critique” weekend. I also felt like I was asking a lot from Alexandra–to critique all of our manuscripts, plus be our presenter for the entire weekend. I contacted her and asked what she thought about inviting an agent to share those duties with her for that Retreat, and if she had anyone in mind that she thought might be interested. She suggested Rebecca Sherman from Writers House.

Why did you think there was a particular need for a program structured this way?

I don’t know that I actually thought about the need for this program in terms of others. I just know that I work best when there is lesson presented, an assignment given, and a realistic deadline for completing that assignment. And if I can do this in a group setting, so that I can bounce ideas and gain support from others, I am more likely to meet that deadline with a project that I am proud to call my own.

I believe that this series will provide me with the structure that I, personally, need to get my novel writing back on track. If I can find eleven to twenty-three other like-minded individuals who are willing to take this journey with me, then I will be thrilled, and all of the work I’ve done organizing the Retreats will be well worth my time.

What are the pros of Novel Secrets versus other craft-development opportunities?

Well, first of all, we have the opportunity to meet and work with four wonderful writing teachers–Elaine, Darcy, Alexandra, and Rebecca. We have a deadline–and the opportunity at the end of that deadline to have our novel professionally critiqued by either an editor or an agent. But, more than that, we have the opportunity to network and share our struggles with other committed and like-minded individuals–all working toward the same goal–crafting a novel in a year’s time. And, by including the reading and discussion of books on the craft of writing as a part of our process, we will all have the opportunity to take our writing up a notch, from whatever level we are right now.

Could you describe the setting and facilities?

All of the Novel Retreats will be held at the St. Benedict Retreat Center, a retreat and conference center located on Highway 15 north of Schuyler, Nebraska, approximately 70 miles from Omaha, Nebraska. It is truly an inspiring place to relax, regenerate your batteries, and focus on your career. The Center provides several peaceful and quiet spaces for writing and quiet reflection, including a man-made lake and surrounding park, a solarium with a fireplace and small library, and an amphitheater.

Each participant will have his or her own private room with bathroom. Meals and lodging are included in the cost. All rooms are fully air conditioned and have private bathrooms. An exercise room is also available. The Center is a smoke free environment. For additional information or to see pictures of the facilities, you may visit their website at: http://www.stbenedictcenter.com/

Is there anything else we should know?

Openings are limited. The minimum number of participants required to run each retreat will be twelve, and our maximum will be twenty-four. Priority will be given to those individuals who register for all three retreats at one time. Also, if a participant is a published author already and would like to do a school visit while in Nebraska to help off-set the cost of the retreats, just let me know. I can’t guarantee school visits, but I am working with a bookstore owner in Omaha, and we will do our best to make that happen for anyone who is interested in that particular opportunity.

There is additional information about the retreats, including sample schedules, at my website: http://www.nlsharp.com/

If you have other questions, please feel free to contact me directly: nlsharpwriter@yahoo.com

I’d love to hear from you!

Author Interview: Carolyn MacCullough on Drawing the Ocean

Carolyn MacCullough on Carolyn MacCullough: “I was born and raised in Connecticut. As a kid, I always wanted to travel and see far off places, but my parents had other ideas and didn’t quite agree with my dreams of moving to India or Morocco or some other exotic place. This is probably what led me to love books so much and, in turn, what probably led to writing.

“In 2002, I graduated from the New School with a Master’s in Creative Writing for Children. Shortly afterward, Falling Through Darkness (Roaring Brook Press, 2003) was published, followed by Stealing Henry (Roaring Brook Press, 2005) and Drawing the Ocean (Roaring Brook Press, 2006)[see more on these books].

“I still have not lived in India or Morocco, but I did live in other such exotic locales like Scotland, Sicily, and New Jersey! Now I live in New York with my husband and I teach creative writing for Gotham Writers and The New School.”

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

I think I was writing before I really ever started writing. I was always telling stories–to my sisters, to my friends. Long, complicated stories involving princesses and dragons and choose-your-own adventure plots. Somewhere in elementary school, I started to write them down (along with some pretty bad poetry), but it was still something I just did for fun. For a while, I thought I wanted to be an actress and after college, I pursued that in New York City–until the stage fright part did me in. Around then, I began to realize that it wasn’t really acting that I loved so much anyway, it was telling a story to an audience. So in 2002, I enrolled in the masters program in creative writing program at The New School.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

I don’t know that I ever did make that decision. I just wrote the stories that I had and they ended up being for teens. I do know that the books I remember most strongly are all from my childhood and teenage years.

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

I got really lucky! I met my editor, Deborah Brodie from Roaring Brook Press, while enrolled in the New School program. I remember when she called me to tell me that Roaring Brook Press wanted to buy my first book, Falling Through Darkness. I was so excited that I got dizzy and literally had to put my head between my knees!

Congratulations on the publication of Drawing the Ocean (Roaring Brook, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My fast approaching deadline! Actually, I had written an entirely different book, and while waiting to hear my editor’s first round of comments, I just lost all interest in it. I wasn’t excited to start the revision process–something I usually enjoy. So one night, I was sitting in a movie theater and for some reason, the idea of a twin brother and sister came into my head–only one of them was no longer alive. I followed that idea all the way home to my computer.

Could you briefly describe the story?

It’s about Sadie, a sixteen-year-old painter, who wants very badly to fit in at her new school and make the “right” kind of friends. And she partially succeeds–but the problem is, despite her best intentions, she also befriends the town loner, “Fryin Ryan.” Soon enough, she has to choose between her new popularity and a real friend. Oh, and the ghost of her twin brother keeps appearing at will–she’s the only one who can see and talk to him.

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

It was very quick! Because of my earlier project that I had scrapped, I had less time than I normally would have had, so this was a book that was written under some serious pressure. However, I tend to work like that. If you give me unlimited amounts of time to accomplish something, I promise nothing much will get done.

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

Since I’m not a twin and don’t even have a brother, I did struggle with that a little. Also, I’m not an artist in any way–trust me, no one wants to see what I can draw or paint! But I like making my characters different from me–they’re far more interesting that way–and that’s a challenge I really relish when writing a book.

In the story, Sadie speaks with and sees her dead twin brother, Ollie. As someone who teaches MFA students, I can readily imagine someone writing a paper on the question of Ollie as a psychological manifestation or a supernatural one. What would you say to that student?

I think he’s a little bit of both. (Sorry! I know that sounds like the easy way out). But I do think of him as both–I see him as her conscience. And I also think of him as still in this world because she loves him so much. They were so connected when he was alive and, therefore, she can’t quite let that go.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Read, read, read as much as possible. It’s good for your own writing and it’s good for you in general. And when it comes time to write your own stuff, don’t worry so much about technique and finesse during the first draft. Don’t listen to the whiny internal editor voice–the one that tells you this isn’t any good and you must be joking if you think you’re ever going to get this published and please tell me you aren’t planning on giving up your day job, etc, etc. We all have the voice somewhere in us–drown it out. Listen instead to the story in you, get it out on paper first without fussing over it too much and then see what you can do with it.

What are some of your favorite recent reads?

Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Knopf Canada, 2001), Stardust by Neil Gaiman (1998), and Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin (FSG, 2005).

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Um….you mean I’m supposed to have time off from writing? Okay–I read books that I wish I had written. I try to spend as much time as possible with my family and friends. And I bake a lot of pies and cookies and cakes and dream of setting up my own bakery somewhere, some little rustic place with copper pans hanging from the ceiling and painted yellow walls.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m working on an urban fantasy–it’s probably the most challenging book I’ve written so far (but then I say that about any book I’m working on at some point or another)!

Author Interview: Kathi Appelt on My Father’s House

Kathi Appelt was born on July 6, 1954, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her family only lived in North Carolina for a short time and then moved to El Paso, Texas; and finally to Houston.

“Most of Kathi’s books and poems come directly from her own life because that’s what she knows best and feels most strongly about.

“Over the years, Kathi has written many picture-book favorites, including Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein; Oh My Baby, Little One, illustrated by Jane Dyer; the Bubba and Beau series, illustrated by Arthur Howard; Merry Christmas, Merry Crow, illustrated by Jon Goodell, and her latest: My Father’s House, illustrated by Raúl Colón. She has also written several award-winning books for older readers, including My Father’s Summers: A Daughter’s Memoir, Kissing Tennessee: And Other Stories from the Stardust Dance, and Poems from Homeroom: A Writer’s Place to Start.

“She currently lives with her family in College Station, Texas.

“Kathi used to think that a real writer had to have lots of exciting, maybe even dangerous, adventures in order to have something meaningful to write about. Now she knows that the best writing is about the people, places, pets, and objects that surround us and that we meet every day. She’s discovered that writing about them is the absolute best way to really know them and in the process to come to know ourselves a little better. She now knows that writing is really a way of seeing, and she’d like to encourage you to get out your old journal or start a new one and see what shows up.”

Your latest picture book, My Father’s House (Viking/Penguin, May 2007), is a beautiful poetic tribute to Earth and our environment, what was your inspiration for writing this book? And why now?

One day as I was driving, I had my radio on and was listening to a young minister talk about his love for the earth and bemoaning the fact that so many people who called themselves “spiritual” seemed to have such disregard for our planet. He was specifically referring to the notion that the Bible advocated mankind’s dominion over the Earth. He felt that was a misreading, and that the word “dominion” did not necessarily mean “use up” but rather “keep safe.”

His “safekeeping” message spoke to me in vibrant way, and so I’ve tried in this book to provide a celebration of our beautiful planet, and to subtly suggest that it’s our job to keep it and its inhabitants safe.

In your dedication, you thank Al Gore for his service and commitment on behalf of our beautiful blue planet; how has his work for the environment affected or inspired you?

I first read Al Gore’s book, The Earth in Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (Plume reprint, 1993), many years ago, and his message then was one that made sense to me. I was also inspired by his passion for this subject, especially since he relates to it in a deeply personal way. I felt he was speaking to me as one person to another, rather than to just another nameless face in the crowd. He makes me feel as though my small efforts can really help as far as being a good steward for the earth.

One of your recent picture books, Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein (HarperCollins, 2005)(author-illustrator interview), also had themes about our natural environment and was quite popular, garnering much critical acclaim. What kind of feedback did you receive from teachers, readers, etc., and why do you think it was such a success?

First of all, I hope that the book reminded us of a very special woman, one who made a definite mark upon our national consciousness about the environment. Lady Bird Johnson was really the first national figure to bring the notion of conservation fully to our awareness.

The case can be made that Theodore Roosevelt also did this, but he is not quite so “unsung” as Mrs. Johnson. He gets a lot of credit—well-deserved—for really establishing our national park system.

But I felt that Mrs. Johnson deserved some recognition, even though she herself is very unassuming and not at all in need of that same recognition. I wanted to remind children, and their parents and teachers, that Mrs. Johnson is largely responsible for our beautiful roadsides, especially in the springtime when they’re covered with wildflowers.

I believe that the book has been well-received because not only is it a slice of American history that has gone unnoticed, but also because it’s a celebration of the work of one person who made a huge difference—and continues to make a difference.

Your children’s books span every age level, what are the challenges in writing for such a wide audience? How do you approach writing for young adults differently than for kids?

I don’t approach it too differently, honestly. In some ways, toddlers and teenagers have a lot in common. They’re both intense, both determined to do things their own ways and in their own time, both separating from their families and wandering out into the bigger world. Testing the waters so to speak.

Regardless of what age I’m writing for, I always try to write toward the hearts of my audience, to recognize the longings that we all feel at various times in our lives. I also enjoy the challenge of writing for the various age groups. While they all have similarities, they also have obvious differences. It’s a way of stretching myself as a writer to think about aiming a particular story toward a particular audience.

Your two sons are in college now, but while they were growing up, how did they inspire your work?

Well, I would never have written for children if I had not become a parent. Before my boys came along, I had no real awareness of children’s books to be honest. But once they were here, books saved us in so many ways. I was unprepared for parenthood, but I somehow knew that reading to my sons was a good thing to do. So that’s what I did. Thank goodness.

How has being a parent affected your writing? Do you have any advice for other parent-authors?

As far as being a writing parent, I would say first of all to savor the time you have with your children. They grow up so fast that it’s almost unbelievable. Don’t go along on any guilt trips about not writing enough when your kids are young. The writing will come, but your kids are going to vamoose before your very eyes.

And second, I would say to learn how to write in small snatches of time. If you look for that long thirty minutes all to yourself, you’ll never find it. Instead, honor those five minutes here and there. Have a notebook handy at all times. It’s pretty remarkable how much can be written in five minute increments. I still write in those small segments.

Tell us a little about your writing process and work environment; do you write every day?

Yep, I write every single day. That said, I don’t always write stories. I often spend my writing time answering correspondence, or filling up my journal, or just “playing” with an idea or what not. I wish I were more disciplined and could work on a schedule. I might get more done. But the way I write now seems to work for me.

And as for my work environment…I have a wonderful, small loft studio upstairs in my home. From my desk, I can look directly into the branches of a big oak tree, which is a home to numerous birds and squirrels and other small critters. When I look out at the tree, I feel almost like I’m in my own private tree room. I think it’s important for writers to have a space, even if it’s small, that is uniquely your own. Mine is a place I love to slip away to any time of the day. I have my own “stuff” there, and I work hard to keep it from being too cluttered. Clutter distracts me.

I confess that I take something of a slow approach to my work. I usually have to drink a cup of coffee, read the newspaper, check my e-mail, and work the NY Times crossword before I actually plunge into the work of the day. It’s my ritual if you will. I do my actual writing on a computer, a laptop, but I still keep a journal by hand. And I carry a small notebook in my purse, just in case a good idea pops into my head. There’s nothing more frustrating than to think up a good idea, or any idea for that matter, and be caught without paper or a pen!

You’ve taught writing at Texas A&M and Vermont College, and have conducted writing workshops for many years. How has teaching informed your own work?

I’ve always felt that the best way to learn something is to teach it, which is sort of cliché. But beyond that, I truly believe that it’s our stories that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. I’m fond of telling children that we humans are the “story animals.”

In so many ways, our stories are at the center of who we are, and in so many ways I believe that our stories can save us if we can learn to share them. It’s really no surprise that stories are at the root of both love and conflict. We go to war over whose story is “most true,” don’t we? And yet, the basic gathering of humans in a circle to share stories has the power and ability of exposing our basic humanity to each other. We all have more in common with each other, especially in matters of the heart—family, children, trees, cats—than we have differences.

So to me, teaching is all about being a catalyst for telling stories. If I can encourage others to share their stories in the best way they know how, then maybe I’m helping to make a difference in the world, even if it’s in a small way.

Do you read a lot of other picture books to keep up on what’s new and popular? If so, what are some of your favorite recent ones and why?

Yes, I try to keep up with current picture books. That said, without small children in the house, I read fewer of them than I used to. My current favorite right now is Alison McGhee‘s Someday (Atheneum, 2007), which is just heartful and lovely. I’m completely smitten with Alexander Stadler‘s “Beverly Billingsly” books. I also love Kimberly Willis Holt‘s whimsical Waiting for Gregory illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (Henry Holt, 2006)(author interview). And just about any book that features a cat is fine with me. I love Judith Schachner‘s “Skippyjon Jones” books–they just crack me up. She clearly knows cats.

What’s coming out next for you, and what are you working on now?

My first novel will be out in the spring of 2008. It’s called The Underneath, and is set in the swampy forest of East Texas. I’m excited about it–the main hero is a cat named Puck. I’m still working on the final edits for this novel, but I’m also doing the research for my next novel, which will be set on Galveston Island, one of my favorite places in the world. My grandmother lived there and I have many happy memories of summers with her. I don’t know much about the story yet, but I’m eager to get it started.

Author Interview: Dia Calhoun on Avielle of Rhia

Dia Calhoun is the winner of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature. She is the author of five young adult fantasy novels, three of which are ALA Best Books for Young Adults. Her books are Avielle of Rhia (Marshall Cavendish, 2006), The Phoenix Dance (FSG, 2005), White Midnight (FSG, 2003), Aria of the Sea (FSG, reprint edition 2003), and Firegold (FSG, reprint edition 2003).

Dia is also one of the four readergirlz divas (www.readergirlz.com). Readergirlz is featuring The Phoenix Dance in May for National Mental Health Month. When she isn’t writing, Dia sings Italian arias, fly-fishes, and canoes down the Pacific Northwest’s beautiful rivers. She lives with her husband and two frisky cats in Tacoma, Washington. Learn more at www.diacalhoun.com.
Let’s focus on your latest release, Avielle of Rhia (Marshall Cavendish, 2006). Could you tell us a little about the story?

Avielle of Rhia is about fifteen-year-old Princess Avielle who is an outcast among her people because she looks like her Dredonian great-great grandmother Dolvoka, an evil woman with magical powers who cursed and killed all the birds in Rhia. Avielle fears that Dolvoka’s evil may rise in her. Avielle lives isolated in the High Hall, persecuted by her older brother, Crown Prince Edard.One night the Black Cloaks, an evil sect of wizard-priests from Dredonia, blow up the High Hall: only Avielle survives. She takes refuge with a kindly weaver named Gamalda who helps Avielle develop her magical gift for weaving. Avielle struggles with her grief, with her fear of being like Dolvoka, and with her fear of the Black Cloaks, all of which prevent her from coming forward as queen to lead her people.Hiding her identity, Avielle meets the common people, such as Master Steorra, the absent-minded astronomer, and Tinty, a girl whose magical power runs amok. Slowly love blossoms inside her, and this love brings her the power to face her fear of Dolvoka, defeat the Black Cloaks, come into her power as queen, and at last bring the birds home to Rhia.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

9/11 inspired me to write the book. I was profoundly shaken by 9/11, personally and artistically. Many people made eloquent speeches exhorting us all to be courageous. We were all told, as I have come to think of it now, “to go marching bravely on,” to go on with our lives to show the terrorists they hadn’t won.

However, as one speech followed another, I felt hollow. What, I thought, if you can’t go marching bravely on? What if you do feel despair? I felt awful having these feelings because they seemed so unpatriotic. Un-American. I was letting the terrorists win.

I kept waiting to hear some one talk about these feelings I was having. Oh, there were occasional news-reports by psychologists about people being depressed by the events of nine-eleven, but there were no great speeches, there was no hero for the frightened and the despairing. Who spoke for me?

Being a writer, I turned to my writing to make sense of what was happening to me. I wrote a truly terrible middle grade fantasy novel. It was nine-eleven, thinly veiled. I had to wait two years before the book would begin to transform into a real story, and oddly enough, the story that I really needed. Like me, Avielle wonders who speaks for her in her despair. Eventually she learns that it is she who must speak for her people, the despairing as well as the brave.

I wrote this book for three reasons. First, because I needed someone to speak for me, to speak for my experience of nine-eleven and terrorism. I had to create Avielle to do it. Second, because I wanted to speak for those like me, those who were too frightened to go marching bravely on. The third reason I wrote this book is that I want to be like Avielle.

By the end of the book, Avielle has acquired the Magnificent Heart. She has one shining magnificent moment when she does not wish for revenge upon the terrorists. Instead, she wishes them true strength. She wishes their hearts to be opened. That is her true heroic moment. I wish I could have a moment like that. I hope that when people read the book, they will have such a moment.

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

As I mentioned, the first draft was far too close to the real events of 9/11. I had twin towers blown up. I had poison in the flour—the anthrax scare. I had people flying the flags of Rhia to show their support for their besieged kingdom. It just didn’t work!

Eventually the idea that Avielle should be a princess rather than a commoner came to me, as did the idea to make her loss immense. I really wanted to explore the psychological trauma of someone dealing with a major cataclysmic loss–so I had her whole family die when the Black Cloaks blow up the High Hall.

Then one day, out of the blue, the birds and Dolvoka flew into my mind and that element transformed the entire story. Margery Cuyler, my wonderful editor at Marshall Cavendish, asked inspired questions that spurred me to new insights. So I would say the book took nearly five years from the initial idea until publication.

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

I did more research for Avielle of Rhia than I had ever done for any of my previous novels–and had great fun doing it, I might add! I researched weaving, astronomy in the time of Galileo, candlemaking, stained glass window making, silversmithing, and letterpress printing.

Psychologically the book was difficult to write because I was continually immersed in my feelings over 9/11. Avielle’s journey is not easy, and the issues of prejudice and terrorism she deals with are quite serious ones for our times.

The themes of darkness and light reappear in all my novels. I think the reason for this is my struggle with bipolar illness, which is a constant swing between an excess of darkness and an excess of light–see my book The Phoenix Dance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005). I think my expressions of greatest darkness exist in Avielle of Rhia, but also my greatest image of light: Avielle at the end of the book with her radiant cloak woven of love and light and wings. That image still fills my mind. It fills me with hope.

How long have you been writing with an eye toward publication? Looking back, what were your greatest triumphs and challenges along the way?

I began writing seriously in about 1990. I got up an hour early every morning and squeezed in an hour of writing before going to work. It may not seem like much time, but an hour a day–more on weekends–adds up.

It took about five years for me to write my first fantasy novel, Firegold, (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux 2003) originally published by Winslow Press in 1999. It took me five years to find a publisher for it.

During that time I kept writing–I increased my hours to two a day–and wrote Aria of the Sea (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2003) and part of White Midnight (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2003). My publisher subsequently took those books as well.

One great moment was that first letter of acceptance–how I celebrated! Another great moment was after Winslow Press went bankrupt and Farrar, Straus, & Giroux picked up my books.

I’ve been honored to work with my editor Wes Adams at FSG. Perhaps my greatest triumph was winning the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature for Aria of the Sea (Farrar Straus & Giroux 2003).

I find that my greatest challenge now is to write without worrying whether my books will continue to be successful. That kind of worry poisons the process.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I love the “Ah-ha!” moments, the moment when ideas link, when images dawn, when a character suddenly acts on her own. Those moments send chills down my spine. They seem to be gifts from the blue, but they are really little rewards from my subconscious for working diligently.

Some books come more easily than others. My easiest book was White Midnight (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003). The rough draft poured out in two months! But I’d been thinking about that book for years before I sat down to write it.

I also love the process of polishing and revising, or crafting sentences until they sing. I read all my work aloud. I think if I hadn’t been a writer I would have been a singer–there is such music to language, such soul to voice.

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

I loathe doing character charts, but I do them. Some of the best secondary characters I’ve ever created are in Avielle of Rhia (Marshall Cavendish, 2006). I used to ask boring questions like, does the character like lime-Jell-O or strawberry Jell-O better, and would get nowhere.
Now I ask questions such as, what is missing in the character? Or, what would she like to change about herself? I seem to get further with that kind of approach. But I still loathe doing character charts!

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

What I love about the publishing process is working with my editor. Here at last is someone who, if you’re fortunate, loves your book almost as much as you do, and will discuss it with you as endlessly and minutely as though you were two fourteen-year-old girls chatting about their friends on the phone. I love what another creative eye, gently nudging me forward, can do for the story.

What I dislike—truly, madly, deeply—is the marketing aspect of publishing. I would much rather stay home curled up with my laptop and my cats in bed writing another novel, than going to bookstores and trying to look literary and charismatic. It’s the Author-as-Used-Car-Salesman that I really abhor.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

Beginning novelists in any genre should try to work on their novels a little bit every day. I firmly believe that this keeps the waters of creativity flowing. This practice builds a tsunami in the subconscious that will reward your persistence.

I firmly believe and testify to all who will listen that the subconscious will do most of your work for you if you feed it. So even on days when nothing happens, sit before the screen. Try out ideas. Discard them all, if you have to, but think, imagine, and dream even if your ideas seem stupid, random, farfetched, or trite. Then leave it all. Take a walk, garden, cook, enjoy a storm. Somewhere inside you the wave will be building, drop by drop, to rush onto the page.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

When I’m not writing, I sing! I just can’t get away from the sound of the human voice. Italian arias are my favorite. I live in the Pacific Northwest so I also do a lot of hiking, canoeing, and fly-fishing in our beautiful mountains.

My husband’s family has a commercial apple and pear orchard in the Methow Valley in Eastern Washington, and I love to spend time there. The magic of the orchard inspired two of my books, Firegold (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) and White Midnight (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003).

What can your fans look forward to next?

My next book is something of a departure for me. The Return of Light: A Christmas Tale (Marshall Cavendish, October 2007) is still a fantasy, but it is a short fable for all ages.

It is written from the point of view of Treewing, a young Christmas Tree who lives on a Christmas Tree farm on Faith Mountain. The magical Christmas Deer chooses him for a special destiny, and he is cut down and put on sale in an urban Christmas Tree lot. There he longs for a happy family to take him home.

This doesn’t happen, though, and to his despair, he’s left all alone on Christmas Eve. Then, with the help of a boy named Luke, a special baseball, and a group of homeless people, Treewing brings the Return of Light to those who need it most. Again in this book, I explore themes of light and dark. It does seem to be my topic!

Author Interview: Janet Lee Carey on Dragon’s Keep

Janet Lee Carey spent far too much time in school staring out the window dreaming of imaginary worlds. Her teachers worried she’d never be able to get a “real job.” Fortunately her “real job” requires a lot of staring out the window dreaming of imaginary worlds, and sometimes her imaginary worlds become books that earn starred reviews! She’s published five books including Wenny Has Wings (Atheneum, 2002), winner of the 2005 Mark Twain Award, The Beast of Noor (Atheneum, 2006), a NY Library Best Books for the Teenage 2007, and fall Book Sense pick, and Dragon’s Keep (Harcourt, 2007)(excerpt) which earned a School Library Journal starred review and a Booklist starred review. Janet also teaches novel writing, speaks in the U.S. and abroad, and yes, she even cooks and cleans and takes out the trash now and again because writers don’t life in ivory towers. Her website is www.janetleecarey.com. See also a Cynsations interview of the Readergirlz divas.

What about the writing life first called to you?

Creating stories is deeply satisfying. I love every part of the process. Every book provides new challenges and gives me a new mystery to solve.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

A lot of adults have pretty solid opinions about themselves and the world. I find children and teens interesting because they’re still growing and open to new ideas.

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

Oh, it’s been more like long distance running than sprints, but yes to the stumbles part. Like most writers, I faced many years of rejection before I sold my first novel. It’s one reason why I keep the book Rotten Rejections edited by Andre Bernard (Pushcart Press, 1990) within easy reach.

Congratulations on Dragon’s Keep (Harcourt, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for this book?

I thought I’d write a fairytale that turned the “perfect princess” model on its head by mixing the princess and dragon together. The short fairytale fattened up to fifty pages, then to one hundred, and so on until I had to face the fact that I was writing a novel.

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

Dragon’s Keep went through a lot of permeations. My first draft was about five hundred pages (a length that makes any editor shudder). I couldn’t sell the early draft, so I revised it over and over again for, cough, nine years! I had to cut hundreds of pages and find the perfect opening before it finally sold. I was thrilled when Kathy Dawson, bought it for Harcourt! Dragon’s Keep was the first fantasy Kathy ever acquired. It also found a home with Julia Wells at Faber and Faber in the U.K. and will come out there this summer under the title Talon.

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

I faced a number of challenges with Dragon’s Keep because I wanted the fantasy to be set during the time of England’s civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. The story takes place on Wilde Island, a fictitious English prison colony, but the historical events occurring in England are significant because the central character’s mother is convinced Princess Rosalind will wed Empress Matilda’s son. The conflict of England’s civil war mirrors the mother/daughter conflict on Wilde Island and the dragon’s interference heats things up all the more.

I also found writing Dragon’s Keep in first person somewhat challenging, but it couldn’t have been written any other way. I’d like to give a hat’s off here to Karen Cushman for her delicious first person novel Catherine Called Birdy (Clarion Books, 1994).

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

Apprentice yourself to the story. Believe in the idea and the characters. Write it from the inside out–from the core of the character’s desire. Don’t think about marketing your work–just work. Write, revise then seek a good critique group for feedback. When you’ve revised the manuscript again it’s time to start marketing your work.

How about those with a strong interest in writing fantasy?

The same answer as above. It’s all about finding the unique stories you want and need to tell. Of course the other part of the apprenticeship is to read well-written books within and beyond your chosen genre. Writers need to study other word craftsmen. They need to see how they handle descriptive prose, transitions, action scenes, characterization, dialogue, and how they weave all these threads into a single seamless story.

How do you balance your role as a writer (research, writing, revision) and as an author (marketing, contracts, promotion)?

I try to begin the day with meditation, good, strong tea, journaling and writing. Ray Bradbury’s advice in Zen in the Art of Writing (Joshua Odell Editions, 1990) is to go directly from your bed to your writing desk in order to keep your “morning mind,” the part of you that dreams, and capture that on paper.

I agree, though I admit I nearly always do a quick e-mail check. First because my editors are in N.Y. and the U.K. and their time zones are ahead of mine. And second because I like to see what’s happening with readergirlz. The trick is not to get sucked into the afternoon work (marketing, contracts, speaking engagements, promotion) before I get my morning writing done. Am I perfect at all this? Far from it. Sometimes I work on everything but the novel. It’s rather nasty to leave a character dangling from a dragon’s claw for five or six days while I work on other aspects of the business, but ah, well.

What do you love about your writing life?

I love losing myself inside the story I’m writing. When it’s going well, I’m in a timeless state.

What is its greatest challenge?

Meeting deadlines. (Did I mention juggling balls?)

What are some of your favorite recent reads by other authors and why?

I love fantasy, historical fiction and realistic fiction.

For fantasy I have to mention the one I recently finished. It’s the fifth book in the Earthsea series, The Other Wind by Ursula K. LeGuin (Harcourt, 2001). I think LeGuin’s writing is rich and deep and thrilling.

The best historical fiction book I recently read was The Splendor of Silence by Indu Sundaresan (Atria Books, 2006). It’s a powerful story of forbidden love that takes place in WWII India.

Finally I’ve had the privilege to read the advanced reader copy of Justina Chen Headley‘s upcoming book, Girl Overboard (Little Brown, 2008). I loved her fresh characterization and inspiring wordplay. Note: Writers read for story, but we also read for the splendor of well-crafted prose, so we’re sometimes hard to please.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I’m kind of a homebody so I like hanging out with friends and family. I also enjoy long walks, reading and yoga. We have a beautiful garden. If I were a good girl I’d be out there pulling weeds right now, but I’d much rather be answering these interview questions. Thus, the weeds are winning the garden war. Ray Bradbury could easily make Dandelion Wine from the hearty weeds in my yard.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I just finished revising The Ancients. I actually sent it off yesterday which is why I’m finally getting back to this review today (did I mention juggling?). The Ancients is the sequel to The Beast of Noor. It’s due out in summer 2008. In this tale, someone or something is poisoning the ancient Waytrees that hold the worlds of Noor and Oth together. Miles and Hanna sail east to Jarrosh and join the dragons in their fight to keep the worlds from splitting apart. I loved writing The Ancients and can’t wait for it to hit the shelves!

Author Interview: Laura Bowers on Beauty Shop for Rent

Laura Bowers on Laura Bowers: “I’m a wife, mother of two active boys and I live in a house where baseball season never ends. (Go ahead, ask me the rules on balking!) As a kid, I was a total tomboy who loved everything about horses. As an adult, I’ve had a lot of job titles: waitress, gym membership salesperson, data entry, telemarketer, real estate agent, receptionist, secretary, and in my broke college days, a roving character in costume at holiday mall parades. In 1998, I made the decision to add my favorite job title: writer. (But dressing in costume was pretty cool, too!)

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

I’ve had many, many stumbles and lots of trials and errors! My trials? The time spent trying to write sophisticated books like Sidney Sheldon or epic novels like Jean Auel first comes to mind. That didn’t exactly work out. My errors? Thinking I could be the next Dr. Seuss during my picture book phase is one of my many errors. Sprints? The editing process of Beauty Shop for Rent (Harcourt, 2007).

Was there anything during your apprenticeship that you felt was especially helpful? Was there anything you wish you’d skipped?

It’s such a blessing to have fantastic writer friends who love and support me. Having someone in your corner is a definite must in this biz! What could I have skipped? The many times I procrastinated instead of writing. But hey, live and learn, right?

Congratulations on the publication of Beauty Shop for Rent (Harcourt, 2007)! Where did you get the initial idea for this book?

For years, I would pass a sign posted in front of a charming old house that read, “Beauty Shop for Rent…fully equipped, inquire within.” The rusted corners and the way it started to slant with time intrigued me and I was often tempted to pull up the driveway and find out what the owner was like. Was she old? Longing to retire? When I asked myself what would happen if a young girl was left on her doorstep, I realized the sign wasn’t just a curiosity–it was a book!

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

September 2002: Began writing.

Spring 2003: Talked myself out of it and quit.

October 2003: Had an editor tell me she loved the first chapter at a conference. Knew I had to tinkle or get off the pot. Wrote book.

February 2004: Submitted manuscript to editor, found an agent.

May 2004: Editor said no. Darn.

November 2004: Agent submitted to eleven publishers.

May 2005: Was offered contract from Harcourt. Screamed “Hallelujah!”

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

As you can tell from my timeline, I was sometimes my biggest challenge by the way I’d let those nagging feelings of self-doubt take over. This is when my awesome writer friends would kick in with all their encouragement!

What is it like to be a debut author in 2007? What moments already stand out?

Wow, it’s a lot of things. Wonderful, scary, exciting, surreal. I’m also fortunate to be a part of Class of 2k7, a group of mid-grade and young adult authors with books debuting in 2007. It’s awesome being surrounded by so many talented writers who are all going through the same wonderful, scary, exciting and surreal experience as me!

What do you love about the writing process and why?

Editing. I love taking that big, fat rough draft and molding it into shape. Most of all, I love those rare and wonderful moments when you finally figure the story out, or when you fall so in love with a new, dynamic character and can’t wait to tell their story!

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

Writing the first draft! And, while I do enjoy marketing, it’s hard to strike that balance between writing and marketing.

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

I loved working with my editor and the folks at Harcourt. They made the whole process relatively painless. Abhor? Waiting for reviews. It’s agonizing when you know your book–your baby–is on someone’s desk, waiting to be judged!

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Find a writing buddy who can hold your hand when things are rough, always be true to your unique voice, and take time to celebrate your accomplishments, whether it’s finishing a rough draft, getting a contract, having an article published or figuring out the perfect title!

How about those interested in writing for the young adult audience in particular?

Be true to the story and characters, rather than publishing trends.

Author Interview: Daria Snadowsky on Anatomy of a Boyfriend

Daria Snadowsky on Daria Snadowsky:

Some measure out their lives in “coffee spoons,”

Others in Judy Blumes . . . .

1988: Peter Hatcher from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing became my first literary boy crush.

1989: Blubber marked the first time my friends and I ever saw the word “bitch” in print. We were so stunned and delighted by this novelty that we kept passing the book around to each other under our desks during class, with the famous “bitch page” doggy-eared.

1990: I polished off Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret in two hours, and for me, that event was no less than a religious solemnity. It seemed that the book was “happening to me” as I was reading it. I felt so much more grown-up by the time I reached the last page.

1991: Then Again, Maybe I Won’t was my introduction to the adolescent male psyche. I was grateful it explained the mystery of why boys would sometimes bring a book (as coverage) with them to the chalkboard.

1992: There is no way to exaggerate Forever‘s influence on every aspect of my high school life. (It was also around this time I first watched “The Thorn Birds”–that the Richard Chamberlain character was called “Ralph,” a name which figures rather largely in Forever, made him all the more enticing.)

1993: I was too young to read Wifey, but I tore through it anyway. It shattered my fairy tale fantasies of “happily ever after,” which is probably a good thing in the long run.

1998: I had the honor of reviewing Summer Sisters for a local magazine. It was wonderful to be able to rave about Blume not just to my friends but also to the general public.

2006: Since I knew I’d be dedicating Anatomy of a Boyfriend (Delacorte, 2007) to Blume, I mailed her a partially-edited version of the manuscript. I didn’t expect to hear back since she’s so busy, but I did! Last May she emailed me that she read Anatomy, thought it was “so good,” and enjoyed it so much she “had trouble putting it down.” 🙂

What made you decide to write for young readers?

I was still in my early twenties when I started Anatomy of a Boyfriend, so I felt qualified writing for teens since those adolescent years were still fresh in my memory. Oddly enough, a lot of the reader emails I’ve received lately come from adults who stumbled across the book in Target stores (Target is currently shelving the book in the “Bookmarked Breakout” section, not the young adults section). So maybe the story has a wider appeal than I imagined.

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

I finished the rough draft in mid-2003, and I began querying agents through Writer’s Market shortly thereafter, right as I was beginning law school. An agent accepted me several months down the line and submitted the manuscript to more than a dozen publishers. It was universally rejected–apparently, 599 pages is a bit too long. Instead of ending his representation, my agent graciously allowed me to take my first summer after law school to halve the book’s length. It was this new, shorter draft that was bought a few weeks later.

Congratulations on the publication of Anatomy of a Boyfriend (Delacorte, 2007)(excerpt)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Thank you! I remember my first hall meeting during freshman year of college–we were introducing ourselves and discovering that almost half of us had boyfriends from high school. Then by the following semester, almost everyone had dumped or been dumped by her high school sweetheart. So I wanted to focus on that part of a girl’s life when she’s simultaneously excited for and scared of how college will change things. In the book, Dominique, the protagonist, says, “I used to think of college acceptance letters as emancipation proclamations. Now they’re like divorce papers.”

I also wanted to do a straightforward, nonjudgmental treatment of the emotional roller coaster of love. I resent that all of the words associated with romantic love are so pejorative. We’re often called “nuts,” “obsessed,” “head over heels,” “infatuated,” and “addicted.”

Why is love saddled with such negative words considering that any one of us, no matter how brainy, sane, or logical, can feel this way? Anatomy of a Boyfriend concerns a girl whose intelligence is above average but still longs uncontrollably for her knight in letterman jacket. Her behaviors may seem crazy, but in truth what she’s experiencing couldn’t be more natural and human.

Could you briefly describe the story?

Seventeen year old Dominique can’t wait to graduate from high school and go pre-med. She’s rational and level-headed and never had a serious crush before. However, during winter break of her senior year, she meets shy but dreamy fellow senior Wes. For the first time in her life, all of her priorities become completely reordered, and she finds herself thinking about him every minute of the day, reading into every little thing he says or does, and desiring to be his girlfriend more than she wants to be accepted into her first choice college. This is the story of Dom’s emotional and sexual journey through the euphoric highs and hellish lows of first love. It also follows Dom’s transition to college as she tries desperately to keep her relationship with Wes intact.

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

The biggest logistical challenge was juggling literary revisions with the rigors of law school. Luckily, I was able to schedule all of my classes on Mondays through Thursdays, so I had three-day weekends to devote to the book.

One of the many aspects of this book that I appreciated was Dominique’s smart, sometimes clinical, sometimes vulnerable, always real voice. Could you give us some insights as to how you came to know this character?

Thank you, again! We see Dom before and after she falls under love’s life-altering spell, and every emotion she experiences I’ve endured as well. Before I had ever been in love, I was so impatient with my girlfriends who wouldn’t stop “obsessing” over their (ex)boyfriends. I kept telling them, “Just get over him! He’s not right for you! How can a smart, sensible girl like you act this pathetically?” Then when I finally fell for a guy, I found myself guilty of everything I had railed against. For the first time ever, I identified with Scarlett O’Hara, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and a host of other characters from literature whom I had initially written off as unrealistic, clingy, selfish dopes unworthy of carrying a novel.

So although Dom and I differ in most ways, I understood her plight all too well. I just tried to express it in Dom’s uniquely scientific, analytical voice. More than anything, I tried to make her sound honest. That’s what I appreciate most about Blume’s characters–they are always very straight with the reader about everything they are going through, even if what they’re feeling, be it spite, jealousy or hate, isn’t all that complimentary.

What is it like, being a debut novelist in 2007?

I’m lucky we have email and MySpace to make direct communication virtually effortless. I feel much more connected to readers and writers than I probably would have ten years ago.

Growing up in the eighties, I rarely sent fan mail to authors because it was too time-consuming to find the address, write out a letter, and schlep it to the post office, especially since there were no assurances that the author would ever receive it, let alone respond. Now I rarely read a book without emailing the author afterwards.

What are some of your favorite recent reads?

Nine Wives by Dan Elish (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005). It’s about a thirty-something musician/legal assistant in Manhattan who’s raring to get married, but his standards are a tad skewed. It’s perfectly written, highly thought-provoking, and totally hilarious. Elish actually spoke to my fifth grade class back in the eighties about his middle-grade book, The Worldwide Dessert Contest. I remember him describing how arduous and frustrating editing can be, and knowing that comforted me during my own revision process.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Praying for “The Wonder Years” to be released on DVD.

Author Interview: Kelly Bingham on Shark Girl

Kelly Bingham on Kelly Bingham: “I started my career as a story artist for Walt Disney Feature Animation, where I worked for twelve years on films such as ‘Hercules,’ ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire,’ ‘The Emperor’s New Groove,’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ I received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College in 2004, and then moved to Georgia to spend more time with my family and writing. I live in north Georgia with my husband and our five children. Shark Girl (Candlewick, 2007)(excerpt) is my first novel.”

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

I spent over ten years trying to “learn” how to write for children. I took classes and workshops, had a critique group, and wrote a lot. After a long time, I realized my level of writing had plateaued…and it wasn’t that good. I then enrolled in something I had wanted to do for years…the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College.

I learned more there in the first semester than I had in the previous ten years of self-teaching. And I began working in earnest on the story I had brought with me to my first workshop…the manuscript that would become Shark Girl.

I finished the first draft of Shark Girl nearly two years later, just before graduation. And within a few days of finishing this, a girl in Hawaii was attacked by a shark while surfing and lost her right arm.

The coincidence was too much, and I couldn’t bear the thought of appearing as though I’d capitalized on her loss. So I put the book away for a while.

I sold a picture book and continued working on other projects, and two years later, took Shark Girl out of its drawer, largely because I was urged to do so by my mentors and friends and family. I revised for several months, then submitted it to the editor I had already sold a book to. He didn’t want it. I was disappointed but knew better than to give up too soon—rejection is part of the process, right? I tried again and submitted to Candlewick in the summer.

Liz Bicknell was too busy to read the story at that time. She asked me to resubmit in the fall, and in the meantime, she would understand if I wanted to submit it elsewhere rather than wait. But I was more than willing to wait for her, and when the time came, she read the first thirty pages, asked for the rest, and then sent me an e-mail saying she wanted to publish the book! I was thrilled, shocked, and overjoyed!

We started off agreeing the book would be published in 2008. But very soon Liz let me know they were bumping it to 2007. Great news! We tackled revisions, which were minimal, and then shipped it all off in short order. It was a fun, whirlwind experience.

So…from idea to publication took six years. But from submission to publication took only eight months!

Was there anything during your apprenticeship that you felt was especially helpful? Was there anything you wish you’d skipped?

Especially helpful was attending Vermont College. The program is fabulous, eye-opening, and for me, it was life changing as well! I found it helpful to really delve into the structure of story–for me that’s always the hard part. Turning points, plotting, sub-plots, psychic distance, point of view—all that stuff was a foreign language to me until I really got into the work of doing the MFA alongside amazing and generous faculty.

I can’t think of anything I wish I’d skipped, because it was all necessary to get me where I needed to be. All the mistakes, the floundering, the craft books that I’d read that didn’t do much for me, the form rejection letters for sub-par manuscripts….all that stuff was a road I had to travel before I was ready to acknowledge I not only needed to get serious about learning more, but I was willing to work hard to do so, as well.

Congratulations on the publication of Shark Girl (Candlewick, 2007)! Where did you get the initial idea for this book?

In the summer of 2001, there was a rash of shark attacks across the country. Among the victims was a little boy who had his arm bitten off and later reattached. I started thinking about the situation and thought, what a horrible thing to happen. And how much worse to have it on the news, and forever after be known for only that one thing that happened to you.

So I started writing the story from the point of view of a young boy. But Jane, the fifteen-year old girl from Shark Girl, kept stepping into my story. I found myself wanting to write for an older audience and to write from this girl’s point of view. I finally abandoned my original plan and went with Jane. She guided me the whole way.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life? I’m especially interested in the use of poetry, newspaper articles, etc.

Well, I hadn’t written much poetry before writing this book. And I did not set out to write Shark Girl in poetry form, by the way. I wrote in prose, but just groped and fumbled and couldn’t get a toehold for six months. Then a friend suggested writing it as a poetry novel, and right away I knew that was the best way to do the book. But I told myself, “you’re not a poet. Don’t even try it. You’ll look so stupid and you’ll feel like a fraud.” (This is how I talk to myself, isn’t it awful?)

Fortunately, I got past that, studied poetry and poets, and began writing volumes and volumes of poems for the book. The experience was electrifying. I love writing in poetry.

There were a few stumbles along the way. I wandered down many wrong roads while writing–I tried multiple point of view, for one thing, and then I experimented with several story lines that eventually petered out into nothing. I included characters I did not need. I had to go through this process to find what I did need, if that makes sense. And another problem I ran into was not knowing how to mix it up–an advisor of mine pointed out that having only poems in the book made it a bit flat. I couldn’t figure out what else to do, but eventually expanded the book to include conversations and newspaper clippings, as well as more letters from the public than I had originally intended. This seemed to work well and give another dimension to the story.

I also had to overcome the fear of writing about being an amputee. I thought, “I don’t know what that’s like. Isn’t it wrong of me to write about it? Am I trivializing what people actually go through?” I finally decided I wasn’t going to waffle around in indecision, and I jumped into extensive research. The more research I did, the more confident I felt that, yes, I could write about this without being offensive or insensitive.

And logistically, writing the book was tough simply because of the demands on my time back then. I was working full time, going to school for a master’s degree, and I had two children. It was always easier to do something else; anything else. And there were those days of discouragement; that whole, “I’ll never get this finished” attitude to push aside.

Also, while I wrote the book, many people cautioned me that a poetry novel would be a “tough” sale. And they were right; I think in general poetry novels are approached by editors a bit more cautiously than prose. But in my case, I was fortunate enough to find Liz Bicknell at Candlewick almost right away, and she was so enthusiastic about the book! I feel very lucky to have landed with the right editor.

What is it like to be a debut author in 2007? What moments already stand out?

Being a debut author in 2007 is terrific!! As for stand-out moments: This is the first book I’ve ever published. So everything is a stand out! I couldn’t wait to see the cover…and was thrilled with it, too. (I was amazed at the attention to detail, too. I had one line in the whole book about Jane wearing a pink bikini that day, and there on the cover she is, in a pink bikini. Wow.) I couldn’t wait to hold the galley in my hands, and show it to my family. That was fun, fun, fun. And finding my book on the Internet, at bookstore websites (and even on E-bay, apparently,) that was exciting, too. And going out for the big celebratory dinner with my family….what a pleasure. I have enjoyed every minute of this whole experience.

Are you doing anything special to promote your new release?

I have joined up with thirty-eight other debut authors, and we call ourselves the class of 2k7. We’re helping each other promote our books by appearing at conferences, writing articles for newsletters like the SCBWI Bulletin, sharing a website, blog, and forum, giving away ARC’s, and things like that. It’s been wonderful to be linked with such talented and diverse authors. You can check us out at www.classof2k7.com.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I love it when an initial idea for a book comes along, and it’s so exciting it makes my toes tingle. That’s when I know I need to sit down and write about it. I love it when a character begins to take shape in my writing and in my mind, and even begins to “speak” to me and tell me her own story; what has happened, how she feels, where she’s going, what she wants to do. That’s very exciting. And I love it when a draft is coming together and almost “there,” because it seems to me at that point, everywhere I look, I find inspiration for the final pieces of the puzzle–characters to add to the story, a scene, a snatch of dialogue, an event, or some small thread to go back and weave into the manuscript. A simple trip to the store at that point can lead to a great idea to go back and weave into chapter one, for example. When the manuscript reaches a certain point, it all seems to come together rather quickly for me. I love that part.

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

I wish I could skip all the agony, the self-doubt, the frustration when months trail past and nothing worthwhile has made itself into words. The floundering part is the hard part for me.

Once I start to find my character, get rooted in her world, and roll along, then I’m okay. But that whole first part–where I have an idea but can’t figure out how to unlock it and get going—that’s like fumbling at a treasure chest with no key in sight and an imaginary clock ticking. I worry I’m wasting time and not getting anywhere, I worry I will never write another book, that the inspiration won’t come. It often takes me several months to find my story and start making real progress. I wouldn’t mind skipping that part.

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

So far, I love almost all of it! Getting published is very exciting and certainly the high points make up for many of the low points along the writing process and submission process. I love seeing my book in print, I love discovering what the cover looks like, writing my thank-you page, working with my editor, and seeing my book for sale. But best of all is the knowledge that people are reading the book and getting something from it!! If I hear from one reader that the book moved them, entertained them, or gave them anything to think about at all, that alone is worth every bad writing day along the way.

The part I’m not so crazy about is the possibility that when you sell a book, you may not actually see it in print. Every once in a while a book is bought and for whatever reasons, does not actually get made. Once a manuscript is gone from our hands, there’s not much we can do. But as writers we certainly want our creations read–not just bought by a publisher. The other part of the publishing process that is hard is the whole submission process. It is very difficult to get work read these days, especially without an agent. Frustration is part of the business.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

I would say study your craft. Read all the books you can in your genre. Read the good ones and bad ones and figure out why you like them or don’t like them. Get yourself a critique group and offer each other support, but also a little push to dig deeper and go further. Take some classes. Look into SCBWI. And write for the fun of it first and foremost.

You can’t write “for publication.” Write about the things that matter to you. Be open to constructive criticism, but don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. If you are willing to work hard enough, you can do anything. Just understand that writing is hard work and can be frustrating at times. Find yourself a community of writers, if you can–it helps so much to have others to talk to about the craft and business.

I would also suggest to people to be kind to themselves. If your kids are really young, this may not be the time to decide you’re going to write a novel in a space of six months. Give yourself realistic goals. I think it’s more important to write regularly than to write often, if that makes sense. If you can only squeeze in an hour two days a week, then take it. Don’t beat yourself up for not getting up at five a.m and writing every day because that is what “real” writers do.

Real writers do what works for them. Set yourself a time and stick to it. And don’t worry when that time is up and you can’t write for a while. Also, don’t worry if you sit down to write and nothing “usuable” comes. It’s okay. Not every day can be productive. Understand that all writers feel discouraged at times. Just free write and keep going. And keep reading. Do not compare yourself to others. Given enough time and persistence, you will get where you are going.

How about those interested in writing for the young adult audience in particular?

Know your audience. Know your genre. If you don’t have kids at home or feel you aren’t familiar with young adults, then get in their shoes a bit before you write. Watch them at malls, surf teen websites, eavesdrop when you’re in line behind a couple of teens at the movies. Write your story first and foremost; let the editor tell you if it’s out of bounds or too sophisticated. Young adults today are more savvy than ever and subject matter for teens is pretty much wide open.

As with any audience, respect your reader. Never dumb things down, or tread lightly around touchy topics. Your reader’s feelings are real, their life is real, and I think any reader appreciates an author who is blunt and honest with their character’s emotions and flaws.

The more real you are, the more your reader can connect. And isn’t that why we read in the first place? I know I do–I love that connection to a book; that sense of, “I know exactly how that character feels!” And then going on a journey with that character to see what they do and how they do it.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

When I started writing Shark Girl, I honestly thought I wasn’t a “real” writer, and that it would be a miracle if I ever finished a manuscript. When I finished the manuscript, I thought it would be a miracle if it ever got published.

I suspect I’m not the only writer who started out this way. I think lack of confidence may be an issue for many of us. I just want to say, do not let that stop you, whatever you do. Just go for it. Just write. And worry about the results later.

If you can’t sit down and write a novel from start to finish, as a mentor of mine used to say–then just write two pages a day. Every day. When enough days pass, you will have a two hundred page manuscript.

Stick to it. Put yourself in that chair and do it. Take time to smell the roses, regroup, refresh the well, and find inspiration…but then get back to work. Don’t let yourself get too discouraged for too long. And always keep your eyes open for that new idea, that untold story, that character that needs a voice. Be open to trying new forms of writing, and have fun!