Author-Editor Interview: Harold Underdown on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books

Harold Underdown on Harold Underdown: “I was born in Sewanee, Tennessee, home of the University of the South, and my family moved around on the East Coast as my dad moved into different jobs in his field–English History. I’m the oldest of three boys.

“We also spent one year and some summers in England, and I read a lot, both US and UK authors. See The Editor as Reader, on my site, which goes into my childhood reading in more detail.

“I was an English major in college, but did not go straight into publishing, unlike many editors. I taught and did social work before deciding that being involved in making books was something that appealed to me.”

Could you fill us in on your experience as a children’s book editor?

I started out at Macmillan Children’s Books, nearly twenty years ago, as an assistant. Macmillan at that time was a large, general-purpose imprint with a long history, that published everything from reference books for children to the youngest picture books. Good mentors there–Neal Porter, Judith Whipple, Beverly Reingold. I worked there for a few years, and then at Orchard, got downsized, freelanced for a while, and then had a great job at Charlesbridge as senior editor and then editorial director.

The only problem with that wonderful job at Charlesbridge was that I was commuting to Boston from Brooklyn, and I left that job so that my wife and I could start a family. I worked for a start-up children’s ebook company until it went bankrupt, and since then have returned to freelancing, doing projects both for individuals and publishing companies.

See a list, somewhat out-of-date, of some of the books I’ve edited.

You’re also the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books (Second Edition)(Alpha, 2004)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this title?

The inspiration wasn’t mine, actually! I was contacted by an editor from the company that publishes the Idiot’s Guides. They had done a guide on publishing in general, and after they succeed with a broad subject they often publish guides on smaller parts of that wider topic. Once they come up with a subject, the find someone who they think can write about it. I believe that they found me through The Purple Crayon, saw that I was already providing basic information about children’s publishing, and thought I’d be a good match.

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

By the time the Idiot’s editor contacted me, they were already running late–the book was on their schedule for early spring 2001 and she first emailed me in late March of 2000!

Once we sorted out the contract, the first major event was the outline. This is standard procedure for these guides. The author does a detailed outline–in my case over ten pages long–which becomes the blueprint for the book. And then my coauthor and I just wrote. it was all done electronically. We started writing in May, and finished the manuscript by the beginning of November. And the book was on sale by February 2001.

The second edition was not quite as hectic.

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

One big challenge for me was just finding time to write! I was working at Charlesbridge at the time. I wrote in the evenings. I wrote all weekend.

Writing fast was also a challenge for me. I don’t write fast, usually. But having the outline helped. Some of the chapters were about things I do every day, and I could almost write them straight from the outline. Others did require research and anecdote gathering but I knew where to go to gather the information I needed.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, was believing that I could write a 300-page book, since I’d never written anything anywhere near that length before. The Idiots provided a co-author, who drafted some of the chapters, and that did help, but since she wasn’t as familiar with the field as I am I still had to review everything.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s book writers?

Well, they’ll find a lot on The Purple Crayon, but here are a few key points:

–Understand that it will take time and persistence to get anywhere. Be ready to stick it out.

–Join the SCBWI. Go to a local conference. Get to know other writers. It helps enormously to have a support network.

–Write, write, and write some more. Don’t accept “good enough.” Get your writing critiqued by a pro at a conference or elsewhere before deciding it’s ready to be sent in.

–Get three books to start your writing shelf: a market guide, a writer’s “how-to,” and a guide to the business such as my book.

–Read lots of recently published books to get a sense of what’s being published today in the market.

How about those authors building a career?

Now, that’s hard. I don’t think there’s even one piece of advice that will apply to everyone in that situation. But here is something worth keeping in mind: you’re a professional writer, and don’t let anyone treat you as anything less.

You’re the creator of The Purple Crayon, a site dedicated to writing, illustrating, and publishing children’s books. For those new to it, could you give us an overview?

The site consists mostly of articles I’ve written or that have been contributed. These are organized by subject matter, from Basics to Writing, on about a dozen index pages (all listed here: http://www.underdown.org/articles.htm). I also have a blog, a publishing glossary (from my Idiot’s Guide), some interviews, some book reviews, a section about award-winning children’s books, information about my editorial services, and some links pages, but the articles are the core of the site.

How did the site evolve?

That’s a long story. It’s been around since the early years of the Web. I started it with some links and a few articles and presentations that I converted to HTML, and it’s just grown since then. People ask questions, and sometimes an article comes out of that, or someone sends me an article on a topic that the site doesn’t cover. So I’ve just kept adding, and occasionally reorganizing.

As a children’s literature person, what else do you do? Other hats do you wear?

Gee, isn’t three hats enough? Well, I haven’t said much about my work as an editorial freelancer and consultant, actually. The Purple Crayon and The Idiot’s Guide are not my full-time work. Editing is. I do everything from picture book critiques to editing and project managing teacher’s editions of textbooks.

Also, I speak at conferences, which I enjoy.

What do you do outside of the book world?

I try to make sure my family is happy. We have a child in kindergarten, who over the past several months has learned to read, mostly on her own initiative. I stay involved with that. It’s satisfying and challenging and nothing at all like any job I’ve ever had.

In case you’re wondering, being a father hasn’t changed how I approach my work as an editor. I’ve greatly enjoyed discovering books I didn’t know about, though, and re-discovering favorites from my childhood. The Editor as Reader, which I mentioned earlier, goes into some of the discoveries.

What can we expect from you next?

Eventually, I’ll be back in an acquiring position at a publisher. That could happen tomorrow or five years from now.

And you can expect a new edition of my Idiot’s Guide. I’ll announce details on my web site and via an email newsletter I put out occasionally.

Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Agent Rebecca Sherman of Writers House

Rebecca Sherman is a literary agent at Writers House in New York.

What were you like as a young reader? What were your favorite books?

Apparently, my mother left board books for me in my crib and would walk into my room in the morning to find me “reading.” I learned about colors, shapes, numbers and letters with Richard Scary books. I loved to read, but I was a pretty shy and anxious child.

I remember I was in both the “advanced” and the “regular” reading comprehension group in first grade because I was too timid to answer any of the questions in the advanced group, but answered EVERY question in the “regular” group because I was so frustrated that no one else could come up with the answers.

Some of my favorite picture books still are Where the Wild Things Are, There’s A Monster at The End of This Book, and anything involving James Marshall (George & Martha, The Stupids, Miss Nelson is Missing).

As I got older, I read a lot of Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Roald Dahl. I really believe that I fell in love with reading in Mrs. Barber’s fourth grade class where I read Bridge to Terabithia and Tuck Everlasting for the first time. Every class ended with Mrs. Barber reading poetry to us. This is how I learned that reading could connect people.

Unfortunately, in junior high there was a slight drought of great reading. Somehow I ended up reading a lot of early R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, despite the fact that I can’t see a horror movie to this day. I was looking for something age-appropriate and not too girly and just couldn’t find it.

I am definitely envious of today’s teens and tweens who have so many YA options. I would have loved to read about characters I could relate to, but soon enough I moved on to adult literature.

Admittedly, I became a bit of a pompous reader and attempted A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man poolside at my overnight camp and Lolita on a family road trip. But my favorite books from my high school years are My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok and the Glass family stories by J.D. Salinger.

And I’ve made up for lost time by reading many YA novels…even poolside and on the subway.

How did you prepare for this career? How long have you been working as an agent?

I was absolutely unprepared for my career as a literary agent. I stumbled on the job of assistant to a Literary Agent at Writers House after graduating from Northwestern with a B.A. in English.

Truth be told, I went on the interview as a favor. A family friend who is in publishing was guiding me on my New York City job hunt. She told me to send a cover letter and resume to her best friend, an agent at Writers House, even though she didn’t need an assistant. I thought it was a complete dead end, but did it anyway.

The next day, Susan Cohen (scroll for bio), another agent at Writers House called me to set up an interview because she had been without an assistant the entire summer. I had been interviewing for editorial assistant positions and had set my sights on such a job.

I’m not sure that there is any way to prepare outside of a literary agency. Working as an assistant at Writers House was the best course I could have taken. I prepared by observing those around me, devouring children’s and YA books, getting to know those on the editorial side, etc. It was trial by fire, one step at a time.

I began as Susan Cohen’s assistant in September 2001 and took on a few clients about two years later. I was considered a Junior Agent when I represented my own clients and assisted Susan. Around Summer 2005, I really began to build my own list and was promoted to Senior Agent June 2006.

What do you see as the job(s) of the agent in the publishing process?

The literary agent is the advocate for the author (and/or illustrator). While an editor, designer, or art director has an entire publishing house to stand by them and help with decision making, an unagented author or illustrator is going at it alone. I feel it’s of the utmost important for that client to have me and by extension, Writers House in his corner.

That is not to say that I see publishing as agency vs. publisher. To the contrary, I see the client, editor and agent as three integral members of a team. The agent should not be seen as the middleman between the editor and author. The editor and author should maintain a direct relationship. Instead the agent is there to handle business matter (negotiations of offers, contracts, subsidiary rights, etc) freeing the client to focus on creative matters with her editor and publisher.

However, I like my clients to keep me abreast of all progress and setbacks. While it is my job to help untangle complications of scheduling or promotion, I also want to be involved to celebrate a starred review or a great school visit.

Overall, it is my job to oversee and help manage a client’s career instead of focusing on just one book.

What are its challenges?

So much to do, and only so many hours in a day.

Also, there are times when I absolutely love a project and cannot sell it. If I love a project, there is no system of checks and balances. I am free to enter into a working relationship with that writer. By taking on a client, I have devoted my time to her, but none of Writers House’s money.

It’s heartbreaking, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I understand that just because I love something doesn’t mean that a publisher can necessarily take the risk to put money into it. So despite the fact that I am emotionally involved and have allocated some of the little time I have to a project, it might never reach book store shelves.

What do you love about it?

Being an agent allows me to take part in so many aspects of not only a book’s creation and success, but on a more personal level, the advancement of an author (or author/illustrator’s) career. There is the potential on any day to discover the next great writer. As an agent, I am often the first fan of a writer’s manuscript or artist’s portfolio.

I am blessed with the job of calling a client to say that their work is going to be published. Not a bad gig.

Would you describe yourself as an editorial agent–one who comments on manuscripts–or as an agent who is exclusively concerned with publishing issues? Why?

I am absolutely an editorial agent. My editorial input is expressed mostly for the benefit of unpublished authors. If a client has already been published and plans to publish again with the same publisher, I might put my two cents in (if asked), but would leave the substantive part of the editorial process to the client and editor. However, for unpublished clients and prospective clients, I feel it is of the utmost important to send the most polished manuscript possible to editors.

It is part of my job to have a critical eye and to know the market. This knowledge should be shared with clients whose careers I am trying to strengthen or begin. If I can’t sell a client’s manuscript, I can’t move on to the next step of “concerning myself with publishing issues.”

If I extend an offer for representation, I am agreeing to work with a client for the length of their career, not just for one book. Going through an editorial round with a client is a great way to get to know each other and establish a trust. I want to submit manuscripts to editors from clients who are open to feedback and believe in teamwork.

If I find out that a potential client is unwilling to make modifications or collaborate via editorial work with me, I have saved myself and an editor a great deal of hassle. A client who refuses to revise when it is in the best interest of the book, is a client neither an editor nor I would want to work with. My clients do reflect on me and my reputation.

Why should unagented writers/authors consider working with a literary agency?

I simply cannot imagine trying to both create a great manuscript (or a great dummy or proposal) and educate yourself about the business of publishing. If I was a writer or illustrator, I would want that to be my job, and would want to find someone who feels passionately enough about my work to do their job for my benefit. Oh, and your advance will be higher with a literary agent, not to mention a stronger contract in a variety of ways.

What distinguishes Writers House from other literary agencies?

Writers House is the best of both worlds: small enough to feel tight-knit and familial, but large enough to have a great deal of clout and provide many services for our clients. Writers House includes an in-house foreign rights department of three members, a three person accounting department, a CFO, a contracts manager, and a subsidiary rights director who handles audio rights, permissions and more. The agents at Writers House represent an array of award winners and bestsellers and many have been with Writers House for more than twenty years.

From my point of view, our focus on and success with children’s and YA titles is unparalleled in the industry. Six senior agents specialize in books for young readers with other agents (even those focused on thrillers or romance titles) representing clients in this market.

The range of material for young readers that Writers House represents is inspiring and includes Newbery Winners Susan Patron, Sharon Creech, Cynthia Rylant, Robin McKinley and Cynthia Voight, Printz Winner John Green (author interview), Coretta Scott King Winner Kadir Nelson and Caldecott Honor recipients Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith in addition to bestsellers such as Stephenie Meyer (author interview), Christopher Paolini, Dav Pilkey, Barbara Park, Francine Pascal, Ann Martin, Neil Gaiman, James Howe…and that’s just skimming the surface. Our devotion to books for young readers benefits our clients at each stage of the publishing process. Please visit our website www.writershouse.com to find out more about the agency and some of the clients we represent.

Could you give us some idea of your tastes, the kinds of authors you’re looking to sign?

I’m always looking for manuscripts with a striking voice and unique point of view mixed with authenticity. Humor is a real plus for me. Although I represent many author/illustrators, I am looking for more novelists.

For a better idea of my tastes, please see my website on Publisher’s Marketplace which lists many of my clients and upcoming projects.

Do you work with author-illustrators or illustrators?

I work with author-illustrators primarily, though I have taken on clients who are only illustrators at the time. In these instances, I always ask the potential clients if they have ideas for stories of their own, and in most cases, they do. I am not currently looking for authors of picture book texts who are not also illustrators.

Along with Alexandra Penfold of Simon & Schuster, you’ll be joining Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts as a speaker. Could you give us some insight into your program?

Alexandra and I have previously worked on books together, so our program is sure to include a little bit of she said/she said. We’ll illuminate many stages of the process from the agent and editor’s perspective including times where we work as a team and times where we are butting heads.

Could you share one tip for finding the perfect agent?

Not just one. My advice is to be talented, open, patient, and persistent. Look for an agent with whom you will be compatible, not just someone who can sell your manuscript.

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.