Tuesday, May 25, 2010

An Interview with Laura McGee Kvasnosky

Our guest today is Laura McGee Kvasnosky, author of the popular series, Zelda and Ivy. Laura is both writer and illustrator, and she teaches at Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.

1. Before your Zelda and Ivy series, you wrote two board books, One, Two, Three, Play with Me, and Pink, Red, Blue, What Are You?. What made you shift into the early chapter books?

I am not wedded to any particular type of picture book. My approach is to explore whatever ideas I have and as the project develops, I recognize what age group it best fits and nudge it that direction. The first book I sold was What Shall I Dream?, a picture book illustrated by Judith Schachner and published by Dutton. It came out after I had published board books and toddler books because of the time it took to illustrate. I am the illustrator of all of the rest of the picture books I have written.

2. In your opinion, which is easier to write and illustrate, a board book or an early reader?

I can’t really compare. A board book is like a beautiful pot of flowers; an early or beginning reader is like a garden bed. Both are equally satisfying when you get them planted right. As you might expect, a board book with its short text usually takes a lot less time.

3. Your novel, One Lucky Summer, was a 2002 Junior Library Guild Selection. Do you think you will write more books for the 8-to-12 year old audience?

I hope so. I have been working on another middle grade novel off and on for many years.

4. Do you have other series in mind besides Zelda and Ivy?

I have no other series in mind.

Zelda and Ivy began life as a picture book with three little chapters. Initially it was not intended as a series. But never say never. It wasn’t until the fourth book of the series, Zelda and Ivy: The Runaways, that the books were downsized to the standard 6 x 9-inch beginning reader format, which seems to be a good fit for them.

5. You have had great success in both writing and illustrating many of your books. With that in mind, what makes you decide to illustrate a book you haven’t written? And what makes you decide to have someone else illustrate one of your books?

This is easy to answer. If I wish I had written a book, then I am glad to try my hand at illustrating it. Of books I have written, only What Shall I Dream? was illustrated by another illustrator and that was the choice of the editor at Dutton who believed that since I was a new author my work might have a better chance with an established illustrator.

6. In 2007, your book, Zelda and Ivy: The Runaways, won the 2007 Theodor Seuss Geisel Beginning Reader Award. Can you tell us a little more about the award and how it felt to receive it? Did you know your book was nominated?

Of course this was very exciting. The ALA was meeting in Seattle (where we live) that year, so I was notified the night before and was sitting in the big ballroom of the convention center with a bunch of my friends when the award was announced. Very exciting. The following July we went to ALA in Washington DC to receive the award and were wined and dined by the publisher, Candlewick Press. Also lots of fun. The award is a nice affirmation of my work and also I think it has drawn more publishers to bring out beginning readers.

7. Your first book in the series, Zelda and Ivy, won the SCBWI Golden Kite Honors for both picture book illustration and text, as well as the Oppenheim Best Book Gold Award, and it was chosen as the American Library Association Notable Children's Book, in addition to other honors. Zelda and Ivy: Keeping Secrets is on the Bank Street Best Books of 2010 list. Does such prestigious recognition put any pressure on you when you write new books?

When I am creating a book, all the rest of the world goes away. I enter the world I am creating. That’s the seductive and wonderful part I love about writing and illustrating a book. The only part of the publishing equation that I have control over is to put in the time, to keep working at it. Once I send a book out into the world, it begins a life of its own. It is always gratifying when a book does well, but I put just as much passion and care into all of them.

8. You write, illustrate, teach, speak at conferences and offer workshops at schools. Which do you find the most challenging? (I’m assuming you find them all rewarding in different ways.)

I teach at Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. These are my peeps. A wonderful community of faculty and students. I learn so much through teaching that feeds my own work. The processes of talking about making books and making books feed each other. Because I secretly want to be a professional ukulele player and singer, I really do enjoy making presentations.

9. Can you talk a little about “The Inside Story”, a twice-yearly event started by you and author George Shannon ten years ago and now hosted by SCBWI?

George and I invented THE INSIDE STORY as a salon where children’s book authors and illustrators in the Seattle area could meet twice yearly to introduce their new books. After the first several years, our Seattle chapter of the SCBWI kindly took it over and it’s been rolling ever since – maybe 11 years? We rotate the venue through independent bookstores in Seattle and each presenter has three minutes to tell the story behind the story of his new book. Librarians, teachers, and booklovers provide the audience.

10. What advice do you have for children’s writers who want to write for very young children?

Mostly, I don’t think writing for the very young is different than writing for any audience. It helps to write every day, to foster the habit of combing through life for stuff that belongs in a story. I don’t really set out to write for a certain age of audience. Instead, I tell the best story I can and then figure what the audience is.

I am a big believer in READING as a way to steep yourself in any particular genre of picture books. If you aim to write for the very young, find ten books that are the kind of book you want to make and deconstruct them. What makes the best ones so good? Notice how the story starts, the voice, the characterization, the language, design, pacing, page turns etc etc -- all the myriad elements that make the best ones best. There’s a whole university waiting for you between the covers of a well-done picture book.

A little developmental research can help, too. If your intention is to write for the very young, spend some time with little kids. Get down on their level and look at the world. Notice what draws their attention. Read magazines for parents of little kids. What are the issues and concerns? Then reach down in yourself and connect something from that research to something from your own experience to find the story that is yours to tell.

Visit Laura’s website at: http://www.lmkbooks.com/bio/index.php .
In addition to a list of all her books, there are fun activities for children, as well as information about programs and workshops for schools and conference presentations.

As for where to buy her books, Laura says:

I think it's great if people buy books from their local independent booksellers so that we will continue to have local independent booksellers -- but amazon.com has them all, too, plus resellers who stock the out-of- print titles through the amazon site.

Friday, May 21, 2010

An Interview With Linda Joy Singleton

Linda Joy Singleton is the author of several popular YA and MG series, among them, Strange Encounters, The Seer, Dead Girl Walking, and Regeneration. Regeneration was a Young Adult Library Association Quick-Pick Choice in 2001. Twin Again won an Eppie Award for best children’s book in 2003. Here’s Linda to talk about her books and her writing process.

1. You have had several series published and have developed a loyal fan base. I’ve read several reviews, and regularly your fans clamor for the next book. Do they affect your choice of the next adventure?

Yes. I definitely listen to my fans. When THE SEER was just starting, fans kept telling me they wanted Sabine to find romance with Dominic. So I gradually added more in each book. A lot of my decisions for a new book are editorially driven. For instance, I’ve written one book about Thorn and think I have a good chance of being offered a contract for one more, so I recently pitched another Thorn book to my editor. Fingers crossed good news comes soon.

2. Your series usually deal with magic creatures, ghosts, extrasensory perception, or extraterrestrials. Have you always been interested in the paranormal? What inspired your interest?

I’ve always been interested in paranormal topics. Psychics especially intrigued me even when I was young because they seemed to offer evidence of contact with the Other Side. While I have never seen a ghost or had any woo-woo experience, I get strong intuitive feelings that I’ve learned to listen to. One of the first authors to inspire my interest in the supernatural was Lois Duncan; her YA mysteries plus a crime chiller called WHO KILLED MY DAUGHTER, based on a personal tragedy. I’ve been to psychics a lot; in fact, I plan to go to one next month. The last time I went to a psychic he predicted a TV sale and my series on a bestseller list. I’m hoping!

3. Each of your series has a different kind of protagonist. How do you know when it’s time to end one series and begin another?

With most of my series, I wanted to keep writing more books but the publisher made the decision to end the series. When REGENERATION ended at 5 books, I was so disappointed that I wrote one more book just for fans which is still available for free on www.ljsingleton.com . I never wanted THE SEER series to end. Until 1 ½ ago THE SEER was going to end with 5 books. I was thrilled when I was asked to write one more. My publisher felt a spin-off with Thorn would be a better choice since it will be a new character and situation. That book (tentative title GRAVE SECRETS) comes out in 2011.

4. Your books are mainly for teens or tweens. Have you ever thought of writing picture books or books for early readers?

I have a picture book about dogs that my agent is submitting. I am totally in love with this picture book and want it to sell very, very, very much! I’ve tried writing early readers but didn’t have the voice for it. I seem to have the most success with YA series and I’m happy to keep writing them.

5. Writers are often advised to carry a notebook with them at all times to “catch ideas”. Do you do that?

I usually have some paper in my purse, but I’ve written notes on napkins and the back of any papers I can find. I’ve even scribbled notes on my hands. I recently got an I-Phone with a notebook app that I love.

6. How do your series ideas come to you? A phrase? A problem? A new character?

Mostly I think of a set-up that intrigues me. I like situations where someone’s life takes a new twist, usually with paranormal elements. I’ve written quite a few books that didn’t sell and several of them don’t have paranormal. The idea for SEER and DEAD GIRL started in manuscripts earlier in my career that I’d submit then set aside then rework and submit again. The first character of THE SEER was a completely different girl than Sabine, and I called the series PSYCHIC SLEUTH. DEAD GIRL was originally a single-title book with a different ending titled TURN LEFT AT THE MILKY WAY. But when I switched the title to DEAD GIRL WALKING, my editor showed interest and suggested turning it into a series. I loved the idea and had a great time writing those books.

7. Do you do a first draft in longhand or on the computer, and why? If the former, when do you switch to the computer?

I write on the computer. I taught myself to type when I was 11 and have always loved the speed and rhythm of a keyboard; my form of musical instrument. I usually take notes in long-hand to get started but then I jump into the book on the computer. I edit as I go along so don’t really have a first draft but more of an evolved draft.

8. Who reads your manuscripts first? Your husband? A writing friend? Your agent or editor?

Definitely NOT my husband since he’s not a reader but he’s really smart and if I need some feedback, he’ll give me advice. I’m in a critique group that meets twice a month and they hear my work first. When I finish the book, then it goes to my agent who will forward it to my editor. Sometimes I send a new book to a friend online, like I recently did with SEER #6 to a librarian friend.

9. What is the best advice you have ever gotten from an agent? An editor? Another writer?

I’ve heard all flavors of advice and mostly it comes down to listening to my own gut feelings. Usually I’m telling myself to keep writing even though my book feels like garbage. I’ve learned that I can finish a book and I’ve learned how to deal with disappointments and success. Mostly the advice I give myself is to just keep growing as a writer and working hard. Never to give up.

10. Do you have a new series on the back burner?

There’s a science fiction YA that my agent has shopped around but it hasn’t sold. I’m planning another Thorn book if my editor wants one. I’m not really sure what’s next. I can’t wait to find out.

Thanks, Linda for sharing your thoughts with us.

For more information, visit Linda's website at http://www.lindajoysingleton.com/ and http://www.myspace.com/lindajoysingleton . New books coming out: THE SEER #6 MAGICIAN'S MUSE Fall 2010, and GRAVE SECRETS - A Thorn Goth Girl Mystery, 2011 (Flux/Llewellyn Publishing )

Friday, May 14, 2010

Some Thoughts About Writing and Gardening

I've been away from my post this week, doing what writers are supposed to be doing -- writing. Well, and doing research, too, for coming interviews. But, research done, I got back to revising and editing, querying, writing the ever-ominous (to me) synopses, and submitting manuscripts (three). With all of that done, I wandered out to the back yard to do some work on my raggedy flower garden.

While I was gardening, I couldn't help drawing parallels: How is gardening like writing a novel? Let me count the ways:

To begin with, you start out with an idea. An appealing idea. The overall plot. (Forgive the pun.) In the heat of your enthusiasm you plant your plants and stand back to look at the result. "Not bad. Pretty good, really! Although...." Now the real work begins. What exactly did you have in mind? Did you mean for such a bushy plant to go in that spot? And mixed light--does that plant really need more sunlight or more shade? And, oh dear. Western sun in Sacramento seems to be a little hotter than "full sun."

So, revision. You start shifting the plants around. I think of plants as characters. You know how some characters start hogging the limelight, pushing the other characters into the background, but the story originally wasn't about them? Well, some plants do that, too. And then you have to decide. Is this the main plant (character) after all? Or do you need to put it in another section (maybe another book?)

After revising and replanting, results start looking better. The novel shapes up, the characters are in their places; the garden has shape and color. Flowers are blooming where they should; this plant's leaves aren't shriveling from too much sun; that plant isn't pining for more sun.

There's still more work to be done: editing. Pesky adverbs and adjectives, and all those cluttery words, like just, even, really, very, but, and, then.... (Who knew you had such a "then" habit?) This is like the weeds in your garden. They have that way of cropping up everywhere. You have to dig them out. Sometimes more than once.

True, there is a point where parallels break down: For one thing, no one ever sends you a letter saying, "We regret that your garden doesn't meet our needs, and we wish you luck elsewhere."

On the other hand, the upside of a rejection letter is that it doesn't give you a sore back!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

An Interview With T. A. Barron -- Part II

Today Barron (picture at left) discusses writing, young people and the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, inspired by his mother, Gloria Barron (picture at right.)

Q. Has your writing process changed in the course of writing such successful books? Do deadlines or expectations affect your work, or has your approach stayed much the same?

A. The writing process is still a mystery to me. All I know is that, to craft a story, I need three things: a character I care about; a wondrous, magical place; and a troubling question or idea. Without those three elements, I simply can’t muster the energy to spend a day writing or revising a page—let alone several years creating a trilogy. (The Great Tree of Avalon books have taken me five years to complete.)

I’ve also learned that writing requires both sides of the brain. The rational, organized side of our brain enables us to design believable characters with journeys that are logically consistent and emotionally rewarding. The dreaming, poetic side enables us to make metaphors—as well as characters who come alive and surprise us with their secrets. In all this, details are crucial. My job as a writer boils down to one goal: making characters and places and plots feel true.

Q. Who does the artwork for your maps?

A. A variety of artists have done the artwork for my maps – including myself. Ian Schoenherr did the artwork for The Lost Years of Merlin map, Anthony Venti for The Lost Crater (map from The Ancient One), and I did the artwork for The Great Tree of Avalon maps.

Q. Your love of nature permeates all your books. Did you always feel this bond with nature so deeply? Or did it develop out of writing your books?

A. I have always had an affinity for nature. For starters, I grew up in places where Nature was always nearby, so I could explore a creek, climb a tree, pick an apple, or just cover myself with mud. The nearness of Nature shaped me profoundly. Not just in the challenging, adventurous ways you might expect—in deeper, spiritual ways, as well.

For example, I remember a snowy day when I was very young. My mother dressed me in one of those big puffy snowsuits that made me look like a huge, waddling balloon, and took me outside. There was so much snow, the drifts were even taller than me. Then my mother patted the top of an enormous snowdrift, and said, “Guess what? Believe it or not, there are flowers under there. You won't see them until springtime, but it's true.” I was astounded. Amazed. Flowers? Under there? She was telling me about the patterns of the seasons, of course—but also about something more. Something like hope. Transformation. Renewal.

So why is wilderness important? Because unspoiled Nature is the last, best place on Earth for people to stand upright and tall, dwarfed by the sweep of the stars or the sweep of time, and yet still part of it all—connected to the changing seasons, the fox tracks, or the flight of geese. In Nature, we can feel both very small, and very large, at once—part of the universe, the pattern, the mystery.

And one more thing: In wilderness, we can still experience silence—a quality that's increasingly rare in this world. We can hear voices apart from our own, sounds not made by automobiles or chainsaws. We can even hear, sometimes, the whispers of creation—that remarkable process whose essence is life, and whose engine is silent.

Q. Have you ever returned to your first novel and considered revising it into a YA novel?

A. My editor has asked me to do that. Maybe someday I will. It has some strengths – mainly zany humor and imagination – but I can tell you it needs a lot of work!

Q. What do you think is the most productive steps a beginning writer can take to develop the craft? An MFA program? Workshops? Books on writing? Conferences?

A. I suggest three things: First, notice the world around you, with all your senses wide open. Second, remember that writing is a great way to explore the universe—not just in space and time, but also in the realm of ideas. Third, don't forget that writing is a craft, and the best way to improve is by practicing every chance you can.

And then a fourth: Don't take rejection letters to heart. Everyone gets them, even established writers. They hurt, but they are just part of life. If you have something to say, and refuse to give up, you will find a way to say it and share it with others.

Finally, in case it's helpful, please check out the page (For New Writers) on my website:

Q. Are there other writers in the family?

A. My children love to write. One of my favorite books ever is The Mysterious Arrowhead, written and illustrated by my 9-year-old daughter, Larkin, after a family rafting trip in Idaho.

Q. National Geographic Education Foundation and Girl Scouts of the USA, among other organizations, have partnered with you in providing the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. It has also been highly commended by Jane Goodall. Can you tell us a little about the prize? What sparked the idea?

A. The Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes honors outstanding young leaders who have made a significant positive difference to people and our planet. Their leadership and courage make them true heroes—and inspirations to us all. Each year, the Barron Prize honors twenty-five winners nationwide. Half of the winners have focused on helping their communities and fellow beings; half have focused on protecting the health and sustainability of the environment. The goal of the Barron Prize is to celebrate such heroic young people—and to inspire others to do their part. Like the woman for whom the prize was named—my mother, Gloria Barron—these young people demonstrate the power of one person to make a difference to the world.

Thank you for sharing such helpful suggestions for readers and budding writers. I look forward (as I'm sure readers do) to seeing the movie, The Lost Years of Merlin!