Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Meme. I've been tagged!

Just found out my buddy Barb Newman has "tagged" me to participate in a game of Meme. In a meme each player lists 8 habits/facts about themselves, then tags 8 others at the end of her post.

Here's my 8:

1. My parents restored a Victorian home in which my father left one deliberate flaw: a hole in the first floor ceiling for my dad’s pet raccoon to stick her upper body through, hang from, and wave at you. Really.

2. Since my parents raised innumerable foster children, I fit into nearly every possible birth-order category.

3. In junior high, my best friend and I used to experimentally snap Butterfinger bars in two, (searching for a “fresh one”), buy one each, then eat them over teen magazines in the snack bar, after which we’d return the mags to the rack.

4. I've never tasted even a nibble of a mango since I learned, during my family's two years in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, (yes, the currently infamous "Gitmo"), in the late 60s, that I’m allergic to them. (Used to breakout when kids brought them on the bus.)

5. I took up tap dancing at the age of 44… and found that I wasn’t half bad at it, for an old broad.
This is me and my friend Rene tappin' our hearts out. Rene is tall, gorgeous one with the cheekbones to die for. I'm... the other one.

6. After school in junior high, I’d watch an afternoon re-run of Star Trek, then listen to Broadway albums for hours.

7. Because of the above misspent youth, I can amaze my children by singing along with Robert Preston to the "Trouble" song from The Music Man and not miss a single syllable. Sadly, I cannot do the same with Yul Brynner in “A Puzzlement.”

8. Our yellow Labrador retriever actually dashes out and fetches the paper every morning. Watch the amazing movie of her paper-retrieving exploits here...

Okay, at the risk that they've already been tagged, I'll tag a few folks from my book marketing group:
Elizabeth Dulemba
Joe Kulka
Alan Gratz
Ruth McNally Barshaw
Karen Lee
Greg Fishbone
From my crit group:
Liz Dubois
and also, my friend, illustrator Amy Cullings Moreno

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Happiness is... a big box of books!!

Or, even better, TWO big boxes of books! They're heeeeeere.

Ordered 100 books in preparation for my book launch party on June 14th. So kind of my boss and his wife to offer to hold this party for me. It will be in the beautiful outdoor gazebo of The Smithfield Inn, covered & cozy no matter what the weather. (But we're hoping for a gorgeous June evening, of course!)

Time to start addressing invitations!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A voice that sings

Today, I'm excited to host Kerry Madden, author of Gentle's Holler and the recently released, Louisiana's Song, second in her Smoky Mountain Trilogy. As a writer who often battles insecurities (and my Evil Inner Editor) when writing longer works, I'm especially awed by a writer who can produce a trilogy! So I'm going to selfishly ask her questions that might help me as I struggle to tame my "EIE."

First, Kerry, the age-old question for novelists: (Nope, not "where do you get your ideas?") Rather: Outline...? or just feeling your way along uncharted paths?

I borrow from real life and then I just feel my way along "unchartered paths." With this Smoky Mountain trilogy, I began by imagining my husband's family, but the characters have changed and grown into their personalities and lives. My husband's family never grew up in a Smoky Mountain holler - there was no blind child, no daddy with a brain injury and auditory hallucinations recovering in the holler, no bookmobile, no Uncle Hazard dog. But the spark was imagining how my mother-in-law coped with having babies in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s...(she's the mother of 13) and how her children might have thought or acted growing up in that big family. I also grew up drawing pictures of huge families - they intrigued me from childhood.

What is your writing schedule? Set number of hours, pages, words?

I write when the kids are in school and if I'm under tremendous deadline, I write into the night and weekends. I have taken a few times to go away to the mountains and write and I love this - no distractions from home, and my imagination just opens up with the freedom of not having to stop and make supper or drive. When I needed to make serious tracks on shaping the story, I would make myself write 2000 words a day - or a chapter a day - and I would make myself move forward - not go back and revise. That never lasted long - I would go back and shape and revise anyway. Other times, I would just make myself write two pages a day when the plot wasn't coming. I struggle with plot. I usually write a very dull, bland first draft, which is embarrassing, but it makes me go back in for the attack and I am ruthless at cutting and taking risks at that point - it just takes me a while to get there.

Do you spend time researching your topic (especially location) first? Or do you just start writing, planning to fill in details later?

I start writing and fill in the details later. The best part (of writing this Smoky Mountain Trilogy) has been my research trips back to the Smokies. I never went back when I was writing GENTLE'S HOLLER - I just remembered and wrote - we were too broke for a research trip. Then Viking asked me to write two more books, and there was no way I could stay away then. I met a woman Ernestine Upchurch who drove me up to Waterrock Knob and showed me plants...I spent time with kids, listening to them in the writing workshops. I took my daughter there last summer and watched her play - catching lightning bugs, running from wasps, finding a spider and egg sac (horrifying!). A family of groundhogs lived under our cabin and now they're in JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN. So is that awful spider and egg sac...but I needed to look closely at the towns in the mountains and Maggie Valley, especially.

I know with your 1960s setting, you've probably chosen a period close to your own childhood, (sorry I don't know your age and won't ask!!) But I've found myself, when trying to write about that period, that historical details are still fuzzy. Did you need to refresh your memory about the time period? If so, how did you do that?

Well, I picked the 1960s because my sister-in-law was ten in 1962, and I wanted to capture that time. So I began doing research by looking at headlines. LOUISIANA'S SONG, set in 1963, is grounded in that turbulent year - the Alabama Girls in the church bombing, the first woman (a Russian) in space, Patsy Cline's death, JFK's death...I also went to the Nashville Public Library and did research in the archives of old Nashville Banner newspapers. I discovered that 1963 was one of the coldest winters on record - even the lake by the Parthenon froze, and the ducks were at a loss as to what to do - that went right into JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN, because Jitters is worried about the ducks. (JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN has a chunk of Nashville in it.) I would look up movies and songs of those years too. And GHOST TOWN IN THE SKY opened in 1961, and I interviewed my husband's aunt Iris, who worked in the blacksmith shop and told folks the chairlift was "lightning proof" to set their minds at ease in thunderstorms. She told me great stories...

Your writing has been called lyrical, your voice very strong. Is that a voice that comes naturally in your first draft, or something that evolves after many drafts? Speaking of which: how many drafts? Do you know?

I am very good at voice - I can write lyrical forever, but I'm awful at plot, so there can pages and pages of beautiful description that lead to nothing. But I've accepted that I just write that way - and much of it gets cut - has to...because there's no forward momentum. Then I add plot...I'm sure chapter one of LOUISIANA'S SONG was revised at least 100 times and GENTLE'S HOLLER too...typically I probably write 30-50 drafts with all the tinkering and revisions. I revise as I go most of the time...

Thanks, Kerry. Heartiest congratulations on the trilogy! (What a coup!!)
Oh, that reminds me. One more question, if I may: Did you sell it as a trilogy from the start? I'm wondering since we're so often told to just sell one book at a time; then to offer a sequel to your editor if the first does well. Since 1 and 2 came out almost simultaneously, obviously that didn't happen here, you clever girl!

I sold GENTLE'S HOLLER first, and it came out in 2005 in hardcover, but the paperback just came out in April. So it's been two years between books. GENTLE'S HOLLER did well, and in the summer of 2005, Viking asked me to write two companion novels in Livy Two's Voice. I had been thinking of writing from every Weems' kid point of voice, but wise editors at Viking said "Livy Two is the voice of the family." And I'm so glad it worked out that way now. So one book sold, and then they asked for two more. I'm calling it the Maggie Valley or Smoky Mountain Trilogy for now, but I may write more stories of these mountain kids. I hope to after I finish the Harper Lee biography for kids. Thank you so much, Kim. It was lovely to talk to you!

You, too, Kerry!
Be sure to check out Kerry's other stops on her blog book tour this week:
Elizabeth Dulemba
Dotti Enderle
Alan Gratz
Ruth McNally Barshaw

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Stuffed" with creativity

Today, I'm thrilled to host one of my personal creative heroes, Barbara Johansen Newman, whom I know as "Barb." She's a member of my online critique group, a woman who is generous, hilarious and just plain fun to be around. We always try to get together every summer when my family heads north for vacation. Since we are both mothers of all-boy families, we have a lot in common... including the fact that our first books are coming out this season. Well, actually, Barb is way ahead of me with many, MANY books in print, but Tex and Sugar is her first book as both author AND illustrator. And BOY, is it GORGEOUS!! Just see for yourself...

Barb has one of the "funnest" blogs I've ever had the pleasure of reading: Cats and Jammers Studio. It's quirky and eclectic, just like Barb herself.

1. So Barb, tell us about your road to publication: You started in a very different artistic field, didn't you? How does that field differ from the current one?

I went to college to become an artist, but I promised my mother that I would get a degree in art education, so I did (she was afraid I would starve).

Then I never really looked for work as a teacher. We are talking mid 1970’s, when there were very few teaching jobs available. Furthermore, after four years of art school, only one of which was worth my time, I found myself wanting to go far away from painting and drawing (anyone who has ever endured the trauma that is called “art professors” might understand that attitude), so I delved into puppetry with a vengeance along my husband Phil, who turned out to be a natural puppeteer.

We did puppet shows for about four years and during that time we were hired to perform at one craft fair, and then another. As part of our payment I asked for a booth to sell handmade puppets and also dolls. Soon, I discovered that I loved making the figures much more than performing and I began working with fiber and doing some national craft shows and selling my dolls and puppets which soon morphed into soft sculptures by 1975. I showed and sold them in galleries around the country.

It was a good time to be doing this. The seventies were a wonderful time for fine crafts. The public at large began to really understand and appreciate hand made objects, and they bought them, too! I am very grateful that I was a part of that world at that particular time when it was fresh and just bursting with excitement and possibilities.

Still, I missed the immediate enjoyment of just drawing. So I began to sketch, and I started incorporating surface ecoration into the dolls .

When we moved to Boston, I decided it was time for a change. I worked on a portfolio of illustration work. After about 6 months I started going around to book publishers, magazines, and newspapers. And, since my work was edgy, and edgy was not for kids’ books in the early 80’s, I got lots of magazine work. My eternal thanks to the late Stan McCray, the then art editor at Boston Magazine, for giving me my first real illustration job. That was around 1982. I spent a number of years doing lots of editorial work after that.

2. And how has your experience as an author differed from your experience as an illustrator?

As author/illustrator I can give life to the stories, characters, and objects in my own head that are right up my alley, in a way that is just slightly more freeing because I do not have to follow the confines of an existing story.

Don'’t get me wrong, I love doing that for the stories of other people, too, but there are certain things I absolutely LOVE to draw and think about, and the best way to get more of of those things into my art, is to write them into my own stories.

I would love someone to send me a story with an abundance of funky stuff in the story line. Lots of junk. Colorful people. But, in the meantime, I am writing to create my own opportunities.

3. Which took you more time, the writing or the illustrating of the book?

The illustration, by far. Creating the dummy for Tex and Sugar and painting it, was as much time on a single project as I have ever spent. It was cast of thousands and it took ten solid months of work, from about 9:30 in the morning, to about 11:00 at night, seven days a week with a day or two here and there for a break. I also illustrated a chapter book by David Adler during that time. I broke for meals, but I still do not remember actually doing any cooking, although I think I must have. I brought in a lot of take-out food, and I ignored a lot of laundry. Housework was never my strong suit, anyway. I have an extremely high threshold for mess and clutter.....

Here’s the rub: even when I am not up to my eyeballs in projects, I still am not fond of cooking and housework , and I still ignore the laundry. I just don’t have as much of an excuse.

4. I know you enjoy blogging about your "junk" habit. (I guess that makes you a TRUE junky, right?) Do your "junk finds" contribute to your creative process?

More and more. I love junk. I love talking about it, I love hunting for it, I love decorating with it (yes, the perfect contradiction: I love to decorate but I hate housework) and I am always trying to figure out ways to merge my love of kitschy objects with my love of book illustration. I constantly find inspiration in the colors, textures and patterns of other eras (especially the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s) . It was easier with editorial work, to stick in a lava lamp or two, here and there, along with some bowling trophies. With book work, it is slightly more challenging to insert junk--but I do.

In fact, in my school presentation I show the kids my book illustrations and tell them to study the objects in it, and then I show them my house and ask them to see if they can find the junk that I have drawn into the art. They love doing that!

Now, if only I could figure out how to put my Elvis lamps into my next book....

5. Do your kids or husband inspire your writing in any way?

I do get lots of ideas from my sons and husband. They have inspired a number of specific characters and story lines, so I have several on the shelf that I need to think more about and find time to develop. I just need more hours in a day. Lack of time is my biggest problem.

But, I have to say, that sometimes when you are in the middle of raising kids, which can be stressful to say the least, the whole experience can be too close to home, and you need to think about other stories just to have a break from problems you live with, that are especially challenging.

In the meantime, I try to hide family names in my stories and I may put a face or two here and there, just to make myself happy.

Thanks Barb! It's been a pleasure visiting with you. Hope to visit you FOR REAL again this summer!

Barbara's book tour took her to Dotti Enderle's blog yesterday, Elizabeth Dulemba's on Tuesday, Ruth McNally Barshaw's blog Wednesday, and she'll be at Karen Lee's on Friday. Visit all five, and you'll get to know and love Barb nearly as well as WE do!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Thinking in pictures

Today I have the extreme pleasure of hosting Ruth McNally Barshaw, author and illustrator of the newly released Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel. Ruth is my hero because of her brave, nearly unplanned trip to New York a few years ago which led to agent representation in a Cinderella roundabout way. (Read that magical tale at Ruth's whistlestop on Elizabeth Dulemba's blog.)

As a graphic artist myself, I was eager to know about Ruth's creative process. Ever the storyteller, she filled me in with fascinating answers....

1. When you began crafting the story for Ellie, did you WRITE IT or DRAW IT? Or a little of both, like your famous captioned New York drawings?

It came out page by page, start to finish, in captioned drawings just like the sketchbook. It was surprisingly easy to write and draw it. There was no pressure, and I felt I was doing it almost on a dare, so it practically wrote itself. I didn't know where the story was going when I started. The big lost-in-the-woods scene surprised me. I thought the ending was going to be Ellie with the frog pond (an early scene in the book). But the book just kept going.

I'd never written a novel and I didn't know what I was up against. I suppose ignorance is bliss; if I'd known about all the subplots and character arcs and story arcs that have to go into a novel, I might have been scared off of even trying. But they appeared almost without effort. Before sending it to my now-agent, I put the developing story on my website in a hidden area, and sent the link to a trusted friend (Fiona Bayrock). She read it and told me it was good but that there were a couple places where the voice strayed from a kid's voice. With that, it was easy to figure out just where. I fixed those pages and sent it to my agent, who liked it and signed with me.

2. I know your sketchbooks are like an extension of your arm. Are you EVER without them? If so, have you ever been somewhere, seen something, then rushed home to sketch it?

I don't think so. More commonly I sketch on whatever's available. Like in New York City the first time for the SCBWI conference, I found myself out at dinner with a large group of people I'd gotten to know well online over the years, but I didn't have my sketchbook with me. Unthinkable! It was too memorable a scene to just leave it undocumented. So I drew on a paper dinner napkin (those things don't take ink well, by the way) and taped it into my sketchbook when I got back to the hotel. Last week I bought my first book at a local bookstore on May 1, its debut date, but again forgot to bring a sketchbook with me. So I drew the scene on the store bag. (Kim butting in here: I LOVE that. What a perfect place for that uniquely special drawing!)

Usually I have some sort of paper on me, somewhere. In my school visits I teach kids how to make a mini sketchbook out of a sheet of paper, without a stapler. I've done that many times.

3. Have you ever created "fine art?" (Hate that term. Like ALL art isn't fine!) Maybe the correct term would be gallery art which hangs on walls? Or have you always aspired to be a "print" artist & illustrator?

I've produced some art which would work well in a gallery. I'd love to do a show sometime. To me it would feel like I'd come full circle, because the first art I did was fine art. I'm woefully ignorant of most fine art practices, but am learning what I can from friends who exhibit their work so that when the time comes, I'll be ready. At the revisions stage in the first Ellie book, I deliberately did some of the work in a format that I thought would work well for displaying in a gallery show someday.

When I was in high school I knew I wanted to make a living at this. So I figured I should become a "commercial artist" -- the term we used back then for a working designer or illustrator. A good deal of the work that hangs in galleries and museums straddles the line between fine art and commercial art. My work always has, too. I don't see the big divide between the two that some other artists see. And I don't feel one is more sacred or superior to the other. My goal has always been to create work that could be enjoyed by many people at the same time rather than by one rich person in his own foyer. Print accomplishes that very nicely.

4. Do you see real things, sketch them and create stories to go with the sketches? Or is it the other way around -- seeing pictures in your head that go with stories you have already created?

Most commonly something in real life jars an emotion or a storyline in my head that instantly turns into images coupled with phrases or sentences, which becomes sequential; the next scene unfolds and my job is to get it onto paper, both the text and art, before the image fades. It plays out like a movie, scene by scene, usually with both text and art at the same time. It's not always a full story, or it's not always all of the scenes that are needed to make a full story. In that case, I get down all that I see in my head, and then go back and flesh out each scene until it's whole. And I add more scenes where they're needed. So some of it comes to me organically, as a sort of flash of inspiration, and some of it is shaped and molded to fit into whatever blank spaces are left by the first process.

But sometimes an image comes first and I invent the story to go with it, as you said. And sometimes the words come first and the pictures follow. I'm sure I have many more ideas for stories than I will ever get to follow up on. I would guess that's true of all writers and illustrators.

5. Do you prefer drawing people or scenery? Faces or full bodies?

I prefer drawing people with a few props. One of my favorite things to draw is a bunch of shots of the same person doing the same thing but from different angles or using the prop in different ways. Like, in Ellie book 2, there's a page of a boy Ellie likes, bopping around a soccer ball with one foot. I saw this in person, a kid with remarkable control over his soccer ball, and was inspired to draw him several times on the same page, each time with a different foot maneuver. It felt almost like a scientific drawing when it was done. All of those images, put together, told a story in just one page. I love doing that. It's especially effective with action or with small kids.

I try to draw what the occasion calls for. On a New York City street, you have to step back and draw the whole scene, at times, just because of the urban jungle it evokes. If I'm alone, the scene probably has a bunch of indistinct body-like things in it but nothing closeup. If I am observing, for instance, a group of girls on the subway, then the people become the fascinating focus and the scenery, the doors, poles, benches, become secondary, and they fade into the background.

I think I like drawing whole bodies more than just heads. Part of that comes from drawing things for little kids and having them demand that I finish the drawing by doing the whole body. That always cracks me up. Kids don't like seeing just heads. The thing is, you can convey so much emotion with gestures and it gives a much more complete story than just the face. Eyes say a lot. The face says even more. The body says it all. It's fun to have the face or eyes say one thing and the body say something opposite. You can't play those sorts of mind games as much if you only draw faces. But, on the other hand, sometimes I just doodle eyeballs when I am on the phone. Dozens of faceless eyes from all sorts of angles and in all sorts of styles -- manga, Bambi, dots...

6. Have you written in prose-only enough to know if there's a big difference in the way one tells a story in prose compared to this exciting new storytelling form you're using in Ellie? (Or maybe it's not so new after all. Think of the prehistoric bison in that French cave. I'll bet there was a great story to go with that!)

I wrote a longggg philosophical answer to this and then decided to spare you and our readers. :)

The short answer is this: I don't think there's a big difference. This is simply a marriage of text and image in such a way that the text is minimized because the image tells as much as possible. Sequential art is nothing new. Maybe it does go back to the caveman days. I do know it dates back at least to Elizabethan times, because I often discovered it while researching art for an annual Elizabethan feast at my university, 25 years ago.

People like to say that a certain person "invented" the graphic novel or the comic strip or sequential art, but in fact those things have existed for at least hundreds of years. Maybe it's the most basic form of visual storytelling there is, aside from theatre and playing charades. So, I am just getting back to my roots. It's the kind of art I did, 30 years ago, in my daily sketchbook journals, when I was a teen. And it's apparently the kind of work my ancestors did, 400 years ago, in books and paintings.

What I think is especially exciting is this: This format works for reluctant readers, and it also works for very avid, intellectual readers. It works for all ages. It works for any theme. It's an expensive format to produce, using today's publishing conventions. So that might be why it isn't done more. But since it's a legitimate format for a story and there's so much that is unexplored with it in modern-day publishing, it makes sense to me that it's a format we'll see more and more of, in years to come.

Thank you, Ruth! It was fun peeking over your shoulder. Best of luck with ALL your Ellie books!!

Be sure to catch Ruth at these other stops on her blog book tour this week:
Karen Lee
Elizabeth Dulemba
Dotti Enderle
Alan Gratz
Barbara Newman
Greg Fishbone

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Mission: Laughter

Today, I'm proud to host prolific author Dotti Enderle as she continues with her whirlwind blog book tour. Dotti is an author who enjoys a good laugh herself and enjoys sharing laughter with readers...

So, Dotti, I know, brave and eclectic talent that you are, you have even tried your hand at stand-up comedy. Do you employ humor you think is acceptable for adults that you wouldn’t put in your children’s books?

Absolutely! My stand-up is definitely written for adults. I originally created a Myspace page for my comedy, friending other comics and stand-up fans. I didn’t worry too much about censoring anything there. But then the literary world caught on to what musicians and comedians already knew, and I was soon being friended by other authors, librarians, and young readers. I had to revamp the page and edit the humor in my blog. I thought of building a new page just for my stand-up, but I’ve found that my comedy takes away from my writing and book promotion, so I’m not really doing enough of it these days to warrant another Myspace page. I’m more focused on children’s writing again, though I still write jokes and routines all the time.

Did you learn anything from your stand-up experience that you were able to apply to your writing?

Writing stand-up is a great lesson in editing. A joke is premise and punch. It has to be short and concise, and every word has to count. And with stand-up it’s all about details. It’s not enough to make fun of your cousin, you have to give her a ridiculous name like Arthoola. Don’t say, “the guy with the tattoo.” Say, “the guy with the tattoo of an orangutan on a pogo stick.” Strong verbs and hard consonants are important. I highly recommend studying stand-up to strengthen your writing–particularly if you already write humor.

Do you apply different skills to the different genres in which you write?

Excluding my educator books, my genres tend to be either paranormal or humor. I like to laugh and be scared (occasionally at the same time). When I was a teen I read every magazine and book I could find on the occult. And while I don’t believe in any of it, a lot of that early knowledge turned out to be useful in some of my novels. As for the humor, I inherited that from my father. My picture books could all be a tribute to him.

Have there ever been surprises for you when you saw the illustrators’ sketches of your stories?

Oh yes. Near the beginning of Granny Gert and the Bunion Brothers, I wrote that they were chased out of Amarillo. In my mind I saw a mob running them off. The illustrator, Joe Kulka, cleverly drew them being chased away by a small vicious dog. And then with Grandpa for Sale, well–I never dreamed that the illustrator, Kyle Gentry, could do so much, particularly the wonderful combination of color and black and white. It’s one of the most unique picture books I’ve ever seen, and so naturally I’m thrilled that it’s mine.

Since you’ve done both, would you rather write series or stand-alone titles? Could you share the pros & cons of each?

It’s hard to say since they’re so different. The pros of writing a series is how well you get to know the characters, and the challenges of putting them in new conflicts. The con is striving not to burn out. I limited myself to only writing two chapters a week of my Fortune Tellers Club series for that reason. The good thing about stand-alone titles is the fun of creating a character, conflict, and resolution within one single book cover, and the feeling of pride from crafting all that emotion in a limited amount of words.

Well thanks, Dotti! It's been great having you here. You can follow Dotti on her tour by clicking on the links below...

Karen Lee
Elizabeth O. Dulemba
Ruth McNally Barshaw
Kim Norman
Barbara Johansen Newman
Joe Kulka