Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Donna Jo Napoli Interview, author of 60+ children's books

Hi Donna Jo, 
Thank you so much for joining me. You are such an accomplished author. I think that a lot of writers would like to know the process a successful writer goes through when writing one of their books.

1. Why/how/what made you decide to get into writing for children?

I started writing as therapy -- to deal with a trauma.  But when I was finally recovering from my grief, I realized I loved writing.  I had a little daughter and I was reading her a zillion books.  So I thought I'd try my hand at that.  Then I kept having children (I have 5) and I kept trying that hand.  :-) 

2. Do you get an idea and then plot the problem?  Do you write with an outline or write as you go?  What does the writing process look like for Donna Jo Napoli? 

Usually I get a character with a problem in my head and I research the world I'd like to set the story in.  Then I simply begin -- no outline -- just a knowledge of the world and the character.
But sometimes I'll be writing a historical tale or a fairy tale that's already known -- then I am constrained (or I let myself be constrained) by the historical facts or by the plot of the original fairy tale.   Again, though, I have no outline -- but I do have more than just a world and a character.
I like to discover what happens next as it happens.  My story is born on the page.  That's exciting for me.  I find outlines deadening (though I know writers who swear by them).

3. What does your revising process look like? 

I finish a first draft and it is awful. (This is not modesty talking; this is honesty.)  So I inflict it on my family.  They are not kind.  They are savage.  So I listen and cry and then rewrite.  The second draft I bring to a school and read aloud and get feedback from my target audience (which I hopefully discovered from the comments on the first draft).  Then I rewrite and that's generally what goes to an editor.  Usually the editor wants many changes... and usually the editor is right. 

4. About how long do you usually spend on one book—your average length from beginning to end before you think it is done (before sending to agent)?

It can take me anywhere from a few months to several years to have a draft that's ready for an editor to read.  I'd say I average about 1 year for a novel (but then the editing process takes another half year at the least, and many times more).  And I cannot guess how long for a picture book.  Most of them take me years and years.  I'll work on them between drafts of a novel -- and just fiddle and fiddle till I don't know what else to do to them, so I figure I need an editor's help now.

5. What does a typical day of writing look like in your life. I remember you mentioned something about not sleeping a lot, and writing at late hours. When do you write, and how many hours do you spend a week would you say?

When I was younger, I'd grab hours whenever I could and then write like a fiend for as long as I could.  But I'm old now and I cannot stay up all night like I used to be able to.  I still grab hours whenever I can -- but usually they are morning hours on days when I don't teach any classes (I teach linguistics).  The number of hours I get to work each week varies drastically.  I might have a good week and be able to write 10 hours a day every day.  I might have a week full of other obligations and not be able to write at all -- at all, at all.  It's not within my control (and won't be, so long as I still have a salaried job).

Donna Jo at a deaf conference in Siena, Italy, on 24 June 2015 

6. How do you balance historical background in your novels with plot and character? How much research do you do and how do you decide what to use? 

I love the research -- so I do a lot of it.  I use books as an opportunity to learn about other places and times and various technologies and arts.  Writing is my "university".  I tend to put tons of information in early drafts and then I have to weed out what isn't needed on later drafts.  What isn't needed?  Well, basically anything that doesn't help the plot move forward is not needed.  That's a bitter pill to swallow for someone who loves research.  But if you think of the child who's still struggling to read, you can console yourself as you make your cuts -- But I must say that character comes first in all my novels.  I'm much more interested in why people do things than in what they do.

7. What is your #1 advice that you have gotten about writing.

Write what only you can write.
(you need to interpret that ... which, of course, is the tricky part ... but I think this is excellent advice) 

8. What key pieces of advice would you give? (Any advice to the aspiring children's author?)

Write as much as you can, as often as you can, in as many different modes as you can: letters, poems, short stories, recipes, directions for making bird houses, novels, everything.  The more you write, the better you get.  
And write out loud.  Listen to what you write.  You will become your own best editor that way -- catching sentences that don't work -- and finding dialogue that does work.

9. Is there a question you wish somebody would ask you, so you could answer it? And could you please answer it?

I don't know.  My writing life is fairly private.
Maybe I wish people would ask me why I write -- because then maybe I could try to figure out why I write.  I think I do it simply in order to create beauty.  But what do I know? 

10. Do you have any new books coming out?

Yes, DARK SHIMMER is coming out this fall.  It's a YA, and it drove me crazy writing it.  Gothic and twisted and very difficult to write.  It gave me nightmares (so I hope people will read it).  

Thank you again. It's so lovely to be in touch with you!

You're very welcome. 
Donna Jo 

To learn more about Donna Jo, visit her website

Monday, June 1, 2015

Jill Esbaum Interview, SCBWI Midwest Crystal Kite Winner 2015

Jill Esbaum

I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo

Hi Jill. Thanks for joining us. I'm so excited for you and Nadine (the cow). I wonder if you could maybe take us through this process with Nadine, since you won the midwest region award for the Crystal Kite.

1.  How did you get the idea?

Our neighbor has cattle that graze a long, sloped pasture. When he dumps a huge haybale into a feeder at the top, they slowly tromp up there from far and wide. I imagined one lazy cow who was always looking for a faster, easier way to the top of the hill, and that was Nadine. That story didn’t work, though. Not because I didn’t try everything, including a skateboard.

2.  What did your writing process look like with I AM COW? Did it come to you suddenly? Did you have something else in mind first, and then change it to barnyard animals? Did you sit down and write the entire rough draft first, and then revise? 

The lead character was always a cow. But I couldn’t find the story that suited her. What came to me suddenly (after years of other possibilities that didn’t pan out) was that I had to get her out of her element. Like … into the woods? Every version of the story was written in rhyme, so I basically just kept building and playing around with it. And deleting. Lots of deleting.

3.  What does your revision process look like?  Do you have another set of eyes that look at it? How do you know which feedback to take from others? How long did you work on revising this manuscript once you had your first draft? 

I don’t remember if any of my writing friends saw I AM COW in an early form. If so, it would have been 9-10 years ago. And they would have been encouraging, because they’re kind. I’m currently in an online crit group with people who are also kind - and smart and funny and insightful and honest. When I get their comments, I consider every one, then go with my gut. 

My revision process for stories written in prose is to dive in and lose myself, tweaking endlessly until every page reads like a finished book. All along the way, I'm questioning myself:  Am I dealing with the problem I presented at the beginning? Is every scene necessary? Am I showing cause and effect? How can I streamline? Will a reader care about this character? What is it about him/her that makes this a story only s/he can live? For starters.

When writing in rhyme, I have to answer those same questions, plus rewrite every line a bazillion times to make the rhythm/rhyme work. Still, there's always (always) a point at which I throw up my hands because the stupid story is NOT working and I’m WASTING my time because it’s NEVER going to work! When I hit that wall, I know it’s time to go back and write a brief synopsis out to the side of each stanza to see how (or if) they’re contributing to the storyline.

4.  Did your agent or editor ask for revisions?  How do you handle those? Does an editor call you? Or work through your agent, or both?

My agent sent it out as I submitted it to her. An editor then asked her if I’d be up for revising, which of course I was. From there, that editor and I began e-mailing back and forth. My original opening:

For Nadine and her friends, you might think life was sweet.
Hang around the ole pasture.
Doze off.
But Nadine was about to go out of her mind
living life as a cow of the hang-around kind.
So one day, before breakfast was even digested …
“Hey, girls? Let’s go into the woods,” she suggested.
Starla gasped. “We can do that?”
Annette had turned green.
“Follow me! We’ll be back before lunch,” said Nadine.

The editor had plenty of good things to say about the story, but pointed out that any old farm animal could be substituted for Nadine. There had to be something different or special about her and her experience. What could she discover about herself that she didn’t know before?

In other words, Nadine couldn’t just haul herself off to an adventure in the woods because she was bored (or because it was convenient for me). I wrote six more drafts before finding the current opening, which I think was the third one I actually sent to her. The middle didn’t change at all, and the ending only needed a bit of tweaking.

5.  How long did it take to get your contract?  

I don’t remember, exactly, but I know she didn’t take the story to acquisitions until I’d sent it back to her two or three more times. The fact that she was willing to hang in there, trying to coax a better story from my head, is something I’ll always be grateful for.

6.  How long did it take for the book to come out?

Five years. It was accepted for publication in May of 2009 and released into the world in May of 2014. 

7.  Can you tell us a little about how you got notified about your winning the Crystal Kite for the midwest?  And now what? Does it go on to compete further?

I voted in Round 1, then forgot about it until a few weeks later, when I saw on Facebook (or somewhere) that Round 2 voting had opened. When I clicked into the SCBWI site and saw I AM COW pictured, my stomach flip-flopped. I voted again and tried to put it out of my mind. A few weeks later, I received an e-mail one afternoon from Lin and Steve. I AM COW had won the Midwest Region. *falls out of chair* There’s no further competition. The 15 authors whose books are regional winners are invited to submit a keynote proposal for one of the big conferences next year. From those proposals, one will be selected. No pressure or anything. 

8.  Do you find that the longer you have done the writing process (the more you practice) that it becomes easier?  Or not really?

I wouldn’t say the writing gets easier. What gets easier is understanding the process itself and growing comfortable with it. After 18 years of writing, I now go into every new story knowing my first draft will suck and that revision is where magic happens. Or not. Experience also tells you when a story just isn’t cutting it and never will. Does that mean writing it was a waste of time? Not if you learned something from the doing.

9.  Any advice to the aspiring author?
The same stuff you’ll hear anywhere:
1.  Learn all you can from books about the craft.
2   Read/study what’s being published in your genre.
3.  Write, write, write.
4.  Join a critique group.
5.  If you aren’t a member of SCBWI, join right this minute.

Above all, truly understand that there’s no shortcut to publication. If you aren’t up for years of hard work and rejection, run away now. 

Thanks Jill! That was so insightful. I'm going to put in a plug for your next picture book - ELWOOD BIGFOOT - WANTED:  BIRDIE FRIENDS! coming September 1st from Sterling (available NOW for preorder). 

To learn more about Jill, visit her website:

REVIEW: I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo

Brave Nadine is an accidental example to all of us, of a strong female character. Nadine goes off into the woods, and gets swept away by her own bravery. Written in rhyme, this is sure to be a hit with anyone who is obsessed cows (like my son) or loves humor. Nadine show us the definition of courage -- which means you can feel scared, but can still act courageously.
Nadine also won for Best Female Character, in the picture book oscars:

Friday, May 29, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Guess Again by Mac Barnett

Can you guess who this is?  Or what?  Read the clues -- they'll get you nowhere!  As a substitute teacher and media-librarian, I loved reading this book aloud to the kids. It's great for a break, or to calm kids down, or GRAB their attention and get them focused again!  I could have read this to the kids three times in a row and they wouldn't have cared. They are totally enthralled. I love it for the humor. If you are looking for ideas for books to read aloud (in classrooms or bedrooms) this is a great one!

Grandpa Ned.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mac Barnett

I got to meet Mac Barnett!  Of course it was one of those days, where I was planning my daughter's sweet 16 surprise party, had an open house to attend, but also wanted to see Mac Barnett -- who was 45 minutes away.  But it was a now or never type of opportunity, so I got in my van and started driving. I was hoping to get there before the even started, to get an autographed book of Guess Again (a perfect book to read aloud when substitute teaching), my favorite of Mac's books.

I pulled into Beaverdale Books, and who should be getting out of his vehicle but... you guessed it, Mac. And I got to park right next to him (his rental)! That alone was exciting!  But then I got to meet him, and ask him how he got started.  He said that while at college, he had read a book called The Stinky Cheese Man, and that made him want to be a children's writer. He loved that book. When he graduated with his English degree, he wanted to try his hand at writing for children. If that didn't work out, then he was going to pursue his Ph.d.  Needless to say, Mac did not go back for his doctorate, because one day he was telling his friend about his desire to write, and that The Stinky Cheese Man had inspired him to do so. His friend replied, "That's my dad" (Jon Scieszka, who wrote the book). What luck!  So he gave her a manuscript to give to her dad to read, and her dad passed it along to Steven Malk, his agent. Needless to say the rest is history. Steven Malk then became Mac's agent, and sold his first book, Billy Twitters and his blue whale problem

I did really love one thing that Mac said. "Picture books are a genre, not a form." In other words, they do no have a strict formula to follow. You can break the rules.

By the way, I did get back in time to surprise my daughter, and it was a really lovely party.