Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Publication Interview with Miriam Busch: Lion Lion

Balzer and Bray, September 30 2014
illustrated by Larry Day

Please describe the book.
The text is minimal – most of the book is a dialogue between a boy and a lion.  The boy is looking for Lion, and the lion is looking for lunch. The lion follows the boy through the neighborhood, refusing every food the boy offers to him.  Readers might wonder: IS THE LION GOING TO EAT THE BOY? WHAT DOES THIS KID MEAN, HE’S LOOKING FOR LION? CAN’T HE SEE THE LION RIGHT THERE?  Lion and boy speak—seemingly at cross-purposes— until a surprise reveals that the boy has everything under control after all.

As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?
This story began as another story entirely: one about a boy-king named Rusty and some lions. The initial story idea came from the illustrator (who had a loose story). He asked me to collaborate. We worked on this story for a couple of years, but after many revisions, it still didn’t work. 
Still, something about it wouldn’t let me go. Months after we scrapped Rusty, I doodled a what-if idea on a diner napkin. Keeping in mind my African travels and childhood around-the-world folktales, I borrowed from Rusty—the first two lines and a lion— but set it on Kenya’s Lake Naivasha. I wrote a different kid – this time, just a clever kid who knows how to be a friend.

Initially, I needed that specific setting to shape the story, but by the time the editor suggested an urban setting, the story was strong enough to let that happen. To me, this change adds to the sense that the boy leaves his home to wander through the neighborhood of his imagination.
In a previous revision, the boy slyly (knowing that the lion would refuse) offered different animals to the lion to eat – the editor suggested the change to the food the animal friends were eating.

This book was truly a collaboration between me and Larry Day. While aiming both for a tongue-in-cheek surprise and entirely interdependent words and pictures, we paid close attention to the interplay of text rhythm and visual rhythm through every revision.

When did you first begin work on it?

When did you finish?

What research was involved before and while writing the book?
I grew up on folk tales from around the world, so while that’s not research, it is background. I cycled through so many animals in the many revisions, and – this sounds silly — I did tons of research on eating habits and habitats. (I wanted to make absolutely sure that the foods the animals were eating would have the necessary irritating effect on the lion.)

Your first book was published in 2009. What have you learned about being an author (v. being a writer) since then?
In no particular order:

  • There is, apparently, a thing called “Strategy” when it comes to publishing – what you debut with makes a difference.  If your first book sells well, editors are more likely to give your next manuscripts a look. (Duh, right? But I didn’t have a clue.)
  • I write across ages and genres. Very smart people have advised me to publish under two different names – one for YA  (and up), one for the younger set.  
  • I’ve learned that agents and editors often move around, and it’s a good idea to pay attention to who’s where. 
  • I’ve learned that while YES, this is a people-driven business, and many times more of a popularity contest than we’d like to believe, there’s room for all sorts of quirky personalities. 
  • And I’ve learned that almost everything is a flash in the pan – bad reviews, good reviews, trends – everything passes. It’s best for my own forward motion to pay only small doses of attention to any of that stuff that’s not in my control. To paraphrase Jane Resh Thomas, “Do your work. It’s the only thing that over which you have any control.”

Where do you do most of your writing?
 These days, I’m at my dining table. (My office is too messy!)

Do you remember the first book you loved?
There were so many! But one of the first was Ruth Krauss and Ellen Raskin’s Mama, I wish I Was Snow; Child, You’d be Very Cold. It is one of the few books I still have from my childhood. I loved that book so much I wanted to dive into it. (As is evidenced by my delicate longing-filled crayon work on the endpapers.) 

Miriam Busch is a January 2014 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She lives in Illinois.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Faculty Voices with Kelly Easton

Kelly Easton

The decision to become a writer was not an easy one. I had a core belief that the purpose of life was to contribute to others in a direct way. In spending my time writing, I couldn’t help the sniggling feeling that I was contributing, primarily, to myself—to my own pleasure principle.  

Since then, life experiences have changed my perspective. I’ve encountered adults who are learning to read for the first time, and have seen their pride and pleasure in entering the world of stories. I volunteered at an “inner city” school, reading picture books to Kindergarteners. Every morning, I had a line of little boys, each one holding his favorite book, learning to love language and pictures. At another school, I volunteered with “at risk” children in an early childhood intervention program, where I met a three year old boy who I will call Jay. I was told that Jay had an intellectual disability, and severe behavior problems. One day, I brought him over to the bookshelf and asked him to pick out a book. After careful deliberation, he picked out two: Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You! and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight, by Jane Yolen.

Yolen’s book asks silly questions about how a dinosaur acts when Papa turns out the light: “Does a dinosaur slam his tail and pout?” The Seuss book, of course, discusses Mr. Brown’s ability to moo, buzz, plop, klop, and Cock a Doodle Do. When I finished, I picked up other books, but he would have none of it. He wanted the same books again. By the time I’d read the books four times, he knew to answer the questions in Yolen’s book: “Nooooo” (until the final “Yes!”). And he knew when to make the sounds with Mr. Brown, especially, “Cock a Doodle Do!”

Each day I volunteered thereafter, Jay ran up to me and said: “Cock a Doodle Do!” That meant it was time to read the books.  Soon, Jay knew every word as I pointed to it. He said them along with me. He did not have an intellectual disability. He was reading.

Last winter, I had a rare opportunity to tell an author how she had made a difference. Jane Yolen was our graduation speaker, and I told her the story of Jay, and how much delight he had gotten from her book. As writers, we rarely know the impact we make. Still, rest assured that we can change the world in our own way, especially when we write for children. One book at a time. One person at a time.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Alumni Voices with Melinda R. Cordell: Secrets of the Trade: The Wisecrack Notebook

My favorite books have characters that spout wisecracks that make me laugh aloud, or those that capture the tiny details of life so clearly that I feel like I’m actually there with the main character, seeing those details. I want to write books like that. But then I look at my draft and get so frustrated because those neat details and wisecracks aren’t anywhere in sight!

But I have a notebook: A word-hoard that’s packed full of the smart and funny things that people say. And when I get frustrated with my limited attempt, I open that notebook up.
 Girl: Every day with you is an eye-opener, except I’m all like, “I really wish I hadn’t seen that.”

People are always funnier, cooler, and crazier than we give them credit for, and our favorite books have characters that reflect that. These books winnow the best and most interesting bits out of life. That's where this notebook is going to be a huge help.

This guy is on the lookout for cool stuff -- and you can be too.
So in this notebook, I write down all those things that I wish I’d said – quotes, overheard conversations, wisecracks, random signs, lines from songs or poems. I will actually take the time to go through my journals and transcribe lines from that notebook to this other one to be sure I have everything I've written down. I'm a disorganized gal, so this is pretty big news.

“Maybe I can use this in a novel,” I think, and sometimes I can. So here’s a story about a guy who was arrested for bulldozer racing. Or here’s a news article about two would-be carjackers foiled by the mysteries of the stick shift. Or Grandpa Eldon musing, "That Bonnie ... she really knew how to throw dishes." Write it all down, because you never know – maybe your next story will need it.

Sixth-grade girl: I told him to bring it. So he brought it! And then he went home crying to his mom!

When I have a decent draft of a story, I like to go through the manuscript at random. Wherever my cursor lands, I see if I can fit in some lines out of this notebook. If the little bit of funny doesn’t fit in, I take it out and put in a different one. But if it does fit, it makes the language in the story so much livelier and unexpected. Even better yet, once in a while this little throwaway detail fits in just right, and then it branches out through the story in a million unexpected ways.

Boy (running): I can’t stop, Dad, Darth Vader is on my tail!

Another thing that’s fun to do is to secretly take notes when your target audience is around. This is tricky, because with kids, one or two of them get wise to you pretty quick. But boy, the conversations they have are just about the best you’ll hear anywhere.

(Two kids are playing.)
Katy: Give me your jacket.
Sophie: Not in a million years!
Katy (intoning): A million years later….

You can also have somebody help you write dialogue. Sometimes I ask my husband for good lines and he’ll come up with some zingers that I never would have come up with on my own. And asking somebody else for dialogue help gives your character a more distinctive voice – because I have a problem with all of my characters sounding like smarter versions of me.

Husband (at 2 a.m.): Why didn’t Captain Picard ask him to sign that book?
Me (half-asleep): What on earth are you talking about?
Husband: That episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where they went back in time and met Samuel Clemens. Picard could have asked him to sign a book.
Me (groggy): That would have violated the Prime Directive.
Husband: But he could have made a shtload of money!
Me: Just go to sleep, dear.

Borrowing from others is a good way for me to stretch myself and get away of the same old stuff that keeps rattling around in my mind. Poetry readings are great places to pick up great lines from your buddies. Don’t plagiarize, of course – but you can find many diamonds in the rough that you can cut into a style that fits your story. “I experiment with others’ voices because I get tired of my own,” as one of the Gang of Poets said. A noble goal, indeed.

Melissa: I probably broke all the rules of poetry in this poem.
Dave: That’s the spirit!

But it doesn’t all have to be funny. You can collect serious quotes as well – especially if the quotes fit one of your works-in-progress in some way. Often when I’m listening to audiobooks and I hear a quote, I scribble down a short phrase. Then later I do a Google search for that phrase, then copy and paste as much of the quote as I need into a document dedicated to these quotes. (If the book isn’t in the public domain, you might find the quote on the GoodReads website.)

“Remorse, even the greatest, has the nature of a debt; if we could only clear the books, we feel that we should be free. But a deep compassion has the nature of love, which keeps no balance sheet; we are no longer our own.”  The Charioteer – Mary Renault

Keep running lists of names you like, first and last, to give you ideas in naming your characters. I also like to collect town names – Hot Coffee, Mississippi has long been my favorite.

Actively collect these things the way a raccoon collects shiny trinkets. Then seed your story with the quotes you’ve collected. You'll win thousands of major awards! Actually, this has not been proven. But you will have fun, and that's a big part of the battle right there.

 Melinda R. Cordell is a 2012 Graduate of the MFAC program. She lives and writes (and eavesdrops) in Missouri. Her book Women Heroes of the Civil War will be published in 2016 by Chicago Review Press.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Faculty Voices with Claire Rudolf Murphy: Home Is Where the Writer Is

Claire Rudolf Murphy
Where is your writing home? For the past week I have returned to visit one of my writing homes, the place where I first began publishing my work – Alaska. I still call it home because some of our dearest friends still live here, memories of teaching in the bush in a Yup’ik village, and raising our children Conor and Meg when I return to this setting in the Northland. This visit feels different because it’s like I am melding several parts of my life. No longer do I just speak about my Alaskan books during presentations, but rather the new ones on women’s suffrage and civil rights. Books I might not have written if Alaska were still my home.

Like me, do you also have several places close to your heart that center your work? Why don’t you take a few minutes today to reflect over your writing life? Hamline MFAC’ers, alums and current students, what brought you to our program? How has your writing life changed because of it? For all readers of this post, where did you start as a writer? Where is your creative home today? Just like other decisions in our lives, we wouldn’t be who we are, wouldn’t write what we do without those places, those settings that have challenged and stimulated us to bring stories to life on the page. I sometimes think that if I hadn’t started writing in Alaska, where anything seems possible and people do things not quite acceptable in the Outside world, that I might not even be a writer today. Maybe I’d still be directing high school plays or teaching college composition. I was a history major in college, but never taught history. Here in Alaska I taught literature, comp and drama. So my love of history was ignited in my writing instead – by the native cultures, the gold rush mentality that pervaded the oil boom, the can-do attitude that anything is possible if you persevere.

Yesterday I visited two schools on Eielson Air Force Base, Crawford Elementary and Eielson High School, and when I signed in for a visitors’ pass the setting changed. Outside the building the big sky and tall mountains still advertised Alaska, but the heightened security that slowed down everyday business could be on any military site in our country. And when I arrived at Crawford Elementary, the enthusiasm for books and writing was high. Kids love to see real writers and to tell you about their writing, too, at most any school in America. At Eielson High School one of my former drama students brought her class. We laughed about the old days and she told me that she now writes too. After school I stopped by North Pole High School where I had produced those musicals so long ago. That auditorium was a creative home for me, too. If I hadn’t directed those productions, I might not have realized my creative potential and been brave enough to try another form – books for kids.

With Mary McFetridge
The day ended with a visit to Mary McFetridge’s classroom at North Pole High School. It was filled with literary quotes, beautiful plants, and family photos – a place where a teen writer could find a home. Mary joined our MFAC program in July and we enjoyed a visit as the fall sun shone through the windows, talking about balancing writing with teaching, critical writing with creative, family with career.

This Saturday I will cheer my husband on during the Equinox marathon. Running is his favorite form of creativity. He used to win this race. Nowadays he is happy just to be running. I like that. I want to be happy writing all my days, even with the cricks and crinks. Mary and I talked about that too. How we have to keep moving, keep writing, even when the words on the page don’t seem very good.

Next week I’ll be back in Spokane working in my current writing home, waiting for the next round of packets from my three hardworking, talent students. But before that, I’ll be trying to write on the airplane and in the airport, too. Let’s find our writing homes wherever, whenever we can.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Alumni Voices with Quinette Cook: Growing Your Circle of Friends

To paraphrase Marsha Qualey, “the good thing about the Hamline MFAC program is the variety of places called home by the students and faculty and the resulting mix of people. The crummy thing is the post-residency (and after graduation) far-flungedness of friends.”

The last time I sat down to work on my novel, writing was still (for the most part) a solitary act. The good news is that your circle of friends and supportive community may be a lot larger than you know.

You’re probably already doing all the right things right. Right? You’re taking classes, writing with consistency (butt in chair) and you’re a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). You’re NOT a member! Why not?

Did you know SCBWI is the only professional organization specifically for writers and illustrators of children’s books? SCBWI can connect you to editors, publishers, agents, librarians, educators, booksellers and others involved with literature for young people, from Board Books to Young Adult novels.

From my very first conference (where I was greeted by Marsha Qualey!) to my current role as Minnesota’s Regional Advisor, I have grown personally and professionally. Thanks to the Hamline faculty, and in particular Ron Koertge, I was prepared to submit my verse novel, GILT, which subsequently won the 2012 Work of Outstanding Promise Honor Award and the attention of my agent. (I won’t lie; I’m still on cloud nine.) Of course it’s great to find an agent or an editor, but there’s so much more!

Your membership to SCBWI gives you access to great events scheduled around the world or in your backyard. In addition, you have access to all kinds of information on the website including a resource library, an illustrator gallery, a member bookstore and a section for awards and grants. But the best thing you will find is other like-minded people. SCBWI is a great way to continue to learn, network and have fun!

Take it from me. Even when you’re sitting in front of your computer working on the final revision to your final-final-final draft, you can bet someone else is too–someone you met in your growing circle of friends.

For more information go to, www.scbwi.org

Quinette Cook is a January 2012 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives and writes near Minneapolis, Minnesota.