Tuesday, June 23, 2015

MEM FOX: SCBWI Pre-conference Interview

I'm so thrilled to be able to bring beloved picture book author MEM FOX to the blog. 

 Mem Fox is a retired Associate Professor of Literacy Studies and also Australia's most highly regarded picture book author.  Her first publication, Possum Magic is the best-selling children's book in Australia. This year marks its thirty-second in print, still available in hardback. She has written many other internationally best-selling books including Time for Bed, Where Is The Green Sheep?, and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. She has also written several nonfiction books for adults, including her renowned book for parents: Reading Magic. She lives in Adelaide, Australia, but travels constantly as an advocate for literacy. 

Over the many years I've been attending SCBWI conferences, time and time again I've heard editor extraordinaire Allyn Johnston say, "If you want to write picture books study the work of Mem Fox."

This summer we get to hear directly from her. What a treat!

Not only that, but she took time to answer a few questions before the conference for all of us. 

How has your writing process changed (if at all) since you began your writing career?

My writing process hasn’t changed at all over the years, which is to say I probably write for a total of about four weeks a year. Most of my writing occurs in my head, in my subconscious, most of the time. In other words I work constantly, but not on paper or on the computer. I still handwrite a lot. My brain works more contemplatively with a pencil in my hand: it slows the speed of thought, which is hugely beneficial for my creativity.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The best piece of 'wakey-wakey!' advice came from my first publisher, before my first book came out: ‘Writing is a business not a hobby.’ I’m grateful to have been given that advice. It has concentrated my mind on writing the best books possible. Wasting two years on writing a 400 word picture book that doesn’t sell is irritating and chastening, and bad for the bank balance.

A small number of lucky conference attendees are registered for your intensive class. You, along with editor extraordinaire Allyn Johnston, will be discussing the importance of rhythm in picture books. For the majority of us who will not spend those three hours fully immersed with the two of you, can you give us a thought, suggestion, or tip as it relates to rhythm in our stories?

Glorious art and high-end writing are essential in any picture book, and by 'high-end' writing I mean prose in which every syllable counts. Word choice is crucial, such as the choice between beneath and under. Both have two syllables and mean the same thing, but one has a slow beats and the other has fast beats, and if you can’t tell the difference you’ll spoil the sentence you’re trying to get right. Musically, it’s about composing with crotchets, quavers and minims; but if that’s unfamiliar territory, we’re talking about the sort of speed and weight of words. It’s so hard to explain. Sometimes I wonder if having a sense of rhythm in writing is a case of 'you either have it or you don’t'. I’m not sure whether this essential, deep-seated sense of rhythm can be taught. It has to be caught by hearing rhythmically perfect prose and poetry, and speaking it aloud. I’m thinking of anything from the King James version of the Bible to Dr Seuss, to folk songs and children’s clapping rhymes. Rhythm has to be in the marrow of our bones and we’ll only know if it’s in our writing by reading aloud every phrase and sentence, then every sentence and paragraph, as we write. I am a re-writer of phrases to the point of madness and despondency. I draft as I go, not at the end of the first draft. Often the beginning of a book has more drafts than the rest of it put together, for the sake of the right rhythm. I re-wrote the first paragraph of Possum Magic 23 times before I was happy with it. (That worked!)

You mention on your website that you write three to four books at a time and that it has taken you up to two years to revise a picture book (I’m certain that resulted in many, many drafts). Do you find there’s an often-overlooked aspect when writers revise? And, how do you know when the book is hitting all the right notes and you’re ready to hit send?

These are hard questions. I’ve been rabbiting on about the importance of rhythm, but perfect rhythm counts for nothing if the characters, setting and plot don’t speak to the child. Too many of us write children’s picture books to please our adult friends. We forget that our main aim and focus should be capturing the child’s mind and heart. So when we’re revising, the question too rarely asked, and probably most often overlooked, is this: 'Would a child give a damn about this book?’

As for knowing when the book is ready! Hmmm. It’s different with every book, but in general (and I hope this isn’t going to sound crazy) the hairs on your arms have to stand up. 

Watch for Mem's forthcoming book NELLIE BELLE, coming later this year. 

Follow Mem on Twitter: @MemFox1

And, if you want to find great advice from Mem, check out her wonderful website

Today is the last day (June 23) to register for the conference at early bird prices. Don't miss your chance to see Mem Fox. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Emma D. Dryden: A Pre-#NY15SCBWI Interview

Registration for the SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC is well underway. If you’re attending, or planning to attend, you also have the opportunity to register for one of the great intensives taking place on Friday, February 6. Spots are going fast, and the Writers’ Intensive: World Building: A Hands-On Workshop is almost sold out.


 If registering for this intensive is in your plans, don’t delay. Register now. 

If you’re still considering, I have just the person you’ll want to hear from: the fabulous Emma D. Dryden, who will be moderating the World Building intensive. Emma is the founder of drydenbks, a premier children’s editorial and publishing consultancy firm. Emma has edited over a thousand books for children and young readers and many of her titles hit bestseller lists in USA Today, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Publishers Weekly. Books published under Emma’s guidance have received numerous awards and medals, including but not limited to, the Newbery Medal, Newbery Honor, and Caldecott Honor.

Emma took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about the nearly sold out World Building Intensive. 

Jolie: Each year, the SCBWI precedes the winter conference with several great intensives. For writing we typically see a new focus each year. This year's: World Building: A Hands-on Workshop. While the idea of focusing on World Building for a entire day sounds amazing, I'm even more drawn by the hands-on aspect of this intensive. Can you share more about what participants can plan to experience as well as walk away with at the end of the day? 

Emma: I’m all about writers deepening their craft at every opportunity, and that includes new writers as well as writers who’ve been writing and publishing for many years. So saying, I’m a huge fan of any workshop, session, or intensive that provides opportunities for writers to actually do some WRITING. Impromptu writing, based on writing prompts or provocative questions, not only forces writers to write with abandon and with their internal editor turned off, but can also spark new ideas or perspectives for writers that they hadn’t thought of before. It can be quite exciting and revealing. So, in our World Building session, several of us will be guiding the attendees through some writing exercises specific to their current works-in-progress and specific to the concept of world building. By the end of the day, not only will writers walk away with helpful handouts and heads full of ideas, but they will walk away with some pieces of writing that may find their way into their manuscripts in some form—writing they might not have achieved otherwise. 

Jolie: I agree. There’s nothing better than an opportunity to do some writing, and I love that you say participants could write something they might not have otherwise. The other added bonus is that participants will have the opportunity to share their ideas and work though world-building strategies with industry experts. Can you tell us more about the critique opportunity? 

Emma: The writing exercises that will be discussed during the round table portions of the intensive are going to be based on Henry Neff's S.P.R.I.T.E. acronym which he'll be describing in his opening session. Honestly, I don't think there will be intensive or scary critiques of the writing exercises as much as discussion about the writing exercises insofar as this means a discussion about where people are with world building in their own manuscripts. The round tables will be a chance for all the attendees to, using Henry's exercise as a guide, discuss their world building techniques, questions, thoughts, to identify what work they need to do to deepen or authenticate their world building, and to get professional feedback and guidance in that setting. 

Jolie: That sounds invaluable. Is World Building focused only on fantasy and science fiction?

Emma: Not at all. Really paying attention to the details of world building is essential for the success of any story, be it fantasy or realistic, fiction, nonfiction, historical, or contemporary. How one character perceives the world in which they live, even if it’s meant to be our “here and now,” is going to be quite different from how another character perceives that very same world. Additionally, we often overlook the fact that world building consists not only of the details and facets of the world in which a story takes place, but also within our characters themselves. Just as a physical, geographic world has texture, landscape, and topography, so too does a character—and it’s just as important to explore and build the internal world of a character (the emotional, psychological, spiritual architecture of the character) as it is to explore and build the external world in which that character functions, emotes, perceives, and lives. 

Jolie: The Intensive description states that all children's book authors are welcome, but might you have advice about where writers should with their writing projects (concept only, ready to revise, submission ready, etc.)?

Emma: First, it’s important to note that world building is the architecture of any story, and world building happens at different levels in picture books, in novels, in non-fiction, and in fiction, so we trust writers who are not writing sci-fi or fantasy will see the value in this session. If writers are at the early concept stage, this intensive will help them focus on what questions they need to ask themselves in order to start figuring out the details of the external and internal worlds of their stories and characters. If writers are further along in the process, ready to revise or re-revise a completed manuscript, this intensive will help them sharpen their world building skills and assist them in spotting the places in their work where more external and internal world building may need to be teased out, developed, or fine-tuned. If writers are coming to this intensive with the feeling their work is submission-ready, I suspect this intensive will provide them with a kind of world building checklist that is likely to send those writers back to their manuscripts for at least one more round of revision! ☺ 

 Jolie: Thank you so much, Emma.

Emma also shared several related blog posts if you’re interested in a bit more reading about world building. The first two are from Emma’s blog, “our stories, ourselves,” and the third gives a sneak-preview of what Henry Neff will be talking about during the intensive.




You can also find and follow Emma and drydenbks on Twitter (@drydenbks) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/drydenbks)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Executive Editor Jill Santopolo: #LA14SCBWI Interview

Your opportunity to take advantage of early-bird registration is ending soon. Save a little by registering for the conference on or before June 15. 

Whether you're already registered, or planning on doing so soon, do consider adding the Monday intensives to your conference schedule. The intensives are just as they sound: concentrated, intimate, and valuable. 

Photo Credit: Michele Arlotta
One of the faculty members who will be leading an intensive is Jill Santopolo. I've had the pleasure of learning from Jill in many settings: retreat, intensive, conference break-out, and she is fantastic. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn from not only an executive editor but a successful author. Learn more about her intensive in the interview below.

Jill Santopolo is an executive editor at Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, a division of Penguin Random House. Her list includes many award-winning and New York Times best-selling authors including T.A. Barron, Floyd Cooper, Andrea Cremer, Olivier Dunrea, Lisa Graff, Alex London, Erin Moulton and Jane Yolen. Jill holds an MFA in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is the author of the Alec Flint series (Scholastic), the Sparkle Spa series (S&S), and the Follow Your Heart series (Puffin).  
It’s so great to see you’re part of the faculty for this summer’s conference. You were so well received at the winter conference. 

It’s so great to be part of the faculty! I had such a great time talking plot at the winter conference—I’m excited to go even more in-depth this time around.

At the winter conference you were part of the full-day plot intensive (with other editors and writers), and in LA you will be offering a 3-hour plot intensive. For those considering registering for the intensives who should hurry to grab up a spot before they’re gone?

I think my plot intensive will be helpful for writers in two different places in their book-writing process. First, I think it’ll help writers who have a nugget of an idea and want to flesh it out into a fully-formed story arc before they begin a first draft. Second, I think it’ll help writers who have written a first draft, but feel like the story is murky in the middle, or who have been getting feedback that not much happens or that there’s a lack of tension in their manuscript. The plot intensive should help writers in that second category diagnose plot problems and prepare them to tackle a plot-focused revision.

Can you give us just a peek inside your 3-hour intensive, From Beginning to End: Tips on Plotting Your Plot? 

Absolutely! We’re going to start small and go bigger and bigger and bigger, with a ton of exercises along the way. When people leave the intensive, they should have: An elevator pitch, a synopsis, a broad plot outline, a detailed plot outline, an emotional heartline, a story timeline, and a chapter-by-chapter manuscript outline, which should be the perfect jumping off point for beginning either a first draft or a revision.

I know many of those in attendance in NY felt your talk on plot helped them rethink their synopses. Perhaps this was an unexpected connection. Do you think some of your plotting tools are also helpful for synopsis writing?

 I don’t think the connection was unexpected at all. I think plotting and synopsis writing are similar because they both require breaking down the novel’s action in different ways. In fact, writing a synopsis will be part of the plot intensive.

Do you feel there is an element of plot that is often lacking or missing altogether in submission you receive?

I don’t think there’s anything that’s often missing altogether, but I do find that often the rising action could use some extra attention. A writer I once worked with told me that his mother, who was a writer herself, taught him that he had to torture his protagonist. It’s hard to do that sometimes, but when plots really work it tends to be because a protagonist keeps coming up against obstacles over and over again and then has to overcome them in new and different (and exciting) ways.

Are there any books that you’ve worked on that you think have especially well-crafted plots?

I think all of the authors I work with are pretty great plotters, but I’d suggest reading Proxy by Alex London andNightshade by Andrea Cremer if you want to see some extra intense, exciting plotting.

Follow Jill on Twitter @JillSantopolo.

Register for the conference and intensives here. Remember the final day for early-bird pricing is June15th. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Kate Messner: Pre-#NY14SCBWI Interview

Kate Messner is the award-winning author of more than twenty current and forthcoming books for young readers. Kate’s titles include picture books like Over and Under the Snow, the Marty McGuire chapter book series, and middle grade novels like Wake Up Missing, Capture The Flag, and Hide And Seek. Kate’s books have been honored with the E.B. White Read Aloud Medal, and SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text; included on the New York Times Notable, ALSC Notable, CBC Outstanding Trade Books for Science, and Bank Street College’s Best Books for Children lists; and nominated for fourteen state book awards.  Kate spoke at the 2012 TED Conference and is a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and conferences for writers and educators. Find her on Twitter @KateMessner and at www.katemessner.com.

You were a middle school teacher, and, at least for a time, both writer and teacher. Can you share with us how teaching has influenced your writing, and how you balanced the two?

I spent fifteen years teaching middle school English and put, quite literally, thousands of books in kids’ hands during those years.  Handing a student that “just-right” book was one of my favorite parts of my job, and it led to me think a lot about what makes kids love a novel.  That’s one of the things that got me writing more seriously while I was teaching. In those days, my writing time was from about nine o’clock at night until midnight, and that’s how my first half dozen books were written.

Visiting schools to give presentations and do writing workshops with kids is still one of my favorite parts of my job. People ask me sometimes how I get the kids in my books to sound like real kids, and for me, it comes down to knowing how kids talk and think and what it feels like to be twelve. I still have all of those students’ voices in my head and their dreams and hopes and worries in my heart.

You have written many books for kids, ranging from picture books to novels. Is your process for each format the same, or does it change depending on the project?

It’s different for every project, and while I wish I could tell you that I have a “picture book process” or “novel-writing process” down pat, even that isn’t true.  While I do have a very general process (think and research – draft fast – revise fearlessly again and again) I’ve found that every book is different in what it demands of me.  If they’re at all unique, books can’t follow a cookie-cutter process, so I find myself inventing new planning and revision tools for every new book, and they’re not always useful later on.

Case in point: my science thriller WAKE UP MISSING has a main character with a concussion, which makes her narration shaky and unreliable at times. She’s receiving treatment through part of the book but not other parts, and when I was revising, I was worried that her actions and thoughts weren’t consistent with her post-concussion symptoms. The solution? I designed a chapter-day-symptom-treatment-thinking-emotion chart so that I could track, chapter by chapter, whether or not Cat’s symptoms were making sense with the other elements of the story. It was incredibly useful and helped me solve a lot of problems with that book, but is it going to come in handy again? Probably not!

In 2012 your picture book OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for picture book text. Can you share a little about that experience and the role SCBWI has played in your writing life?

I still remember getting that phone call from Lin Oliver. I was actually in California at the time, getting ready for the TED Talk I gave in 2012. Hearing all the other speakers at TED that week was a gift of an experience and I was quite literally walking back to my hotel room after one of the speaker sessions, thinking “Days don’t get much better than this,” when my cell phone rang and...well...the day got even better. Learning that OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW won the Golden Kite Award for picture book text was one of the most exciting things that’s happened in my writing life because it comes from my fellow writers in an organization that really forms the heart of our community. The New England SCBWI Conference is where I attended my first writing workshops and learned about agents and editors. It’s where I was inspired by speakers like Bruce Coville and Laurie Halse Anderson and Cynthia Lord.  It’s where I met my first writer pals – who are now not just critique buddies but some of my best friends in the world. So yes...that Golden Kite phone call made me a little weepy in the best possible way.

At the upcoming conference, you’ll be giving keynote, but you’ll also be presenting at the sold-out Plot Intensive. Do you tend to start your projects with plot?

I’m learning, answering your questions, that there aren’t a lot of “usuallys” in my writing world because my ideas come to me in all different shapes. SUGAR AND ICE, for example, started with character and setting – a figure skater and a maple farm. CAPTURE THE FLAG started with genre and setting – I remember thinking, “I want to write a mystery set in a snowed-in airport!” and taking it from there.  And Marty McGuire, of course, is all about character – Marty herself.

But plot is such an essential piece of the puzzle for any book we want kids to keep reading, so whether or not it’s the starting point, it’s something I always spend lots of time on. Usually, my plot outlines start out incredibly rough – a few scribbled lines in a notebook. From there, I do a rough outline in Scrivener, the writing software I use, and then I start writing.  Most days, after I write a scene or two, I go back and revise my outline, so it’s not a strict guideline but more of a fluid document that changes as I grow to understand my characters more fully. Plot that doesn’t grow out of character often feels forced to me, so it’s not often helpful for me to think about the two as if they’re separate elements of writing. I absolutely love to talk about planning and plotting, though, so I’m incredibly excited for the plot intensive. Any time I participate in a group workshop like this, I always learn so much preparing for my talk, and then on the day of the event, I inevitably learn at least as much as I teach. It should be a terrific day!

You can still register for the upcoming SCBWI Winter Conference HERE. It's right around the corner!