Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Author Interview with Nathan Bransford

Nathan Bransford, kidlit author and former agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., writes an industry blog I've been following for awhile. Lately, Nathan has also been blogging about his new book, JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW (Dial). This middle grade novel is a fun read and it presents outer space exploration as a whimsical and worthwhile adventure for its three main characters.  

Interviewing Nathan, I learned he is from Colusa, California, a small farming town in the Central Valley. Of his childhood, Nathan remembers spending a lot of time riding around rice fields with his dad and having what he calls a “very quintessential small town experience,” which included riding bikes around town, attending Friday night high school football games, and being in a place where everyone knew everyone. He studied English at Stanford and now lives in San Francisco. 

How did you decide you wanted to be a kidlit author?
I just had the idea for Jacob Wonderbar and decided to go with it. It wasn't something I really planned. 

How do you craft humor for a middle grade audience?
I try as much as possible to remember the things I thought was funny around that time. And I also believe we have an inner-ten-year-old inside us, and I try to channel it as much as possible. 

In JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, you created three distinct main characters. We have Jacob Wonderbar, who acts out on his private angst. We have Sarah, who tries hard to be the anti-girlie girl. And we have Dexter, who plays it safe but rises to the occasion. How were you able to establish three different points of views for Jacob, Sarah, and Dexter?
It takes a lot of work, and is something I find somewhat difficult. It's one thing to have a character and to know their traits, but when you're telling the novel from three different perspectives, you really have to get inside the characters' heads. It just takes time and writing. I think you kind of get to know the characters as you go along and then need to go back and revise the beginning based on what you learn.

On Planet Paisley, the resident substitute teachers are portrayed as scary aliens. What kind of experiences with substitute teachers have you had growing up?    
Haha, I actually had great subs growing up, though I definitely remember as a kid finding subs to be somewhat strange. As a kid you get so used to the predictability of your teacher being there every day, and all of a sudden without any advance warning some new person will arrive and throw your day in an unpredictable direction. It kind of felt like an alien had just shown up, no matter how good the sub was. 

How much did you have to read up on outer space and space travel before you wrote this book?
I actually took a class in college called "Cosmic Horizons," which was about the physics of the universe (and possibly multi-verse). My professor was an expert in (hope I'm getting this right) multi-planar and multi-dimensional fields and how there may be sections of the universe with more dimensions than the ones we're used to. It basically broke my brain.

But I threw all that out with "Jacob Wonderbar." In order for the novel to make sense, the kids would have to be traveling literally trillions of miles an hour and moving many times the speed of light as they're flying around the universe. I like to think of it as cartoon physics, sort of like the Road Runner cartoons. If I got bogged down in explaining the physical (im)possibilities of how the kids are flying around space, I think I'd lose my audience.

What's next for you and Jacob Wonderbar?
The next book in the series, JACOB WONDERBAR FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSE, is coming out in the spring of 2012, and I'm working on (tentative title) JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE INTERSTELLAR TIME WARP.

What are some of your favorite kidlit books and authors?

Everything by Roald Dahl, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS by Scott O'Dell, MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN by Jean Craighead George, the Calvin & Hobbes comics, BY THE GREAT HORNSPOON by Sid Flesichman, and HARRY'S MAD by Dick King-Smith.

Thanks for the opportunity!

You’re welcome, Nathan!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Fess Up Friday: I Don't Know If I'll Get Published

I'm going to sound like a fortune cookie  when I say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, so says Lao Tzu. And I took my first step! I finally finished the first draft for this YA novel I've been working on for quite awhile. I'm not popping the apple cider yet because  my story needs A LOT of revision, but I'm grateful I've come this far.

The thing about writing any book is once you start telling non-writers you're writing a book, or you've just completed a manuscript, the next question will often be: So when will your book be published?  I usually respond: I still have a ton of writing and/or revision to do OR I need to find an agent OR I need to find an editor. And the next time I run into the non-writer, the well-intentioned question might resurface: Why aren't you published yet?

I sincerely welcome all questions people have for me about my work as an aspiring author. I also understand that unless someone's also a writer or they work in the publishing industry, they might not be familiar with the multi-year process spanning from the lightbulb-over-the-head moment to the tangible finished product sitting on a shelf at the bookstore.

The truth is, I don't know if I'd ever be published. The uncertainty is part of the territory when you're an unpublished author. In my journey to be a published author, I've gone through periods where I'd get sidetracked by other pursuits or challenges. But a few incidents helped me get back on track. Let me share one of them:

Years ago, I was at the library hanging out in the writers section (surprise surprise). There was an elderly gentleman who was also browsing in that area. We struck up a conversation and I found him real sharp and witty, like a cool grandpa kind of a character. He also knew a lot about writers and the craft of writing.  He said he even met Stephen King at some writers convention. Being that he was browsing through the writers section, I thought it was fair to ask if he was working on a book. He said he had done some writing but never showed his work to an industry professional or tried getting anything published. I asked him, why not?

His response: He was afraid people wouldn't like what he wrote.

So this gentleman could have the Next Great American Novel saved in his laptop, and the world would never get to read it because of his fear of rejection and negative criticism.

This incident was a wake-up call. If I want to be a published author, I need to go all the way. Even if I get rejected. Even if I get negative criticism. I need to have the satisfaction of knowing I put 110% of myself into making it happen. Even if I don't ever get published. (Wistful sigh.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Passage's Children's Writers & Illustrators Conference 2011

Over the weekend, I attended Book Passage bookstore's annual Children's Writers & Illustrators Conference in Corte Madera, CA. This was my first Book Passage conference and it was worth every penny. The support I got from the cozy community of writers, illustrators, and attending faculty members made me feel all warm and fuzzy, as opposed to my sometimes dark and edgy YA self. 

I stayed at the Marin Suites, located right next to the plaza where the conference was held. So walking to the bookstore from the hotel took less than five minutes, which was a huge plus. 

On the first day, Chip Gibson, president and publisher of Random House Children's Books, kicked off the event by giving a couple of presentations on publishing and industry trends. One of the most reassuring tidbits Chip shared was that his house has not been publishing less books even though so many Borders stores are closing. When asked if YA lit must have romance, Chip replied, "I don't think so. I want more zombie sharks." Amen!

I enjoyed ALL the workshops I sat in on. Here are some notes on what I learned in a few of them:

Laura Rennert, a senior agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, gave tips on PB writing:
-The story should have a clear, simple plot.
-Focus on the kid's point of view.
-Tell a story that can show an appropriate balance between the text and illustrations. 
-Begin a story with action, with a problem, or in the middle of a situation.
-Be upbeat, even when writing about sensitive or sad topics. The ending should be emotionally uplifting.
-Do your homework- read picture books!

MG and YA author Kristen Tracy asked us to list some universal teen experiences. Then she encouraged us to look for these five things when we start a YA novel: plot, characterization, point of view, setting, and theme. She distributed a handout featuring the beginnings of a bunch of YA novels, including her own books, LOST IT and A FIELDGUIDE FOR HEARTBREAKERS. We skimmed through the story beginnings, and located the allusions to teen experiences and the aforementioned five elements. The point of the activity was to make us more aware of what we read, 'cause you know what they say about good readers being good writers.

PB, MG, and YA author AND Newbery Honor winner Gennifer Choldenko gave points to consider when creating a fantasy world:
-Are you a good match for the world you're creating?
-When you're creating names, objects, and places, do they sound like they belong to that world? Do names have a certain rhythm? Be specific about names of objects (e.g. Nimbus 2000).
-When you transition into a fantasy world, have something scary happen right away so the reader doesn't have a chance to freak out over being in a fantasy world. 
-Keep in mind that stories of fantasy can capture dramatic/emotional changes a person is going through.  
-Knowing the atmosphere of your world will help you understand what you are creating.

For anyone who's interested, next year's Children's Writers & Illustrators Conference at Book Passage will run from June 21-24, and those who sign up early will receive a discount on the registration fee. 

UPDATE: The conference dates have been changed to June 14-17. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Author Interview with Anne Ylvisaker

When I begin reading Anne Ylvisaker’s DEAR PAPA (Candlewick Press) or THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS (Candlewick Press), both middle grade books, I’d feel like I’m picking up an old black-and-white photograph. As the stories draw me in, the people and objects in the photograph begin to move as the depicted historical period comes to life in full color. Anne’s books easily immerse me into a different time period and the lives of her young protagonists living in them. Anne was very gracious about letting me interview her for my blog.

A native of Minneapolis, Minnnesota, Anne graduated with a degree in Elementary Education from Concordia College in Moorhead and later received an M.A. in Education from St. Scholastica in Duluth. Anne recalls having a tough time deciding on a major back in college. For Anne, one of the perks of teaching elementary school was that she could work with all subjects, so the job was a great fit for her. Today Anne lives in Monterey, California. 


How did you decide you wanted to be a kidlit author?
Kidlit found me more than the other way around, I think. I just wanted to write: letters, grocery lists, journals, stories. After many years in the classroom reading out loud to my students every day, I had children’s literature coursing through my veins. Through a friend, I got a spot in a class taught by the late Judy Delton, a marvelous youth fiction writer. I wrote DEAR PAPA, my first published novel, while in her class.

I wasn’t sure if DEAR PAPA was a children’s novel or not, and Judy advised me to not worry about market while I wrote, to just tell the story and think about how to market it later. Great advice for all writers, I think. Tell the story you have inside, then think about where it could go. I think of DEAR PAPA as a book for all ages, really, and have done programs with readers from elementary school age through senior citizens. When a child reads it and writes to me about it, I feel especially happy because kids are very discerning readers.

How did you come up with the concept of having the entire novel of DEAR PAPA told through letters?
I was visiting my Aunt Betty in Florida and asked her to tell me about her dad, my grandfather, who had died when she was young, and what it was like for her when he died. “I wrote him a letter before he died,” she said. “Let’s find it.” We looked through box after box of photographs and family memorabilia and didn’t find the letter. But along the way, I learned a lot about my family.

When I got home I wondered what a girl like my aunt might have said in a letter to her father, only I misremembered the details and thought she’d said she’d written to him after his death. I’d lost my own father in my 30s, and what I missed the most was not being able to tell him the small details of daily life, so it made sense to me that this girl would have written her father a letter after he died. I made up the first letter, then just kept going one letter at a time, making up the story as I went along.

In THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS, which was just released in April, some of Tugs' family members berate her and cut her down for her successes. Yet I couldn't bring myself to dislike this family. What is your strategy for crafting an occasionally bothersome but endearing family?
Families are a messy business. Every one has its blind spot and the Buttons have a whopper. They take pride in their bumbling ways. It’s their identity. I love the Buttons. They were a family in need of someone to shake up their self-perception and thank goodness Tugs came along to do it. I don’t think their intentions towards Tugs were bad so much as that they were set in their ways and Tugs shook the family tree.

I’m afraid I can’t claim any particular strategy beyond being empathetic towards the characters and having been part of a family. (Disclaimer: the Buttons are not based on my family!) I believe that most families have good intentions when we raise our children, but sometimes our methods are ill advised. So please, children, forgive us!

Why does writing historical fiction appeal to you?
Just as I didn’t set out to write kidlit, I didn’t set out to write historical fiction, but simply to tell the stories of characters who captured my imagination. I get inspiration by looking at old family photographs so it does make sense that the stories land where they do.

DEAR PAPA and LITTLE KLEIN fell very naturally into the 1940s, but with THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS, I tried several different settings from modern to 1976 to the 1930s. I wanted Tugs Button to win a camera. I poked around on the Kodak website and discovered that in 1930, Kodak gave a Brownie camera to every child that turned twelve that year. So I tried setting THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS in 1929 as it would have been more of a novelty for Tugs to win her camera before every one of her peers had one. That’s the year that really felt right for the story, so it stuck.

My next book is also set in 1929 but after that, who knows? 

What are the elements of compelling historical fiction?
I think the elements that make historical fiction compelling are the same ones that make any book compelling: a distinct voice, a protagonist you want to root for, and an intriguing storyline. Historical fiction has the added fun of interesting and quirky details of daily life in earlier eras. The themes of growing up are universal and I think kids connect with characters from any era when they recognize the emotions they have in common. 
How do you research a particular time period?
Since my stories are not based on particular historical events, my research is an exercise in learning about the nuances of every day life in a particular year. I read newspapers, listen to music, and interview people who remember the era. I look at photographs, and scour ads in magazines and newspapers.

I have a great reference book that tells year-by-year what was happening in the world, so I learn who was born and died in certain years, what events were influencing the world and culture in literature, art, music, movies, and politics. Some of those details make it into the story, most do not, but all help me know the characters better and settle my mind into a particular year.

What are your favorite historical fiction books in kidlit?
For most of the books that spring to mind I have to stop and think whether they are “historical fiction” or not. For instance, HARRIET THE SPY (a fave) was modern at the time it was written so I suppose it’s not historical fiction. So here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite kidlit books in general: A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO, A YEAR DOWN YONDER and FAIR WEATHER by Richard Peck, STUART LITTLE by E.B. White, SEEDFOLKS by Paul Fleischman, WHAT I CALL LIFE by Jill Wolfson, MY ONE HUNDRED ADVENTURES by Polly Horvath, THE WHIPPING BOY by Sid Fleischman, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg, A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle, and OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse. I could keep going on and on through my bookshelf. So many favorites! Just starting to list these few makes me want to dive in and read all the way through my shelves again. Then there are new books coming out all the time. I guess I’ll stop here and get back to reading! Oh, and writing.

Thanks for the opportunity to chat about writing, Cynthia, and best wishes on your journey!

Thanks Anne, for your support and for chatting with me!

Feel free to check out Anne’s web site at www.anneylvisaker.com or her Facebook author page at www.facebook.com/AnneYAuthor

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Art of the Cliffhanger

When I write, I often reflect on ways to end my chapters with cliffhangers.  From my own experience as a bookworm, I'm sold on a cliffhanger if it keeps me glued to my seat even when I really need to get up and pee. Instead of giving away a bunch of book spoilers here and potentially annoying a bunch of readers, I'm going to illustrate some elements of solid cliffhangers by dishing on TV shows I've watched. The concepts behind these TV cliffhangers can very well be used in writing:

1. Introduction of a threat or dilemma
Season finales for television shows are a goldmine for cliffhangers. Here's what happened at the end of this recent season of Desperate Housewives: At the Solis house, Carlos kills Gabby's creepy stepfather and the rest of the housewives help him cover it up. Minutes later, the  rest of the neighbors arrive to have dessert at the Solis house. As guests nibble on cheesecake, the camera pans to a big wooden chest in the living room where the body is being kept.
The cliffhanger: What happens if Carlos and the housewives get caught? Each of these people  have a lot to lose if their role in this crime is uncovered. Still, Carlos could truthfully argue he was protecting his wife from an attack.

2. Unexpected twists
Speaking of season finales, this season of Gossip Girl ended with a few twists. Turns out Serena's cousin Charlie isn't really Serena's cousin Charlie, but some con artist named Ivy that Lily's sister hired. Turns out that Vanessa is turning on Dan to make a quick buck off his  secret novel by pretending to be his agent- there has to be a law against stealing someone's book manuscript and "representing" it without the author's permission. Turns out that someone- Blair or Serena- is pregnant. My guess is that it's Blair because she'd just hooked up with Chuck. Unless (and this is VERY WISHFUL THINKING) Blair hooked up with Dan right around that same time and they just haven't aired that footage yet.
The cliffhanger: What is Ivy's plan for returning to New York's Upper East Side? What will the fallout be when Dan's book comes out? And does Blair really have a bun in the oven?

3. Awkward situations
If there was ever a show stocked with awkward situations, it would be Friends. Some of the most talked-about episodes ended with an uncomfortable situation  featuring minimal dialogue over just a few seconds.

Here's another season finale: Ross is about to marry Emily, and he says Rachel's name at the altar instead.
The cliffhanger: The officiant asks Emily something like, "Should I go on?" Awkward!

Then there's the time when Joey and Ross chat at Central Perk about Joey wanting to date a friend's ex-girflfriend. The Cliffhanger: Ross turns to leave and Joey calls out, "It's Rachel." Awkward!

4. Foreshadowing
I never watched Dallas, but I hear the "Who Shot JR?" mystery strung viewers along in one heck of a cliffhanger. What I did watch back in the day was Twin Peaks when the show's pilot kicked off with its "Who Killed Laura Palmer?" mystery. Just typing the name of the show brings me back to  FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper's recorder ramblings and his giddiness over good coffee, Julee Cruise's breathtaking songs, guys in leather jackets, young Audrey's knotted cherry stems, and the slow, deliberating beats of the soundtrack in the background.  The pilot episode opens with the tragic and grisly image of Laura Palmer's corpse wrapped up in plastic. It ends with Laura Palmer's mother having some nightmare where she's visualizing her daughter's killer still being out there, foreshadowing this person will kill again.

The cliffhanger: Danger still lurks in Twin Peaks. Who killed Laura Palmer, and who will die next?    

So here are just some stuff I've noticed about cliffhangers on TV that can also be applied to cliffhangers in books. If anyone wants to share any other ideas behind effective cliffhangers or dish on the shows I mentioned here,  feel free to comment.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Books I Read in May

THE OPPOSITE OF INVISIBLE by Liz Gallagher (Young Adult- Wendy Lamb) A girl is caught in a love triangle between her artist boy friend and a football player at her high school.

TIGER by Jeff Stone (Middle Grade-Yearling) A 12-year old orphan boy gifted in kung fu is forced to escape the Chinese temple he was raised in after his master is murdered.

THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS by Anne Ylvisaker (Middle Grade-Candlewick) Set in 1929, this book is about a 12-year old girl who is suspicious of a charismatic newcomer in her small Iowa town.Check out my author interview.

GUESS AGAIN! by Mac Barnett, Illust. by Adam Rex  (Picture Book-Simon & Schuster) This is a book told in verse and riddles where readers have to guess a person or object being described....and the reader's first guess is guaranteed to be wrong.

ABBY CARNELIA'S ONE & ONLY MAGICAL POWER by David Pogue (Middle Grade-Roaring Brook Press) A sixth grade girl discovers she has an unusual power and is sent to a special magic camp.

I'M NOT CUTE! by Jonathan Allen (Picture Book-Hyperion) A baby owl gets annoyed with other animals who keep calling him cute.