Posts Tagged ‘writing fiction’

It’s summer so my blogging is paying the price and that’s alright. But these days one is supposed to never miss an opportunity to ‘engage’ your ‘readers’ or ‘fans’ or just people walking down the sidewalk that you can corner. (Such a Minnesota style snark.)

And this brings us to the topic of self promotion as it applies to kids book authors and illustrators. We all know a few stories on this subject that make our toes curl. This industry is certainly not as bad compared to the world of TV and music. But it seems some people are pushing us there.

And while I understand this is an insane, media saturated world – I’m not convinced that adding to that cacophony is a meaningful goal even while admitting that personal ego gratification is a ‘good high’.

Every published author or illustrator knows that publishers love you to stay busy in the social media. And while I certainly do promote myself on this blog, I had no such expectation that was the point of it when I started it many years ago.

The blog gives me a place to meander. And talk to myself. And yes, occasionally talk about what I am doing and experiencing. But I still feel no desire to be involved 24 hours a day. And I am loathe to publish too much about my life. But I feel guilty feeling this way. Thanks modern world!

I think I’m too old to enjoy telling everyone about my birthday or even announce a new book contract. I think the time to talk about books is when they are coming out, though I know this is not acceptable to many publishers as they want to build knowledge of your work as it progresses. But as my work progresses I’m actually pretty busy with the work. Which is, I think, the way it should be.

Well, summer is here in all it’s vampire killing glory. I thought I moved away from So Cal. We’re hotter here in Oregon than Pasadena for a week!

Happy summer!

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I love writing and drawing. I feel very lucky to be doing it. I spent many years of my life in offices and cubicles. I didn’t dislike them and I very much enjoyed the people I worked with, many of whom became good friends, but the jobs didn’t engage me to the degree my job does now.

But most days I still have to pull myself into my office because I want to spend all day outside working on my yard, working in the garden. I just walked out to the front porch and immediately ran back inside because I knew if I spent one more moment out there I would start a project. I’d get my ‘outside’ boots on and find plenty of things to do on this beautifully day.

I think it best if I stay in pajamas and slippers thus making outdoor activities less socially hospitable in the neighborhood.

I am talking myself into sitting down and working. Keep the computer on. The cup of tea nearby. I learned a long time ago that in the commercial arts one can’t wait for INSPIRATION. Or a long wait you might have. Work gets done by sitting and doing it. And doing it agin.

So here I sit, willing myself to work.

I have 2 or 3 projects on my desk that need my time. Some new illustrations I’m very excited to start. Book revisions that need attention and no doubt – further revisions.

Maybe if I open my blinds and the window I will feel a better balance between my inside work that needs doing and my desire to be outside. Or will I let the computer sleep and reach for my outside shoes?

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 Happy Blue Creature & S. Beckett

I am often asked about my favorite books and inspirations. I’m uncomfortable with that question in regards to kids lit as I don’t separate genres and styles well. I like what I like and it all plays a part in my work.

I understand from a business perspective why we have genres and demographics, but I have a difficult time relating to the world according to marketing categories as I think most of us do.

Starting in high school I fell in love with the writing of Franz Kafka. (I even illustrated a take on one of his short stories)  The ultimate young adult existential gateway books. And yes – that lead to Camus and Sartre and Borges. Many of the books introduced to me in an excellent high school literature class taught by Mr. Bernauer. (Thanks again for World Lit!)

And that experience propelled me to becoming a Comparative Literature major in college. And while I loved it, I had good reasons for moving on to 2 or 3 additional majors before I graduated with my BFA.

But all the books I love wash together. Some of Stephen King’s short story collections, Lord of the Rings, the picture poems of Kenneth Patchen, The Unamable (by Beckett), Jim the Boy, The Book of Illusions – the list goes on and on – and these run hand-n-hand with Bannock Beans and Black Tea, The Peanuts comic strip collections, The Little Prince, comics by Lewis Trondheim and picture books by Mo Willems. Low art, high art…it doesn’t matter. I enjoy them all and love when a book mixes in a bit of all those disparate human point of views. But to effectively sell a book, you best be one thing. But of course, the best books never are just one thing.

My literary enjoyments remind me of a Joseph Campbell quote: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”.

He was addressing mythology, but I find this is an apt description of what drives my desires in reading too.


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I talk about the power of pencil and paper when I speak at schools and libraries.

Tools that every kid knows how to use and yet, when combined with an active imagination, they are the best starting points for any type of idea: A film, a book, a video game. The humble pencil and paper is far more dynamic tool than my Wacom tablet or Photoshop or my iPad.

I have been working digitally for close to 16 years now but my sketchbooks carry my history is such a satisfying way. The biggest technology change to my pencil and sketchbook in that time is that I use automatic pencils now instead of having 4 or 5 sharpened pencils (well, they started out as sharpened) in my backpack. But keeping enough pencil leads in the pencil is easier than keeping a battery charged.



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youngmarkI often get asked how I got into this field of work but the more interesting question is how I did not get into this field of work. Here is how it DIDN’T all start.

Let’s get into the Way Back Time Machine and set the dial to 1992 or 1993. I’ll figure it out when I get there. You have to pump the time accelerator, the space-time spark plugs are corroded.

There. Now it’s working… A few years after graduating college I was working at a connectivity software company doing interface/ interactive design and would soon be working on some very early websites. (Can you say grey backgrounds?) I was also doing some freelance illustrations and was in love with picture books.

A local author/illustrator named Kevin Henkes (Yeah THAT Kevin Henkes. Still have all his books) was generous enough to spend time on a phone call or email with me (I don’t remember which now) and he explained enough about submitting that I decided to try it out. A generous bunch these author/illustrators. My career has depended on the generosity of people like this.

I researched an imprint that fit my work, called the publisher and got an editor’s name (man was I energized!) and rules for submission (I was a worker bee back then!). I had my dummy in pencil roughs and two illustrations with color finishes (Kinkos color photocopies – at the time color copies were like magic), my manuscript properly printed out and proofed (spelling was mostly pretty good – I like to say), included a SASE – and off it went.

Back to work for me and checking the mail every day. Three weeks later I walked home for lunch (I lived just down the street from where I worked.) and in the mailbox was my SASE. I was expecting the worst (the Minnesotan in me I think) but a sliver of me hoped that maybe, just maybe – they decided to buy my book, had sent me a check for twenty thousand dollars and decided already it was the best picture book ever written.

I was enthusiastic, inexperienced, naive – a perfect fit to jump into publishing! My hands were shaking as I sat at my cluttered kitchen table and opened the envelope.

Inside was my dummy, my manuscript – and a letter from the editor! (I still have it filed somewhere) And it basically said, this is a pretty good book. Here’s some ideas to work on. When you are ready send it back.

WOW! Yowza! Holly SASE Batman! It was encouragement which means so much when you are starting out.

I immediately set to work thinking about the ideas from the editor that afternoon. I didn’t get a lot of work done at work that day… Within two weeks I sealed up another envelop and sent back my revisions. (MAN! I was efficient back then.)

I had started to believe that it was within the realm of possibility that I could do this and I waited.

About 2 months later I got my SASE back. And no, there wasn’t a check or a publishing contract inside (let the kid dream) – but there was another letter. It said that the editor I had corresponded with was no longer with this publisher (I hope she wasn’t fired for encouraging a slub like me!) and that no other editors had any interest in this project. (She must have been fired for questionable taste when she encouraged a slub like me!) Bye and thank-you-very-much.

And that was that. My introduction to picture books. It would be more than a decade before I would look at this industry seriously again and submit a picture book.

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I apologize


I am making my amends today to all those people (friends, family, agents, editors) who read my early manuscripts. My Very First Drafts I call them now. And so many people WERE kind enough to read them. Wow. And many of them returned useful thoughts and reactions which is even nicer. And the people I never heard from again – I know why now.

I’m just finishing the first draft of a middle grade novel I started last August, and I’ll be putting it away for a few weeks now to ‘age’. Then I will take it out and start in on a second draft. This is a process I didn’t utilize when I was younger.

I’ve written 4 (what I would call) middle grade novels now, this latest is my 5th. The first time I finished a novel I was so excited – well, we all know what happens. I sent it off  WAY too soon to waaaaay too many people. It was a rookie mistake. I make lots of rookie mistakes – even though I am not a rookie. Should be on my gravestone – ‘Lived a Rookie. Died A Rookie.’

Since that first time I have never had a novel come out of  a second draft in good enough shape to send to anyone. I’m hoping my newest might. The other night I took that first novel I finished, from 12 years ago, out and read it. Man…I’m so sorry for those who made their way through it or tried and couldn’t. I can’t get you your time back. Sorry!

But I do admire the enthusiasm I had with it. That should not be discounted by all those who get that Very First Draft from someone or for those who are taking their first writing steps. I don’t muster that kind of enthusiasm with my first drafts these days and often not with my second or third drafts either.

I’ve been working on a picture book manuscript for 3 years now. (And don’t we all know people who are sure picture books are easy to write because they have so few words!?) I’ve ripped it apart and put it together too many times to count and I’m starting to think there is some organic flaw in it because it is still suffering fatal issues.

Thanks to all the people out there that do take time to read a Very First Draft from a Very Young Writer. And another belated thanks to the ones who have read mine.

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The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on the film The Shawshank Redemption. It’s focus is on the continued revenue stream the film provides for the studio that owns it. What’s more interesting is how a movie is released, is pretty much ignored by the  movie going public and then lives on as one of the highest rated films of all times.

This has happened before with films like Citizen Kaen and Casablanca.  These movies came out and no one seemed to care that much. But they go on to entertain generations.

In the WSJ article they mention that the film may have been overshadowed by Forrest Gump at the box-office which was the BIG movie the year it was released. Forrest Gump was an enjoyable film, but when I watched it again a few years ago it seemed pretty forced. The truth is that Forrest Gump has not held up very well through the years, while Shawshank has.

This same situation happens with books. There are of course mega-hits right from the start.  But often those works hit so big because they channel some moment of cultural zeitgeist perfectly and it resonates. Like a flashlight bouncing off mirrors, it can light up an entire room. But ultimately it’s only got a triple A battery behind it. It doesn’t last.

The strength that comes from perfectly capturing the moment can make the work feel flat and dated in a short time. For me TV shows, especailly sitcoms, are the most obvious examples of this. (with a few notable exceptions.) If you watch the most successful shows from the past, say 1956 or 1973, it quickly becomes obvious that they are badly dated in both big and small ways. Watching the show becomes an exercise in irony.

Even the shows that were tops in 1982: Dallas, Three’s Company, Joannie Loves Chachi – ouch! Yet, at the time they commanded huge numbers of viewers.

This is just a permutation of the debate on commercial art vs. fine art. Is what we’re creating going to stand the test of time? Does that issue matter since we can’t consciously control that aspect of our work anyway? Do we too often make alterations to work to feed into the current trends and desires vs. making something that might resonate with a deeper sense of ethos, pathos and logos?

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