Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Highlights Founders Workshop with Peter Jacobi

If you are reading this in your email, don’t forget to click on the headline to go to my blog. If you haven’t subscribed yet, please do.

Highlights For ChildrenI spent four days last week in Boyds Mills, Pennsylvania at a terrific workshop for writers of non-fiction. The wonderful people from Highlights Magazine run a series of workshops for children’s writers. I’ve now attended two workshops and a retreat and will be attending another retreat in August. I can’t say enough about how wonderful and energizing these are. These are also the folks who run the famous Chautauqua Writer’s Workshop every summer. I haven’t been to that yet, but I’m hoping for next year.

Let me tell you a little about how these workshops run. First, check out the information on their website: http://www.highlightsfoundation.org/pages/current/FWsched_preview.html. If you look at the list of workshops, you’ll see there is really something for everyone. Sure, you have to apply and submit writing, but that’s one of the reasons they are so great. You won’t find yourself with a group of people who know nothing about writing or are completely unfocused for the task at hand. The faculty are always people with great expertise in the particular topic of the workshop.

Our workshop was A Concentrated Course in Non-Fiction and was led by Peter Jacobi. Take a look at the course description and read a little about Peter: http://www.highlightsfoundation.org/pages/current/FWsched_concentratedNonfiction_11.html.
The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write ItHis credentials are impressive, but he is so much more. His energy and enthusiasm are amazing and his knowledge deep. He’s a warm and sharing person and presented great information and examples galore. We all had some one-on-one time with Peter to discuss our individual projects and received excellent advice and guidance (and an autographed copy of his book!). The only thing I would change would be to add a day to the workshop. The pace was breathtaking. Peter had so much information, we couldn’t quite get to everything he had for us. There were only five in our group, so it was quite intimate. Here’s a shout out to Dan, Joette, Caroline, and Dina – a terrific group, both interesting and interested, making for good discussions and lots of inspiration and laughter.

The experience of going to a Founder’s Workshop is so much more than just the “classroom” experience. When you attend, you are treated like visiting royalty. They send a driver to pick you up at the airport. It’s nice if you can get a flight into Scranton-Wilkes Barre, but if you need to fly into New York or Newark or even Philadelphia, they will fetch you there. When I was leaving the workshop, I was headed to Philly for some research. I asked Jo Lloyd, the woman in charge of coordinating all the workshops, if there was a train or bus I could take. She said she would have a driver take me, and that’s what they did. If you are coming from a long distance and need to arrive a day early or stay a day late, no problem and no extra charge. I arrived a day early last year. The staff wasn’t on site to prepare my meals, but they had delicious meals prepared and in the fridge at the farmhouse waiting for me.

The grounds are lovely. The farmhouse overlooks a small river running through farm country in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. Cabins range across a hilltop above the farmhouse, and every attendee has his or her own cabin – a quiet, private place to get away and get to work while you are feeling especially inspired. They aren’t fancy, but each has a desk, twin beds, full bath, and small refrigerator stocked with sodas. There is WiFi throughout the area, so if you have a computer with you, you are all set. Don’t want to carry a computer along? They have a computer cabin with printer for you to use.

Highlights High FiveAll meals are taken at the beautiful farmhouse that was the home of the founders, although there is a new conference center being built, so there are some nice changes coming. Meals are prepared by amazingly talented people using fresh, local produce, meats, cheeses, etc. Do you have special dietary needs? Just let them know ahead and that will be handled as well. Every afternoon before dinner, we have appetizers and cocktails or wine. We often have visitors at dinner or lunch. I have dined with the head of Boyds Mill Press, the art director of the press, the science editor of Highlights, the non-fiction editors of Highlights, the publisher of High Five magazine, and others. It’s great to be able to ask just what they need or want and to be able to directly submit to them. The workshops usually include a tour of Highlights and a chance to meet other editors. I’ve also had a tour of Boyds Mills Press at one workshop.

If you are a serious writer of all things children, there are some things I think are musts on the list of things to do on your way to fulfilling your destiny, and a Founders Workshop is certainly one of them. Oh, and if the cost is daunting for you, apply for a grant. These are generous people who see their mission as engendering successful children’s writers. Check it out. I can’t say enough good things about the experience.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Visiting My Old Friend Laura Ingalls Wilder

If you are reading this in your email, don’t forget to click on the headline to go to my blog. If you haven’t subscribed yet, please do.

"A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity, and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon, and by moonlight." ~ Robertson Davies

I ran across this quote recently and have been thinking about it. There are many books I’ve read over and over through the years, books I love and books I’ve taught or wanted to share the experience with others.  Of course, if I’m sharing the experience or teaching them, I need to read them again during the process. The first book that comes to mind is Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I’ve written about it before and how it changed my life. If you missed that post, please click here.

Animal DreamsOf Mice and Men is a book I taught as well, so it was read over and over during the process. Other books I’ve taught that I enjoyed reading many times – Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (my brother-in-law George’s favorite apocalyptic novel), Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Bean Treesby Barbara Kingsolver (I really need to write a blog about her works. I once signed up for a three-day workshop on Animal Dreams just so I would have an excuse to re-read it!), Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and, of course, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. There were others, but these pop easily to mind. They are all great books and it was always a pleasure to revisit them. But that isn’t really the intent of what Robertson Davies said, is it?

The Complete Little House Nine-Book SetSince I’m already in my old age (okay, maybe 65 isn’t exactly OLD, but it’s well past just maturing), I tried to think of something I had read as a child and again as an adult, that would be worthy of being designated “truly great.” I’ve lighted on the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read them, all more than once, as a child. When I found myself the mother of two daughters, I bought the whole set so I could share them with my daughters. I read them when I was around thirty and enjoyed them at least as much as I had as a child. I remember being surprised at how much I enjoyed them as an adult. They were so well written and the stories were every bit as compelling as I had remembered. Granted, I grew up in the Midwest and have an affinity for the place of the stories. I also love to be transported to other times, and Wilder does an exceptional job of that.

It’s time for another reading of the books. Now I write for children, so I will bring a new perspective to my reading. I also have a granddaughter who is just about ready to read these wonderful books, so I have another opportunity to share the experience. I will be putting this set of books on my summer reading list and will report back at some point in the future about the experience. I would do it now, but I’m leaving in a couple of days for a writing workshop (you'll be hearing about that next time) and will be quite busy. I also have some book reviews that will be due soon, but I will get back to the Little House soon.

What books did you read as a child that deserve another look wherever you are in the life process? Why do you feel compelled to choose that book or those books? 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Interview with Jame Richards, Writer Extraordinaire

If you are reading this in your email, don’t forget to click on the headline to go to my blog. If you haven’t subscribed yet, please do.

A couple of posts ago, I reviewed a book I LOVE called Three Rivers Rising: A Novel of the Johnstown Flood by Jame Richards. If you haven’t read this wonderful historical novel yet, what are you waiting for? Hie you to the bookstore, Amazon, or the library or click on the title or the image of the book cover below to order. This book is delicious! Now I’m happy to tell you, Jame Richards generously gave me the time for an interview. I think you’ll enjoy reading more about her and the process of writing Three Rivers Rising.

The Johnstown Flood was certainly an extraordinary event, but one not a lot of young people know about. How did you decide on that as the basis for your book?

The flood had always fascinated me ever since seeing a documentary in high school. Years later, when I started writing, it became clear to me that the flood would make a fantastic backdrop for a Romeo and Juliet-type story, but many years passed, along with several failed attempts at writing it. When the opportunity arose to take a workshop with my hero Patricia Reilly Giff, I thought, “Geez, I better write a few pages of something to bring to the class. If only I had a story idea simmering in the back of my mind…hey, wait a minute!”

I loved the marriage of fictional characters to the backdrop of such a powerful historical event as the Johnstown Flood. Was it always your intention to write this story as fiction?

Writing about any true story, you want to start with as much factual information as possible. You can only do so much, though, adding fictional elements to the lives of real documented people. At the end of the day, you can control the story more with completely fictional characters. The character Joseph was inspired by the real life John Hess, but in order for that storyline to be told through the eyes of a young person for YA, I opted to give him a child bride and tell it from her point of view.

What did you do to prepare for writing Three Rivers Rising?

A few things had changed in my writing life by the time I completed Three Rivers Rising. Working on a screenplay for many months had changed my writing style. Screenwriting moves you away from the interior reflections and the observational: everything is action and dialog. Action and dialog. Action and dialog. The setting, as needed, is the majority of the description. So when I applied this to novel writing, it became a more immediate and visual style.
The other thing that changed was trying verse for the first time. I had always felt comfortable writing poetry, but it never amounted to a novel-length work before. After reading Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, I could get my head around telling a larger story one poem at a time.

How did you discover your fictional characters? Are they based on real people?

No one is literally based on a real person, but you take pieces of yourself and others to build characters. Rather than the well-worn character of the feisty headstrong girl who throws caution to the wind, I wanted Celestia to be quietly rebellious and conflicted. She loves her family members, even though they’re flawed, and doesn’t want to be cut off from them. That felt more organic and real to me. Peter, by design, had to be a little more cultivated than the average joe so he could relate to Celestia and see himself with her. For Kate it was easy to choose her actions and reactions based on the Know It All/OCD behavior of anyone I might know who’s like that. I think she feels most like a real person to some readers, though maybe not the most sympathetic. I was very much in touch with Maura’s experience because my children were small when I was writing this, and I was knitting, nesting.

Your writing has such a great, natural flow to it. Do you spend a lot of time planning your writing – outlining and such – or is it a much more organic process for you?

Three Rivers Rising: A Novel of the Johnstown FloodThank you! I guess I’d describe it as setting off toward the horizon, but you can’t see your destination. I write for a while until I know where I’m going, then I might do a play-by-play of the remaining scenes. So, no, I don’t do a ton of planning before I start—I would miss all those great surprises that jump out along the way!

Writing can be a lonely business. Do you work with critique groups or critique partners? Maybe you could talk a little about your writing process.

I get together with other writers frequently, but it’s not Writing by Committee. It’s more like a support group in a way. We talk about the industry. We bounce ideas off each other. We read our work aloud and maybe we say, “It was a little slow in that spot” or “I didn’t get where you were going with that.” That’s the biggest benefit: reading for an audience. More often than not, I know what I need to do to fix something that way.
Also, I’m very lucky to have Patricia Reilly Giff for a mentor. She gives lots of encouragement and spot-on feedback.

As writers, we all hear so much about the editing process. Did you have to do a lot of re-writing once Three Rivers Rising was placed with Knopf? Did you feel an editor would be able to give you much guidance considering writing in verse is so different from prose?

I wouldn’t say I did a lot of rewriting, but there were stubborn sticky parts that had to be clarified repeatedly. Did I also write new material? Yes. Did I also cut out chunks? Yes. But in general, the finished book is very similar to how it sold.

I didn’t know what to expect from an editor since it was my first book. I did know that my editor had worked on other verse novels that I admired, so I trusted that. She wasn’t afraid to get down into the nitty-gritty where every word counts. It worked out very well.

Did you have an agent represent the book or did you sell it on your own? If you had an agent, do you feel it was harder to find an agent because your book was written in verse?

Verse is still considered a risk. So it is harder to find an agent. And harder to find a publisher. Consider the economy and the concerns about the future of publishing—everyone wants to aim for the sweet spot and I can’t say I blame them.

Do you feel your job is easier or harder now that your debut novel is out and a big hit? Is there more or less pressure? Does the pressure come more from yourself or others?
The “harder” part is trying to top yourself. The more people liked your first book, the higher the bar is set. Hopefully, I’m a better writer by now, though. I would say I’m my own toughest critic, so there’s some pressure that way, but there are definitely external expectations, too.

What has been most thrilling for you since your novel debuted?

The biggest thrill is hearing from readers who reach out, much like yourself: bloggers, teachers, librarians, etc. I often hear from other writers, too. It seems we’re each other’s biggest fan base!

It’s never easy to find enough time to write, but you have small children. Is it a distraction or an inspiration?

My writing time was very limited when they were small, but I found that helpful in a way. It forced me to shut that door at naptime and sit quietly glued to the computer until the baby squawked. I had to hit the ground running or my writing time would be gone. So I was actually very productive. Same with nursery school and half-day kindergarten. When you have that finite window, it makes for a useful urgency. 

What do you hear from your young readers? Do they seem to find the verse more appealing or the story?

They express surprise at how quickly they forget they’re reading poetry (like it’s supposed to hurt?), how they just get swept up in the story and how quickly they finished it! (Instead of 250 words a page, my novel averages 100-150.)

What advice would you pass along to those of us who haven’t gotten that first book published?

  1. Write. Rinse. Repeat.
  2. Read.
  3. Read for craft.
  4. Write some more.
  5. Don’t think of your manuscript as chiseled in stone. Break it all apart. Cut out the excess and put it back together better.
  6. Don’t give up after a few rejections. It is part of the process. Period.
  7. Rejections get less painful as you get closer to the destination. More constructive and encouraging. Those initial blunt form rejections can take years off any writing life, I know, but don’t park there.
  8. If your work isn’t selling, sell something else. The market changes. It’s different for me now than it was when I sold 3RR, different from when Hesse sold Out of the Dust, different from when my mentor sold her first book. Maybe it’s not the time for one manuscript. Polish up another. Get it out there. You can’t sell it if it isn’t out there.
I saw on your website as the third of three girls, you were named for your father. I was the fourth of four girls and my father lobbied for me to be named for him. (If he’d had his way, I would be Frederica Alberta Hollinbeck!) How do you feel about your name? Did you like growing up with an unusual – almost boy’s – name?

Frederica is a great name! You should name a character that…see what parallel life you might have led.

I like my name a lot now. It fits me. I think a boy name on a girl is cool and I hope it makes me seem tougher than I am! But it was a real drag as a kid because every time I was introduced to someone there was a big rigmarole of explanation. Plus, there was always mention of Jamie Sommers, the Bionic Woman, and that created a detour into pop culture. Nowadays we’re more accepting of unusual names. It’s fashionable even.

Thank you for so generously sharing your time and thoughts. Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you’d like to tell us?

You’re welcome! I hope I covered everything, but if your readers want to know more, they can check out my website www.jamerichards.com or like 3RR on Facebook for updates on events. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Freeeeeee Stuff!

If you are reading this in your email, please click on the title of the blog. It will take you to my blog and two things will happen: I will know how many people are really reading my blog and you can leave a comment at the end of the post. If you aren’t reading this in your email, please look on the right side at the top and sign up for an email subscription. I’ll do my best to make it worth your while with interesting reviews, interviews, links to other good sites and blogs, and random wackiness. Thanks!

In March I posted about helpful places to visit on the internet. There are so many, I could probably post something like it once a week, but since I only post about once a week, I think I’ll try to restrain myself to doing this only occasionally. But do please read through. There is a treat for you at the end.

There are a lot of companies that want to sell something to writers – classes, books, services, etc. Many of them send me something by email often. I usually whiz through the table of contents or sub-heads checking for anything of interest. Many times there are interesting articles, links to other useful sites, information on opportunities. Here are several you might want to look at and maybe even sign up for the free e-newsletters they offer.

2011 Guide To Literary AgentsCheck out the Guide to Literary Agents blog: http://www.guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog/. They always list a few new, hungry agents and tell you just what they’re looking for. They also have useful articles and interviews by agents and authors. They had a posting not too long ago called How to Blog with links to three really good articles: http://view.writers-community.com/?j=fec516777163027d&m=fe9b15707463077575&ls=fe611577706304757415&l=ff3a15707665&s=fe961770776c057b70&jb=ffcf14&ju=fe86107272630d7476&et_mid=274760&rid=3028165&r=0#2. It’s worth reading.

Writer's Digest (1-year)Writer’s Digest magazine has a free e-newsletter. They try like crazy to sell you books and magazine subscriptions, but beyond that they have some interesting articles and links. They tell you about contests (mostly their own that you have to pay to enter, but they are well respected), conferences and other events, give you writing prompts, and link to a lot of the articles they publish in the magazine. I get something useful out of it more often than not. http://www.writersdigest.com/GeneralMenu/.

Randy Ingermanson sells software for writers. He has something called the Snowflake method. I have a friend who has used it and thinks it’s pretty good.  I haven’t tried it yet, but I sure like his blog. He often bases his posts on questions from his readers (i.e. other writers) who ask the questions many of us have about writing, but don’t know who to ask. Check it out. http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/

I’ve recently run across a blog called Adventures in Children’s Publishing. http://childrenspublishing.blogspot.com/ It’s written by four writers who write for kids of all ages – from picture books to YA. They have a ton of interesting posts in their archives. There is a reason they have over 1100 followers.

The Countess and the King: A Novel of the Countess of Dorchester and King James IIThe Last HellionIf you like historical fiction or hope to write historical fiction (count me on both those) you will like Two Nerdy History Girls blog written by a couple of very talented authors, Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott. The blog is just flat fun to read. http://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/. Check it out.

Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency in Denver has a blog called Pub Rants. It’s always good to get an agents perspective. http://pubrants.blogspot.com/.

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space KapowNathan Bransford used to be a red hot agent; then he quit to become a children’s author. He blog is rife with interesting and useful posts. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/. You can scroll through his archives and find almost anything you might need information on.

Here are some specific blog posts I found to be particularly useful:
A good post on creating a pitch: http://amiekaufman.com/?p=454

An excellent post on how to write a good query AND (Bonus!) a free download of an e-book on writing queries: http://elanajohnson.blogspot.com/p/writing-query-letter.html

A post by my very prolific daughter Maggie on the daunting task and the rewards of blogging every day: http://www.maggiesnest.org/2011/04/28/embracing-the-no-good/

There are other blogs I really enjoy listed to the right. If you haven't checked them out, take a look. Just click on them and, by the magic of the internet, there you are.

And now for your promised TREAT. One of my favorite television shows is CBS Sunday Morning. The link below will take you to a fascinating interview with John le Carre about writing. It isn’t just interesting to writers. It’s just interesting. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/03/01/sunday/main20037717.shtml

Do you have some places you like to visit or good information you receive? Please share!