Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Deadlines. I've Got Deadlines.

I feel overwhelmed by looming deadlines this morning. This scene from The Pit and the Pendulum comes to mind, in all its Roger Corman–imagined glory:

And now I will stop feeling and get back to working. Must halt that pendulum so I can hop up from the desk, relatively unscathed, in time to truly enjoy a bit of this holiday season.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Getting Over Myself, One Milestone at a Time

I cracked open a new Morning Pages notebook today.

I'd been saving this one for when I reach a particular milestone in my writing work, but I woke up realizing that my mindset contributes to elevating that milestone to a level of preciousness I might decide I can't touch. Something I deny myself because I don't deserve it, or because reaching it means I have to let it go.

But guess what. This is just a notebook I like. I will use it now.

And the milestone? It's just one in the long line of career markers I've already passed. It is just one in the long line of future milestones I'll come to and love and move on from as I travel my long writer's-life road. I will stop holding the bloody thing so close to the bone now.

Monday, September 01, 2014

My Latest Titles

I'm pleased to share my new titles for Fall 2014 — two books in the Rourke nonfiction series United States Regions: Southern Region and Southwestern Region. These are, as you might guess, state studies books intended for classroom use in Grades 3–5. The content focus is to identify and investigate regions based on their common geography, industry, agriculture, and culture. I enjoyed getting to learn more about my two regions and working to make the information and broader concept used to frame it accessible for young readers.

Pretty covers, don't you think?

Monday, July 07, 2014

The "My Writing Process" Blog Tour Stops Here Today

Dori Hillestad Butler
Have you seen this writing-blog meme making the rounds lately? Well, last week, the talented Dori Hillestad Butler tagged me in her tour post, and I accepted the challenge. Dori and I met this spring when she moved to the Seattle area from Iowa City (my old stomping grounds), and we've discovered that our writing careers and Midwestern roots are just two of quite a few things we have in common. Thanks for putting me on the blog tour hot seat, Dori!

Be sure to visit Dori's author site to learn more about her numerous children's books, including the Edgar Award–winning The Buddy Files: The Case of the Lost Boy and her super-fun looking Haunted Library mystery series launching this summer.

And so the time has come for me to answer the tour's four questions designed to give readers a peek at how a writer's work . . . works.

(1) What am I working on?

I just recently finished checking layout proofs for two nonfiction books of mine due out later this summer. They're part of a new Rourke series called United States Regions, and I wrote the titles covering the South and Southwest. I can't wait to see the final copies!

My current works in progress include
  • a YA historical novel, aka My Pet. This project is where I focus all my off-the-clock writing energies right now.
  • one humorous picture book in revision, three additional picture books at various stages of development, and the dream of writing a YA nonfiction picture book to accompany the novel-in-progress mentioned above. But first things first — like finishing My Pet.
  • two middle-grade mysteries I once sold but that were shelved before publication during the economic downturn of 2008. I own the rights to those and will revise, submit, and hope to sell again.

(2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I tend toward writing quieter, character-driven fiction and heavily researched but highly accessible nonfiction (whether it's prompted by a publisher's specific topic request or it grows out of some tidbit that sparks my own need to know/write it). Because I work with a number of genres, markets, and target age levels/audiences, it's difficult for me to make any blanket statements describing my writing. But I do believe my voice comes through in each book. That's the goal, anyway. In my view, voice is the thing that differentiates any writer's output, whether it's a person's body of work or a stand-alone piece of writing.

(3) Why do I write what I do?

At the why-I-write-for-kids level: I feel at home writing for young readers because as a young person I always felt at home while reading and writing. I read so much and wrote so much (in those days I wrote in diary format) that growing up to work with words for a living seemed the only logical result of all that reading and writing. Reading and writing for the win!

At the why-I-write-things-like-my-personal-WIPs level: Because I have no other choice but to write those things. The stories I create come from my needs to
  • express thoughts and ideas
  • shine a light on small details and big concepts
  • weave compelling tales
  • present new information (or known information in a new way)
  • examine universal feelings and experiences
  • experiment with different types of writing
  • share my heart

(4) How does my writing process work?

It's the same for every project! Oh, and it's different for every project!

That constancy mixed with variety is one of my favorite things about writing.

But let me go into at least a little bit of detail:

I've yet to write anything that didn't involve some type of research, so after my idea takes hold, the research is where I start. This is true whether I'm working on fiction or nonfiction, and the amount of research I need to do varies. I might research a setting detail, potential character name, or biographical fact and get straight to writing — or I might spend months gathering and vetting piles of research before keying in Word One.

Sometimes I do the research and set it aside for the rest of the writing process. For my humorous picture book in development, for example, I did a quick check on the developmental appropriateness of my protagonist's dilemma relative to her age. I didn't need that information to write a draft, but that took no time to investigate, so why not.

Then there's the other end of the spectrum: Sometimes the research continues all the way to the bitter end. For the Neptune title in my Space Neighbors series, I monitored NASA's live feed of breaking Neptune research until probably an hour before turning in my final draft. A true nail-biter!

Once I've done some cursory research, I outline or outline/plot, depending on the type and expected length of the work. Then I start writing. If I have a deadline, I write to that. Deadline is here? Then the writing is done. If I'm writing on my own and plan to pursue publication, I set writing goals — and reset them if/when needed.

Now, if I'm writing on my own and have no particular plans for the work beyond trying it, I write until I stop getting anywhere. I may set it aside and pick it up again later. Or I may forget the writing ever existed. I know this can happen because I've had occasion to stumble across work I have no recollection of creating. What can I say. Life happens and things slip through the cracks. Besides, fellow writers, I'll bet you've done the same thing, too. OK, let me revise to plead: Please, fellow writers, PLEASE tell me you've done the same thing, too!

Thanks a bunch for reading my writing-process tour entry. For next Monday, I'm passing the blogging baton to my friend Wendy Wahman, the award-winning author-illustrator of some of my favorite picture books, including Don't Lick the Dog: Making Friends with Dogs, A Cat Like That, and Snowboy 1, 2, 3 (this one was illustrated by Wendy and written by Joe Wahman).

Don't Lick the Dog was selected as a 2010 Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year, starred for Outstanding Merit, and accepted to the Society of Illustrators Original Art show. Her book trailer for A Cat Like That was selected from over 7,000 entries for the Walker Art Center’s Catvidfest 2013. Wendy’s editorial illustrations have appeared in major publications including Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and the Harvard Business Journal. She teaches art classes through the nonprofit organization Powerful Schools, and she enjoys sharing creativity exercises with both children and adults. 

Look for Wendy's post July 14!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Nonfiction Monday: A Chat with PURE GRIT Author Mary Cronk Farrell

I recently had the pleasure of attending one of Mary Cronk Farrell's readings in support of her terrific new YA nonfiction book, Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific. It was fun to hear about her experience creating the book — and I was especially drawn to the story, which features an incredibly strong group of women who faced unspeakable hardships and dangers as combat nurses and prisoners of war. 

Pure Grit is thoroughly researched, beautifully written, and gorgeously photo-illustrated, making it a perfect title to feature on this Nonfiction Monday. Be sure to track it down in your local bookstore or library. And in the meantime, enjoy my Q&A with its author.

Welcome to my blog, Mary, and congratulations on the new book! How long have you been writing nonfiction for young readers?

For about ten years. Except for a couple magazine articles, Pure Grit is the first nonfiction book I have published for kids.

Tell us what sparked your interest in this story and why you wanted to write it for young adults.

When I first heard about the POW nurses, I was immediately drawn to the story by my curiosity about how they survived three years in the harsh conditions of prison camp, especially since many others in the camps died. It was difficult to believe, and also disappointing that I had not learned about these courageous women in school and I wanted young people to know about them. I was greatly inspired by their strength of purpose, their resilience, and their dedication to their vocation as nurses. I knew their story would inspire others, too.

From idea to final draft, how long did the research and writing take you? Were there any major stumbling blocks along the way?

It is difficult to gauge the amount of time I spent on this project. I worked on it intermittently for five years. Both the research and the writing were done in chunks of time between other projects I was working on.  I didn't have any major stumbling blocks. The research and writing were quite straightforward, but I will say that at times the material was very difficult emotionally. I remember a time or two that I was typing with tears running down my cheeks.

I’d love to hear about any particularly memorable interviews you conducted.

By far the most memorable interview was with Mildred Dalton Manning, the only one of the POW nurses still alive at the time I was writing the book. She was most gracious, and I felt honored to meet her. Another memorable interview was with Sascha Weinzheimer Jansen, who was a child in Santo Tomas Internment Camp where the Army nurses were imprisoned. She had been in the hospital for a tonsillectomy and remembered being cared for by Army Nurse Denny Williams. Her throat was not healing after the surgery, because the girl and everyone in the camp were starving and malnourished. Sascha remembers the nurse sitting with her all night when she was deathly ill.

What knowledge or message would you like readers to take away from their experience reading the Pure Grit?

I hope readers will get a strong sense of what it was like for these women to find themselves suddenly in the middle of war and then to be imprisoned for three years. I hope the book will cause questions to rise in readers' minds. I don't have specific ideas I want people to take away, other than how brave and dedicated the nurses were, but so many issues arise from the story that I think are worthy of thought and discussion.

What’s next for you as a writer? Any new children’s books in the works?

My next book, working title Fannie Never Flinched, is due out in February 2016.  It's another amazing true story about courage and dedication, this time a biography of one woman — Fannie Sellins — who was an incredible labor organizer in the early 1900s garment industry, coal fields, and steel mills. Like the POW nurses, her strength was imbued with compassion. Unfortunately, she did not survive, but died in a hail of bullets on the picket line of a Pennsylvania coal strike.

That sounds fascinating — I look forward to reading it. In the meantime, where can readers and reviewers find Pure Grit, and you?

Readers can get Pure Grit through any bookstore, on the ground or on the Internet, and I invite everyone to visit my website for more information about the POW nurses and me.

Terrific. Thanks so much for chatting with me, Mary! 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

I Feel Some Blogging Coming On

As my career has evolved since I opened this blog in 2007, the blog itself has devolved. I've never wanted to shutter it; even in lean-posting times it's felt like a hardy living organism to me — one that can rebloom anytime I show up with my watering can and a little TLC. That's why I've been content to let it quietly sit for seasons at a time.

Part of my own growth in the last several years has involved intentionally refocusing my professional efforts. My goal has been to step off the very pleasant-but-specific career train I'd boarded when I first started freelancing full time (basically because it showed up at my local depot one day), and to work on claiming the career that I really want. And guess what — that takes time and considerable effort. It also, for me, has made it difficult to blog with anything resembling regularity. While writing about whatever I'm experiencing does help me process those whatevers, trying to do that on the blog has not appealed to me. So I've kept the writing-as-processing to my morning pages, which — as my fellow Artist's Way devotees know — are neither meant nor fit for public consumption.

Now is now, though — as everyone knows — and I've entered a new season. Earlier goals have been reached, realistic newer ones have been set, and all systems seem Go for continuing to move in the right direction. Which all makes for a more focused me and the proper time to say: I feel some blogging coming on.

I know that I'm ready to reengage, because I keep having post ideas while just going about my life. I even have a new overall blog theme in mind, and that makes both sides of my writer-editor split personality smile. (Those dames like them some purposeful structure.)

To any readers out there, I invite you to follow along with a simple "All aboard!" Rides on this blog train are always free, and you can hop on and off as you like.

Oh, and in case you're wondering what my newer goals might be/what theme I might apply to the blog at this stage,  I thank you for paying enough attention to question those things! Don't worry, though, all will be covered in future blogs. For you, and for me.