May 19, 2014
Thank you, David Elliott, for inviting me and Sara Zarr—two of your Lesley MFA faculty colleagues—to this blog tour about on the writing process. Don’t miss their responses to these four questions, David’s from last week and Sara’s, which was also published today. And here are mine:
What am I currently working on?
Right now I’m writing back matter for my picture book about a little known piece of history, the first court case challenging segregated schools way back in 1847 in Boston. The First Step is coming out in 2015 with illustrations by the great E.B. Lewis. As every nonfiction author knows, writing back matter can be lots of fun. The book itself is done, so the pressure’s off. It’s the time and place to tell your audience about your detective work uncovering nuggets of information and all the great stories you couldn’t fit in the book itself. My problem is having too many of them.
I’m also putting the final touches on a proposal for a nonfiction graphic novel. I’ve never written one before, so working on it is two parts exhilarating to one part intimidating. Or the reverse, depending on the day. I keep thinking how weird it is that, if published, this true story will be called a graphic novel. I’d like to officially dub this subgenre true graphics. A good name, isn’t it?
How does my work differ from others in my genre?
My first thought? All is vanity…there is nothing new under the sun. My second? Physicists say snowflakes start out as similar snow crystals, it’s only their individual journeys downward that change them and make them unique. So what do I bring to books about space travel, chocolate chip cookies or presidential elections that make them evolve differently on their journey to publication? Probably all the things that make me different than other authors who write about these subjects. For another answer to this unanswerable question, check out the next paragraph.
Why do I write what I write?
I’ve noticed most writers circle around an overarching theme or value for much of their creative lives. It may take different forms, but shows up again and again in their work. For me, it’s providing—actually, provoking—a sense of wonder about the world. I like my books to whisper to my readers, Psst, kid! Chew on this. In On This Spot, they learned that New York City was once home to a forest, glaciers, dinosaurs, the world’s tallest mountains, a tropical sea—and they digested the idea that things are always changing. In It’s a Dog’s Life, they realized that even our best friends can inhabit worlds very different from our own. I think my best message to kids is: The world is bigger and more wonderful than you have ever imagined. Let me show this to you. Remember to expect the amazing and look for it.
How does my individual writing process work?
My books often spring from a stray thought that lingers long enough to interest me. Watching a delirious dog roll in fall leaves, for example, made me wonder what colors he saw instead of my glorious reds and oranges. Once I thought about answering that question from the dog’s POV, It’s a Dog’s Life was born. I talked to experts, read books, and dog-watched to gather the facts and issues I wanted to cover. Once I found my narrator Joe’s voice, I was golden (but not a golden retriever, Joe is too scrappy for that). I’m skating over missteps and revisions that followed, but Dog’s Life was one of my easier books to write. My first vision of what it should be turned out to be right on target.
My research for some books has taken me places I never anticipated. After all, research isn’t a linear process, it branches out in all directions like that snowflake. See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes and the Race to the White House went from a 32-page picture book to a 96-pager once I decided that kids deserve to know the good, the bad, and the ugly (in other words, the truth) about presidential elections. Then there are the projects where I research, I write, I flounder. Time, smart friends, perhaps even a couple glasses of wine eventually break the logjam. Some of these manuscripts are still simmering, though. I used to think of these projects as failures. Now I realize that the ones I still think about are just waiting until I can either find their true story or the way to tell it. And when I do, they often become my best books.
Be sure to mark your calendars because next Monday, May 26, the nonfiction author who has found the way to every kids’ heart as the Queen of Weird, Kelly Milner Halls, and a very talented debut novelist Sandy Brehl will be tackling these same four questions.