Wednesday, December 30, 2009

10 Favorite Quotations about Writing With Which to Start the New Year

  1. "The quality of emotion is what stays with the reader long after the storyline is gone." - Ellen Howard

  2. "The world that is in me is the only world I have by which to grasp the world outside and as I write fiction, it is the chart by which I must steer." - Katherine Paterson

  3. "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." --E.L. Doctorow

  4. "The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business." --John Steinbeck

  5. "Novelists are people who have discovered that they can dampen their neuroses by writing make-believe. We will keep on doing that no matter what, while offering loftier explanations." --Kurt Vonnegut

  6. "Writers write to influence their readers...but always, at bottom, to be more themselves." -- Aldous Huxley

  7. "Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself." -- J.F. Stephen

  8. "The difference between the right and the not-so-right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." -- Mark Twain

  9. "Producing writing is not so much like filling a basin or pool once as it is like getting water to keep flowing through until it finally runs clear." --Peter Elbow

  10. "The power of fiction is to create empathy. It lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down inside someone else’s own perspective. A newspaper could tell you that one hundred people, say, in an airplane, or in Israel, or in Iraq, have died today. And you can think to yourself, "How very sad," then turn the page and see how the Wildcats fared. But a novel could take just one of those hundred lives and show you exactly how it felt to be that person rising from bed in the morning, watching the desert light on the tile of her doorway and on the curve of her daughter’s cheek. You would taste that person’s breakfast, and love her family, and sort through her worries as your own, and know that a death in that household will be the end of the only life that someone will ever have. As important as yours. As important as mine."

From an essay titled "Jabberwocky" by Barbara Kingsolver in High Tide in Tucson.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Editors are NOT Dragons

When I first began to submit stories for publication, I was somewhat scared of editors. In my imagination, they seemed analogous to fire-breathing dragons, guarding the entrance to the Kingdom of Publication. Getting a story past them seemed an impossible task. Twenty years and almost thirty books later, I see editors a little differently. Yes, they do make judgments about stories that are often hard for writers to bear, but they honestly WANT to find manuscripts they can say "yes" to. And when they do find a story they like--and a story that fits within their company's publication program--they become a writer's best champion. They argue for the story's publication in acquisition meetings, and, once accepted, help writers to reshape and revise their stories to make them better. Editors help in other ways too--like writing the flap copy praising your book, and coordinating with the art department on covers and illustrations. But ultimately, despite all their assistance, and the assistance of many other behind-the-scenes people like copy editors, and others whose titles I don't even know, the credit for the resulting book will go to you.

Over the years I have been blessed with wonderful editors, not one of them even remotely dragon-like. Children's editors, like children's writers are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. They are kind, solicitous of a writer's feelings, intelligent, and hard-working, and they really want to see you and your book succeed.

Here is a list of the fabulous editors--all women, by the way--that I've had the good fortune to work with:

Matilda Welter (Mommy Doesn't Know My Name)
Andrea Cascardi (Edwin and Emily and Emily at School)
Diane Arico (Library Lil, My Dog Never Says Please, Old MacDonald in the City)
Lauri Hornik (The Witch Casts a Spell)
Julia Richardson (Secret Pal Surprises, Marvelous Mind of Matthew McGhee, Age 8 series)
Michelle Nagler (Third Grade Friends series)
Rachel Orr Chan, Rosemary Brosnan, and Margaret Miller (Fairy Blossoms series, Princess Power series, and Ten Naughty Little Monkeys)
Emily Lawrence (Goddess Girls)

These hitherto unsung heroes have my undying gratitude!

P.S. There was a nice article by Jon Bard in CBI Clubhouse about what writers need to know about the lives of children's book editors.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Happy Holidays: An Early Writing Effort

Last Wednesday I had a lovely Virtual Visit with a group of fifth graders and their kindergarten reading buddies in West Babylon, NY. We connected through Skype-An-Author, the brainchild of Library Media Specialist Sarah Chauncey and Author Mona Kerby. As part of our Skype visit I shared the following poem with students. It was written when I was in the fifth grade. The rhymes are a bit forced, and some of the lines don't scan very well, but can you see my love for writing even then?:


On Christmas Eve while I was in bed
I suddenly heard a loud thud and I said,
"Now what could that be, the Christmas tree?"
Well I ran to the living room and guess what I saw
Stuck there in the chimney was old Santa Claus.
Well I ran to the chimney and tugged at him hard,
But it was not use for he was as heavy as a barrel of lard.
So I slipped into my coat, my hat and all
Then tiptoed through the living room and ran down the hall.
I ran to the neighbors and when I was in sight
They exclaimed in surprise,
"What are you doing up so late in the night?"
Well I hurriedly told them and they rushed home with me
And we tugged and we tugged but were sorry to see
That poor Santa Claus was still as tight as could be.
So I rushed upstairs and brought down a rope
I thought this will get him down at least I hope.
We tied the rope around his waist
And pulled and pulled and pulled,
At last I think he loosened a very little bit
And when we pulled a little more how loose he began to get.
At last we pulled him down from the sooty chimney
My what a sooty mess he was but he didn't seem to care,
He passed to everyone a great big candy cane,
Oh, how I wish that Santa Claus will soon get stuck again!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Secret to Getting Published

When I first started to write for children (about twenty years ago, gasp!), I was sure there must be some secret to getting published. Whenever I talked to published writers I listened carefully, hoping to uncover the secret they were obviously privy to that I had yet to discover. If these other writers--these published writers--sensed the desperation and yearning behind the questions I put to them, they were gracious enough to pretend not to notice. Ultimately, I did get published, but not because of any one thing I learned from other writers. In fact, if there is any secret to getting published, I think it is this: You must want to enough.

What do I mean by enough? Enough to:
  1. learn as much about the craft of writing as you can (classes, conferences, books, blogs, etc.)
  2. learn as much about the business side of writing as you can (same resources as above)
  3. keep writing and submitting even in the face of numerous "rejection" letters

That's it. It's the only secret to getting published that I know really works.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Connecting with Readers, Making New Friends

Strangers are just friends waiting to happen. ~Rod McKuen

This morning I spent a pleasurable couple of hours at my local Starbucks chatting with Terri, a woman I met while flying back from a conference in Wisconsin a year ago, and Terri's neighbor Kirstie. Terri had emailed me two weeks before. She was buying my Princess Power series for her niece's 8th birthday but hadn't been able to find a copy of Book #2. I had written her back that I had copies and would be happy to sell her one and mail it. "It would be so much more fun to meet," she emailed back, "if you're not too busy, that is."

Too busy to meet with someone who loves to read as much as I do? Someone who wants to share my books with her young niece? No way! Now, if I was as popular as someone like...say... J.K. Rowling, I might have to be more protective of my time. But that's not the case, and is never likely to be. So we made arrangements to meet. Terri treated me to a chai tea latte (I'm one of those rare Land of Starbucks residents who doesn't like coffee), and she and I and Kirstie had a lovely conversation that ranged from writing and books to daughters abroad (Kirstie's daughter is traveling in Thailand right now, mine is living in Norway), to concerns about aging parents, to the technological wonders we've seen in the last 10-20 years. By the time Terri and Kirstie left, I felt like I'd not just connected with readers, but made two new friends.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Catching Up

I only did ONE post last month. Pathetic! Must do better than that, though I don't think I'll ever be able to manage the nearly daily entries that some writers do. (Confession: I still keep a daily hand-written journal. However, trust me, you wouldn't want to read it. It's mostly boring, everyday stuff.) At any rate, I'll try to aim for one new blog entry per week in future.

Since my last post--over a month ago--I've been steadily logging in the writing hours on the contemporary middle grade novel I'm setting on the Oregon Coast. I'm maybe half to two-thirds of the way through a first draft. I gave myself a deadline to finish that first draft by Thanksgiving, but I've moved that out a bit because of revisions on the last book in Joan Holub's and my "Goddess Girl" series. (The first two books debut in April.) Still hope to finish a first draft of (tentatively-titled) "Just Olive" before Christmas though. We'll see.

In addition to my usual writing, my husband and I also spent a lovely week in the Palm Springs area house and pet sitting for my brother-in-law and his wife.

All for now!

P.S. Picture on this post is the book cover for Goddess Girls #3. Title of the book was "Aphrodite the Beautiful" originally, but that was too long to fit, so we shortened to "Aphrodite the Beauty." I like the new title better, anyway.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Soothing Power of Music

I can't listen to music when I write. I find it too distracting. For the same reason, I can't listen to music when I read, either. And because I do a lot of reading and writing, I sometimes go for long stretches of time without listening to music, except for snatches I hear on the radio when I'm driving around doing errands. So, it was a special pleasure last night to attend the Auburn Symphony concert at the Auburn H.S. Performing Arts Center.

If you live in the south King County area of Washington State and enjoy classical music, you'll want to check out the Auburn Symphony. This professional orchestra is composed mainly of musicians from the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra. In the interest of full disclosure, I will state here that my husband is the principal trombonist for both groups. I get no kickbacks from ticket sales (and neither does my husband), so I make this recommendation only from good will.

Last night's concert included a wonderful trumpet concerto featuring Jerry Oram (principal trumpet for A. S. and the PNB Orchestra), The Comedians Suite by Kabalevsky, and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G Major.

The next opportunity to hear the orchestra: December 2 - 3 for Handel's Messiah.

Hope to see you there!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Getting from "Thinking About" to "Doing"

Recently I spent two lovely days at the Oregon coast. My mom came with me. We stayed with a friend of hers whom I've know all my life. I'd asked Lois if Mom and I could come visit because for several years I've been wanting to write a middle grade novel set in a small coastal town. Though vague ideas about the novel have been at the back of my mind for a long time, I couldn't seem to act on them.

To be fair, I've been plenty busy with series writing these last several years. But now that the writing for my current series is winding down, I decided a trip to the beach might be just the catalyst I needed to move forward. And I think it will be. During those two days, I interviewed Lois about "life in a small coastal town," and walked around town recording descriptions of sights and sounds into a small digital audio recorder. Lois also set up an interview for me with the daughter and twelve-year-old grand-daughter of a local friend of hers one evening. It was wonderful how eager everyone was to help. The information I collected during the interviews is sure to prove helpful, and I now have another motivation for getting to work on this book: the other people who know about it!

What helps you to bridge the gap between "thinking about" to "doing"?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Promoting New Books--Ideas anyone?

Okay, I admit it. Promotion is something I need to get better at. I love speaking at schools and conferences, and speaking engagements do help get the word out about new books. I sign on for a few (usually local) book store signings. On occasion I've sent copies of my new books to local reviewers. But I'm never really sure how effective these various efforts are. On the one hand, I worry that I should be doing more. On the other hand, I wonder if my time would be better spent on that next writing project instead.

Many of you are far more savvy and creative when it comes to promoting your books. What do you think are the best things you do to call attention to your newly-published books?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Falling into Fall

How can it possibly be September already? Yet today's rain and the cooler evenings confirm that we're moving into fall. Though I no longer work as an elementary librarian--haven't in nearly ten years now--I still feel a bit unsettled when August rolls into September, like I'm not quite prepared for the new school year ahead. Time to sluff off that feeling, I think. But for those of you returning to teaching jobs, and for those of you who have children in school, or are in school yourselves, I want to wish you the very best in the year ahead.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Picture Book Fun

It's been a while since I've done any picture book writing. In fact, my last picture book, Ten Naughty Little Monkeys, a takeoff on the familiar jump rope rhyme, was published three years ago. In the interim, I've been writing lots of series fiction, the latest being the series that Joan Holub and I are co-authoring. (Goddess Girls, April 2010). Anyway, with Book #3 (of 4) off to copy-editing, and Book #4 with our editor, I find I have time to consider my next project(s).

Instead of rushing into more series work right away, though I do have a few proposals making the rounds, I've decided to take some time to work on picture books. To prepare myself for the mental switch involved, I went to my local public library and asked the wonderful children's librarians to point me toward some of their favorite picture books published in the last few years. After reading them, I actually typed the stories out to get a "feel" again for picture books texts--the pacing, the dialogue, the characters, etc. I also took note of the word counts, which have gotten shorter and shorter over the years. Then I went through my files and pulled out a couple of stories I'd written a few years ago. These were stories that never sold, but that I still liked.

Yesterday I revised one of these stories. At 1200 words, it was way too long, I realized. I cut the length by a third, tightening the story, and creating more space for illustrations as well. It was fun to work on the story again, and since it had been several years since I'd read it, it was also easier to see the flaws that needed correction. Time will tell whether my revised version will sell, but at least I had fun with the process!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Word about Word Counts

Last Saturday I spoke on a panel at the Pacific NW Writer's Association conference about the basics of writing for children. Afterward, a woman came up to me. "I gather from what you said that my 40,000 word novel for ages 7 - 10 may be too long," she said. "Um, yes," I replied. But hers wasn't he longest story I'd heard about that morning. Another woman in the audience had written an 80,000 word manuscript "for ages 8 -12."

Yes, I know how long the Harry Potter books are. But they're the exception rather than the rule. It could also be argued that, as Harry grows older and the books become longer, they actually shift into the Young Adult category.

So what are the word counts most writers for the middle grades should aim for?

The finished page length of the seven books in the two series I've written for ages 7 - 10 ranged from 84 - 133 pages. That translates to a word count of approximately 7,500 - 12,000 words--a far cry from 40,000.

For ages 8 - 12, my books have ranged from a finished page length of 103 - 150 pages, a word count of approximately 11,000 to 18,000 words.

Hope this helps!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Goddess Girls dedication contest: Your name in our book!

Joan Holub and I are so excited about our new chapter book series, Goddess Girls,* and want to dedicate it to you--our readers! That's ages 8 to 12 and librarians, teachers, and book bloggers!

The series begins in Spring 2010 from Aladdin Paperbacks with:
Athena The Brain
Persephone the Phony.

*To find out more about the series, click on the series title link above and scroll down to "Books in Progress."

Here's how to enter:

Take the quiz below. Send an email to me at sw at suzanne-williams dot com or to joanholub at aol dot com and tell us which goddessgirl (or two) you’re most like. Don't forget to include your name (first and last). If you're chosen, you’ll be notified via email that your name will be in one of our Goddess Girl books! And you’ll receive a free copy of the book after it’s published. Names will be randomly chosen by September 15th. Good luck!!!

~ Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Which Goddessgirl are You?

Your favorite color is:
a. Yellow when I’m happy, black when I’m not.
b. Dark pink, light pink, hot pink, bright pink. PINK!
c. Whatever. As long as it’s not red.
d. Yegods! Why should it matter what color I wear?

Your general outlook on life is:
a. Sunny, but sometimes your mood turns dark, and that’s okay with you.
b. Viewed through the prism of romance. You love to play matchmaker with your friends!
c. Life’s a contest, and you like to compete. You’re very athletic and you also like board games.
d. Intellectual. There’s just so much to learn, and you sop up knowledge like a sponge.

When it comes to boys:
a. You go for the guy who is different and off-beat, and maybe a bit mysterious.
b. Anyone cute catches your eye; you’re an equal-opportunity flirter.
c. Yuck! Who gives a rip about boys?
d. Sure, you notice them, but you’re much too busy with schoolwork and after school activities to concern yourself with boys.

What some people don’t know about you is that deep down:
a. You “dance to a different drummer,” not always liking the same things your friends like.
b. You sometimes worry that other people—especially boys— like you more for your looks than for your other many good qualities.
c. You don’t really dislike boys as much as you claim to.
d. You worry that you’re not as smart as others think you are.

Given an hour or two of free time, you’d rather spend it:
a. Wandering around in a lovely garden or park.
b. Experimenting with make-up and hairstyles.
c. Playing with a pet or doing anything active.
d. Reading a book.

Add up the number of A’s, B’s, C’s, and D’s. If you have more A’s, you’re most like Persephone, B’s, you’re most like Aphrodite, C’s, you’re most like Artemis, D’s, you’re most like Athena. Or you might be a half-and-half mix of two goddessgirls!

(Note: If you're chosen, we may ask you to have your parents send us an email that it's okay to include your name.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Clearing the Clutter

After watching our next-door neighbor move this week, and talking to our exhausted son and daughter-in-law, who just moved to a new condo, my husband and I have vowed to tackle our accumulated clutter--again. Several years ago, we went through the whole house, room by room, and bagged and boxed tons of stuff that we either donated to charity or dumped. But somehow we've managed to fill up our bookshelves and closets and desk drawers once more. I was able to cull two bags of clothes from my closet and dresser two days ago, and today I began on my office closet.

It's a slow process, this decluttering, and in some ways not unlike writing a book. Both tasks can seem overwhelming unless broken into smaller tasks: a chapter or a few pages at a time translating to a closet or a bookshelf at a time. The progress is its own reward.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Quest for Coolness

While vacationing with family in Rome at the end of May it became warm enough to wear my capris. My daughter and sisters, however, were appalled at my choice of acompanying footwear--a clunky, but comfortable pair of black athletic shoes and black anklets. "You can get by with those with long pants, but not capris and shorts, " they said. "Please wear your sandals, you're embarrassing us."

So I wore my sandals and wound up with blisters on both of my little toes.

I've been home a little over a week now, and yesterday afternoon I decided to search for more "hip" footwear. First, I bought eight new pairs of socks of the type my daughter and sisters specified, low-cut, with elastic around the ankles. Then I looked for a shoe with a slimmer design that my decidedly unhip orthopedic inserts would still fit into. I found success for a modest price at my local Big Five.

"So what do you think?" I asked my husband as I modeled the result. "Am I cool now?" (Why I asked him I don't know. His sense of fashion is even worse than mine.) He shrugged. "At our age, probably the best we can hope for is to be a little less uncool," he replied.

I nodded thoughtfully. "I can accept that." Fashion coolness may always be beyond my reach, but becoming a little less uncool, is an aspiration that just might be within my grasp.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Home Again After a Fabulous Trip

I returned home on Tuesday after three fabulous weeks in Italy and Norway that included time spent in Rome and Florence, and an incredible road trip around southern Norway with astounding views of fjords and rocky snow-capped mountains, and a wonderful stay with the family of my daughter's boyfriend.

It was great traveling with family--my parents, two sisters, and my daughter were with me in Italy, and my husband flew out for the Norway portion of the trip. After catching up on email and clearing my desk, I'm finally getting back to work, but I have lots of photos to help me remember the good times.

Top picture: My husband Mark and I above Bergen in Norway.

Bottom picture: My daughter Emily and I in front of the Duomo in Florence, Italy.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Take a Look at my NEW WEBSITE

Thanks to wonderfully-talented web designer Dana Arnim (who is also a fellow SCBWIer) my new website is up and running as of today. I'm excited to unveil it, and I hope everyone reading this post will check it out. I also now have a link from my site to this blog.

On Tuesday I leave for a three-week trip to Europe--southern Italy and Norway. (My daughter Emily lives in Oslo.) I won't have my laptop with me while I'm gone. I'm going to try to unhook from technology AND writing for a while, and just enjoy the sights and some R & R. I'll post again after my return.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Happy Mother's Day to All of Us Mothers

My daughter Emily celebrated her 23rd birthday on Thursday, only three days shy of Mother's Day this year. Somehow, that seems appropriate. After all, her birth made me a (second-time) mother.

My firstborn, my son Ward, turned 26 on April 15th--Tax Day. Somehow, that seems appropriate too, given the expense of raising children. But no matter the cost, I wouldn't for the world have missed out on the opportunity to be their mother. I'm guessing that those of you who also have children feel the same way about yours. And for those of you whose children are still young and at home I can tell you that your children will always be your children.

No matter how old they get, you will still worry about them (with or without cause), and rejoice in their happiness and their successes. Even as adults they will continue to be your favorite topic of conversation with relatives and friends--at least, I presume, until the grandchildren come along...

"Grown don't mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What's that suppose to mean? In my heart it don't mean a thing." ~Toni Morrison, Beloved, 1987

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Retail Therapy

First let me say that I am not a compulsive shopper. Far from it. In fact, most times I'd rather tackle a disagreeable task like cleaning out my file cabinet than go shopping. But for the last few days, I've been thinking I'd like a new spring rain jacket to take on my trip to Europe at the end of the month. What tipped the balance today, and sent me out the door in search of the perfect jacket, was a densely-packed email from co-writer Joan Holub, filled with suggestions/ideas for changes in the book we're currently working on. Don't get me wrong, they were excellent suggestions, but the thought of all that work ahead suddenly made me feel tired. To perk myself up, I headed for the nearest REI.

The first jackets I looked at weren't quite right. Some didn't come with a hood. Others came with a hood, but no inside pocket. A few had both a hood and an inside pocket, but I didn't like the feel of the fabric. With the help of two wonderful store assistants, however, I finally found just the jacket I wanted. It has a zip-off hood, zippered inner and outer pockets, and a soft inner lining. Plus, it's waterproof, windproof, breathable and--as an added bonus--a good color for me.

I happily made my purchase, and drove on home. Then I called Joan to thank her for her email. I'll wait until tomorrow to start on a rewrite. That way the ideas she sent can roll around in my brain for a bit. Right now our current manuscript is a lot like those first jackets I looked at. It has some of the things we want, but not all. But I'm confident that, with another draft or two, we'll have just the story we want--with all the features we'd hoped for.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Fun of Foreign Translations

I love it when a book of mine gets translated into another language. I usually get 3 - 5 complimentary copies of the translated book after the foreign edition comes out. It's fun to see my words transformed, even when I can't read the language. And since the artwork for chapter book/middle grade novels is usually redone, it's a treat to see how my characters are changed to "fit" a country's culture.

Titles are often changed too. The book covers at left are for the German and Japanese editions of the first book in my Princess Power series: The Perfectly Proper Prince. In German, the title translates approximately as The Enchanted Princesses and the Speaking Frog. I love that the dresses the princesses are wearing look like dirndls.

The Japanese series title is The Princess Club, which, coincidentally, was my original title for the series until HarperCollins decided to change it because they already had a series called The Tiara Club. (They thought Princess Club was too close in name.) The Japanese cover and interior illustrations are done in the style of anime and are very detailed. Of all three editions, including the American one, they're actually my favorite.

Monday, April 27, 2009

My parents' 60th wedding anniversary

My parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary a little over a month ago, on March 20th. That's quite an achievement I think, and I'm very proud of them. They've stuck it out through good times and bad--but mostly good, as far as I know!

I see their long-standing relationship as a good role model for me, and I hope to follow in their footsteps. My husband Mark and I still have a way to go to hit the 60 year mark, but already we're more than halfway there.

"A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person."
--Mignon McLaughlin
(alas, I have no idea who this person is, but I assume he's not a steak)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spring Fever

My husband and I just got back from four days in the Palm Springs area, visiting my husband's brother and my sister-in-law. It was nice to get out of the rain and cold in Seattle, though today it's supposed to be mid-sixties, and tomorrow may even reach into the seventies. Roll on, spring! Whenever the weather turns nice for a couple of days, it's easy to be lulled into thinking it will continue that way. But this year, I resolve not to be fooled! I will take advantage of those sunny April/May days and get outside to enjoy them before the showers start in again.

"It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want - oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!" ~Mark Twain

Monday, April 6, 2009

Making Lemonade

Today I'm making lemonade. No, not the kind you drink--the kind you make when life throws you a few lemons. I put my back out yesterday (the lemons), so I'm pretty much confined to the living room couch right now with an ice pack and ibubrofen--and my laptop. Here's my recipe for today's lemonade:

Take 1 day off. (Repeat as necessary.)
Add 2 parts sunshine. (It's a beautiful spring day and I CAN sit outside for short periods of time.)
Mix in a half-dozen overdue responses to emails and a Facebook message or two.
Sprinkle in some time to read, and journal, and blog.

Stir slowly. Enjoy!

Lemonade Days have taught me to slow down, and to appreciate the good things and people in my life even more. (Thanks for the sympathy phone call, Leslie, and for the on-line good wishes from Helen and Paula and others. Thanks to my husband Mark for fetching and carrying, and putting up with the occassional self-pitying whine.)

Lemonade Days have also taught me that adjusting my plans is not really as difficult as I might imagine. I had to miss my regular writing group meeting today, but one missed meeting is not a tragedy. The speech I was supposed to give to a UW children's writing class tomorrow can be postponed until May, thanks to instructor Brenda Guiberson's flexibility. I was looking forward to going to the SCBWI-Washington meeting Wednesday night. Besides wanting to hear the presentations, I had planned to meet up with my name-double, author Suzanne Morgan Williams, who will be visiting from Reno, Nevada. I'll have to give that a miss too, but I was still able to order her new novel, Bull Rider, so she can sign a copy for me at the meeting. Exercising at the gym and walking my dog will also have to wait.

But I plan to enjoy my Lemonade Day (or days). And before long I know I'll be back on my feet again--literally and figuratively. I wish you all the best on your Lemonade Days too!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What's Magic About Writing?

When I was thinking of subtitles for my blog, "The Magic of Writing and More" just seemed like a good idea--mostly because in the last couple of years I've been writing so many princess and fairy books. But let me confess that when I'm drafting a story, writing often feels more like hard work than magic, and getting to the end of a story can be a cold, hard slog.

The author Gore Vidal once said, "I never reread a text until I have finished the first draft. Otherwise it's too discouraging." I'm of the same opinion. Forward movement has always seemed a good thing to me in first draft writing. Though I do a fair amount of rewriting as I go along, I try not to get caught up in improving my prose too much in a first draft.

Instead, my usual modus operandi is to reread the last paragraph or two I wrote the day before, then go on from there. If I realize while drafting chapter 8, that I should’ve foreshadowed an event in chapter 4 or 5, I may go back and add that part to the story, otherwise, I just make a note about what needs to be changed or added on a piece of paper labeled “Notes for Draft #2” and go on with the story.

So where does the magic come in--especially in a first draft? For me, it's in those rare moments when a clever line of dialogue or description pops into my head. Sometimes those lines later have to be edited out (we writers hate that, and sometimes refer to it as "killing our babies"), but often those lines survive successive drafts intact, or with just a bit of tweaking. And even when the writing comes slowly, and in fits and starts, there's a certain magic in simply seeing the pages accumulate. And when those pages have been sprinkled with the fairy dust of successive drafts, helped along by many fairy godmothers and godfathers (my agent, my writing group, my editor and a whole publishing staff, and an illustrator), voila! A book! What could be more magic than that?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My Hawaiian Family (Not!)

I love this family photo. It makes me laugh. Only my mother and youngest sister Nancy actually traveled to Hawaii when I was young. They were invited along when my grandmother went on vacation to Maui in the mid-sixties. The photo was taken after their return home, against a bamboo screen in our backyard. I don't know why I'm the only child smiling. My brother looks like he's in pain, and my sister Becky looks like she's doing a good imitation of Christina Ricci in her role as Wednesday in The Addams Family Movie. Perhaps she's glowering because she didn't get a cool (fake) grass skirt like the one I'm wearing. I loved that grass skirt. I wonder what happened to it. It probably disappeared to the same place as those wonderful glasses my mom is wearing. Ah, memories...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Old Family Photos

My sister Becky recently finished scanning 2000 of our parents' old slides and photos. I hadn't seen the slides in a hundred years (only a slight exaggeration). Even after my brother and sisters and I were grown up and no longer living at home, my dad still carried around in his wallet a copy of the b & w photo I've posted with this entry. (I'm the one in pigtails.) We used to tease him about that old photo, till finally one holiday when we were all together, we decided to make him a more up-to-date replacement picture. As you can see, we kept the pose the same. My sister Nancy had a little more trouble fitting on my brother Dave's lap, however.

I was always a redhead, btw. But I can see from the picture of me on my first birthday, that my hair isn't quite as red as it used to be. There's a fair number of gray and silver threads in it now that never used to be there too. That's life.

Mmm, that birthday cake looks good, doesn't it?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Happy Dr. Seuss Day/Week

It's become something of a tradition at many schools to invite an author to speak during Dr. Suess's birthday week in March. I think anything that highlights and celebrates the fun and importance of reading and writing is a lovely tradition, and I had a great time speaking at two elementary schools last week. The students and staff at A.G. Bell in Kirkland and Panther Lake in Kent were wonderfully attentive and enthusiastic. They made me feel like "Queen for a Day." (Now if that reference doesn't date me, I don't know what else would!)

When I worked as an elementary school librarian, it was easy to get my "kid fix." But I've been writing fulltime for the past nine years. I miss teaching and interacting with children, so school visits are a treat. I enjoy all the grade levels. It was exciting to see what great ideas the third and fourth graders at Panther Lake came up with during my "Show, Don't Tell" workshops. The primary graders at both schools were adorable and had great questions. And because the intermediate students were so mature, I could share much about my writing process and the ins and outs of becoming published.

I love it when students come up to me after a presentation and tell me about the stories they are working on. When that happens I think to myself, perhaps this child could be the next Dr. Suess in the making!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A puzzling story

I'm revising a story for an editor right now. The process is never as straight-forward or as easy as I'd like it to be. Every time I make one change--to the plot, or to a character--it results in a whole host of related changes that have to be made.

It's like my story is a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has to fit with all of the other pieces. So when I change the shape of even one piece, it doesn't quite fit with the other pieces anymore and I have to reshape several other pieces to make everything fit together again. Frustrating at times, but ultimately satisfying when the new puzzle is solved.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Role Models

I went walking and had a cocoa at the local Starbucks with one of my best friends this afternoon. She's a woman twenty years older than me, a retired junior high librarian. We both worked for the same school district years ago. Phyllis travels constantly, sometimes by herself. We've taken one trip together to Mexico. Phyllis has been to India, Vietnam, China, all over South American and Mexico, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Italy, and dozens of other countries. I admire her adventurous spirit and aspire to be more like her, though I usually only manage a couple of trips a year right now.

Besides being ready to travel at the drop of a hat (or the drop of an airfare), Phyllis lives by this rule: "If someone invites you to do something fun, just say yes." Another of her rules: "If there's something fun you want to do (like going to a movie or a concert), and you can't find someone to do it with, go by yourself." I like Phyllis's rules. I try to follow them too.

Who are the role models in your life?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hooray for Us!

Joan Holub and I emailed our first two "Goddess Girls" manuscripts to our editor at Aladdin a few days ago. Whenever a writing project leaves my desk it's such a good feeling--even if it's only until the story comes back for revision. It's both amazing and a relief to see something that starts out as a bunch of vague and ill-formed ideas finally come together. Of course, the process was that much easier this time because I was working with Joan. I admit that I gnashed my teeth over a few of the harder changes she wanted to make, but of course I knew she was right. Thanks, Joan. I think we make a great team!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Deja Vu All Over Again

During the last several years I've written stories about princesses, flower fairies, and, currently, goddesses. I think it's about time for another "boy" series. I've had a couple of proposals making the rounds for a while now, and decided a few days ago that it was time to review them again. I asked my husband to read the sample chapters and synopsis for the first proposal and give me his "inner-boy" reaction. He liked the chapters. He thought they were well-written and "a good set-up." But he wasn't sure just what they were a set-up for. "Nothing much happens in the synopsis," he said. My heart plummeted. "What do you mean?" I asked. "Can you be more specific?" He thought about it for a while. "There's not enough action. Also, Ray [the main character] doesn't really solve his own problem. He's just carried along by events. He needs to be more heroic."

As my husband tossed a few plot ideas my way, building on traits I'd given my main character in the first three chapters, but failed to follow through with in the synopsis, I began to get excited by new story possibilities. At the same time, I felt chagrined that I hadn't seen the flaws in the synopsis myself. I've been writing for nearly twenty years now. I've had 27 books published. I KNOW that my main character needs to solve his own problem. I KNOW the importance of heroism and action. So why do I seem to forget this with each new story? Fortunately, writing's more forgiving than something like, say, brain surgery. If I'm doomed to forget the things I already know about good writing time after time, at least I can write myself out of my messes.

Hobnobbing with Children's Writers

I'm blessed to live in the Seattle area where there are probably 150 published children's writers and a very strong chapter of SCBWI with superb and energetic leadership. For many years, I didn't attend as many monthly meetings as I would've liked. I just couldn't seem to find the energy or time for the 45 - 60 minute commute (depending on traffic) from my home south of Seattle. My children were young, I was still working my "day job," plus I really don't like to drive. In the last couple of years, however, I've been trying to get to more meetings. I was even a guest speaker in November, and a critique group leader for the annual "Great Critique" in January. No matter what the meeting topic, I always come away with some new ideas to think about and, just as importantly, good feelings from chitchatting with my fellow writers--whether published, or on the road toward publication.

Children's writers are some of the nicest folks you'll ever meet. You might think that, as difficult as it is to get published, competitive feelings would run high. I imagine we all battle the green envy monster from time to time when we hear of someone else's sucess, but there is always a greater sense that we're all in this together.

Last weekend I was one of a group of twenty-six children's authors invited to speak at a state reading conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. What a delight it was to visit with these fellow authors--some of whom I'd met before, but most of whom I hadn't. We laughed a lot as we traded tips, talked about current projects, our families, and the publishing biz. Talk about instant camaraderie! I returned home feeling like I'd made several new friends.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Typical Writing Day - Friday, Jan. 30

6:45am Rouse slightly, glance at clock. Close eyes again.

7:45am Yikes! Get out of bed. Put on exercise clothes.

8am Eat bowl of oatmeal with raisins. Pour cup of tea.

8:15 - 9:15am Critique manuscript chapter for member of Writing Group; check email

9:15 - 9:30am Drive to gym practicing Italian lesson on MP3 player in car, thus killing two birds with one stone, only not literally.

9:30 - 10:30am Yoga -- try to imitate movements of far more agile (and younger) instructor.

10:30 - 10:45am Drive home again repeating useful Italian phrases such as: Voglio comprare un belle cappello. (I want to buy a nice hat.)

10:45 - 11:15am Shower and dress.

11:15- noon Turn on computer, check email. Respond to question about a March school visit. Try to open an attachment unsuccessfully. Abandon attempt and continue yesterday's work on second chapter of first draft of current project. Write two or three paragraphs.

12 - 12:30pm Feed dog and self. Dog jumps up and down for canned food as if it's the best thing ever. How can he feel this way when he eats the same thing every single day? My lunch: 1/2 ham sandwich; cottage cheese with black pepper and green olives (yum! You should try this, it's a good combination); broccoli salad; one Dove dark chocolate square (for medicinal purposes, of course).

12:30 - 2pm Back at computer. Write one and a half pages.

2- 2:45pm Drive to eye doctor's office. Pick up extra pair of contact lenses. Listen to more Italian: La metropolitana non pasa spezzo. (The subway doesn't run often.)

2:45 - 4pm Write one more page to finish chapter.

4 - 4:20pm Go for short walk with husband and dog.

4:20 - 4:30pm Change a couple sentences in chapter ending I thought about on walk. Check email again. Write a couple non-work emails. Turn off computer.
Another writing day is done!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Thoughts of Norway

I just finished reading The Klipfish Code, a middle grade novel about a young girl who, along with her younger brother, is sent to live with her teacher aunt and fisherman grandfather after the Germans bomb Norway in 1940. Though Norway was occupied for five long years, Norwegian resistance efforts were strong. For refusing to teach Nazi propaganda, one of ten teachers was sent to a concentration camp. Marit is troubled that her grandfather seems unwilling to "rock the boat" and stand up to the Germans, even after her aunt (his daughter) is taken away one day. But when Marit happens upon a wounded Norwegian soldier, her own fear of what could happen if the Germans caught her assisting him almost causes her to turn her back on the man. Somehow she finds the courage to hide him, and to finish the mission he begs her to take on. The last few chapters had my adrenalin flowing, they were so gripping and suspenseful. The author, Mary Casanova, lives in Minnesota. Her ancestors are Norwegian. Though mine are not, I feel a special connection to Norway these days because my daughter is living in Oslo.

For those of you who also have adult children living far away, I feel a special sympathy. It's not easy. But with email, text-messaging, and Skype, staying in touch is not as hard as it once was. And it was wonderful to have both Emily and her Norwegian boyfriend Vegard here for Christmas. Vegard was thrilled with our (uncharacteristically) big snowfall because "a white Christmas is the way it should be." Next June my husband and I will be spending two weeks in Norway--our second trip there--and we look forward this time to meeting Vegard's family and seeing more of the country outside of Oslo. By the way, I'm told that in Norway the saying goes: "When the cat's away, the mice dance on the table." I love that!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Taking Stock, Making Changes

I think it's the combination of a new year and Obama's presidency that's inspiring me to take stock of where I am right now in my writing/speaking career and where I want to go from here. A book I read recently, The First 30 Days: Your Guide to Any Change (and loving your life more!) , talks about our "Change GPS" and how the only two questions that matter are: Where am I now? and Where do I want to go? One change I'd like to make is to do more speaking at schools and conferences. This week I spent time updating and revamping two presentations I'll be giving in Milwaukee, WI in a couple of weeks at a reading conference. I want to do my best job so that I'll get more offers to speak. I also decided that my website is sorely in need of a facelift. I've never had a professionally-designed site before, so I'm excited that Dana Arnim, who designed SCBWI-Western Washington's site, is going to do the job. Sometime this spring I'll have a brand-new site with a brand-new look that I'll proudly be able to point others to. Naturally, I'm hoping the new site will help attract more speaking offers too.

As for writing, I've got a couple of projects that will take me through at least the first half of the year. My friend Joan Holub and I are co-writing four books for a middle grade series to be called Goddess Girls. The stories will be loosely-and humorously- based on Greek mythology. Joan and I have been working on the first two books since late summer and should be able to send them to our editor at Simon & Schuster (Aladdin) within the next few weeks. The series will pub in 2010. Two more books in my Fairy Blossoms series are yet to come out, but the writing for those is finished. I'm also working on a commerical story project, thanks to a referral from Kirby Larson. And after my current projects? I'm not really sure. I've got several ideas simmering on the back burners of my mind, and a few new series proposals making the rounds of publishers.

That's enough about my projects and in-the-works-changes for now. What projects and changes are you in the midst of right now--career-wise or otherwise?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Money Matters: How I Moved From Writing as a Hobby to Writing as a Career: Part II

During the late 1990's my writing and speaking income had increased to the point where I made as much or more from those two things combined as I earned as a half-time librarian. I began to dream about quitting my librarian job, but was nervous about doing so since there was no guarantee that I would continue to sell books and get invitations to speak. However, something had to give. I was doing so many school visits in the spring, scheduled on the days I didn't work as a librarian, that I had little time or energy left to write.

One day I came across a book called Smart Choices (Subtitle: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions.") I devour (good) self-help books the same way some women devour gothic romances, so I eagerly bought the book. After reading it, I realized that I hadn't identified my decision problem correctly. Instead of asking myself "When should I quit working as a librarian?" I needed to ask "Should I become a full-time writer?" I identified three objectives I wanted to achieve: to further my writing career, to lead a more balanced life (with time for family and friends, hobbies, travel, and volunteering, in addition to writing), and to make an adequate income.

Thinking about my objectives, I realized that remaining in my "day job" was not going to help me further my writing career or live a more balanced life. The day job did help with my third objective, of course. But if I could make an adequate income from writing and speaking, then I wouldn't need to continue working as a librarian. Now an adequate income will obviously mean different things to different people, but for me it meant a minimum of about 30K a year. I could get by with that little because, even though my children were in their teens by now, my husband and I had faithfully put money aside for their college educations from the day each was born. It was the smartest thing we ever did. (But that's a topic for some other day.) When my income shot up in 1999 (see the cool chart my husband helped me make), I took a year's leave from my half-time library job, then a second year's leave, and then I resigned.

Though my income has varied quite a bit in the eight years since I quit my day job (see the blue line), it's only once dipped below my 30K minimum. Overall, my writing income (the pink line) has gone up. My speaking income has declined in the last few years (as it has for most children's authors I've spoken to), but I hope to do more speaking in the years to come.

Here's an interesting thing: six months after I became a full-time writer I sold my first series. Since I hadn't intended to write a series, but was offered one on the basis of the "stand-alone" story I thought I had written, I decided to take that as a "sign" that the universe supported my decision to become full-time. In the last eight years I have published four series, and three more picture books.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Money Matters: How I Moved From Writing as a Hobby to Writing as a Career: Part I

I had been an elementary school librarian for ten years before I began to write for children. It helped at first to think of my writing as a hobby. That way I could enjoy the process without setting unrealistic deadlines for when I thought I had to be published. I was lucky. I got an offer on a story within a year of the time I began to submit things to publishers. That story became my first picture book, Mommy Doesn't Know My Name, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1990. (The book is still in print as a paperback and has also been published in Spanish and Japanese editions.)

Even though my advance was only $3000 (fairly typical for first-time picture book authors in 1990), I wanted to give myself more time to write by working half-time at my "day job." Elementary school librarians don't make a ton of money, of course, but it was still scary to give up half of a sure thing not knowing what I could make as a writer. If I'd been independently wealthy I could've thrown caution to the wind, but I wasn't then and am not now, either. My husband's income as a musician wasn't enough to support both of us, plus our two young children.

After poring over our finances and much discussion my husband and I decided I should give half-time a try. My school principal let me take a half-time leave for a year so that I could go back to being a full-time librarian the following year if I needed to. Well, one year stretched into two years and two years into three. By the end of the fourth year, I knew I would be okay working half-time indefinitely.

So, did I make a lot of money from my writing those first few years? Not at all. In fact my records show that from 1991 - 1995 my income from writing (and a few school visits) varied from a high of around $10,000 to a low of just $1800. However, there are always ways to cut back on expenses, and my husband and I are frugal (we drive our cars until they fall apart before we replace them, for example), so we were able to get by. So for ten years, from 1990 -2000, I continued to work as a half-time librarian. During those years I published five more books and began to do more speaking at schools and conferences. In my next blog, I'll explain how I finally decided the time was ripe to become a fulltime children's book writer.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Race Relations

Jenny, my new daughter-in-law, teaches third grade in Seattle. She has a girl in her class who is a big fan of Library Lil. When the girl mentioned that the author's last name was the same as her teacher's last name, Jenny told her it wasn't just a coincidence, that I was her mother-in-law. Later, the children were reading a magazine article about tennis pro Serena Williams. "Are you related to her too?" a child wanted to know. A boy laughed, saying that their teacher couldn't be related to Serena--the tennis pro was African-American and their teacher was Asian. Someone else, having seen my photo on the back jacket of Library Lil, pointed out that I wasn't Asian either. The kids all laughed about that.

I love the "multi-ethnic" nature of so many of our families today, don't you? And soon we'll inaugurate a president who truly represents that blending of families. Speaking of which, if you haven't yet read Sundee Frazier's wonderful story of a bi-racial boy, "Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It," rush out and buy a copy. It's about a boy finding his place in the world, and making friends with a white grandfather he'd never known. Among other honors, the book won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award just after it was published. Happy Reading!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

To Blog or Not to Blog

Well, obviously I've decided in the affirmative. But like many of you, I'm guessing, I feel like I have no business doing this. I've kept a paper and pen journal for years and years, and I'm wondering if I'll be able to keep up with that in addition to this. Besides, there's my "real" writing to do--my writing for children. And then there's the daily round of life itself: preparing meals, running errands, walking the dog, READING, talking to friends, emailing (my #1 favorite form of procrastination), etc. Egads, what a whiner I am. I'm sure I don't have half the commitments that some of you have. After all, my two children are grown. (No grandchildren yet, but my son just got married in August, so there's definitely hope for the future.) But I'm meandering. When I brainstormed ideas for topics I could blog about, here are some I came up with: Money Matters (posts on the business side of writing, including how I decided the time was ripe to quit my day job); School Visits (I've been on both sides of the "aisle" as a librarian hosting authors AND as an author doing the visiting); general advice on how to get started writing for children; stuff about my books, and the books I'm currently reading. If you've stumbled upon my blog and would care to comment, please let me know what topics might interest you!