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In Which I Answer the Question: “What Are You Working on now?”

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I recently completed a series of interview questions at Deborah Kalb’s “Book Q&As” blog (not posted yet, or I’d share), and thought I’d pass along a brief sample. One of the unexpected challenges to writing a book comes after the book is finished — when you’ve got to figure out how to talk about it.

How do you explain it? How do you make it sound good in two sentences? How do you summarize 42,000 words to someone who is barely listening?

Obviously, I’m still trying to figure that out.  Read below and you can flounder along with me!

 

What are you working on now?

I am finishing up the revisions for a middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead, that I began seven years ago. That’s not a normal time-frame for me. It started as a misfit story, in this case a boy who survives his own death only to be told that, well, he might as well go back to middle school. I figured that “zombie” made him the ultimate outsider. But I didn’t feel satisfied writing just a zombie book, so the work stalled. As time passed, I became increasingly invested in a host of environmental issues, “climate change” in particular, even attending a huge march down in NYC. I kept looking at young people, including my own children, and felt the caretakers of the planet had failed them. We had failed them. At the same time, I felt that many of today’s young people had not fully grasped the severity of the situation. The book (Macmillan, 2017) casts a wide net, sprawls and morphs into a mystery/thriller hybrid, and touches upon dying bees, bats, droughts, wildfires, makeover shows, corporate greed, consumerism, politics, bullying, and, yes, the struggles of one lone zombie. If there’s a theme, it’s this: Everything connects. It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever written. I’m glad that I can still surprise myself — and consider it a good sign.

Here’s some more images from the spectacular “People’s Climate March” in NYC referenced above, attended by more than 400,000 citizens of the globe.

I traveled down alone -- but not alone -- by bus. So this is me on that great day, seeking attention to a cause that matters. In many ways, this march affected and inspired the book I wrote.

I traveled down alone — but not alone — from Delmar, NY, by bus. So this photo is me, taken by a stranger on that great day, seeking attention for a cause that matters. In many ways, this experience affected and inspired the book I wrote.

People's Climate March, 092114Some of hundreds of thousands take part in the People's Climate March through Midtown, New Yorkscreenshot-2014-09-10-131902_550x322climate-march-9_3000019b10_medium140921_climate_change_rally_nyc_ice_cream_earth_msm_605_60520140921-dsc_0050imagesA protester carries a sign during the "People's Climate March" in the Manhattan borough of New Yorkslide_389314_4706504_freeslide_370038_4261286_free140921_pol_peoplesclimate_11-jpg-crop-original-originalimagemarch-for-climate-changeimrspeoples-march-newam-crew-537x366

Working on My Gratefulness: “Scary Tales” Given the Manga Treatment

Somehow I’m going to have to become a more positive person. This job, you know. It has so many beautiful, rewarding aspects to it. Yet it’s easy for me to fall down that rabbit hole of negativity. It’s how I roll. The good books that don’t sell. The rejections. The struggle to earn enough money. And on and on.

It’s all so dumb. I don’t control those things. All I can do is . . . the best I can do. What happens after that is beyond my grasp.

And sometimes — quite often, really — amazing things come back to me. Kind words. Fabulous partnerships with illustrators. School visits. Even awards, books that get recognized.

I think that’s it, actually. We all want to be seen. This is true in all aspects of life. In our work, in our relationships. “I see you.” I guess that’s the thing with awards and starred reviews and invitations to visit schools and fan letters. In those instances, the world says, “I see you.” It’s all we can ask.

One of the really fun things is when a book gets translated into different languages. I’ve been lucky to see some of my titles in French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Korean, and more. This is one of my favorites, a Japanese translation of a zombie story from my “Scary Tales” series. This kind of thing just mysteriously happens. Rights are sold, talented people get to work, and I don’t do a blessed thing.

So cool, right?

(Working on my gratefulness.)

One Question, Five Authors #10: “Can you say something nice about procrastination?”

Procrastination. I guess everybody does it (or doesn’t do it) regardless of career choice. But it’s suffered most acutely by creative types. Full of despair and self-loathing, we beat ourselves up over our perceived lack of productivity.

In my calmer moments, when I’m more generous-hearted to myself, I understand the word “procrastination” is often a misnomer, part of a false narrative we tell ourselves about the nature of the creative process.

For today’s “One Question,” I asked five talented friends to share their thoughts on procrastination. Thank you: Jo Knowles, Barbara O’Connor, Charles Waters, Jay Cooper, and Susan Hood. 

 

Jo Knowles

Procrastination from my writing has provided me with a reorganized office, getting my taxes done, laundry folded, dishes put away, a snow fort built, countless levels of Candy Crush passed (don’t judge!), long walks with my dog, an epic closet clean out, and… NEW IDEAS. All of these somewhat mindless tasks allowed my brain and heart the necessary time out to realize why I was resisting the writing in the first place. When I let go, stop struggling and allow myself to do ANYTHING else, eventually my brain begins to solve whatever writing problems I’m struggling with. When I yearn to walk away and procrastinate, I’ve learned that there’s usually a good reason and let myself do it. I know that if the project is meant to be, it will call me back.

 

Barbara O’Connor

Ah, my old friend, Procrastination. I know her well. I procrastinate because I’m human. But I also procrastinate when I’m struggling with a manuscript. Much to my dismay, I’m a pantser. Although I would dearly love to outline, I don’t –- or more accurately, I can’t. My process is having a clear idea of character and setting but a very hazy idea of plot. (The other P word I sometimes hate.)

Writing the first draft is usually like groping in the dark with a dim vision of where I’m headed. This process is extremely frustrating to me. As a result, I’d often rather do laundry, walk the dog or organize my sock drawer than face that dreaded blank page. The good news is that eventually the story comes to life and I find myself racing to my computer, anxious to dive back in.

Another reason I sometimes procrastinate is because I’m stuck, unable to move the action forward. In such cases, time away from the manuscript is often just what the book doctor ordered. Usually, while walking the dog or doing laundry, I noodle things around in my head and eventually have a breakthrough. Other times, I get back to my manuscript after time away and see it with fresh eyes and the clarity I need to move forward.

Now pardon me while I go organize my sock drawer.

 

Jay Cooper

Oh, procrastination. It’s hounded me all my life, kneeling on my chest like that imp in that Fuseli painting. I have nothing good to say about it, aside from the fact that it can be used to gauge how important a thing is in your life, because in my experience procrastination has two polar causes: on one end, apathy (like when I procrastinate doing my taxes, or laundry) on the other, such fervent love of a thing that you’re petrified you’ll be terrible at it (like professional illustration, or that book you’ve always wanted to have a real go at writing). If you’re procrastinating because of the first part, I say, “do the work when it becomes unavoidable.” As to the second, you need to wrestle that fear to the ground, stake its heart, wrap it in chains and drop it into the Gowanus Canal.

How? I think it’s just jumping in and doing the work no matter how much fear it causes in you. My sketches are dreck. My early written drafts are barely legible . .  total trash. But I also could barely run a whole mile until I did it for five months straight, and then I ran a half marathon. I pushed down the fear of failure (I still do, every time I sit at the drawing table) and told friends I couldn’t attend parties, or go to movies, or spend a week at the beach. I got up weekend mornings and showered and shaved, and even put on a dab of cologne like it was a regular workday, but instead of walking to the train, I took a cup of coffee to my drawing table. I worked every day for months until I was sure my book was in shape. And by then, procrastination was no longer even an issue for me, because the habit of digging in and creating became part of my everyday routine. And I understood with time and diligence that a crappy sketch will ultimately become a decent illustration if I just keep plugging away at it. Once I had faith in myself, and some discipline, I slaughtered the imp.

That being said, I still haven’t turned in my taxes this year.

 

Charles Waters

This is something that, from what I’ve heard and read and has happened to me more than once, most writers go through. It’s important, at least to me, not to beat oneself up over it too much and get back to it when you can, hopefully sooner rather than later.

One way to help with the procrastination is to read a lot — reading is as vital as writing, so look at it getting half the job done when you’re going through a writing drought. Ultimately, to quote the great (and prolific) Jane Yolen, it’s all about BIC (Butt in Chair). There’s no replacement for it.

Another way to get out of the procrastination funk is jotting down things you see in your everyday life.

How a rain drop might hit a plant,

which ways the lines zig and zag in the chipped concrete,

checking out the different cloud formations in the sky.

I’ve typed up thoughts like those above, and many others, on my notebook phone app, and when I accumulate a healthy amount, I transfer it to my writing notebook, so when the time comes to write, I have something to at least get the writing motor started.

 

Susan Hood

Can I say anything nice about procrastination? It gets the laundry done. But seriously, procrastination for me means that my ideas aren’t fully formed and I need time and space to mull them over. Taking my dog for a walk, gardening, or kayaking frees my mind to wander where it will. It’s the equivalent of putting a manuscript in a drawer and letting it rest for a day or a week or a month. More often than not, I see what wasn’t working when I pull it out again. Right now, I’m procrastinating big time! I recently finished a mammoth research project and a writing marathon for a story that grabbed me the moment I saw a tiny paragraph about it in the back of The New York Times. Titan and the Wild Boars, the story of 12 boys who brought a divisive world together, comes out in May— a collaboration with Thai journalist Pathana Sornhiran and illustrator Dow Phumiruk. So in this case, procrastination is a way to rest and recharge. And I’m mulling over what my next book will be. I have several ideas in different genres: a picture book bio, a nonfiction book and a middle grade historical novel. But not one has gelled for me yet. I need to do more reading and more thinking . . . my favorite kind of procrastination!

 

One Question, Five Authors #9: “How do you cultivate creativity?”

It lives! We’ve eased into a monthly schedule for the “One Question” series. It takes me that long to come up with a question. Then I rest for three weeks, exhausted. Today comes with an embarrassment of riches, thanks for thoughtful replies from Laurie Keller, Nikki Grimes, Jordan Sonnenblick, Liza Gardner Walsh, and Steve Sheinkin. 

Today’s area of inquiry is difficult for me to summarize. I basically asked about fallow periods, that quiet time between inspirations, and how our artists dealt with that “between ideas” phase. Did they do anything special to cultivate creativity?

In other words, how does one invite ideas into an empty room?

 

Laurie Keller

UGGGH!!! Okay, that being said, it’s a tricky thing sometimes, getting those creative juices flowing. I’m inspired by absurd, silly (but clever!) things so when I’m starting a new project or am stuck in writers’ mud, there are favorite movies or songs or books I go to that will sometimes help me out. But the really elusive thing for me, it seems, is finding the right “voice” to get things rolling.

When I get an idea I’m excited about (which usually pops in my head or unexpectedly crosses my path; I don’t often use the ideas I write down and save), I’ll sometimes write for weeks or months and not get anything I like. It drives me BONKERS! But then, out of the blue, I’ll hear or see some ridiculous, zany, completely STOOPID thing that catches me so off-guard, it somehow turns everything around. I love when that happens! I had hoped after all these years of writing that I could summon that “voice” to show up just when I need it. But it’s all right. I’ve found that there are plenty of Gummi Bears and peanut M&M’s in this world to get me through the long, rough patches.

Nikki Grimes

I rarely experience truly fallow periods in my writing life, these days. I generally move from one contracted project to the next, working on multiple manuscripts over the course of a year. However, I do hit a creative wall, now and again, either because I’m burnt out from the previous project, as I was following completion of my forthcoming memoir, Ordinary Hazards, or because, uncharacteristically, I have no follow-up project. In either case, the solution to the problem is always the same for me: I read.

Reading always stirs my creative embers. I have to be selective about what genre I reach for, though. If I wish to work on a collection of poetry next, I had better not dive into a luscious anthology of personal essays, for example. If I do, in short order, I’ll find myself drafting personal essays. If, on the other hand, my intention is to work on a piece of prose, non-fiction or otherwise, I’d better beware novels in verse or volumes of poetry or that’s precisely what I’ll end up writing. I’d blame this literary misdirection on my muse, if I could, but it’s my own fault.   Whatever genre I feed on is invariably the genre that comes out of me. It happens every time! I suppose that’s the risk of writing across genres, as I am inclined to do. Ah, well. Nobody’s perfect!

 

Jordan Sonnenblick

I am an all-or-nothing writer.  I have published eleven middle-grade and YA novels since 2005, which sounds like the track record of someone who plugs away consistently.  In reality, though, I spend three-quarters of my time trying to think of something to write, and then when the idea finally hits, I crank out a book with blazing speed.  The longest it has ever taken me to write a first draft is four months, and I once wrote two complete novels and a short story in just eighteen feverish weeks.  (Then I got bronchitis and the flu in quick succession.  Don’t try this writing schedule at home.)

As you might imagine, I have put a whole lot of thought and effort into the battle against writer’s block — or, more specifically, initial-idea block.  I have never come up with a foolproof, one-size-fits-all solution, but there are some strategies that seem to make getting an idea more likely.  Anything that engages either my artistic faculties or the language center of my brain, but in a different way, is particularly useful.  As an example, this summer, I started taking Spanish refresher courses at night, reading the Harry Potter books in Spanish, and watching Spanish movies during my daily exercise routine.  Somehow, this freed up my thinking in a whole new way, and I started getting picture book ideas for the first time ever.  I also got a great idea for a memoir aimed toward adults.  This triggered a creative outburst, and I wrote the memoir, followed by two picture book manuscripts.  Right now, I am co-writing a play with an old friend from high school.  I don’t know which, if any, of these projects will sell.  However, I do know that spending a couple of hours a day immersed in another language got me out of a rut, and for that, I am grateful.

Next year: Russian!  Thanks for reading, comrades.

 

Liza Gardner Walsh 

I am currently in one of those fallow periods post deadline and past the chaotic aftermath. I’m dancing around a few projects but I’m also on the hunt. Luckily, I have a day job that provides me with endless daily inspiration. As a school librarian, I’m surrounded by books and children. I also have the good fortune to have recess duty everyday because I happen to believe that the best place to invite creativity is during recess.

So as I find myself on this current “writing recess,” I am noticing everything. I’m trying to follow the Mary Oliver method of living a life, “pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” This recess also allows me to stretch and to play. Challenges like Story Storm and a self-directed one hundred days of writing poetry prime the well. I also snuck away to a kidlit retreat in Vermont that oozed inspiration.

But perhaps the most fail-safe method of cultivating inspiration is walking my 10 month old puppy. We walk all over our small town. She doesn’t miss a thing. She makes me slow down, notice, and process all those ideas that percolate on the playground.

So my inspiration recipe is this; pay attention, play, challenge yourself, escape if you can, and walk. I think when all this combines, things start to happen. The light turns on again.

 

 

Steve Sheinkin

To me, the time in between ideas is all about trial and error, trying out different potential stories, just mentally at first, when I’m walking, cooking, shaving, whatever. I’ll take an idea and just play with it, just start somewhere and see how far I can take it. If it seems promising, I’ll write out really rough sketches of how the plot might be structured. With nonfiction, I obviously can’t make stuff up, but I find there’s still a lot of creativity, a lot of questions to be answered before I know if a book will work. So I’ll a pick a possible opening scene and watch it. And then I try to get from there to a logical next scene, and to another one, and so on. I’ve thrown out some of my best ideas for opening sequences (or my editor has forced me to) just because they didn’t lead smoothly into the heart of the story. It’s a good system for me, if not an efficient one, and I’d say the only drawback is that I’ll find myself “watching” my scenes when I’m supposed to be listening to people who are talking to me.

 

JP: I’M SORRY, STEVE, DID YOU SAY SOMETHING?

One Question, Five Authors #7: “How does a book begin for you?”

Welcome to “One Question,” the world’s laziest interview series. In today’s edition, we’re interested in origin stories — or the origins of story — those interstices of time between books. An author casts about, open-minded and perhaps a little lost, wondering what in the world that next book might be. And then, hmmm, like a fish nibbling on a line . . . something appears.

My thanks to Matt Tavares, Tony Abbott, Keely Hutton, Greg Neri, and Aimee Reid for their contributions.

Matt Tavares

Every book is different, but I’ll tell you how Red & Lulu got started — with a suggestion from my editor, Katie Cunningham, in late 2011 that I do a book about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. I loved the idea, and began working on a nonfiction manuscript about the tree. I envisioned a book along the lines of those great David Macaulay books (Castle, Cathedral…), where I would show how they find the tree, how they chop it down, get it to the city, decorate it, etc. I spent a while working on that, and submitted a manuscript to Candlewick. They told me they liked it, but felt like it needed more of a story. My editor suggested I add some characters.
Meanwhile, I had this whole other idea about cardinals. I often noticed cardinals in my yard, and was struck by how whenever I saw a male cardinal, if I looked around a bit, the female cardinal was usually nearby. I wondered what would happen if they ever became separated. I felt like there could be a story there.
At some point, those two completely separate ideas became one, and my nonfiction story about the Rockefeller Christmas tree became a fictional story about two cardinals who become separated.
So, long story short: It was my editor’s idea.

Tony Abbott

Different motives begin a new book for me. Denis Ever After began when I read a single word in the newspaper. It was “Toms.” I don’t recall now whether it was a piece about Toms toothpaste, or some other reference, but the idea of their being two “Toms” in the same family — brothers — started me thinking about twins. Almost immediately after birth the first boy, already named Tom, succumbed, so when the second came out, and lived, they named him Tom, as a sort of remembrance. Thus . . . Toms. The story changed leagues from that, but that’s how it began. Origins are one of the most pleasurable parts of writing for me. The whole universe of story seems capable of being encompassed in a new novel. This new story will be about love, dreams, oak tables, stars, dust, shoes, the rings of Saturn, hot chocolate, and the Gulag. Only when the pages pile up do its contours shrink and define. So. No shoes, no prison camp, and more joy than first imagined. Anyway, a way of saying reality seeps in. In my new novel, The Great Jeff, coming in March, it was the chance “sighting” of a character from a book published a dozen years ago. I’ve written about this before, but it’s probably true of all writers (and, they hope, their readers), that characters live beyond the book in some place and time, and that a story written about them is by no means all that that character is. So I saw a boy in a library, alone, reading, and I was convinced that this boy was Jeff, from Firegirl (2006). He’d reappeared, and I had to write about him. That’s how it happened. I hope it happens again. There’s something deeply satisfying in knowing that these people we seem to create are, once born, living on and on.

Keely Hutton

I never know when inspiration for my next book will strike, but I’m always on the lookout for subjects that spark my imagination. The spark for my upcoming middle grade novel, Secret Soldiers, started with some confusion while I binge-watched the BBC show “Peaky Blinders” two years ago. The main character, Tommy Shelby, runs his family’s criminal organization in 1919 England and suffers from PTSD due to his time as a soldier in WW1. My editor and I agreed that my next book should be in the same vein as my debut novel Soldier Boy, so I’d been researching wars and child soldiers. I hadn’t found anything that really grabbed my attention until I watched Tommy Shelby’s flashbacks, which showed him fighting in tunnels. I kept asking my husband, “Why are they underground?” After my third such query, my exasperated husband kindly suggested I Google it, so I did. A quick search revealed that thousands of sappers and miners tunneled beneath the battlefields of the Great War to undermine the enemy’s position and break the brutal stalemate of trench warfare. Fascinated, I researched whether any child soldiers fought in WW1 and was shocked to discover that over a quarter of a million underage British boys lied about their ages to join the war. When I learned that many of those young soldiers were used as beasts of burden on and under the battlefields, I knew I had found my next story and began researching and writing Secret Soldiers.

Greg Neri

My cousin the horse thief. Who would’ve thought? When I was growing up, I went to Texas once to stay on my uncle’s ranch. He had thirteen kids. Ten of them boys — strapping ranch hands and school wrestlers who liked to surprise-attack each other in the middle of the night out in the bunkhouse their dad built for them in the fields. To be a girl in that family, you had to be tough and willing to stand up for yourself. I could see that in my cousin Gail straight off the bat. She didn’t take no guff, and she could dish it out just as hard as her brothers — maybe harder. But inside, she was thoughtful and caring, and she loved horses. I had met Gail Ruffu only once when I was younger. Thirty-some years later, at a Christmas party at my parents’ house in California, I met her again. In the intervening years, I had occasionally heard tales of her exploits. The Texas part of the family, like the state of Texas itself, was always bigger than life. When I asked what she’d been up to lately, she paused and pulled me aside. “I’m a wanted woman, ya know,” she said. For the next hour and a half, she told me a whopper of a story of how she stole a thoroughbred on Christmas Eve and became the first person in 150 years to be charged with Grand Theft Horse — a case that went all the way to the California Supreme Court. When she was finished, I sat there, floored. My first thought was that would make a great book. So I wrote it.

 

Aimee Reid

One ordinary night, I was tucking my then 2-1/2-year-old daughter into bed. As usual, she asked what our schedule was for the next day. No matter how simple our plans—visiting the library, dropping in to playgroup, or simply playing at home—she always delighted in looking forward to them. After I shared my thoughts about what we would do together, she wiggled her whole body in delight and said, “When I grow up and you grow down . . . .” She proceeded to list the everyday activities we would do together if our roles were reversed.

Zing! Her words flew like a spark to my imagination. This is a story, I thought. Not long afterward, Mama’s Day with Little Gray was born (Random House). It is the tale of a small elephant who dreams of growing big enough to take care of his mama just as she has cared for him.

That story began by listening to my daughter. Sometimes, words for a story will surprise me and start running through my head. For an upcoming book, All the Earth (Penguin Random House, spring 2020), my brain fed me the first line of a lyrical text. Zing! Those words became a rhymed picture book about animal babies being cared for by their parents.

Ideas can come from anywhere. What the best book ideas have in common for me is that spark of recognition. Zing! Then I know: this is a story I am meant to write and share with the world.