Archive for the writing process

5 QUESTIONS w/ Kyra Teis, author/illustrator of “Klezmer!”

My Nation of Readers will be thrilled to learn, one might hope, that I have decided to bring back my famous “5 Questions” interview format — but with a key difference.

This time I’m going to limit it to 5 actual questions.

Shocking, I know. 

In the past, I’d get too excited and ask too many questions and come away with a 2,000 word interview. Fun, but time-consuming for all concerned. And maybe a little bit daft.

Today I’m kicking off 5 Questions 2.0 with the preternaturally creative Kyra Teis. We’ll be focusing on her recent book, Klezmer

1) Kyra, you grew up in a household of creative people. I wonder if you can talk about that.

It’s true. Both my parents were artists — my father a painter, and my mother in textiles. Both had home studios and they gave my siblings and I full access to their materials and spaces. That said, because they were so knowledgable they were quite demanding — there was no, “That’s wonderful, dear! Let’s put this on the fridge.” It was more like, “That arm’s too long,” and “You need more contrast.” But overall, art was a way of life. Not something extra we added in. This picture is of me in 1976, I was six. At that time my mom was a weaver. She made us 1776 costumes and we went all around to craft fairs. She would make yarn on her spinning wheel while I sat at her feet carding wool.

2) I love your recent book, Klezmer! How did this particular book begin for you? A visual image? A phrase? A song?
Thanks! This is the book I can point to and say: “This is everything I am!” When I first heard Klezmer music, I was like: What the heck is this crazy music? It’s sad, it’s happy. It’s fun, it’s serious. When I dug into the subject, I was struck how much the music itself echoes the Jewish religion/culture it was born out of: Global, but connected to its roots. Keeping a finger on happiness, even in the midst of tragedy. I played with drafts over about ten years trying to figure out how to represent those ideas.
3) You do an amazing job capturing the joyful vibrancy of klezmer music — both in the artwork and the text. Playful and buoyant. “Klezmer’s oldish, and newish, Like jazz, but it’s Jewish.
What I love about klezmer as a music genre is its variety. Every musician gives it a unique twist — bringing in all different instruments, rhythms, sounds. I love to be surprised.
4) Your artwork seems to have evolved. The characters have a loose, rhythmic vibe — yet you incorporate collage techniques and even historical photos. It just feels to me like you were inspired and sort of let it all hang out with this book. 
I agree that my art has evolved. Some of that I owe to switching from traditional paper collage to digital. I had used paper collage for years in book illustration, but it became too heavy and static a medium for me. I wasn’t able to incorporate the energy of the hand-drawn line because I didn’t like the way lines would break over the edges of paper. To go digital, I scanned hundreds of my textural painted and blotted papers, I learned Photoshop (a year-long process!) and created about 20 portfolios worth of new artwork. After a while a new voice emerged. I like it: it still has the bright colors and deep texture of my earlier art, but it is much more gestural and layered.
5) When we first met more than 20 years ago, you had already experienced some success in children’s books. You had a passion for it and a knowledge of it. However, as it is for so many of us, the road has not always been smooth. Yet you’ve persevered. What has that experience been like? Any takeaways?
I’d rephrase that to say, the road hasn’t been a straight line. I’m at my best when I alternate time in my studio with epic projects involving lots of people and moving parts  — planning conferences for SCBWI; designing Nutcracker costumes for my daughter’s ballet school; helping friends’ political campaigns; starting a handmade clothing line — it’s all good, you know? I think the overall goal is to have a full and creative life. 
I love that answer. A full and creative life. Thank you, Kyra. I wish you success in all of your rich & varied artistic endeavors. Now I think I’ll go listen to some klezmer music . . . 
JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Six Innings, All Welcome Here, and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. Look for his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13, on Scholastic Book Fairs and Book Clubs. It will be available in stores in February, 2023. 

Madeleine L’Engle: I Am Still Every Age That I Have Been . . .

“I am still every age that I have been.
Because I was once a child, I am always a child.”

 

“Because I was once a searching adolescent,

given to moods and ecstasies,

these are still part of me, and always will be…

This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in

any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult,

but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide…

Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things

means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel

and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old

or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old

means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids,

feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up,

then I don’t ever want to be one.

Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy,

and be fifty-one,

then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.”

-Madeleine L’Engle

A Few Thoughts on Writing in the “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” Format — Everything is Backwards!

“If you build a wee home
with love and care,
a magic fairy will come. It only takes faith
and a little imagination.”

Something different from me, a lighthearted project in the CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE format (thank you, Chooseco). Despite their popularity, I never felt that a fairy story was my domain. But why not? After interviewing author Liza Gardner Walsh (who is fabulous, and a fairy *expert*), I was inspired by the possibilities — beginning with the hope-filled activity of building a fairy house with natural materials. Of course, my fairy is not called Silverwings or Emerald Dancer. He’s named Bert the Below Average, and not all of his magic works out as planned. Hopefully a lively, funny, entertaining book that can be read, and reread, again and again, each time with a new ending. Now available, 80 pages, ages 5-8, wonderfully illustrated by Norm Grock.

BUT WAIT, BEFORE YOU RUSH OUT TO BUY THE BOOK . . . 

I wanted to talk a little bit about writing in this crazy format, because it was so different from anything I’ve done before. You see, the books are backwards.

Briefly, the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure (CYOA) format, trademarked by Chooseco, requires a unique set of assumptions and rules. The idea is that YOU, the reader, has agency: the story is about you, and you make decisions along the way. So it is written in the second person, a first for me.

Talk to the owl? Turn to page 16. Hide from the owl? Turn to page 36.

But there’s something else that makes these stories so weird to write: The endings don’t matter.

I mean, they don’t matter in the usual way that endings matter. In the case of Fairy House, a book of only 80 pages, there are 13 different endings.

When most of us write books, the ending matters a lot. I mean, a really lot. It’s the dramatic conclusion, the culmination, the part where full meaning takes place. The last joke, the grand finale, the end of the trail — the part we’ve been driving toward the entire time.

Well, throw that all away.

As the writer of a CYOA story, you can’t get too invested in any one ending. In fact, this is very important: there’s no “true” ending. It’s not like there’s one “right” ending and then a bunch of dead ends. That would be the wrong way to think about a CYOA. Every ending is valid; every ending has to work and satisfy the reader. You are not driving the boat — it’s the reader at the wheel, making all the decisions.

You have surrendered the most important part of your story — usually the reason for telling the story. No, you’ve handed it over to some unknown reader in Boise, Idaho . . . or Burbank, California . . . or Istanbul, Turkey. 

THE BEGINNING IS NEARLY EVERYTHING

So what’s the trick? It’s the beginning that matters most. Think of a CYOA story as a tree. Picture that image in your mind. The unseen roots, the powerful trunk, the many branches. The opening of the story is the trunk. The many possible choices, or pathways, are the branches that grow from out of that trunk.

The CYOA form is dendritic. Tree-like.

If you don’t have a strong trunk — a sturdy set-up — than it will never hold the weight of all those possible storylines.

It takes a little time for the opening to Fairy House to establish itself. The reader doesn’t begin to make choices until page 9. Here’s the opening of the story . . .

 

 

You sit on a tire swing in your backyard. Kicking the air, going nowhere. Bored, bored, bored. Your parents work at home and stare at their computers all day long. You feel lonely and there’s nothing to do. But you remember something your grandmother once said: “If you build a wee home with love and care, a magic fairy will come. It only takes faith and a little imagination.”

Could it be true? You decide to find out.

You pick a spot beneath an oak tree. You gather up acorns, tree bark, pine cones, a cardinal feather, flower petals, stones, and more. You make a little bed of sticks, cushioned with soft fir needles. You add a layer of moss for a blanket. You finish it all off with two magnolia leaves framing the front door. 

Your fairy home looks awesome — a magical little world — and you want to show someone.

“Maybe later,” your mother says, click-clacking on the computer keyboard.

“Maybe later,” your father says, scrolling through rows of numbers on the computer screen.

Neither parent even looks at you.

The black cat, Midnight, seems curious. She follows you outside, prowling softly on padded feet.

And you wait, and you wait some more. But nothing happens — because nothing ever does. Oh well. You set up your stuffed bunny, Old Mister Ears, to keep watch. You go inside for the night. 

The next morning, you check. Strange, the moss blanket has been tossed to the ground. Perhaps it was the wind. Or a restless chipmunk. An acorn falls, landing with a dull thump. You hear a groan: “Oof!” You see a flash of movement, quick as a hummingbird. But it wasn’t that. These wings glowed

You spring to your feet to investigate. Moving quickly, you peek around the old oak to gaze at the quivering stems of April daffodils. Something cowers behind them.

You drop to your hands and knees, scarcely breathing. 

Hardly taller than your thumb, the creature has unusually large eyes, long skinny legs, and small, delicate wings of a honeybee. 

And so you say, ever so gently, “Well, hello there.”

 

IF YOU’D LIKE TO READ MORE . . . NOW YOU CAN BUY THE BOOK!

 

Let’s close out with another (happy!) illustration by Norm . . . 

 

Thanks, as always, for your interest & support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Blessed Unrest: On Teaching, Writing, Ted Williams, and Martha Graham’s Splendid Advice to Agnes de Mille

I’ve tried something new recently. I’m teaching an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books: Level 1.”

I’m enjoying the experience, mostly because of the students. I find myself thinking about them a lot, how to structure a lesson, how best to respond to a wide variety of writing and ambitions. I suspect that if I calculated the pay per hour, I’d be making below minimum wage. But payment isn’t just about money, as we know. I’m getting things out of it, too. Inspiration, engagement, clarity, connection.

But how best to respond to student writing? I mean, sure, say something positive, say something constructive, be encouraging. That’s all pretty obvious & within my nature. My friend, a far more experienced teacher, told me that every writing student wants to get published. That’s the dream, the aspiration. Maybe I’ll write a book one day. Lots of people have that thought, and certainly most anyone taking a writing class. I don’t know why, but the notion surprised me. Could it be true? Probably yes, I guess. 

In life, we receive when our antenna is up; we absorb when we make ourselves spongey, receptive. When I came across an amazing quote by Martha Graham, I was ready to hear it. Her words clarified so much for me. The excerpt comes from Agnes de Mille’s 1991 biography, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. At the time, de Mille was experiencing great uncertainty and dissatisfaction with her work, both in her own sense of it and how it was received by others. 

 

I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly, “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and (will) be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours. Clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself and your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open . . .  No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

 

Beautiful, right? 

And in so many different ways. 

I’ve decided, for my class, that there are essentially two paths open for me when responding to someone’s work. The first might be to address it from a publishing point of view. Discuss the marketplace, the types of things that are published, the “proper” length & format, things that are typically frowned upon by editors today, etc. All to help them realize the great & noble dream of publication. And I have pretty much zero interest in that type of instruction. I mean, there’s a whole cottage industry out there making promises to unpublished authors, “The 7 keys to becoming a bestselling author,” etc. I can’t help but suspect there’s a degree of flimflam to all that, snake oil salespersons preying on the innocent. Maybe that’s unfair. It’s surely good information to have at some point along the journey. But I’m not that guy.

As for the second path, yes, I can align myself with that. If I can encourage someone to express themselves, to tap that vein of creativity and authentic feeling, it seems worthwhile. One true thing. Help them in some small way to become better artists and writers. Because if you can do that, the “author” part just might follow. Eventually.

When the class started, I mentioned baseball legend Ted Williams. When asked about his goals for the upcoming season — Did he hope to bat for a .350 average? Mash 40 homers? — Williams replied, simply, that his goal was to put a good swing on the ball. Process over result.  

Here’s to putting a good swing the ball, folks. The rest will be what it will be. But somehow in the process you’ll express something of yourselves, get in touch with some meaningful memories, awaken the sleeping spirits that reside deep within, experience Martha Graham’s “blessed unrest” and possibly become a little more alive as you move through the days.

Oh, one line that I especially love in that whole thing?

It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda.

I admire the simplicity and directness of that sentence. In a passage full of spoken words and abstractions, that simple line grounds us in the reality of the scene. Two women talking in as ordinary setting as one could imagine. It is not easy for writers to leave a sentence like that alone: It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. It seems too artless, too plain: the clever writer all too invisible. Of course, that’s the point. De Mille gets out of the way. She disappears. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. It’s all the reader needs.

So that’s the last thought bubbling up the straw. Companionship. Connection. Conversation. Two women, two artists, sitting together and supporting each other. Just talking. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson of all. Be there for each other.

Maybe it’s time to give that friend a call.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joan Didion . . . Thank You!

 

We lost one of our greatest writers today. She was in life, and remains in death, a treasure. Just a remarkable woman.

Regarding that quote up above, it is one of the reasons why I am often paralyzed by the idea of outlines. More and more, publishers require them. A box to be checked. I used to balk at that, because — of course! — how would I know what’s going to happen until I start writing? But I’ve learned that they don’t expect writers to doggedly follow the outline. Editors want a general idea — and, yes, managing editors certainly like to check off that box. A way to keep things moving along the conveyer belt. 

When writing, I always have a plan. At least for that day, that scene, that chapter. An idea of what I want to accomplish, the ground I need to cover. And I always have a more general idea of where I hope to end up.

A metaphor: I’m in a sailboat, I’m aiming for an island in the distance, but the currents are strong and the wind is kicking up. I might get blown off course. And even in the best circumstances, I’ll have to tack back and forth; I won’t get there in a straight line.

Just today, in fact, I was finally ready to begin outlining the final chapters of a book that’s two-thirds finished. So rather than blasting out a lot of words, I spent the day plotting in detail that final sequence of events. It took that long for me to reach that level of clarity, far different from anything I might have imagined, or “outlined” to my editors, three months ago.

I noticed how much of the original outline didn’t make the final draft. Some ideas (and characters) got crowded by other (hopefully) better ideas.

Writing as discovery. A way to find out. A path into the deep, dark woods. For me, it’s impossible to plan in advance what exactly I might find there. 

If you have not read The Year of Magical Thinking, that’s a terrific way to meet Joan Didion. But there are many avenues of entry. You can’t go wrong. Just pick up something/anything that she’s written . . . and start reading.