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Where do you get your ideas?
Everywhere! I carry a notebook with me, so when I have an idea, I can scribble it down right away before I forget. I wrote the first draft of a picture book OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW (Chronicle Books, 2011) on a school bus on the way home from a 7th grade field snowshoe field trip in the Adirondacks; it’s scribbled in bumpy bus writing on the back of an attendance sheet.
I think one of the most important things to do if you want to be a writer is to lead an interesting life. Go outside. Try new things. Talk to people, especially people whose lives are different from yours. And don’t pass up opportunities.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I’ve loved writing since I was old enough to hold a pencil, but to be honest, it never occurred to me that I could be a real, live author some day. I grew up in a really small town, and we didn’t have authors visit our schools, so I didn’t know any authors. To me, they were far away people – not just ordinary people like me who loved to write.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It depends on the book. Books that require a lot of research take longer; I might spend a year doing the research and then another year writing & revising. Usually, though, if there’s not a lot of research to be done, I write a first draft of a novel in four to six months. Then, I’ll let it sit for a while so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes to revise. I also have critique partners who read my work and make suggestions for more revision. All told, it usually takes me ten months to a year to have a draft that’s ready to go to my editor.
Where do you write your books?
I write all over the place – while I’m watching my daughter at skating practice or waiting to pick up my son in the car. But my favorite place to write is in the special writing room that we built in the back of our house. It’s small – just big enough for a desk and chair and some bookshelves – but it’s a wonderfully quiet room with a view of Lake Champlain, so it’s a perfect place to write.
Do you ever get writers’ block?
Oh sure. When I’m writing a new book, I often get stuck and feel like I don’t know what happens next. Usually, a little time helps, and if I just think about it for a few days, the answer will come to me while I’m running or taking a shower or just about to fall asleep.
I think everyone feels stuck sometimes, and everyone probably has times when curling up with a big bowl of chocolate ice cream sounds like more fun than sitting down to write. Writing through those times – even if it’s just writing for a few minutes a day – makes a big difference.
How come you write books for kids instead of for adults?
No offense to any grownups out there, but I’d much rather write for kids. I believe the books we read as kids are books that help shape us, in a way that adult books can’t quite do, no matter how beautifully they’re written.
Are any of the characters in your books based on real people?
Sometimes. Usually, my characters end up having characteristics and behaviors of a whole bunch of different people; they’re interesting mish-mashes of people I know. In THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z, for example, Gianna’s friend Zig has some of my son’s characteristics in that he’s very brainy and fascinated by electricity. But he also has the floppy dark hair of one of my students, the shy mannerisms of one of my nephews, and a family situation that’s like the homes of many kids I’ve taught over the years.
Do you draw the pictures in your books and on the covers?
No. Publishers have design teams that are in charge of that sort of thing. A design team is made up of really talented people who talk about the story of the book as well as its potential audience, and they figure out what kind of cover might be best to attract those readers. For picture books and chapter books that have illustrations inside, the publisher reads the text and then hires an illustrator to create art to go with it.
What were some of your favorite books when you were a kid?
When I was in elementary school, I loved ALL the books I could find by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. As I got a little older, I discovered The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and loved those books, especially The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. And I loved Harriet the Spy. That’s one of the books that made me start writing. I had a notebook that I carried around when I spied on people, and I took notes on them like Harriet.
Do you have kids?
Yes – I have two kids, a son and a daughter.
Do they read your books?
Absolutely! My kids are some of my first readers, so when I finish a new book, they read it and let me know what works for them as readers and what doesn’t. They’re tough, too!
Do you have any pets?
My husband and I are allergic to cats and dogs, so even though we love them, we can’t have them at home. My daughter has two pet Dumbo rats, though. Their names are Chester and Guy (pronounced GEE – with a hard G and a long E sound, like the hockey player Guy LeFleur).
What’s your favorite color?
Bright blue. Usually.
What’s your favorite book that you’ve written?
Asking an author that question is kind of like asking a parent to choose a favorite child, but I do have an answer…kind of. The book I’m working on right now is always the one that has my passion and attention, so whenever you ask that question, my current project will likely be my favorite. I really love them all, though.
How do you get a book published?
I have two answers to this question…one for adults and one for students…
For adults who want to publish a book, I’d say first, make sure it’s the best book it can possibly be before you even think about submitting it. Write it. Then revise it. Revise it again. Show it to three or four other writer friends who will be honest with you about its strengths and weaknesses. (Your mother doesn’t count!)
Then, find editors or agents who might be interested in the kind of book you’ve written. You can get ideas from a book like the Children’s Writers & Illustrators Market. Attending regional conferences put on by the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators is a great way to make contacts. Checking out books in the bookstore is a good idea, too, since it helps you get an idea of what different publishers like.
Then you’ll write a query letter – a very short (just a few paragraphs) letter pitching your book to an editor and asking if he or she would like to see your manuscript. Many editors will tell you no thanks, but some may request part or all of the manuscript. You’ll send it. Then you’ll wait, sometimes a very long time, like a year or more, for a response. During this time, you’ll check your email every four minutes, and your mailman will begin to think you are stalking him. Eventually, you’ll probably get a response, which might be a form rejection, a personally written rejection with an invitation to resubmit after revisions are made, or an offer to buy your book. Most often, it’s a rejection because this is a tough business, and when that happens, you try again with another editor.
For kids who like to write, I always suggest reading a ton. You’ll learn so, so much from reading the work of other authors whose styles you admire. And spend time writing. Be serious about it, and make it part of your regular day.
As far as publishing, I’d suggest starting with shorter pieces and targeting a publication that’s especially interested in student work. Here are a couple websites to get you started:
Teen Ink (http://www.teenink.com)
Stone Soup (http://www.stonesoup.com)