Thursday, June 24, 2010

New Voice: Alyxandra Harvey on Hearts at Stake (The Drake Chronicles)

Alyxandra Harvey is the first-time author of The Drake Chronicles--Hearts At Stake (My Love Lies Bleeding in UK)(Dec., 2009-Jan., 2010); Blood Feud (June, 2010) and Out for Blood (Nov. 2010), all from Bloomsbury Walker Books. From the promotional copy:

On Solange’s sixteenth birthday, she is going to wake up dead. As if that’s not bad enough, she also has to outwit her seven overprotective older brothers, avoid the politics involved with being the only daughter born to an ancient vampire dynasty, and elude Kieran Black—agent of an anti-vampire league who is searching for his father’s killer and is intent on staking Solange and her entire family.

Luckily, she has her own secret weapon—her human best friend Lucy—who is willing to defend Solange’s right to a normal life, whether she’s being smothered by her well-intentioned brothers or abducted by a power-hungry queen.

Two unlikely alliances are formed in a race to save Solange’s eternal life—Lucy and Solange’s brother Nicholas, and Solange and Kieran Black—in a dual romance that is guaranteed to jump start any romance-lover’s heart.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters?

Quite often, my characters just pop into my head. They have a basic shape and voice, but it's like I need glasses to really focus on their individual details.

First, I find a name. I have lots of baby name books, and I keep lists of names I like as I come across them. I've also been known to out and out steal from movie credits!

I also keep a notebook for each novel I write, and it's filled with lists of characters' eye colour, hair colour, favourite band, book and food... I don't necessarily know all of this information when I first start, it is revealed to me as I go along.

But my favourite way of getting to know a book and a character is through collage. You don't need any particular artistic talent, just a few magazines and a glue stick. And I find it frees me up and gives me a different viewpoint. Imagery and certain colours, or bits of poetry all contribute to the "feel" of any given character. There's something instinctive and subconscious about this process which appeals to me.

Sometimes characters also have a "theme song." For Hearts At Stake and the main protagonist Solange Drake, this song was "Killing Moon" by Echo and the Bunnymen.

Hearts at Stake started with an image I had of a girl and a car full of her many brothers driving up to whisk her away. I knew she was in danger, but now how or why.

So I wrote the story to find out.

Eventually, I realized I wanted to loosely retell the Snow White fairy tale but in the vampire YA genre. I had Solange's basic details that way: black hair, pale skin and red lips. But I didn't really get to know her until I got to know her family. She is so overprotected because of vampire politics that she feels smothered and beloved all at the same time. She is just discovering who she is as a person when she is forced through the bloodchange into a vampire...if she can survive long enough, that is.

Another defining aspect for the characters in this book is their friendships with others. The family you make for yourself is just as important as the family you're born with. And for Solange Drake, that's Lucy Hamilton.

Lucy was fun to write because she's reckless and snarky. She doesn't really have a mute button, and she tends to act before she thinks. Her parents are pacifists, but she definitely has a violent streak!

Since both characters spoke to me so strongly that I chose to use both of their perspectives, in alternating chapters. I didn't want to be limited to one part of the story. I wanted to explore both the vampires and the humans and the way they interact. And often they hijacked the plot for their own purposes!

As a paranormal writer, what first attracted you to that literary tradition? Have you been a long-time paranormal reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?

I have always been a reader. When everyone else was in love with actors and musicians, I was in love with literary characters or dead poets. I've cultivated very satisfying crushes on Robin Hood, John Keats, Mr. Rochester and, of course, Mr. Darcy.

In high school, I started to read fantasy novels which eventually led me to paranormal and urban fantasy. But at first I was a terrible snob. I refused to read any modern fantasy. If it didn't happen in some crumbling castle, I wanted nothing to do with it!

Tanya Huff's Blood Ties series whet my appetite in high school as my first literary introduction to vampires and werewolves and supernatural creatures. I adored her books; they were snarky and fun and took place in Toronto, where I lived. My best friend and I used to trade them back and forth, writing each other notes about the characters in the margins.

And then in university I discovered Charles de Lint. That was it. He finalized my conversion with a single book: Memory and Dream (1994).

Keep in mind that urban fantasy meant something different back in the 90s. It was more magical folkloric realism (Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Terri Windling...) than the detective/action/horror type books that make up the genre now. In fact, Terri Windling's The Wood Wife (2003) remains my favourite book to this day. Some other favourites now also include Solstice Wood by Patricia A. McKillip (2006) and Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel (2007).

What I love about this genre is the braiding together of myth and history and magic. It has the flavour of old fairy tales but with more modern sensibilities. It's the beauty of the rose, the blood on a thorn and the girl passed out in the castle behind the briars. It has so many layers. The mystery of it helps us to look beneath the surface, which is always a valuable tool. And (especially now) the girls almost always kick butt!

And never forget, it's only fairly recently that paranormal creatures are shelved in the fantasy section. They used to be a real concern, as real as choosing which crops to plant, how to avoid the plague, and who you were going to marry.

Cynsational Notes

Alyxandra "studied creative writing and literature at York University and has had her poetry published in several magazines. When not writing, she is a belly dancer and jewelrymaker. She lives in Ontario, with her husband, hawk, and two dogs."

Cynsational News & Giveaways

April 2010 marked the sixth year of the nation’s only environmental stewardship book award, Newton Marasco Foundation’s (NMF) Green Earth Book Award.

The Green Earth Literature Program each year brings an expert jury together to determine winning children and young adult books with a message of environmental stewardship. The books raise awareness of the beauty of our natural world and the responsibility that we have to protect it.


Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World
written by Marfé Ferguson Delano
(National Geographic)

picture book

Miss Fox's Class Goes Green
written by Eileen Spinelli and illustrated by Anne Kennedy
(Albert Whitman)

children's fiction

Operation Redwood
written by S. Terrell French
(Abrams/Amulet)(author interview)

young adult fiction

The Carbon Diaries: 2015
written by Saci Lloyd
(Holiday House)

More News

Pre-Published by Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. Peek: "...enjoy the years spent before publication. In the ten years it took her to get her first book published, she said said she never realized how free she was. She meant creatively free."

Being Too Close to a Manuscript by Mary Kole from Peek: "Scott [Tremeil] said that, sometimes, if he hears that a writer has been working on a manuscript for 10 years or so, that’s a red flag for him. I have to completely agree. Writers who are emotionally tied up in their story to an extreme degree are also a red flag." See also Mary on When to Tell Instead of Show.

Best Friends Forever by Margaret Bechard. Peek: "Gone are the days when we could write a realistic, contemporary story where kids could actually go out into the world on their own and have adventures without adult interference. And now our characters can’t even have best friends?" Read a Cynsations interview with Margaret.

A Look at School Visits – Booking Visits, Setting Prices & Contracts and A Look at School Visits – Preparing for Visits, both from Verla Kay's Blog. Peek: "If you have had postcards made of your most current book, send them to the libraries and schools in the areas of the country that you would most like to visit." Note: Verla's latest book is Whatever Happened to the Pony Express? by Barry and Kimberly Bulcken Root (Putnam, 2010).

Hope and the Magic Lottery by Seth Godin from Seth's Blog. Peek: "There's a hard work alternative to the magic lottery, one in which you can incrementally lay the groundwork and integrate into the system you say you want to work with." Source: Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent.

An Impassioned Plea for Picture Books by Judith Rosen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "What can booksellers and a coalition of publishing folks do? Geist is looking to create a grassroots movement. Among his own thoughts for getting kids back into bookstores: creating a mailbox that stores could put up so that kids can write to their favorite author. Then the coalition would sort the letters, get them to the right publisher, and make sure each child got a response."

More on Critique Groups by Kirby Larson from Kirby Lane. Peek: "It is a scary thing to share one’s writing. How does your group affirm the work but respond to it honestly?"

Out of the Way! Out of the Way! on Tour: an interview with Uma Krishnaswami by Sarah Sullivan. Peek: "In the editing process Sandhya Rao, editor at Tulika Books, caught one thing in the text that was leaning toward exoticism—my mango seller had the basket on her head. Sandhya asked, is that worth noting in the text? Meaning, why take what’s common to the culture and point it out? That stranges it up, and we don’t need that." Read a Cynsations interview with Uma.

Who's Moving Where? News and Staff Changes at Children's Book Publishers by Harold Underdown from The Purple Crayon. Updated for June 2010. Read a Cynsations interview with Harold.

Teaching YA Fiction in the Writing Workshop by Jacqueline Kolosov from Crowe's Next. Peek: "YA literature is all about exploration, and it has to be messy: visceral: emotionally true. And the protagonist has to be someone the reader can get behind."

A Writer's Manifesto by Shannon Morgan from daily pie. Peek: "1. I'll write. Regularly: I'll schedule time to write and honor that schedule. Freely: I'll write first drafts with the laptop screen down, using only lowercase letters and periods. Without excuses: I'll not postpone writing to feed a muse, because muses do not exist."

No Need for Discipline by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "I recoiled. Such blasphemy! How could she claim that writers didn’t need self-discipline? 'Everyone' knew you needed to discipline yourself to write every day, to study markets, to read in your field. How could she say that? It went against my deeply ingrained beliefs. And yet…"

Whatcha Reading Now? (Issue Five - Friendship). Peek: "In this issue, WRN? explores the nature of friendships and how they can be found anywhere—at school, a hotel, or living right next door to you. Apart from the best-buds-since we-were-two traditional friends, companionship can be pure fantasy: a giraffe and a turtle, a boy and a tree, a girl and a dragon. Keep reading and we promise you’ll find all this and more!"

The Value of a Read Aloud by Linda Salzman from INK: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: "Nonfiction with lots of sidebars and important captions does not lend itself easily to Read Alouds. Fortunately there are plenty of other choices that work splendidly."

A New Historical Fiction Blog and a Call for Guest Posts from Angie Frazier. Peek: "You don't have to be an expert or all-knowing--I'm certainly not! But I have a natural curiosity about the past, and if you do as well or if you're interested in an interactive blog for history writers, please let me know."

2010 Rainbow Romance Award for Excellence in Romantic Fiction. Eligibility: "Any published work of GLBT romance, either electronic or print with an ISBN number, published in 2009." Note: categories include young adult books. Note: "Rainbow Romance Writers is the home of authors and industry professional interested in promoting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender romances."

Kidlit Con 2010 will be Oct. 23 at Open Book in Minneapolis. Peek: "The rough schedule calls for a wine and cheese reception on the night of Friday the 22nd, a day of workshops and panels on the 23rd, followed by a closing conference dinner in the evening." See also the Twitter and facebook pages.

The Intersection of Faith and Fantasy: companion posts on the topic by Saundra Mitchell and R.J. Anderson from Melodye Shore at Front Pages. Peek from Saundra: "While I could write a book about a small southern town and pretend that nobody there goes to church at all, it wouldn't be honest." Peek from R.J.: "Thanks to Lewis, Tolkien and MacDonald (and my father), I grew up believing that fantasy is in no way incompatible with Christian faith but can actually be a meaningful expression of it."

Featured Sweetheart: Betsy Bird (AKA Fuse #8): an interview by P.J. Hoover from The Texas Sweethearts. Peek: "In a way, I would love to unite the different spheres of children's literature. The children's literary magazines, children's publishers and creators from other countries, the theatrical adaptation world of children's books, and the film world as well. I want agents and authors and illustrators and editors and librarians and teachers to all talk to one another, get crazy ideas, and create create create. And if blogging is the connecting thread, so be it."

Show and Tell Me: Children's Book Creators Show and Tell: a new online zine from Amy Timberlake that offers glimpses into children's book creators' lives. Peek: "As I imagined it, an image, a quote, an audio file would make its way into my feed reader or email inbox. It might make me want to explore my world, or create something with my hands, or feel not so alone. (I’m a writer too.) It would be mostly images and not a lot of text so it wouldn’t take a lot of time, but it would make me smile, give me a good start to the day — sort of like when someone gives you a balloon in a birthday card."

Cynsational Screening Room

Author Interview: Deborah Wiles on Countdown (Scholastic, 2010) from Melodye Shore from Front Pages. Peek: "The events of 9/11 showed us that as well; it’s not necessary to have been a child of the sixties to relate to the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War – there are children in this country today, going to school, who have never known a day in their lives that this country was not at war. And that is the place we connect to (on the surface, at least) with Countdown’s duck and cover drills."

Interview with Rose Kent by Debbi Michiko Florence. Peek: "I'm excited that Rocky Road just came out from Knopf Books. This middle-grade novel introduces Tess Dobson, who along with her troubled Ma and deaf little brother, moves from Texas to upstate NY, to open an ice cream shop in the dead of winter. Life truly is a rocky road for Tess, but she's a spirited fighter who never loses hope. I think there are many kids out there who have "rocky road" lives, and I hope the book touches them."

Peachland Elementary School-Gotta Keep Reading Book Dance. Note: every school could do this and... Actually, why doesn't every school do this?

More Personally

My focus this week was pouring through the line edits for Blessed (Candlewick, 2010). It's a fairly long manuscript, a little over 76,000 words or 383 pages, not including the table of contents.

Not surprisingly, the Candlewick timeline and style guide were easier to follow than mine, and I greatly appreciated receiving copies of both for reference.

Overall, the changes were great--editors can really make us (and our books) look good.

It's always remarkable (and horrifying) to me, the errors I've let slip through, given that I've read the manuscript so many times. But as my editor reminded me, it's harder to find glitches under those very circumstances. The eye tends to read what you meant to say rather than what's on the page.

I made the typical number of "stets"--a few throughout for voice and then, say, preferring the English version of a word over the Spanish (because that's how it's spelled in Texas where the book is set) and the archaic spelling of a German word because the reference is to ancient times.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win signed copies of Eternal (Candlewick, 2010), Rules by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic, 2006), and To Find a Wonder by Jennifer Carlson (L&L Dreamspell, 2009) from Kristine Carlson Asselin at My Writing Journey. Deadline: midnight EST June 29. Note: Kristine's Taurus, Virgo & Capricorn: All About the Earth Signs was published by Capstone Press in January 2010.

Enter to win a paperback copy of Swim the Fly by Don Calame (Candlewick, 2010)! Read an excerpt or sample chapter (PDF). Check out this author interview (PDF).

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "Swim the Fly" in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post; I'll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: June 30. Sponsored by Candlewick Press; U.S. entries only.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

New Voice: Elizabeth Eulberg on The Lonely Hearts Club

Elizabeth Eulberg is the first-time author of The Lonely Hearts Club (Point/Scholastic, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Love is all you need…or is it?

Penny is sick of boys and sick of dating, so she vows: No more. She’s had one too many bad dates, and has been hurt by one too many bad boys. It’s a personal choice…and soon everybody wants to know about it. It seems that Penny’s not the only girl who’s tired of the way girls change themselves (most of the time for the worse) in order to get their guys…or the way their guys don’t really care about them.

Girls are soon thronging to The Lonely Hearts Club (named after Sgt. Pepper’s band), and Penny finds herself near legendary for her non-dating ways – which is too bad, since the leader of The Lonely Hearts Club has found a certain boy she can’t help but like...

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

I did a lot of drafts of The Lonely Hearts Club before it even went to a publisher. My first draft was awful. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I made a lot of mistakes. I started writing without an outline and a clear understanding of the characters. I basically sat down and tried to figure out what was going to happen next. That works for some people, but not me.

I wrote four drafts of the manuscript before I sent it to an agent. In those four drafts, I spent a lot of time figuring out the plot. Mostly expanding different plot lines (the first draft was very light). I also didn’t fully have the characters figured out, so that was a struggle.

Then I got the best piece of advice. A friend of mine (who happens to be an editor) said, "You need to spend a day with each of your characters and really get to know them. What is in their closet? What wouldn’t they want anybody to know?"

That really helped with one of the characters I was having issues connecting with. I started to really focus on each of the characters and different story lines started to come out in my discovery of their strengths and weaknesses.

One of the biggest misconceptions I had was that once it got sent to an agent, I would be so close to getting a book contract. I ended up doing around seven drafts for my agent. I remember thinking at one point that it would be the last draft and my agent called and said, "You’re so close. But that secret that comes out on page 100? That should just come out right at the very beginning, in the first chapter."

I’m not going to lie, I broke down in tears thinking about what a major rewrite that was going to be. But once I started to work on it, I realized she was completely right and it made the book so much better.

After that revelation, we worked on tightening up the plot and making the flow better. I was starting to get frustrated because I thought that I just couldn’t keep revising. I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I was finishing an edit one evening where I broke down and thought I couldn’t do it. I was about to give up. I had been working on editing the book for a few years at this point, and I really did come “this close” to throwing in the towel.

But I did decide to get up and finish the manuscript. Ironically enough, that was the manuscript that we ended up sending out to publishers. Here I almost packed it in, and three days later, my agent let me know that I finally did it and she was putting together a list of potential publishers.

When I started working with my editor at Scholastic (the fabulous David Levithan), we focused on the beginning the most. We did about three different rounds on the first fifty pages, making sure the main character’s motives on forming the Lonely Hearts Club rang true. He had very direct and detailed suggestions, which is what I really needed at that point. The rest of the novel only needed a little bit of revision, compared to the beginning.

I worked on editing the book so much that I was in shock when I was told that it was done. At that point, I kept wanting to tinker with it. After so many years of wanting to be done editing, I really had a hard time letting it go!

Despite having a few mini-breakdowns in my very long process (about five years from idea to finished manuscript), I really enjoy editing. I know a lot of people don’t, but I see editing as a way to improve the book. I’m open to all (thoughtful) criticism to writing and story. I’m new to this so I want to become better with each draft. Nobody is perfect and no book is perfect, so if there is a way that I can improve, I welcome it.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Being able to balance a full-time job and writing has required a lot of trial and error on my part. I sometimes have to travel for my job, so there are huge chunks of time where I’m not able to write or edit. (I’d like to think that is the reason The Lonely Hearts Club took six years, but it mostly was my lack of a plan going in.)

I personally can’t write at night when I’m done working my day job. I’m too tired and burned out from being at a desk all day.

I reserve the weekends to write. When I was working on The Lonely Hearts Club edit, I blocked off weekends and would spend 12-14 hours a day working on the edit. I would think about what I was going to write during the week – at the gym, in the shower, commuting into the city – so when I sat down to write, I knew exactly what I was going to do. I’ll always have a goal each day, either chapters to go through or word count, if I wasn’t on an editor/agent driven deadline.

While I finally got down a writing schedule that worked for me, I had to start promoting The Lonely Hearts Club.

Fortunately, the book came out during my Christmas vacation, so I was able to work on the various blogs and interviews that I needed to do during my break. But once the break was over, I did need to start doing some “author work” during the week. I’d set aside my lunch break or try to write at night. If possible, I’d wait until the weekend, but a lot of times I needed to make time.

My day job is in publicity, so I understand how important it is to do whatever you can to promote a book. No matter how crazy my schedule got, I knew that every interview request was important and did whatever I had to do to finish the blogs or interviews on time.

Everything regarding my writing career is a huge priority for me. I keep a detailed schedule, including weekends, to work on my next project. It is very easy for me to get distracted (hello, YouTube!), so I need to set goals and keep a checklist of what needs to get done and when.

Even though there were a few hairy weeks earlier in the year, I know how lucky I am to be a published author and I also remember all that struggling I did to get the manuscript in shape. I can sit here on the other side of things and say with 100% certainty that every lost weekend and crying spell was worth it.

If writing is important to you and you are passionate about it, you will find a way to make it work for you. Just keep going!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Guest Post: Sharron L. McElmeel on Picture That! From Mendel to Normandy: Picture Books and Ideas, Curriculum and Connections, for ‘Tweens and Teens

By Sharron L. McElmeel

Several years ago, I was a high school librarian, and once teachers got to know of my knowledge of picture books and curriculum connections, I was often requested to visit their classes.

Social Studies classes often requested one of my Dr. Seuss readings – my favorite was Yertle the Turtle (Random House, 1958) and the World War II connection. Science classes hosted readings of Franklyn Branley’s Journey Into a Black Hole (HarperCollins, 1998) and books about the environment and the rain forest, for example. And readings of Beatrix Potter, A Tale of Peter Rabbit (Frederick Warne, 1902) and A Tale of Benjamin Bunny (Frederick Warne, 1904), helped to drive home the concept of sequels.

Other favorite readings were developed, but soon I moved back to the elementary setting where picture books did not need to be sold. But more and more, I felt that teachers in the secondary schools were missing a great resource.

One day I read Carole Boston Weatherford's verse narrative, Dear Mr. Rosenwald, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Scholastic, 2006). The great potential for the use of picture books with older readers—readers who would have a capacity for research and more reading on a historical or scientific topic—came flooding into my mind. Who knew that Julius Rosenwald had actually been responsible for establishing more libraries than Andrew Carnegie?

Weatherford’s book had piqued my interest to learn more about the Rosenwald schools and the libraries he placed across fifteen southern states. Through research that followed, I discovered that the omission of his name from many history books probably revolves around the effects that result from being a non-perpetual trusts (rather than a perpetual trust), and more subtly, the fact that his philanthropy benefited, for the most part, African-Americans and the poor communities in the South.

Learning from curiosity stimulated from a 32-page picture book that seemed to be just a story of a little girl growing up in the South in the 1920s.

Many readers have always gotten the connection between these snapshots into life (history, science, and so forth) and more research, reading, and learning. Sometimes, though, the lines between the dots have to be drawn. Once those lines are drawn, the connection for more reading, research, and learning become apparent.

That’s what I had done in those high school classrooms several years ago, and when given an opportunity to do that same thing in a book, I was thrilled. What fun I was going to have.

Connecting the dots, became the premise for my 2009 book, Picture That! From Mendel to Normandy: Picture Books and Ideas, Curriculum and Connections, for ‘Tweens and Teens from Libraries Unlimited/ABC-CLIO.

Judith Viorst once said to me, “Some of the best art is between the pages of picture books.” I agree it still is, but in addition some of the very best history, science, language play, and writing in general are on the pages of picture books.

What fun I had searching out recent picture books that would spark interest in more learning.

I was introduced to poet Marianna Moore, honky-tonk musicians, civil rights leaders, and many female pioneers: Jeannette Rankin (Congress), Hypatia (science), Julia Morgan (architect), and Margaret E. Knight (inventor).

I was introduced to Ira Hayes, Hank Greenberg, Bessie Smith, George Crum, Isaac Murphy – all with stories that provide the weft and the warp for the fabric of our society.

I made my own connections to family history and the Civil War’s Andersonville prison.

I dreamed of the inventions I might have marketed, if only I had had the persistence. The cloth of learning woven by textbooks seems rather colorless and monochromatic. In contrast, the cloth of learning woven by picture books is a tapestry, colorful and bright and stimulating.

When the book, Picture That! From Mendel to Normandy: Picture Books and Ideas, Curriculum and Concepts, for ‘Tweens and Teens was released, I was pleased that the very colorful cover was a reflection, of sorts, to the tapestry I was trying to reflect.

I was able to slip a few references to picture books for older readers into two other books published in 2009. The concept of picture books in middle/high school was Best Teen Reads: 2010 and in a co-authored title Young Adult Literature and Multimedia: A Quick Guide 2010.
If it seems that I am on a campaign to put picture books into places they have not previously been, you would be correct. This past holiday, I gave my high-school-biology-teaching daughter her own personal copy of Cheryl Bardoe’s Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas (Abrams, 2006). I think she read it to her class in the last week or two. The word is spreading.

Cynsational Notes

From the author's website: "Sharron L. McElmeel is a renowned author and an instructor of Children's and Young Adult Literature at University of Wisconsin-Stout. A literacy consultant and columnist, she was named Iowa Reading Teacher of the Year in 1987, and in 2004 she received the Iowa Reading Association's State Literacy Award in recognition of her lifelong efforts to build literacy and literature appreciation in the community. Her columns appear regularly in Library Sparks."

Monday, June 21, 2010

New Voice: Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich on 8th Grade Superzero

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is the first-time author of 8th Grade Superzero (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2010). From the promotional copy:

After the worst first day of school ever, Reggie "Pukey" McKnight wants to get through the school year, out of the spotlight, and on the sidelines. He wants to turn his image around, but he has other things on his mind as well: his father is out of a job; life with his best friends is getting complicated by race and romance; and his nemesis Donovan is out for blood.

The elections for school president are coming up, but Reggie wouldn’t stand a chance, if he even had the courage to run.

Then he gets involved with a local homeless shelter, and begins to think about making a difference, in his world and beyond.

And when a pair of "Dora the Explorer" sneakers seem to have powers of transformation, Reggie begins to wonder: Pukey for President? It can happen...if he starts believing.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters?

This question shouldn't be difficult, because character development is one of my favourite parts of the process (along with revision), but...hmmm. I spend a looooong time "hanging out" with my characters, not only in the context of my story, but I imagine them in different situations, conversations, etc.., just to get a more "round" idea of who they are.

I may see someone on the subway that does something that reminds me of a character--I do a lot of people-watching. I write a lot of "extra" dialogues and scenes that may not be for the book, but help me get to know the character a bit better.

I may see or hear something and then say "What would X have done in that situation?" "What if she'd said that to X? What would have happened next?" "Whoa, what would X have thought about that!?"

During the process of writing and revising Superzero, I learned a lot about loving my characters through whatever they do and say, even when I really dislike the things they do or say.

I try to find the "heart-breaker" things about my characters, the little things, maybe a nervous habit, a way of eating or sitting, something that they own, an unguarded moment with another character, the things that make them sympathetic and break my heart for them in a way.

An author and writing teacher recommended the first three chapters of Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen, forward by David Hyde Pierce (Wiley, 2008) as a resource, and I think it's wonderful. She also recommended that writers take at least one acting workshop; I did do a lot of high school theatrics in my teens (and my poor mom came to see them all), and I try to think in an actor-ly way when I'm working out my characters.

Another author and teacher once had us pick well-known stories from the Bible and "re-tell" them from another character's perspective, and that was another amazing exercise in character development.

My own childhood is a tremendous resource. One of the benefits of having moved a lot in childhood is that each year is very clear in my mind, and so I can recall incidents, emotions, relationships...A lot of being 6, or 13, or 15 remains the same no matter the era. I also spent a lot of my adult years working as a literacy coach, and in youth development programs, and the young people that I've known are awesome inspiration for my work.

I used to feel sheepish about how much time I spend thinking about my characters and making random notes that are not part of the story, but I'm getting over that. I need to really know my characters in order to know how their stories go.

As someone who's the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

I struggle daily with time management. I used to defeat myself by making impossible to-do lists and then bemoan the fact that I just wasn't going to achieve my long-held dream of being "an accomplished woman!" But I'm done with beating myself up about it...mostly.

My role as a mother is very precious to me, and I've learned to share my author self with my daughter in positive ways; I share my writing struggles with her as well.

I have learned to let go of the vision of the perfect writing day, where the sun rises on me sitting in a Dutailier glider on the beach, yellow teapot full of strong, sweet Assam and a plate of currant scones at my side (I've just baked them myself after re-decorating my apartment and sewing myself a fabulous new wardrobe), and beautifully-bound notebook of heavyweight paper in one hand, black-ink pen that-came-in-one-of-those-fancy-cases in the other, and pages and pages of perfect prose perfectly written on the first try that I can't wait to share....

Wait, did I say that I'd let go of that?

Okay, yeah...I'm done with that. No more wishing I had more time and fewer dirty dishes, and a lot less drama. I have to work with the time and circumstances that I have, be mindful of the choices that I make and take responsibility for them.

Sometimes I don't choose wisely, sometimes the days just don't work out as I'd planned, but I have to forgive myself and move forward, try again.

Letting go of the illusion of complete control is helpful. I work in snippets, when I'm waiting to pick up, riding public transportation, standing in line.

The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris (Paulist Press, 1998) has been a huge help for me in learning to appreciate the routines of daily life--it makes a difference when I have a different attitude about doing chores, etc.

Another wonderful help is The Creative Habit: Learn It and Ue It for Life by Twyla Tharp (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

At home, I try to be careful about the time I spend checking email, reading blogs, etc.. If I don't limit/schedule/structure my time online, I can waste hours. Greg Pincus has a great post about using social media effectively that I highly recommend.

Because I write longhand a lot, I can get myself away from the computer for first drafts and any extended writing periods; very often I take my notebook and pen (drugstore variety) and head outside.

I have also had to learn to ignore the "I wish I had time to sit around and write books, but I have a real job" voices around me that can be really loud at times. Because then I end up expending valuable energy and neglecting my very real jobs to worry over someone else's silliness.

I am someone who loves solitude, but I am learning that it is important to be connected to other writers and artists, people who have some understanding of what you do.

Getting a couple of sentences down is no small feat on some days, and I'm going to let that be precious to me. Putting words down on paper can make one so vulnerable, writing can be such an act of love; writers, let's be kind to ourselves!

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