Thursday, January 18, 2018

Kara LaReau and the Bland Sisters Are Anything But

I'll admit it. These books surprised me. I expected them to be good reads. I was there for the quirky humor and puns. I didn't know I'd be bowled over by their charm and emotional depth.

Isn't that a wonderful gift? If you're here, I assume you're a reader, possibly a writer. We plow through book after book every week, every month, and it's always a treat when one or two of them rise up and find a place in our lives long after we turn the last page.

The Bland Sisters have moved into my brain, and although book two only arrived last week, I'm ready to pre-order book three today.

Abandoned by their adventurer parents, the sisters live a small, isolated life in Dullsville. They get by by darning socks. They start each day with plain oatmeal and tepid tea. There's is a washed out existence in a gray landscape, until...

Until, in book one, they're kidnapped by an all-female band of pirates. Until, in book two, they're swept away on the Uncanny Express, a train with a mystery Christie would be proud of. Through it all, Jaundice and Kale navigate the dangers with a mild, budding enthusiasm. Just like their parents intended. Maybe?

Illustration by Jen Hill
Sisters Jaundice and Kale carry a hint of the Baudelaire children, a dash of Roald Dahl, and a weirder-than-life world fit for Pushing Daisies.

Let's Hear From the Author

Kara LaReau
You used to be an editor with Candlewick and Scholastic. Which side of the desk is easier? (This might be a trick question.)
Yes, I worked at Candlewick for about eight years, at Scholastic Press for about three years, and then I had my own freelance editing business. Editing and writing both have their challenges, but writing is really where my heart is, so that tends to make the job easier!

What was that transition like?
I had my first book published back in 2003, while I was still at Candlewick, so I was juggling both careers for a long time — though I tended to put editing (i.e. working on other people’s writing) first. It wasn’t until I had some health problems a few years back that I decided I needed to reprioritize. P.S. I’m fine now!

How does your editorial background inform your writing today?
I’m pretty good at figuring out where the problem areas are in my writing and articulating why they’re not working — good editors are a lot like good mechanics, in that way. And I know what goes on behind the scenes in publishing, so that informs my relationships with my publishers now, and some of the decisions I make as I prepare new work for submission.

I love the relationship between Jaundice and Kale. Are they twins? Which sister is older?
Thanks! Well, they certainly look and act like twins. This comes from my own relationship with my sister; we are three years apart, but many people have assumed we’re twins. The exact nature of Jaundice and Kale’s relationship is revealed in the third book, along with other secrets about their family — you’ll just have to wait to find out!

Illustration by Jen Hill
Jen Hill’s illustrations pair so nicely with your prose that I can’t imagine one without the other. Much like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake (not a bad comparison). Did you have much (or any) interaction with her during the character design process?
I’ll take that comparison, and I’m sure Jen will, too! Though Jen and I are friends, we don’t interact directly while the book is being made — I review her character designs and sketches and send any art-related feedback to my editor, who relays them to Jen through the designer. The creative team at Abrams knows what they’re doing, and I respect their process. I think it’s a testament to Jen’s talent and proof that we are on the same wavelength that her art matches the Bland world in my mind, often from the get-go.

Despite the humor in these stories, there is an underlying thread of melancholy as the sisters navigate a world without parents. Did that darker side appear naturally or was it something you developed intentionally?
That element was always there, but I definitely worked to tease it out (with my editor’s help!) in all three books. Jaundice and Kale are inherently bland, but many of their habits and routines are merely distractions, or attempts to maintain some control over their lives, in the absence of their parents. The more we get to know them, the more this becomes clear. I think the story (and every story, really) is so much richer with that emotional resonance, and it balances out the absurdity of the Bland Sisters’ adventures.

Have you read Matt de la Peña’s recent essay on darkness in children’s books and Kate DiCamillo’s response? Maybe because those hit me so hard, I’m finding (or perhaps recognizing) a resonance to their thoughts within the Bland Sisters.
I have read Matt’s essay and Kate’s response, and what they’ve said rings true for me, in my work on The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters and my chapter books and picture books. I find that it’s usually adults who tell me something in my stories is “too dark” or “too scary.” When I read to kids, they’re nodding in acknowledgment, because they already sense (or have experience with) the darkness and uncertainty in the world. When we portray some of that reality in our stories, we’re saying, “Yes, I see and feel it too. You’re not alone. Let’s try to make some sense of it together.”

OMG, you worked with Kate DiCamillo. Can you please share a glorious Kate-nugget about that experience?
Yes, though it seems like a lifetime ago! I edited Kate’s early novels (Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tiger Rising, The Tale of Despereaux, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane) and the first three books in her Mercy Watson series. Of course, I have many, many stories from that time, but one I tend to remember, especially now that I am focused on my own writing, is that whenever I sent her editorial notes, she would say, “I already baked the cake; now you want me to add eggs?!” I totally get that now, Kate!

What are you reading now?
Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk, which I am loving. I grew up by the ocean, so any story about that life has my attention, but this one is so rich and poignant and mysterious, I can’t put it down.

What books are you looking forward to in 2018?
So many! The Wild Robot Escapes, the new (and final, sniff sniff!) Penderwicks story, the new Jasmine Toguchi and Dory Fantasmagory and Terrible Two books, Winterhouse, The Problim Children, Smart Cookie, The Truth as Told by Mason Butte…I could go on and on, and that’s just for middle grade and chapter books. Honestly, I don’t know when I’m going to have time to write this year!

Anything else you want to share?
I just reviewed the copyedits for the third and final (??) Bland Sisters adventure. I don’t want to give away too much, but I will tell you that it features 1. a tortoise named Paris, 2.  a very intimidating all-female motorcycle gang, and 3. a long-awaited family reunion!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I'm Stuck...In A Fight...In My Own Head! By Hilary Wagner

Yes, I'm talking about the old fight scene!

The pure mechanics of fight scenes mess with my head. I don't want to be over descriptive, taking away from the action. I don't want to be under descriptive, making it unclear what is actually happening in the fight. I don't want it to be bland, as in "Paul hit Peter in the face," (yeah, that's riveting literature) and I certainly don't want it to be too colorful, as in "Blood spurted from the cavernous wound like an angry volcano of gory wrath!" I am writing for children after all...though that's never really stopped me before. I digress....  

Long story short, if there is one place in a manuscript where I'm going to get stuck, it's a fight scene. I'm not an outliner, so I map every move out in my head as I go...which is probably the slowest way to write a fight scene. I'm a huge fan of boxing, so that's helpful, but even still, all the moves involved in a least a non-boring one can be pretty complicated. 

How do you handle your typical fight scene? 

For those of you who have a certain joy writing them or are the quintessential note takers before actually writing a fight scene, I'd love to hear your take. What's your process? How do you keep it interesting without going overboard? 

Give us your super ninja street cat fight gang warfare bad guy/good guy cage fight to the death action packed "king kong got nothing on me" wisdom!

(For kids books, of course, so maybe not quite to the death...well, maybe, depends on the book and sometimes our mood.)

Thanks! Hilary

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Sprints and Marathons by Kell Andrews

To have a sustained writing career, you need to run both short and long distances. 



I'm thrilled to finally announce here that my next picture book, The Book Dragon, illustrated by Éva Chatelain, will be published in fall 2018 by Sterling Children's Books. I got the contract offer January 5. 

Are you thinking that this is moving awfully fast from contract offer to publication? Not really, since the contract offer was more than a year ago, January 5, 2017, and I wrote the story in the long-ago optimistic days of 2016. 

That's a long haul for a short book. 

Then again, publishing is always a long haul.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint." Or is it?

To the contrary, writing a picture book is a sprint. It takes a lot longer to write each word in a 500 page book, but it does not (with rare exceptions) take as long as a 50,000 one. Rewriting is another sprint, maybe the next heat, while writing the next story is another race entirely.

To have a career in picture books, you need to string those sprints together until they approach something like a marathon. Last year I drafted and polished six manuscripts, and I'm not even prolific. So far I'm sprinting again and again, with the results being an every-other-year publishing schedule. That's a lot of writing for each published manuscript.

Novels are marathons. Or are they?

Novels are marathon you can turn into sprints. Writing a novel is a daunting process. It takes months or even years. Staring down an empty page, putting your butt in that chair day after day -- it's intimidating.

It's a marathon that I personally need to break into sprints to make it manageable. Half-hour writing sprints, writing by act, even middle-distance events like NaNo can put manageable interim goals into place so you don't have to stare down that long, long distance from the blank page to "the end."

And when you're lucky enough to get a contract, you inevitably have a few more sprints ahead -- revisions often land back in the writer's inbox at the worst times, and with not enough time attached. 

It's always a long haul.

Yes, even for picture books, maybe even especially, since illustrated books tend to take longer from contract to publication. There's an excellent chance my Fall 2018 date will change into a Spring 2019 one.

That's OK. It gives me plenty of time fit in a half-dozen sprints, or even a full marathon.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A few thoughts on Beginnings by Paul Greci

Photos by Paul Greci

A birch tree, a spruce tree and a saguaro cactus ran into each other at a bar…

I’ve set the expectation here that I’m going to tell a joke. In other words, in the opening line, I have made a promise and the reader expects me to follow through.

Several years ago, when I took a multi-day writing workshop from Jeanette Ingold, one of the things she said was that in the first chapter of a novel you make a promise to your reader.

Part of that promise is created by the tone you set. Part that promise is created by questions you raise. Part of that promise is created by the voice. Is your story a thriller/adventure? Or, is it more introspective? Is it historical? Is it more character or plot driven?

According to my wife, who is an avid reader, and novel writer, the promise in the first chapter is often instrumental in her deciding if she is going to keep reading a book. If she’s interested in the promise the author is making, then she’ll keep reading.

In his book, The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman says this about openings and extending them beyond a one-line hook to encompass the first chapter: “At its best, it can be not only a propellant but also a statement of what you might expect from the text to come.” He goes on to say, “….don’t write an opening for the sake of an opening, but for the sake of the story that follows.”

Now about that birch, spruce and saguaro…After heated exchanges about the merits of spines versus needles, and sap versus water, and who is better nesting habitat, more fire proof and drought resistant, they all threw up their hands in laughter realizing that even though each one has its strengths and distinctions, in the end, they are really more alike than different.

 Paul Greci is the author of Surviving Bear Island, a 2015 Junior Library Guild Selection and a 2016 Scholastic Reading Club Selection. Forthcoming in 2018 is the yet to be titled sequel to Surviving Bear Island published by Move Books. In 2019, Paul's first young adult novel, The Wild Lands will be published by Macmillan.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Happy New Year--and a Challenge by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

Happy New Year, everyone. I can't believe that it's 2018 already, and that Project Mayhem has been in existence for 8 years. That's astounding, and I'd like to thank each and every reader of this blog, and all the writers who have contributed to it over the years. There's a wealth of information and inspiration in our archives, that's for sure.

The turning of the calendar makes most people a bit introspective, I suspect. At the end of each year, I mull over the things that transpired over the past twelve months, for better or for worse, and it gets me thinking about what I could do differently.

For me, 2017 was not a productive year on the writing front. I got sidetracked by all the public negativity, sucked into way too many tweetstorms. I found myself slinking away from the page all too often. I read less fiction too, which is alarming, because good stories are inoculations against all that is crass and cheerless in the world around us. (It's also alarming because I've got a TBR pile about to topple off my nightstand.)

In my ruminations, I did come across an article by David Cain, who writes the blog Getting better about being human. Cain writes about having a "Year of Deepening," a year in which "you don’t start anything new or acquire any new possessions you don’t need."

He goes on:
"No new hobbies, equipment, games, or books are allowed during this year. Instead, you have to find the value in what you already own or what you’ve already started.
You improve skills rather than learning new ones. You consume media you’ve already stockpiled instead of acquiring more.
You read your unread books, or even reread your favorites. You pick up the guitar again and get better at it, instead of taking up the harmonica. You finish the Gordon Ramsey Masterclass you started in April, despite your fascination with the new Annie Leibovitz one, even though it’s on sale."
A consumer society, Cain explains, always tempts us to the new thing. In much the same way, when a story becomes too difficult, it's easy to be tempted to try something new. (I am undeniably guilty of this.) That shiny new thing is so much more appealing than the old thing you've been slogging away at, which has long since lost its luster.

I needed this reminder, and so it's with renewed determination that I am making the goal of finishing my latest novel this year. Wish me luck!

The rest of David Cain's blog post, Go Deeper, Not Wider,  can be found HERE.

Do you have any goals for the year ahead? Does going deeper resonate with you? Let me know in the comments--and have a great 2018!