Archive for November, 2011

The Writing Life, Chapter 17: Star Struck

One of the pleasures of a long career in journalism is the opportunity to interview interesting people. During my years at the International Reading Association, I interviewed noted academics and researchers, award-winning classroom teachers, and U.S. government officials.

Some of my favorite interviews were with children’s authors, including top names such as Tomie dePaola, Katherine Paterson, Lois Lowry, Jon Scieszka, Jerry Pinkney, and Marc Brown, to name just a few. Although these people are celebrities in the children’s book field, I found most of them to be humble and genuinely interested in helping children through their books.

On occasion, I’ve interviewed more widely known celebrities. When he spoke at the IRA Annual Convention in 2010, I talked to former U.S. Vice President Al Gore about his book Our Choice: How We Can Solve the Climate Crisis. I found him to be passionate, knowledgeable, and personable. He even knew that I was an author myself and commented on my children’s books, which surprised me.

Some years ago, I interviewed country superstar and ardent literacy supporter Dolly Parton about her Imagination Library project, through which young children receive a personal library of free books. Her sincere interest in helping children develop an early love of reading showed clearly throughout our conversation. I always get a bit nervous when interviewing famous people, but she was so down-to-earth that I soon felt at ease.

Let me tell you how my latest celebrity interview came about. Last month while browsing through magazines at the Newark Public Library, I read Rolling Stone’s Hot List for 2011. One of the featured people was Aubrey Plaza, who plays April Ludgate on the popular TV show Parks and Recreation. When I read that she grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, I realized that an article about her might make a nice feature for Delaware Today magazine. I discovered that they had done a brief piece about her a couple of years ago, but I thought a follow-up might be appropriate now that she is even more famous.

When I pitched the idea to Delaware Today’s editor, Maria Hess, she said she was very interested—if I could get an interview. We both realized that might be challenging. I did a little research, found Aubrey Plaza’s management company, called them, and was a bit surprised to have a telephone interview scheduled within a week.

While Aubrey’s April Ludgate character thrives on sarcastic wit and deadpan humor, Aubrey herself was a delightful interviewee—warm and personable. She spoke with great fondness about growing up in Delaware and shared a few of her humorous exploits at Ursuline Academy, where she considered herself a bit of a class clown. I’m working on developing the article now and will keep you posted on when and where it will appear.

Random Writing Thought of the Week: Doing the interview with Aubrey Plaza reminded me of two things I have learned in dealing with famous people: 1) Celebrities may not be as inaccessible as you might think. You won’t know until you try. 2) Famous people (at least the ones I’ve encountered) are people first and famous second. They are much more like us regular folks than we realize.

The Writing Life, Chapter 16: A Ten-Year Project

Sometimes when I visit schools, students ask how long it takes for a book to get published. I tell them that the timeline varies greatly. A few of my books, such as some of the biographies published by Enslow, went from idea to print in just over a year, largely because they had been slotted into the publisher’s production schedule before work even began. A more typical timeline is two to three years, and Daddy Poems took nearly six years to pull together.

One of my current projects, a picture book of beach poems, has been more than a decade in the making. I first submitted a manuscript to Boyds Mills Press, which had just published my Daddy Poems book, back in 2001. The manuscript got rejected, and I decided that perhaps I wasn’t ready to do a poetry book based solely on my own original work. Instead, I continued to compile poetry collections to which I contributed just a few of my own poems. I also moved on to write biographies and history books.

Over the years my collection of beach poems continued to call out to me every now and then. Yet, with a full-time job, a busy family life, and a series of book contracts to fulfill, I never quite got around to answering that call.

About five years ago, a member of my writers and illustrators group, Lisa Goodman, showed us some wonderful beach-related photographs that she had taken. In my mind’s eye, I saw those photographs pairing with my poems to create a glorious picture book. Again, time constraints and other commitments prevented me from following up.

When I left my long-time job with the International Reading Association this past spring to pursue a freelance career, I suddenly found myself with enough time to pursue some projects that had long lain dormant. One of those projects was the poetry book. I contacted Lisa and found that she was excited about the idea of working together on the book.

Over the past few months, we have been hard at work. I have totally overhauled the poems, completely rewriting some of them, tweaking others, and replacing a few entirely. I am amazed at how much stronger the collection is this time around. Meanwhile, Lisa has taken some wonderful new photos, and we are both delighted at how well the text and photos complement one another. Lisa and I are exploring self-publishing options for the book, and we are excited about the prospects.

We are aiming to have a finished book available by spring of 2012. I will keep you posted on our progress.

Random Writing Thought of the Week: For me, the creative process for writing poetry is both different and the same from that for creating nonfiction. It’s different in terms of some of the thought processes involved and the same in terms of the drafting, editing, and rewriting processes.

The Writing Life, Chapter 15: Variety Is the Spice of Life

One of the joys of freelance writing is the variety of projects I get to do. Yesterday, for instance, I began my day by working on the first draft of this blog post, which I find a great way to get my creative juices flowing.

Next I spent a couple of hours working on a PowerPoint presentation pertaining to sentence structure for an educational publisher. I am refreshing a lot of knowledge that was for years buried deep in my subconscious. I know the difference between a dependent clause and an independent clause, but it’s been 35 years since I’ve had to try to explain it.

After that I shifted gears entirely and worked on my picture book of beach poems, which is nearing completion. At this point, I’m doing some final tweaks on the wording of a couple of poems and matching them with wonderful photographs taken by my friend Lisa Goodman. I have been exploring self-publishing this book through CreateSpace, an company.

At lunch came a trip to Newark Reservoir for a brisk walk and an opportunity to take a photograph of an airplane vapor trail to possibly accompany one of the beach poems. I noticed the last time I was walking up there that it was a great spot to see vapor trails, and I vowed to remember my camera the next time.

Yesterday afternoon found me focusing on sentence structure again, as today marks the deadline for turning in the first chunk of copy for that project. On the surface, such an assignment may sound dull, but it’s actually quite interesting and challenging to try to explain the concepts in kid-friendly terms and come up with interesting examples, exercises, and quizzes.

The day wound down with some research on AubreyPlaza, an actress from Parks and Recreation, who grew up in Delaware. I came across the reference to her Delaware roots in a Rolling Stone interview and thought that might make a good angle for an article for Delaware Today magazine. When I pitched the idea, editor Maria Hess told me she’d be very interested in such an article—if I can get an interview. So yesterday I watched a few video interviews with Aubrey and explored how best to make contact with her. I’ll keep you posted on what happens.

In the evening, I drafted a few letters to schools where I have contacts about the possibility of doing an author visit in 2012.

All in all, it was a pretty productive—and interesting—day!

Random Writing Thought of the Week: Several projects that I invested considerable time on are now turned in and awaiting final approval. There’s a real sense of pride and accomplishment when that happens.

The Writing Life, Chapter 14: Rhythm and Routine

As a poet, I spend a lot of time immersed in issues of rhythm as I try to get a series of lines to flow together in just the right way. The notion of rhythm also applies to my writing in a broader sense in that I am always trying to establish a rhythm for the act of writing as well as within my writing.

For me, writing is a process that is sometimes ridiculously easy, sometimes painfully difficult. Starting is generally the hardest part. Once I get going, the words usually begin to flow naturally as I find myself totally immersed in the process, my mind and fingers operating together in a kind of writing rhythm I can’t truly explain. That’s not to say the work is perfect; almost always I will have to go back and fix certain rough patches. But once I get into my writing rhythm, the process usually flows pretty smoothly.

To get into that rhythm, I also have to focus on establishing my writing routine. Like most people, I find I have times of day that are more productive than others. I’m finishing this blog post at 7:45 a.m., the quiet time after Debbie has gone to work and John has gone to school before I start focusing on what “has to be done” during the day. It’s a great time to focus on creative or “fun” projects such as a poem or this blog post.

Beyond that, I try to block out chunks of time to focus on various projects throughout the day. I try never to work on any one piece for more than two hours at a time. For me, that’s enough time to get into a rhythm for accomplishing a task but not so long that I lose interest or focus.

For years when I worked at a day job, I got into the routine of focusing on my creative writing in the evening. Even now that I am a freelancer and can write whenever I choose, I still find that my creative muse often operates best after dinner. After months of trying to wrestle it into a new daytime pattern, I have given in and simply planned to do some of my creative work at night. After all, just because I can write during the day now doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t still write in the evening as well.

And that is my advice to young or aspiring writers—seek the time when your mind is most alert and most creative and use that time to do your most creative work. When you establish a routine to capitalize on the rhythm of your writing, the words will flow.

Random Writing Thought of the Week: Actually, this is more of a postscript. Deadlines are another, although certainly less pleasant, way to create a rhythm. When deadlines loom, I simply apply my bottom to the chair and stay there until the task is finished. My rhythm may not be as smooth, but desperation has a way of breaking the logjam of words.