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The Writing Life 2015: Loving the Library!

I have been doing research over the past month for three separate short history books. As a result, I’ve been spending a lot of time in libraries—and reminding myself how much I love prowling stacks of books, even in the computer age. I can find more and more of what I need online, and I certainly save lots of time doing research that way. Still, there’s nothing like roaming the stacks in a library and being surprised by a title that’s just what I need, even though it didn’t turn up in my Google search.

Different libraries have different personalities, too. The Newark library is open and welcoming—a great place to set up my computer for a couple of hours when I get tired of staring at the same four walls in my home office. Same goes for the Kirkwood library.

Morris Library at the University of Delaware gives off a distinctly different vibe. With its floors and floors and rows and rows of books, it’s more imposing and less homelike. But I love being able to peruse dozens of different books about the Gold Rush or the Civil War to find just the right facts and quotes to make my books come alive. It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt, except that there’s no prescribed set of materials to gather.

A recent study by Scholastic indicates that nearly two out of three kids agree that they will always want to read books in print form even though there are ebooks available. I think that’s wonderful. There is something special about the look, the feel, and even the aroma of books in a bookstore or library. And there’s a special kind of magic to be found in wandering the stacks of a library that just can’t be replicated when scrolling down the pages of an electronic search.

I loved libraries as a child. I love them as an adult as a tool for my writing. I’m sure I’ll continue to love them when I retire and am once again, as I was in childhood, simply looking for a “good read.”

 

The Writing Life 2015: Remembering a Mentor

Last week, the world lost one of its finest advocates for children’s literature, Bernice “Bee” Cullinan. Bee’s nickname was apt—she buzzed from project to project, pollinating each with her unique mixture of wisdom and enthusiasm. Her contributions to the field of reading are too numerous to list in full, but here is a sampling.

  • Professor emeritus at New York University
  • President of the International Reading Association (recently renamed the International Literacy Association)
  • Creator of Children’s Literature in the Reading Program, a best-selling book now entering its fourth edition. The success of the first edition of this book, by the way, ushered in a period of unprecedented growth and success for IRA’s book publishing program.
  • Founder and first editor of the Wordsong poetry imprint at Boyds Mills Press
  • Editor of A Jar of Tiny Stars, a best-selling anthology of poems by NCTE-Award-winning poets

I had the extreme good fortune to collaborate with Bee in two capacities. During my long tenure at the International Reading Association, I worked with more than 30 IRA Presidents on their President’s Messages for Reading Today. I respected all of them and formed personal friendships with many of them. Bee, who served from 1984-1985, was one of my all-time favorites. I admired her scholarship, her passion for children’s literature, and her vision for expanding its role as an integral part of the reading program.

About 10 years later, when my children were very young, I had an idea for a children’s book. Eager to encourage fathers to become actively involved in reading to and with their children, I conceived the idea for a book of Daddy Poems—poems about dads designed for dads to share with their children. One day I shared the idea with Bee, who was then serving as the head of Wordsong, the poetry imprint at Boyds Mills Press. Her reaction: “That’s a great idea, John. Go do it.”

It was then that I had to admit to her that I had no idea how to go about compiling a poetry collection. Like the great mentor she was, Bee patiently guided me through the process of how to find poems and poets, how to gather permissions to use selected poems, and how to balance the collection between new and previously published material. Gradually, the manuscript took shape, and finally I submitted it, certain that it was the greatest poetry anthology ever compiled.

Imagine my shock when the manuscript was returned a couple of months later. The reviewers said they loved the idea but thought some of the previously published poems I had selected were too dated. They also thought the poems I had written needed some more work. They encouraged me to revise and resubmit the piece.

I should have been encouraged by this response and gotten right to work. After all, the reviewers had said they loved the idea and had given me specific advice for revising the manuscript. Still, I was crushed by what I saw as rejection. I literally stuffed the manuscript under my bed, and there it sat for months. Then Bee called one day and asked how the revisions were coming. I sheepishly admitted that I hadn’t worked on them. She paused for a moment, then asked what my dream was. I replied that I dreamed of a poetry book with my name on it—a book dads could share with their children. She paused again, then asked if that dream could ever come true if the manuscript sat under my bed. No, I replied, I needed to get to work on the revisions. “Go do it,” she commanded.

Once again, Bee mentored me throughout the process. She paired me with author and educator Allan De Fina, who helped me with poem selection and permissions issues. She even invited me to spend a weekend at her house on Long Island, where I immersed myself in her vast poetry collection and bounced wording for my own poems off her for feedback. The day Daddy Poems was published in 2000 was one of the proudest moments in my life.

But Bee wasn’t done mentoring me yet. As I basked in the glow of Daddy Poems, she asked me a simple question that changed my writing life forever: “What’s next, John?” I had never thought beyond that single book, but with Bee’s encouragement, Daddy Poems was followed by Mommy Poems, Grandparent Poems, and No Boys Allowed: Poems About Brothers and Sisters. My success with those books opened doors for me to approach other publishers with other ideas, and I’ve now published more than 20 children’s books.

So it is with a heavy heart indeed that I say farewell to my colleague, friend, and mentor Bernice Cullinan. She made the world a better place for many people, and I count myself fortunate to have been one of them.

 

The Writing Life 2015: New Arrivals, New Projects

Two very cool packages arrived in the mail last week—advance copies of my latest books. The books are titled The Challenger Disaster and The 1918 Flu Pandemic, and they are part of Capstone’s Fact Finders “What Went Wrong?” series. These mark my 20th and 21st published children’s books, representing a nice mixture of history books, biographies, and poetry.

I must admit that I don’t get as excited about my new books as I did years ago. Maybe the thrill of each individual title has grown less as I do more of them. Also, however, there is a bit of superstition on my part. I simply don’t like reading my books once they are published. I’m always afraid I’ll find an error—or at least something I don’t like. For instance, one of my favorite poems from my Mommy Poems book is “The Keeper of Dreams,” but there’s one line in it that makes me cringe every time I read it. I wish I had written it differently, and sometimes when I read it in schools I actually change to what I wish it had been.

Part of it, too, is that for me the process of doing the book is just as important as the product. I love researching new topics and immersing myself in a subject over a period of time. That is why, even as I celebrate the arrival of my new titles, I am just as excited about getting ready to dive in and begin research on three new books for Capstone. I can’t discuss the specifics yet because I haven’t formally signed the contracts, but they are all history topics, and I look forward to researching all three of them.

I’m also excited about a picture book I am self-publishing titled The Sound in the Basement, with illustrations by New York City-based illustrator Eric Hamilton. Another exciting aspect is that I plan to help support its publication through a Kickstarter campaign that I will launch soon. This means that my friends and relatives will have a chance to get involved in the project and earn some cool things such as signed copies of the book before they are available to the general public. Watch for more details soon!

The Writing Life 2015: Inspiration, Motivation, Perspiration

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Thomas Edison

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” Mary Heaton Vorse

After a too-long hiatus, I’ve decided to start blogging again. For a long time I was wrapped up in editorial consulting work and pressing projects to the point that blogging fell by the wayside. As I look forward to 2015, however, I have some really interesting projects on the horizon, and I’d like to write about the creative process involved in them. I plan to post blog entries around the beginning and middle of each month. Because I’ve recently been really inspired, I wanted to focus on that topic first.

I’ve always felt writing is a process of getting inspired and motivated and then following that up by putting in the perspiration to create a product. This year, I’ve had ample opportunity to get inspired and motivated. I’ve attended (and spoken at) SCBWI Regional Conferences, where I picked up some extremely practical tips on picture book plotting/paging and offered tips on working with editors, pairing with Ariane Szu-Tu of National Geographic Kids. Together, we talked about the process for putting together the best-selling book, 125 True Stories of Amazing Pets, to which I contributed roughly 40 stories. Just as valuable was the inspiration I got at these conferences from thinking about and talking about writing with fellow writers and illustrators.

This spring I traveled to Tuckahoe (just outside New York City) to meet with representatives of Self Publishing Inc., a firm that helps authors self-publish their books. I am currently finalizing two picture books for self-publication, so this meeting was an important step in the process and got me even more motivated to move these projects forward.

Then in June I traveled to Tennessee for the annual meeting of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library Book Selection Committee. It’s really inspiring to be immersed in discussions about children’s books for two full days as we work with representatives of Penguin (which provides all the books for the program) to select titles for the coming year. Imagination Library programs currently operate in more than 300 communities in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and the program has distributed 60 million books. It’s truly gratifying to participate in the selection process for this wonderful program.

In October I attended a writing “Unworkshop” sponsored by the Highlights Foundation. All of their workshops are amazing. (I also attended one on the “Power of Picture Books” in August.) The Unworkshop provides a retreat atmosphere, as well as the time and space to be truly creative. To aid the creative process, the workshop provides a cozy cabin for writing and sleeping, gourmet meals, hiking trails, the inspiration of sharing meals and trading ideas with other writers, and a block of uninterrupted time to think, dream, and create. In six days, I completed two picture book drafts from scratch, prepared a set of book proposals, researched other projects, and sent out queries. What a week! I’ll keep you posted on what happens with these manuscripts.

The SCBWI conference, the Imagination Library meeting, and the Highlights Foundation Unworkshop provided both inspiration and motivation. Now it’s up to me to put in the perspiration to finish my new projects and get them ready for publication.

It’s not like I haven’t been productive. Over the past year or so I’ve completed five short nonfiction book manuscripts for Capstone and contributed to the Amazing Pets book for National Geographic Kids. I also did part-time editorial consulting work for the PreK-12 Learning Group (a division of the Association of American Publishers), and I’ve written articles for ASCD’s Education Update, IRA’s Reading Today, and National Geographic Kids.

Looking ahead, most of my regular consulting has wound down, and I’m looking forward to focusing even more on book writing, school visits, and other projects as they arise. And new opportunities always do seem to arise. For instance, I’m currently working on some online course lessons for FYI Online Learning and doing publicity work for Read to Them, a nonprofit organization that runs the One District, One Book program.

Can I successfully merge inspiration, motivation, and perspiration to finish this next round of projects? Watch future posts for updates!

John Micklos, Jr. is the author of nearly 20 books for children and young adults. He lives in Newark, Delaware. Visit his website at www.JohnMicklosWriter.com.

The Writing Life, Chapter 26: A Query a Day

Even though I spend roughly 25 hours a week doing consulting work for the Association of Educational Publishers (which I really love), I’m always looking for freelance clients. And even though I have a number of trusted regular clients who I love working with (National Geographic Kids, Teaching Tolerance, and the News Journal), I’m always seeking new outlets for my work.

As I prepare to send my second child off to college this fall and wait to see if the grant-funded portion of my AEP work is renewed for another year, my interest in broadening my markets grows even stronger. With that in mind, I have set the following challenge for the coming month—to make at least one marketing query (written or phone) each day for the month of February.

Although I realize that marketing is an essential part of freelancing, I find it to be the most challenging aspect. “Selling” myself has never been easy for me. Still, I realize that my current consulting work and my best freelance clients all came from initial contacts that later blossomed into steady work.

At first I wondered how I could ever think of enough potential projects to justify a query a day. That’s why I chose to do it in February, the shortest month. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are far more possibilities than I can possibly explore in a single month. I plan to explore book options, magazine and newspaper outlets, author visits to schools, presentations at conferences and libraries, public relations projects, proposals for editing work, and more.

What if everyone says “no”? I don’t think that will happen, but even if it does I haven’t lost anything but some time. What if everyone says “yes”? I don’t think that will happen either, but if it does, I’ll figure out a way to get everything done. A more likely scenario is that I will make a few new contacts and line up a few new projects—and that’s what freelancing is all about.

What will really happen? I’ll let you know in about a month!

The Writing Life, Chapter 25: A Thankful Writer!

It’s been a long time since I’ve prepared a writer’s blog post–I’ve simply been too busy! When I stopped to think about what I’ve been busy doing, I realized how much I have to be thankful for, both in my writing life and beyond.

In regard to writing, I’ve been blessed to find interesting and fulfilling work as a communications specialist/consultant for the Association of Educational Publishers, a small nonprofit organization in Wilmington. I work on two main projects–AEP’s awards program and a project called the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative. To learn more about the LRMI, visit its website.

I feel truly fortunate to interact with a great group of people doing work that I really enjoy. In many ways, I’ve regained much of the enthusiasm and sense of purpose I felt for so many years working at the International Reading Association before the hard times, and for that I am grateful.

Furthermore, my consulting work is typically half to three quarters time, which also gives me time to pursue my freelance writing. It’s been a successful year on that front as well. I’ve had articles in National Geographic KidsTeaching ToleranceDelaware Today, the News Journal, and other publications. I’ve conducted writing workshops at schools in Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. I’ve completed the manuscript for a biography of Jennifer Hudson for Enslow, and I’m nearing completion of a picture book of beach poems that I plan to self publish early in 2013.

Even when I think of all the things that sometimes distract me from my writing, I realize they are all good things–serving on the state board of Delaware PTA, serving on my church’s Called Pastor Search Committee, occasional trips to watch Amy play college field hockey, and watching John’s soccer games, to name a few. In short, I have much to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving weekend!

The Writing Life, Chapter 24: Happy Anniversary, Writing Group!

It’s amazing what another set of eyes—or two or three or five—can do for a piece of writing! No matter how carefully I craft a poem or story, no matter how carefully I edit or proofread a piece of work, it always benefits from having someone else read it. Other readers bring a fresh perspective that I simply can’t.

One way I get this fresh perspective by participating in writers’ groups. My current group, comprised of children’s writers and illustrators, meets monthly to critique one another’s work and share encouragement. The nine members who attend on a regular basis range from picture book authors and illustrators to young adult novelists. Among us, we have published nearly 20 books and have more than 50 years of membership in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Editors (SCBWI).

In fact, the group formed after a regional SCBWI event held in Frederick, Maryland, last spring. We recently celebrated our one-year anniversary with a cake decorated with artwork by group member Kenneth Shepherd. To learn more and see photos, read this article from As the Eraser Burns, the SCBWI regional blog.

All of us have works in progress, ranging from my picture book of beach-related poems to two young adult novels featuring female protagonists. It’s a tribute to the skill of the authors, Carol Larese Millward and Loretta Carlson, that I am mesmerized by the monthly installments of these tales from a genre that I seldom read.

Typically, about a week prior to our monthly meeting we receive a selection of four or five picture book manuscripts or chapters from novels from group members. We review the manuscripts and come to the meeting ready with both praise and constructive criticism. I’ve received valuable feedback that has led me to tweak both my poetry book and a picture book manuscript I’ve been working on for several years.

Not only do I get feedback from these meetings, but also inspiration. Both in my previous job at the International Reading Association and my current consulting work, I often get so caught up in day-to-day writing and editing assignments that there’s no time or energy for my children’s book writing. Spending time with these talented people who share my love of children’s and YA literature gets my creative juices flowing again.

Congratulations to our group on celebrating our first anniversary. May we celebrate many more, and may we celebrate the publication of many more books as well!

Random Writing Thought: I did a school visit inPennsylvania last month that culminated with a PTA parent program. There I did a poetry writing workshop with entire families. I had never done that before, and I was delighted to watch families eagerly participate in the collaborative writing process. I even got a nice e-mail from one of the families a day or two later saying how much they had enjoyed it.

The Writing Life, Chapter 23: Going Home

With all due respect to Thomas Wolfe, sometimes you CAN go home again. On March 6 I had the experience of returning to Pottstown, Pennsylvania, the town in which I grew up, to do an author visit at Franklin Elementary School. I shared poems and the draft of my latest picture book manuscript with the younger children. With the older students, I conducted writing workshops and got them started on some poems of their own.

As I told the students, I dreamed of being an author from the time I was 8 years old. In fact, I wrote my first “novel” when I was in second grade at Washington Elementary School—a 20-page story called “Tubby the Pig on the Moon.” I must admit that I felt a certain amount of pride going back to my hometown as a well-published author able to say that my dream had come true.

I liked seeing the kids’ eyes light up when they heard a poem of mine that they enjoyed. I LOVED seeing their eyes light up when they proudly read the poems they created during free writing time. I wish I’d had the opportunity to meet a “real live author” when I was growing up, and it meant a lot to me to be able to provide such an experience for this generation of budding Pottstown authors.

The visit also recharged my batteries for my current children’s writing. I’ve been so wrapped up in consulting work and writing newspaper and magazine articles for adults that I haven’t focused on my children’s books for several months. Sharing my books in a school setting reminded me I need to carve out time to get back to that.

I’ve got another school visit in Pottstown next month, as well as one here in Newark. It will be fun to work with young writers in both my old hometown and my current hometown. I’m glad that sometimes you can go home again.

Random Writing Thought: There’s often a real sense of delayed gratification in writing. Last fall, two of my more interesting projects were articles on student activism for Teaching Tolerance magazine and amazing animals for National Geographic Kids. As a writer, you turn in articles and move on to other projects, and the articles fade into your subconscious…until they appear. Both articles came out this past week, and it was great to see them. You can access the Teaching Tolerance article here: http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-41-spring-2012/awareness-action.

The Writing Life, Chapter 22: The Power of Patience

If you’re not a patient person, then writing is not for you. Even under the best of circumstances, it takes a couple of years for an accepted book to get published (at least through traditional outlets). Magazine articles come out months after being written, and newspaper articles may take a couple of weeks, except for breaking news.

Currently, I’m waiting for two magazine articles and one newspaper piece to appear. One way I cope with the waiting time is by busying myself with the next round of projects. Right now I’m working on a newspaper article, a couple of magazine pieces, and an editing project, in addition to my part-time consulting work with the Association of Educational Publishers.

I’m also showing patience in regard to my collection of beach poems for children. I first drafted these poems more than a decade ago while I was in the midst of preparing Daddy Poems and Mommy Poems for Boyds Mills Press, but this collection did not get accepted for publication. Every few years I would pull it out, thinking I wanted to finish it, but there never seemed to be enough time.

After I left my job at the International Reading Association last spring, I suddenly found myself with time to pursue the project again—this time as a self-published book. I also came up with the idea of pairing my poems with some wonderful beach photographs taken by my friend Lisa Goodman, a professional photographer. Lisa was excited about the collaboration, and we spent the rest of the year matching poems and photos. Overall, we were really pleased with the results.

We found, however, that we were missing about three or four photos that we really wanted to include. Lisa tried to stage them in the “off season,” but the weather gods conspired against us. When she had child models available, the weather was crummy. When the weather was good, the models were unavailable.

We thought the book would benefit from a spring release, and we grew stressed at the thought of trying to finish it within that time frame. Finally, we decided that what we needed was a little more patience. We are shelving the project until the weather improves and Lisa can take some more beach photos. In the meantime, I’ll give the collection one more edit to ensure the text is as good as I can make it. While the book now won’t be out for this summer season, we feel confident that we will be REALLY pleased with the finished product and that we will be glad we waited.

The power of patience!

Random Writing Thought: After waiting patiently for my work to appear, I’m always glad to see it in print, but I rarely read it. Over the years, I have found that I don’t like most of the possible outcomes that spring from reading the printed piece: 1) I might find an error I made (bad). 2) I might find an error the editing process introduced (even worse). 3) I might find things I wish I’d phrased differently (bad). 4) I might not like the accompanying artwork (a matter of taste, but still bad). 5) I might still think the piece reads well and also enjoy the artwork (the only pleasant outcome of the bunch). With that in mind, I generally skim the piece, clip a couple of copies for my files, and move on to the next project.

The Writing Life, Chapter 21: New Experiences

One of the things I love about writing is having the opportunity to experience new activities and learn new things—some of which I never even would have found out about on my own. In the past 10 days, I have attended a theatre organ concert, written about a penguin who received a specially made shoe to help him walk, and viewed a partially assembled exhibit of Ghanaian kente.

How many of you knew that one of the world’s finest theatre organs resides at Dickinson High School? Or that the concerts organized by the Dickinson Theatre Organ Society (DTOS) feature internationally known organists and draw audiences of 800 or more? Or that a theatre organ may have as many as 5,000 pipes ranging from the size of a pencil to the size of a tree trunk.

On January 28, I attended an organ concert by Lance Luce, who played music ranging from show tunes to hymns. On February 2, I interviewed the president of the DTOS and got a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of the organ chambers. I learned a lot and have a new appreciation for organ music.

If you’re into heartwarming animal stories, Google “Lucky the penguin” and watch the YouTube video. Lucky is just one of the “Amazing Animals” I’m writing about for National Geographic Kids magazine.

On January 31, I visited Cab Calloway School of the Arts to learn about the Wrapped in Pride exhibit of Ghanaian kente that was being prepared to open on February 3. I got to see the partially assembled exhibit and learn about the history of kente and the growing international popularity of the brightly colored, geometrically patterned cloth.

Sandwiched around all that was my part-time consulting project, which involves helping the Association of Educational Publishers in Wilmington with its annual awards program. Part of that job involves processing and prescreening the entries to ensure that the judges will be able to easily access all the information they need. I have seen some remarkable materials, ranging from long-established magazines to professional development book/CD combinations to innovative websites.

I feel truly blessed to have a profession that allows me to explore and learn about fascinating topics and then to share the information I have gained with others.

Random Writing Thought: This week I found myself juggling my consulting job and various stages of five different freelance projects. I was drafting articles early in the morning and editing material late in the evening—and feeling exhilarated rather than exhausted in the process. I find it keeps me mentally fresh to be working on a variety of projects all at once.

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