Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gratitude and Looking to the Future

As 2010 comes to an end I wanted to take a moment to thank those of you who have visited this blog, followed my interview series, participated in Book Cover Bingo, and been a friend in general. You’ve helped make 2010 a lot of fun for me, and I hope I’ve done the same for you.

I will be continuing the Creative Spaces interviews in 2011 and I’m curious, whose workspace would you like a peek into? I have a list of writers and illustrators I’m hopeful will agree to an interview, but I would love to know who in particular you would be interested in seeing. Also, are there any questions you’d like me to add to the interview or suggestions for changes?

I’m also planning another round of Book Cover Bingo for earlyish 2011 and I hope you all will participate. (More info to come in the new year.) When I finished the Bingo game last summer I naively thought the beginning of December would be a great time to host another one. I had a lot of fun running the game in July, but I think running it in December in the midst of holiday travel, family visits, present shopping/wrapping/shipping, holiday events, decorating, cookie baking, etc. would have been a wee bit insane, and I imagine you all would have been equally busy and the timing for participating wouldn’t have been ideal either. So instead I’m hoping Book Cover Bingo will be a fun diversion for us from the winter doldrums.

There was something else that kept me busy in December and that was FINISHING REWRITING MY MIDDLE GRADE MYSTERY!!! ***insert ecstatic Jenn jumps and geeky clapping for myself*** It will need one more round of smaller revisions, fine tuning, and polishing before it’s ready to submit, but the overhaul is done.  I’ve put it aside for the last week and a half and will soon be picking it up again to begin working through my last pass. I’m looking forward to having this book finally officially on submission, but possibly even more than that (because as I'm sure you all know, submitting work comes with its own bag of stressors) I’m looking forward to starting my next novel-length project. I have three ideas that have been vying for my attention and ignoring them all this while has been difficult.

Enjoy the last days of 2010, everyone! Here's to hoping 2011 is filled with the completion of long sought after goals, the beginnings of exciting new adventures, and cuddly animals napping in front of cozy fires. (I had to find some way to tie in the picture of my dog and cat! But I'd be happy to see more of that in 2011.)

Happy New Year!


Monday, December 27, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Carolyn Fisher

I hope you all have been enjoying the holidays! I took last Monday off from Creative Spaces to enjoy a visit with my family and finish up my holiday to-do list. But I'm back today with a wonderful, wintery treat for you.

This week we're touring the workspace of Carolyn Fisher, the author and illustrator of the picture books The Snow Show and A Twisted Tale, and the illustrator of Two Old Potatoes and Me written by John Coy

The Snow Show tells the story of how snow is made in a really fun and creative way. The picture book is presented as a cooking show (complete with a commercial break) with Chef Kelvin, a snowman, as your host. Chef Kelvin and friends investigate how snow is made. The art is stunning, the story both educational and funny, and the end of the book includes deleted scenes and even bloopers! The New York Times Book Review’s Paul Zelinsky said, “. . . visually arresting . . . one of the most gloriously exuberant, inventive displays of computer-created art that I have ever seen in a picture book.”

Carolyn Fisher’s illustrations have been commissioned by hundreds of 
magazines and newspapers.  As a special bonus treat with today's interview, Carolyn is sharing sneak peeks from her upcoming 2011 title, Good Night World, written by Willa Perlman and being published by Beach Lane Books.

When not illustrating and writing, Carolyn Fisher talks to kids and grown-ups about writing and art. You can learn more about her and her work by visiting her website and her blog.

Describe your workspace.

I work in a room in my 1950s house in Calgary, Canada: in other houses of this vintage, it would be the dining room but in my house we dine on pictures and words . . . and eat in the kitchen!

Describe a typical workday.
8:45am I like to begin my workday by wrestling my two-old-son Kieran into a snowsuit, stashing him in a stroller, and dashing through a blizzard to daycare.

9:15am – 5pm Work of all kinds, including:

-Black and white illustration sketches: usually drawn rough on paper with colored pencils, revised over top of the pencil in black ink, retraced and fixed up on tracing paper, then scanned in and adjusted in Photoshop.

-Storyboard sketches, mapping out the way my books will look

-Sketchbook (which may fall by the wayside as a book deadline looms.)

-Critiquing stories from my writing group. (We live in different places, but give feedback via email.)

-Final art (usually electronic--drawn with a Wacom tablet using a stylus and incorporating scanned painted textures.)

-Writing and developing stories.

-Business things like replying to emails, setting up school visits.

Evenings and weekends: if a book deadline is approaching, I work evenings after my son goes to bed, plus weekends.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

I love fellow artist Lisa Brawn’s "New World Monster" who keeps watch just outside my studio and illustration hero Doug Fraser’s black-and-white painting, "Pooté".

And my sketchbooks, because they’re where I grow stories and stash fragments and idea bits. I feel like my sketchbooks collectively are a bucket for my messy scribbles and scrawls and drawings and paintings: they are all my little stories woven together into my narrative of me.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

One year I took all my rejection letters and burned them in a bonfire. Does that count?

What media do you use and which is your favorite?

Digital media: Wacom tablet and stylus, Photoshop, Corel Painter.

I work traditionally in my sketchbook, but my book illustrations incorporate scanned-in textures plus digital mark making. I have a love/hate affair with the computer: I struggle with technical glitches and slow speeds on my gigantic complicated files. But I love the ease with which I can experiment using digital media. So does my editor, which is why she can make me do a million and eleven revisions to my final illustrations. Say, she’s not going to read this, is she?

artwork from forthcoming Good Night World
What do you listen to while you work?

CBC radio. (Don’t tell anybody about my secret crush on radio host Jian Ghomeshi.)
Music: Classical radio and KRCW.
NPR (a habit from when I lived in New York City), especially Fresh Air and This American Life.
Audiobooks: latest read was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

I listen to music when writing or designing illustrations. I save the words for when I’m painting.

artwork from forthcoming Good Night World
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

I’m conducting a scientific experiment to see if solid chocolate or liquid chocolate trigger more good ideas per calorie.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

A sure knowledge that as soon as I pick my 2-year-old toddler up from his daycare, I’ll be kept frantically busy singing "The Wheels on the Bus" and playing Legos until he goes to bed.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

When writing, I alternate between scribbling notes on paper, typing drafts on my laptop, and drawing.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

Brainstorm, scribble ideas into sketchbook.

Research idea--read everything I can find about the topic. Rewrite, make notes.

Map out the story in a thumbnail storyboard. Sketch it rough in tiny picture boxes to see if the story idea will fit into a picture book.

Rewrite words on laptop until stuck.

Redraw sketches on tracing paper until stuck.

Repeat eleventy thousand times until book is done!

What aspect of illustrating do you find most challenging and why?

Um, I don’t really love cleaning my paintbrushes . . .

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be? 

I share my workspace with my toddler, Kieran. Last week, (or perhaps I should say last EEK) he removed the “W”  key from my laptop. The week before, he decorated my file cabinet with marker. (Now we’re installing a baby gate.)

What is the best piece of illustrating or writing advice you’ve heard or received?

Love your sketchbook!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Secret Santa!

At the very beginning of this month, on a day when the anticipation for the approaching holidays and finishing everything on my To Do list was starting to take on undertones of stress rather than enjoyment, a package arrived on my doorstep. I was baffled. What could this be? I opened the box to find nicely wrapped gifts and a card--and that's when it hit me, my Secret Santa from the Book Blogger Holiday Swap!

My Secret Santa was Rob from Books Are Like Candy Corn, and boy did he spoil me. He lives in Hawaii and so he sent a Hawaiian-themed holiday card and a collection of Hawaiian holiday music (which my husband and I LOVE--this CD has become our #1 choice for dinner music), Island Princess macadamia nut/caramel popcorn which was delicious and, uh, disappeared quickly. (Wonder how that happened?) Mango coconut lotion and a fun Origami Kit. As if that wasn't enough, a copy of Sarah Dessen's The Truth About Forever! Sarah Dessen is one of my favorite authors and this is probably my favorite title. It's a book I would definitely reread and markup, but I didn't have my own copy--until now!

Opening these gifts was so much fun and immediately launched me into the holiday spirit. Thank you, Rob, for starting my holidays off on a wonderful note! If you haven't visited Rob's blog before, I definitely recommend it. He writes about a variety of things including mysteries, food, fiction, and classics. He shared a recipe he uses for a Scandinavian Christmas rice pudding called Rikstrem that I'm planning to try one day soon. (Seeing as I'm half-Norwegian, I was a little embarrassed that I've never even heard of this before. I need to get more in touch with my cultural roots!)

After receiving Rob's great gift, I was excited to shop for my Secret Santee and pass on the joy of receiving a surprise gift. My Secret Santee was Aarti who blogs at Book Lust. It was fun to shop for her and it was also fun to be introduced to her blog--she has a lot of great reviews over there and I've already added several things to my "Read Someday" list. (Including one of her recent posts about the BBC A History of the World in 100 Objects podcasts.)

Hope your holidays have been filled with fun surprises too!

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Anna Dewdney

Joining us today for Creative Spaces is New York Times bestselling author and illustrator Anna Dewdney. Anna is the creator of numerous picture books including the ever popular Llama Llama books: Llama Llama Red Pajama, Llama Llama Mad at Mama, Llama Llama Misses Mama, and--just out this holiday season--Llama Llama Holiday Drama.

Most people who know me well know I have an affinity for llamas (and alpacas, but "llama" is more fun to say)--I mean, look at this face! How can you not smile looking at this guy?

Photo by law_keven on Flickr.
So it shouldn't be a surprise I'm a fan of Anna Dewdney's books.

In the latest installment, Llama Llama is helping Mama with all their holiday activities--shopping, decorating, baking cookies--all the while wondering how many more days until Christmas? His patience wears out and Llama Llama has a meltdown, only to be reminded by Mama what matters most during the holiday season. If you're interested in learning more about the Llama Llama books or know a young fan of them, check out the Llama Llama website. There is also a Llama Llama plush doll available for sale too (which I'm thinking would be a great gift by itself or combined with a picture book).

Earlier this year she also published Roly Poly Pangolin, a picture book about an animal I'd never heard of before but am now fascinated by. They are endangered mammals that kind of look like anteaters with fuzzy bellies and a backside covered in scales. She has a great section on her website about pangolins including photos and video of her trip to Cuc Phuong National Park in northern Vietnam, the only place in the world to see them up close. Pangolins protect themselves by rolling into balls, exposing only their scaly backside. In Roly Poly Pangolin, the young pangolin is a shy little guy who is afraid of new things. After hearing something scary one day he rolls into a ball, only to open his eyes and find another little ball of scales staring back at him.

To learn more about Anna Dewdney and her work visit her website.

Describe your workspace.

My studio is very large room right off the kitchen.  It was a woodshop in a previous life, so it's very large and filled with light.  I have a wood pellet stove in the corner that cranks all winter long, right next to the "dog couch" (a very long, comfy couch dedicated entirely to the dogs) right behind my painting area.  While the rest of my house is fairly tidy, my studio is often completely chaotic, with paintings and drawings in various stages of completion all over the place.  I can't work unless it's messy.

Describe a typical workday.

I get up around 9, and am semi-comatose until I've had several cups of coffee.  I usually answer some email while I'm having the coffee.  After I've woken up a bit, the dogs start pawing me and give me no rest until we go for a walk (by this, I mean a good longish walk in the woods).  We then come back from the walk, do more email, throw in a load of laundry, and putter a bit.  Soon thereafter, I get to work for an hour or two, usually painting or drawing.  Then lunch (tea and a swiss cheese sandwich). Then back to work for a few hours (usually painting or drawing). Then a run, often in the woods, usually with the dogs unless they are feeling a little gimpy or I need to run on a busy road.  Then shower, email, putter, work.  Talk to children or Skype with them.  Make dinner (whatever I can scrounge . . . I don't cook much), then back to work.  The real work happens now, from eight to midnight. Then I go to bed around 1.

What media do you use and which is your favorite?

I love to sketch with graphite pencils or a black colored pencil.  Oils are my primary media when working with color.  I have done watercolors, but I love the gucky mess of oils.  Plus, you can really lay down the color . . . it's a gutsy medium.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

1.  Radish (dog).

2.  Roscoe (dog).

Because we talk about stuff.

3.  Computer.  Because how else could I stream This American Life?

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I just keep working.  I make myself make the truest books I can.  And I wash my brushes every day.
What do you listen to while you work?

The radio just bums me out, now.  So I listen to books on tape or This American Life.  Sometimes iTunes:  technopop, pop, alternative girl music, old Bowie, anything Mozart or Bach.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Earl Gray tea or just plain hot water.
What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Deadlines.  And . . . I dunno . . . I've never had much trouble focusing. Perhaps because my work style is so completely peripatetic.  It ISN'T focused.  But I get there in the end!

What aspect of illustrating do you find most challenging and why?

Telling the truth is challenging.  You have to dig deep, and keep digging.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

I start with a sound or a feeling, and I go from there.  The experience is a bit like creating a collage; the end product comes from layers of words and images that change over time.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

I do share my workspace, remember?  Radish and Roscoe are very present, even as they doze.  Any human would have to go. I would NOT share my workspace with any human.  Ever.

What is the best piece of writing or illustrating advice you’ve heard or received?

The most important thing is listening to your own voice, expressing who YOU are, in your own way. It's a cliche, but it's true.  It is hard to recognize your voice unless you are good at listening to yourself, especially when you are young and still have a lot of other voices inside your head.  But if you keep listening, you will hear it.


Monday, December 6, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Kate Messner

Joining us this week for Creative Spaces is author Kate Messner. In addition to being a middle school English teacher, Kate is the author of The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., which won the E. B. White Read Aloud Award in 2009, and the historical fiction novels Spitfire and Champlain and the Silent One.

Hot off the presses this week is her latest middle grade novel, Sugar and Ice. The description from the publisher reads: For Claire Boucher, life is all about skating on the frozen cow pond and in the annual Maple Show right before the big pancake breakfast on her family's maple farm. But all that changes when Claire is offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity-a scholarship to train with the elite skaters in Lake Placid. Tossed into a world of mean girls on ice, where competition is everything, Claire soon realizes that her sweet dream-come-true has sharper edges than she could have imagined. Can she find the strength to stand up to the people who want her to fail and the courage to decide which dream she wants to follow?

Sugar and Ice isn't officially released until tomorrow, December 7, but it's already garnering high praise. New York public librarian and School Library Journal blogger Betsy Bird included it on her list of 100 Magnificent Children's Books of 2010 and Amazon included it among their selections for Best Books of December 2010. Booklist wrote, "Even those who don’t know their double toe loops from their single salchows will enjoy reading about what it takes to make it on the ice. . . . Satisfying and likely to have wide appeal."

You will likely hear much more about Kate Messner in 2011 as she has three books scheduled for publication. Two picture books are forthcoming from Chronicle Books, Sea Monster's First Day and Over and Under the Snow, as well as the chapter book, Marty McGuire, due out in spring from Scholastic Press. If you would like to learn more about Kate, visit her website and her blog.

Describe your workspace.

Which one?  While I do have a writing room in the back of our house that I love, my real workspace varies from day to day.  As a teacher and mom, I sneak writing time whenever I can, so you’ll find me writing in the bleachers at my daughter’s ice skating practice as often as you’ll find me working in my office!

Describe a typical workday.

Because I teach middle school and have kids, my writing workday is actually more of a work night.  After my kids are in bed, I settle in for about two hours of writing each night, usually from 9-11.  That’s straight writing time--no interruptions, no stopping to tweet or check email--so those hours add up.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

I love my desk because it has a huge work surface where I can spread out revisions and outlines and planners, and also because it has one big drawer with compartments for things like pens, paper clips, and Post-It notes. (Love my sticky notes!)

I also love the bookshelves in my office, which I’ve filled with a few different kinds of books--research titles that I need when I’m working on a project and books that inspire me because they’re amazing (and many are written by friends!)

I keep some gifts from kids whose schools I’ve visited in my office, too, like this beautiful maple leaf mosaic that students from Isle la Motte School in Vermont made for me.  Besides being beautiful, it reminds me of the reason I’m writing--the kids!

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I don’t really think I have any rituals. I’m so used to sneaking in writing time wherever I can that I’ve gotten much more flexible about the conditions in which I write. I can work almost anywhere.

What do you listen to while you work?

Usually silence works best for me, though when I was writing Sugar and Ice, I always played the main character Claire’s skating music while I was writing those scenes.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Green tea. 

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

I think knowing that I only have those two hours a night to devote to my writing is a huge incentive to stay focused, and I want to write, so I rarely find myself distracted during that time.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

On my MacBook.  I’ll scribble notes & outlines on paper, usually with colored pens, but when it comes time to draft, it’s always on the computer.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

It totally depends on the project!  Some books, like Sugar and Ice, started without an outline; I just dove into the story and ended up going back to organize and plan as part of the revision process. Other books require more planning up front. 

And I love Scrivener writing software.  It’s helped me become more of a planner than a plunger!

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

I do share my workspace sometimes… My daughter, who loves books as much as I do, often joins me with her book in my writing room if I’m working on a weekend.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

Find your unique voice. Here’s a story that I share in the writers section of my website:

When I was just starting in tv news – reporting my very first stories as an intern at the NBC affiliate in Syracuse, NY, there was an anchorman who read all the scripts before the show. He was not particularly gentle or kind in his feedback, but I’ll always be thankful to him for the day he threw one of my scripts in the trash can next to his desk. I fought back tears and fished it back out.

“I’m not going to get better at this if you don’t tell me what’s wrong with it,” I said.

He stared at me for a second. “Do you want to learn?”

“Yes.” I stared back.

“Okay then.” He put the script down on his desk, smoothed it out, and proceeded to tear it apart. He was a brilliant writer and pointed out many things that I could do better, but his comment about voice is the one that has stayed with me.

“Why did you write this line like this?” he asked, pointing to one line that I thought sounded especially tough and journalistic. I thought it sounded like Sheryl Nathans, an investigative reporter for a competing station whose work I admired immensely, and I told him so.

“Well, there’s your problem,” he said. “because the job of being Sheryl Nathans is taken. By Sheryl Nathans. You’re going to have to figure out how to say things your own way.”

That advice applies to writing books for kids, too. There are lots of terrific voices out there, and it’s fine to admire them and even emulate them once in a while, but ultimately, you need to find your own style and write in a voice that belongs to you and your unique characters alone.