Saturday, March 23, 2013

Rerun: Aaron Zenz's Creative Space

Spring is here (although it doesn't feel like it in my neck of the woods as we're having what looks to be our biggest snow storm of the season). Spring makes me think of baby animals, and baby animals makes me thing of Chuckling Ducklings by Aaron Zenz, and so I thought I'd rerun his Creative Spaces interview today. His companion book I Love Ewe: An Ode to Animal Moms was recently published and a second companion book Hug a Bull: An Ode to Animal Dads will be published in April.

I hope you enjoy!

Aaron Zenz is the author/illustrator of Chuckling Ducklings and Baby Animal Friends and The Hiccupotamus, and the illustrator of the Howie the dog "I Can Read!" series (written by Sara Henderson), Nugget on the Flight Deck (written by Patricia Newman), Skeleton Meets the Mummy (written by Steve Metzger), and numerous other books.

He is also the host of my favorite picture book review blog, Bookie Woogie where he reviews children's books with the Z-Kids (his children). Here's the description from their blog: "Here at Bookie Woogie we pick our favorite books, review them, and create some accompanying fan art.  We'll alternate week to week between new releases discovered at our local library and older favorites from our own personal collection." It's fantastic--there is a transcript of their conversation about the book and the children's artwork inspired from the talk. It's such a fantastic example of how to make books a family affair and chronicle great childhood moments at the same time.

To learn more about Aaron Zenz visit his website.

Describe your workspace.

I am fortunate to have a whole room in our house to claim as my workin' place.  It is full of my favorite things. . . favorite books, favorite knickknacks, prints from my favorite artists.  It's as if a bit of what goes on inside my head all day leaked out into the room.

I have drawings from my kids lining all around the ceiling.

I have a nice window with a green leafy view.

We have bookshelves all over the house. . .

I believe there are 10 big bookcases in all, and every inch of them is tightly filled.

My room has a bookcase housing my favorites, and the girls' room has a wall of shelves where the majority of our children's book collection resides.

We have over 3000 titles in just the children's book collection alone.  We love books!

Describe a typical workday.

I work a self imposed third-shift.  I have six wonderful kids, and my lovely wife homeschools them.  And I work from home.  So we are all home, all the time.  I've tried on numerous occasions over the years to get work done during the day, and it just doesn't happen.  About 5 years ago it dawned on me that I had the freedom to set any schedule I wanted.  So I work the "other" 9 to 5...  that is, 9 at night 'til 5 in the morning. . . and then I sleep until around noon.  After that I'm up and can be with the family for the whole rest of the day.

It's great!  I get to work while it's quiet.  The family gets to have me around longer than if I were holing myself away during typical daytime work hours.  It works out swell for everyone!

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

I'd have to pick some treasures that my kids made me...

I love this set of Fraggles that Gracie cut out for me:

This lizard that Isaac sculpted for me is pretty cool:

And it may not seem like much, but this simple cloud that Lily painted once-upon-a-time has been a particular bright spot for me during difficult times:

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

I am very much an "attack one thing at a time" kind of person.  I'm the guy that works his way around the dinner plate, eating each item in turn.  This shows up in my working life in a few different ways.

I like to wrap things up neatly in single sessions.  So rarely will I leave  part of an illustration unfinished to pick up the next day.  I'll work an extra hour or two in order to get something done on the day I started it.  Or I'll quit a little early rather than get part-way through the next item on the list.

I also tackle projects one at a time.  I may do the all sketches for one book, then all the final art for another book, and then back to the final art for the first book.  But I really can't overlap.  I can't alternate between sketches for one and final art for another over the same period of time.

What do you listen to while you work?

During the writing, designing, sketching, planning stages I have to work in silence.  But when I launch into creating final artwork, I don't have to be as focused.  Then I like to listen to a wide variety of things.  I listen to audio books.  I'm a huge fan of movie scores, so that's where I turn if I'm feeling musical.  I listen to a lot of podcasts: A Way With Words, This American Life, Studio 360.  Lately I've been listening to the sermons of John Piper online.

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

I'm a cereal guy.  I always eat a big dinner with the family.  But other than that meal, I chow on cereal all throughout the rest of the day.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

If everyone else in the house is asleep, I have no problem keeping focused on work.  I easily plow straight through the night.

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

I start out with lots of notes scribbled on scraps of paper.  But when it comes time to pull it all together, I type it up on the computer.

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

I like to live with stories in my head for a long, long time.  In my head, stories grow and flourish and change.  Once I take the plunge and commit an idea to paper--when I formulate actual words--then it's very hard for me to imagine the idea any other way.  So I live with stories in my head as long as I can.

What media do you use and which is your favorite?

For some projects I create art with colored pencil and for some I create art digitally.  I'm a firm believer that "form follows function."  So I'll turn to the computer if it makes sense for the subject matter  (for instance, if there will be lots of geometrical forms.)  I'll also go digital if the deadlines are really tight and speed is required for the project.  When I work digitally, I create everything in Photoshop.

However  my favorite medium is colored pencil, and I choose it whenever I can.  I work completely with Prismacolor colored pencils - no mixed media.  And I use them in an unconventional way, pressing extremely hard for solid coverage so that not a speck of paper shows through.  People are often shocked to find out they are viewing colored pencil.  To achieve the look, I go through a huge number of pencils for any given project and break hundreds of pencil tips along the way.

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

As a freelancer, I'm constantly working with different people.  Each project introduces new art directors, new editors, departments full of new people.  It's like getting a brand new boss every couple of months.  So in addition to tackling the fresh book on my plate, I also have to figure out all these new people as well--what they like, how they communicate (or fail to), how much control/freedom they expect.  The artwork is the easy part.

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

It would definitely have to be another Creative.  Someone who understands the demands and process of creativity.  But I'd want it to be someone whose work inspires me--someone who does things I can't do.  Someone who works in a different medium or has a vastly different style. I'd want to be awed at their output and encouraged to step up my own game.

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

A person really has to be familiar with their desired field.  If you want to write picture books, then read lots and lots and lots and lots of picture books.  If you want to write YA, submerge yourself in that world.  Learn from both the good and the bad.  Figure out where other people fail and why.  Learn what works and why.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Peek at the Creative Space of Susanna Leonard Hill

Susanna Leonard Hill is the author of numerous picture books including Punxsutawney Phyllis; Not Yet, Rose!; and The House that Mack Built. Her most recent titles are April Fool, Phyllis!,  a follow-up to Punxsutawney Phyllis, and Can't Sleep Without Sheep, a story about a girl who takes so long counting sheep to fall asleep the sheep get tired and quit, but then finding their replacement proves to be harder than they thought.

On her blog, Susanna hosts many entertaining and informative features for writers and readers alike. Perfect Picture Books is a collection of picture book recommendations organized by category. Every Friday, anyone is invited to submit their suggestions for the list. Would You Read It? is a weekly feature posted on Wednesdays for writers to try out pitches for their works-in-progress. Visit Susanna's blog to learn more about all the fun resources she offers.

To learn more about Susanna, visit her website, her Facebook page, or Twitter to learn more. 

Describe your workspace.

I am a wanderer :)  I do--technically--have an office. My printer lives there, as do many books on writing craft, and shelves and shelves of picture books.  Also a piano--which helps with writing more than you might think :)  But my office only gets sun from an east-facing window in the morning.  And I don't like to sit in one place.  So I do a lot of work at the kitchen table (where there is sunshine whenever the sun is out). 

When I get tired of sitting, I stand at the kitchen counter.  If the weather is nice, I sit on the back porch steps, or the mudroom steps--I like steps :)  In winter, I sit on the edge of the fireplace a lot (it's warm . . . and just like a step :) )  And since a lot of writing is thinking time, I do a lot of my work out walking or running with my dogs, or while I'm driving--I have a lot of kids and I do a lot of driving :) 

Describe a typical workday.

Sometimes I think it would be nice if there WAS such a thing as a typical workday--maybe I'd be more organized and make better use of my time :)  But one of the things I like best about writing is that it allows me to work on my own schedule.  If I need to make an eagle costume, or serve lion cupcakes for my daughter's birthday, or go to a soccer/football/volleyball/basketball/lacrosse game or a wrestling match, or visit a kindergarten class to share one of my books, or go to a class play or a jazz band concert, or spend the day snuggled on the couch reading stories with someone who has a sore throat, I can.  So typical?  Not in my house :)

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

#1 Sunshine.  Of course I can't control it, so sometimes there isn't any, but I'm convinced my brain is solar powered and I think much better when it's sunny :)

#2 My dogs :)  They keep me company.  They make me get up and go for a walk.  I can read them anything I am working on and they never say anything mean :) 

#3 Picture books.  I have A LOT.  They are beautiful--both words and pictures--and I find them so inspiring.  When I feel stuck, it always helps to remind myself of what I'm aiming for.

I also have a bunch of stuffed animals and puppets that represent characters from my books.  

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

I don't really have any rituals.  Show up and work--that's about it.

What do you listen to while you work?

I don't listen to anything while I'm working.

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

I usually have a cup of coffee on my desk.  It has usually been reheated way too many times to actually be potable.  But I keep it there anyway.  It's comforting :)

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

I don't know.  When I'm working, I'm working.  I am so focused that people can walk into the room and talk to me and I don't notice . . . Maybe I just like my work? :)

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

I write picture books, so they aren't that long, and I write all my first drafts longhand and then type them into the computer.  I don't know why, but I think better with pen in my hand and I like the physical act of writing.

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

I don't have a system.  I usually get a piece of an idea, and after letting it roll around in my head for a while (an amount of time over which I have no control) it will join up with another piece of an idea and suggest a story that could work.  Then I write it and see where it goes.  Very scientific, no? :)

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

Since, as I mentioned, I tend to move around, I often share my workspace.  I like having my kids around, and often do my work while they do their homework.  It's companionable.

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

Write the stories you want to write, and don't give up.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

What a Week!

I had a brand-spanking new Creative Spaces interview to post last weekend, but then we had an unfortunate turn of events with our beloved dog Jack. We had to say goodbye to our old friend, and all things blog related were shelved in the back of my mind. Jack lived a good 11.5 years. He was a rescue puppy and a sweetheart of a dog. He had this bellowing howl that he gave to friends and strangers alike. He went on nightly skateboarding runs with my husband and loved to trot around our court visiting neighbors (howling his greetings, of course).

After our sad Sunday night, I woke up Monday morning to an extremely exciting email: Ammi-Joan Paquette wanted to be my agent! Joan and I have been corresponding for two years. She actually found me through this blog and emailed me because she liked the premise of my middle grade novel. I'll write a more detailed post in the future about signing with Joan, but for now I am doing happy dances.

And as if those two things weren't enough for one week, we also bought a new house. So it's been a busy and surreal week, to say the least. An emotional roller coaster for sure.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Peek at the Creative Space of Jean Reidy

Jean Reidy is the author of picture books Too Purpley!, Too Pickley!, and Too Princessy!, the Colorado Book Award winner Light up the Night, and Time Out for Monsters! 

Her latest picture book, All Through My Town, publishes this week. Kirkus Reviews says "Richard Scarry has some competition" and School Library Journal says "This spirited picture book is as much fun to browse through as it is to read." All Through My Town has also been included on the Kids Indie Next List.

Jean's celebrating the publication of All Through My Town this week with all sorts of fun things on her blog. Visit here to find out more!

To learn more about Jean Reidy, visit her website and her blog.

Describe your workspace.

My workspace is a sunny, small room--sometimes a veritable green house -- which sits above the entryway in my house. That sunlight comes from a wall of huge windows that open to my front yard and street, so I can see the comings and goings of my cul-de-sac. 

Then through the double doors and more windows on the opposite side, I have a direct shot of my backyard. Lovely--especially in winter. 

The space was once a bonus room where we kept a desktop computer, reference books and supplies–my kids took it over as their homework area. But two years ago, when my youngest left for college, I de-cluttered it, bought some inexpensive, durable shelving, an extra filing cabinet and created a space– albeit small–that was all mine.

The rest of my house is a flurry of color, pattern and family pictures–which I love too.  But for my office I wanted a clean, composed, calm space. It's my attempt at keeping my mind uncluttered. And sometimes it works. 

Describe a typical workday.

Make coffee. Check e-mail. Pray. Take care of business--school visits, promotion, family stuff, finances, etc. Write. Workout. Check e-mail. Write some more.

Do you see an interesting order here? Writing has slipped to fifth place on the list which, after all the "business," often feels like tenth or eleventh or twentieth.  But I'm beginning to change that up a bit.

When my kids were young, before social media or even e-mail were big, I used to write first thing in the morning. I've been trying, lately, to put writing before everything else in my day–well, except for the coffee. When I do, the muse sings a little louder. She's not crowded out with my inbox and other competing distractions. The only other thing I'd consider putting first is praying. Both praying and writing seem to start the day in a better and more fruitful way.

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

1. My windows. I'm not good at being holed up. I need a connection to the rest of the world. When I was young I always did my homework at the kitchen table and not at a bedroom desk. I needed to be tapped into the people and life around me. Now, when my husband is home, I'll still work at the kitchen table to enjoy that connection. During the rest of the week, when I'm alone again, the windows provide that. Plus, I have some of the best artwork right there behind the glass. 

2. My shelves and shelves of kids books. I gathered up many of my favorite children's books from around the house and tried to squeeze them into my office. Then I tossed some cozy blankets on the floor, complete with a few friends, for young visitors who might stop in. 

I'd love to add more bookshelves for the rest of my kids' books, but I'm running out of space. I have one remaining, narrow wall space that could hold either more shelves or more filing cabinets. Tough decision. The filing cabinets might win. Because while I'd love to corral every kids' book into my cozy little space, I also love knowing that they have a grand and visible presence in most rooms of my house. My hope is that in just about any room, a children's book might have a chance of catching a reader.

3. My Roget's Thesaurus. NERD ALERT! I received it when I was young, pre-middle school, as a Christmas gift. My oldest sister mentioned a thesaurus once when she was doing a crossword puzzle and I thought "What is this amazing, magical word book of which she speaks?" And I asked for one for Christmas. I actually asked for a Thesaurus. I warned you--nerd! And Santa (I always knew he was a literary type at heart) brought me the wonderful hardback that sits on my desk. 

Surprisingly, it's still my go-to reference. I have other synonym books, but none can compare to my Roget's.

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

Calling my kids and having them make me laugh. I'm attracted to weird humor. And my kids can really dish it out. My timing isn't always the best, though. For example, I'll call and say, "Tim, what was that thing you said last week that made me laugh?" And he'll be like, "Mom, I'm at work. Can I call you later?" And I'll be like, "Come on. Come on. I think it was something about cottage cheese." Anyway, you get the picture. I love laughing until I cry. And I need doses daily. Then I attempt to translate that feeling into picture books. It's my business way of justifying those silly calls.

What do you listen to while you work?

Nothing. I like quiet. Don't get me wrong, I'm a music freak. But when I'm working, even instrumental music bugs me. When I'm not working, I have fairly eclectic tastes, but the tunes that rise to the top are those that I can sing VERY, VERY LOUD when I cook and do other things. I'm a huge Beatles fan--mostly the oldest stuff, reminiscent of the vinyl 45 with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "I Saw Her Standing There" on the flip side. Music, for me is like a little reward at the end of the day, when I'm folding laundry or cooking--not writing.

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

Yogurt, coffee, tea, carrots, and hummus--pretty boring, right? I used to be addicted to Wheat Thins. But then I regressed to Nilla Wafers. Must be something about the whole writing for children thing. Wheat Thins were feeling way too sophisticated.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Actually, getting away from the computer is the ticket. And that's a bit of a problem because my computer is my tool of choice, most of the time . . . which I guess leads to our next question.

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

I like to switch it up. When I write longhand it's usually on scrap paper. I relate to that whole psychology of not wanting to get too precious, too early with my writing. So scrap paper and pencil it is.

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

For picture books, it's not so much an outline as a list, or in some cases a table. Tables are great for rhyming picture books because they allow me to brainstorm words under categories, play around with order and view text options side-by-side. I also use tables to predict page turns and payoffs--those fundamental scene change-ups that pull readers through a story. But even before that, the bare bones of my picture book ideas are these growing lists of  phrases, words, images, and dialog that flesh out the original idea.

For novels, I start with a list--scene ideas, character ideas, bits of dialogue. Then I move into an outline. Then a more detailed outline. Then a draft. Then some free writing in character. Then probably another draft. It's an evolving process. I'll let you know if it works.

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

My agent and editors. Then I could simply toss ideas their way and say "What about this?" But most of all, because they are wonderful and wonderfully fun people. I wish we all lived closer.

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

I've benefitted from so much great advice over the years. And I'm forever indebted to the people who've shared it. But there is one thing I like to keep in front of me, kind of my go-to quote, where I try to land with all my kidlit writing. It is this simple phrase from editor Allyn Johnston ". . . the true goal of all this work we do together: a child, a story, and a deep and long-lasting connection between them." That, in my mind, says it all.