My friend Bethany Hegedus, author of the grand Grandfather Gandhi, tagged me to participate in a blog tour about the writing process. Everyone gets the same questions, so it’s fascinating to re-trace the thread and see the range of answers (and that a lot of people don’t love Question #2 — it is hard). You can read Bethany’s eloquent answers here, while mine are below. My talented Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) classmate Sarah Sullivan is also participating this week.
What am I currently working on?
I’m promoting my new picture book Jubilee!: One Man’s Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace (Candlewick Press), illustrated by Matt Tavares. I have a couple events coming up for it that I’ll be posting about soon. I also have a picture book in production, Miss Hazeltine’s Home For Shy and Fearful Cats (Knopf), illustrated by Birgitta Sif. It’s due out next year, and is looking, if I do say so myself, mighty cute. And then I’m working on two new fiction manuscripts and preliminary research for a possible picture-book biography.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
In my nonfiction books, I’m definitely drawn to little-known, quirky subjects. It’s highly unlikely that the next Abraham Lincoln picture book will come from me. I also seem to like fairly “contained” topics, with clear-cut dramatic arcs. My first picture-book biography, Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, focuses on socialite-turned-explorer Ruth Harkness’s quest to bring the first panda from China to the U.S. in the 1930s. Jubilee! tells how Irish-American bandleader Patrick S. Gilmore made history by putting on a massive concert, the National Peace Jubilee, in 1869, not far from where I live in Boston.
My fictional picture books also veer toward the quirky, with unusual word choices (I have “buttercuppy” and “glockenspiel” in Fritz Danced the Fandango), and what I might call a “funny-bittersweet” view of the world. If I had one goal for all of my books, it is to try to balance humor and emotion.
Why do I write what I write?
I recently noticed that many of my stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, are about characters who move from something small to something big. They broaden their view of the world, open up to new friends, or trade a quiet life for major adventure. When I consider how I moved from a small town to a big city, and then discovered a passion for travel, I recognize that this is my story too.
How does my individual writing process work?
I hold my ideas in my head for a very long time — years even. Sometimes the story is close to formed by the time I actually write it down. Then I work on the story until I am absolutely, irretrievably stuck, or I’m verging on a polished draft. It’s rare for me to share a manuscript with my critique group and readers before this point.
I also sketch out my stories in storyboard format with my sixth-grade drawing skills. This helps me in a few ways: 1) to see if there is enough, or too much, plot for the 32-page format of a picture book; 2) to prevent me from agonizing over word choices in a first draft; and 3) to gauge if the story is visually compelling.
Once the story is written, my process is pretty standard: read and revise, get feedback, and then repeat those steps until I feel the story is ready for my editors’ eyes.
I do write down what I call “story scraps” — these could be funny titles that don’t have stories yet (poor Revenge of the Titmice), potential character names, or a quick one- or two-line sketch of a plot. I record these in journals — I have stacks and stacks of them! I’m not a daily writer, but so long as I’m thinking about my stories I don’t get too worked up about that. And I’ve gotten so I can write just about anywhere. I carry a notebook with me at all times, and often while taking the subway or walking, I’ll get my best ideas.
Weirdly, I write well while I’m on vacation. I feel super-connected to the world when I’m somewhere I’ve never been before, and those details and experiences end up in manuscripts, sometimes in unexpected ways. In one of the new stories I’m working on, there’s a donkey named for a Viennese cake.
Who’s next: I call “It” to my lovely critique group partner and VCFA alum Adi Rule! Her atmospheric and absorbing first novel Strange Sweet Song debuted this spring from St. Martin’s Press. Adi is a great interview (none other than USA Today agrees), so head on over to adirule.com next week to read her leg of the tour. And thanks for having me participate!