Friday, February 29, 2008

Happy Leap Day

Happy February 29th. Welcome to a day that appears on our calendars once every four years. Leap year (the year including February 29th) is the year of presidential elections and the summer Olympics.

Folk tradition says in past centuries it was acceptable for women to make a marriage proposal to their love during a leap year. Apparently, the powers that be thought this gave women too much power because the period of sanctioned female-initiated proposals was shortened to only one day, February 29th.

This may be in response to men’s ire over a 13th century law that fined men who refused a marriage proposal. Their imposed penalties could include any of the following: a kiss, cold hard cash, or a silk dress. This was supposed to make the woman feel better. I wonder if the spurned woman chose the item. Maybe some ladies were just as happy with a new dress.

To give the fellows fair warning, a woman with a proposal on her mind was supposed to wear a scarlet petticoat (one that showed beneath the skirt I presume) to let any men in the vicinity know some lucky or unlucky man was about to be the recipient of a marriage proposal.

A writer friend and I were talking yesterday about things that spark story ideas for us. These type of fun facts often make ideas start to pop for me. What works for you?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Interview with Kristin Tubb

I am thrilled to share my interview with Kristin Tubb on her experiences at the Winter Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators earlier this month.

Was this your first SCBWI national conference? If you have attended more than one, how was this one different from the others?

The national conference in New York was my second SCBWI national conference. I attended the LA event in 2005. Both are wonderful, with speakers and sessions that leave you crackling with creativity. I’ve heard it said that the LA conference focuses more on the craft of writing, while the NY conference focuses on the business of publishing. In my experience, I found that to be true. It seems as though attendees have more access to agents and editors in NY, but the LA conference offers a huge lineup of kid lit veterans. If I were made of bricks of gold and blocks of time, I’d do both every year!

Can you give a brief overview of what happens at the conference?

I was lucky enough to attend the special Writer’s Intensive that is held every year the Friday before the conference. From 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., eight writers were assigned to one of 30 tables. Each table had an editor or agent who directed a critique session. Writers brought a 500-word sample of their work, and had 15 minutes to both read the piece and receive critiques. It was amazing! My morning session was one of the best critique sessions I’ve ever been involved with at a conference. Our group really gelled. I’ll likely keep in touch with 2-3 writers from that experience. And Jane Yolen gave the closing remarks, focusing her speech on fabulous endings. “A good ending should be both predictable and unexpected,” she said.

Saturday included a number of keynote speakers: David Wiesner, Nikki Grimes, and Carolyn Mackler. (Wow! Pow! Ka-chow!) There were two pre-assigned break-out sessions, each featuring an editor of a major publishing house. The topic was the same for each editor: “What I want to publish.” I chose to attend sessions by Reka Simonsen (Henry Holt) and Wendy Loggia (aka, my SuperEditor, at Delacorte ) The editors were upfront and open about how their houses work, what the acquisition process is, and what their needs and likes are. At the core of every presentation? Editors want A GOOD STORY. Hmmm…

On Sunday, Susan Patron spoke about what it’s like to win the Newbery (it was *fascinating*!). I missed one of my all-time favorite authors, Richard Peck, due to my flight schedule.

Overall, it is delightful experience, one that reenergizes your writing and keeps you focused on quality.

What was your favorite event or speaker?

My favorite speaker was Carolyn Mackler (The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things). I’d seen her present at the LA conference in 2005, and boy, what a difference three years and a couple of banned books makes! Don’t get me wrong – she was an energetic, funny, and entertaining speaker when I first saw her, but her speech this year in NY was downright inspirational. As in, I-want-to-dash-back-to-my-hotel-room-and-write-right-now, I-don’t-care-that-there’s-no-money-in-kid-lit inspirational. All heart. Fantastic.

How did it feel to go to the conference as a soon-to-be debut author?

I’ve always found conferences a little nerve-wracking. Writers are a reclusive sort, and talking to strangers isn’t always easy. So for me, having a book coming out this fall was kinda like having the ultimate ice-breaker. Kid lit writers are the nicest people on earth, and they are genuinely happy for others’ successes.

Plus, I got my first-ever round of applause for writing at this conference! My SuperEditor offered Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Different as an example of middle grade historical fiction that caught her eye. “And the author is in the audience!” she added at the end of her lovely overview. “Give a wave, Kristin!” As I did, the audience clapped! For *my* book! I’m still floating.

What advice would you give unpublished authors who are considering attending the conference for the first time?

Go go go go go! But first, write the very best story you can write. Research the people who will be presenting at the conference, and see who edits/represents books that are similar to yours. Read those books. (This is a step that is often overlooked, but don’t overlook it! That whole ice-breaker thing again…) Be respectful of the agents and editors who are giving up their personal time to attend the conference. Bring business cards, and meet as many fellow authors as you can. If there are optional or additional critique sessions available, do as many of them as you can. After the conference, send exactly what the editor/agent requests, no more, no less. Write thank you notes. Have fun!

Tell me about your debut novel and when it will be available.

Autumn Winifred Oliver has charmed a hive of bees, wrangled a flock of geese, and filched a stick of dynamite from the U.S. Government. But it’ll take a whole new kind of gumption to save her Cades Cove home.

Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different is an historical fiction middle grade novel set in 1934 Cades Cove at the birth of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the only national park formed from privately owned land. It will be available October 14 from Delacorte Press. For more information, please visit my website:

Thank you Kristin, for taking the time to share your experiences! Now I definitely have ‘Attend SCBWI national conference’ on my to-do-list.

Kristin is a member of the Class of 2k8, a group of 27 debut Middle Grade and Young Adult authors with books coming out in 2008. Check out their website here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Snowflakes and Book Characters

Two words that were seldom, if ever, spoken in New Orleans, but are occasionally heard in Tennessee were announced earlier this week. Snow Day! These seven letters pumped joy into the hearts of school children and made me pretty happy, too. From experience, I know a snow day sure beats the heck out of a hurricane evacuation day.

Before moving to Tennessee, I had only seen snow a few times in my childhood and once in New Orleans (Christmas Day 2004).

Earlier this week, I was sitting at my computer watching the snow through my window thinking, this is definitely a new experience for me. Large flakes started drifting down and I put my coat on and went back outside in a flash. I held out my hands and caught snowflakes in my red gloves. For the first time in my life, I saw the shape of a snowflake. My first thought was, “Wow! It really does look like they say in books.” My second thought was, “I feel like Snowflake Bentley.”

If you are a children’s book writer or reader, you probably know that Snowflake Bentley is the 1999 Caldecott winning biography by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Wilson A. Bentley (1865-1931) developed a technique to photograph snowflakes. He is the person who actually proved that no two are alike. This wasn’t a quick process. It took years of trial and error. Sort of like working towards publication.

Do you ever think of yourself as a fictional character, or in this case, a real live person from history, in one of your favorite books?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Research and the First Draft

I started writing a new middle grade mystery this week. There are few things in my life that match the excitement of opening a document and starting a brand new manuscript.

Many writers love research and say they must make themselves stop the research to start writing. I am the opposite. I must force myself to do enough research so that I don’t leave glaring errors needing a major rewrite. This happened in my last mystery. I was so ready to start the new manuscript, that I relied on my memory of historical facts to write Clue #1 for the story. Lesson learned: Always check your facts, especially when Clues 2, 3, etc. are tied to Clue #1 in the story.

Where I went wrong: I could not remember which order the buildings were constructed that surround Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans, one of my favorite neighborhoods. Just in case any blog readers might find this information helpful, here are the facts:

In 1788, a great fire broke out in the French Quarter on Good Friday, destroying eighty percent of the city’s buildings, including St. Louis Church. The building that would become known as St. Louis Cathedral was rebuilt on the same spot.

In 1849 and 1850, the Pontalba buildings that border Jackson Square (believed to be the first apartment buildings in the United States) were built. They did not exist in 1788 and could not have been damaged by the great fire.

This is the type of thing research can help with! What about you? Are you a research junkie or does the keyboard sing a siren song to you?