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The Many Paths to Publication Part 6: An Interview with Tim McCanna

I first met Tim McCanna at an SCBWI conference in 2011. Back then he was an aspiring children's book author and a heck of a nice guy. Now he's still a heck of a nice guy but he's graduated from aspiring to published children's book author. How'd he do it? I was about to say "not in the usual way" but if you've been following these posts, you've probably gathered that there isn't a usual way. What I like about Tim's story is that he took pointers, tips and tidbits he gathered at conferences and combined them with some publicly-available tools and a few personal connections to forge a unique path to publication. It doesn't hurt that he, like Tim Myers from our last Paths to Publication Interview, is a multi-talented guy who writes songs, does voice-overs, and writes stories. Read on to learn about his just-released new book, Teeny Tiny Trucks, and how it developed from an idea to an app and a book.

Dashka: Tell me about Teeny Tiny Trucks! What was the inspiration?
Tim: Well, in late 2010 I attended an event hosted by SCBWI's San Francisco/South chapter. One of the speakers was Christy Ottaviano and she talked about how much her kids loved trucks and how she had unexpectedly ended up publishing a handful of "truck books." I had never really thought about it before, but there are a LOT of truck books out there. It's a whole category of its own. On the way home, I started brainstorming truck book ideas. Of course, most truck books celebrate how big and tough and loud they are. I knew right away I wanted to take it in a different direction and explore a world where trucks were super small. I also tapped into my childhood love of little truck toys, like Micro Machines and Tiny Mighty Mos.

Dashka: It sounds like you did some market research before you even started writing. Were there other things you learned from SCBWI or other sources that helped you hone your strategy?
Tim: As it turned out, the next regional SCBWI event I attended was the 2011 Golden Gate Conference at Asilomar near Monterey. One of the speakers was Rick Richter of Ruckus Media Group. Rick gave a great talk on apps and digital media and where the industry was headed. He assured us that apps and ebooks and printed books could all live together in harmony. But he also really encouraged us to jump on the app bandwagon. I had no idea how to do that, but I was excited to try. While considering ideas, I thought, "Hey, that Teeny Tiny Trucks picture book manuscript I wrote would make a cool app."

TTTrucks Cover

Dashka: How did you go about making an app proposal? How did you even know where to begin?
Tim: It's intimidating, right? For the first couple submissions, I just winged it. Cover letter, the manuscript, and very rough storyboard sketches with little notes on potential interactive elements. Uh, nothing came of those. Then last year, Julie Hedlund, who's a writer and creator of the 12x12 challenge, published an App Proposal Template based on the submission that landed her first story app contract. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to break into story apps. The template helped me create a much more robust and organized proposal with marketing strategies, a detailed app brief, and curriculum tie-ins.

Dashka: As an old-school, words-on-paper person, I sometimes find it hard to embrace the digital side of publishing. Were you pro-technology before you started? Anti-technology? Neutral?
Tim: Ah, well. I love a nice solid printed picture book as much as the next person. My wife and I read tons of traditional picture books with our kids and we have pretty strict "screen time" rules. But I've never shied from technology. If anything, my iPad has made me a reader again. I love the ease of downloading samples from the iBooks store to find new purchases, and being able to quickly look up big words I don't know! I read novels almost exclusively on my iPad. As far as the publishing industry goes, I can only hope that the future will bring lots of quality story apps for people to enjoy and lots of beautiful hardbound books, too.

Dashka: OK, so you've told us how you got the idea for Teeny Tiny Trucks. How did the book get its big break?
Tim: Gosh, everything is intertwined. So, I had my Trucks story and my first shabby proposal sitting in my Dropbox going nowhere. As I was participating in the 2011 Picture Book Idea Month, I heard about Julie Hedlund who was launching her 12x12 writing challenge, which I joined. I wrote this silly song for the mid-year celebration of 12x12 and had also written the opening show theme for Katie Davis' kidlit podcast, Brain Burps About Books. Meanwhile, Julie's publisher at Little Bahalia was considering adding a sing-a-long song version for the app they were developing for her book A Troop is a Group of Monkeys. My name came up and I ended up writing the song and narrating the app! Totally fun. Building that working relationship with Stacey at Little Bahalia gave me the confidence to revive my Trucks app proposal using Julie's template. I submitted it and had a contract in two weeks.

Dashka: Talk to me a bit about how personal relationships helped you along the way. You and I met at a conference for the first time and you've clearly met lots of other, more helpful, people too. Do you think writers need to get out more?
Tim: Oh yeah. Every bit of momentum I've gained since starting out four and a half years ago can be directly attributed to the people I've met by attending SCBWI events and participating in online writing challenges. My number one bit of advice to anyone--especially newcomers to the industry--wanting to make kidlit friends and expand their network is to volunteer at their local SCBWI chapter.

Dashka: Another thing that strikes me about you is that you bring some extra talents to the table. How has being a songwriter helped you as a writer? And now it seems you can add voice actor to your resume.
Tim: Oddly enough, it took me a long time to figure out how to integrate my music and performance backgrounds into children's book publishing. I've recently done some book trailers, and I write goofy little jingles for my kidlit video series. And yes, I've gotten to narrate a handful of story apps, too. All these things I've done in my little home studio with a laptop, a keyboard and a microphone. When I decided to take Trucks in the app direction, I set my stanzas to a tune and added a catchy chorus. And considering the subject matter, I took another cue from my childhood and gave it a 1970's trucker song kind of vibe (i.e. Willy Nelson's "On the Road Again"). I included an mp3 of the Teeny Tiny Trucks song along with my app proposal and I'm told it pushed my submission over the top.

TTT Spread Weight

Dashka: TTT was originally going to be an app only, but now it's been released as a book too. How did that come about?
Tim: I'm so excited about that. The original plan was: app first, then maybe a book. I'm not a publisher, and I don't know all the numbers, but I think between having such a great looking product thanks to Keith Frawley's illustrations, plus the timing of publishing before the holidays, it just kinda made sense for Little Bahalia, our publisher. And we're making history in the process! A title releasing simultaneously in print and interactive app form. Gives consumers some fun choices.

Dashka: Did you ever think your first book would come via an app?
Tim: Nope. Never. I just followed the opportunities and my instincts. In my case, I wrote the story first, not even thinking of it as an app. I would recommend that process! Teeny Tiny Trucks was just one of many manuscripts in my portfolio, but due to its style and subject, it naturally lent itself to an interactive format.

Dashka: What are the advantages of entering the publishing world via an app?
Tim: Traditional publishing can be a notoriously slow process. My app, on the other hand is coming out roughly eight months after I sold the manuscript. And, in theory, an app will never go out of print! Plus, the interactive elements, when done well, can be amazing. The sky's the limit, really. An app format offers all kinds of special features like puzzles, music, and animation.

Dashka: Are there disadvantages?
Tim: Well, if someone doesn't have access to an iPad or an iPhone, then they ain't gettin' the app. That's a bummer. New apps are also at the mercy of "discoverability." Meaning, unless you're Angry Birds, you have to claw your way through the glut of apps flooding the market to reach the top charts. We're all competing against very sophisticated video game apps, many of which are free.

Dashka: What have you learned along the way that you wish you knew at the beginning?
Tim: There is no single path to publication, you have to be the driving force behind your success, and it will all play out quite differently than how you imagined.

Dashka: Yes! That's exactly what I've hoped to communicate with this series of blog posts. Do you have words of advice for somebody interested in following a similar path?
Tim: Anyone who is writing for children strives for strong characters, unique voice, interesting conflicts, and readability. Whether aiming for story apps or printed books, put your writing craft first. Have a great story be the foundation for whatever medium you want to work in. Bells and buttons come later.

Dashka: Last month I did some critique group matchmaking on my blog. Do you think it's important for writers to have critique partners?
Tim: Oh gosh, don't get me started on critique groups. To me, they are as essential as pen and paper. Seriously. I've had two groups and found both by meeting people at regional SCBWI conferences. My current group meets once a month. Writing is such a solitary art. Being in a critique group gives you a community to check in with, get support, and test material. If you can find folks that give quality feedback and not just "This is cute!" or "This isn't working for me." grab on to them and never let go. Being in a crit group can keep you motivated, but it also means you're ready and willing to hear the hard truth about your work and be open to cutting material and rewriting.

Dashka: What else do you have in the works? More apps? More books? More songs?
Tim: Yes, yes, and yes. I'd love an excuse to follow up Teeny Tiny Trucks with some other teeny tiny modes of transportation! We'll see... I switched gears this summer and started writing my first middle grade novel, which has been a fun new challenge.

Dashka: Thanks for coming by the blog, Tim! I hope you'll come back to tell us about it when it's done! In the meantime, Tim has graciously offered to send a signed copy of Teeny Tiny Trucks to one lucky commenter. He'll do the signing. I'll be responsible for picking a lucky winner. To enter the contest, make sure to leave a comment telling us why you need your own teeny tiny truck. I'll pick a winner on November 7. And for all you tiny truck fans, the book is available through Amazon or can be ordered through your local bookstore. The app will be out soon as well. 

The Many Paths to Publication Part 5: An Interview with Tim Myers

Tim Myers is a terrific writer, teacher and storyteller. I was a huge fan of his best-selling book Basho and the Fox for many years before I met him in person. When I did, I discovered we had much in common, including the fact that we both write in multiple genres, and I became as much a fan of the person as I am of the writer (when you read this interview, you'll understand why). In addition to being an award-winning short story writer, songwriter and poet, Tim is the author of eleven picture books, including If You Give a T-Rex a Bone, Looking for Luna, Basho and the River Stones, The Out-Foxed Fox, and Dark-Sparkle Tea, and he has another four picture books in the works. He has recently published a new book of poetry, a new picture book, and a non-fiction e-book, Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood, which won the inaugural Ben Franklin Digital Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association. He graciously agreed to visit the blog this month to talk about his many paths to publication.

 

Dashka: Tell me a little about your latest picture book.

Tim With River Stones new version

Tim: My latest children's book is Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe, from Sterling. My children and I played endlessly with dinosaur figures. But my sons also especially loved vehicles--I sometimes wonder if the young mind makes any meaningful distinction between dinosaurs and large trucks or construction equipment. So I wanted to combine the two, and got the rather shrewd idea of a giant car wash that caters to city dinosaurs. (If dinos still existed, I might be a billionaire).
And how awesome is this? I just found a "Three Boys and a Dog" blog post where the wonderful mom-blogger not only read the book to her kids but baked chocolaty dirt onto their dino-figures so they could play Dino Wash Deluxe in the yard!

Dino Wash cover

Dashka: I love how creative mom-bloggers are. And now you've entered the parenting blog world yourself, while also publishing a book of poetry.


Tim: I recently published Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood which made #5 on Amazon's "Hot New Releases in Fatherhood" list, was featured on the Parents Magazine site, quoted on Disney's BabyZone site, won the Ben Franklin Digital Award, and has gotten excellent reviews. One of the chapters is appearing in "Motherlode," The New York Times parenting blog. I also recently published Dear Beast Loveliness: Poems of the Body which got a great review from the nationally-known poet Grace Cavalieri.

 

Dashka: You made different publication choices with each book – Glad to Be Dad is an e-book, Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe came from Sterling Children's, which is a subsidiary of Barnes and Noble, and Dear Beast Loveliness comes from BlazeVOX which calls itself "an independent publisher of weird little books." Why did you go the route you went for each?


Tim: I wish I was in the position to pick and choose which publishers I work with. I don't mean that I ignore such choices, but I've found that my work is too varied to be submitted to only certain publishers. So I do a good amount of research and submit work to all kinds of different houses. (And get rejected all the time). My primary goal is to make good books and connect with readers. And a writer really can't predict whether a book will be a commercial success or not, or whether a particular publisher can make that happen. Again, I'm not crazy--I'm delighted if a big, high-status publisher will take on a book of mine! But my heart pretty much burns 24 hours a day for art, so I follow any route that will ease that wonderful, joyous burning.

Glad Dad cover image high res

Dashka: And you haven't been afraid to plunge into the digital deep end. Has publishing changed a lot in the course of your career?

 

Tim: Anyone can see what an absolute tsunami the digital revolution has been for human culture. And of course huge particular changes have come to the book industry too. Years ago, before I'd even published anything, I'd get long, thoughtful letters back from publishers at major houses about the manuscript they were passing on. That doesn't happen now (though my experience with editors at major houses has made me tremendously impressed with them). And the push to self-promote has also changed the landscape almost beyond recognition. People say it all the time: new opportunities, new challenges. Part of my response to that has been--I'll put this in Wall Street terms, so it'll sound intelligent instead of desperate--to diversify.


Dashka: It's great to diversify -- and you're a pretty diversely-talented guy anyway. Even so, it can be hard to keep all the balls in the air. Do you find it challenging to write and publish in multiple genres?


Tim: I find it beyond exhilarating to write in different genres, and since I'm also a storyteller and a song-writer, this kind of variety is mother's milk to me. In fact, I know I could never specialize; I'm a generalist in a specialist's world. And there are real disadvantages, career disadvantages, to being a generalist. But as I always say--What's life for? To satisfy my soul with art--that's what I'm after. Holy cats--if I wanted money and fame, there are a lot smarter ways to go about it!


Dashka: I sometimes hear people say that writing in multiple genres dilutes your "brand" as an author – an accusation I'm sensitive to, since I also write fiction, non-fiction, poetry and children's books. What do you think about the idea that we need to brand ourselves as writers?


Tim: I understand the point about branding, but I think the idea is often over-applied, and if not fully understood it can actually be dangerous if you're committed to art. I have a piece coming out in the SCBWI Bulletin that goes into detail on my thoughts about branding.


Dashka: Oh, I'm looking forward to reading that! Hopefully you'll reassure me. Now tell me what it's been like to publish and promote a digital book? What did you know or think you knew about digital publishing beforehand? Did the experience change your feelings about e-books?


Tim: I really didn't know much at all, though of course I kept my head up and paid attention. But I got very lucky when Christopher Robbins, the publisher at a new and digitally-savvy niche publisher called Familius, took my Glad to Be Dad. Christopher is a veteran, and he taught me so much, and encouraged me as I learned on my own. I'm very grateful to him. I'd known for a long time that I had to get more involved in marketing and promotion, and he gave me the opportunity to do that in a big way. It was a watershed moment for me. Of course this also has its costs; time spent on promo is time not spent writing. But my hope is that some careful, constantly-tweaked combination of the two can help writers both write their best and connect with others as much as possible.


Dashka: Many people say that it's a great time to be a writer, because there are so many publishing options. But it can be overwhelming, too. Any advice for writers who are trying to figure out how best to publish their books? Anything you wish someone had told you along the way?


Tim: Overwhelming--yes! It's like when you go to the store to buy mustard, look at the 900 varieties on the shelves, and realize you'll need a graduate seminar in order to make a choice. The thing is, though--well, I find a couple of principles very helpful here. First--it looks worse than it is. I don't mean to minimize it; the world of creative production is in something like an uproar right now--look at the music industry. I find myself thinking a lot these days about the Oklahoma Land Rush. My point, though, is that it looks more intimidating from a distance. Have faith in your ability to learn and adjust, then get in there and do it. And besides--some of the fundamental realities will never change; the basic relationships between writers, gate-keepers, editors, and readers tend to stay the same. To make my point even more specific: Don't freak out. Don't get me wrong; I've done my share of worrying about all the change. But that anxiety was mostly just wasted energy.


Second--and this is closely related--it's like when you're playing basketball. Say you steal a pass and break for the basket, and you've got a couple of people to go around before you can lay it in. The thing is, you've got to give it all you've got--but you've also got to stay relaxed. This is a paradox, but a true one. Staying relaxed means you can keep your head and react as conditions change. And that's really important in the shifting world we find ourselves in today. But the main thing is--it's ALWAYS a great time to be a writer, whatever's going on in the world! It gets harder, it gets easier, you get a door slammed here, you get a break there. But you get to write!


Dashka: Thanks for that reminder. Sometimes we all get so caught up in the push to publish and promote that we forget why it is we do what we do in the first place! And thanks for stopping by Start at the Beginning!

The Many Paths to Publication Part 1: An Interview With Writer Nicole Lataif

I’ve been teaching an online Children’s Picture Book Writing class through media bistro for six years years and recently launched an advanced class for graduates of the introductory class (I call the two classes PB1 and PB2). In the course of teaching these classes I’ve had a chance to work with hundreds of aspiring picture book writers and help their first books transform from a vague idea to a fully-realized manuscript. 

Late last year, when I began developing my advanced picture book class, it occurred to me that my students might want to know more about the many paths to publication that beginning writers have taken. All my students start in the same place – with the desire to write for children but not much of a road map. But after their six weeks with me, they have gone in many different directions. Some have found agents. Some have submitted to editors directly. Some have worked with large mainstream publishers. Some have worked with smaller or niche houses. Some have self-published.

Curious to know what paths people have taken, I've begun tracking down former students to hear their stories. Below is the first in what I hope will be a regular series of interviews with writers who have found different ways to get their work into the world in this very competitive publishing sector. I chose Nicole Lataif as my first interview because she took a path I knew almost nothing about. Her first book, Forever You, was published through a Catholic publishing house called Pauline. I think her story will be instructive not only for people writing for any kind of religious readership, but for anyone who is writing for a particular niche or a specialized audience.

 

Dashka: Thanks for stopping in at Start At The Beginning. Tell us about Forever You.

Nicole: At the most basic level, this resource for Christian faith formation introduces children ages 4-8 to what being human is all about. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, or catechist, you will find this resource to be helpful in explaining the concept of a "soul" to your children.

Forever You

Dashka: Who is publishing it?

Nicole: Pauline Books and Media a Christian, traditional publishing house of the Daughters of Saint Paul, an international congregation of women religious dedicated to serving the Church through the media of social communication. They have 13 stores around the US and in English speaking Canada. 

Dashka: Why did you decide to go this route? Did you consider a mainstream publisher?

Nicole: My route to publication was unique. I was given an opportunity to have lunch with my [now] editor, after an introduction from a friend brought us together. At that luncheon, I explicitly asked what she was looking to publish. It just so happened that I had extensive experience in the subject matter for which she needed a writer. I had also wanted to write about this topic for a while. So, it was a perfect match. I encourage anyone who is able to meet with an editor to be sure to have questions ready and know what you can and cannot do. Originally, I submitted a proposal for 3 books (A PB, a novel and a chapter book!). That was crazy on my part. I retracted the novel and chapter book ideas and worked exclusively on the PB, which is what eventually got published. Thank God for my editor was patient! In sum, ask direct questions and don’t bite off more than you can chew!  

Dashka:What are the advantages of publishing with a Christian or any kind of niche press?

Nicole: The advantages of publishing with a Christian house are (1) to work with a niche market and (2) identify with my audience to create a more effective product. Firstly, by choosing a niche market, I am able to stay focused on what one group of people wants/needs, instead of trying to be everything to everyone. I am able to become an “expert” on one group of buyers. Secondly, I am living the lifestyle of my audience. I AM my market. The people who buy my book are just like me in their interests and passions. The topics I cover in my book are messages that I know are needed from experience. Write what you know.

Dashka: Are there disadvantages?

Nicole: The disadvantage is that I do not have a large marketing budget from my publisher. I do have a wonderful publicist provided by Pauline Books and Media, but her time is limited. Should you sign with a smaller house, and now sometimes even if you sign with a larger house, be prepared to market your book heavily.

Dashka: In my experience, that's true even when you do work with large mainstream publishers! Writers have to learn how to promote, whether they want to or not. So how are you marketing and promoting your book?

Nicole: My marketing plan is extensive! I have a few years of professional experience in marketing, which helps a lot, so I developed a 3-year plan. I also hired a book-marketing professional for a few hours to fill me in on what I didn’t already know. In the first month, I sold 46% of what the publisher hoped I’d sell in the first year. To reach this, I did heavy social media promotion, blog interviews, cross-promotion with other websites, and asked my friends and family to help spread the word. Those numbers don’t mean much--the true test will be: where am I in a year?! Two years? Etc? My publisher does help me in many ways, especially with brainstorming, making contacts and advising me when I have questions. However, they have limited resources.

Dashka: What have you learned about the publishing process that you wish you knew at the beginning?

Nicole: I knew this at the beginning, but I think it is important to mention: no matter what your marketing background, no matter how much support you have at home, no matter what, what, what—you probably won’t make enough money to survive exclusively as a writer. You need to be fully prepared for that reality. I also wish I knew how much marketing would be involved in the process. People think getting published is “making it,” but it’s just the beginning. Set aside time each week to promote your book. Lastly, come up with a website to build a relationship with your customers. It could be a blog, an interactive site, anything, but you need something. I did this here: www.kidsfaithgarden.com.

Dashka: Your website offers tons of resources to keep readers coming back to your site -- it's a great model for writers of all kinds! Do you think you'll use the same publishing path for your next book?

Nicole: It all depends. If this year renders positive results, I will absolutely consider it! As a support system, my publisher goes above and beyond to support me. If we work together again, I would be so pleased.

Dashka: Tell me about the process of finding an illustrator. Did Pauline involve you at all in the process?

Nicole: I have never met or spoken to my illustrator. I submitted my manuscript and saw the final product a year later. The publishing house had complete control over the illustrations and the illustrator is totally uninvolved in the marketing of the book. 

Dashka: Do you have any final words of advice for people interested in following a similar path to publication?

Nicole: Check your motives. If you are writing to be famous, you won’t be. If you are writing to be rich, you won’t be. If you are writing to get out a message that you feel is important, go for it! Also, plan for the process to take years (and I’m talking double-digits). Writing is arduous and long, so be sure to enjoy the journey! Write to simply enjoy the process, not to reach some kind of destination of publication (because, most people don’t get published).

Dashka: Excellent advice, Nicole. Creating good work has to be its own reward, because the monetary rewards can be elusive. Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed for the blog!

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

One of the most exciting things about having a new book is being able to develop new assemblies and writing workshops to go with it. The past couple of weeks has been a whirlwind of different kinds of Dangerously Ever After themed events, in bookstores, libraries, faires, festivals, and schools, and I've loved doing all of them, whether it's assemblies, readings, signings, crafts or a combination. But the thing I love most of all is doing writing workshops. After I've spent an hour writing with kids I feel like I've just swallowed a six pack of batteries, but without the indigestion. I'm usually jumping up and down, grabbing people by the elbows and imploring them to just LISTEN for one moment to the pure unadulterated genius of children's imaginations. If you could bottle the stuff, there would never be a dull moment anywhere. My job, as a writing teacher, is usually just to unstopper the bottle. Those weird thoughts you usually have to push aside so you can concentrate on school -- for the next 45 minutes, they get to be front and center.

The beginning of a writing workshop usually involves giving permission. "Can we write in pencil?" Yes. "Can we write in pen?" Yes. "Can we do a rough draft?" Yes. "Can we draw pictures?" Yes. "Can I make stuff up?" Yes. "Can it be funny?" Most emphatically, yes. There are a lot of rules in school, many of them sensible, but I have the privilege of suspending most of them for the time we're together. 

One of the rules I like to suspend is the one about who's "good" at writing, and who isn't. This is an unwritten rule, but most of the kids know it. The kids who are "good" at writing are usually the ones who find the pen-to-paper mechanics easy, the good spellers, the ones with neat handwriting, the ones who feel confident about their opinions. But in a writing workshop, those rules don't apply. Kids with lousy handwriting and absurd spelling can be great writers and so can shy kids and silly kids and kids who have trouble knowing what to say. The rule-breakers usually do just as well -- sometimes better -- than the rule followers, because, as I always tell them, "I like to be surprised."

Last week, a little boy named Jaspre's hand shot up in the air when I asked who in the class hates writing. But by the end of the workshop, he'd written a fabulous story about planting a piece of wood and having it grow into a play structure. Yesterday I got a letter from him. "Dear Ms. Dashka," he wrote. "Thank you for teaching us about making good stories." 

 

 

Because Dangerously Ever After revolves around a mix up between rose seeds and nose seeds, I've been having kids write seed stories and poems. We always begin by writing one as a group. Here's one written by a group of second graders at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in San Francisco last week:

We have a black seed.

It’s round like a circle.

It’s pointy like a porcupine.

It’s the size of an ant.

It wants to be planted in the playground

because

it will grow into a porcupine!

 

And here's one written by a group of fourth graders at Bridgeway Island Elementary School in West Sacramento, California:

 

We have some seeds.

They’re red.

They have little spikes.

They look like mutant pigs with wings.

They can fly.

They have afros.

They’re enormous and skinny.

They smell like week-old hamburger and old-lady perfume.

They smell like skunk spray.

They look like robots.

 

We plant them in the bottom of the swamp.

We plant them in the bottom of people’s throats.

We plant them in the dump.

We plant them on people’s heads.

We plant them on my brother’s back.

Instead of water they need ogre saliva.

 

When they sprout they look like

the globe with a stick figure body and gorilla feet.

They look like little mutant pigs with wings.

They look like sweat with eyeballs.

When they eat paper they double in size.

 

They’re useful for cooking.

They’re useful as abstract pieces of art.

They’re useful for eating.

They’re un-useful because they enslave humanity.

They’re called the Big Bang and they can do anything.

They’re used to burn things down.

They’re used as an antidote to heal spider bites.

They’re used to do your homework and your chores.

They can clone themselves.

They cost $750.000 each.

 

Pure genius, right? 

 

 

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

I was interviewed on the Galley Cat podcast today about my new book Dangerously Ever After and about the craft of writing picture books. 

 

My two pieces of advice for writers: learn the form and don't be a blowhard. 

 

My advice for parents: keep reading aloud to your kids, long after they can read on their own.

 

You can listen to the complete interview here.

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

The other night a friend invited me to a dance performance at ODC in San Francisco – a competition in which audience members decide which choreographers will receive a $10,000 grant to develop new work. I went in knowing nothing about the choreographers or the pieces and left feeling electric with inspiration -- nothing feeds the artistic impulse more than art itself. (“Her response to any performance, any work of art, was the desire to make another, to make her own,” A.S. Byatt says in The Children's Book, describing the “relentlessly busy inventiveness” of Olive, a writer of children’s books. That’s it, exactly.)

What struck me at this particular performance was that choreographers and writers share a certain way of thinking about the creative process. We both make art that unfolds sequentially, over time, and we both use a vocabulary of words or movements that we manipulate in similar ways – repeating and reversing them, placing them in conversations (duets) or interior monologues (solos), seeking to build tension and then resolve it. In a discussion with the audience after the performance two of the four choreographers whose works were performed said that their pieces were inspired by poetry – albeit in very different ways. Liss Fain (“Speak of Familiar Things”) was inspired by a poem by Wallace Stevens called Debris of Life and Mind” from which the title of her piece was taken. Choreographer Katie Faulkner, whose piece “Until We Know For Sure” was both the evening’s winner and my personal favorite, came to poetry from a different angle. She was aiming, she said, for a “poetic economy.” 

As a poet and picture book writer I knew just what she meant – both forms are like a tincture of narrative, requiring the writer to distill paragraphs into a single potent line. It was this distillation that Faulkner was aiming for. “I kept throwing stuff out because I wanted to stay interested,” she said, adding that she had been feeling bored by her own “movement palette” – her artistic habits of mind.

All of us, when we’re cutting things out, worry that we’re cutting out the good stuf. But Faulkner’s piece felt neither minimalist nor abstract. In fact, it was the warmest, funniest, and most human of the four we saw that night. An exploration of a relationship between a man and a woman, it left me feeling as if I had just read an entire novel about the two people and their time together. By cutting out everything extraneous, she had allowed what remained to breathe, blossom, and expand, to achieve its full power. 

I scribbled down Faulkner’s comments about throwing stuff out because I’m in the midst of a series of picture book revisions right now and so I’ve been contemplating the alchemy of addition by subtraction. Creativity, for me, begins in a rush of generation – words, ideas, plots, jokes, descriptions, images, phrases – that “busy inventiveness” Byatt describes. To try to constrain or direct the flow would stanch it completely – I have to let it all spill on the page. But then, the process of subtraction begins. At first, I don’t want to cut. Sure a few things can go, but so much of it feels essential. But as I begin to subtract, I find that something happens to the words I’ve left behind. The pure lines of the story emerge from the unwieldy blob of words. The unencumbered sentences seem truer, more potent.

It’s hard to do – heartbreaking sometimes. All the same, scissors can be the most useful implement in the writer’s toolbox.

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

Back in February, The Guardian ran a piece on “Rules for Writing Fiction” that featured sage advice from famous writers on what to do and what not to do. In general, I hate that type of article, which always makes me feel like I’m doing it all wrong, but always read them anyway on the off chance of discovering something useful. In the article, some writers said to Always Do things I never do, and others said to Never Do things that I sometimes do, and a few suggested Sometimes Doing things that I always do, and in the end I didn’t end up any wiser about the process of writing than I was before, which is pretty much a chronic condition for anyone who takes the business of writing seriously.

But there was one piece of advice that I thought was very good. It came from Margaret Atwood and it went like this:

Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

That advice is one of many reasons that I will be co-teaching a day-long Yoga and Writing Retreat with Julie Rappaport on June 20 at beautiful Green Gulch Farm in Mill Valley, California. This will be the third time the two of us have taught the workshop, which we dreamed up while sitting next to a waterfall one day at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers where we had struck up a friendship. Julie’s a yoga teacher who writes; I’m a writer who does yoga, and we both found that yoga, long walks, and bike rides were critical antidotes to the atmosphere of anxious striving one typically finds at a writing conferences.

In the years since, I’ve found that some writers (usually those who already do yoga) know immediately why we would put yoga and writing together, and others are completely mystified. So here are a few of my reasons:

  1. Because, as the writer Margaret Atwood says, “pain is distracting” and if you’re going to torment your body by spending hours sitting at the computer, the least you can do is nourish it with stretches and movement.
  2. Because, as the choreographer Twyla Tharp says, “When you stimulate your body, your brain comes alive in ways you can't simulate in a sedentary position.”
  3. Because both yoga and writing are, ideally, daily practices that are best approached with humble curiosity. The writer Isak Dinesen said, “I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.” This is the attitude that yoga teaches – to simply do the best work you can do that day, without being attached to the outcome.
  4. Because, as the writer Barbara Kingsolver has said, “There’s no perfect time to write. There’s only now.” Yoga teaches us to cultivate the present moment.
  5. Because the body remembers what the mind forgets.
  6. Because both yoga and writing require you to lose interest in the distractions of the world, and yoga can help you learn how to do it.

I could go on, but I won’t, at least not now. At the retreat, Julie and I will talk more about the connection we see between the two disciplines, and how writers can use yoga to free the mind of its old habits and the body of its aches and pains. If you’re interested in joining us call Julie at 510-273-2417 or email her: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The daylong workshop is $165 including a delicious organic lunch and snacks, or $140 if you pay in full by May 1st.

Here’s what people have said about previous workshops:

  • "I had a thoroughly enjoyable time and left feeling refreshed and like I'd learned some new things about yoga and writing -- and about myself.”
  • “Thank you for a wonderfully enlightening day that I continue to think about! This was one of those significant events in life made even more special by the personalities, the creativity and the quest of finding your core through yoga.”
  • “It was encouraging to find that the thoughts just flowed – suddenly writing was easy! It was a great experience!”
  • “Both the yoga and writing were so fulfilling and nurturing. Thank you both for creating a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere -- heaven!”
  • “My body thanked me profusely for taking it to the workshop. I had a wonderful day and you both inspired me.”

Come join us!

Tagged in: writing yoga

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

It's December, the month when my list of "Things to Do" begins to divide into long trailing tentacles of "Things to Make" and "Things to Buy" and "Things to Mail" and "Things to Cook" and, somewhere stuffed in-between them all, somewhat shrunken and tentative next to all the others, is "Things to Write." And it's right around now that I take The Phantom Tollboth down from the shelf and reread Chapter 17.

It is in Chapter 17 that Milo meets the Terrible Trivium, a faceless man who introduces himself as the "demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit." Milo encounters him in the Mountains of Ignorance, on his way to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason. The Terrible Trivium asks for help moving a pile of sand using a pair of tiny tweezers and soon Milo is busy at the task, working hour after hour after hour after hour...

"Why do only unimportant things?" Milo asks, when he begins to get wise to the fact that the sand-moving may be getting in the way of the princess-rescuing.

"Think of all the trouble it saves," the Trivium replies. "If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won't have the time. For there's always something to keep you from what you really should be doing...There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why if you stay here, you'll never have to think again --and with a little practice, you can become a monster of habit, too."

Norton Juster, the book's brilliant author, knew from experience that there is always something else that a writer can be doing, in fact, should be doing. Not just the December tasks and projects, but errands, childcare, household chores -- the list of Other Things To Do is as endless as Milo's pile of sand. But while the reasons for not writing will always be much longer than the reasons for writing, a writer has to remind herself every day to put down the tweezers and continue the search for Rhyme and Reason. Who will rescue them, if not you?

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

Therese Walsh just interviewed me for her blog, Writer Unboxed, about the process of writing my novel The Wishing Box. The first half of the interview is up now; the second half of the interview will be posted on Friday and will cover children's books and other genres. I've published three books since that first novel, with a fourth on the way, and so it was interesting to go back and think about how my writing process has changed since then. As I told Therese: 

"I keep hoping I’ll find a more efficient way to work, but so far I’ve found no good substitute for generating a whole lot of words and deciding later which of them I want to keep."

One thing that occurred to me as I read over the interview was that writing never gets easier exactly, but it does get easier to tolerate how difficult it is. Now that I have five books behind me, along with hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles (not to mention a large cache of unpublished work), I have a lot more confidence that if I keep writing, I'll eventually find a way out of whatever thicket I've managed to get myself into. I've also learned that subtraction is a wonderful thing. While I'm always tempted to add more material to whatever I'm working on, at some point I'm forced to start cutting. And when I do, I am struck with wonder at how much clarity and beauty emerges simply by removing the clutter of extra words, ideas, sentences, and digressions. 

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