Every once in a while, a nugget of smiley goodness appears in my inbox. That’s how I’d describe being asked by author F.A. Michaels to participate in an ongoing blog tour about the writing process by answering four related questions. F.A. Michaels, or Mic, is the author of some amazing novels for middle grade and young adult readers. Some of those stories will come to life as e-books right off the bat. Others will land on print pages soon. Mic knows that I am passionate about books for young readers and that I enjoy a good ole fashion discussion about the writing process- which is as unique to an author as a fingerprint. I encourage you to take a look at what other authors have revealed, beginning with talented F.A. Michaels here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
I know, Mic is brilliant, right? Well, now that you’re back, I’ll do my best to enlighten you about how I work.
What am I currently working on?
Lately, my multi-tasking muscles have gotten a workout. In the last two weeks, I did final edits on two books I wrote for the educational market, due out this summer. I’m also kicking around new title options for my debut trade book, a nonfiction picture book coming out next spring from Lee and Low, tentatively titled STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY. And speaking of that debut, it will be out in less than a year. Ahhhhhhh! There’s so much to think about and plan for: book launch parties, marketing, the best pen to sign with, how to thank the multitudes of people who have helped me emotionally and craft-wise to bring the book to fruition. I suddenly feel pregnant all over again, stressing over a very long pre-baby to-do list that will lead to one beautiful event.
I’m in the research stage of a new project, but I’ll remain coy for now. Partly to avoid leaks in focus that would allow some of the magic to spill from the mental process by talking about it too soon. Once the story is well rounded, fully spiced, and tightly sealed, I’ll be thrilled to talk about it. For now, I’ll reveal only that it will probably be a nonfiction picture book (unless it becomes something else,) about an almost-forgotten historical event involving war, trains, destruction, kids, adults, hunger, and gifts. I am enthralled by all I am learning and antsy to begin writing. But, it isn’t time yet.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
It’s funny, isn’t it, that we begin our writing careers studying the works and styles of other writers, trying to emulate them. Then, our goal is to be different, original, unique. To that end, I’m not sure how to answer this question except to say that every project I tackle has a bit of me in it. I think that’s true of all writers. There isn’t one characteristic that makes my work different. It is the collective gathering of ideas and the particular voice and spin I give it. So maybe the question should be “What topics and themes am I drawn to?” As I consider the many nonfiction topics I’ve tackled, it’s interesting to observe themes that have emerged organically from each. A reader might correctly assume that I root for underdogs and cheer at success-against-all-odds tales (STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY. Lee and Low, spring 2015.) I like real, fallible people who acknowledge and evolve from their mistakes. (EN GARDE! THE DUELING WORDS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Peachtree, 2016.) I like characters who have the gumption to do what others think is impossible. (Stay tuned.) I cheer for strong women who break through gender barriers. (One newly on submission. Another awaiting first draft.) I like learning about the personal side to historical figures. (old project waiting to be re-visited.) I like people with such conviction, they’re willing to risk their lives to do what’s right. (my old magazine article begging to be a book.)
How does my work differ? I don’t know. I’m not sure that can be answered until I’m at the end of my writing career. Let’s hope that’s a long time from now.
Why do I write what I write?
Much of the answer to this can be found in the previous question, I think. Every year, I promise myself that I will begin my novel and tackle the fiction picture books that I have dabbled with. But, I can’t seem to drag myself away from nonfiction. I love true stories. I like the sense of wonderment and awe when I learn something remarkable. People are fascinating, complicated creatures built by life experiences and dreams. Historical subjects are doubly interesting because there’s an element of detective work and puzzle-solving to realize their stories. What fun! Sometimes, I think I’m drawn to biographies because it’s a way to put logic and order to the human experience which, while we’re living life, is chaotic and disorderly. We learn from the past.
How does my individual writing process work?
People often ask where I get my ideas, which is the first step in any writing process. Ideas come from everywhere. I once wrote a magazine article about fainting goats, after catching a news segment on a local television station. Sometimes, ideas come from snippets or blips or the merest mention in newspapers or magazines or documentaries. Sometimes, it’s a curiosity that sends me to Google. Not all ideas stick. But, when a topic nags me, when I can’t stop the “gee, I wonder…” inner dialog, I know it’s one I must pursue. Something about the topic must hit a nerve with me.
My research begins online, then on to books. I begin to horde copies of newspaper clippings from the day and I’ll even buy a copy of full newspapers if any still exist. It’s an ideal way to gauge what was happening in the community and the world around my subject. If the idea still has me fascinated, I’ll contact any known experts. By now, I have research files on my computer desktop and desk drawer where I deposit photos, newspaper and other articles, historical details, world events, copies of pages from books, etc. Without fail, the folder morphs into a bulging 4″ binder where print documents are cataloged chronologically. Timelines, details and sequences are categorized. Early on, I begin what I call my source notes document that is also broken into categories. From the massive amount of research I do, I extract important (to me) information and implant them into my source notes. Each source is cited on the document, for easy recall. My single-spaced source notes for a picture book biography can easily grow to 50 pages long. The categories grow and, eventually, a theme emerges. When I begin coming across the same information over and over, I know it’s time to stop researching and start writing.
Information at hand, I outline over and over and over again, keeping an eye on a narrative arc. One of the most difficult decisions about writing picture book biographies is where to begin and end the story. I write, rewrite, scrap the outline, begin again. The last thing I do is pick at my word choices and finesse the voice. Ideally, each story will have it’s own voice, appropriate to the topic. I send this umpteenth draft on to my agent and cross my fingers. But there’s no time for a break. By then, another topic is nagging at me, begging to be a book.
Mark your calendars for next week, May 5th when author Carmen Oliver and author/illustrator Shelley Ann Jackson will share their own writing processes on their individual blogs.
Carmen Oliver, originally from Canada, is a former Assistant Regional Advisor of Austin SCBWI. She writes fiction and nonfiction picture books and middle grade novels and is represented by Erzsi Deak of Hen and Ink: A Literary Studio. Carmen has a special affinity for adorable picture books. I don’t doubt we’ll hear about sales of her books very soon. Carmen’s blog can be found here.
Shelley Ann Jackson is the current Assistant Regional Advisor for Austin SCBWI while also teaching illustration at Texas State University. Shelley and her husband, Jeff Crosby, co-illustrated the newly released TEN TEXAS BABIES by David Davis (Pelican, 2014) as well as UPON SECRECY by Selene Castrovilla (Calkins Creek, 2009.) She co-authored and co-illustrated HARNESS HORSES, BUCKING BRONCOS & PIT PONIES (Tundra Books, 2011,) and LITTLE LIONS, BULL BAITERS & HUNTING HOUNDS (Tundra Books, 2008.) Shelley’s blog can be found here.