Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Writing in Tea Rooms and Coffee Shops

Though I lived in London a few years ago and had intended to visit Scotland, I never made the trip. I wish I could travel to Edinburgh now to see the red-fronted Elephant House Tea and Coffee Shop where J.K. Rowling wrote part of Harry Potter. I recently checked out the coffee shop’s website and apparently J.K.’s table is in a light and airy back room with large windows and a view of Edinburgh Castle.

Reading about Elephant House has gotten me thinking on the possible merits of coffee shop writing. I’ve heard your favorite coffee shop can be a place where you can really focus on your writing, and wonder if the buzz of noise and the surrounding crowds help in some inexplicable way. Is the handy prepared-by-someone-else and instantly-available food and drink helpful? Is the anonymity useful? I do find working at home involves the necessity to block out of all kinds of distractions. I’ve actually found it rather annoying going into a favorite Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and finding it full of people staring at laptops. They obviously won’t be leaving any time soon, and I won’t be finding a table at all. In a coffee shop I’d be one of those rare beings writing in longhand. Wouldn’t I feel guilty sitting at my table, lingering over my writing and an occasional cup of tea?

So that leads me to the etiquette of coffee shop writing. I think not lingering during mealtimes, or if there aren’t many tables available, would be the most important rule. Mid-morning and mid-afternoon must be the best times. Continuing to buy drinks or snacks every hour or so would make you a legitimate patron, but could be costly and make you fat.

So if I decided to try coffee shop writing, what would I look for? Coziness, ambience, good lighting, low noise level and inexpensive prices. And an absence of cell phones. And computers. For me, tea room/coffee shop evokes an earlier, more relaxed, non-technical time and a place people went to talk (not text) and to write (not type or compute). I’ve been thinking of getting back to a novel I had put aside to concentrate on picture books. So l might go looking for a retro tea/coffee house -- any suggestions?  A view of a castle would be nice......

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Congratulations – with a Nod to Cats on Wednesday

Today I am happy to announce the winner of our drawing for a copy of Mara Price’s new book, Grandma’s Chocolate. I decided to use a cat pitcher instead of a hat, in honor of my usual Cats on Wednesday post.

Thanks to all the visitors and commenters who stopped by on Mara's Virtual Book Tour.

And congratulations to Sarah Wones Tomp. Sarah, please send your mailing address and your book will be sent to you!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Writer to Writer -- Michele Dominguez Greene

The November Writer to Writer speaker was Michele Dominguez Greene, actress and author of the YA novel Keep Sweet. Her book is the story of a young woman in the controlling, confining religious community Pineridge, where she lives with her father, his seven wives and her 28 siblings.

Michele has had a long successful career in TV, film and theater. She also teaches writing workshops and she gave us some great tips to help us make our characters come to life. Michele has learned to create 'triggers' to make her acting believable, and has found this skill useful in her writing as well.

Some writing tips from Michele:

About sensory detail:  think about establishing an atmosphere in the setting of your story. Describe a room – the lighting, the warm wood, the hum of white noise for instance. Visuals, sounds, the feel of your surroundings can set a tone in your writing. What’s the physical environment for your characters? Create an evocative world to suit their wants and needs. This will make their world real.

About description:  don’t over-describe. The old ‘show, don’t tell’ is still true. One example of tying into a particular dramatic scene is to use the description of the familiar to evoke emotion, to contrast with a sudden shock, for instance. Describe familiar surroundings, then pare them down to the essentials for maximum impact in setting a powerful emotional moment. Little details can add depth to a story.

About triggers:  Use smells to trigger reactions in the characters. What smells would make your characters anxious, relaxed, or sad? What could evoke memories, and why? Plan triggers for sight, smell and taste as well as certain trigger phrases for each of your characters. Develop a handful of key things that carry through the story. It’s important that your character not do something 'out of character' without having established a reason.

I felt I’d had a helpful mini writing course in this short Writer to Writer meeting and am looking forward to reading Keep Sweet. If Michele writes as she speaks, it will be a great book.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Blog Tour for Grandma’s Chocolate – Interview with Mara Price

Today I’m happy to be hosting day 4 of Mara Price’s virtual book tour for her bilingual picture book, Grandma’s Chocolate. Illustrated by Lisa Fields and published by Pinata BooksGrandma’s Chocolate tells of a beloved Grandmother’s visit and her stories about the chocolate she and her granddaughter enjoy sharing.

Thanks, Mara, for answering some questions and letting us get to know you.

1. What was the inspiration behind Grandma’s Chocolate?

Thank you for asking this question. It brings me back to the smells and flavors of hot chocolate and evokes happy memories of growing up in Mexico with my grandmother. We drank chocolate every day, on special occasions and whenever we had company. We made different drinks of chocolate in winter like champurrado and atole to warm us up. Chocolate is also a central ingredient of mole, my favorite food.

Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by history. I learned that pre-Columbian cultures in Mexico were the first to use many things we take for granted today, including chocolate. Thus, chocolate and my cultural heritage became the vehicles to tell this story of the love between a little girl and her grandmother.

2. Did you write and/or draw as a child? If not, when did you begin?

I wrote poems as a child. Rhyming words was a game that I liked to play.

My grandmother and I had a lot of games with words. I remember making little silly stories in Spanish where all the words would start with A and the next person tried the same. The longest story and the one that made most sense won. The stories were often funny and we laughed a lot. We played this game using many letters of the alphabet. It was a nice way to enrich my vocabulary.

I have also liked to draw since I was very little. I remember often drawing a house with tile roof and prickly pear cactus with red fruits. Sometimes I would draw the same house with tulips in the garden. I often enjoyed drawing dolls and fashion clothing, as well.

3. What is the best advice you have been given about being a writer?

Less is more; keep it simple.

4. Do you write for other formats?

I have done a little bit of everything. My first stories and illustrations were published by Iguana children’s magazine, in Spanish. I had the honor of doing an interview of the late Bill Melendez, the award winning Mexican animator, at his studio in Sherman Oaks, California. Iguana has kindly continued to accept my stories and drawings.

I have been a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) since 2001 and I submit articles and illustrations to the SCBWI Newsletter.

Los Bloguitos is a bilingual blog for children who speak and read Spanish. Among the pieces I contributed was a biography of Picasso. I wrote El Corrido de Los Bloguitos, a ballad in Spanish.

5. What books influenced you most when you were growing up? Were you an avid reader?

My mother would read to me about the Olmecs, Mayas and Aztecs. As long as I can remember I have been fascinated by pre-Columbian civilizations.

I remember walking with my grandmother to the second-hand bookstore where we got "new" books in exchange for ones we had read. I loved Jules Verne. I also liked comic books! To be honest, I never actually saw a children's picture book when I was growing up.

6. Are you working on a new project?

Yes, I am working on new projects for children's books and magazines. I'm looking forward to finishing a series of little illustrated poems for Iguana.

Diane, thank you for the excellent questions. It was fun visiting with you.

Mara Price

Follow the rest of Mara Price's virtual book tour for Grandma's Chocolate/El chocolate de Abuelita, listed below. And please leave your comments – there will be a book giveaway at each stop on the tour. At least four comments are needed to be eligible for Mara’s giveaway. Good luck!

Friday, November 19
Latin Baby Book Club
Book giveaway
By Monica Olivera Hazelton

Monday, November 22
Writing a History-based Fiction Story for Children
By Adriana Dominguez

Check out Mara’s schedule or find more information about her at her website.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ventura/Santa Barbara Writers Day -- A Conference Groupie's Lucky Day

I was one of the spotlight speakers at the Ventura/Santa Barbara SCBWI Writers Day, so rather than doing Cats on Wednesday I decided I would post my speech. When I wrote it I hoped to encourage others who are having a long journey to publication. After I spoke several writers told me they had related to my story and were encouraged, as well. So here it is:

At the time I moved to Hollywood from Texas as a child, we thought the movie business was glamorous. One of my Texas cousins visiting us was more than a little serious in her desire to be “discovered” by a movie producer. We all knew the old lore about starlets being discovered at Schwab’s drugstore and becoming famous movie stars.

It occurred recently to me that the big SCBWI Conference every year is to aspiring children’s book writers and illustrators a bit like Schwab’s was to those starlets—the brass ring, the chance to be discovered, and whatever that might mean in the publishing world. It’s a chance to be a J.K. Rowling, instead of Lana Turner or Angelina Jolie.

I was fortunate in my family who were always supportive of my intention to be an artist, like my mother, and to write books.

My oldest sister taught me to read before I started school. She shared her favorite books and poetry and they became my favorites too.

The three of us enthusiastically wrote plays and acted in them, and wrote and illustrated various editions of a family newspaper that was full of gossipy news. Then we decided to jointly write a science fiction novel and though we abandoned it rather quickly it had a rollicking start with us each collaborating on our ideas.

I belonged to a creative writing club at the library and the librarian who started the club was a published children’s author. She was my first mentor.

My life has always been involved with art. My first art teacher was my mother who was a talented successful artist as well as a wonderful mother and role model. We moved to California for her career and because my sister wanted to go to Art Center.

I grew up and went to Art Center and became an illustrator, graphic designer and painter and eventually decided it was time to follow my early dream of writing and illustrating children’s books.

While studying with Uri Shulevitz in New York State I first found out about SCBW (they hadn’t added the “I” yet) – back here in California. At my first summer conference I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was where all my questions were answered---I had found my people!

After years of attending the conferences I still find them enjoyable. I continue to learn something new at each one. After that first conference I continued writing, editing and having my work critiqued. I wanted my work to be truly ready, so I didn’t submit any of my manuscripts.

But then my mother had a stroke and other health problems and I chose to be her caregiver. I wrote and painted as I could and continued to attend conferences. I was beginning to feel I had become a Conference 'groupie' because I had been attending for such a long time.

Still I didn’t submit my work, because I felt if I sold a manuscript my situation would make it too difficult to follow through with the project.

I won a Los Angeles Writers Day picture book contest with the manuscript that would later become my first book, though it would be years before it would be submitted.

Years earlier I had seen – and never forgotten – a PBS documentary called “Anonymous was a Woman”. It was about the many unknown women folk artists of 18th and 19th century America whose work was rarely credited or lauded. The film inspired me to write my book about a fictional young girl painter in 1830’s America who pursues her dreams of being an artist and finds a way to sign her name to her work, when everyone says she shouldn’t.

Growing up I rarely heard of women artists – women as accomplished as the famous male artists. Times have changed, and today there are plenty of books on women’s accomplishments, but I still think it’s good to encourage girls – and boys – to have a strong sense of self-worth.

After I lost my mother, it took me a while to recover.

And then my lucky day happened. It was at the 2008 summer conference that my dummy and sample illustrations for Signed, Abiah Rose came to the attention of Abigail Samoun of Tricycle Press.

It had happened!—Just like Lana Turner at Schwab’s Drugstore! I was discovered! Only for me it was at a Portfolio Display in Century City. By then I had lost my starlet good looks after waiting so many years to be a glamorous overnight sensation but the dream of all of us conference groupie starlets had happened to me!

My book Signed Abiah Rose was released in June. Booklist gave it a starred review and named it to their Top 10 List of Historical Titles for Youth.

I am lucky, even though luck for all of us usually involves what my heroine Abiah Rose has, and I have tried to have—determination, belief in yourself, patience and hard work.

If there is someone here today who feels they’ve been wanting for a long time to be published and is getting discouraged, maybe knowing of my long road to publication will be helpful.

And while I wasn’t trying to give a message with Signed Abiah Rose -- I wanted to tell an entertaining story – I hope children will be encouraged by it to follow their dreams.

Of course, having one book isn’t stardom. All those qualities it took to get published have to continue and to grow. I intend to keep being a conference groupie and hopefully to have many more lucky days.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ventura/Santa Barbara Writers Day -- Spotlight Speeches

I attended the yearly Ventura/Santa Barbara Writers Day event Saturday and found it excellent, as usual. The program was informative and interesting, as well as fun. I was honored to be asked by the fabulous Regional Advisor and organizer of the event, Alexis O’Neill, to give one of the spotlight speeches. Each year first-time authors are invited to speak about their road to publication. The other spotlight speakers were Ian Fraser (and Mary Ann Fraser), Sarah Lynn and Candace Ryan. Catherine Linka also gave a spotlight talk on dystopian fiction – what it is and why we relate to it.

Ian Fraser, along with his illustrator mother (the much-published author/illustrator of over 60 books) created Ogg and Bob: Meet Mammoth and Ogg and Bob: Life with Mammoth. Their joint talk, “Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones – or Get You a Story”, was about Ian’s childhood story of two prehistoric friends and how it progressed to a high school project and finally to publication of two books – and he’s still in college! He’s studying engineering, but we hope he’ll write more books!

Sarah Lynn's topic was “Write Two Books and Call Me in the Morning”. She told of her journey to the publication of her book, Tip-Tap Pop. It's a touching and heart-warming story of a little girl and the grandfather who taught her to dance and what happens when he begins to lose his memory of their dance steps. Sarah is also the author of the very charming iStory Frankie and the Big Squish.

Candace Ryan's fun and lively presentation “Word Herding 101: How to Tend a Flock of Words for Fun and Profit” was a good complement to her wildly imaginative book, Animal House. It’s about Jeremy and his difficulty convincing his teacher how unusual his house and furniture are, done with clever play on words throughout. It was a fun and creative presentation – lots of clever visuals and witty ‘word-herding’.

Catherine Linka, of Flintridge Book Store, also spoke. She is the excellent coordinator of Writer2Writer, which meets monthly at the book store, and a writer herself of dystopian fiction. She knows her subject, and “Dystopian Fiction: The End of the World as We Know It” was a much-appreciated overview of the genre: set on earth, in the near or distant future, in a familiar world but one that has been forever changed by a pandemic, technology, war or other disasters. She pointed out to us that we have more than likely all read dystopians without realizing – such as 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. A fascinating talk.

My own talk, “A Conference Groupie’s Lucky Day”, told of my journey to the publication of Signed, Abiah Rose. More about it tomorrow.