Well, hello friends! I am full of excitement because the National Book Festival is just around the corner. This means that the extremely lovely folks from the Texas Center for the Book will be giving out copies of my book, Wish Girl, in the States’ Pavilion, along with packets of Texas wildflower seeds.
To kick off a year of fun Texas reading and writing, the Center made this video of me! They are responsible for it looking and sounding incredibly professional. I am responsible for the weird, squeaky voice and the chicken-wing hair.
Hi, friends! I was going through my blog today, cleaning up pages, adding things – awards! audio clips! exclamation points!!! – and I realized I totally forgot to share some really, really big news here.
What I neglected to mention was that the Texas Center for the Book also selected Wish Girl to represent the state of Texas at the National Book Festival.
Yes. My book will be the “Great Read for Texas” in Washington, D.C this fall, at the festival put on by the Library of Congress. I was so overwhelmed when I got the call, I cried. I can’t think of a more significant way to share my “love letter to Texas” with the whole country.
So, yes. I shared that news on Facebook and Twitter, but forgot to record it for posterity here!
And now, before I forget again (did I tell you I’m writing a new book? I forget a LOT when I’m drafting), I’d also like to share an event where you can find me and eleven other amazing Texas authors on October 1, in Lockhart, Texas. I hope you can come!
Years ago, when I came to one of my very first SCBWI meetings in Austin (long before I had a finished book), I met a group of talented writers, some of whom became critique buddies and friends. One of those was Laura Jennings, whose skill as an artist and writer impressed me immensely! (She had to draw doodles for my kids at many of those first meet-ups. And when I say kids, I mean me, since these doodles are still hanging next to my writing desk.)
Beginning today, Laura is launching a Kickstarter to self-publish her fully-illustrated, full color book, The Mark of the Conifer, in multiple formats. She’s worked for seven years on the research, writing, and illustrating of this fascinating story, a dinosaur fantasy epic in the vein of Watership Down. If you’d like to support the Kickstarter, click here!
And now let’s go into the process with Laura Jennings:
What was your writing process for this book?
Well, the book took seven years to write, so I had a few false starts. I think both times I got about fifty or a hundred pages in and froze up. Once I stopped thinking about the story as a dinosaur story, and started thinking of it in terms of an epic fantasy, things got a lot easier. The characters were dinosaurs, but they started falling neatly into epic fantasy archetypes: the heroic knight, the rebellious princess, the bard, the evil chancellor, and so on. The story adheres to a fairly typical high fantasy plot, but I hope the world-building and unique characters kind of obscures that and makes it unique.
I know you are an artist. Did you use your artistic skills to help you visualize your characters?
Yes and no, in a weird kind of way. Even though I’m a huge dinosaur buff, the characters actually BEING dinosaurs was hard to write. Mostly because I wanted to strike a balance between the characters being animalistic, as opposed to just humans in dinosaur skins, but then that ran the risk of making things too emotionally distant to the reader. I constantly agonized over “Who is going to care about these things?” until I did a small 10 page comic that encapsulated the big emotional concerns of the main character’s family. And I got a huge response from the online community, and that alleviated a lot of my concerns. It made me realize that even simple concerns can hold huge weight for a reader if you do it right.
At the same time, going back to me being a dinosaur buff, even I can’t visualize “He was a ceratopsian. She was an Acrocanthosaurus. A member of Thyreophora appeared.” I worked on creating dinosaur-species language that was accessible to the average reader, like The Land Before Time with “long-necks” and “spike-tails”. And that was why I wanted things to be illustrated, because I knew people needed “Oh, THAT’S what they look like!” And for me, that’s why I love having art as part of my work, because I have that moment, too, the very first time I draw a character. “Oh, hey, THAT’S what they look like!”
Did you do research for it?
Oh, definitely. I was originally inspired to do the story because I went to the Utah Museum of Prehistoric Life in Salt Lake City in 2007. I saw real dinosaur bones for the first time in my life, even though I’d been in love with dinosaurs as a kid. It was breath-taking. I touched the actual vertebrae of a Diplodocus, a Jurassic sauropod. So the actual, real remains of something one hundred and forty-five million years old! I was so excited. But I had about a 15 year gap in my dinosaur knowledge. All my books were from the early 90s.
All the science had changed. Certain dinosaurs had been confirmed to have feathers. They’d found soft tissue of dinosaurs, been able to chemically map out colors, done CT scans of dinosaur braincases, found pregnant specimens. And even the atmosphere was basically a totally different planet: you had a much higher carbon and oxygen rate, which allowed these creatures to get huge. The Earth was actually in the prime of its life during the time of the dinosaurs, and as it’s aged we’ve lost a very high oxygen content, which is why things are smaller today.
So yes. So much research. And I loved every minute of it.
In your research, did you discover anything that surprised you?
Paleontologists do not like to talk to you if you are not 8 years old. And that really surprised me. Because I’d been in grade school, and I’d written a paleontologist on the back of my spelling paper. And he wrote me back! And was like “You can totally be a paleontologist when you grow up!”
So fast forward some twenty-odd years later, and I couldn’t get people to give me the time of day. The one guy that actually spoke to me was the curator at the Utah Museum of Prehistoric Life. I offered to do some scientific illustrations for some college students, even, and no dice. I attended a lecture, and I had emailed this lady again and again about dinosaur questions, and it turned out the speaker was her! And then we talked, and she was like “Hey, have you been emailing me!?” And I was like “Uh, noooooo! No! Definitely not me!”
I also don’t think dinosaurs are taken very seriously in a scientific sense. When I was looking for updated books during my research, I went to a Barnes and Noble. And I asked the help desk for dinosaur books, and the lady made her hands into little T. rex claws and went “Raarr!” And I kind of stared at her, and then she started leading me towards the kid’s section! And I said “No, I mean scientific publications.” And she says “We don’t have that kind of thing here.”
So when I hear people say “Dinosaurs are for kids” I want to say something like “Really? Do you think the Coelurosaurian properties of the Tyrannosaurid clade means that their sister genus of Carcharodontosaurid possessed protofeathers?”
Tell us a little more about the nuts and bolts of self-publishing.
Self-publishing is so easy compared to the traditional route, but you have so much more responsibility to make the book the best you can. You don’t have an agent or a publisher holding your hand or quality-checking you, which is both freeing and intimidating. I’m still trying for traditional publication; this book went through two round of rewrites and queries over about two years, and everyone kind of said “You’re a very good writer. We have no market for this.” Add the stigma of being illustrated YA, and on and on. You have to do your legwork, but I think the Internet makes it a lot easier to find your markets. Everyone has their bubbles. If you go to a dinosaur toy forum, dinosaur toys with scientific accuracy are the axis upon which the world turns for those people. It’s not hard to pitch anything dinosaur related to them, but you have to know the thing even exists in the first place.
A lot of things the traditional publisher takes care of, like editing and formatting, you end up having to pay for, which is why I started the Kickstarter. Those things are so critical to a good, readable book you don’t want to leave it to chance or amateurs. And I know a lot of people do, which is a real pitfall for self-publishing.
If I had to give advice to anyone about self-publishing, it would be to get critiqued and get critiqued hard. You can hear it from people who care about your writing, or you can hear it from angry Amazon and Goodreads reviewers, and there’s no question about who will be nicer.
What was fun?
Using my art as an excuse to buy a whole bunch of dinosaur models for reference was pretty nice.
What was most challenging?
Oh, man. The art. Hands down, the art. I was painting for months. But once I really realized this was happening and had to get in gear, all the shoulder demons kind of got blown away by “GET THIS DONE.” Traditional publishing gives you that validation because you have someone else saying “This is good enough.” You don’t have anymore room for doubt or “Is this good enough?” when it comes to self-publishing, and a Kickstarter deadline. Giving in to doubt tanks the project, and if you want other people to put money up, you can’t have them doubting you, too.
Also attempting to pitch “It’s scientifically accurate dinosaur fantasy for YA, no wait hear me out” was about as much fun as you’d think it’d be.
Is there anything you would do differently the next time?
Probably space my art out a little more, and have a bit more structure to it. I knew I was taking a plunge by doing a Kickstarter, but that I’d learn a lot. I still have a lot to learn before everything is over, and I look forward to applying it to my next book.
What project are you working on next?
I intend to query for a historical fiction book, set during Constantine the Great’s last war and told from the POV of a herding dog. And I also have a YA Western-themed steampunk/magicpunk book that needs rewrites before querying. And I have another steampunk with dinosaur riders in the works, naturally.
Share three authors from whom you drew inspiration/authors whose work encouraged you to write a genre-mixing novel!
I definitely drew inspiration from James Gurney, the author and artist of Dinotopia. The man has been my idol, I adore his work, and to be able to do something so similar to him but uniquely mine makes my inner child squee. I also liked Raptor Red by Robert Bakker, who is a world-renowned paleontologist, and wrote a book with dinosaurs that were emotional but animalistic. And Clare Bell wrote The Named series (Ratha’s Creature, Clan Ground, Ratha and Thistle-Chaser, and Ratha’s Courage) about prehistoric cats called nimravids (!!!) who are sentient and struggling with their power and loneliness. Definitely not a usual kind of book.
I have to admit, MY inner child is squeeing right along with Laura’s! I can’t wait to see this book in finished form. I know it’ll be unique, amazing, and the art will knock everybody’s socks off! Thanks, Laura, and good luck!
When I was a kid, I loved books more than almost anything. They filled my waking moments, and shaped the person I was to become. I read constantly, obsessively, so much so that when I got in trouble, I was grounded from BOOKS.
What’s changed? Well, not my love of reading! But now that I’m an author, I have been on the receiving end of some of the most glorious, heart-breaking, truth-filled and touching letters from young readers, telling me how my books have shaped their lives. It’s one of the great gifts of writing, and I am so grateful for every reader who reaches out.
And now I’m grateful to have a small part in promoting the Letters About Literature program, hosted by the Texas Center for the Book and the Library of Congress. Books have the power to change lives, and this contest for young readers might change the life of someone you know as well… if you share it with the teachers, librarians, and kids you know.
I hope you will share this contest with every kid and teacher you know! (And if you read one of my books, and write to me? I promise to write back… and I promise you will be the reason for my smiles that day. Happy reading!)
I am utterly delighted to welcome to my blog today my friend, fellow Texas Sweetheart, and debut Middle Grade author, Christina Soontornvat. I had the great pleasure of reading her novel, The Changelings, long before the incredibly clever folks at Sourcebooks snapped it up. I love this book so much, I blurbed it!
“The Changelings is charming! Perfect for readers who love stories full of magic, adventure, mystery and fairies, topped off with a satisfying and very happy ending. Soontornvat’s debut sparkles and delights!” –Nikki Loftin, author of The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy
Here’s a quick description of Christina’s amazing debut:
All Izzy wants is for something interesting to happen in her sleepy little town. But her wish becomes all too real when an enchanting song floats through the woods and lures her little sister Hen into the forest…where she vanishes.
A frantic search leads to a strange hole in the ground that Izzy enters. But on the other side she discovers that the hole was not a hole, this place is not Earth, and Hen is not lost. She’s been stolen away to the land of Faerie, and it’s up to Izzy to bring her home.
But inside Faerie, trouble is brewing—and Izzy is in way over her head. A ragtag group of outlaw Changelings offers to help, and she must decide whether a boulder that comes to life, a girl that’s not quite solid, and a boy who is also a stag can help her save Hen before it’s too late.
You and every kid you know is going to want this book. But it’s not on sale until September 6! Fortunately for you, Dear Readers, I have a signed copy of an ARC ready to mail out to one of you. So read on, leave a comment with your email address, and in two weeks, on August 28, at midnight CST, a fairy will appear in my computer to choose a randomly selected winner… whose reading life will be Changed forever.
It’s such a thrill to be guest posting on this blog. Nikki Loftin has been my publishing sensei, my own Mr. Miyagi (if Mr. Miyagi was an adorable brunette with a wicked dry sense of humor). Nikki asked me if I’d like to write about my process, or my publishing journey, or craft. And so I’m going to mash it all together and tell you how I go about writing first drafts.
When I first started writing down the words that would eventually become THE CHANGELINGS, I didn’t imagine that I would ever publish a novel. I was an engineer. I worked at a science museum. I loved to read, but I had never studied literature beyond what was mandatory in school. I loved to tell stories, but I had never written any of them down.
But then I became an aunt. Aunties are special. They play fun games. They give candy on the sly. And they tell good bedtime stories.
THE CHANGELINGS started as a story for my two nieces. The first time I told it to them, they were 5 and 3 years old. I remember that they were both sitting on my lap near the Christmas tree, when I began: “Once upon a time, there were two sisters who loved each other very much. One day, the little sister disappeared into the woods and no one could find her…” My youngest niece cried. Her big sister told her to go to bed, and begged me to keep telling the story.
Sadly, we live across the country from each other, so in order to keep the story going, I had to write it down and send it in the mail. They were little, so I didn’t send them too much at one time – 8 pages, maybe 10. And because they were so little, I didn’t want to make them wait too long between letters. So I tried to send them a little bit more of the story each week. It wasn’t until months later, when I had sent my last letter, that I realized what I’d done.
I had drafted a novel.
I would never have done anything with it if I hadn’t happened to be in a work meeting, talking to a Chemist named Brian Anderson, who also happened to be an Austin kidlit author. Brian told me to come to an SCBWI meeting. I pretty much owe everything to Brian. My publishing journey is pretty average: 8 years of rewriting, revising, workshopping, querying, revising, rejections, acceptance, revising, submissions, rejections, revising, submissions, book deal. Piece. Of. Cake.
We sold THE CHANGELINGS as a 2-book deal, with the second book a sequel to the first. When I signed my contract, I already had an outline for a sequel, so I wasn’t worried about writing the next book. But when I sat down to draft, I got nowhere. Writer’s block, sophomore slump, burnout, whatever. I was totally stuck.
I tried my first approach: writing a bit of the story in a letter for my nieces. But I didn’t even have enough material to send them. I did NanoWriMo, but a cruddy manuscript doesn’t get less cruddy just because you type it out faster.
This rut went on for a month. By this time, I had children of my own. One morning on the way to school, my 5 year old said, “Mommy, tell me the story you’re writing.” And so in fits and starts, one scene at a time, I started telling her what happens in Book 2.
I learned that something amazing happens when I tell a story out loud. My brain creates details, characters, plot points right there, on the spot. They come out of nowhere. The less I worry about which words are coming out of my mouth, the faster they come. Something that’s impossible to achieve when it’s just me and my laptop alone in a room, becomes easier when someone else is listening.
Getting the first draft down on paper is the hardest part of the writing process for me. There are endless ways a story can go – or go wrong. Every few pages I want to give up because that first draft is so god-awful that it’s difficult to see how it could ever be molded into something worthwhile. But every time I’ve told a story to my nieces, or my daughter, or her friends, they don’t notice the flaws. They want me to keep going. They whine when I stop. “Just tell us what happens next. Please?”
I used this same storytelling technique to draft another middle grade novel, separate from THE CHANGELINGS series. And I’m now working on a fourth, telling both my daughters the story on the way to and from summer camp. I don’t just tell my own stories, either. I tell fairytales and myths. I retell books (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and kids’ movies (The Goonies). I’ve learned so much about pacing and suspense from telling children classic tales and watching their reactions.
We’ve all heard editors and agents say: “Don’t tell me you tried this book out on your kids (or any kids, for that matter), and they loved it”. I know what they mean. Children can’t and shouldn’t serve as your critique partners. And this drafting method of mine doesn’t mean I get to skip the agonizing hours of butt-in-chair time, writing and rewriting. But at least it gives me something to start with.
And on my really low days – which all writers have, lucky us – sometimes the only thing that keeps me going is the image of my daughter or my nieces, eyes wide, listening, waiting to learn what happens next.
Isn’t she lovely? To win a signed ARC of The Changelings and “find you what happens next,” leave a blog comment below (with a valid email address), and wait for the Blog Giveaway Fairy to contact you!
Happy August, friends! I’m a Texas girl, so I AM happy. I love the heat – even in August. 100+ degrees? I’m cool with that. (Especially since Central Texas has some of the best watering holes around – close enough for me to take a dip.)
Hamilton Pool, photo courtesy of my amazing photographer husband, Dave Wilson. Totally copyrighted. Don’t steal it. Only I am allowed. 🙂
I’ve been reading through my TBR pile. Well, “pile” isn’t really apt. It’s shelves upon shelves of books I have purchased or been given, every one of which I have been told by people I know and trust is a Worthwhile Read. Almost all of them are MG, YA, or adult nonfiction. (Research FTW!)
The TBR tower is simultaneously a thing of great delight… and terror. How will I ever get through all those books? How will I resist buying even more before I read the ones I already have? (Spoiler: I won’t. I am addicted to buying books.) And most importantly… will I LOVE the books I read next?
Last week, the answer was a resounding YES three times in a row. And so, without giving spoilers – because I might not have chosen these three if I had known what the subject matter in each was, precisely – I found three new, amazing MG reads.
Trust me: Move these to the tippy top of your TBR tower! You’ll thank me.
Swing Sideways by Nanci Turner Steveson
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
The War That Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Happy summer to you, friends! I’ve been mostly AWOL here, because I’ve been vacationing (yes, living Real Life! In Santa Fe and other lovely places) and finishing a draft of what I hope will be my next novel. Which means I’ve been crying a lot, and revising a lot, and trying to keep all the new and old plot threads straight in my head. Brain fog time!
And then, today, out of the blue, came a happy email! Last year, my book Nightingale’s Nest won the Writer’s League of Texas MG/YA book award. This year, I was overjoyed to be selected as a finalist… and to wish the very warmest of congratulations to Jackie Kelly, who won for her glorious The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate.
It’s a real honor to have my Wish Girl sitting alongside my friend K. A. Holt’s heart book, House Arrest, and Brian Yansky‘s Utopia, Iowa, and Margo Rabb’s Kissing in America… and so many more.
Need some new books for your end-of-summer reading slump? Any of these will knock your socks off!
Thank you again to the Writers’ League of Texas for the recognition, and for supporting Texas authors in so many ways. You rock!
Hi, y’all! I know writers and readers from all over check in here from time to time, but this post is particularly for my local Central Texas writers. I am teaching three FREE writing workshops in the next few weeks, and I’d love for you to join me!
This Thursday, June 23 at 2 pm at the Dripping Springs Community Library, I will teach a NEW workshop on writing flash fiction. Kids in grades 6-8 are invited to Fast and Furious Fiction. I promise there will be gruesome, funny, and magical stories written at the speed of a candy wrapper! Um, and there will be some candy, too. Sign up here! Or just show up. 😉
On Thursday, June 30 at the Westbank Library in Austin, Texas, you can catch my Special Spiders workshop at 3 pm. Sign up here! This is for kids 1-6 grade. Sign up here!
Can’t make it to Westbank? On Thursday, July 7, 3-5 graders who live near/can get their parents to drive them to Dripping Springs can catch the Snowflakes and Spiders workshop at the Dripping Springs Library. Sign up is open here.
I hope some of you can make it! I promise it will be fun and funny and worth your time.