Monday, September 20, 2010

Meeting a Legend: Jane Yolen (Part 2) – BIC HOP

Jane’s day out
On September 10th, I had the pleasure and honour of escorting Jane Yolen around Dublin city centre. We went to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College, avoided a heavy rain shower and bought an umbrella in the gift shop. From there, we walked to Dublin Castle and wandered through the lovely garden of the Chester Beatty Library. After a tasty lunch in the café, we went upstairs to the see an exhibition of Persian illustrated texts called Muraqqa': Imperial Mughal Albums. It was amazing to compare and contrast these early 17th-century manuscripts with the 10th-century Irish manuscripts. Both were beautiful and compelling but completely different in style and subject matter. 

Declaring ourselves saturated by all we had seen, we stopped at Queen of Tarts, where I shamelessly waded through a mile-high lemon meringue tart while Jane virtuously enjoyed a cup of decaf tea. During that day, we talked of many things, including what she was working on, what I was working on, writing in general, the publishing market in Europe, who the other speakers were at the conference, and more personal topics dealing with aches and pains, family, friends, death, and grief.

It was a good day for enjoying the company of a down-to-earth, kind, intelligent, funny, prolific, and straight-shooting woman. Jane’s not afraid to say if she doesn’t like a book and why. With her keen eye and probing questions, she helped me to look at some stories in a different way, including one of my own ideas of having a young girl stow away in a bi-plane as part of an adventure.

I walked Jane back to her hotel via the Ha’Penny Bridge over the Liffey River. That evening, she joined me, Jane Mitchell of SCBWI and award-winning author of Chalkline, and Jennifer Jensen, another writer and SCBWI volunteer, for dinner. We had a wonderful evening chatting, sharing stories, and eating delightful and delicious food.

CBI/SCBWI Conference
Jane wasn’t scheduled to speak until Saturday afternoon at the CBI/SCBWI conference, Between the Lines, but she wanted to attend the other  workshops, so Jane M. and I met Jane at her hotel in the morning and walked down to the Luas, which took us to the venue in Tallaght. The train journey was full of teasing and talking. We were joined quite by coincidence by Judi Curtin, who was the first speaker of the day. I was basking in the reflected glory of these three talented authors all sitting around me. Sigh.

The conference was great, and it was nice to see so many familiar faces. There was a good selection of speakers including Keith Gray, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, and Adrienne Geoghegan, three editors, and two agents. The conference had the added attraction of individual critique sessions. I was quite pleased with the feedback I received from Síne Quinn on my story and spurred on to revise and send it out again. 

Now, you’re still wondering what the heck “BIC HOP” is. Jane gave two talks in the afternoon, the first session was for writers, while illustrators attended a session with Adrienne. 

Jane’s second talk was the closing speech of the day. In it, Jane focused on openings and endings. She said a good opening has to be planned well. She also said: “A good ending is inevitable and surprising.” 

When asked for advice on writing (or illustrating), Jane, who has published 300 books, said two things:
  • B.I.C. for Butt in Chair
  • H.O.P. for Heart on Page
She said a lot more than that and said it very well. She made us laugh, cry, think, and sigh, and left us inspired and filled with the joy of crafting and publishing books for children of all ages.

Thank you, Jane Yolen!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Trolling the Mind of a Writer: Ideas

When I meet new people, I either tell them: (a) I’m a technical writer, in which case I have to try to explain what that is in less than 100 words before their eyes glaze over; or (b) I just tell them I’m a writer.

If I give answer (b), then they usually ask “what kind of books do you write?”. If I say that I write for children, usually I get one of two responses, either: (c) “Oh.” as they sidle away to talk to someone more interesting; or (d) “Oh. You write picture books. Do you do the pictures as well?”.

After clarifying that I write for different age groups and that, while I have an art background, I am not a professional illustrator, if the person is still talking to me, then they might next ask “where do you get your ideas?”.

So I ramble on about Dandelion Dan, Thelma the singing dragon, Kacper and Ruby, and Charlie Skinner. I get pretty excited about my story ideas, so if left unchecked, I can rabbit on indefinitely.

But where do I get my ideas? Here’s a few examples.

I get inspiration from my own life, my own family, where I live. My brother is the subject of a couple of my book ideas, Dandelion Dan being one of them. This is the story of a boy who doesn’t wash behind his ears and ends up growing weeds off his head. Now of course, in real life, my brother never managed to grow anything off his head (in his night table, yes, perhaps even under his bed). But as I was washing my own ears one day, I thought back to our childhood and how our mother used to hector him to wash behind his ears. So, I was musing to myself, what if…?

I have two friends who have given me ideas for books based on their families. Flyball is based on the true-life adventures of a beautiful half-wild, 18-pound cat who’s full name is Flyball Flintabbatey Flonatin Pfeffernusse Foot-Furnace Boniface Brant. The book involves two very competitive brothers, summer softball games, and their mutual adoration of this cat.

TV and film and non-fiction
No, I’m not talking about copying an existing story. But sometimes, a detail will catch my interest. So I make notes, just in case, and file them away. I saw a documentary about an ancient continent called Lemeuria and scuba diving archeologists. How could I not be interested?

I especially like film scores but any kind of instrumental music can be good for setting a mood. I wrote 10 pages of notes for a medieval adventure while listening to Loreena McKennitt.

Fairy tales and legends
Terri Windling published a series of books of reworked fairy tales. I want to do a book like that. I have an idea for a story about Ch’i-Lin, one of the four mythical creatures in Chinese mythology. Being Canadian, I might do a story around Ogopogo, our version of Scotland’s Nessie.

Not "issues" in the way that makes people roll their eyes. Most people have personal stuff that they struggle with as they go through life, so I think there are some topics that have special significance to me that I want to tackle, such as self-esteem, depression, grief, courage, and volunteering (see, it’s not all negative and heavy). I worked in a nursing home when I was younger, so I have ideas for stories involving older people, one may be a murder mystery involving elder abuse, another could be a bit of a comedy called The Crusties’ Rebellion.

A Dragon Named Thelma came out of my love of dragons and my experience as a folk singer and a volunteer at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

Photos, newspapers, and magazines
Funnily enough, this series of ideas is a composite of a photo in a family album and two newspaper articles. My grandma had a photo of a guy with a bi-plane that was taken in the 1930s. The label on the photo said only Skinner. All I new about him was that he flew into the farm with my grandpa when he was courting my grandma, and she had a ride in that plane. I had an idea for a book based on stories about farm life that my grandma and her sisters had told me, Jessie’s Dream. I want to have Skinner and his plane in my story too. Very recently, I cleaned out a little painted suitcase full of papers that my grandma had saved. In it, I found a double-page newspaper spread from the 1980s about Charlie Skinner and his wife. There before me was a whole page of details and an idea for another book! Also in that suitcase, was an article about a very tall young man from the late 1800s called The Giant of Willowmount. That was a story title if ever I heard one. The interesting thing is that the giant and Charlie Skinner are from the same town! Now I have a trilogy of book ideas that are connected by Charlie Skinner. And it all started with a photo, a few family stories, and two articles.

Recording ideas
Like many dedicated (or slightly obsessive) writers, I always carry multiple pens with me. If I don’t actually have paper or sticky notes or a notebook handy, I will resort to paper napkins, menus, or anything else that will take an ink impression. I also send emails to myself or text messages. In desperation, I will even write notes on my own skin, to be transcribed and then washed off later. I have a folder on my computer and on my table. They are both brimming with ideas.

Somebody said “write what you know”, but I say “write what you wanna know” too!

Ideas are everywhere, you just have to be paying attention.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Meeting a Legend: Jane Yolen

Okay, I haven’t actually met her yet, but I will meet her in a couple of weeks when I give her a guided tour of a few select places in Dublin. I’m so excited!

Jane Yolen
Jane Yolen has been called the “American Hans Christian Andersen” and yet, I get blank looks when I mention her name in Ireland.

Jane’s first book, Pirates in Petticoats, was published when she was 24, and she has been writing books ever since. With over 300 books published, many of which have received awards and accolades, Jane is a busy writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, for both children and adults. She is also an editor, teacher, and song collector/writer. Wow! Three-hundred books, people! How is it possible she is not a household name?

I read Briar Rose in 1999, which is part of the Fairy Tale Series created by Terri Windling for Tor. I still talk about that book and remember it. I was deeply moved by Jane’s reworking of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale into a story set partly during the second world war. The sleeping beauty is a survivor of a gas chamber, rescued and brought back to life by a freedom fighter with the “kiss of life” (AR/CPR). It is a brilliant reworking and very thought-provoking.

Jane's How Do Dinosaurs… series for younger children is widely available and a lot of fun. (I just had to pick this cover!) I even found a boxed board-book edition online, which I think I will get for my niece.

I recently read her Writing Books for Children, which was revised in 1983. Many of the references are out of date in 2010, but with the quality and quantity of work Jane has produced, I thought it was worth listening to what she had to say. I look forward to reading Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft, published in 2006 by Writer's Digest Books. I think most writing reference books focus on technique, getting published, and how hard it all is. I like the idea of a book that reminds us to ENJOY writing, enjoy the process, enjoy exploring the limitless bounds of our imaginations!

Jane’s Sea Queens: Women Pirates Around the World will be published in November 2010. She seems to like pirates an awful lot!

Jane is presenting at the annual joint Children’s Books Ireland/SCBWI Ireland seminar, Between the Lines, on writing and illustrating books for children, which takes place on Saturday, September 11, 2010 in Dublin. For more information, visit CBI’s web site. I can hardly wait!

For more info about Jane Yolen and her work, visit