Friday, May 31, 2013

A Glimpse at my Process--Beginnings

My recent visit to the Montana prairie got me thinking about how an author organizes ideas and chooses what to include in a piece of writing and what can be left out.  Any new subject presents so many possibilities, and possibilities are what writers thrive on.  Each of us has her or his own ways of working through this process of considering alternatives and then focusing in on some topics while passing over others—here’s an example of mine.

I already have the main focus for my book, the life of bison on American Prairie Reserve (APR), a developing project that aims to protect a parcel of an ecosystem that once spread from north to south across the middle third of America.  Already, enough land is protected by APR so that the bison and other wildlife have a significant area to roam.  My book will focus on the life of one bison calf born there and will have sidebars featuring various aspects of the life of bison and their habitat.  What topics should I include and what can I pass over?  A 48-page book can only have so many words!

A lone bison bull on the American Prairie Reserve

While I bounce along in a sturdy four-wheeler with my driver and guide, Dennis Lingohr, my mind scans possible topics as my eyes scan the landscape.  Our vehicle climbs up a steep slope and heads down the other side, and I know there’s one point I’ll be sure to make—the prairie is far from being a rolling plain.  It is a wrinkled landscape, with hills and valleys, nooks and crannies, streams and ponds.  Some areas seem quite barren, while others are lush with spring grass. 

 Dennis explains how this variety of habitats reflects both the geological history of the area and the human usage of the land.  For example, glaciers scraped some of the land of its topsoil, while flood irrigation by ranchers created grassy swaths that provide good forage for the bison.  The landscape will play a major role in my book.
An alert prairie dog checks out the intruders

Penstemon on the prairie
We pass through a prairie dog town—the bison and the prairie dog are both key ingredients in a healthy prairie ecosystem, so I’ll be sure to include the prairie dog.  But what about the wildflowers?  They are beautiful and visually appealing, but do they play an important role in the life of the prairie itself?  Do the bison nibble on them or leave them alone?  I’ll need to find out.  Then there’s the weather—just this one day we are experiencing some of its variety.  The day starts out with broken clouds and a light breeze.  As we lunch sitting on an overlook, the sun peeks out, disappears, and comes out again.  The storm clouds gather in the distance, and I get nervous about the possibility of rain, which can make the roads impassable.

As I ponder my experience, my mind begins to make lists of possibilities.  I remind myself that the topics I include must spark the interest of  young people.  Luckily, my book is not a textbook that has to include certain facts.  It’s a collection of tidbits and stories that, taken together, will introduce this complex ecosystem from the viewpoint of its largest and most powerful inhabitant, the bison.  But before even one word is written, I must sort and balance, take on and discard, until I reach a point where I’m confident my book will both inform and inspire.

Now that I’m back home, where the streets are paved and the landscape is dotted with houses, I think back to my prairie experience of wildness and openness, lonesome landscape and companionable creatures, and I look forward to the challenge of organizing and presenting this quintessentially American animal and its complex habitat to young readers.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

An Hour with Benedict Arnold

About a week ago, in Williamsburg, Virginia, I the great pleasure of spending an hour with Benedict Arnold. Allow me to explain.

I was sitting outside the bookstore in the Colonial Williamsburg visitor’s center. This isn’t the ye olde part of Colonial Williamsburg, this is more like a little shopping mall, with gift stores, a theater, ticket counters, etc. So I’m sitting there at a table surrounded by tall stacks of my Benedict Arnold book, and sweaty tourists keep walking by without stopping, and I’m starting to feel that unique book signing version of lonely desperation.

And then Benedict Arnold strides up. I mean, he was seriously striding.

I’d heard a rumor that the actor who plays Arnold on the streets of Colonial Williamsburg might stop by, and here he was. He had the tricorn hat, the white wig, the heavy red coat of a British officer (this was the post-treason Arnold). He even walked with a cane and limp, as Arnold did after being wounded in battle at Saratoga.

“How do you do, sir?” he boomed.

I said something like, “Good. I mean, very well, general.” I gestured to the piles of books. “I wrote a book about, well… about you.”

“Yes, I’ve read it,” he said, picking up a copy.

I worried he might be offended by the title, The Notorious Benedict Arnold, but it didn’t seem to bother him. To my surprise, he sat down next to me. I smiled, but didn’t know what to say. My first thought was to tell I was a big fan of his. But do I mention my disapproval of the whole betraying your country for money thing?

A family walked by, slowing to look at us. A writer and a Redcoat at a folding table.

“Good day to you all!” Arnold called.

The dad stepped to the table. He looked back and forth from the cover of my Arnold book to Arnold. Then he said, “Could we get a picture with you?” He meant Arnold. Arnold stood and the kids posed with him and the dad took a picture on his phone.

Then Arnold sat back down, shook my hand, and introduced himself as Scott.

That’s when things got really fun. Turns out this guy is perhaps more obsessed with Benedict Arnold than I am, and knows even more. And he loves his job, says it’s the best gig in Williamsburg, because he’s such a controversial figure, and because he gets to ride around on a horse and harangue Americans.

Think of the dedication. I mean, we nonfiction writers spend a year or two trying to get into the heads of historical figures. But then we move on. He never does. He stays inside Arnold. Sometimes, when he’s in a hurry, he drives home dressed as Arnold. He’s even gotten gas as Arnold (yes, there were strange looks given).

For about an hour, we swapped theories on obscure points in Arnold’s story. I forgot all about trying to sell books, and was actually annoyed when people stopped by to talk (usually with him) or take pictures (always with him). When this happened, he snapped back into character and traded greetings, and sometimes witty insults, with the visitors. I just sat there, impressed and inspired. Here’s someone as skilled as any writer at making history engaging and memorable. And there’s no technology in sight—just the good old fashioned building blocks of story and character.

Some people enjoyed taunting Arnold, asking if he had any regrets, if he wished he hadn’t betrayed his country, stuff like that. But he had quick comebacks at the ready. The only thing that seemed to bother him was when a group of kids came up, giggling, waving plastic muskets, and asked, “Are you supposed to be George Washington?”

“No,” he said, frowning, recalling a painful scene. “I was once… an associate of his.”

The kids stopped laughing. They wanted to hear the story.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Power of Non-Fiction

Alex Grant, the young man pictured here, is the subject of this post. Before I get to him, I wish to make an announcement that is tangentially, but delightfully, related.

The power of non-fiction, and the myriad ways that educators, authors and other creative people can harness it, will be the subject of The 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference, to be held on June 14-16 at SUNY New Paltz, about 80 miles north of New York City. Among many stellar speakers are INK’s own Vicki Cobb and Melissa Stewart, along with Kent Brown of the Highlights Foundation, Robin Terry of National Geographic Children’s Publishing and other luminaries. The conference includes 23 workshops, three intensives, two panels, six meals and unlimited networking opportunities. Details at; further information from organizer Sally Isaacs,

Now about Alex. We met early on a chilly February morning on a footbridge in the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, 60 mile east of Phoenix. We were among a dozen or so birding enthusiasts who had gathered for the weekly guided bird walk sponsored by the Arboretum. Alex and I discussed two related birds, initially indistinguishable to my eyes. Both were wrens, small songbirds with barred tails and thin bills. Binoculars lifted, Alex pointed out the differences: the canyon wren had more distinct coloration  —  reddish brown wings and back, and a bright white throat, compared with the paler, grayish brown rock wren whose throat lacked the lustrous white. Alex spoke eagerly, with the facts at his command and a confidence that belied his age: 15. Very soon he might be leading walks like this, as his reputation had reached the Arboretum and a ranger had invited him to become a volunteer bird guide — the Arboretum's youngest by far. He and his parents had come on this walk while he considered the offer. 

Rock Wren
Canyon Wren
Later, as the sun finally warmed the air enough for us to shed an outer layer or two, I asked Alex’s mother, Sonja Grant, about her son’s zeal for birds. It had begun during the summer between first and second grade. The catalyst was a book called Birds of the World. Alex had checked it out of the library and it had changed his life. True, he had already shown a keen interest in nature, and he'd owned books about birds as well as sharks, insects and other taxa. He’d read some of them so many times that their pages had fallen out. But with its dazzling photos and engaging text, Birds of the World had taken Alex to a new level of interest that he calls “a deep passion.” Before long, the passion spread to both of his parents, and the family had a new hobby. School vacations became extended birding outings in Arizona, California, Texas and Maine, the trips oriented around an important statistic—the number of species seen between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 of the year. That number had reached 306 in 2012. Birders refer to a year in which they keep count as "a big year"; the Grants decided to do another big year in 2013, and by mid-May their list was up to 263 species.

Finishing his freshman year at Gilbert High School in Gilbert, AZ, Alex is homing in on a college education and career in ornithology. And it all started with a non-fiction book.

I am reminded of a quote I once saw from a Jo Carr (if you know who she is, please let me know): “You can almost divide non-fiction into two categories: non-fiction that stuffs in facts, as if children were vases to be filled, and non-fiction that ignites the imagination, as if children were indeed fires to be lit.” I don’t know anything about the book that turned Alex into a bird lover (a fair number of books bear the title Birds of the World). It may even fall in the “stuffs in fact” genus in Jo Carr’s taxonomy but clearly it ignited Alex Grant’s imagination and illuminated the apparent direction of his life. 

Many modalities of non-fiction (in the form of books and other media) will be explored at the New Paltz conference. Perhaps the one you teach or create will ignite a child’s life, or your own.

Friday, May 24, 2013

When Writers Take Vacations

Finally, the day has come ~ May 24th. Right now, as you are reading this, the Lewis family is embarking on our European vacation. Last month when I saw the INK post schedule for May, I chuckled when I read that my post day was the day we were leaving. Right now, I really have nothing profound to say about nonfiction books and the writing process. My brain is preoccupied with the trip and has been for a few days. So, I’m going to share my thoughts about the trip and writing fiction and nonfiction.

Four years ago when our daughter was looking at colleges, the term semester abroad was of great interest to the entire family. There was no question that our daughter would be studying in a foreign country. We were excited about the idea that after my daughter’s semester abroad, we would be traveling to wherever she was studying to “pick her up”. Fortunately, her semester abroad was spent at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich UK, where she was able to take some great publishing and English Lit classes. And, an amazing three-week spring break romp around Europe, may I add?

Last time we were in London, I was pregnant with my daughter, who turned 21 this week. In other words, it’s been a long while. We went for the London Toy Show, in February. I can only hope the weather is going to be a little better than last time. Our apartment is on the Thames River, feet from where the Mayflower sailed. I’m mentioning all this for several reasons. First, I have nothing but the trip on my brain. Second, my writer self is so excited at the thought of being in the midst of all that history. After a week in London with side trips to Cornwall, Oxford and possibly Dover, we head to Paris; which I think a certain husband promised me about 20 years ago.

Things are free and clear on the work front. With one publisher, I just signed the release forms, so that book is now off to the printer. With another publisher, I just completed the edits with my project editor, after two rounds of edits with my editor. Women of Steel and Stone is now off to the copy editor. And,  hopefully, a new book proposal will make magic at an acquisition meeting, while I’m gone. My writer brain is a clear slate ready to absorb any and all there is to see and learn these next two weeks. My work in progress (WIP) that has been brewing and percolating just happens to be set in Paris. I’m ready to begin this new adventure, figuratively and literally. My only hope is that with these months cooped up in my office pounding away on a keyboard, my brain doesn’t explode from all the stimuli and writing fodder. Since my husband continues to remind me that sitting is the new smoking, my walking shoes are packed, so I know my feet are ready for the adventure.

Wishing everyone safe travels this summer.

Au revoir, amis écrivains.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Voices Made Me Do It

Last week I had the good fortune to be on the panel that Deborah Heiligman wrote about Tuesday. Preplanning conversations and postmortem drinks at the very literary Algonquin Hotel gave Deb, Marfe’ Ferguson Delano, and me plenty of time to talk about the writing process. These conversations got me thinking about “voice.” Finding the right voice for a nonfiction book fits somewhere in the scheme of things between the research and final draft.
            You know how writers of fiction and deranged people – that may be an oxymoron – say, “It’s the voices … it’s the voices that made me do it?” That makes perfect sense to me. My books, primarily based on interviews with young people, absolutely must be true to the people featured. So after an interview, I transcribe and replay their tapes over and over again as a way to get their voices into my ears. My journey to understanding “voice” in writing began as an act of embarrassment and humility.

My Confession:
Once upon a time, long, long ago, after photographing four children’s books, I decided to try my hand at writing as well as illustrating. My first, full book contract was about a thirteen-year-old foster boy who spent a year socializing and loving a puppy that would later become a guide dog for the blind. What made the boy unusual was that he himself was slowly going blind. The book was called Mine for a Year.

After the usual gazillion drafts, the manuscript was ready to meet its editor. At that time I knew very few children’s authors and needed a critical read. A magazine editor-cum-good friend, a brilliant writer himself, said he’d take a look at it. Before he could change his mind I was sitting in his office with my beautiful, perfect, gorgeously written first book. He turned to the first page. “WHAT IS THIS CRAP?” He didn’t say crap. “I’m not going to read this! There’s nothing happening here. There’s no voice! It’s not you. It’s not the kid.” I grabbed the pages and flew out of the office. I was devastated, furious, and very embarrassed.

Once home I spent weeks trying to figure out how to make this boy read real. What could I do differently? Why didn’t the photographs alone create the boy’s character? And what is this thing called “voice” anyway? A week or so later an Aha moment arrived. Since it was the boy’s story, why not let him tell it?

I rewrote everything in the first person, and interviewed the boy again to add material and to make sure what was written matched the way he spoke. We collaborated. We made changes together.
After more than a few drafts, it was back to the mag editor for round two. With one eyebrow raised - he never once looked up - he opened to the first page, and read it. Think long, horrible pregnant pause here. “Okay, now you have voice. Now I want to read this.” For the most part, I’ve been writing in first person ever since.

A number of INK writers have said how hard it is to come up with a topic each month. I for one would love to know how you treat voice in your books.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Interview with Chicago Review Press Publisher, Cynthia Sherry

I first visited Chicago Review Press, located in a vintage brick building not far from the Loop in 1996 to do some editorial work on my first book, The Wind at Work. At that time CRP occupied one floor of the building. I remember a delicious Italian lunch with the staff at a nearby restaurant. (LA doesn’t have an Italian population, so I hunt down the pasta in Chicago, Brooklyn, SF – and Italy too!)

Fast forward to Summer 2012, and another trip to Chicago. I had just flown in from New York, in time for a late lunch – French this time – with Cynthia Sherry, before she took me on a tour of the expanded offices of CRP – now filling the entire four-story building with Independent Publishers Group (IPG), its distribution arm. We talked about how Chicago Review Press had fared – very well, thank you – in the intervening fifteen years, and I’m pleased that they have just published an updated edition of The Wind at Work.

Cynthia Sherry, publisher of Chicago Review Press, has been with the company since 1989, where she acquires books, oversees the editorial and book production of about 65 titles a year, and manages a staff of ten. Cynthia is a graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa, where she majored in English and met her husband, musician Rick Sherry. They live in Chicago with their two daughters.

Tell me a little about the background of CRP.

Curt Matthews, a graduate student at the University of Chicago and poetry editor for Chicago Review magazine, had come across some wonderful works that were too long for the journal, and in 1973 he and his wife Linda decided to publish them out of their basement. They received permission from the University of Chicago to call their fledging company Chicago Review Press. The name had cachet and many of the early publications were Chicago-centric, including a very early graphic novel called Prairie State Blues.

In 1975 the press published The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, by Frank Hohimer, who was doing time at Joliet Correctional Center. CRP sold the film rights and the film Thief, based on Hohimer’s book, was released in 1981. Income from that film propelled the company forward. Four decades and many successes later, Chicago Review Press now publishes about 65 nonfiction titles each year and is a sister company to Independent Publishers Group (IPG), one of the largest book distributors in  North America.

Chicago Review Press has always focused on publishing titles of lasting interest. Some of our titles have been in print for more than 20 years. We also believe in developing new voices and taking chances on quirky and sometimes controversial subjects. With more than 700 titles in print and e-book formats, Chicago Review Press publishes history, popular science, biography, memoir, music, film, and travel, among others. Our award-winning line of children’s activity books and young adult biographies make up 25% of our list. The company is proud to remain independently owned and minded.

Why do focus on activity books for children? Who is your audience?

We generally focus on activity books because we feel that hands-on activities expand learning and are fun for kids. The primary audiences are educators, homeschoolers, librarians, and engaged learners ages 9 & up. We don’t dumb the material down for kids and we typically provide a lot of interesting sidebars that put the subject in the context of the era. Recently we launched a young adult biography series called “Women of Action” that has been well received, and we will likely expand in the coming years.

The first edition of The Wind at Work stayed in print for fifteen years! Other publishers whisk books out of print in a few years.  Why are you different?

We are very focused on publishing books that will backlist well and we are more patient than the larger New York publishing houses. Sometimes we publish a book that’s ahead of its time or for a niche market that requires more work and time to penetrate. Getting books into the National Parks, for example, can take a year or more because they want to see the finished book and they have review committees looking over the content carefully. Lots of children’s books will receive reviews months after publication and parents and teachers want to know that the material has been time-tested. The Wind at Work is an example of a unique book whose market grew over the years as wind technology became more prevalent.

Other publishers suffered in the 2008 economic downturn.  What happened at CRP?

We were large enough to withstand the economic downturn, but small enough to be flexible and make appropriate changes to our business model. We were quick to convert our backlist titles to ebooks. We have also been fiscally conservative over the years and that put us in a great position to build our business and invest in new technology while other companies were downsizing and retrenching. Also, we don’t pay large advances and that has protected us over the years from any big downsides in the risky business of publishing.

What are you doing with ebooks?

We embraced ebooks from the beginning and converted all of our backlist titles into the three ebook formats. It’s definitely a growing segment of the publishing business, but where it will level out is anyone’s guess. I think it will end up being at least 30% of the business, but perhaps as much as 50%. Ebooks currently represent about 20% of CRP’s overall sales, but I think there is a lot of growth potential as younger readers growing up with handheld devices become book buyers. That said, I also think that print is here to stay and that some books lend themselves better to a print format, namely picture books and heavily designed books.

What do you see in CRP’s children’s book future? 

We will likely branch out and try new things, but slowly. Right now we are working on developing a few new series like our “Science in Motion” series for ages 9 & up and our “Women of Action” biography series for young adults. We will pay attention to common core standards and STEM as we move forward and try to grow our library and education markets. We like science and building things, so activities will stay in the mix. As for now, fiction and picture books are still too risky for us, but who knows what the future will bring for CRP.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Compleat Biographer Conference, A Report: Sphinxes, Secrets, Virgin Eyes

This past Saturday, Susan Kuklin, Marfé Ferguson Delano and I were on a panel at the Compleat Biographers Conference here in New York City. Tanya Lee Stone was supposed to be with us, but unfortunately could not come. (We missed you, Tanya!) Thanks to Gretchen Woelfle for telling us about the call for YA biography writers.  This organization is relatively new (2010) but I think they have a good thing going. 

We had a fun time planning the panel Friday night over a lovely meal and a bottle of wine. We sat next to a man with very strange facial hair, just a line from his lower lip down his chin. Not a soul patch, more like a soul line. (That was a detail you needed, right?). 

Anyway, we decided that the best kind of panel is a conversation, not just talking heads. So we didn't over-plan--we wanted the conversation to be real, and it was. Marfé was the designated moderator, and she did a terrific job.  And it is always fascinating to listen to how Susan does her work. (There was an collective gasp in the room when she talked about interviewing a young man who had been on death row since he was a kid.) People asked really good questions. One question was, naturally, is writing a biography for kids different from writing one for adults, and if so, how? And our answers were—it isn’t different, it is different, and in the end I think we agreed that all writing is about choices and some of the choices we make when we write for kids we make because we are writing for kids—and for their gatekeepers.  But other than that, it isn't different at all. (Marfé wisely had started our session with an anecdote about someone saying she was sure writing for kids was easier than writing for adults. We dispelled that notion immediately.) 

There was one high school teacher in the audience and I found myself looking to her often for agreement, nods, approval. Do those of you who speak to audiences do that? Find one or two people you look at to gauge how you're doing? (It's much better, by the way, if you focus on the happy, nodding people rather than the bored, angry-looking, or sleeping people--if you have any of those. We didn't. But I've learned that nice little lesson over the years...) 

Happily, there was also another YA author in the room, Catherine Reef. Marfé had been on a panel with her at this conference in D.C. two years ago, and asked her to chime in. Catherine did, and she really added to our discussion! 

I left our panel feeling inspired and renewed, which is always a good thing. I left the conference, also, with nuggets of knowledge and inspiration, and I will share those I remember with you. Maybe Marfé and Susan will remember more... 


*Will Swift presented the BIO AWARD to Ron Chernow. In his introduction Swift told that audience that we should all read the prologue to Chernow’s Washington book. I did and it's terrific. It's about Gilbert Stuart painting Washington's portrait, and is really an essay about writing biography, about how we try to capture real people, not just their likenesses.  I recommend it to you, too. (And now I really want to read the whole book.) 

*Swift said that Chernow is a master at shedding light on things that their characters are trying to hide from themselves.

*Interestingly, soon after Chernow himself said, in his speech, that writing a biography is an act of intellectual presumption!

*Chernow said truth will emerge in subtle ways even if the people we are writing about are evasive. So many of our subjects are sphinxes.  He said that he realized with the help of his late wife that Rockefeller was revealing who he was by trying to conceal.

*He also said, and I loved this especially, that when you are writing a biography you need to find the balance between writing the character from the inside out and from the outside in.

*In working on George Washington, the more Chernow read, the less familiar Washington seemed. There were dimensions of his life and personality (his meanness, his temper, his sensitivity) that previous biographers overlooked. Chernow decided that the 5% who knew him were more reliable than 95% who didn’t.

*He said he learned he had to look at Washington with virgin eyes.

After lunch we went to a panel about how to deal with black holes when writing a biography. It started out promising when the moderator said that you can have black holes in research, in periods of a person’s life, or in the understanding of our character. In secrets. Yes! Tell us how to deal with them, please! They didn't give us many answers, sadly.. but here are a few nuggets:

*When you read someone’s memoir or autobiography you have be suspicious and ask yourself what was the reason they were writing their autobiography or memoir. Look for what is not said.

*Mythologies make you want to find the real story.

*If there are people still living who knew the person you're writing about, go talk to them. You want the gossip. (Chernow's 5% or, if you're lucky, more.) 

*Writing a biography is really a group project—you are assembling all the voices of those who will help you.

*If there’s something important you don’t know, that’s part of the story. 

Maybe it was the lights going off and on in that room, or the daunting feeling of the black hole, but we three decided to leave the conference right after that panel. Somehow within fifteen minutes we found ourselves at The Algonquin Hotel, at a round table, having drinks.