Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What Word Will You Be?

I was listening to a keynote address sometime last fall, and the speaker used a particular word several times. It was an unusual word, a nice word, and it made me wonder why she'd chosen to use that word over any number of others that would have expressed a similar sentiment. Somehow that word must have resonated for her. Somehow now that word resonates of her for me.

That word? Astonishing.

Now whenever I come across that word I think of this particular speaker. Astonishing how you can use even a single word to conjur up an image or a perception or a memory of someone.

May your characters resonate with their own astonishing words!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Foliage at the 45th (Part 2)

The leaves are shaping up nicely here this year. What a difference a week makes! Even driving around doing errands is a great excuse to view some beautiful scenery.

The weather has been dry, with warm days and cool nights. After a rainy summer this is a most welcome change!

Still lots of green left to go, so stay tuned for more colour. I love the fall!

To see how things have changed, see Foliage Part 1 and the very beginning.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Power to the Proofreaders!

So there I am doing my proofreading/copy-editing thing, dutifully inserting commas, deleting commas, reigning in the mad usage of dashes and applying CP style when WHAM! I am forced to turn a FIEND into a FRIEND with a single stroke on my mighty keyboard.

Ah, the power...the satisfaction.

Not that anyone will ever know.

(A job well done then.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Foliage at the 45th

According to Santa's Village, I'm living at about the 45th parallel -- halfway to the North Pole. So here at the 45th, this is how the leaves are shaping up this year:

Not too spectacular...yet. Just the tips of branches and some individual trees turning colour. But this is how it began so that's progress. The colour is easy to see now, not just a subtle hue. More to come!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Friendly Frog?

I think this is a green frog (Rana clamitans). I was pretty excited when it stood still and let me snap quite a few pictures. How cool, how friendly, I though.

But then it hit me: maybe it wasn't being friendly at all. Maybe it was frozen, frightened-- petrified! After all, this silver box was being shoved at it by some huge, gigantic mammal type being. Uh, yeah. That made more sense.

So I slunk away and left it to its froggy business.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Talking to...Elizabeth MacLeod

Talking to Creative Canadians . . . About Books
(A mostly monthly feature)

Elizabeth MacLeod is an award-winning author of over 30 books for kids ranging from picture books to easy readers to reference books. Photo by Paul Wilson.

Welcome, Liz. Thanks for agreeing to be my first ever blog interview. Could you start off by saying a little bit about yourself?

I didn’t take a typical route to becoming a writer. I studied sciences in university but I wasn’t sure what to do when I graduated. I had a chance to attend the Banff Publishing Workshop and I hesitantly took the opportunity. The faculty was amazing and the workshop was a great chance to make terrific contacts in the industry. When an editing job came open at OWL magazine, one of the faculty (the incredible editor Lynn Cunningham) called to tell me and I applied. I had no experience except for my science background and the Banff training, however I got the job. (I later found out that some major factors in my hiring were that I listed singing and tap dancing among my interests, which made me sound intriguing, and that I looked “healthy” (????!!!) so it was likely I wouldn’t miss a lot of work!)

OWL’s editor Sylvia Funston was a great mentor to me and through the magazine I also met Valerie Wyatt, a terrific writer and editor. (I’m also grateful that I met wonderful, longtime friends there, such as you, Lizann!) I left children’s publishing for about a year to work in the high-tech industry, but I really missed the supportiveness of the people in kids’ publishing. So when Kids Can Press asked me to write and edit for them, I happily changed companies. I was an in-house editor for many years, then I was a freelance editor for Kids Can. Right now I’m only writing and I’ve expanded the number of publishers I have — now they include Annick and Scholastic, too.

The topics you’ve written about are quite diverse, from dinosaurs to war to Eleanor Roosevelt. Do you have a systematic way to approach each topic? Is there always a first step or series of steps you take?

As soon as I am assigned a topic, I start researching. I open a file on my computer and I begin dumping in anything interesting that I find on-line. I immediately put holds on any library books that I think will be useful and to help me decide which books are worth buying.

As I gather this information, I’m thinking about what I need to include, how I’ll divide up the material (into spreads, into sidebars), etc. I find it really important to write down any ideas I have so that I don’t forget them and so that they can inspire other ideas.

How do you find a connection with (or inspiration for) each topic or person you’re writing about?

I guess I’m just a very curious person. I love finding out how things work or why people did what they did. I do my best to make it clear to kids how interesting our world is.

You’ve written many different styles of nonfiction (biography, early reader, reference book). Do you have a favorite type? What sort of challenges do you face with each one, or one in particular?

I think I’m lucky to be asked to write in so many styles. It means that I don’t get tired of one or the other and I think it affects, for the better, each book that I write.

I don’t have a favourite type — I love each one as I get started and usually ended up tearing out my hair over it at some point in the process!

The biggest challenge that all the styles have is how succinct one has to be when writing for children. I know it’s vital to allow room for white space and images but it can make it very difficult to explain things. As well, in my biographies for early readers, I have very few words in which to explain tough concepts to kids who are just developing their vocabulary and reading skills. Now that’s a challenge!

As an editor, do you have to work hard to turn off that side of your brain when you write? Do you find it hard to have your writing edited?

I’m not really aware of turning off the editor-side of my brain when I write. Sometimes my internal editor makes it difficult to get going on a spread but deadlines usually overcome that difficulty! I find that I edit a spread a lot before I go on to writing the next spread, so that when I put all the spreads together, there isn’t a lot of editing left for me to do. Of course my editor usually finds lots to improve!

Maybe because I’ve worked as an editor, I know the importance of being edited and how much an editor can improve a manuscript. I love being edited and I get nervous if the editor doesn’t ask for many changes.

As you write, do you footnote the facts or use another method to keep track of your sources?

I really try hard to keep careful track of my sources and facts. Either I photocopy pages from books (then mark up the photocopy to indicate exactly where the information is) or input facts from them, along with page references.
If I find information that I want to use off the Web, I put the complete text in a file, along with the URL and date.

It takes time to be this organized but I’m always grateful when I can quickly locate a fact later.

For books such as The Kids Book of Canada at War, is it your job as the writer to propose what the main focus of each page is and what the other related boxes or sidebars on that page are? How do you denote which type of element each chunk of information is when you send in the manuscript?

For this book, my editor and I worked out the main focus of each page at the outline stage. The format of the “The Kids Book of” books is a spread-by-spread approach and I knew how many pages long the book was to be, and how many wars I wanted to write about, so it was fairly easy for me to create a rough outline. The hard part was refining the outline and realizing, for instance, that I had six pages to describe the entire War of 1812!

I also proposed the boxes and sidebars on each spread. Before each chunk of this sort of information I would indicate what it was by writing the title in square brackets, such as [Canadian Courage] or [Did You Know].

Are you ever involved in finding the photos for your books or is that someone else’s responsibility?

I think every publisher handles photo research differently and even books from the same publisher can be different. The great photo researcher Patricia Buckley found most of the photos in The Kids Book of Canada at War. However there are photos of my dad and other of my relatives in the book that I provided, and we also put out a request at Kids Can Press for photos and artifacts of relatives, and people were very generous.

As well, Val Wyatt, my editor, had seen a great Remembrance Day display at a bookstore in Victoria, British Columbia, and contacted the people who had supplied photos and letters. They were also kind enough to let us use the material. Elements like that can really make history come alive.

Royal Murder: The Deadly Intrigue of Ten Sovereigns sounds both fascinating and gruesome. What did you do to make this topic both interesting and not too scary for your audience?

Annick Press, who published the book, asked me to remove a lot of gruesome gore that I thought kids would like. I was surprised and disappointed but I agreed because I figured they had a better sense than I did of how much gore is enough.

I’m glad I went along with the changes — every review has mentioned that the book is gory in places and not for young children. I wonder if some of these reviewers have seen “kids’” movies and television shows lately?? However, perhaps reading about blood and guts allows your imagination to take you places that films and shows don’t. Isn’t that the magic of books?

How can a writer stay true to a difficult or controversial topic while keeping in mind the sensitivities of a young reader or do you think that this isn’t an issue?

If a writer is presenting a controversial topic, then I think it’s only fair to present both sides of it, even if you strongly disagree with one. Otherwise, it’s very difficult for a child, whose parents may hold the view opposite to yours. With controversial topics, I think it’s important to help kids develop their own opinions. A good editor can also help an author from coming across as too biased.

You collaborated with Frieda Wishinsky on Everything but the Kitchen Sink. What, if anything, surprised you about writing a book together with another writer? What was the best thing about working together? Any challenges?

Working with Frieda was amazingly easy. She’s a great writer and very flexible. We get along very well and/but our interests are very different. The book has ten chapters so it was clear right away that we’d both write five. We easily decided what the ten chapters should be and divided them almost as easily. I took the science chapters and Frieda took the history and social studies chapters. We had no idea that it would be so easy.

I’m sure we both found it difficult not to edit each other but that wasn’t our job. We had a great editor, Brenda Murray at Scholastic US, and it was always on my mind that any changes that Frieda or I suggested the other make, might take the book further away from where Brenda wanted it to go.

Out of the books you’ve written, would you pick one as a favourite or do you like them all more or less equally? If so, why?

Oooo, that’s like asking someone to name her favourite child!

BUT — I especially loved writing about magician Harry Houdini. I had bought a book about him when I was in grade seven so he’s obviously been a longtime interest of mine. He had a strong, in-your-face personality so there were lots of great quotes by him, amazing stories (true or not!) and terrific photos. As well, I’d been nominated for more than 20 “Children’s Choice” awards across Canada before I finally won with my book about Harry! It’s hard not to love that! I was delighted to revisit his life when I wrote an early reader about him.

Have you seen any changes in the nonfiction books being published for kids in Canada since you began in the business?

I’ve been in the business for a long time so there are a lot more books out there now than when I started. It’s a lot tougher now to make a living writing than it was about ten years ago. People just aren’t buying many books the way they used to buy them. Today, as well, nonfiction has to offer something really different from what’s on the Web, since Web content is so much easier for kids to access. I think books that kids use just for researching projects are very hard sells right now since most kids just use the Web. I really appreciate teachers and librarians who insist kids use books when researching a topic!

What advice do you have for writers who want to write nonfiction?

If you feel the urge to write nonfiction, then you have to try it! But you can’t assume that you’ll make a living at it. Many writers have part-time jobs, take time from their writing to do school and library visits (for which they’re paid) or find other ways to make their living.

Nonfiction writers need to be especially careful to be sure to look critically at publishers’ book lists to see what topics have all ready been covered and try to find a unique niche.

As I said before, I’m a very curious person so writing nonfiction lets me investigate a lot of different topics — and get paid for it! It can make a great change from writing fiction, as well. Writing nonfiction magazine articles, for kids or for adults, can be a great way to get into a writing career. And I can’t imagine anything I’d rather be doing than writing!

And your readers are very happy that you are doing all that writing. Thanks, Liz, for taking the time to give us a look behind your books.

For more on Elizabeth MacLeod’s books, background, and school presentations, you can look her up here, and find more on her publishers Annick Press, Kids Can Press and Scholastic.

See all the other author interviews under my Talking to Creative Canadians label.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

SCBWI Canada East Agents' Day

Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators Agents’ Day
October 4, 2008
National Library of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario

Do you write or illustrate for children or teens? Are you wondering if you need an agent, unsure about what they do or how to acquire one? This is the event for you to get all the answers.

Kendra Marcus, Agent, BookStop Literary Agency, California, www.bookstopliterary.com
Rebecca Sherman, Senior Agent, Writers House, New York, www.writershouse.com

The brochure /registration form for the SCBWI Canada East Agents' Day is
now available on the Events
page of the website at http://www.scbwicanada.org/east/events.htm

Or... go directly to the brochure at

Please feel free to pass along this information.