Late NaNo Update

December blew in like a hurricane! I feel like this is my first opportunity to sit down and breathe. <heavy breath> Every year this month is difficult, what with the end of the semester grading, students complaining about grades, holiday parties and concerts, shopping (I hate shopping. True story: This year at Kohl’s, after about 30 minutes of shopping, someone took our cart, which had many items in it. We hunted and hunted, to no avail. Furious, I started trying to re-find all the things I’d already found, when Andy, thank goodness, located the cart in a part of the store we had not visited. Did I mention I hate shopping??!?). This year seems crazier than in the past. Maybe I’m just getting old.

So, how did NaNo go?  It went well. My goal was to finish the third draft of my Cinderella story. I was unable to do so in November, but I finished on December 11. (Maybe this is the reason for the added craziness.) Of course, lying in bed on the evening of December 11, I thought of several things that needed to be changed, added and altered. So although I’m “finished” I am still working on it.  All you writers out there understand that! Still, it is good to have an ending. If I’m run over by a bus today, someone can read the whole story.

Although I am breathing again, I still have lots to do. It will be nice to cross off “NaNo update on blog” from my list.

Here’s wishing you all a happy holiday season!

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Author Interview: Susan Manzke

susan manskeToday I’m welcoming Susan Manzke to my series of author interviews. Susan is the author of the recently released middle-grade novel Chicken Charlie’s Year. Susan has been writing a weekly column for Wisconsin State Farmer since 1980. Her two adult romances, Never Bring Her Roses and When the Spotlight Fades were published by Doubleday.

Elizabeth: Can you tell us about your new book, Chicken Charlie’s Year?

Susan: Here’s my blurb about the book:

susan manske book ChickenTen-year-old Charlie Petkus isn’t surprised to get scratchy wool underwear from Aunt Mutzi for Christmas 1932, but he is surprised that her gift package includes a diary. To his dismay, his Lithuanian-immigrant mother thinks a diary is the perfect present. “You man of family, Casimir,” she says. “You learn to write the English like good American.” Charlie wants more than anything to make Mama proud. But he’s not sure education is the way to manhood, especially since he doesn’t like school. With the Great Depression on, Charlie thinks it would be much manlier to quit the 4th grade and go to work like his friend Ray.

From Christmas 1932 to Christmas 1933, Charlie finds plenty of fun and adventure in his ethnic neighborhood. He discovers that sledding on a car hood results in embarrassment and a very snowy bottom. He finds that a “dead” pheasant that isn’t quite as dead as he thought can make a big mess in a Ford Model B. He learns that if you take a job harvesting onions before school, you get your feet filthy on just the day they make you take your shoes off to be weighed and measured—but you also earn a whole dime for your work. By night, Charlie writes in his diary to make Mama proud. But by day, he watches Ray, who now dresses like a man, smokes like a man, and earns a man’s wage. Charlie wonders why his mama and sisters should live on cabbage soup and the occasional package of broken cookies while “the man of the family” sits in school writing a poem called “Spring is Here.” The decision Charlie makes next will determine the course of his life and his understanding of what it really means to be a man.

This story is filled with fun adventures and family moments. At times when I was writing it felt like I was channeling my father’s family.

Elizabeth: How long did it take from story idea until the book was published?

Susan: I think I’ve been working on this story most of my life. My father told funny stories about his childhood to put my sister and me to sleep. I always loved those stories and creating this novel was my way of using some of them.

I can’t exactly remember when I started writing this actual book. It has been a long time. My critique group has read bits and pieces of it for years.

The hardest part is deciding when the book was polished and ready to publish. I wanted it to be the best I could do, to honor my father and I didn’t want to mess up.

Elizabeth: You’ve been writing for Wisconsin State Farmer for many years. Can you tell us what sort of columns you write for that publication?

Susan: My column is my life. I write about things that happen to me and my family. I began writing this weekly column in 1980. Back then I had a new baby, a three-year-old, and a five-year-old. Subjects then were about raising a young family. Today I have grandchildren. They often end up in my column these days.

I like to write about the funny side of life. Sometimes something will happen on our farm, Sunnybook Farm, and it won’t seem funny until a day or two later. A stuck tractor isn’t funny when you are covered with mud and working hard to get it out, but a few days later it makes its way into my column and it is funny.

susan manske book wordsElizabeth: You’ve written a middle-grade novel, personal essays, columns (which have been published in the Words in My Pocket collections), and adult romances. How do you approach these very different kinds of writing?

Susan: I have a weekly deadline for my column, which runs about 650+ words. I’m always thinking about column ideas, so usually when I sit down I can start writing and get something done in one afternoon.

When I work on a novel, I get a germ of an idea and mull it over before starting to write. It may take me years to write a novel. I don’t outline, but I usually know the beginning and the end. The fun part is figuring out how to get from Chapter One to the end. For me it’s the journey that keeps me interested.

Elizabeth: You write in many genres, do you read in many genres? Which are your favorite?

Susan: I love to read middle-grade novels. I like anything that keeps my attention. Often ‘adult’ novels are too convoluted for me. I hate putting a book down, but my time is limited. Just tell me a good story. I have a form of dyslexia, so I’m a slow reader, but that hasn’t stopped me. I discovered my love for reading when I read Lassie Come Home in the seventh grade. Up until then reading was just a chore. I don’t want a book to be a chore to read.

Elizabeth: Tell us about yourself.

Susan: I live with my husband of 41 years, Bob, on Sunnybook Farm. We have 4 adult children, 6 grandchildren, 1 step grandson, and 1 step great granddaughter. We have 3 house cats and one dog. We also have 9 chickens and a bunch of barn cats. I love getting together with family. We laugh a lot and I never get enough of my grandchildren.

I went back to college in my 50s and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2009. It wasn’t easy going back to school after all those years, but every time I finished a class, I felt a great sense of accomplishment.

Elizabeth: Do you have any advice for young readers and writers?

Susan: I like to encourage writers who have dyslexia to charge ahead and write. I’m proof it can be done. Join a critique group to help improve your writing. Critiques may hurt at first, but I know I learned a lot from mine and I still do.

We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:

Elizabeth: Pizza or salad?

Susan: Pizza!

Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?

Susan: Mountain

Elizabeth: Tree house or doll house?

Susan: Tree House, like the one in Swiss Family Robinson

Elizabeth: Violin or piano?

Susan: Piano

Elizabeth: Comic story or learn-something story?

Susan: Tough one….I like to learn something in a story by accident, not on purpose. It has to be part of the story, even a comic story.

Elizabeth: Laura Ingalls Wilder or Hermione Granger?

Susan: Another tough one….Hermione Granger

Thanks, Susan for joining me today.  For more about Susan Manzke, visit her website: http://www.susanmanzke.net

Chicken Charlie’s Year is available here on amazon.com

Susan’s columns are available in the Words in my Pocket collections

Nano 2014

Want to write a book? Want to do it fast?  Want encouragement from famous people?  Want to connect with other writers in your local area?

Nano 2014Then you need to join NaNoWriMo! I went to the National Novel Writing Month website and got myself signed up to write (finish) a novel in November.  If you join NaNoWriMo, be sure to make me one of your writing buddies.

This year, my NaNo project is once again The Stepsisters. It feels as if I’ve been writing this book  f – o – r – e – v – e – r .

I’m two-thirds finished with my third revision, and I think this is the one. My goal for November is to finish The Stepsisters.  For those of you who haven’t already heard about this novel, The Stepsisters is a steampunk Cinderella, told in alternating first person by the two stepsisters.  And not to brag or anything, but it is la-la fabulous.  Or will be. When I finish it. In November.

OK, so go do the NaNo thing.  You know you want to. Here’s the link again: National Novel Writing Month website.

Author Interview: Jamie Swenson

jamie swensonToday I’m welcoming Jamie Swenson to my series of author interviews. Jamie is the picture book author of Big Rig, Boom Boom Boom, and If You Were a Dog.

Elizabeth: Can you tell us about If You Were a Dog?

Jamie: If You Were a Dog released yesterday – Sept.30th. jamie book dog

When I think about this book – it makes me smile. The book asks a series of questions for kids to consider about what sort of animal they would be if they were, say, a dog, a cat, a bird, a fish, a frog – even a dinosaur. The book opens with the dog question:

If you were a dog, would you be a speedy-quick,

Lickety-sloppidy,

Scavenge-the-garbage,

Frisbee catching,

Hotdog stealing,

Pillow hogging,

Best-friend-ever sort of dog?

Would you howl at the moon?

ARRRRRROOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Some dogs do.

Elizabeth: How long did it take from story idea until the book was published?

Jamie: Sometimes the initial idea for a book just flows from me in a matter of hours. That’s what happened with If You Were a Dog. I’d been talking with a little boy who was pretending to be a dog and I asked him, “What sort of dog are you? Are you going to bark in storytime today?” And that’s really all it took – I practically ran home that day and wrote the first few lines of the book about what type of dog a child might be. I’ve had dogs my whole life – so all the questions are based on the dogs I’ve known.

Of course, a book needs more than just one fun thought … and it took me a little while to focus on only animals – and even longer to get all the descriptive words right. Plus, I believe I spent months putting hyphens in and taking hyphens out again … in total, I think it took over a year to get the text into a form I was ready to submit to publishers.

When I finally did start submitting, I sent it to five open houses that I loved – into slush piles. I didn’t hear anything for months and then one morning I saw that I had an email message from Janine O’Malley at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She wondered if the book was still available and if I would email her a copy so she could share it with her colleagues. That was in December of 2009. I think Janine made me an offer in January and the book was scheduled to release in 2012.

AND THEN … the most amazing thing happened. Caldecott-winning illustrator Chris Raschka signed onto the project. I was stunned when I found out. I knew and respected Chris’ work – it was an unbelievable thought that he would be bringing my text to life. Of course, he’s busy. The publication date ended up moving back to 2014 to accommodate his schedule. So, the first book I sold has ended up being the third to be released. In my mind, Chris’ work was well worth the extra two year wait!

Elizabeth: Chris Raschka! How exciting! Well worth the wait. I’ve noticed that your books are each by a different illustrator. Do you, as an author, have any input on who gets to illustrate your story?

jamie book bigrigJamie: As the author, I have had no say in who the illustrators for my books would be – beyond giving a general “yes” or “no” to the choices made by my editors. So far, I have only said, “AWESOME!” to all three of the illustrators: David Walker, Ned Young, and Chris Raschka.

With each project, at some point, I do see rough sketches or early drafts of the art and I am able to give feedback. There were a few instances in each manuscript when I did give feedback that affected the final book. In all cases, I was so happy with the overall style/tone/feel of the book – I really think each illustrator brought exactly what the text needed to the project. When I look at the art in my books – I simply can’t imagine any other style/look. I’ve heard of authors being disappointed in the art in their books – or feeling a loss of control, but I have never felt that way. I go into every book – even in the early writing stage—saying, “I’m leaving space right there for an illustrator to play and have fun creating.” I have never wanted to have too much control – and I try to stay away from exacting illustration directions/notes.

jamie book boomIn my mind, every person connected with the book process knows what he/she is doing and each person adds a richness to the book that wouldn’t exist if I were the one making all the choices. I love how books represent many creative spirits coming together for the best product – because they are created for the best people on the planet – kids.

Elizabeth: Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

Jamie: My writing process is dictated by the project I’m working on. If I need to research a topic – I will spend a few weeks reading or watching everything I can that is connected to the topic and taking notes or just letting it sink into my brain. Finally, I’ll spend two or three straight days writing the first draft (if it’s a picture book) and then I’ll spend days, weeks, months, or years revising the manuscript. Usually, it’s just a matter of a month or two of writing and revising. I often write for about two hours, take a break such as a walk with my dogs, and then come back to write/revise for a few more hours. Breaks are essential – and knowing that I need to find perfect words and not settle for just okay keeps me motivated. Picture books are like a puzzle where you keep taking out and replacing pieces until they all fit together perfectly.

Elizabeth: To write for children, do you think an author needs to have regular interaction with children?

Jamie: No, I do not think that writers have to have regular interaction with kids to write for kids – I think writers have to have once been a kid and be interested in topics of interest to kids. Of course, for me, it certainly helps that I do work with kids. My work is very much affected by my daily interactions with kids, and I would certainly miss that inspiration if I suddenly went to live in a cabin in a forest without any people around me (and believe me, I have considered this – hee hee).

For me, being a storyteller/associate librarian gives me a unique perspective on the types of books that I write. I write books that I would want to use in storytime with preschoolers. My books all have opportunities for the kids to become a part of the reading – be it with howling or clapping or making the “URRRRNNNT-URRRRNNNT!” of big rig’s horn. When I write, I visualize the way the book will work with the kids I will read it to one day.

But, I know many successful authors who do not interact with kids on a daily or even weekly basis. This does not mean they ignore what today’s kids are like or what interests them or what kids need from books – it just means, like any writer – they know their subject and their audience. Some writers write for the child they once were. That’s fantastic!

Of course, if you’re writing for children/teens, it helps to understand their developmental needs. For instance, most two year olds have not yet lost a tooth, been to the principal’s office, or learned to ride a two-wheeler. I wouldn’t pick those topics in writing for a preschooler – on the flip side, most fifth graders are no longer interested in how to tie their shoes, or put on pants, or button a shirt. They don’t worry so much about nap time either. A teen might be very interested in getting his/her driver’s license, but not that interested in stories about spelling bees or first slumber parties. Knowing what your audience is currently experiencing, or will soon experience, helps you write a story that they will enjoy.

My advice to those writing for kids who are not able to be around kids – read books currently published for the age group you want to write for and think about the big emotional issues you experienced at that age. The specifics may have changed since you were a kid (What do you mean you didn’t have a cell phone? How did you text people?), but the emotions haven’t changed. It still hurts to be left out. It’s still scary to be alone in your bed in the dark. And it’s still awesome to find out that a special someone LIKE likes you.

Elizabeth: Can you tell us a little more about yourself?

Jamie: I’ve been writing for kids for about fourteen years now. My early books were certainly inspired by a combination of raising children (my husband and I have two amazing daughters) and working as an associate librarian doing early literacy storytimes. I graduated from Hamline University’s MFAC program in 2009 – that experience remains a highlight of my writing life. Through Hamline and SCBWI, I have been fortunate to meet and be inspired by an array of incredible writers and illustrators.

For me, being a writer isn’t a career as much as it is simply who I am. Words and stories float around me and inspire me. Stories and words make me happy. I love being a part of a world that creates stories for children. Writing for kids and inspiring them become readers is my vocation, I can’t image doing anything else. People ask me all the time what the best part of being a writer is – and I always answer – the best thing about being a writer is the opportunity to meet interesting, passionate, fabulous people: readers, writers, illustrators, editors, agents, book-lovers of all sorts. I honestly believe book people are the best sort of people – and people who dedicate their lives to giving kids the world through books – well, I’m blessed to be a part of that.

Elizabeth: We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:

Q: Pizza or salad?

A: Both.

Q: Ocean or mountain?

A: Midwest forest. As northern as possible.

Q: Tree house or doll house?

A: Doll house in a tree house.

Q: Violin or piano?

A: Lalalalala – I’m a singer.

Q: Comic story or learn-something story?

A: Both – I hope to take something away from every story I read – but if there is no comic-relief in a book – I’m not likely to keep reading it for long. That is NOT to say that I wouldn’t read a dark topic or a serious topic – but even in those scary places – there is still joy in this world. So, I do appreciate a little bit of levity with every topic.

Q: Laura Ingalls Wilder or Hermione Granger?

A: Hmmm… both of these characters have spunk and do not take no for an answer. They also both make some big mistakes due to overconfidence… They are smart, brave, women of their time. One, of course is based on a real person – but the two characters are iconic. Too hard to answer –both Laura and Hermione would be preferred over a Bella Swan any day of the week.

For more information about Jamie Swenson visit her website: www.jamieswenson.com

Her books are available at: http://www.indiebound.org/ and other bookstores.

A State of Wonder

Sometimes I read a book that is so beautiful and perfect that I am inspired as a writer. This happened about twelve years ago with The Girl in the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. When I was finished reading it, I wanted to write again. I’d given up on writing, decided I didn’t have it in me to write an entire novel, but after reading this book, I changed my mind. I wanted to write. I had no illusions that I could write something as beautiful as The Girl in the Pearl Earring, but I wanted to try. I have tried and I’ve been mostly happy with what I accomplished.  I thank Tracy Chevalier for that.

Sometimes I read a book that is so beautiful and perfect that I feel like I should just give up as a writer. I could never create anything that comes anywhere near this, and so why bother?

This happened today when I finished State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. This book is perfection. The prose is both beautiful and clear. Sentences flow like a slow river, peaceful but with purpose. Her characters are interesting and flawed and only knowable in part. The way I viewed them changed as I got to know them better, subtly, until I realized my opinion had changed at some point, but where? The story isn’t a thriller, and yet I couldn’t put it down. What would happen next? I could not guess. The ending is painful and brilliant and beautiful. The parallel stories are so clear at the end, but I never saw the ending coming. And the story isn’t over. More will happen to Marina. And yet the story is over. How she will live her life after the final page is up to her and the reader’s imagination. I don’t like this normally, but it works perfectly here.

I love this book and have already started re-reading it. If you haven’t read it, you need to. As for me continuing to write, I will.  It is probably just a mood thing. My writing hasn’t been going well, so I can’t help but compare Patchett’s wonderful novel to to the garbage I’ve been penning recently.

Patience and practice, Elizabeth! Patience and practice.

Children’s Literature, Fall 2014

Well, a new semester is right around the corner and that means I’ve been looking through the Scholastic catalogue picking the best books at the best prices for my students.  This is what we will be reading this semester:

I always start with fairy tales. They’ll read “Cinderella” by Charles Perrault and “Aschenputtel” by the Grimm brothers and pick two more fairy tales to read.

Next is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. A great story!

Then we get to the part of the semester where they get some choices.  They must read one book in each genre:

Fantasy

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Historical Fiction

Sing Down the Moon by Scott O’Dell

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick

Contemporary Realistic Fiction

Rules by Cynthia Lord

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Poetry

Love that Dog by Sharon Creech

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Mixed Genre

Holes by Louis Sachar

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

My students will choose two other books to read as well, based on an author and a theme.

Do you recognize some of these books and authors from when you were a child?  They are worth a re-read or a read aloud to your child or grandchild.

See some titles you don’t know?  Check them out! 

These are wonderful books. It’s going to be a great semester!

Little Free Library: Update

Last month, I wrote about my family’s Little Free Library. I wanted to let you know that my neighborhood is using it!  We average probably a visitor every day or so.  We’ve had many donations, and I’ve been able to tell which books are the most popular (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Babysitters Club) and which books have been borrowed and kept (Divergent, Sushi for Beginners). That’s OK because that is the what the library is all about. Moving books from people to people. We’ve received many, many donations and I spend time once a week re-arranging and re-organizing the titles.  This little library is a delight in my life.

But wait! What if you live in my neighborhood, and it is night, and you need a book, and you don’t have a flashlight? Our Little Free Library is open and lit:

night libraryMy husband and younger son took apart one of those solar lights you can put in the ground to light a sidewalk (an example is in the ground in the photo).  They then attached the solar part of the light to the roof of the library, drilled a hole in the back of the library under the roof, set the light inside the library, and voila: our Free Little Library has a solar-powered light for all your night-time book-borrowing needs.

night library closeI’m guessing that we may have one of the only solar-powered lights for a Little Free Library.  My husband and son are so clever!