For the past six plus years, I’ve had the fortune to belong to the Montana SCBWI chapter and attend many conferences where I’ve met many talented diverse authors of children’s literature. And I am grateful for the contact, friendship and what I have learned from them. I feel very privileged to have one of those authors here today, Janet Fox, to share some insight into her journey as an author. Make sure to read through to the end and click on the link to take you to Janet’s amazing page and learn even more about her.
Stephanie: You state your mother made up stories for you and was your inspiration for writing and you were published at the young age of eight years old. What was your poem about?
Janet: Yes, my mom was definitely my inspiration! She encouraged both my reading and writing, and I can still remember her excitement (and mine) when a poem I wrote was published in the town newspaper, after my 3rd grade teacher sent it in. The poem was titled October, and thanks to my mom, I still have a copy. It's not great literature, but just seeing my name in print was a thrill. And, I still love autumn and the colors, smells, and excitement of fall.
Stephanie: That is definitely exciting and so encouraging to a young mind. What a great teacher to send that in for you and a great mother for saving it for you to remember. What type of stories did your mother make up and how did they inspire your writing aspirations?
Janet: I knew my mother was writing stories but I had no real idea how many and what kind they were until she died very suddenly. I still regret not having a conversation, or many, with her about her love of writing and especially her love of writing for children. I found a stack of stories on her desk as I helped my dad sort through her stuff.
When I first read them, they so appealed to me. They were like the stories I'd loved as a child. Innocent, personal and deeply felt - and I thought, "I should try and get them published for her." Well. That was my education.
I talked to anyone I could find who would give me a moment's time, and what I heard was, "These are charming but too old-fashioned."
I had a toddler at the time, and my response was, "So, what's the difference between the books my son is reading and the stories my mom wrote?" That exploration took me into the world of children's literature and gave me the basis of what I needed to begin writing stories of my own.
I still have Mom's stories, and some day, I may just edit them and publish them myself.
Stephanie: You should definitely get them published. It would be such an amazing tribute to your mother and a great legacy to leave for generations to come. I loved your quiz on the About Me page of your website. What a fun way for people to get to know you. Of the 8 true facts, which of them is your favorite and which of them do you have regrets over and why?
Janet: Wow - what a great, fun question!
Probably my favorite experience is my ALVIN dives. How lucky am I to have experienced a submersible dive to the deep sea floor! It was magical. I often show kids slides of what it's like down there, but really it's hard to capture. The marine life is extraordinary, and most would not survive the journey to the surface, so it has to be experienced the way I did. Really, in terms of both the weird environment and the number of people who have had this opportunity, it's not much different than if I'd been able to go into space.
Regrets, well. Probably my biggest regret is that I didn't keep singing. I really had the chance, brief as it was, to break out. But then, I wouldn't have met my husband, or had my son, and the chances that I'd be touring in an aging bus with a bunch of tired band members as opposed to being a rock star? Yeah. I'm happy with my life's path. Lucky, in fact. Although, I still love to sing.
Stephanie: I love singing too! I always imagined myself becoming a famous singer, though I was extremely shy as a teen so I don’t know how I would have achieved that. Today, I try to sing for others several times a year just so I don’t lose my confidence to sing. Though singing in church, I think people have to be nice to you, but still it is encouraging. Do you have/take opportunities to share your talent with others?
Janet: Yes, I still love to sing. I've often dreamed of singing in a choral group but just never had the time to pursue it. I don't think it's too late...but singing is like any other muscle. It does wear thin with no use. So for now, I sing for myself, but who knows?
Stephanie: Yes, singing is for sure one of those talents you can lose if you don't use it. Most talents are that way, which is why I think it is so important to share whatever talent you may have, no matter how small it is. Maybe you'll have to share with us at a conference sometime. *wink*
Have any of those life experiences you alluded to in your quiz shaped the stories you create today, and which ones the most?
Janet: All of them.
I'm constantly reminded that my experiences feed everything I write. Sometimes I'll write something, and have no idea where it came from. It's just an accumulation, for better or worse.
But I will say that one experience that feeds me deeply was living abroad for a year. I would recommend that anyone who wants to write should travel.
Stephanie: I currently have on my bookshelf, every one of your published books. My son, though he doesn't always put it to use, has read your 'How To Get Organized Without Losing It' and I've read Forgiven, Faithful and Sirens. All of them are fantastic, but by far my favorite is Sirens. Which of them was the most fun to write? The hardest? And which is your favorite, or can you choose?
Janet: Oh, you are so sweet! Wow. The hardest to write was probably FAITHFUL. It was my first novel, and it was painful to try and get it right. It took me 4 years. The most fun was probably SIRENS. I loved playing with the alternating points of view for the first time, and I really loved getting inside Lou's head. She surprised me.
And my favorite? That's kind of like choosing which of your children is your favorite. Sure, I have one, but I'll never admit that.
Stephanie: Lol, that is probably smart. You have a new debut Middle Grade novel coming out with VIKING in 2016, 'Chatelaine: The Thirteenth Charm'. Can you tell us a little about it?
Janet: I'd love to!
Here's the synopsis: CHATELAINE is a middle-grade novel set in a rundown Scottish castle during WWII. The lady of the manor has set it up as a temporary boarding school for children escaping the London Blitz. But something is not right with that castle or that lady, and the children begin disappearing one by one. There are clues that hint that a spy is in the house; there are signs that can’t be denied that there is a sinister magic. It’s a race against the clock for one girl, her two younger siblings, and her new best friend to get to the bottom of things.
More importantly, there are ghosts, weird teachers, a clockwork monster, an enigma machine, a giant and a dwarf, phantasms...and the spooky Scottish highlands with dreadful weather.
By the way, by next summer I'll be hosting a scavenger hunt around the novel that should be lots of fun. I had the great good fortune to travel through Scotland this fall and I brought home over 400 photographs. I'm making a series of 12 videos, each of which features a charm that pertains to one of the charmed children.
Stephanie: It sounds fantastic. I can't wait to read it. Where did the name come from? Does it have any significance or did you just like the name?
Janet: Well, I do like it, very much, but here's the irony - we're considering a new title, mainly because it does require explanation.
A chatelaine is a piece of jewelry that holds either useful tools or charms - like a charm bracelet but worn on the waist. It evolved from the keeper of the chateau, who would wear the keys at her waist...and then it became an affectation, and some became very elaborate.
Here's the fun backstory. A friend posted a picture on Facebook of a chatelaine. I pulled it off the internet because it just struck me as SO weird. Two weeks later I'd written 30 pages of a novel based on that picture. My agent loved it. And here it is today.
Stephanie: It’s amazing where inspiration comes from. I think the key is to be ready to take action when it does, something it sounds like you are great at doing. How long did it take you to write 'Chatelaine?'
Janet: About a year before I sent it to my new agent, and now it's in the editing process, so about two years after the idea was born.
Stephanie: Was it easier or harder to write a Mid Grade novel than YA?
Janet: About the same. It's a hard job no matter what genre. And it all depends on the voice of the protagonist that's in my head as to what age group the story falls into.
Stephanie: What other projects do you have in your ‘closet’ right now?
Janet: My agent is currently reading a draft of my YA science fiction novel, set in a dystopian future, and I'm about to send her a draft of a YA contemporary that is part romance, part commentary on the effects of fracking. I also have another middle grade historical fantasy completed, in which my protagonist, disguised as a boy, enlists the aid of an aging knight, and another middle grade fantasy about the place between life and death. I'm never at a loss for ideas!
Wow! I would say so. Good luck with all your endeavors and I look forward to reading them all. Thank you so much for your time Janet! For more information on Janet and her fantastic books, check out her website http://janetsfox.com/
You can also follow her on Twitter & Facebook.
For those interested in pursuing writing, joining your local SCBWI chapter is extremely advisable. Click the link to find a chapter close to you https://www.scbwi.org/
If you are like me, the solution to your writing conundrum usually doesn't come to you at an opportune time. For me, it is usual in the shower, while I am driving or most often, in those quiet moments just before I am about to drift off to sleep.
In those situations, and many others, its not always possible to write down your thoughts. And if you don't, you might risk losing some of the brilliance. So what do you do when that happens?
There are three things I try to do.
1. I have notebooks and writing utensils everywhere. By my bed, in the bathroom, in my purse and in the car. Everywhere. And as soon as I am able to, I write it down.
2. If I won't be able to write it down soon for whatever reason, I grab my phone and text myself. Most phones nowadays have the ability for voice recognition and I just push the little microphone symbol and record my thought and then hit send. That way it's waiting for me, when I do have time to do something with it.
3. Now, this last one, I wish I was able to do all the time, but life is a busy affair and only a few fortunate souls have this luxury. I hurry to my computer and I start writing, or if I am in the beginning stages of writing a novel, I grab my notebook. I usually fill a notebook with my first draft before I ever start it in the computer. Something about the blank page, that flashing cursor, is an inspiration killer for me. Once I have that notebook filled, and I have some meat, I can get going. I fill that blank page rapidly and out goes the intimidation.
Whatever it is you decide to do, make sure you are ready for inspiration. Because that fickle muse strikes when we least expect it.
No one likes to be told what they are doing wrong. And as we get older, we like it even less. But sometimes, actually a lot of times, its necessary to learn and develop. As children, we are told, how to do the dishes, how to clean our rooms, how to brush our teeth, hot to do everything. As teenagers, again, we are told, do your homework, practice, put the video games down, and again, we are told how to do it. Once we reach adulthood, its out turn to dish out the criticism to our kids. But if we learned anything from our parents, it was hopefully how to do it correctly.
You get more flies with honey, right?
Well, if you approach criticism of someone or something they are doing the same way as the honey analogy, and make sure to give a positive before you make your suggestion for change, your critique will be better received. It doesn't mean the person will like it, but they might actually listen instead of becoming hurt or angry. Also as adults, we have to critique ourselves, and allow others to, and then we can take it or leave it. That's the great thing about criticism. You DO NOT have to agree with it.
So, that said, I LOVE criticism. Yes, I said that.
But only about my writing.
And only if it is given in a constructive way. Criticize me about me and you might want to step back, :-).
So, yes there are strings attached to my love of criticism. But getting feedback helps me become a better, stronger, writer (And if I let it, a better stronger person). As a writer, I am too close to my story. It makes sense to me, because it is coming out of my own head, but it someone else reads it and is confused, that's a red flag to clear things up a bit.
Here are a few tips to help you when either giving or receiving criticism.
1. Critiques are two way. If you want to receive, you should give. Many things can be learned from another writers works. What to do, what not to do, common errors, etc.
2. When you give feedback, think about what would be most useful to you. Don't just say, "I liked it. It was good." That tells the author nothing. Be specific. "I really liked the way her voice came out in this chapter. I got a really good sense of who she was as a person. You did a good job with that"
3. Do NOT try to rewrite someone's manuscript. Respect their story. But offer comments about setting, plot, description, characterization, dialogue, sensory details and what did and didn't work for you as a reader. Try to identify the 'why' as well. Again, be specific. "The kiss seemed to passionate for a first kiss. It should be more chaste. They are just getting to know each other and it shouldn't be rushed."
4. Don't summarize your work, or apologize for it. You wrote it. Be proud of it. But if something is not clear to your reader, don't try to explain it. If they didn't get it, then that means you need to rework it.
5. Remember, you don't have to agree with everything someone says. Takes the bits that make sense and forget the rest, but be respectful to what is being said. And don't take things personally. It is not you being critiqued, but your writing sample.
6. If you are part of a group, decide on an agreed number of pages or maybe one chapter for critique. Or set a time limit. Different things work for different groups. An online group can usually be sent more at a time where as a face-to-face group may not have time for something as big as a chapter. Discuss it amongst the group, majority rules.
7. Most important of all. Have FUN! This is such a great process, despite the possible frustrations. Trust your fellow critiquers, remember to value everyone's time and commitment, but enjoy it.
Stephanie N. Pitman, Author
The written word is magical...
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