Thursday, December 27, 2012

PNWA Book Doctor Interview: Secrets Revealed

Jason Black
I'd like to introduce author Jason Black and PNWA's own book doctor. I reviewed his latest middle grade book, Pebblehoof on MMGM a few weeks ago. You can see the review here. I was so glad that Jason agreed to an interview here on the blog. Welcome Jason! And now for our first question:
1) Why do you write for children?
You know, people ask me that a lot. I sometimes wish I had a deep, philosophical answer, but I don't. I never set out to be a children's author--and indeed, have written in genres all over the map--but somehow, I've ended up writing several books for kids of various ages. I'm not quite sure how that happened, but there you go.
That said, for each book there are specific reasons why I wrote it for younger audiences. I've written three novels as gifts for specific children, and therefore, needed to write something that was accessible to that kid. I have a fourth title in the works that is YA because that was the most natural audience for the subject matter.
However, having done it several times now, I have to say I really enjoy
writing for kids. My list of to-be-written books is still all over the map,
but you can bet Pebblehoof isn't the last youth title you'll see from me.

 2) Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a writer. 
Oh, my least favorite question ever! I'm such a boring subject. :) I'm a technical writer in the software industry by day, freelance developmental
editor by night (hey, everybody needs a secret identity), novelist when I can
squeeze it in, and father of two book-loving children who are occasionally
willing to test-drive manuscripts for me.
Like many writers, I tried my hand at fiction when I was a teenager. Although the kind and supportive adults in my life praised my efforts, to me they were abject failures and best forgotten. I couldn't understand how real writers did it. I would think of ideas for stories, which in my head were grand, epic
affairs. Then when I'd write them, I'd be done after about three pages, and I had no idea where the grand, epic-ness had gone. I figured I just didn't have the magical knack of sustaining a story for hundreds of pages like the published writers did. What followed was two tragically lost decades of not writing fiction at all. That's one of the biggest regrets of my life. I can't get that time back.
Then in 2005, a co-worker at my day job talked me into trying National NovelWriting Month. I was skeptical, but for some reason or other I said yes. I decided to novelize the events of a role playing game I had run with some friends several years prior. Laugh if you will, but thirty days later--and utterly astonished--I held a 100,000 word manuscript in my hands. 
That month of literary abandon, as NaNoWriMo calls it, was easily the single greatest time of creative joy and liberation I've ever had. I was hooked, and haven't looked back since. But don't ask me what changed during those two fallow decades. To this day, I haven't the slightest idea why I can do now what was so impossible in my youth.
Order Here!
3) What was the inspiration for Pebblehoof?

Pebblehoof was written as a gift for my niece. And I'll tell you, for any writer looking for inspiration, nothing beats writing for a _specific_audience. Pick one individual child, and write for her. In my case, my niece loves horses. And I mean, she really, really loves horses. So naturally, I had to write a horse book. Since it's for my niece, I wanted it to have a strong, female protagonist of a similar age.
With those two requirements, I started thinking about plots and settings. There were basically two. I could do something set in the modern day, about dressage or show-jumping or something like that. Or, I could do something historical, in an age when horses were as common as cars are now.
Of the two, dressage made me yawn straight away. Apologies to those who do
love dressage, it's just not even a little bit my thing. Historical, however,
opens up some great stuff. Like the American West during the homestead era, when the land was wild, the law was basically nonexistent, and the
opportunities for a strong female protagonist to get into some dandy
adventures with her horse were much more readily available.

 4) Tell us about your process.
Well, I guess I already started answering that, so I'll just continue. Boiled
down to a three-word philosophy, it would be “always increase specificity.” [Step 1]* I start with whatever vague inklings of a story happen to come to me, and from there refine that idea into something that is ever more specific. For Pebblehoof, I was starting with "girl and a horse in the wild west." That's nice, but is far too vague to work with. So, piece by piece, I evaluated
options for making it specific.

[Step 2]* Take the protagonist. Since the book is for my niece, I made the protagonist two years older than my niece was going to be by the time the book was in
print. The rule of thumb I've been told for middle-grade and YA fiction is that kids like to read about protagonists who are a little bit older than themselves. Next, as much as possible I want my niece to identify with the protagonist, so I named my protagonist Maria because that's phonetically similar to--but not a dead-on ringer for--my niece's name. I gave the protagonist a family structure that mirror's my niece's family: a mother,
father, and younger sister. I gave them similar names to my sister, my brother-in-law, and my other niece too. My family is of German extraction, so I made the protagonist's family into German immigrants. 
[Step 3] Now we're starting to get specific, and to a point where research can help.
America's German population largely came over in the mid-19th century, as a result of civil war in Germany. That fixed the time period pretty specifically, at least as far as when Maria's parents would have come to
More research: what was going on in America during those years? Obviously, lots of stuff. The question of slavery, predominantly, but I wasn't interested in writing a story with a heavy, moralistic, social-studies kind of message. There’s a place for books like those, it just wasn’t what I wanted to write. I also found that the Homestead Act was passed in that same time period. Ah ha, said I, that's a perfect fit for the needs of an immigrant family looking to
start a new life in a free land.
So you see how this works: [Step 4] I look at the parts of my premise or plot which are too vague, then I do research and brainstorm until something strikes me as a good fit for what I'm after.
In like fashion, I found a specific location for the story (the Platte River
area around Columbus, Nebraska), discovered and invented various plot elements and turning points in the story, and learned tons of great historical details that provide the color and texture for the story. That same process even gave me the story's central conflict involving the Transcontinental Railroad.
* Red Added.
 5) Pebblehoof is an incredible historical fiction and it is clear you did extensive research. Can you share anything you learned about research:how-to strategies, determining what to use and when, and ultimately—how to know you've done enough?
I think I've answered most of that already. I'll just add that the process. I've described works incredibly well for historical fiction, but (research) also works great for other types of fiction as well. The only difference is that what constitutes "research" may differ.  
My research was the traditional kind, because if I'm going to write a
historical novel I want it to be actually historical. And if I'm going to
write for kids, I want them to learn something along the way. Not to hit them
over the head with the history, or require that they learn dozens of names,
dates, and significant places just to track the story. I just want the story
to be as close to something that could have happened as possible, while still
telling the story I want to tell.
But, if my niece were a space buff and I had instead chosen to write her a
futuristic sci-fi piece set on Mars or something, my “research" would have
involved a lot more "imagining stuff to fill in the gaps" rather than looking
things up in books and on the internet.

The sources may vary, but the process remains the same: do whatever you need to do to turn _vague_ ideas into _specific_ story elements. To that extent, the way you know when you've done enough is when the elements have become specific enough you can actually write about them.
Knowing what to leave out is important, too. This is a tough one for a lot of writers, because we are so easily enraptured with the cool stuff we discover while researching. We naturally want to share it all. But not everything we
discover necessarily belongs in the story. There's all sorts of historical detail about the Transcontinental Railroad, for example, which didn't make it into the book. It wasn't germane to the specific plot Maria was involved with. To add it would have been a digression. It would have killed the pacing.
You can get away with adding more of that stuff in literary genres. But for
children's literature, you _have_ to keep the plot moving. It is very, very
easy to lose kids' interest if the story bogs down. For children's lit,
knowing what to leave out is absolutely critical.

6) What does a typical writing day look like?
Hah. I wish I had typical writing days. Reality is that the demands of a day
job and freelancing leave me with precious little time to actually write my own stuff. I carve out November for novel-writing (sorry, clients!), but that's about all I get so I have to make the most of it.
Research, fortunately, is something that can be done in odd moments. I spend
September and October doing that, turning my initial vague idea into a
fully-developed scene list, with everything in order, all the plot issues work
out, and scene-by-scene notes of what's supposed to happen. That way, when
November comes, I can make the most out of the two to three writing hours I
can squeeze into an evening after the kids are in bed.
During November, my typical writing day looks like this: Wake up. Feed the
kids and get them dressed. Shower while my wife takes them to school. Go to
work. Write boring stuff about software. Come home. Eat dinner. Do baths and story time for the kids. Sit down at the computer. Grab the next scene
description out of my notes. Write what it says. Do the dishes, and go to bed.

Not exactly the Ernest Hemmingway model of adventure, seaside vistas, and
mojitos at the Havana Club, is it?

6) Where is your favorite place to write?

Typically, my home office. But anywhere quiet will do. Someone once said that the greatest asset you have is time. Someone smarter said no, the greatest asset you have is _uninterrupted concentration_. In my life, just about the only place I can find uninterrupted concentration is at home, after the kids are in bed.
7) What did or do you find most challenging in creating the story and getting it published? What do you wish you would have known?

Probably the hardest thing in Pebblehoof was in creating a story in which
Maria could be the strong, female protagonist I wanted to give to my niece.
Although it is a story about a girl and the horse who is her only friend in
the world, I didn't want it to become a "super horse saves the day!" kind of
story. I needed Maria to matter to the story. But just the same, I needed
Pebblehoof to matter to the story, too. It wouldn't be much of a
girl-and-her-horse story if the horse was just an afterthought, or was
irrelevant to the way the story unfolded.
What I needed to do was build the plot around what Pebblehoof _enables_ Maria to do that she wouldn't otherwise be able to. That was the key. It was about finding ways that Maria could save the day, but only because she had
Beyond that, the most challenging elements of publication for me are the fact that I have no visual design skills at all, which means I'm basically helpless when it comes to book covers and interior book design. Fortunately, I was able to hook up with an excellent photoshop artist on the NaNoWriMo message boards who created the cover for me. Also fortunately, I found a kindly publisher who happens to have amazing book design skills and was willing to trade publication services for developmental editing services. All of which is good, because as I said, the book was a gift, so I was committed to publishing it with or without help from traditional publishing.The book as a whole turned out really beautiful, and I’m delighted with it.
The one thing I wish I’d have been more cognizant of ahead of time was how long to plan for copy editing. I didn’t leave enough time, and didn’t have a copy editor lined up far enough in advance, so that part of the process turned
out to be a stressful, last-minute scramble.
8) What is the best writing advice you have ever received?
Easy: "Show, don't tell." The person who told me that never explained what it
meant, but somehow it made sense to me anyway. These days, because I do
developmental editing for other writers and constantly find myself having to
explain what "show, don't tell" really means, I have a very clear
understanding of the concept and how it serves as the single, bedrock, guiding
principle for all narrative writing.
I know that sounds like a hyperbole, but I mean it quite literally. Explaining
why is probably a whole other interview, though.

9) Are you working on a new project? Can you tell us about it?

I am! This year's NaNoWriMo just finished up, and I'm pretty excited about
this rough, first draft I just wrote. It is middle-grade book for my other
niece, and will be coming out for her birthday in September, 2013. (Writers,
beware! While it's great to write for a specific, one-kid audience, there is a
potential drawback: having done it for one niece, I'm now on the hook to do it
for her sister and for my own kids as well. Still, there are worse problems to
This one is about a beaver in the far north of Ontario, on the run from the
fur trapper pursuing her for her rare black pelt. I'm reading it to my kids
right now, to see what they think and learn whether I need to fix anything.
I'm not sure what they think of it yet, but so far I'm quite pleased with how
the book came out.
10) What advice would you give others that write for children?
Respect your audience, both for their strengths and their limitations. Maxim Gorky said, "You must write for children in the same way you do for adults, only better." I do my best to take that to heart.
For me, that means two things. First, it means is recognizing that children
are every bit as smart as you or me. There is never a need to "dumb down" a story just because you're writing it for kids. Just focus on telling the
_best_ story you can. Don't worry about making it simple. Pebblehoof is by no
means a simple story; Maria's and her parents have a pretty complex dynamic
(hey! just like in real life!). Similarly, the family as a whole has a
shifting, love/hate relationship with the railroad and the railroad baron who
is the book's central nemesis.

Second, it means to recognize that kids don't yet have the reading skill
grownups do. And why should they? You and I have been at this whole reading thing for decades. Kids have only been doing it for as little as a year or two, depending on the particular age you're writing for. This has a bearing on how you write the story. (But note, it doesn't mean you dumb down the language. Quite the opposite, actually, as the early literacy years also coincide with kids' period of most rapid language acquisition. To dumb down the language of your writing is to do them a disservice by eliminating their opportunity to experience new words in context and figure out what they mean.)
What it does mean is that for a kid to read two pages of story, say,
represents a significant investment of time and effort. That's not an easy
thing for them, and you'd darn well better respect their work. They'd better
get some payoff out of it, which means that the story had better _move_ within those pages. If you give the kid two solid pages of beautiful, poetic,
evocative, Pulitzer-worthy landscape description in which nothing happens, you
haven't respected their work and you shouldn't be surprised if the kid decides
your book is boring. Adult readers might happily stick with you for those two
pages. But then, for the same amount of effort the kid put in, the adult might
well read 20 pages instead of 2. For kids, there's a very different ratio of
work to reward than for adults. I said earlier that pace was critical for
children's literature, and this is why. If you're going to write for kids,
keep that story moving!

Thanks so much for stopping by Jason. I hope you all enjoyed the interview as much as I did. Be sure to check out his editing services on his website here. 

I'm going to take a few weeks off to plan for the new year. Join me on January 14th for my first middle grade book review of 2013!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Pam! Thanks again for the interview and the great questions!

    Readers, feel free to post any other questions you might have about the book, my writing process, or whatever. I'll pop in to check on the comments throughout the day.

    And for any librarians reading, please get in touch if you'd like a copy or two donated to your library. (Except my wife: Honey, if you're reading this, you're covered. Let some other libraries have some!)


I would love to hear from you!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...