Thursday, August 17th, 2017

Some answers to questions I often get asked …

How does your writing partnership with your mother work? Who does what?

Luckily, we have complementary strengths. Mom is great at the fun ideas, the flights of fancy, the juicy one-liners; I’m the nuts-and-bolts person. I keep track of whether the action is moving forward, or the voices are true to the characters. I’m also the scribe, typing while we talk, but it’s pretty equal in terms of the number of words we each contribute to a given page.

We usually start a new project by brainstorming an outline. Once we have the seed of an idea – a character in pursuit of a problem, or a plot – we try to determine the theme. What do we want to leave our readers with?  What must our hero do, or what problem must s/he overcome, in order to learn that lesson? Then, our writing process is literally just thinking out loud and finishing each other’s sentences.

The best thing about working with a partner is having another creative mind to bounce ideas off of. There’ve been so many times when we’ve been individually dry, but once we start brainstorming together, some alchemy takes over and the story starts emerging as if we’re just connecting the dots.

Do you ever disagree when you’re writing, and if so, what happens?

Actually, we seldom – if ever – come to blows. We have a lot of mutual respect, and early on we somehow arrived at the understanding that “the best idea wins.” If one of us is particularly passionate about a certain idea, then the other one generally defers.  So far, that system has really worked for us. 

Where do you get your ideas?

My kids are a prime source. Their personalities, the events in their lives, the things they or their friends say or do have all been wonderful fodder for our books. But we also get ideas from other sources: a quote we come across, an old legend ripe for developing, events from our own childhoods.

Do you write at a particular time of day or in a particular place?

Because we are often on opposite coasts, Mom and I do a lot of our work via Skype or iChat. I have a lovely home office, overlooking the garden, with a big desk, an ergonomic chair and a trusty iMac. I also have a treadmill desk, which I don’t use often enough. Where do I work the most? On my laptop, at the kitchen table, in the middle of family chaos!

What’s the secret to writing a good picture book? 

If you’re REALLY interested in the answer to this question, you should consider taking my home study course in writing picture books, Just Write for Kids. But here are a few nuggets:

Good picture books usually feature a compelling protagonist – either a child, or a child-like hero – who is engaged in solving some problem, and who learns something in the process, so that by the end they have somehow changed or grown.

The art advances the story as much as words do in picture books, so you have to be careful not to write what the art will show, yet also to craft a compelling and active story that will lend itself to visual interest and story progression. You want to avoid scene after scene of “talking heads,” for instance.

The best picture books are very economical when it comes to words. The goal used to be 1000 words… these days, it’s a lot less. So one needs to edit and streamline the narrative down to the fewest possible words, artfully chosen. Certain things are helpful in this regard, such as avoiding a lot of exposition and focusing more on good verbs than adjectives or adverbs.

And in the end, great kids books offer hope.  Even if the subject matter is sad or poignant, there is usually a spirit of optimism to take away from the story.  That’s one of the reasons they’re such a pleasure to read – and to write. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I was fortunate to take a workshop with the great poet Billy Collins.  He spoke about poetry as being an ongoing “conversation” between poets across the centuries. He said every aspiring poet or writer should first listen to the conversation (i.e. read as much as possible), and then figure out what they might contribute to it.  The idea of written work as a thoughtful contribution to an ongoing dialogue across history (as opposed to idle chatter or shouting one’s immediate ideas from a mountaintop) really stuck with me, and I think it applies to any kind of creative endeavor.

What advice do you have for new writers?

1) Read. Read the best of everything in your genre, and stay current.  People often make the mistake of thinking “I was a kid once, and I know what I liked” or referencing books from their childhood, but children’s publishing has changed dramatically in the last 20 to 30 years.  You have to know what the market is like today, and stay plugged in as it evolves – no matter what genre you write for.

2) Hone your craft.  Take classes and workshops, attend conferences. Keep stretching, learning, sharpening your skills – even (or maybe especially) after you’ve sold your first manuscript.

3) Find community. Writing can be a solitary business. I’m lucky – I write with a partner and work for a graduate writing program, but it’s really important to find your tribe and connect with them regularly. Find a supportive critique group, join forums, take classes, attend conferences, whatever it takes to connect with other writers. It will keep you sane, and honest. (Start by joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.)

4) Diversify your strengths. It’s the rare writer that makes a living solely from writing. Even the most successful writers in the world have to augment their income with things like teaching, editing, or speaking engagements. Find ways to support your writing habit.  Be willing to have a day job, to do whatever it takes… but whenever possible, try to make those other sources of income writing-related, such as freelance writing, editing, teaching, etc. It really helps.

What made you decide to get into freelance editing? How did you learn the necessary skills? 

I think my editing skills were initially honed through my experiences in the theatre, which shaped my understanding of character, dramatic structure, conflict, theme and action.  These are universal principles of dramatic storytelling, no matter the genre.  Over the years, I’ve been further informed by my own experiences as a writer, and most of all by the excellent editors I’ve been fortunate to work with.

I lean heavily on the basic rules of dramatic structure. I start asking essential questions about character journey, and that usually reveals the way. But I am careful about screening a manuscript before I agree to take it on, to determine whether it’s something I can truly be helpful with. Different editors are better suited to different projects, and I do know my strengths – and my limitations.

You’re a mother, wife, author, editor and teacher.  How do you juggle it all? 

It helps that my husband and kids are incredibly loving and supportive. (Steve is also a great cook!) And the nice part about being a writer is that I mostly work from home, so even though I may be busy, I’m a presence. I tend to structure my day around key family events, like taking the kids to school, picking them up, and dinner time. I also devote certain days of the week to certain aspects of my work, so some days I’m at the college, other days I’m working from home. It’s not easy, but I enjoy the patchwork quilt nature of it – it keeps things interesting, if a bit stressful at times!

What’s on your bucket list?

I’m doing it! Besides writing, the main item on my bucket list for years was to learn to play piano.  I’ve always regretted quitting lessons when I was a kid, and long said that one day I would finally come back to it.  I realized that if I waited for some “right” moment in my life when I could better afford the time and money, I would never do it.  It’s now a total pleasure – and the lessons and practice time have become an oasis, during which I recharge my creative batteries. That’s been an unexpected bonus. 

What’s your favorite children’s book?

There are so many!  My go-to book on childhood rainy days was The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. I think it was responsible for teaching me to love words.

A book I wish I’d written? The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds. It has everything a picture book needs – character, plot, obstacles, humor, and an inspiring take-away. 

One all-time favorite? Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.  For originality, richness of imagery and language, and general can’t-stop-turning-the-pages-to-find-out-what-happens-next-iveness. 

What was it like growing up with Julie Andrews as your Mom?

What I usually say is that it was hard to keep my room clean… I couldn’t understand why Mom didn’t just snap her fingers and make everything put itself away! 

The truthful answer is that she was just Mom to me.  She was always up in time to make us a “good protein breakfast” before school, and she made a big point of maintaining family routines. Of course, her job made it possible for us to travel quite a bit, and to meet some very interesting people… but she made a big effort to shelter us from too much Hollywood craziness, and I’m really grateful for that. She’s pretty much what you might expect – a really good egg, with a big heart.  

Can I send you a message to give to your Mom?

I’m afraid not. Due to the limitations of my own time and resources, I can’t respond to or forward any inquiries for my mother – including general fan questions, requests for signed memorabilia, guest appearances or other invitations.

The best thing to do is to attend a book signing. You can find out about upcoming signings on the Julie Andrews Collection calendar, or via the Julie Andrews Collection Facebook page: Facebook.com/JulieAndrewsCollection.

Alternatively, you can send a note in care of our publisher:

c/o Author Mail
Little, Brown and Company
237 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017

Thanks for understanding!