Friday, April 27, 2012

"Each One Teach One" Author Interview: John Claude Bemis

This Spring on Writermorphosis I’m interviewing great Children’s/YA authors and author/illustrators about tips they were given by more experienced authors/illustrators when they first started in the business, and how those tips have helped them and can help us today.

Our first victim (AKA author) is my friend John Claude Bemis. 

John is the author of The Clockwork Dark, a fantasy adventure trilogy that takes place in a mythical America. The first book, The Nine Pound Hammer (Random House, 2009), was described as “a steampunk collision of heroes, mermaids, pirates, and good old-fashioned Americana” by Booklist, and was a New York Public Library Best Children’s Book 2009 for Reading and Sharing. That was followed by the rest of the trilogy, The Wolf Tree and The White City.  His newest book, described as a "futuristic Jungle Book,” is The Prince Who Fell from the Sky.  John is a songwriter and musician who found inspiration for his fiction in old-time country and blues music and the Southern folklore at its heart. A former elementary school teacher, he lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his wife and daughter.

So John, tell us.  Which more experienced author gave you good advice that’s helped you in the profession?  And what was that advice?
I’m fortunate to live in Hillsborough, a little historic town in North Carolina that has a disproportionate number of writers.  Walk to the coffee shop or local bookstore, and you’ll likely cross paths with Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, or Michael Malone.  Not long after I got my first book contract, I ran into literary icon Allan Gurganus (Last Confederate Widow Tells All) at a gallery opening.  After talking a bit, I asked him what advice he had for a new author.  He advised me to buy a ticket to New York and meet my editor face-to-face.  (It’s surprising how rarely authors wind up meeting their agents or editors in-person.)

The heart of his advice was that in our increasingly on-line world, the personal touch makes a huge difference.  Whether that is sending a hand-written thank you note or going to a conference to meet editors, agents, and other authors, this has made an enormous difference to my career.  The relationships I’ve formed with others have furthered my professional life more than anything I could ever do on Facebook.  I treasure my time at SCBWI conferences and Schmoozes, literary festivals, and book readings as opportunities to meet and get to know fellow writers, both published and to-be published.

Thanks John! That does sound like great advice from Allan Gurganus. Building relationships is so important in the publishing industry – and in life. 
Can you say more about how this tip from Allan has affected your work as a writer?
Certainly. The wisdom Allan Gurganus offered me has had an impact on my approach to my creative life.  Writers often work in isolation.  However, we gain innumerable insights to our craft and stories through those serendipitous encounters and casual conversations.  It’s led me to actively get out to schools to meet kids, teachers, and librarians or to get to as many conferences as I can.  From a marketing perspective, face-to-face encounters with readers are vastly more important than anything I can do on-line… and more meaningful.

Well said, John.  I’ve been to a few events where you’ve been sharing your stories and signing books, and I’ve always enjoyed the way you get everyone involved by bringing your guitar and getting us all singing the song you sing about your first book, the Nine Pound Hammer.  Having fun with you seems to make your books “personal” to your readers.  I’ve also been impressed by how you try to spend time with new authors, helping to mentor them.  I know you’ll be on the first pages critique panel at the Raleigh SCBWI/Goalies Author Illustrator Schmooze in Raleigh, NC, on May 20th at 3pm at Quail Ridge Books. 
So, what do you think is great about more experienced authors/illustrators teaching and mentoring those who are newer to the profession?  Why is this important?

I believe one of the biggest mistakes published writers make is spending too much time isolated with others in the industry.  This has the potential to stifle creativity.  When you start thinking too much about sales and what the industry does or doesn’t want, you lose what’s unique and true to your writing.  I look for as many opportunities as I can to be around authors who are newer to the profession and to be around a variety of artists.  It’s the cross-pollination of ideas and the willingness to challenge our assumptions that keeps our imaginations strong.   So, I try to be around aspiring authors as much as I can.  They are a wealth of creative insights!  I relish opportunities such as SCBWI conferences and events, doing manuscript critiques, and teaching writing workshops where I get to meet writers working to be published.  That exchange of ideas and variety of perspectives informs my craft enormously.
I love that perspective, John, that while you’re “reaching back” to help new authors learn the things you know now, that being around their new ideas and enthusiasm also strengthens your own creative process!
Also you mentioned SCBWI conferences.  How have writing conferences, your critique group, SCBWI Schmoozes, or other chances to network and discuss the craft with other writers helped you in your career as a writer.  Is there one particular experience you’ve had that you’d like to highlight?
I have an amazing critique group with Stephen Messer, J.J. Johnson, and Jennifer Harrod.  We began back around 2005, all hungry, aspiring authors.  Now between the four of us, we have six novels published and three more soon to be published.  The fact that we became friends has had the biggest impact on our ability to support one another.  A good critique group requires honest criticism, but it also requires lots of love and encouragement.
Also, I can’t emphasize enough how important SCBWI is to children’s book writers and illustrators.  It’s a wonderful community.  I wouldn’t have my rock-star agent, Josh Adams, if I hadn’t met him and his wife Tracey at an SCBWI conference in Durham back in 2006.  That was another situation where meeting someone in-person made a huge difference.  I knew that Tracey was presenting at that conference, and I sent her a short email saying how much I was looking forward to her talk and meeting her.  I wasn’t pushy.  I kept it professional and friendly.  (I think agents encounter too many people who forget they are people too.)  The rest, as they say, is history…
Your critique group really seems to be a great team!  I know I’ve seen you all sitting together at conferences.  It’s wonderful to have a strong group working together toward the same goal. And what a great story about connecting with Josh and Tracey Adams!
So, now that you have almost 4 books out, would you say that the biggest writing challenge you have now is the same one you struggled with when you first started in this profession? : )
Yes. The greatest challenge I face is having the time to devote to actually writing.  I thought once I was published I would be able to have more time to write, but publicity and marketing takes both time and creative energy.  I still struggle to carve out time in my busy life to simply imagine and work on my stories.

I’m sure that a lot of authors are nodding their heads with you on that one! Time is hard to capture. :)

So tell me, in the time that you have been able to dedicate to your writing, what has been one of your favorite recent projects?
Developing the trilogy the Clockwork Dark was a dream-come-true.  These were the books I always wanted to read but had never been able to find in any bookstore.  I combined epic fantasy with America’s rich folklore and history to create an adventure that captured our country’s diverse and often complicated mythology.  I feel very fortunate every time I meet readers who want to talk to me about their favorite characters and the different story lines.  It often feels like I created something that is no longer mine, but something I share with so many others.
I’m sure that’s true!  I remember when I first read the initial few pages of the Nine Pound Hammer – the scene in the swamp – I was hooked!

Ok, before we wrap up, tell us, what are you working on now?
I’m very excited for the release of my upcoming novel "The Prince Who Fell from the Sky."  It’s akin to a post-apocalyptic Jungle Book, set in a future where humans are gone and animals live among our ruins.  Casseomae is an outcast bear who longs to have cubs of her own.  When a starship crashes in the forest and she encounters the lone survivor –a “Skinless One” as the animals call the legendary humans of old—she decides to protect the child against the ruling wolves who fear the boy as threat to their world.  Along with a street-wise rat and a dreamer dog, they set off to find a safe haven for the boy and try to discover where he came from.

That sounds intriguing, John. I look forward to reading it!  And what a great 1-paragraph synopsis!  We can all learn from that one!

Thanks so much for starting this interview series off with such great tips and thoughts.  We look forward to seeing you at the SCBWI Goalies Schmooze at Quail Ridge Books on May 20th, and likely at the SCBWI Fall Conference after that! I'm thinking these are great opportunities for all of us to implement Allan Gurganus’ great advice. We’ll spend time together improving our craft “face to face!” 

The next "Each One Teach One" Author Interview will be posted  Friday night, May 4th, here on Writermorphosis.

Monday, April 23, 2012

"Each One Teach One" Author Interviews!

Many talented authors have given me tips and pointers as my writing career has progressed. Those tips continue to be an enormous help to me as I keep on trudging. From Author Kathleen Reilly who taught me how to improve non-fiction query letters, to Author Carrie Ryan who shared tips on how far fiction readers are truly willing to "suspend their disbelief" during the course of a book before they kick the author to the curb -- many authors have knowingly and even unknowingly mentored me on my writing journey.

I'm so grateful for that, and for the tips I continue to receive as the journey continues.  And I've heard similar gratefulness expressed by many new writers.

So, now we're going to hear from the "not so new" YA/MG and children's authors!

In the "Each One Teach One" author interviews beginning this Friday, April 27th, and continuing each Friday evening throughout the Spring here on Writermorphosis, experienced Childrens/YA authors will share the good advice that other authors, agents, or editors taught them early in their own careers, and how they used the tips given by those mentors to build their writing careers into what they are today. 

I suspect that if we implement the tips they share each week, our own writing careers may grow stronger every Friday.  It's kind of like a mini-writing conference on a blog. :)

So join me, for the "Each One Teach One" interviews.  Huge thanks to all the exprienced authors who've already signed up to share.  And huge thanks as well to those who went before them, who taught them what they know today. How could we learn this stuff without you?

Our first author is John Claude Bemis, author of 3 MG/YA Steampunk novels, with another great futuristic teen novel, The Prince Who Fell From the Sky, about to be released.

Thanks John, for sharing your thoughts this coming Friday.

We look forward to it!


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Raleigh Spring Schmooze - You're Invited!

It's that time of year again - the Raleigh SCBWI Schmooze is coming! Mark your Calendars!
Click the flyer (above) to read the "First pages" and "illustration critique" submission rules, and to learn more about the event and more about the authors/illustrators on the Schmooze panel.
For those who can't read small print, here are the Critique submission rules:
You may present one piece of artwork or one first page. First pages should be no
more than 250 words and should fit on a single page. Do not include the author
name; submissions will be anonymous. Submissions should include the title and
genre in the upper right hand corner. The panel will critique as may first pages and illustrations
as they are able to in the time allowed. We are open to submissions in children’s literature only.
Genres include Young Adult, Middle Grade, Chapter Books, Early Readers, and Picture books. Please bring your submission to Quail Ridge Books on May 20th at the beginning of the event. For Illustration Critiques – Bring one piece of artwork at the beginning of the event.
So, those are the rules. : )
Before I begin posting on writermorphosis the author interviews noted in last week's "each one teach one" post, I wanted to give you all an update about this great event for children's/YA writers and illustrators occurring soon in the NC area!
The annual Raleigh SCBWI Schmooze is a great event for Childrens'/YA writers and illustrators, taking place again this year in Raleigh, NC. This Schmooze is lots of fun, and a well-attended event every year. Let's pack out Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh with current and aspiring childrens' authors and illustrators again in 2012 -- at 3pm on May 20th!
Find directions at (
More info. on the presenters is available at their websites:
John Bemis and Karen Lee will also be interviewed on writermorphosis over the next month in "each one teach one" posts. So come back here over the next few weeks to learn more about them, their writing/illustrating, and which other writers/illustrators influenced them and helped them learn skills they needed in order for them to get where they are in the profession today. The tips they learned from their mentors can further our own writing and illustrating careers too.