Joan has written 130 published books for children, from picture books, to middle grade series. She started out as an Illustrator, and worked as an Art Director at Scholastic. Then she decided she liked writing books even more than illustrating them, so she begin writing, and her first children's manuscript was published in 1997. Since then, she's been on a roll. One of Joan's first two books, written in 1997, Boo Who? A Spooky Lift-the-Flap Book is still in print and will be in B&N this Halloween! Wow - that's a book with a long shelf-life! Check it out!
Joan is currently co-authoring a middle grade series, The Goddess Girls, and a chapter book series Heroes in Training, for Alladin/Simon and Schuster. She recently gave a great presentation on writing middle grade series', at the SCBWI Conference in Charlotte, NC.
Over the next 3 weeks Joan will share with us her tips on Scene and Setting, pitching a series, collaborating with a co-author, having a fabulous web-presence, and dealing with rejection. Welcome Joan, we're thrilled to have you.
The first question we ask all of our fabulous authors is, who was another author, illustrator, or publishing professional who helped you when you were first getting started in the profession of writing? How did he or she mentor, teach, or help you?
I'll give my shout out to Suzanne Williams, who co-authors the Goddess Girls middle grade series and Heroes in Training chapter book series with me for Aladdin/Simon and Schuster. She has also written picture books (Library Lil; Mommy Doesn’t Know My Name) and several other children’s book series (Princess Power). She said yes when I asked her to try writing a series with me; she taught me to believe in the value of writing synopses; and she introduced me to her wonderful agent at Eden Street Lit, who is now my agent as well.
I'm amazed, Joan, that you were able to write so many books without a synopsis before collaborating on books with Suzanne! :) Congrats to Suzanne for being the kind of author and partner in writing who can teach another experienced author new tricks!
Now Joan, we'll be doing this interview over three weekends because there are so many great questions we want to ask you. But for today let's focus on writing descriptive scenes and settings.
1 I've noticed that writers who also have experience as illustrators tend to do a great job of describing setting in their books. I suspect this is because illustrators visualize in their minds what the setting described in a book would actually “look like” on paper if they were drawing it.
As an illustrator who is now an author, are there certain things that you always try to include when writing a description of a place? Can you give us any tips on how to describe our settings so effectively that our readers can easily see them and feel like they are there?
Yes. I’m a visual person, and I agree that being an illustrator can help an author “see” what’s going on in a story. I usually create my board books and picture books on storyboards even if I don’t plan to illustrate them. It helps me figure them out. New York Times bestselling illustrator Tom Lichtenheld told me that my Zero the Hero picture book dummy helped him decide in favor of illustrating the book. His art looks waaay better than my dummy did and many things changed during his art process. But if you think visually, making a dummy could help an extremely busy editor organize your material and give an artist a jumping-off point.
The black and white sketches below are Joan's dummies. The finished book, above,
was illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld.
As far as writing setting description in a chapter book or middle grade book, do remember the visual details, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings/textures. Don’t go overboard with setting. Include just enough—just the right details--to set your scene. Often, a lot of description gets left out of my first drafts. I usually only realize it’s missing when I go back and revise. It’s more important to me to get the plot and dialog down on the page first.
Those are great suggestions, Joan! Storyboards are great - and I know that many authors use them to show the rise and fall of action and emotions in chapters in longer books as well! ( Readers can click the link on "storyboards" above to see some examples). Also, I think it's so easy for us to write the visual details (what the character "sees") and leave out the sounds, tastes, smells and textures. Great points! Zero the hero is hilarious.
1 One other great example of description that seems both beautiful and also very age-appropriate to me, in your Goddess Girls books, was when young Persephone arrives in the graveyard to meet young Hades, in your middle grade book Persephone the Phony. The description of the graveyard that you and Suzanne wrote says: “Here and there, scraggly laurel and olive trees poked up through the ground like stray feathers on a plucked chicken."
That's a great visual that’s easily understood by tweens – and, all of us! It's short, yet from that one creative line readers can totally picture the place.
Can you give any tips on how authors can make their descriptions of place relevant, interesting, and reading-level appropriate to tweens and elementary school-aged readers? What should we think about when describing settings or characters to that age group?
I’m pretty sure that was Suzanne’s description line, and I’m guessing it probably just popped out of her head as she was writing. Since we’re co-writing fictionalized Greek mythology in the Goddess Girls and Heroes in Training series, it helps us to read travel guides and books about Greece and about mythology to get setting details.
We base each Goddess Girls book on an existing myth. We give these myths a twist by setting them in a middle school at Mount Olympus Academy, where Zeus is the principal, classes like Hero-ology can be hard, godboys can be annoying, beasts may attack at any moment, and Medusa is the meanest girl in mythology.
The way to find out what kids want in a book (setting, dialog, whatever) is to talk to them. Ask what they’re reading and why they like it. Ask about school. Get them talking. Listen in on kid conversations in malls. Consider having some middle-graders crit your manuscript. If your description gets too long or something is boring, they’ll tell you. Also, analyze what you liked about series books you read as a child and the series books that are popular now. What can you learn from that to help your own writing?
Those are great suggestions, Joan. Getting kids to read a section of our writing would definitely tell us whether our descriptions of scene and setting are clear to them, and whether we're being too long-winded. :)
I remember going back to read some chapter books that I read and loved as a kid. I was surprised, upon reading them as an adult, how little description there actually was. There were often just 1-3 short sentences here and there that gave us (the child-readers) the basics about the setting and situation, and from there our imaginations were able to build a very complex world. So I think that you suggestion of researching how to write description for a particular age group by reading the books we loved as children, and the books our children love now, is a great suggestion on how to learn to increase our skills.
This has been a great start to the interview, Joan! Thanks for all your wisdom!
We'll learn more from Joan next Saturday morning, October, 27th, as we continue our discussion about working with illustrators, co-writing with other authors, dealing with rejection, pitching a series, and more.