Monday, January 6, 2014

A Peek at the Creative Space of Chiêu Anh Urban (and a Giveaway!)

Joining us today for Creative Spaces is author/illustrator Chiêu Anh Urban. Chiêu is the creator of novelty books, her most recent being Away We Go! A Shape and Seek Book.

Away We Go! is a concept book about basic shapes, published by Scholastic, Cartwheel. Triangles become sailboats and hearts become airplanes as each spread reveals a different mode of transportation made from bright colors and geometric shapes. Die-cuts of shapes are layered throughout each page, for a fun shape-and seek-game.  The challenge is to find the vehicles in the shapes and the shapes in the vehicles.

Not only is Chiêu a wonderful creative talent, but she is generous and kind-hearted too. Last summer she donated her own books to Life Connection Missiona Christian non-profit organization serving the poorest children in the Western Hemisphere. She received these wonderful photos as a thank you. In September she began the Books and Smiles for Haiti book drive. If you are interested in donating new books to the cause, please click this link to find out more.

Chiêu's blog is also worth visiting, especially if you are a parent or work with little ones. She has free activity and party printables to use as a companion to her books, and she also shares amazing creations she's made, like all the decorations for a Despicable Me themed birthday party!

And this week one lucky reader can win a copy of Away We Go! Just leave a comment that includes some means for me to contact you should you win, and I will randomly draw and announce a winner on Sunday. (Open to US/Canada only.)

Now let's step inside Chiêu's creative space and learn a bit about where and how she does her work.


I have a small office with a nice bay window and an iMac. My workspace is packed with crafts and art supplies, and is where I mostly spend time designing on the computer. When I’m ready to put together a dummy or a project, I prefer to work in the open space of my family room and kitchen.


During the school year, I spend a good four to five hours daily driving my girls to and from school. After morning drop off, I come home, unload the dishwasher, have a light breakfast, and write my to-do list for the day.  The house is pleasantly quiet, and I have about three hours to work before school pick-up begins.  Several days a week, I take a mid-break from working to go for a run or to the gym. When my kids are home from school, my work time is pretty much over.  If I’m deeply involved with a project; I will start-up again after dinner, or when the kids are in bed.


I create most of my art on the iMac, and use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.  I also love working with traditional art, and enjoy watercolor, collage, pen and ink, and chalk pastels.


I have the first picture my husband and I took together when we were dating, next to my computer. There are moments where I space out and get distracted, and love looking at the picture.  It reminds me of how much our lives have grown since we first met.  I also have old letters and drawings from my girls’ early childhoods displayed on my desk.Their keep-sakes decorate my office.  My third favorite thing is my comfy office chair; I like to spin in it while thinking or when I have a creative block.


I always start my morning off with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.  I check my emails and engage in a bit of social networking.  I send my husband an email of what I have planned for the day, and touch base with my family and friends.  After that nice bit of procrastination, I start working for a few hours with several hot water and cookie breaks in between.  I’m a grazer and snacks keep me going.


I have a running track on my iPod that I enjoy listening to when I’m in the production phase of my work.  If I’m fleshing out a design, I can’t listen to music because it’s too distracting.


Hot water and cookies.  I have the biggest sweet tooth.


Having the house to myself keeps me focused.  A quiet working environment is very rare in my household.  It’s uninterrupted time, which I fully make the best of.  I take advantage of having all the space to myself, and I lay my project out in the kitchen and family room. Here I am working on an Away We Go! themed diaper cake for Operation Shower, a non-profit organization that provides baby showers for military families. I sent them fourty signed books and this matching diaper cake made up of around 140 diapers.



I prefer to use my computer for work and administrative household stuff.  On the flip side,  I like to handwrite personal notes and letters, and endless to-do lists to keep organized.


I am always sketching, and have at least four sketchbooks on hand: in my bag, the car, my bedroom, and office.  I’m jotting ideas down when I’m on the go: while I wait for my kids at the school pick-up line, in the waiting rooms for appointments, and in restaurants while waiting for the food to come out.  During the summer, I sketch at the pool, or outside while the girls are on the playground. My favorite time to brainstorm with an open sketchbook is in bed, winding down for the evening.


I create novelty work, which includes interactive elements that can make a book innovative.  I come up with many neat ideas, but getting the novelty elements to work in a clever way is challenging.


I like working with my kids, when they are really into their projects.  It’s fun to have them do art or homework with me. They keep me company, and it’s good mother-daughter time.  We share our progress and provide critiques, including the six year old, who loves to comment on my art. Though, the fun is over when someone spills paint on the carpet or knocks over a drink.  


When I get discouraged by reading rejections from editors, my author/illustrator friend reminds me that with every rejection, I am one step closer.  I always keep that in mind; she has been a wonderful and supportive friend.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Resolutions, I've Had a Few

I've recently joined the Emu's Debuts blog, a gathering of EMLA (Erin Murphy Literary Agency) clients who have books debuting in the near future and who blog about their experiences. Today was my first post and so I'm cross-posting it here. This post was in response to a question  Emu Debuter Laurie Ann Thomspon asked in her last post: "Do any of you do any kind of year-end self-review or forward-looking career planning?"
If you aren't familiar with the Emu's Debuts blog, please come on over and visit! It's a great resource for writers or for people interested in learning more about the publishing process.

I've always been a resolution maker. Since my teenage years, I have started each year with a list of goals for myself. The questions that frame my list are "Where do I want to be this time next year?" and "What steps can I take to get myself there?"
Looking over the past five years of resolutions, you might notice a trend with my professional goals. I'll make some notes on whether or not I met my resolutions in each year.
  • Finish revision of Book ScavengerNope.
  • Find an agent. Nope.
  • Sell a book. Nope.
I refer to 2009 as The Year That Shall Not Be Named. It was a really bad year. It was the kind of year that tries to break you, and I'll be honest, it did for a while. I got very little writing done that year, much less met any of my resolutions.
  • Finish revision of Book Scavenger. No.
  • Find an agent. No.
  • Sell a book. Hahahaha--no.
Although I didn't accomplish any of my resolutions this year, I did get my writing mojo going again. Because of the scope of the revision I was undertaking--really re-writing the book when it came down to it--I could tell it was going to take me a while to get my story where I wanted it to be. This realization was a bitter pill to swallow, especially because there was a wonderful editor who had expressed enthusiasm for my book premise and writing four years prior.  Several writing friends encouraged me to send my current draft so I didn't lose out on this editor's interest. There were many good bits in that old draft, but it wasn't working together as a whole, and what was on paper didn't match what was in my head. I knew if I couldn't execute my premise in a satisfying way, it wouldn't matter how good the writing was. I stuck to my guns and kept plowing forward.
Summarizing my resolve like that makes it seem simpler than it was. That point in my writing journey was filled with frustration and self-doubt. To distract myself from that and give myself a positive outlet for engaging in the children's literature community that I love so much, I began an interview series on my blog called "Creative Spaces". Doing this was daunting, fun, inspirational, and in retrospect I think it played a crucial role in keeping me moving forward with my book and pursuing my dreams of being a children's book author.
  • Finish revision of Book ScavengerYes!
  • Find an agent. No.
  • Sell a book. Yeah, no.
I finished my second draft in January, and man, did that feel great! I knew it still needed work and after getting feedback from critique partners I started on Draft 3.
And while I didn't find an agent, I did receive a lovely surprise email from Ammi-Joan Paquette, who had visited my blog and was intrigued by the pitch line I'd posted about my novel: "The Westing Game meets Goonies at a slumber party thrown by Edgar Allan Poe." I told her I was revising the novel but had a picture book manuscript that had been very nearly accepted for publication twice. Joan loved the picture book, but didn't sign clients unless they had at least 2 or 3 picture book manuscripts ready to go. I had two others in pretty good shape and was going to send them to her, but had a picture book conference that weekend. I figured the picture books would be better after I received feedback on them at the conference, so I held off and in the meantime sent Joan the first 50 pages of Book Scavenger. After the conference, I was toiling away on the picture book revisions when Joan sent me an incredibly enthusiastic email about what she'd read of my novel. I scrapped my plans to revise the picture books and poured all my writing time back into Book Scavenger.
  • Finish revision of Book ScavengerYes!
  • Find an agent. Not yet.
  • Sell a book. Not even close.
I finished my third draft of Book Scavenger and sent it to Ammi-Joan Paquette. She loved it, but wanted me to cut it down from 75,000 words to 50,000.
  • Finish revision of Book ScavengerYes!
  • Find an agent. YES!
  • Sell a book. YES!!!
I finished my 4th draft of Book Scavenger, following Joan's suggestions, and brought the final word count in around 50k. Joan loved what I did with the 4th draft and she signed me as her client this past March. I did another revision mainly focusing on the ending, and after ten years in the making, Book Scavenger finally went on submission in July. Not only did I sell Book Scavenger, but my publisher bought a sequel and a third stand-alone middle-grade mystery on proposal.
So as you can see, using the past five years as a guide, I fell flat on my face as far as accomplishing resolutions were concerned about 90% of the time. But I don't consider them failures. Why? Because I continued to move forward and I continued to try. That's what makes the difference between a resolution and wishful thinking. I can resolve to lose twenty pounds but not change anything about the way I eat or exercise. As long as I take steps forward, whether they are drastic (cut out sugar and join an exercise boot camp) or subtle (resolve to eat one healthy meal a week and go on more walks), I'm proactively changing the trajectory of my arc.
This year when I sat down to make my list as usual, a funny thing happened. I drew a big, fat blank. At first I worried that something was wrong with my goal-oriented sensibilities. But then I realized that 2013 had rushed by in a blur of life-altering, goal-achieving moments. Not just professionally but personally too. My husband and I bought our first home together and we celebrated our son's first birthday. Like my writing goals, those were long sought after aspirations, and I'm not ready to move on to the next thing yet. I want to sit and savor where I'm at, what I've accomplished.
So my resolution for 2014 is to enjoy the moment. This time next year, my son will be a chatterbox and I'll be thinking about things like preschool and T-ball. This time next year, our house will be a home--more lived in, more unpacked, more of our life and personality stamped onto every room. This time next year, my edits for Book Scavenger will be done. I'll have completed a draft for my second book--possibly even a revision. I'll have a game plan in motion for the Book Scavenger sequel. Holy cow, I'll be preparing for the launch of my debut novel!
Everything I am experiencing right now is fleeting and once-in-a-lifetime. My son will only be 20-months-old once. This house will only be new and a blank slate once. I will only be in the post-book deal/pre-published author limbo once. Instead of focusing on what else I hope to accomplish and where I want to go next, in 2014 I want to embrace what is happening right now. Appreciate what fills my life right now.
It occurs to me that this is true of all moments in time. Every moment we are living is fleeting, whether it's good, bad, or somewhere in between. Everything is temporary and it all goes by so fast in retrospect. It would probably be wise of me to keep this resolution for all years to come and combine it with my forward-looking goal-oriented approach. Dream big and make plans to move toward them, but appreciate the journey along the way.
But that's for next year. For 2014: Savor the moment.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Notes to My Revising Self

A friend is in that tough stretch of novel revisions where you're so close to the end, but you've been putting in long hours and you're starting to lose perspective. That place where you start to question your sanity and how far off the finish line really is and if it's all worth it anyway and maybe you should just give up and do something practical or validating or relaxing with your time. I was in that same spot so recently, it was easy for me to slip back into that suit of anguish and self-doubt. My friend wrote to a group of writers asking for advice. When I responded with my pep talk, I was really talking to myself a yearish ago. My reply resonated not only with my friend but the other writers too, so I thought I'd share it here in case this helps anyone else out there in the throes of revision.

Things I Learned During My Many Revisions That I Will Probably Re-Learn Over and Over

Focus on big picture stuff first. Don't get caught up in the nitty gritty, fine-tuning. You don't want to spend an hour perfecting the description of a house only to later realize the house has no place in the story after all. 

Prioritize your revisions with what the story absolutely needs first and don't fret about whether or not the writing is "good". Just tell the story. 

Translate the story from your head to the page in as tidy and interesting a way as possible. 

Don't try to please everyone. 

Don't try to address every comment readers have offered you. Pay attention to the feedback that rings true or rings exciting, that speaks to the core of the story you are trying to build on. 

Don't be tempted by cool ideas that aren't the best fit for the story you're wanting to tell. 

If you're feeling burnt out but want to keep writing, write the scenes that are jumping out at you first. 

Breathe, breathe, breathe. 

If you're feeling down on your writing and/or where your novel is at, go back and read some early drafts. You'll be shocked at all the things you've changed that you totally forgot were ever in the book and how much better the book is for it. 

Do a lot of free writing with pen to paper about what your characters want in certain scenes, or anything you're muddling over. Something about scribbling with a pen helps loosen up the brain. 

Revisions can be an endless rabbit hole of changes if you let it. A story can always be changed and "improved". Only you will know what's truly essential for the draft to be "done" and what is unnecessary hand-wringing. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Peek at the Creative Space of Melanie Crowder

Melanie Crowder is the author of Parched, her middle grade debut novel which published this month. A bit about Parched from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 

Sarel is a girl with secrets. She knows which tree roots reach down deep to pools of precious water. But now she must learn how to keep herself and her dogs alive. Nandi is the leader of those dogs. She knows they can't last long without water--and she knows, too, that a boy is coming; a boy with the water song inside him. 

Musa is that boy. His talent for finding water got him kidnapped by brutal men, yet he's escaped, running away across the thirsty land that nearly claims his life. And so Sarel, Musa, and the dogs come together in what might their last hope of survival.

Parched was chosen as a spring Junior Library Guild selection. And for you teachers out there, she has also made a free teacher guide available for download here.

To learn more about Melanie and her books, visit her website.

Describe your workspace.

I do have an office—but I rarely use it to write. I’d rather be outside, under the covered patio or on the sundeck. When the weather isn’t cooperating, I write in the living room or the bedroom; the lived-in places of the house. There are times when I am under a deadline or when my family is having too much fun and I need to shut myself in the quiet, confined space of my office. At those times, I am really grateful for the space!

My snowy writing cave.

Describe a typical workday.

I wake up before 6 am, grab a cup of coffee and write for an hour before I go to work. I am a school teacher, so that morning writing time when my creative energy is high is invaluable to me. And then, when I do go to work, it is with a sense of accomplishment. The day is just beginning, and I have succeeded already. It’s a great feeling!

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

1.  My diploma for my MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. I worked so hard for that degree! And I learned so much in the process. Sometimes when I need an extra boost, I put on the green graduate hood too—why not? I’ll never wear it anytime else!

2. A digital print that my sister made. It’s of a snail, and the words “no motivation” are repeated throughout the background. It’s very cool, and for some odd reason, I find it motivating!

3.  While curled up with a book on loan from the library, a piece of carefully creased and tucked paper dropped into my hands. Remember Middle School—the flurry of origamic notes that passed under desks and through locker grates? This was one of those, only it didn't contain gossip or a check-yes-or-no prompt inside. Instead, it opened to reveal the drawings of a reader completely drawn in by the world she had discovered in the pages of that book. I keep it above my writing desk to remind me that children's authors write for the most enthusiastic, most dedicated, most willing-to-be-swept-away readers out there!

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I probably do—but I couldn’t tell you what they are! So I’ll tell you instead about my writing buddy. She’s a german shorthaired pointer, who alternates between hours curled into a tiny ball and sudden bursts of crazy, sprinting energy.

What do you listen to while you work?

That depends on the project—sometimes classical music, sometimes nothing, sometimes nature sounds that match the setting of my book. For my newest project, I am listening to a lot of birdsong.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Dried fruit. Mate. Sparkling water.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

I think it’s just the scarcity of writing time in my day that keeps me going. If I don’t write in the morning, I may not have time later, and I hate missing an opportunity to write.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

On a computer, absolutely! It would be interesting to see what would come if I tried to write an entire story on a steno pad. I suspect it would be terrible! It usually takes me a while to sink into a character’s voice, so I use that delete button a lot in the early stages of my novels. Maybe if I were writing an epistolary historical novel, the longhand would be instructive, but I do a better job of keeping up with my brain on a keyboard than with a pen, so I don’t think I’ll try it anytime soon . . .

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

My stories always start with an image. Next comes the voice and a vague idea of where the plot is headed. About halfway in, I get to the point where I can’t go any farther without an outline, storygraph, or storyboard to track all the loose threads. And at this point, my writing buddies are really helpful—I bounce plot ideas and problems off of their brilliant brains, and together, we can usually come up with something that works!

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

That would be my friend Kristin. We have laptop parties sometimes with fluffy blankets, gallons of tea and lots of brainstorming, though we have to set timers for stretches where we’re forbidden to talk! Usually our combined motivation and creative energy results in a day of very productive writing.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

A lesson I learned from the Vermont College community is that writing over the long term is a great deal of work. Sure, there are times when it is thrilling and enormously satisfying, but mostly, this is a hard road. If you can come to look at the process, the work, the tough questions as a joy in itself, you’re in for a great ride!