Monday, June 23, 2014

A Peek at the Creative Space of Samantha Vamos

Samantha Vamos is the author of Alphabet Trucks (Charlesbridge, 2013, illustrated by Ryan O'Rourke), The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred (Charlesbridge, 2011, illustrated by Rafael López), and Before You Were Here, Mi Amor (Viking, 2009, illustrated by Santiago Cohen). 

Alphabet Trucks is a rhyming, alphabet story about 26 different trucks and how they serve their communities. Alphabet Trains (Charlesbridge) will be published in 2015.

The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred won a Pura Belpré Illustration Honor and starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal.

Samantha attended Georgetown University Law Center and practiced law in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. She is a mom, dog-lover, latte addict, and incurable chocoholic. To learn more about her, please visit

Describe your workspace.

We have a spare bedroom that we use as an office.  My husband generously encouraged me to claim it (seconds after thanking him, I was lugging in boxes).  To the left of my desk is a large bulletin board covered with writing mementos (most importantly for me, photos of my family, inspiring letters from my mom, my agent, close friends, and Charlesbridge Publishing--the publisher of three of my four children’s picture books). 

My desk faces a wall.  Hanging on that wall is my law school diploma, a cartoon, a letter from my grandfather, and photos of my son when he was a baby.

On top of my desk are my computer, framed photos of my family, four letter trays, and a file sorter full of writing.  My office is a continuous mess.  Although our home is typically fairly well organized, my office is the repository for all family, school, and home-related documents as well as innumerable “to do” items.  I create piles behind me so I don’t see them when writing!

I have a rectangular, wooden desk and a white, molded plastic chair that I purchased from a restaurant that was going out of business. The chair reminds me of ones I’ve seen in Crate and Barrel catalogues. This chair, however, cost a mere $10 cash.  I bought a few for our kitchen and one ended up in my office.  I like its design, but more importantly, it’s surprisingly comfortable.  

Describe a typical workday.

All workdays commence with coffee and breakfast (my favorite meal).  Once my son is off to school and our dog has been outside and has resumed napping (she’s 12.5 years old), I usually deal with family and home-related issues (bills, scheduling, chores).  I prioritize the domestic work in order to eliminate excuses I could manufacture to remain seated in my office and write. There are some days that I devote entirely to writing and editing, and there are other days that I commit to marketing/promotion of past, present, and future work. I really enjoy the creative aspects of promotion. 

An illustration from Before You Were Here, Mi Amor
To directly answer the question, however, no day seems typical.  My writing is structured around my son’s schedule and needs.  If there’s a good block of time for a few days in a row, I work on longer manuscripts.  If my window is only a few hours, I work on shorter stories or sections within a manuscript. 

I’ve been writing for thirty years, but it’s only been the last six years during which I’ve had the ability to work for blocks of time during the day.  My mom died two years ago and between grieving and acting as executor, my writing schedule became erratic.  That time was painful, yet in some ways instructive and I have since tried to focus my thoughts and energy in different ways than I had before.  With respect to writing, however, my experience during the last two years revealed that writing on a consistent basis and schedule is a necessary exercise in order for my work to improve and for me to be productive.  Even if it’s for two hours each day, I need to maintain that writing habit as consistently as possible.

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

1. After proposing, my husband gave me what he described as a “pre-wedding present”--a framed Peanuts cartoon by Charles Schulz.  I have loved Snoopy since I was little, and for many years, the same cartoon was taped to my refrigerator.  The text summed up my feelings during the many years I was submitting manuscripts and receiving innumerable rejections.  The last line, “Didn’t you realize that?” always makes me smile. 

The scene:  Snoopy is sitting atop his doghouse, hunting and pecking on the typewriter, composing a letter to whom I presume is a publishing house.  Snoopy’s monologue:    

“Gentlemen, Regarding the recent rejection slip you sent me. 

I think there must have been a misunderstanding. 

What I really wanted was for you to publish my story, and send me fifty thousand dollars. 

Didn’t you realize that?”

I often glance at the cartoon.  The text has essentially seeped into my subconscious. The fact that my husband gave it to me reinforced the fact that he understood how much writing meant to me.  He gets it and for that fact alone, I feel extremely lucky.

2. A framed letter from my grandfather.  In 1986, my first semester of law school was far more difficult than I had anticipated and I hadn’t quite gotten the hang of it all yet.  Hoping to encourage and inspire me, my grandfather typed a letter (he felt his handwriting was indecipherable).  His words are original, inspiring, entertaining, and revealing of the unique person he was.  

3. Photographs of my mother.  My mother was my greatest source of support and encouragement about my writing, dreams, and goals.  She was my reader, my friend, the best mother I could have, and the most courageous woman I’ve ever known.  Thoughts of her inspire me in different ways and I am comforted seeing her photos around my office.

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

I almost always eat chocolate when writing. 

What do you listen to while you work?

As crazy as the following statement may sound, I have found that the genre I write dictates the music.  When I’m working on my novel (adult commercial fiction), I tend to listen to female artists (Alicia Keys, Adele, Sheryl Crow, Cory Lee, Amy Winehouse, Diana Krall, Lady GaGa, Rihanna, Madonna, Carrie Underwood, Alison Krauss, Katharine McPhee, Taylor Swift), which is not surprising as the protagonist is female. 

When I’m writing children’s stories, I rarely play music because I find the lyrics distracting and I often try speaking what I’ve written to hear how my words sound aloud. 

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

I’m a Virgo so let me be specific (ha!):  a dark roast coffee latte with 2 percent milk and a generous sprinkling of cinnamon.  I’d never turn down a soy latte.  In terms of snack, there’s only one:  chocolate.  I’m a confessed chocoholic.  I will never be a recovering chocoholic.  I thoroughly accept, relish, and appreciate the addiction (if I was drafting a Chocoholics Anonymous Pledge – that might be it).  For decades, my number one favorite was a York Peppermint Pattie.  Recently, however (and somewhat unfortunately because they’re not inexpensive), in addition to the Peppermint Pattie, I’ve become a fan of Seattle Chocolates’ Pike Place Espresso Truffle Bar.  A local store had a sale on a variety of the truffle bar flavors and I bought a lot.  I sent a number to family and friends (but also managed to eat two bars while working on a new manuscript).

Full disclosure: I ate a Peppermint Pattie while answering these questions.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

A good story and a connection to the work.  If I’m really involved with my work, I feel as if I’m literally inside the fictional walls of the writing. It’s as if the words surround me. 

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

I utilize a computer.  Before I had a computer, I wrote via typewriter.  Generally, I only print a manuscript when I’ve reached a block in my writing.  When that occurs, I typically carry the manuscript with me everywhere as I like to have the current draft available for review. I have made edits to my work while in aisles of grocery stores, during my son’s karate class, and on a picnic table in a park after walking my dog.  My mind plays with a concept or word arrangement and if I especially like a line, I want to record it fairly immediately. 

I enjoy writing rhyme, but it’s never quick or easy for me.  For that reason, when I’m writing a rhyming manuscript, I carry printed drafts of the manuscript for weeks and often months.  I’ll walk around trying out different lines or endings until the couplets I’m writing improve.  After writing an initial draft of Alphabet Trucks, my son and I were on a highway and passed a truck featured in the manuscript.  I began reciting that alphabetical section of the manuscript and my son, knowing that I carry drafts with me, found the manuscript in my purse and read along.  Hearing him read the draft helped me correct a line.  I pulled over at the next exit and jotted down edits.

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

I develop a lot of threads, but I’m not always able to stitch them together.  The thread of an idea will come to me and when possible, I sit down and start writing.  While in law school, I wrote outlines and they were helpful for studying.  In my capacity as a fiction writer, however, I’ve not found outlines to be the most successful technique. My writing sounds more stilted when I outline.  I love discovering where my story leads me.  That’s probably one of the most exciting aspects of the writing exercise for me – I get a little charge out of the anticipation. 

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

My mom. 

My son just to have him near me, but I probably wouldn’t accomplish much!

I could share space with my husband because is very focused when working.  He “guts it out” (his phrase) and gets the work done.

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

In terms of technique, the best piece of writing advice I’ve received is “show, don’t tell.” In terms of overall writing advice, I’d go with Nike’s phenomenally useful slogan, “Just do it.”  I’ve thought this sentiment quite often:  You’ll never know until you write it so just do it.

Monday, June 16, 2014


I was tagged in the Writing Process Blog Tour by one of my talented critique partners, Carrie Pearson. Carrie is an insightful critiquer and a fantastic writer. She's the author of the picture books, A Warm Winter Tail and A Cool Summer Tail, and I have no doubt there will be many more books with her name on them on bookshelves in the near future. Carrie is also the co-RA for SCBWI-Michigan. I don't know how she finds time to do it all!

Here are my answers to the blog tour questions, and below those, you'll find the two writers I tagged to answer them next.

What are you currently working on?

I'm anticipating the editorial letter for my first novel-under-contract any day now. That novel is due out in bookstores next spring. While I've been waiting for the letter, I've been fleshing out an outline for the sequel to that novel, and revising a stand-alone mystery that should be published in 2016 or 2017.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The novels I've written so far all have humor, mysteries, adventure, layered plots, and quirky characters. They are all contemporary stories, but I do a lot of research for my books and love finding obscure facts or historical trivia that can be woven into the plot or spun out in a compelling way. Each of my novels, so far, have mysteries that revolve around significant historical literary figures. My first book (Book Scavenger) and its sequel also revolve around an online/real world book hunting game.

Why do I write what I write?

Since I was a kid, I dreamed of growing up to be the next Beverly Cleary, Lois Lowry, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, James Howe, E. L. Konigsberg, Roald Dahl, Ann M. Martin, Judy Blume . . . To have books published that will be shelved next to these authors is a dream realized for me. The stories I'm drawn to writing are often the ones I wished existed when I was a kid.

How does my individual writing process work?

Writing a story isn't like changing the oil in a car. There's no methodical way to go about it, at least for me. I have the spark of an idea and I sit on it. I ask myself questions. If scenes or characters come alive, I jot down notes. Eventually the notes turn into pages. I keep doing variations of that until I've puzzled that spark of an idea into a fleshed-out story. Then I give the story to some trusted readers who tell me what they think. I process their feedback and use that as a gauge for myself to figure out what exactly I'm trying to do with this story anyway. And then I set about rewriting the story. I send the revision to trusted readers, again, to see what they have to say. The more I go through this process, the clearer my understanding becomes of the story I'm trying to tell, and how close or far off the mark I am.

TAG! You're it:

Maryanne Fantalis: I'm tagging my friend Maryanne, who crochets a mean baby blanket (and by "mean" I mean cherished and well-loved) and makes a great CD mix. She's also a talented writer who writes YA, historical fiction, fantasy, and she teaches writing as well

Ghost Girl, aka Mary Ann: I know Ghost Girl through her blog, "Haunting the Broken Tree", and Verla Kay's Blue Boards. She's a former teacher, current writing specialist, and rising author.

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.