I am so lucky to count as friends many, many amazing writers. But the person I am proud to interview today is one of those writing friends who’s been there practically since the beginning of my career. Though Ann Whitford Paul and I both attended the Centrum Writing Workshop led by Jane Yolen back in the 90’s, we didn’t attend at the same time. A mutual friend, Tricia Gardella, actually invited me to stay at Ann’s house — along with 5 other women guests! — in Los Angeles a few days before the annual SCBWI conference. Gracious hostess that she is, Ann welcomed this stray in. We spent several intense days critiquing manuscripts, eating junk food, going for long walks and perfecting margarita recipes. After that first “sleep-over,” the seven of us — Tricia Gardella, Helen Ketteman, Mary Nethery, Dian Curtis Regan, Vivian Sathre and Ann and I — were bonded for life, naming ourselves the Write Sisters. Since that first get-together, we have been meeting annually (sadly, not all at one time anymore and even more sadly, not all of the Sisters are still writing) for marathon critique sessions.

I feel so lucky to have Ann’s input because she always pushes me to reach deeper. She is an amazing poet, generous teacher and beloved friend. Here’s your chance to get to know her a bit, too:

Were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid? When I looked like this,

I was definitely a flashlight-under-the-covers kid. Back then, my parents wanted me to be well-rested for school so I had to sneak reading at night. Reading is a passion in my life. Some in my family might call it an obsession. If a book is compelling, don’t bother me with dinner, housecleaning, etc. just let me read! Now I look like this

and I don’t need to sneak a flashlight anymore. I can keep the light on as late as I want.

What was the nudge/spark that set you in front of that blank paper to write for children?
I loved reading with my four children. There was something wonderfully comforting and loving about sitting so close together that our skins touched and with no distractions because we were both focused on a book that I loved. I wanted to write other books that parents and children could share together.

Who are the writers you read to be inspired? Jane Austen is my all-time favorite writer. I’ve read each of her books several times and even traveled to England to see her home. I also visited Beatrix Potter’s home on the same trip. Dickens is another inspiration to me. His prose is so full of detail and yet poetic at the same time.

Do you have any special writing talismans/tokens in your writing space? If so, what are they? This picture of my two granddaughters makes me smile and reminds me of all the young children I want to reach with my stories.

I love the title concept explored by Carolyn See in her Making A Literary Life. What do you do that helps you sustain and nourish your literary life?
My writing friends all over the country. No one understands what I am going through better than another writer. I feel blessed to have so many friends about the country that I can moan to, ask advice from and share good news with (How’s that for ending three phrases with prepositions? I’m sure there’s a rule against that!)

What’s the worst writing advice you ever received? The worst writing advice I ever received was that picture books need to be short and the teacher proceeded to cut my stories into mere outlines. Picture books do need to be short, but more importantly they need to be written poetically. Our books are meant to be read aloud so the words need to flow off the tongue and make it possible for normal people (not professional actors) to read with expression.

What was the scariest thing you’ve done as a writer? The scariest thing I ever did was to write a long book. My picture books rarely require more than 700 words (and WORD BUILDER uses just 66 words) so writing a 350 page book for adults was an enormous stretch. But as with most things I’ve been scared of, it turned out to be time consuming, but not as difficult as I had imagined it to be.

What are you proudest of in your work? I’m most proud of the fact that I didn’t give up after 1, 10, 30, 70, 80, or even 100 rejections of my stories. I’m so glad I stuck it out for five years and 118 rejections until I sold my first book. If I’d quit before then, I wouldn’t have ever had the joy of holding my own book and sharing it with children not only those I visit in schools, but those around the country and even around the world.

How do you know when you have a story just right? I wish I knew. So many times I submit a manuscript and immediately think of ways to improve it. I write the best that I can at the moment, but at another moment in the future, I might be able to write even better . . . or differently. Often an editor will make a suggestion that I know will improve my story. Who was it that said something like “writing is never finished, it’s just abandoned?” I now realize how true that is. (note from Kirby: I tried to find the source of this quote and failed. Anyone out there know?)

How long was it between “I’ve got an idea” to “We’d like to publish your book”? And what happened in between those moments? Whenever I write a first draft, I’m so enthusiastic that, even though I know revisions are an important part of writing, I suspect that they will take little time. I’m always wrong. It’s not unusual for me to revise a story over 50 times and I’m not talking little word changes here or there, I’m talking major rewrites—perhaps changing the main character, totally rethinking the plot and/or what I’m trying to say. Selling also takes time and writers need to have patience. Too many people get discouraged after one rejection. As I mentioned earlier I was writing for 5 years and received 118 rejections before I sold my first manuscript. Don’t give up!

What, if anything, in the writer’s life has caught you by surprise? How hard and challenging it can be and yet how much I enjoy the struggle of trying to get a story right.

A series of questions about work habits:

  • Computer or long-hand? I usually do my first drafts in pen or pencil seated in a comfortable chair with my cat, My Darcy, nearby encouraging me to keep going. Once that first draft is down I move into my office and type it up on my computer for revisions. At least one time, I print out a hard copy, because something about holding the story in my hands makes me catch places that need to be changed.
  • Coffee or tea? Neither . . . bubbly water helps me.
  • Essential writing snack food: Peanut butter! Yum!
  • Quiet office or music going? . . . definitely quiet. Even music distracts me.
  • Desk: messy or tidy? Not tidy except when I go into major housecleaning mode. The picture I’m sending you is after one of those major cleanups. Usually my desk tops are piled with papers and books.

The “after” version of Ann’s workspace!

About your new book:

Having had the chance to read an earlier version of Writing Picture Books: A Hands On Guide from Story Creation to Publication (Writers Digest Books), I’m excited about this new addition to my collection of craft books. I especially appreciated the book’s focus on revision.
Ann’s book, Writing Picture Books, is now available!

Tell us what prompted you to write about writing picture books?
I’ve been teaching through UCLA Extension for ten years, plus speaking at SCBWI conferences and Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference. In one of my classes a student, Molly Nickell, said I should write a book about writing. So I did!

Actually it wasn’t quite that simple. I put it off, thinking it would be too difficult and that I couldn’t do it. Molly kept after me and so did other friends and students. It took several years before I had the courage to go for it.

How did writing this book impact your own fiction writing? Well, the first answer is that it took time away from my fiction writing which I missed. But the second answer is more important . . . it forced me to focus on and understand my writing process better. That has made my own fiction writing easier (notice I said easier, not easy!)

I’m terrible about doing the exercises in craft books – will that be a problem for me in getting the most out of your book?
There are exercises in the book, but they’re different from the exercises I think you’re talking about. Instead of activities for the sake of activities they are all exercises to apply to your own picture book manuscript. Doing them will help you improve your manuscript and help you better judge what works and what doesn’t in your story. Many of them involve, cutting, pasting and coloring so should be more fun and constructive than burdensome. But if you don’t want to do the exercises, who will know? I promise not to stand over your shoulder checking up on you. Regardless, by just doing the reading I’m sure you’ll learn a lot about writing picture books.

Are you teaching any writing workshops in the near future?
Pacific Northwest Children’s Writers Conference, July 13-17, 2009 , Portland, OR

Revising Your Picture Book Manuscript, July 23, 2009, Madison, Wisconsin, . For information contact Debra McElhaney, LaJollapr@gmail.com

SCBWI Summer Conference—Los Angeles, CA, August 7-10, 2009

(to keep up to speed on where and when Ann’s teaching and other writing-related things, sign up for her newsletter)

Prior interviewees have shared secret talents with us (for example, Susan Patron shared her recipe for making a flaming dessert). What secret talent do you have that we might not know about? Besides being a compulsive reader, I’m a compulsive knitter so much so that I even knit washcloths for myself and for family and friends. I got the pattern off the internet and it’s so easy I can finish a cloth in an hour. Each cloth gives me a feeling of accomplishment and is easy to do on a car trip (when my husband drives) or while watching the Lakers play basketball.

Thanks, Ann, for sitting down to chat today. And best of luck with all of your projects!