Gaye Sanders and the Survivor Tree – Author Interview

Gaye Sanders is one of the local talents from our SCBWI OK group whose debut picture book, THE SURVIVOR TREE, is coming out this week. I’m delighted she’s stopped by to talk with us about it.

 

About Gaye

Gaye has been teaching elementary children for over 30 years and is currently a fourth-grade teacher in Mustang, Oklahoma, a suburb of Oklahoma City.

She is an active member of the Oklahoma Region of SCBWI and will assume the monumental role of Assistant Regional Advisor this coming December. We’re excited to have you on board!

Gaye was in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 people, 19 of whom were children under the age of six. Every year she makes sure to share the historic story of the Oklahoma City bombing with her students.

 

Before the interview, let’s take a closer look at Gaye’s book:

THE SURVIVOR TREE by Gaye Sanders illustrated by Pamela Behrend

Release Date: November 1, 2017

Publisher: Roadrunner Press

Genres: Picture Book, Historical Fiction

 

BOOK AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER: amazon

BOOK SOON AVAILABLE:

indieboundbn-24h-80
*A portion of all books sales will go to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum in downtown Oklahoma City.

Plot Summary:

A family plants an American elm on the Oklahoma prairie just as the city is taking root—and the little tree grows as Oklahoma City grows until 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, the day America fell silent at the hands of one of its own.

As rubble from the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is cleared, the charred tree—its branches tattered and filled with evidence—faces calls that it be cut down. The only obstacle: a few people who marvel that, like them, it is still there at all.

The next spring when the first new leaf appears proving the tree is alive, word spreads like a prairie wildfire through the city and the world. And the tree, now a beacon of hope and strength, is given a new name: The Survivor Tree. (Plot summary from author’s website.)


 

The Interview

Valerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this book?

Gaye Sanders: When you are a writer, you rotate between writing, editing, and revising. But you are also, at all times, thinking about what your next story will be.

Many times, we choose the story we are writing. We may get a spark of an idea, and work to develop it into a full story. But sometimes, in those rare moments, a story finds us.

Almost four years ago, on a visit to New York City, my sister and I got to experience the 9-11 Memorial. During our visit to the gift shop, I discovered a book about the 9-11 Survivor Tree. Until that moment, I had not realized they had a survivor tree.

Their tree has a much different story than ours. It was recovered from some of the rubble and replanted, nursed back to health and transplanted to the grounds when the memorial was finished.

I decided to buy that book, and then find the book about our Survivor Tree. I came home and began to look for one, and that was when I discovered there wasn’t one.

There needed to be. That idea sat on my heart for a couple of years. The seed of the idea planted itself there, and wouldn’t go away. And, I knew that a story had found me. A story that needed to be told.

VL: How fascinating! From one survivor tree to another. Love it!

This is a very emotional story still for many Oklahomans, did you find this a difficult thing to translate into a picture book format?

Illustration by Pamela Behrend from the book THE SURVIVOR TREE

GS: I think that turning it into a picture book softened the subject matter. There were a lot of hard details that have been omitted, because they simply aren’t appropriate for the age group. But through the entire story of the tree, the bombing, and the healing afterwards, the theme is love conquers hate and hope can bring you through even the darkest times. Along with the promise that we will never forget.

VL: You tell this story from the perspective of the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, located on the site of the Murrah Federal Building bombing, what were the benefits/challenges to using a tree as your main character?

GS: Writing a book about this subject for children presented its own set of challenges. The story needs to be told, but in a more delicate manner, so as not to scare them about our world. I wrote my first version in third person, but it didn’t have the heart I wanted it to.

As writers, we often gain inspiration for our works from other books or pieces of literature. I reread The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. And even though that book is set in third person, that’s when it hit me. The tree needed to tell this story.

When I changed the point of view, I knew it was the right thing to do.

VL: Ah! THE GIVING TREE! Another tree giving your story inspiration. Let’s hear it for the trees!

You were able to visit the Memorial archives for your research, what was that experience like?

GS: The Oklahoma City National Memorial was more than helpful in allowing my research. I was honored to spend an entire day in the archives, going through photos, evidence lists, FBI notes, and more. It was a crucial part of the research. But, you can’t research something like this without feeling it from the very depths of your soul.

I lived here when this awful travesty occurred, I knew people who lost family members, and I knew others who survived.  So, needless to say, I have shed more than my share of tears through this journey.

VL: Tell us about your writing journey. How did you begin to write books for children?

GS: I began thinking about writing for children over ten years ago. Having been around children’s literature basically my entire life, I thought I knew all I needed to know to write my own books.

I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing, or how the publishing industry works.

It wasn’t until I joined SCBWI that I learned enough to really begin writing. It has been such a great journey, and I would not be where I am today without this amazing organization. And tribe. I have made lifelong friends, and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

VL: Woohoo! Yay, SCBWI! Best thing I ever did for my writing, too. 

Tell us something about your childhood. As a young kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into?

GS: I was one of those kids who really didn’t get in trouble much. Probably the biggest trouble was staying out too long on my bicycle.

Until I was a Senior in High School. I got my first “licks” with two months of high school left to go, because two of my friends and I told our bookkeeping teacher we were going to the library, when all along we were planning to go get cinnamon rolls in the cafeteria.

Yep. Got caught and got paddled.

VL: Oh, no! First time out and caught!

What was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?

GS: I grew up in a small, sheltered town. Probably the scariest thing was when my older sister, a friend of mine, and I were all at home alone one night, and heard a tap on the window. It was a peeping Tom! In Fritch, America!

The scariest moment in my childhood was probably the assassination of President Kennedy. I’ll never forget the moment they broke in on “As the World Turns” (I wasn’t in school yet) and Walter Cronkite announced that the President had been shot. The world stopped. And even though I was only five, I knew that our world had changed overnight.

VL: Wow. That was life-changing. Even at five.

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

GS: That’s such a hard question, and there’s no way I can narrow it down to one. So, here are my top three of the year:

Dreamland Burning, by Jennifer Latham

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

And, believe it or not, I had never read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton before this year.

Every one of these touched me deeply, and were un-put-downable.

VL: Absolutely loved THE CROSSOVER. So, so good!  Of course, I blazed through THE OUTSIDERS when I read it a long time ago. Wouldn’t mind reading it again. The 50th anniversary edition just came out! I’m just now starting to read Jen Latham’s book. I’ve been so looking forward to it!

What’s next for you? What are you currently working on?

GS: I am currently in the trenches of Pitch Wars. For those of you who don’t know what that is, go to www.pitchwars.org. It’s a fabulous process, where you submit to be matched with a mentor. You work with them for two months to get your manuscript ready for the agent round. My current WIP is called HURRICANE HARPER. It’s a contemporary fiction, middle grade set in coastal Mississippi.

In the editing lulls for Pitch Wars, I’ve started outlining my next one. It has a title right now of “1972”. It’s historical fiction with an alternate set of events, set in Washington D.C. Let’s just say it has something to do with a certain wiretapping activity that occurred that year.

And, I have a couple of ideas for picture books to follow up The Survivor Tree. They both have a connection to things that are tied to the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

VL: That all sounds fascinating! And good luck with Pitch Wars, Gaye! We’ll be routing for you!

Thanks so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

 

Book Launch

For those who are interested and who live within traveling distance, Gaye is having a book launch for THE SURVIVOR TREE on Saturday, November 4th, from 1-3pm at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. The event will be held under the Survivor Tree, weather permitting. The book launch will move inside the foyer of the museum store in the event of inclement weather.

Illustration by Pamela Behrend from the book THE SURVIVOR TREE

 

Learn more about Gaye Sanders here.

Follow Gaye on Twitter here.

Follow Gaye on Facebook here.

Follow Gaye on Instagram here.

 

 

 

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2017 SCBWI LA Summer Conference Highlights – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the conference highlights. View Part 1 here.

 

DAY TWO

There were so many wonderful speakers and panels on Saturday that heads would explode if I covered everything. I’m skipping ahead to my favorite breakout session of the day.

 

STEPHANIE GARBER SHARES SECRETS TO ENDINGS

 

Stephanie Garber, author of CARAVAL, the phenomenon of a debut novel that has everyone talking, ran a fabulous breakout session entitled “Five Steps on How to Write Five Star Endings”.

 

She began by sharing a list of six classic story endings:

  • Happy Ending – Disney ending. Hero versus Villain with hero triumphant. The Happy Ever After
  • Tragic Ending – Hero gets what he wants, but loses something in the process
  • Unhappy Ending – Romeo and Juliet (works because reader is told from the very beginning this is a tale of woe)
  • Bittersweet Ending – Main Character makes sacrifice for the better good, i.e., Batman in The Dark Knight lets people believe he’s a villain because it’s what the city needs.
  • Vague Ending – open to interpretation, makes people question.
  • Series Ending – Cliffhanger or Hero gets what he wants, but Villain gets away.

While twists and surprises are awesome, you don’t want to spring an ending on readers that is unexpected; not in line with their expectations.

The tone of the ending should align with the tone of the book.

Think of the Harry Potter books, which were progressively darker with progressively darker endings. All deaths were earned and endings expected.

Think about whether or not the price for your story ending has been paid. Has the success been earned by the hero or villain? Think about endings not just for your main character, but for all of your characters. Make them all earn their endings. Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter earned her ending.

One of my favorite tips she gave was about villains. She said you should makes sure to give them screen time. Put them in the path of your main character. A face-off with the villain is a great opportunity to show character development.

Have a kick the cat moment versus a save the cat moment.

Don’t just say they are the villain; show it. Show the villain arc.

She ended with stating you should leave readers with a sense of hope, even if your story is a tragedy.

Think about this: What is the final message you want to leave readers with?

 

LUNCH BREAK

There were so many fantastic places to eat near the hotel. Some of us had lunch at Katsuya. Great sushi and a lovely atmosphere, including a most fascinating bathroom. Everyone took turns checking out the unconventional sinks. (Yes, just like tourists.)

 

Yum!

 

“The ‘there is no sink’ aesthetic .”

 

At some point one afternoon, we had a gathering of all SCBWI Oklahoma members and tried to pose for a group photo. After three attempts, we succeeded in capturing 13 out of 14 of us. So close! Here’s the collective result.

This photo was blatantly stolen from Jerry Bennet’s Instagram feed. Don’t worry, he won’t even notice. 🙂

 

CONVERSATION WITH KWAME ALEXANDER AND SONYA SONES

Two phenomenal poets having a conversation about poetry. Wow! Was this amazing! I can’t share the live poetry that flew back and forth – beginning with Sonya’s awesome intro – or the chemistry they had, or the humor that filled the room. Just imagine that this experience was unforgettable.

Sonya Sones asked the questions and this was her first one:

SS: Tell me about the moment of your conception.

KA: 1967. Harlem, New York. A dormitory at Columbia University.

(I mean, honestly! They had us rolling.)

SS: When did you first know you were wonderful?

KA: At 12 years old. When I wrote a Mother’s Day poem.

Dear Mommy.

I hate Mother’s Day

In my heart

Every day is

Mother’s Day.

That’s when I first knew words were powerful.

SS: How does the study of poetry help children?

KA: Poetry is a rhythmic, concise, emotional way of sharing view of the world. If a child gets through it and understands, they can crossover and it’s profound.

SS: What’s the first book you ever wrote?

KA: A book of love poems inspired by a woman. I wrote her a poem a day for a year – and it worked. (He married her.)

There was so much more. I wish I could share it all. It was a fantastic conversation.

PORTFOLIO TIME

One of my favorite events is the Portfolio Showcase. I love looking over all the artwork of so many talented illustrators. This year, I had the pleasure of running into our very own Illustrator Coordinator, Jerry Bennett, while I was perusing the portfolios. Always a treat to get an artist’s take. And he’s somewhat amusing company as well. 🙂

Hanging out with some tough Illustrator Coordinators, Jerry Bennett and Karen Windness.

 

Wall to wall people for this popular event.

 

SILVER LININGS GALA

Saturday night means party time!

This group knows how to let loose! (All videos I recorded have been deleted to protect your, um, signature dance moves, let’s say – and you’re welcome.)

 

Hope you enjoyed the Day Two highlights. Stay tuned for Part 3 coming soon!

 

2017 SCBWI LA Summer Conference Highlights – Part 1

I was very honored this year to be a winner of the SCBWI Tribute Fund. (Even if it meant I had to stand up in front of over 1500 people!) A brief moment of awkward public embarrassment was well worth what I received in return. I honestly can’t thank the entire staff of SCBWI enough. From Stephen and Lin for providing this grant and selecting me, to everyone in the main office I interacted with regarding all the details – they were all just so lovely.

And of course, a huge thank you to Helen, my Regional Advisor, who nominated me. (Who also took this awkward picture of me waving awkwardly to a crowd of 1500 people. AWKWARD!)

Now I would like to share with you my favorite parts of the SCBWI LA summer conference that I was able to attend this past July as a winner of this wonderful grant.

DAY ONE

One of my favorite things about attending these conferences is how energizing they are, how they recharge my creative battery, and remind me that what I do is important. Especially in these uncertain times, it was such a reassuring thing to hear Lin welcome us into our own “Bubble of Love” (complete with actual bubbles).

Lin Oliver welcoming us to the beginning of another wonderful SCBWI Summer conference.

 

Bubble Love photo credit: The Official SCBWI Conference Blog

It was also nice that our region got a shout-out for having such a large group in attendance, along with a handful of other states, but you know ours was the LOUDEST!!! We got a few more shout-outs, just so everyone could hear us make some more noise – something we were not shy about doing! (This happened several times during the conference, which was fun.)

Most of our SCBWI OK group on Day One. Such a large group was hard to corral into one place at any given time.

VANESSA BRANTLEY NEWTON – SPREADING SUNSHINE

Vanessa Brantley Newton, illustrator of THE YOUNGEST MARCHER and MARY HAD A LITTLE GLAM (written by our own Tammi Sauer! OKLAHOMA SCBWI in the house!), opened the conference by making us get up out of our seats and dance.

In her keynote entitled, “Diversity Designed by Adversity”, Vanessa said we could let adversity ruin us, make us sad, or lean into it, wrap our arms around it, shake it off, and pack it under.

To illustrate her point, she told a story of a farmer who had a goat that fell down a well. Bemoaning the loss of the goat, he threw dirt down the well to bury it, but the goat just shook it off, and packed it under. Soon, it had a pile tall enough to climb out of the well.

“That’s been my life.”

She was born with dyslexia, synesthesia, and she also struggled with stuttering. Her dyslexia caused her to to go inward, to draw pictures. The synesthesia influenced the use of bright colors in her art. Her parents were both singers and helped her deal with her stuttering. “I sing in my head” the words she wants to say out loud. All these things didn’t stop her, they influenced her work.

Vanessa talked at length about the need for diverse books. She told the story of wanting to be a Breck shampoo girl when she was younger. She thought to have blonde hair, she just needed the shampoo.

She didn’t see herself reflected.

Then came Ezra Jack Keats and THE SNOWY DAY. She didn’t remember the words, but the pictures were powerful.

Little Vanessa and her teacher who read her the story.

She told us how Ezra Jack Keats said, “I drew Peter because he should have been there all along”.

Vanessa called on us as artists, as writers to embrace our own challenges.

“You’re built for adversity.”

Some of the best stuff is raised out of adversity. You gotta be willing to put in the hard work.

 

You need to dream so big that it scares the hell out of you.

 

She ended by singing to us, and I don’t know if there was a dry eye in the room when she was done.

Honestly I couldn’t see…

 

 

TRANSFORMING LIFE INTO ART

photo credit: The Official SCBWI Conference Blog

PANEL DISCUSSION WITH ALEX GINO, AISHA SAEED, RUTA SEPETYS, AND KIM TURRISI (MODERATED BY EMMA DRYDEN)

Emma Dryden led a thoughtful discussion with this fantastic panel of authors.

Question #1: What led you to express the experience in your own life in novel form?

Alex Gino – Middle Grade is a big part of my heart. The only time I experienced any instance of transgender as an adult was as a joke. “I knew GEORGE was the book I wanted and needed to write.” It took 10 years.

Aisha Saeed – She never saw herself in books with the exception of the role of the bad guy until she went to college. She knew she had to tell her story. She wrote her debut novel about forced marriage because she had many friends who were going through this experience. If they said no, their parents would disown them. She writes to make sense of the world. She wanted to understand why parents who loved their kids would do this.

Ruta Sepetys – “Much of my identity is wrapped up in being an immigrant’s kid.” Not a lot has been told about Stalin and what happened in Siberia. She wanted to bring this story to young readers because YA readers are deep feelers and deep thinkers. Books we read as kids have the potential to make a profound effect.

Kim Turrisi – When she was 15, her sister committed suicide. Her story is about the aftermath of suicide. She didn’t see herself in any books like this back then. She wrote about the experience to help.

Question #2 – Glimpse into choices you had to make to stray away from the truth to serve the story.

Ruta Sepetys – She was interviewing human beings condemned to death who then survived. “There’s a tension between history and memory.” She will interview 100 people and interweave the stories to create a single one – very different from nonfiction. This will hopefully be more representative.

Kim Turrisi – She used notes from 25 different people to cobble together the backgrounds of the secondary characters.

Alex Gino – Many people assume that my book is autobiographical. The way my character is transgender is not the same way that I am. My main character isn’t much like me, but the way people respond is.

Question #3 – Talk about the process of going deep into the story.

Kim Turrisi – I had the suicide letter. I put it on the wall to challenge me. My editor challenged me by saying some things that actually happened may not feel authentic. Give more. It was tough.

Ruta Sepetys – As writers, we should go there. Emotionally we need to get in the trenches. If I feel loss, I have loved. If I feel it, hopefully my readers will too. Amplify the hope in the hardship. Someone has to make it out.

Aisha Saeed – She did the emotional digging. What would it be like to go through this? Why would she run away? Her editor helped her bring out the nuances.

Alex Gino – You have to have a balance between optimism and realism. My responsibility was to provide a mirror for kids who are Trans. We get to have nice stories, too. Then my editor had to remind me that bad things have to happen, so we feel better when there’s redemption.

 

NOVA REN SUMA – QUEEN OF THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR

Break Out Session, “The Power and Possibility of the Unreliable Narrator”

POV is one of the most exciting tools you have as a writer. Make good use of it.

What is an “unreliable” narrator?

  1. Withholds information from the reader
  2. Breaks your trust (We expect to trust the narrator)
  3. Drives the plot

Should be unreliable for a reason – an important mechanism for the plot.

Unreliable Narrator often has a surprising, unexpected secret.

WHY is your narrator not telling the whole truth?

WHY is the big mystery.

You as the author need to know the answer.

Favorite example: Mary Katherine Blackwood from WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson

More Unreliable Narrator examples:

Mica from LIAR by Justine Larbalestier

Julie from CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein

Mary from Allegedly by Tiffany D Jackson

Whim from CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn

Caden from CHALLENGER DEEP by Neal Shusterman

Nova went on to explain how using craft choices can help you show your unreliable narrator to your readers and ways to create an unreliable character.

This was such a helpful session! Nova really is a fantastic teacher.

 

DINNER

After a full day of amazing keynotes and breakout sessions, our SCBWI OK gang met up for dinner with a former member who recently relocated to LA. She may have moved to California, but she’ll always be a part of us, too!

(Almost) our entire SCBWI OK gang after the first day of the conference.

 

Jerry and Britt (our wayward member) doing their best Oh My Disney! pose – Aren’t they just too adorable for words?

 

Hope you enjoyed the first part of my conference experience highlights. Stay tuned for Part II coming soon!

 

Kim Ventrella – Author Interview

I’m so happy to be interviewing the delightful Kim Ventrella, today. Kim is an SCBWI Oklahoma region member I’m just getting to know, and I’ve been dying to ask her some in-depth questions. Like what’s behind her extensive skeleton collection? How much does her dog, Hera, actually help her writing process? And more importantly, what inspired her highly anticipated debut novel, SKELETON TREE, which comes out this month?

Let’s find out.

 

About Kim

Kim lives in Oklahoma City with her faithful furry companion, Hera. She moonlights as a children’s librarian when she’s not writing books, fighting crime, or killing houseplants. (I’m beginning to think her bio has been padded. That houseplants thing is a little far-fetched, if you ask me.)

She has been know to actually seek out places where skeletons dwell. To even pose for pictures with them, and dress them up in fancy hats and wigs. Some might call that weird, I call that amazing! How else would we get such an awesome-looking book?

 

Before the interview, let’s take a closer look at Kim’s book:

SKELETON TREE by Kim Ventrella

Release Date: September 26, 2017

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy

BOOK AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER:
indieboundbn-24h-80amazon
Plot Summary:

Twelve-year-old Stanly knows the bone growing in his yard is a little weird, but that’s okay, because now he’ll have the perfect photo to submit to the Young Discoverer’s Competition. With such a unique find, he’s sure to win the grand prize.

But, oddly, the bone doesn’t appear in any photos. Even stranger, it seems to be growing into a full skeleton…one that only children can see.

There’s just one person who doesn’t find any of this weird–Stanly’s little sister. Mischievous Miren adopts the skeleton as a friend, and soon, the two become inseparable playmates.

When Miren starts to grow sick, Stanly suspects that the skeleton is responsible and does everything in his power to drive the creature away. However, Miren is desperate not to lose her friend, forcing Stanly to question everything he’s ever believed about life, love, and the mysterious forces that connect us. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)


 

The Interview

Valerie Lawson: Your debut novel, SKELETON TREE, has such an intriguing premise, what sparked the idea for this story?

Kim Ventrella: I wondered what would happen if a boy discovered a finger bone growing in his backyard. The story evolved from there, becoming much more than I had anticipated.

VL: What a great beginning. I can’t wait to read where the story goes from there!

I absolutely love the book trailer for THE SKELETON TREE, what can you tell us about it? (You can view the book trailer below.)

KV: Artist Jerry Bennett and Filmmaker Zac Davis did an amazing job putting together the trailer. I had gone to see their award-winning short film, Even in Death, and after that I knew they would be perfect for the job. It captures just the right mix of wonder, spookiness and whimsy.

VL: You seem more than fascinated (dare we say obsessed?) with skeletons – I love following your hashtag #skeletonspotting, by the way – where did this deep interest in skeletons come from?

KV: I don’t know if it’s a deep interest (ha!), but I have always been fascinated with the macabre. Scary stories are a great way to confront monsters in a safe environment. Readers can learn from the character’s journey that it’s possible to overcome those spooky skeletons we all have in our closets.

VL: So true! Better to tackle them in the pages of fiction than in real life. (Checks closet for skeletons.)

Your story tackles the difficult subject of death, one not many adults are comfortable dealing with. Talk about why you thought it important to address this issue in a children’s book.

KV: My grandfather passed away suddenly not long before I started Skeleton Tree. I didn’t initially intend for it to be a book about death, but that was just how the story unfolded. It became a sort of canvas on which I could put forward my own vision of how Death could look, if we chose to experience it through a different lens.

I wanted to create a Death full of meaning, beauty, friendship and understanding. I strongly believe that books are one of the best ways for children to make sense of the world around them, to experience tough topics in a safe space, and that includes dealing with death.

VL: How beautiful. That’s quite an homage to your grandfather, too. I just love that.

What were some of your biggest fears as a kid? Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?

KV: I was very scared of ghosts in particular when I was a child, which is perhaps why I embraced the macabre. I used to have night terrors, night paralysis and visual disturbances (i.e. I very vividly ‘saw’ ghosts on several occasions as a child).

For me, reading scary stories has always been the equivalent of performing a big Riddikulus spell on those creepy real-life monsters. Seeing others triumph over evil, whether it’s watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer or reading Roald Dahl, gives me confidence that I can also defeat the big baddies out there.

VL: Wow! Very in touch with your spooky side, even as a kid. Destined to write this genre! I love that seeing others conquer their fears in books gave you courage, too. Books are so powerful!

You discussed in a post recently that you like to begin writing a story by thinking about its emotional catharsis and working back from there. That’s almost like starting at the ending and working your way back to the beginning. I love this idea. Can you expand on this?

KV: My writing style has changed and continues to change a ton. I always used to write completely organically, with no plotting ahead of time, like with Skeleton Tree. Now that I have to send off proposals for stories before I start writing (for the most part), I’ve started thinking more strategically.

In the end, the important aspect of a story for me is what emotional impact readers will feel after they turn the last page. Has the book changed the way they see the world? Has the character’s journey taught them something about themselves?

Starting with that in mind can speed up the process, but it’s not always possible, because sometimes you can reach a more powerful conclusion if your destination is unplanned.

VL: Excellent advice, to focus on the emotional impact.

Your dog Hera features prominently in your Instagram posts, how does she factor into your writing process? (I have heard tale that you like to write in her dog bed.)

KV: Yes, I wrote Skeleton Tree sitting in a dog bed, while Hera sat on the couch behind me looking over my shoulder. I now have an office chair, ha!, but my dog is still a big help. I even mention her in the acknowledgements of my book. She’s sweet, silly and scared of everything, but most of all she’s the perfect co-writer.

VL: Who were your childhood heroes/role models?

KV: I don’t know about role models, but I was obsessed with Billy the Kid, Al Capone and Charlie Chaplin. I also loved Agatha Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot, and his sidekick, Hastings. The Addams Family was another huge favorite, as were Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl.

VL: What a wonderfully eclectic collection! I’m also a huge Agatha Christie fan! I read so many of her books when I was a kid.

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

KV: I love The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan. It’s a sad, happy, heartfelt story about a poet who lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog. It’s practically my life story.

VL: Beautiful cover. Thanks for recommending it. 🙂

And thank you so much for joining us, today, Kim! It’s been such a pleasure talking with you and getting to know you better!

 

The Trailer

And now for your viewing pleasure…

The official book trailer for Skeleton Tree!

Local talents Jerry Bennett and Zac Davis created this trailer for Kim. They both worked on the award-winning short film, Even in Death. Jerry is an amazing comic book artist and illustrator who’s done work for companies like Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Topps. Zac Davis is a filmmaker and program director for Invisible Layers productions, a pre-employment program for young adults on the autism spectrum with an interest in film, video production, or animation.

Enjoy the trailer!

 

Don’t forget to pre-order Kim’s book SKELETON TREE! It releases on September 26th!

 

indieboundbn-24h-80amazon

 

 

 

Learn more about Kim Ventrella here.

Follow Kim on Twitter here.

Follow Kim on Facebook here.

Follow Kim on Instagram here.

 

 

 

SCBWI OK Spring Conference Recap Part II – Persistence, Professionalism, and Success in Action

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Welcome to Part II of this conference recap. View Part I here. As anyone who’s ever been to any conference or workshop knows the post-lunch slot is a demanding one. You are fighting afternoon sleepiness. You are fighting full-belly fatigue. Our next speaker was up to the challenge and did not disappoint. 2017-scbwi-spring-conference-flyer

 

SATURDAY AFTERNOON

Ally Carter returned to the podium to give a solo talk that all writers could definitely benefit from hearing.

0253_allycarterportraits_by_lizligon-150x150Ally Carter – Young Adult Author

Ally Carter writes books about spies, thieves, and teenagers. She is the New York Times bestselling author of the EMBASSY ROW, HEIST SOCIETY, and GALLAGHER GIRLS series, which together have sold more than two-million copies and have been published in more than twenty countries. She lives in Oklahoma, where her life is either very ordinary or the best deep-cover legend ever.

Ally gave a fantastic talk entitled, “Dear Ally: A Letter for Baby Author Me”, where she discussed many of the mistakes she made as a beginning author. They were so insightful and encouraging.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Nothing sells backlist like frontlist.

Her first book sold about 5 copies, and yet she spent a LOT of time and money promoting that book. She learned the hard way that the best way to promote your last book is to write your next book. The first book in her Gallager Girls series didn’t hit the NY Times Bestsellers’ List, but the second one did. And once it did, the first one did too.

The type of book and the quality are the only things that authors can control. The rest of marketing that authors do may not effect sales very much.

Some people will tell you that making writer friends is going to be good for your career. They’re wrong. These friends are going to be good for your LIFE.

I have never heard a truer statement. My writer friends are the most important ones I have. They understand what it means to struggle with this creative life we have chosen and they support me through it all.

Twitter lies.

Nobody ever shares the bad news. You can’t judge your career based on the career of other people. You don’t really know how their careers are going and it doesn’t help you to worry about it.

There’s no one way to write a book.

You never learn how to write a book. You just learn how to write the book you’re writing right now. And every book will probably have a month where it gets hard.

She had so many other fantastic pearls of wisdom to share. I just loved her talk.

She closed with this:

What you do matters. If you make a kid feel happy for a little while, that’s a great thing.

Truly fantastic. Thank you, Ally.

Follow Ally on Twitter here. Follow Ally on Instagram here.

 

Our next speaker shared ways to add heart into our writing.

jill-santopoloJill Santopolo – Editorial Director with Philomel Books

Jill received a BA in English literature from Columbia University, an MFA in writing for children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a certificate in intellectual property law from NYU. As the editorial director of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers group, she has edited many New York Times bestselling and award-winning authors including Atia Abawi, Terry Border, Chelsea Clinton, Andrea Cremer, Lisa Graff, and Alex London. She’s the author of the Sparkle Spa series, the Alec Flint mysteries, the Follow Your Heart books, and the upcoming adult novel The Light We Lost. An adjunct professor in The New School’s MFA program, Jill travels the world to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in New York City.

Jill inspired us all with her talk entitled, “Getting to the Heart of the Matter”. A talk about emotion. She began by asking the purpose of art. To connect with readers/viewers by creating empathy, understanding, or a cathartic experience. In essence, some kind of connection.

In writing, to get that connection, we use “show don’t tell”.

Why? Because You feel it instead of see it.

Connection.

How? Sound, syntax, and word choice.

Jill gave many examples of how word choices and sentence structure effected a specific passage.

For example, shorter clipped sentences can convey anger or intensity.

Pauses have power.

Linking certain words to specific characters tell us how to feel about each character – ‘buzzy’ and ‘roared’ versus ‘lounged’ and ‘sippy’ give us very different feelings.

Like an artist uses brush strokes and color choices, a writer uses sentence length and word choice to create moods for evoking emotions.

 

Prior to the conference, Jill participated in a Twitter chat with us. You can view the Storify version of our conversation with Jill hereFollow Jill on Twitter here.

 

The next speaker had much to discuss and much wisdom to impart for the pre-published among us.

lindacamachoLinda Camacho – Literary Agent with Prospect Agency

Linda joined Prospect Agency in 2015 after a decade in publishing. After graduating from Cornell University, Linda interned at Simon & Schuster and Writers House literary agency, and worked at Penguin and Random House before making the leap to agenting. She has an MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

 

Linda’s talk entitled, “Your Personal Hero’s Journey – Going from Pre-Published to Successfully Published” was full of fantastic advice. One of the main ideas was you need to get used to rejection.

“I get rejected with my clients.”

She went over some surprising facts about rejection from a Psychology Today article. Here are a few:

  • Rejection runs along the same pathways as physical pain.
  • Tylenol can reduce the pain of rejection.
  • Rejection temporarily lowers IQ.
  • Rejection does not respond to reason.

Fascinating, right?

Linda went on to show several examples of rejections from writers who went on to succeed. She said embrace rejection. It means you’re a real writer.

Today’s common rejection? “It’s not for me.”

This can happen even when there’s nothing wrong with your manuscript. You cannot control rejection.

There are things you CAN control:

  • Dump your excuses – “I don’t have the time”, “I’m not talented enough”, “I’m afraid of failure”, etc.
  • Write the book – Pick a routine, any routine.
  • Hold yourself accountable
  • Learn the business
  • Read. A Lot.
  • Get used to revising!
  • FIND A WRITING COMMUNITY – so key when faced with rejection and cloistered when working. The writerly brain is unique. We need some understanding.

She had so many other fantastic suggestions. Such a great talk!

Visit Linda’s agency site to view what she’s currently seeking and to observe her submission guidelines.

Prior to the conference, Linda participated in a Twitter chat with us. You can view the Storify version of our conversation with Linda hereFollow Linda on Twitter here.

 

Our final speaker of the day asked us what we were willing to do to succeed.

2016-kristin-nelson-160x24072dpiKristen Nelson – President and Founding Literary Agent at Nelson Literary Agency

Kristen established the Nelson Literary Agency in 2002 and over the last decade+ of her career has represented over thirty-five New York Times bestselling titles and many USA Today bestsellers. Clients include Ally Carter, Marie Lu, Scott Reintgen, Gail Carriger, Stacey Lee, Marcia Wells, and Simone Elkeles. When she is not busy selling books, Kristin attempts to play golf & tennis. She also enjoys playing Bridge (where she is the youngest person in her club), and can be found hiking in the mountains with her husband and their dog Chutney.

Kristen gave the final talk of the day entitled, “What Will Your Then and Now Story Be?” It was quite inspirational.

She started off with some background on how she started her literary agency by making a business plan and selling her house to fund it. She worked out of her much smaller new house for six months before closing her first deal.

She then asked, in pursuing our dream, “Do you want it badly enough to change?”

  • To allow yourself zero excuses?
  • To get rejected A LOT?
  • To reinvent yourself?
  • To change jobs to have more time to write?
  • To write the fifth novel when four novel didn’t launch your career?

She asked more tough questions and gave examples of authors who’d gone through each of these situations, and then went on to succeed.

Every author faces obstacles. On average, four is the magic number. That’s four manuscripts before you write the one that sells.

Visit Kristen’s agency site to view what she’s currently seeking and to observe her submission guidelines.

Prior to the conference, Kristen participated in a Twitter chat with us. You can view the Storify version of our conversation with Kristen hereFollow Kristen on Twitter here.

 

BOOK SIGNING

Immediately following the end of the conference, there was a book signing for published authors and our speakers. (Code for time to buy more books!)

 

Great time to get my copy of Jennifer Latham’s new book DREAMLAND BRUNING signed. I attended her book release, but they sold out before I even arrived! (Not a bad problem to have, honestly.) Such a great turn out!

 

This is my fourth signed book by Ally Carter and I adore them all. She’s such a delight. (Even if she is an OSU fan!)

That’s a wrap for another outstanding spring conference. Thanks to everyone who made it possible and to all of our fantastic speakers! You were amazing and so inspiring.

 

 

SCBWI OK Spring Conference Recap Part I – Persistence, Professionalism, and Success in Action

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This year’s SCBWI Oklahoma Spring Conference set a high bar for future conferences. A month later and I’m still processing the wealth of information the speakers imparted. Here’s Part I of the brief recap!2017-scbwi-spring-conference-flyer

FRIDAY

This year’s conference began with something new, a warm up event on Friday evening. With three different options, I chose to attend the Friday Night Panel with Ally Carter, Matt Ringler, and Linda Camacho.

From left to right, our panel included NY Times bestselling author Ally Carter, Senior Editor at Scholastic Matt Ringler, and literary agent Linda Camacho of the Prospect Agency.

This fun and informative panel was asked everything from their views on professionalism to what keeps them reading a manuscript to what other agents and editors would say about them. Needless to say things got interesting!

Agent Linda Camacho addresses the crowd.

The three speakers held the attention of the packed room and started the conference off with great enthusiasm.

One of my favorite stories was from Ally Carter. When answering a question about professionalism, she commented that she was simply doing what her mother taught her when she wrote a thank you note to a very important book seller. She found out later that he actually kept it displayed. It was the only one he’d ever received from an author. A reminder that being thoughtful to everyone in this business can make a difference.

SATURDAY MORNING

Our first speaker of the day showed us the power and beauty of using fewer words to tell our stories.

katrinadamkoehler-2Katrina Damkoehler – Senior Designer with Random House Children’s Publishing

Katrina is currently a Senior Designer for the trade imprints of Random House Children’s Publishing, where she designs and art directs approximately 35 middle grade and picture book titles per year. She was previously Art Director at Amazon Children’s Publishing. Recent projects she art directed include the 2015 Geisel Award-winner “You Are Not Small” (Anna Kang/Christopher Weyant), “Grover Cleveland, Again” (Ken Burns/Gerald Kelley), and “This is My Book” (Mark Pett).

Katrina gave a talk entitled, “(Almost) Wordless Picture Books” where she gave examples of picture books that used few words to tell great stories. The (almost) wordless manuscripts may have as few as 50 words. With a limited word count, it’s helpful to have a road map. That’s why most wordless (or nearly wordless) manuscript submissions include illustration notes.

Here are some examples she shared:

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS LITTLE by LeUyen Pham

 

 

 

CINDER-EYED CATS by Eric Rohmann

 

 

HELLO HIPPO, GOODBYE BIRD by Kristyn Crow

 

 

She also walked us through the illustration process – from submitted manuscript to finished book – for EAT, SLEEP, POOP by Alexandra Penfold.

Beginning manuscript for EAT, SLEEP, POOP.

Finished product! Cover and first few pages of completed book for EAT, SLEEP, POOP.

One thing she emphasized about nearly wordless picture books is that emotional expressions of the characters need to be extremely clear. After all, the illustrations are doing a lot of heavy-lifting with the story-telling.

 

To learn more about Katrina, follow her on Twitter here.

Prior to the conference, Katrina participated in a Twitter chat with us. You can view the Storify version of our conversation with Katrina here.

 

Next, a true power couple shared tips on how to write authentically for a YA audience.

0253_allycarterportraits_by_lizligon-150x150Ally Carter – Young Adult Author

Ally Carter writes books about spies, thieves, and teenagers. She is the New York Times bestselling author of the EMBASSY ROW, HEIST SOCIETY, and GALLAGHER GIRLS series, which together have sold more than two-million copies and have been published in more than twenty countries. She lives in Oklahoma, where her life is either very ordinary or the best deep-cover legend ever.

2016-kristin-nelson-160x24072dpiKristen Nelson – President and Founding Literary Agent at Nelson Literary Agency

Kristen established the Nelson Literary Agency in 2002 and over the last decade+ of her career has represented over thirty-five New York Times bestselling titles and many USA Today bestsellers. Clients include Ally Carter, Marie Lu, Scott Reintgen, Gail Carriger, Stacey Lee, Marcia Wells, and Simone Elkeles. When she is not busy selling books, Kristin attempts to play golf & tennis. She also enjoys playing Bridge (where she is the youngest person in her club), and can be found hiking in the mountains with her husband and their dog Chutney.

NY Times best-selling author (and Oklahoma native) Ally Carter joined her agent Kristen Nelson to give a presentation together entitled, “‘So You Want to Write YA…Start by Asking the Right Questions!”.

One of those right questions was instead of asking how to learn teen slang, you should ask if you have a voice that appeals to teens.

Slang comes and goes, and is often regionally specific. Besides dating your manuscript, it can end up alienating readers instead of connecting them with your story.

Another great question was instead of asking if you can just age your characters up or down to ‘make’ your book YA, you should ask yourself if you’re telling a true coming-of-age story that will resonate with teens.

It’s not enough to have characters the same age as your readers. Age doesn’t equal connection. You have to engage your teen readers with a story they can relate to.

And this one was my favorite:

Q:   Should I alter myself when writing for teens?

A:   Ally – “Yes, write smarter.”

Kristen – “I’ve never heard a teen say, ‘I felt obligated to keep reading’.”

Teens expect the writing to be great from page one and will put a book down the minute it stops delivering.

 

To learn more about this dynamic duo:

Follow Ally on Twitter here. Follow Ally on Instagram here.

Visit Kristen’s agency site to view what she’s currently seeking and to observe her submission guidelines.

Prior to the conference, Kristen participated in a Twitter chat with us. You can view the Storify version of our conversation with Kristen hereFollow Kristen on Twitter here.

 

The final speaker of the morning dazzled us with his presentation and his wit.

mattringlerMatt Ringler – Senior Editor with Scholastic

Matt is a senior editor at Scholastic specializing in chapter book, middle grade, and YA fiction. He is the editor of the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, the Game Changers series by Mike Lupica, the STAT series by Amar’e Stoudemire, and the Little Rhino series by Ryan Howard. His YA list includes the New York Times Bestseller Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky and It’s Not Me, It’s You by Stephanie Kate Strohm.

Matt Ringler imparting his words of wisdom to our SCBWI OK crowd.
Matt took a group picture of us and posted it on Twitter since we would be doing the same to him. Well played. Did I mention he has a great sense of humor?

Matt spoke about “Writing Success at Many Levels”. He started out by giving us some background on himself (started as an intern for the David Levithan – can you say fangirling?) and some mind-blowing Scholastic stats (like Scholastic publishes 1 out of every 3 books, and first experience most kids have buying their own books is through Scholastic Book Fairs).

Matt moved on to talking about writing, and specifically about not fighting your own writing process, even if it changes from one book to the next. You change as your experiences grow – you’re not the same writer you were a few years ago. It’s okay for your process to change. Embrace it.

Matt shared an insight into his selection process. When deciding what projects to take on, Matt said, “To work on a book, it’s a year. It’s committing to a relationship. If it doesn’t feel right for me, I’ll pass on it.”

That’s another reason to not take it personally when your manuscript is rejected because an agent or editor didn’t love it enough. That doesn’t mean your work isn’t good, just that their commitment level wasn’t right for the relationship to work. You want your book to succeed and you want someone to champion your book. That’s going to require a strong commitment to your story.

Matt went on to discuss the different kinds of success:

PERSONAL

FINANCIAL

CRITICAL

LONGEVITY

READERSHIP

PROMOTIONAL

All aspects of success can build on each other. Writing is hard! Don’t forget to celebrate the little steps of success along the way.

 

To learn more about Matt, follow him on Twitter here.

Matt will be our guest for #okscbwichat on Twitter August 22nd from 7-8pm CST! We hope you’ll join us!

 

BREAK

Break time means networking (read “socializing”) and taking selfies with my writing friends!

 

with Catren Lamb
with Brenda Maier
with Regina Garvie

 

 

 

 

 

 

with Gwendolyn Hooks and my thumb
with Tammi Sauer
with THE Jerry Bennett

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the best parts of writing conferences is connecting with my fellow writers (and the odd illustrator or two, Jerry). I love my tribe!

Stay tuned for Part II of the conference recap!

 

2017 SCBWI OK Spring Conference – Persistence, Professionalism, and Success

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Ah! Spring! My favorite time of year! And not only because I get to hang out with a lovely bunch of children’s literature people for an entire weekend, but also expand my brain at the same time. Our 2017 SCBWI Oklahoma Spring conference has so many excellent speakers attending, I can’t wait to hear them!2017-scbwi-spring-conference-flyer

The event begins Friday evening,  March 24th, and continues through Saturday, March 25th.

As always manuscript critiques, and portfolio critiques will be available in limited numbers, but this year there are also new additions, including Friday night sessions, paid face time with a professional,  off-site critiques, and an autograph party. Sounds fun!

 

Let’s meet our speakers:

0253_allycarterportraits_by_lizligon-150x150Ally Carter – Young Adult Author

Ally Carter writes books about spies, thieves, and teenagers. She is the New York Times bestselling author of the EMBASSY ROW, HEIST SOCIETY, and GALLAGHER GIRLS series, which together have sold more than two-million copies and have been published in more than twenty countries. She lives in Oklahoma, where her life is either very ordinary or the best deep-cover legend ever. She’d tell you more, but…well…you know…

She will give the Keynote address entitled, “Dear Ally: A Letter for Baby Author Me”.

Follow Ally on Twitter here. Follow Ally on Instagram here.

 

2016-kristin-nelson-160x24072dpiKristen Nelson – President and Founding Literary Agent at Nelson Literary Agency

Kristen established the Nelson Literary Agency in 2002 and over the last decade+ of her career has represented over thirty-five New York Times bestselling titles and many USA Today bestsellers. Clients include Ally Carter, Marie Lu, Scott Reintgen, Gail Carriger, Stacey Lee, Marcia Wells, and Simone Elkeles. When she is not busy selling books, Kristin attempts to play golf & tennis. She also enjoys playing Bridge (where she is the youngest person in her club), and can be found hiking in the mountains with her husband and their dog Chutney.

To view what she’s currently seeking and submission guidelines, visit her agency website.

***Get to know Kristen before the conference! She will be a Special Guest during our Twitter chat on February 28th, from 7-8pm CST. We use the hashtag #okscbwichat.

Missed the chat? You can view the Storify version of the conversation with Kristen here.

Follow Kristen on Twitter here.

 

jill-santopoloJill Santopolo – Editorial Director with Philomel Books

Jill received a BA in English literature from Columbia University, an MFA in writing for children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a certificate in intellectual property law from NYU. As the editorial director of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers group, she has edited many New York Times bestselling and award-winning authors including Atia Abawi, Terry Border, Chelsea Clinton, Andrea Cremer, Lisa Graff, and Alex London. She’s the author of the Sparkle Spa series, the Alec Flint mysteries, the Follow Your Heart books, and the upcoming adult novel The Light We Lost. An adjunct professor in The New School’s MFA program, Jill travels the world to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in New York City.

***Get to know Jill before the conference! She will be a Special Guest during our Twitter chat on March 7th, from 7-8pm CST. We use the hashtag #okscbwichat.

Missed the chat? You can view the Storify version of the conversation with Jill here.

Follow Jill on Twitter here.

 

lindacamachoLinda Camacho – Literary Agent with Prospect Agency

Linda joined Prospect Agency in 2015 after a decade in publishing. After graduating from Cornell University, Linda interned at Simon & Schuster and Writers House literary agency, and worked at Penguin and Random House before making the leap to agenting. She has an MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

To view what she’s currently seeking and submission guidelines, visit her agency website.

***Get to know Linda before the conference! She will be a Special Guest during our Twitter chat on March 14th, from 7-8pm CST. We use the hashtag #okscbwichat.

Missed the chat? You can view the Storify version of the conversation with Linda here.

Follow Linda on Twitter here.

 

katrinadamkoehler-2Katrina Damkoehler – Senior Designer with Random House Children’s Publishing

Katrina is currently a Senior Designer for the trade imprints of Random House Children’s Publishing, where she designs and art directs approximately 35 middle grade and picture book titles per year. She was previously Art Director at Amazon Children’s Publishing. Recent projects she art directed include the 2015 Geisel Award-winner “You Are Not Small” (Anna Kang/Christopher Weyant), “Grover Cleveland, Again” (Ken Burns/Gerald Kelley), and “This is My Book” (Mark Pett).

***Get to know Katrina before the conference! She will be a Special Guest during our Twitter chat on March 20th, from 7-8pm CST. We use the hashtag #okscbwichat.

Missed the chat? You can view the Storify version of the conversation with Katrina here.

Follow Katrina on Twitter here.

mattringlerMatt Ringler – Senior Editor with Scholastic

Matt is a senior editor at Scholastic specializing in chapter book, middle grade, and YA fiction. He is the editor of the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, the Game Changers series by Mike Lupica, the STAT series by Amar’e Stoudemire, and the Little Rhino series by Ryan Howard. His YA list includes the New York Times Bestseller Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky and It’s Not Me, It’s You by Stephanie Kate Strohm.

Follow Matt on Twitter here.

 

This year, Tulsa is the host city for the conference. Mark your calendars for March 24-25th. You won’t want to miss it!

For more information about our conference and to register for this event, CLICK HERE.

I hope to see you there!