Barbara Lowell – Author Interview & Book Giveaway

The very first person I met through SCBWI was Barbara Lowell. She epitomizes the spirit of our SCBWI Oklahoma group – open and generous and willing to help anyone who asks. I am so grateful that she was the first to make a permanent impression on me. We met at one of the fall conferences, my first ever to attend. How lucky was I that she also soon became one of my very first critique partners, as well? I’m happy to say that she is still my critique partner to this day. We’ve both learned so much from when we started out as newbie writers, making typical mistakes and writing awful stories. Our whole group has grown and we have all come a long way from those stumbling beginnings. Barbara has fantastic suggestions that help me take my stories in much better directions, and even though she swears she could never write something so long herself, I’m not so sure she couldn’t if that’s where her passion led her. Fortunately for us, she loves writing dynamic and intriguing picture book biographies. I adore Barbara’s writing and have felt it a privilege to be a part of so many of her great stories. I’m so happy that the first of these has finally found its way to publication.

GEORGE FERRIS WHAT A WHEEL
Grosset & Dunlap. June 26, 2014.

 

George Ferris Book

 

George Ferris, ever confident, didn’t know that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair would make him famous, but when engineers were challenged to build something unique and original, he knew he was the person to create it. George had to convince the fair officials, find the money and design and build an amusement wheel that could hold 2,160 people at the same time, something no one had ever done before.

 The Interview

 

Barbara was kind enough to stop by my blog to answer a few questions about her writing process and how she came to be the writer she is today. And she’s also donated not one, but two of her books for a fantastic giveaway! (I told you she was generous.) More details on that later. First, the questions!

Barbara Author PhotoValerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this story? What made you want to tell it?

Barbara Lowell: My husband was reading Devil in the White City by Erik Larson about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. What amazed him most was that George Ferris had built an amusement wheel with train-sized cars that could hold 2,160 people at the same time.

As soon as he finished the book, I read it. Those two details and George’s confidence that despite overwhelming odds, he could and would build his wheel inspired me to write his story as a nonfiction picture book.

I also loved how Mrs. Ferris absolutely believed in George. She rode in one of the six cars mounted on the wheel for a second trial trip. The glass for the windows hadn’t been installed. When the car she was riding in reached the top of the wheel, 264 feet, she stood on her chair and cheered.

 

VL: I loved those details about the story. What devotion his wife had to test such a contraption. Mrs. Ferris must have been quite a character herself.

I was surprised by the sheer size of this first Ferris Wheel – so big that each car could hold a 40-piece marching band. Would you ever ride in a Ferris Wheel that big?

BL: I might try the new High Roller in Las Vegas. It is twice the height of George Ferris’s wheel, but holds 1,120 passengers verses George Ferris’s 2,160. 

 

VL: A book of this type requires an extensive amount of research. What is your writing process? How do you start a project like this?

BL: I love history, especially American history and researching is fun. There are many interesting stories to find that are not well-known. I try to research the person or story I am writing about as thoroughly as I can. Since I learned about George Ferris’s wheel in Devil in the White City, I first looked at Erik Larson’s sources. His sources that I couldn’t find in the Tulsa library system, I either found at the University of Tulsa or bought online.

One that I consulted over and over is Norman Anderson’s impeccably researched book Ferris Wheels. I researched the sources used for every book I read and dug deeper and deeper. I was able to find at the NOAA website that the lowest recorded temperature in Chicago in January 1893 was -16. I look for as many primary sources as I can – books written by and interviews conducted with the subject of my book, original documents and artifacts. I found an interview with George Ferris from 1893 – that was a great find. When I was unable to locate the answer to a question I had about George Ferris, I contacted the Chicago Historical Society.

 

VL: That is very diligent researching. It must have been amazing to read George Ferris’s own words and then incorporate that into your story.

Who were your childhood heroes and role models? What drew you to them?

BL: From the time I was in third grade, I loved reading biographies, especially about people I could learn from. My favorite autobiography was Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life. I read many books about Eleanor Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt. All three subjects faced enormous challenges with great courage. I still read lots of biographies and nonfiction history.

 

VL: I have such a strong memory of learning about Helen Keller, too. I thought she was amazing. 

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? When did you start pursuing that seriously?

BL: I knew when I was a child that I wanted to be a writer, but I never tried seriously to become one until my daughter started high school. I thought, now I have the time to work on this and it maybe now or never.

I tried on my own, but I was going nowhere until the wonderful Oklahoma writer, Anna Myers started the SCBWI Oklahoma Schmoozes (writers and illustrators meetings.) I attended the meetings and conferences, took online classes and joined a critique group. I began to learn how to write for children and continue every day to learn and improve. This is a tough business and the support of my fellow writers has given me the strength to pursue my writing goals.

 

VL: You are so right! The need for support cannot be emphasized enough. I may have given up long ago if not for my SCBWI family.

Tell me about the most memorable adventures you had with your friends outside of school.

BL: I loved the summer. I lived in a neighborhood with lots of children. We spent our summers dreaming up adventures and then acted them out. A friend’s father helped build sets for a local theater group and one day he brought home a full-size Conestoga wagon. We had a great time traveling out west in our imaginations. One summer we set up our own outdoor laundry and went around the neighborhood asking for things to wash. We played all kinds of outdoor games. There was so much to do that every day seemed to last forever. I loved being a kid and that’s why I like writing for them.

 

VL: Wow! A real Conestoga wagon? You kids must have had a field day with that. I think I would have wanted to camp out in it. Maybe sleep under the stars like a cowboy. I loved being a kid, too. I think you may have something there. 

What are you currently working on?

BL: I finished researching a picture book biography, and I am working on the first draft. I have also recently worked on the first picture book I ever wrote and have rewritten it, not just revised it, for about the sixth time. I think I have finally made it work – but I have thought that before. I also have a new idea for a picture book biography and will start my research by reading the subject’s autobiography. I hope I can find a great story arc there.

 

VL: I can’t wait to take a peek at it. 🙂

What are some of your favorite books for kids?

BL: I think I can agree with almost every fan of YA – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I also love his book An Abundance of Katherines. I recently read Kathi Appelt’s latest middle grade novel The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp and her book The Underneath is one of my favorites. Karen Cushman, Laurie Halse Anderson and Anna Myers write some of my favorite historical fiction novels.

My favorite book period is To Kill a Mockingbird. I have a huge collection of picture book biographies and historical fiction picture books. My two favorites are Deborah Hopkinson’s Apples to Oregon and Patrick McDonnell’s Me…Jane (Jane Goodall.) I think his is the best picture book biography written. I also like all of Barbara Kerley’s biographies and one of my new favorites is On a Beam of Light (Albert Einstein) by Jennifer Berne.

 

VL: There were some favorites of mine there and some new ones I need to read. Great suggestions.

What has been the best part of being a writer?

BL: Becoming friends with children’s writers. I absolutely love spending time with them and being part of this close community.

Thank you for inviting me to your blog!

Thank you so much for being here, Barbara. And I hope to have you back very soon!

Learn more about Barbara Lowell here.

BUY THE BOOK:

indiebound

 bn-24h-80amazon

 

The Giveaway

 

And now for the fabulous giveaway!

Barbara has generously donated two hardback editions of her new book GEORGE FERRIS WHAT A WHEEL. So there will be TWO WINNERS! This contest is open to everyone. The contest will run through July 18th and you can enter once a day. Good Luck! The winners can now been seen when you click on the giveaway site. Congratulations!

 

ENTER HERE!!!  ➤➤➤ Barbara Lowell Rafflecopter giveaway

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Darlings are Damn Hard to Kill

Image courtesy of Henry Söderlund via Flickr
Image courtesy of Henry Söderlund via Flickr

As a writer, I know how important it is to let go of those pretty words that no longer serve my story. They may have helped me get through the muddy middle of my first draft or even find a way to begin, but when it’s time to revise, the death blows need to fall. Sometimes excising these beautiful ones can be harder than you think.

I’ve heard the phrase “Kill your darlings” more than once when at conferences and workshops. One editor even said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If you must keep them, print them out and tuck them safely under your pillow, but get them out of your manuscript.” (I really wish I could remember who said that, because I think that’s just brilliant.)

Point made. They don’t belong in your story.

Usually I don’t have a problem with the slash and burn. The delete button and I are well acquainted. However, during my latest revision I came across a major blind spot that caused quite an upheaval in my first chapter. While I thought I had done my usual slashing without mercy, leaving a wake of dead darlings bathed in red ink, once I presented the freshly cleaned chapter to my critique group, I received a surprise. The comments?

“This doesn’t work.”

“This flashback scene is confusing.”

Why was there a flashback scene in the first chapter, you may ask?

Ugh.

I know, I know. Total amateur move. Bad writer.

So what happened?

I changed my opening line. And then…I couldn’t let go of the old one. In fact, I worked so hard to keep it, this little darling of mine, that there was no rule I wouldn’t break. I went so far out of my way to write badly, knowing I was writing badly and still unable to stop, just to force the line in and to make it fit. The gymnastic maneuverings it took to twist the story broke the laws of physics and the rules of writing. Even as I was writing the horrible flashback scene, which was the only way I could work it into the story, I knew it was crap, but I still couldn’t quit.

Why?

Maybe because I thought it was humorous, a running gag I could use through the whole story. Maybe I thought I couldn’t write something better. I don’t know, exactly. Deep down I did know that this bit of writing I was trying so desperately to save didn’t move the story along and it didn’t really add to the main character – something that should have brought on an immediate death sentence.

In the end, I needed my CPs to help me euthanize this one. They took one look at the mess and said unanimously:

“This doesn’t work.”

Have I mentioned only a few dozen times how much I love my critique group? They are always so good for me. I can hide nothing from them. Once they pointed it out, I just had to laugh at the ridiculousness. Of course it didn’t work. I could see it, then.

But it was hard to say good bye. Maybe because I didn’t always think it was so bad. That darling helped me out of a bind, once upon a time, when I was struggling for a beginning hook. It may not have been the best opening, but it did help me stop worrying about the perfect beginning and move on to write the story while I had that placeholder. I knew the time would come when I’d have to change it. But when the time came, I thought I still needed it.

Now I know I can let it go. I can write something better. I am finally ready to kill this darling.

Pushing Past Our Comfort Zone – Continuing to Learn When We Think We Know it All

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”

– Socrates

I’m at that stage in my writing where I no longer feel like a complete novice. I’ve made many of the classic beginning mistakes – I fell in love with my own words whether or not what I was saying moved the story forward, I sprinkled my sentences liberally with adjectives and adverbs, and the narrative voice? We were best friends.

I’ve since moved on to the more advanced mistakes.

Like becoming a bit complacent with my craft.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot that although I may now be able to whip out some excellent dialogue and show the action of a scene and insert some awesome sensory details and have great pacing and an authentic teen voice that I still have things to learn; that this is an ongoing, evolving journey that I may never truly master.

My friend and fellow critique partner Helen Newton came along just in time to remind me. She gave an excellent presentation at our Tulsa SCBWI schmooze earlier this month where she discussed novel revision techniques. One of her suggestions dealt with reading your manuscript out loud – in different ways, like in a monotone or with an accent. The purpose of this exercise was to make mistakes in your writing easier to see when you hear your words read aloud  – especially by someone else or in a different rhythm. When we become too familiar with our own work, we can miss glaring mistakes that others might see without a problem.

This reminded me of a recent story I heard on NPR about radiologists who were given films of lungs and asked to look for cancerous nodules as part of an experiment. Almost all failed

Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe
Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe

to notice the picture of the gorilla superimposed on the slides  because of their narrowed scope. They were looking for disease, not gorillas. This phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness”.

“In other words, what we’re thinking about — what we’re focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see.”

So did I have “inattentional blindness” in my writing? I’d heard this practice of reading one’s work aloud was a good idea before, but never before in such detail. I’d also never had the patience to try it. It was one thing to read a picture book manuscript out loud, but an entire novel? And more than once? Forget it.

But the very next week, I was preparing my submission for our upcoming OK SCBWI conference in April, and I was working on completely new manuscript. I needed some input before submitting it. There was no time to get feedback from the great and mighty dream team, my critique group, so what was I to do? I recruited some beloved family members and gave the read-aloud idea a try. I’m useless when I read my own work aloud because I stop and edit too much, hence negating the whole purpose of the exercise.

I have to admit having two different people read aloud through my pages was really helpful. They both also made helpful editorial comments when they were finished – which showed me that they’d finally learned to spare my feelings and comment from the heart. All of which kept me from sending something out that was less than stellar.

Now if I could just talk them into reading my completed YA manuscript – it’s only 350 pages. I sense a hefty bribe is in order there.

So what about you? Do you read your manuscripts out loud? Do you use a program to read it out loud for you? Do you cajole adoring family members into reading it for you? What other revising exercises do you find helpful for seeing the hidden mistakes?

Nano, nano! novel retreat and #writemotivation

Nano! Nano! Greetings from planet Ork!

What? Too obscure a pop culture reference for a Monday? Too young to remember Robin Williams’s first major role?

Shazbot!

I got off topic again.

I should be talking about NaNoWriMo and how I’m doing with my writing project for the month. I’m excited to see I’ve made some new buddies (you can be my buddy, too – just search for my user name: litbeing.) and that they’ve been hard at work. I’ve made a small dent with 2,400 unedited words on the page. I have some catch up to do. I took a break over the weekend to attend a novel revision retreat put on by our hard-working SCBWI Oklahoma crew.

What can I say? They are outstanding. Did they let a little thing like a hurricane trapping one editor at her home and wrecking the flight plans of another editor stop them? Oh, no! They kept their heads. Flight plans were changed, Skype sessions were set up, and the show was back on. Bravo to Andrew Harwell with HarperCollins Children’s Books and Alexandra Penfold with Paula Wiseman Books for sticking with us through such difficult times and still being so gracious and amazing throughout the entire weekend. You’ve won over some die hard fans for life.

I had an excellent face-to-face critique for my middle grade mystery story that I recently pulled out of a drawer. I came away with several great suggestions and an offer to submit it when I’m done making those changes. Nice! I also received wonderful ideas from my critique partners, who were the most delightful people and made the weekend so much fun.

I love writing retreats. They are more laid back than conferences, and they are just so good for my mental health. I need time away from my hectic, demanding life to wallow in the literary and talk about the world of books. It recharges my artist’s soul.

The Pictorial Tour

The view outside my room – love me some pines trees. Forget stealing towels; if these had been smaller – and I’d remembered my shovel…BAM! Souvenirs!

Here’s Mr. Harwell schooling us in Marketing.

Some of the lucky writers who attended this intimate retreat. I had such a fabulous time with you all!

My friend, Gwen, who came away from the retreat smiling.

Our fearless leader, Anna, stopping to talk with a young writer.

Hearing what others have to say about your work isn’t always easy. After two days of critiques, it was time for a pint at a local brewery.

My lovely critique partners. Cheers!

The guys in our group – the crazy looking one is The Jerry Bennett, the illustrator. He’s currently working on his first graphic novel and I’m going to be interviewing him on this blog soon, so stay tuned!

I don’t want to forget my #writemotivation family; you guys are going to get me through my rough draft this month, right? I know I’ll be there for you. I’m gonna need your help cause my family ravaged my emergency candy bowl while I was gone and it’s half empty.

Defilers!

My goals this month will mostly tie into keeping up with NaNoWriMo. I don’t think I need more than that – after all, I’m not completely insane.

Here they are:

1. Write at least 12,000 words on nanowrimo project each week.
2. Write blog post at least once a week.
3. Read and comment on other blogs.
4. Exercise four times a week.

Simple, yes? I hope so. Let’s go be creative.

Nano! Nano!

Love Letter to My Critique Group and #writemotivation check in

My critique partners are really the wizards behind the curtain when it comes to my writing. I may be getting compliments on how great my  latest YA novel is , but it would still be a floundering suggestion of a good idea without the combined effort of these wonderful ladies. They have helped me shape this manuscript by having me question some of my word choices, my character motivations, even my whole story arc until I was sure that I had it watertight. And then I started over and let them go at it again. They all push me to do better because they know I can my story to where I want it. They are all just as invested in its success as I am. And I feel the same about their stories.

I know not everyone’s search for a critique group has been a positive experience and I stumbled into this amazing mix of talented women quite by chance, still, I would encourage every writer out there to join a critique group. It may take you a few times to find the right chemistry, but once you do, once you all click together, it’s just magic. I can’t tell you how many times these women, I now count as some of my closest friends, have had to talk me down off the wall when I was at my worst – thinking that I’d never figure out how to fix a plot problem, that my writing was no good,  that I should just give up, etc.

And So…to Barbara, Helen, Marilyn, Sharon, and Stephanie I say I love you and thank you all so much for everything!

On to my #writemotivation goals:

1. Finish revision suggestions for interested agent and send off my FULL manuscript as soon as humanly possible. I tackled the hardest part of this revision – FINALLY! I’ve been struggling with writing a new opening for over a month, now. It was my fabulous critique partners who helped me push through this deadlock. I discussed my frustration with them at our monthly gathering this past week and they were very encouraging as always and something one of them said jarred the right wire loose and helped me get things stirred up in the right way. I kicked out the new opening scene the next morning. SO much weight lifted off my mind.
2 .Finish up novel revisions on my Middle Grade manuscript for November workshop and mail off copies to my group. DONE.
3. Read through manuscripts received from my group for the novel revision workshop. I put some of my fancy schmancy office supplies to work this week and started line-editing the first manuscript. Really enjoying it. I always learn so much when I edit others. 
4. Continue first draft of new YA WIP. No action on this project this week.
5. Exercise at least four times a week. I did play soccer with my kids a few times and my daughter had me doing this ridiculous dance with her one day, so you could say I was more active this week, but still not as much as I need to be. Keep cracking the whip, I’ll get there!

Hope you are doing well with your goals.