Monday, January 30, 2012

Chatting with Kristin Levine

I recently met the lovely Kristin Levine at a DC Children's Book Guild meeting and had the pleasure of reading her terrific new book, THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK. It takes place in 1958 Little Rock, AR, and deals with the relationship of main character Marlee and her friend Liz, a black girl "passing" for a white one at school, until the day Liz must withdraw, because she's been found out.

Where did you get the idea for your new book, TLOLR?

My mother grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. I started asking her about her childhood, and in our very first conversation about Little Rock, my mother told me about listening to the lions roar at night. Something about that detail stuck with me. In addition, I attended very diverse public schools growing up, so the Little Rock Nine and school integration is something I've always been interested in.

What was the most difficult part of writing TLOLR?

It took me a long time to really understand the character of Marlee - which wasn't so great, since she was my main character! Once I did, the story finally started to flow. I also struggled with trying to figure out how to make my main characters, Marlee and Liz, as active as possible in the plot. I didn't want them to just observe the historical events going on around them; I wanted them to actively take part in making things change.

What was your favorite part of writing it?

I really enjoyed the research, interviewing people and gathering information. I also enjoyed doing the final draft, once I had the characters and conflicts down and was just deepening and changing things. It was the middle when I was muddling through, not even sure if the story was going to work, that was the hardest for me.

Did your process change at all from writing your first book?

Yes! My first book, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, started as a screenplay. I did lots of outlining, note cards, and actually had a complete story by the time I sat down to turn in into a novel. This time, I decided to just "start writing" because I was a writer, right? I knew how to do this. Ah, no. Turns out, I am not a "seat-of-your pants" kind of a writer. (I totally admire those of you who are!) I guess it was a good thing to learn about myself, but it was painful to realize I needed to go back and plot things out when I was already 170+ pages into the story.

As a busy mom with two small children, how do you find time to write?

This is the issue I struggle with the most. My mother babysits once or twice a week for a few hours, my husband helps out on the weekends, I try to make use of school and nap time, I've traded kids with friends, and there is always our collection of Disney movies if I get desperate and have a deadline. I had to work a lot at night after my kids were asleep when I was writing LIONS, which I did not really enjoy, but it was necessary.

On the other hand, kids can be a motivating factor too. It's awfully fun when my kids decide they want to play "book launch" or ask to look for my book on the shelf when we go to the library. They aren't old enough to read my books yet, but I really look forward to sharing my work with them in a few years.

Ultimately, I think that finding time to write is going to be an ongoing struggle while my kids are small. So instead of trying to totally solve this problem, I'm now just trying to accept it.

What do you do when writer's block hits?

I give myself permission to write something really, really bad. Basically, I have so little time to write, I can't afford to get writer's block. I force myself to write something, even if it is terrible, and usually after a while of terrible writing, something okay starts to come out. But if after an hour nothing good is coming, I'll stop and try again another day.

What's your favorite snack/drink when writing?

We have the most wonderful coffee shop near our house, so I love to hang out there. My favorite drink is probably tea - green or black with rice milk. They have the most delicious croissants and homemade pastries too.

Thanks, Kristin!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Great Quote

I found this great quote from Susan Isaacs this morning. Don't you love when you find just the right inspirational words, exactly when you need them?

Writing is a job. You have to go to work regularly or the work simply will not get done. If you're working full-time, set aside a couple of weeknights and part of the weekend in which to work. Otherwise, you should be working at least five days a week for at least two to three hours. Remember this: if you didn't show up for work, you'd be fired. If you don't show up for your writing work, you lose, too. You won't be a writer.

Right now, I'm only finding about 3 or maybe 6 hours a week to work. This reminds me I have to do better, even when the wee ones aren't cooperating.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Still creeping slowly back into work mode. My baby is 5 months now, and still not on a schedule (I've tried and tried, but she's resistant in her charming, drooly way) so finding time to work is hard. I do have a sitter once or twice a week for a few hours, but it's amazing how fast that time goes, especially when it's often filled up with dentist appointments, teacher conferences at my toddler's school, and the occasional kid-free errand.

So, I have to choose carefully what my next project will be. I have a revision I'd really like to work on, for a book that I love and know is special but needs some reshaping. And I also have an idea for a great new series for younger readers. But something new requires so much brainpower and I'm still cruising at around 50%. What to do, what to do...

The answer is simple of course. Put my Butt In Chair (as Jane Yolen says) and WRITE.
Butt in chair now.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Back to work

I'm slowly getting back to work now that my youngest is 4 months old. Sloooooowly.

I have some school visits on the calendar, and I'm teaching two classes in Baltimore at Roland Park Country School's evening program for adults. One is called Making Time to Write in a Busy Life on 10/26, and the other is The ABCs of Writing Children's Books on 11/9. I'm excited about these classes, not only because I got to pick the topics to discuss, but because Roland Park is my alma mater, and I'm thrilled to be going back there to teach.

You can find out more about the classes here. Sign up and come and see me!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

So I haven't posted in a while...

But I have a very good reason.

The stork delivered this little package in late May and I've been, uh, a little busy ever since.

I'm taking the summer to spend time playing, cuddling, and hanging at the pool with my toddler and infant, and then I'll be back to work in the fall.

It's been the loveliest summer I can remember.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Putting the Octopus to Bed

So I've gotten my feedback (all helpful -- yay!) and now I've got to start putting this octopus to bed. Meaning, when tackling a revision, you usually have about eight (or a billion) things you need to focus on, which means every time you manage to put a few of them to bed, the other ones get loose and shoot out all over the place.

It's a tricky thing, revision. In my experience, my work ALWAYS gets better when I do a large rewrite. Always. But in the days leading up to plunging back into a manuscript, I'm overcome by fear that I won't be able to do it. I won't be able to manage all those octopus legs, and I'll just end up with a big, fat, mess.

A lot of writing is just shutting up your fear and getting your fingers moving. Because nothing will get finished if you just sit there and worry.

Okay, enough blogging. I've got a date with an octopus.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Waiting for Feedback (and Considering Dentistry)

Being a writer is full of hurry up-and-wait. You hurry-hurry to get through a first draft (for me, the most painful part of the entire writing process). Then you hurry-hurry to read and revise it because you're so anxious to fix the millions of things that are wrong with it. Then you hurry to make it somewhat presentable so you can push it out of your own hands, by sending it out somewhere -- either to an agent, editor, or trusted critique partner(s).

Right now I'm waiting for feedback on something brand new. In the mean time, I'm looking critically at some old and half-finished projects, trying to see if there's a spark anywhere I should ignite and work on.

But mostly just waiting and wondering. Sometimes I think I should have been a dentist instead. Or any less emotional profession.