kl - Do you have a process you go through to put your "working hat" on?
KN - I don't know if you'd call it a process. I do have a big stack of spiral-bound notebooks that I keep all my stories in. (I usually write the 1st draft of my picture books in long-hand, especially the ones in verse, and type them into the computer for subsequent edits.) The theory behind the notebooks was that I'd buy them on sale in August, (10 for a buck!!) then keep only one story in each notebook. I'd had trouble with stories spilling into various storage places, then couldn't find them! I've been doing that for several years now. The notebooks have worked a little better to corral the stories, although there are still times when I really want to work on a particular story and I can't find the right notebook. (I tend to take them with me on errands, to appointments, etc., so sometimes I find them in the car!)
But, if all goes well and I can find the notebook as well as printouts of my group's critiques, (if I'm working on a revision), I like to settle someplace comfy like a couch or at a table in my garden and scribble away. (Now I have a new gazebo, too! But haven't had even a moment to write in it yet.) Sometimes my next-door neighbor goes off to run errands, leaving music blaring out of his garage windows. I keep earplugs handy for that aggravation.
kl - What do you do to invite inspiration?
KN - Walking is always a good source of inspiration. Also gardening. Something about the monotony of those repetitive physical tasks seems to stimulate the "aha" center of one's brain, don't you think? It was during a walk that I came up with the refrain for The Crocodaddy. Now, thanks to those aforementioned notebooks, I do have a fairly good record of the progress of Crocodaddy. Which is a good thing, since I had remembered the sequence of events incorrectly. I thought the refrain came first. But when I look thru the notebook, I found the earliest version, which had no bouncy refrain and was actually rather grim. Well, not grim, exactly but not as light-hearted as the final version. But I was right about the fact that the refrain came to me during a walk.
I also enjoy looking thru publisher catalogs at book titles. Often, just a title will suggest something to me that is totally different than the book being advertised in the catalog. I have all these old catalogs with sticky notes and scribbles in them, noting the ideas. Now, FINDING those ideas after I've scribbled them is another thing altogether!
kl - How do you maintain your creative well?
KN - Probably the creative times I spend away from the notebooks are as good for me as the notebooks themselves. Music and theater often take me away from my writing, but also refill the well, so they earn their "keep," I think. I also notice how inspirational I find conversations with children. My kids aren't little anymore, but I try to find opportunities to interact with children where I can have real conversations with them. Young kids are so free of preconceptions that you can take great inspiration from their insights. I also find those conversations free up MY imagination, and I'll listen to words in a more child-like way, free-associating through wordplay.
I still remember a conversation I had in the car with my older son when he was about 3 or 4. He pointed to the oncoming cars and said something like, "Wook those mean cars." Mean cars? "Yes. They're WOOKIN' at me." And I realized he was talking about the headlights. They DO look kind of mean and scowling, now that you mention it! Another time, when I got him up from his nap, he told me hand was "sparkling." I knew instantly what he meant. His hand had fallen asleep beneath him and now it was tingling. But "sparkling" is a much better word! Lacking a sophisticated vocabulary, he found a perfect word for the sensation.
kl - Have you been given any choice in the artists that illustrate your books and do you want to have that choice?
KN - They haven't chosen the illustrator yet for The Crocodaddy. I can't wait to see who they choose. It will be soon, I think. As for JACK OF ALL TAILS, I was pleasantly surprised when, only a day or two after I accepted her offer, my editor emailed me to ask my opinion about an illustrator. Not that they were going to run out and hire the person(s) I suggested, but -- since I'd heard authors often have no say -- I was delighted to be asked. My editor wanted to know how I saw the illustrations in my head. And, see... this is why I say I'm no illustrator. I had no clear images in my head! In fact, I've always been better able to picture the Crocodaddy scenes than scenes from JACK. (Before David Clark did his brilliant work, of course. Now his illustrations are firmly planted in my head as though I grew them myself!!) I looked thru a Picturebook catalog someone gave me and noted some illustrators whose work I liked. Also, my friend Sue Corbett, the author and Miami Herald book reviewer, (who lives near me, not in Miami) invited me over to poke thru the many books she owns. My basic criterion to my editor was that I liked big funny eyes. And that's what I got -- along with all David's other hilarious details, so I was MORE than happy. Considering my lack of knowledge about the many capable illustrators out there, I'm happy letting the publisher make the choice, at least for now.
kl - Do you ever see yourself exploring illustration again or has that ship sailed?
KN - I'd really love to do it sometime, but I've learned there's only just so much time in a day. The more I've watched and learned from the illustrators in my critique group, the more I understand how much more there is to illustration than just depicting the action described in the text. There's color and composition to consider, pacing and added details, (the stuff that isn't described in the text.) Not to mention the importance of having a defined style. The only part of that I feel confident about right now is composition. So, now and then I take a wistful stab at it, (I love working in collage), but then life gets in the way and I never finish the project!! So, while the ship hasn't sailed, let's just say it is securely stored in a dry dock right now! Haha!
kl - Which two bits of advice would you offer to those that aren't yet published?
KN - Only two? Oh okay! Number one: read read read read! Read aloud, too. I think one of the reasons I shot out the gate fairly quickly with a writing style that soon won awards was because I read aloud to my children so often. (Twice a day, nap time and bedtime.) I picked up the auditory cadence of picture book language, which is very different from chapter book language. I'll let you in on a really shameful secret if you promise not to tell anyone: I never totally gave up lip-reading. I know lip readers are often sneered at as only a half-step ahead of Neanderthals, but I think all that lip reading was like reading aloud to myself. So I not only absorb the stories, I HEAR the narration language and the dialogue.
Number two: master the art of the query and cover letter. I'm fortunate in that I worked in the advertising industry, so I know how to write enticing copy. I also know how to write a professional-sounding letter that still shows personality. Forget, repeat FORGET those dreadful business letters you learned to write in school. "Please find enclosed" is a phrase that went out the carbon copy. You don't want to be TOO colloquial, ("Hey there editor babe!"), but you do want to show wit and personality.
kl - Do you have a weakness that you've turned into a strength - or at the very least disguised sufficiently?
KN - Ooo! Fascinating question, Karen! I think my biggest weakness is my tendency to flit from one thing to another without finishing what I started. But with my notebooks (and corresponding files in my computer), I CAN have lots of projects going and -- as long as I don't lose the darned notebook!-- I can always come back to a project after I've refilled the creative well for that particular project. I've always enjoyed jobs with a variety of tasks so I don't get bored. In the same way, my many stories, all at various stages of development, serve to keep me interested. I just have to be careful not to leave things TOO long -- I've got a few projects that fall into that category right now!! So the "strength" part of that equation is that I don't have to worry about running out of inventory anytime soon. There's always another project I can polish and put in the mail. (My submission habits are ANOTHER weakness, but we'll schedule that for another session on the couch!)
This was a fun form of self-analysis, Karen. How much do you charge per hour?