02 Aug

Interview Across a Breakfast Table: Should That Story Be Fiction or Non-Fiction?

On her blog and here, my wife and I continue our interrogations of each other…

Jenny: When the world around you sparks a story idea, how do you decide if it’s best told as nonfiction or as fiction inspired by real life?

Me: There’s hardly ever any gray area for me here. My nonfiction projects tend to begin with my discovery of an actual, amazing fact — or with my awareness of an actual person’s life filled with amazing facts — and so weaving those facts into a piece of fiction would be counter to the exciting sense of OH MY GOSH CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS REALLY HAPPENED? that I get at the moment of discovery.

A lot of my fiction stories do begin with my observation of something in the world around me, but those somethings are usually commonplace. It’s not the somethings themselves that hook me, but rather the series of what-if’s that my mind conjures up, that make me want to try turning those somethings into stories.

The one exception that comes to mind is a musician whose story I wanted to tell. I heard about her on a radio show when the host mentioned in passing an anecdote that seemed so vivid and telling that I knew it would be at the heart of a story I had to write. But the information and documentation that I would need about that episode and the musician’s life at that time in order for the story to be nonfiction — those did not exist, and my would-be subject had already died, so I couldn’t ask her. In that case, I did write a fictionalized story based on what I was able to learn — with that first striking anecdote front and center.

17 Nov

Projects + rejects = prejects

Let’s face it: Between the holidays and the Cybils and the fact that my current nonfiction project involves slowly reading a great big book, 2006 is just about over for me, productivitively. (Don’t bother looking that one up.) And between rewrites of older stuff and new projects that have gone into circulation, it’s been a satisfying year.

Which is kind of surprising, when I think of the projects I worked on this year that didn’t go anywhere, or at least not as far as I’d hoped. Remember E.F.? Toast? Tennessee? There was at least one more picture book manuscript that I don’t think I ever even gave a pseudonym to. Some of these took up a lot of my time, involved interviews and considerable research, and — for a while, at least — were what I expected to be working on for a long time to come.

As much as I’d like to have spent that time on projects that might sell, I don’t regret them. (And, of course, I didn’t know at the time that they wouldn’t sell, or that I wouldn’t be able to get them to a point where we could find out whether they would or not.) I learned a lot from each one, if not from the writing itself than from the research I did for them. I’m smarter as a result.

More importantly, I think I’ll enter 2007 with a better sense of the sort of project that’s right for me and right for the market. And if I don’t? Well, just watch this space next November.

11 Jul

Pasta’s prologue

After another insightful weekend critique from Don (followed by a trip to the neighborhood pool with our sons; eat your heart out, Fuse: I’ve seen Hot Man #12 in his swimsuit), a considerably improved Toast went off to my agent this week. Between that, and the fact that all my other stuff is in circulation among editors now, I’m able to get going this week on a new project.

Except that it’s not exactly new. It’s one that I pitched to an editor earlier this year and began dabbling in this spring when I was distracted by other projects. I got nowhere with it — thanks, “multitasking”! — and set it aside until I could focus on it exclusively. And that time has come.

This nonfiction project — I’m going to call it Pasta, because it will make me laugh every time — will be an anthology of sorts, a collection of profiles of people with a common experience. This spring, I’d read biographies of a couple of these folks, took a few notes, and took a stab at starting the profile of one of them.

Without even looking at the work I did earlier this year, as I return to Pasta, I’m taking a big step back. Before drilling into any individual’s story, I want to make sure I’m clear on what I’m trying to do with the project as a whole, and how I’m going to go about it. So, I spent my lunch hour today in a comfy chair at Half Price Books, making notes in a little pad — questions I might want to answer with each profile, ideas for how to get started with my research, right down to the keywords I’ll want to begin searching by tomorrow morning.

My thinking is that I’ll write two or three of these profiles and build a formal proposal around them for the editor who was interested back in January. And while I’ve got three good candidates in mind for those profiles, the first thing I’m going to do is try to figure out who the other 10 or 12 people are that I’ll be including in the proposal.

I know they’re out there. First thing in the morning, I’ll begin seeking them out. Wish me luck.

30 Jun

This, that, these and those

The details are out regarding my next highly anticipated (by me) public appearance. Here in Austin on Friday, August 4, I’ll join Nathan Jensen, Janice and Tom Shefelman, and recent compadres Anne Bustard and Mark Mitchell on a children’s literature panel at the conference of the Texas Christian Schools Association.

At the same conference, another local author, Lindsey Lane, will be celebrated for Snuggle Mountain, the honor book for the 2006 Children’s Gallery Award.

In other developments, I’ve put the (possibly) finishing touches on Arbor, a middle-grade novel that I first “finished” in 2003. At my agent’s suggestion, I took another pass at it this spring and made some further tweaks this past week. I had forgotten how much I enjoy that story — I’ve got some really high hopes for it.

When I last wrote about Toast, I was still trying to catch VR for an interview. Well, we spoke two Fridays ago and had a great, warm conversation. My CB and VR interviews have made the story much richer than it was before. I’m now trying to get a new draft finished by Wednesday, in time for Don to read it at our next critique meeting. After that, I’ll have about a day and a half to make further changes in time for my agent’s monthly manuscript-reading week.

Meanwhile, there’s been some progress on the submissions front. Smith, James and Pioneers all went out to an editor this week. I’ve been told not to expect a reply right away, which was not the case when another manuscript — P.O., perhaps a picture book, potentially a graphic novel — went out this Tuesday. It came back the same day. But those were six suspenseful hours, let me tell you.

I’m taking a long weekend, so have a great, safe July 4th (and 1st, 2nd and 3rd), everybody.

13 Jun

A forgotten bibliography, a willing interview, a winning book

You know you’ve had a manuscript in the works for a long time when you start working on the bibliography and don’t even remember the one you’ve already done. Luckily, I wasn’t too far along in putting together a bibliography for James yesterday when I discovered a printout of the one I’d last touched in April 2002. If I were organized — like I’ll be for my next project, of course — I’d have been maintaining it all along. Instead, I’ll just give myself a pat on the back for having clicked “Print” 50 months ago. I’ve drawn from lots more sources since then, but it saved me some time all the same.

Today I called VR to arrange an interview for later this week. I’d been put on notice that she was particular about who to talked to, but she was more than willing — she wanted to do the interview now. Now wouldn’t work for me, and the next two days are out, too, but we’re on for Thursday. Which means I’ve got a couple of days to work on the questions I’ll be asking. And maybe get a jump on the bibliography for Toast.

Dan Gutman’s Race for the Sky has the makings of a huge hit with seven-year-old S. We just finished our third straight night of reading from that for his bedtime story, and when I tried to set it on his shelf for the night — OK, yes, I was testing him — it was nothing doing. He’s probably still up there reading it now, and I bet I find it in bed with him when I turn off his light later on. So far, it’s a knockout of a book — fun, funny, and interesting as can be, the best historical fiction I’ve read in a while.

09 Jun

Getting warmer

On my lunch hour yesterday, outside in the heat with my cruddy cell phone, I interviewed a musician I’ll call CB because, well, those are her initials, too. I hadn’t arranged anything ahead of time — an organization that CB is affiliated with had provided her number, so I just dialed, began talking to her answering machine, and became my own charming self when she picked up the phone.

CB was delightful, eager to talk, and happy to pass along the number of VR, another musician I had hoped to interview — in fact, the two of them had just happened to speak on the phone earlier yesterday morning. It gave me a warm feeling to know that, 60-odd years after the events on which I’m basing my story, folks who were on the scene at that time are still a part of each other’s daily lives. That I even noticed this warm feeling amid the 90-something-degree temperature outside is really saying something.

I mentioned the other day that I had a couple of projects going on right now. Well, now I’ve got only this one (codename: Toast). Now that I’m doing Toast right — by getting in touch with people who were there, by Google-mapping myself silly to get a sense of the proximity of the locations the story may include, by developing a connection between myself and the characters and places I’m writing about — I can’t imagine diverting any of my piddly mental energy to that other project until I’m finished with this one.

And so, multitasking loses another round…