Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’


I met QL Pearce through a mutual friend, and have since become a great fan of her work. While reading Blood Moon Harbor, a compilation of her short stories, co-authored with Francesca Rusackas, I realized I could learn a lot from her. Since 1985, Q has written over one hundred and twenty five books for children, including eight scary middle grade collections, as well as film tie-in books for the Fox animated film Titan AE and the Universal animated series Land Before Time.

Q is not only a great storyteller and writer, but a good friend. For Christmas I received an unexpected and very sweet card from her, which was very exciting for me. Also, she has–whether she knows it or not–given me some very good pieces of advice. I just feel bad I didn’t get her a Christmas card, too. Next year, Q… I promise.

Q

Q: You started out as an editor at Lowell House Books in Los Angeles. How has your editorial experience helped and/or hindered your creative writing?

 

A: When I’m working on my first draft I experiment with the plot and characters and I become emotionally invested in everything. I talk to my characters and they often respond in surprising ways.

 

As an editor I learned to read a manuscript objectively and that skill is invaluable when I’m doing the first rewrite. I distance myself emotionally and turn on the inner editor. She’s brutal but effective when it comes to cutting elements I may love but that don’t serve the story.

 

Q: Your series Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs has done very well among middle grade readers. What prompted you to begin these stories?

 

A: I’m Canadian, born to British parents so ghost stories are in my DNA. When I was a child my family lived on an island in Florida’s Tampa Bay. There were about a dozen kids on the island and we were a nation onto ourselves. We hung out and watched TV shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Twilight Zone. We traded old House of Mystery comics, and made up our own ghost stories. My dreams were filled with swamp monsters, haunted houses and aliens. When I started to write, those stories bubbled up and spilled onto the pages. Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs was such a fun series to write. It didn’t hurt that it sold in the millions!

 

Q: Do you have a favorite story among the Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs collection?

 

A: My favorite is Swimming Lessons, the first story in More Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs. It is based on something that really happened on the island when I was a kid. Somebody’s dad had built our group a large raft and anchored it about fifty yards offshore. The water was deep but visibility was only a few feet and I always worried that there was something just below the surface waiting for one of us to stray too far. One day I accepted a dare to swim to the bottom. To prove that I had done it I had to bring up a handful of mud. I took a deep breath and dove in, following the anchor line down. I always swam with my eyes open so, although couldn’t see detail, I saw the darkness below getting closer with each kick of my skinny legs. When the dull, greenish bed came into view I was almost upon it. I reached out to grab some mud and my hand sank in several inches. Nearly out of breath, I closed my fingers, turned and kicked for the surface. I was probably halfway back when I realized I was holding something slimy and very much alive. I screamed, losing the last of my air and taking in a little water. I could see the bright, flickering light above me and swam for all I was worth. Nothing felt so wonderful as breaking the surface and taking in a huge sputtering breath. I didn’t win the bet because I had let go of whatever was in my hand. Swimming Lessons is my story about what lurked in that deep, dark water.

 q4

Q: How does it feel to have scaring the hell out of children as part of your job description?? LOL

 

A: It’s delicious. From the time that I was about nine years old I read all the scary stories I could find. I know that there are still plenty of young readers who, like me, love to be scared and I’m happy to oblige.

 

Q: Where is the most unusual place a new idea has struck you?

 

A: Behind my left ear.

 

Q: You met horror novelist Tamara Thorne at a book signing and have remained good friends with her since. What book signing was it, and what has kept the two of you remaining such good friends?

 

A: We were at a signing at a winery in Rancho Cucamonga, California. We started talking and we haven’t stopped. We share an interest in ghosts, monsters, mythology, books, animals, unusual weather, anything purple, puns, haiku and snarky movies.

 

Q: You’ve also written a lot of non-fiction in recent years. What is your favorite non-fiction topic to write about and why?

 

A: I love to do research so my favorite topic is whatever I’m working on at the moment. I enjoy science and nature topics as well as biographies, but I love writing about the legends and myths of ancient cultures. I get ideas for fiction from everything I learn.

 

Q: You’re currently working on a Celtic mythology series. What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about Celtic mythology?

 

A: My parents were both from the British Isles so, to a certain extent, while researching this book I learned about my own distant ancestors. As children we’re taught that the Greeks and Romans viewed the Celts as barbarians, so what surprised me most was discovering how advanced the Celtic culture really was. For example, the Celts were competent traders and they built a network of roads across Europe predating the Roman roads. They had a sophisticated justice system, were skilled farmers, and were excellent at crafting metal. They were among the first cultures to use chain mail, iron plows and soap, and they had the guts to wear plaid. The mythology of the insular Celts of Ireland and Wales includes heroic tales that are absolutely outstanding, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or Cattle Raid of Cooley. It’s filled with magic, intrigue, pageantry, and features a hero unlike any other, Cú Chulainn, son of a god and nephew of the king of Ulster.

Q: You’ve written some titles about mysterious disappearances and ghost hunting. What are some interesting things you’ve learned about ghost hunting?

 

A: I’m fascinated by the early days of ghost hunting. One of the first groups formed to investigate ghostly topics was the London’s Ghost Club started around 1862. Over time it included some famous members, such as William Butler Yeats, Charles Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1927, Harry Price, the “father of ghost-hunting” joined. Appropriately, membership in the club was forever. The group split up for a while and reformed in 1882. Another group formed around the same time, the Society for Physical Research. Some members belonged to both organizations.

 

I’ve tried my own hand at ghost hunting. Tamara and I have gone on a few research field trips to hotels and other sites rumored to be haunted.

 q6

Q: Do you believe in ghosts?

 

A: So much of what we believe is based on personal perception and there are differences in how each of us experiences life. The term ghost is a catch-all and there are many definitions, but sure, I remain open-minded about ghosts because I believe in a universe of possibility. I do think that if what we call ghosts exist, they are subject to laws of physics. Still, there is so much we don’t know yet about the world we live in. I just love the books of Michio Kaku because he proposes so many ideas to consider.

 

Q: Where do you think most “monsters” really come from?

 

A: Monsters are the product of culture and they take many forms. There are are living, breathing monsters who walk among us and find satisfaction in harming the vulnerable. Mythological monsters were often created to serve as warnings. For example, Algonquian stories of the Wendigo reinforced the taboo against cannibalism. The myth of the Qalupalik was a frightening story that kept children in the Arctic from playing on hazardous sea ice. A Greek who swore a false oath or killed a parent would be punished by the monstrous Erinyes. In my opinion, cryptids such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster are creative fiction or misinterpretation of evidence, but I would love to be proved wrong!

 

Q: Which monster is your favorite and why?

 

A: European dragons!! I have been fascinated with them since I was a little girl. I love the way they are depicted. They can be evil or honorable. They breath fire, fly, have armored scales, underground lairs, and they look great in silhouette on a flag, shield, or t-shirt. I have stone dragons at the base of the downspouts in my garden and little dragons stare down from most of my bookshelves. My favorite is a large dragonhead with flaring wings that hangs over my office desk.

 

Q: You are an active member of SCBWI. What is SCBWI and what do you love most about it?

 

A: The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an international, non-profit organization that provides opportunities for writers and illustrators to improve their craft, network with their peers, and learn how to market their work. SCBWI is made up of dozens of regions that offer local events that enable people to get together to discuss their work or to hear industry professionals speak. I have been a volunteer with one of the Southern California regions for over a decade. What I love most about it is that through SCBWI events I have met people from around the globe who love children’s literature.

 

Q: Red Bird Sings, your non-fiction picture book with co-author and illustrator Gina Capaldi, has received many honors, such as the Carter G. Woodson Award gold medal, Moonbeam Award gold medal and a Eureka silver medal. How does it feel to know you’ve written something that so many people really care about?

 

A: I feel privileged to have been part of bringing the story of Zitkala Sa to the attention of educators and to tell it in such a way that young readers can learn about her achievements. Zitkala Sa was born as Gertrude Simmons on a Sioux reservation the same year that the battle of the Little Big Horn took place. She endured life in an assimilation school but refused to accept the dismal future that was planned for her. Instead she developed her musical and literary talents to become one of the first Native American writers to achieve worldwide recognition. She used that acclaim to gain attention for her work as an activist for Native American rights. It’s a story of survival and empowerment. The thought that other people feel the same way and have honored us with such awards is amazing.

 q1

Q: What are your plans after the mythology series?

 

A: Gina Capaldi and I have several proposals out for nonfiction picture books, and a fun scary picture book for early elementary. I’m also working on a Young Adult novel. With Francesca Rusackas, I am testing the ebook waters. We have written a collection of short stories under the title of Blood Moon Harbor.

 

Q: You’re a writer and your husband is a scientist. What do you guys talk about?

A: We talk about anything and everything. After many years of marriage I still think that my husband, Bill, is one of the most interesting people I know. He is a physiologist and a professor to his core so he loves learning and enjoys sharing what he’s learned. He’s always curious about my latest research when I’m working on nonfiction.

 

In general we talk about politics, music, cooking and the dogs! There is one topic of conversation where our writing and science meet. We are both fans of science fiction. He likes high tech and I’m drawn to dystopian. My all time favorite is Fahrenheit 451. I’ve decided that if I were a character in the story and had to be a book, I would be another of my favorites, Animal Farm.

 

 

Q: What has been your proudest moment as a writer?

 

A: My favorite moment was when I met a school librarian who told me that my scary story collections had to be replaced often and that the spines always had to be taped because they were read so often. They are all out of print now but that story still makes me smile.

Q2

Advertisements

There aren’t many things that are more revealing than art. Whether writing a story, painting a picture, or singing a song, we put ourselves directly into the things we create. Knowing this, many people tend to keep their creations to themselves for fear of judgment from others and/or having their work rejected outright.  The good news about never disclosing your inventions is that you eliminate the risk of being criticized. The bad news however, is far more considerable. First, if no one sees your work, you will never get any feedback. This will limit your potential because we are biased, either negatively or positively, toward our own art. Second, if no one sees it, no one can buy it. And last, but not least, whether you have a natural talent for something, a burning desire for something, or both, you owe it to yourself to take it is far as you can.

The other day a friend of mine asked me how I “overcame” the fear of rejection. It was a subject I hadn’t given hardly any thought to for a very long time. I stared at him and gave him the best answer I could – “I don’t really know.” That question prompted me to give a little more thought to it though. Truth be told, I rarely suffer from any distress over whether or not someone will or will not like my writing. However, that certainly wasn’t the case ten, or even five years ago. So, to the best of my ability, here is the story of how I got from there to here:

When I was young, I often wrote little poems and stories that no one ever saw. As I got older, I kept writing, but still kept it to myself. In my twenties, I took a temporary interest in photography. Photography was much easier to exhibit because I could hide behind the models. I still never became entirely comfortable with displaying my work though. After a few years of taking pictures, I reached a point where I felt I’d taken my photography as far as I wanted to. It was like walking off a cliff. I was left wondering, “what now?” I spent a great deal of time and energy looking for a more powerful sense of purpose, and all the while, only one thing kept happening consistently: I kept writing.  At this point, I was writing mostly poetry, and no one except a very few carefully selected folks were allowed to see it. I was terrified of what might happen to me if someone didn’t like it.

As my seriousness in writing grew stronger, so did my need to expand my confines. I vividly remember the first time I ever posted a poem on MySpace. I put the poem up and took it down three times before finally deciding to let it linger on my “blog” for a while to see what happened. I checked my MySpace a dozen times that day, waiting for the hate mail to flood in.  By the end of the day, an amazing thing had happened: nothing. No one seemed to notice whether or not I posted my poetry, and that is what gave me the self-confidence to keep doing it.

Over time, I accrued a cute little following of poetry readers who liked my work. I also made friends with some other poets and eventually I was featured on several radio shows and some online magazines. I was at the height of my career as a poet! But I was restless and had fast grown tired of the limitations of poetry. That’s when I started writing novels.

I paired up with my friend and mentor, Kim Williams-Justesen, took some writing classes, devoured every book I could get my hands on about the writing process, and above all, I wrote my ass off. In the meantime, I attended writing conventions and workshops, signed up with the local writer’s league, and began to meet all kinds of writers, big names and little names alike. I didn’t have time to be terrified of what people would think of my writing.

Then, the first literary agent I ever met took a strong enough interest in my book to request my full manuscript. I was both elated and horrified. I sent her the book and for the next five months, I obsessed. When she finally got around to letting me know she didn’t feel the market was quite right for my story, I felt as if I had been dropped like a glass ball, and shattered into a thousand little shards of the man I thought I was. It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t pretty. But I had a lot of helping hands putting me back together, and was very quickly back on the wagon, acquiring rejection slips from agents far and wide.

Today, I take criticism and rejection like they’re candy-coated Klonopins, and somewhere along the way, without even realizing it, I have (for the most part) seemed to have misplaced my fear of judgment and rejection. After analyzing it a little, I’ve decided that the answer to that question, “how do you over come fear of rejection?” is that you don’t. You just plug along and take the necessary steps despite the fear. There are however, a few things you can do along the way to soften the blows.

The first, and most important thing you can do to combat the fear of rejection is to be damned good at your craft. Learn everything you can, utilize that knowledge, and experiment with it openly.

Second, give yourself permission to suck. You don’t have to be perfect. You aren’t even supposed to be.

Third, read the works of your contemporaries. I assure you that therein lies much suckiness. The point to this however, is not to scoff at your friends. The point is to stop comparing yourself to Charles Dickens.

Fourth, read the stories behind the success. Stephen King acquired enough rejection slips he was able to wallpaper his office with them… and he did. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was rejected over one hundred times. “The Wizard of Oz” was called stupid and unimaginative by critics. No matter what an agent or anyone else tells you, art is subjective. No one has the facts on what is good and what sucks. They never have and they never will.

Fifth, accept the fear. Oh yeah… I said it. Accept that you’re afraid and that being afraid is part of the game.

Finally, one of the most important things one can do to combat fear of rejection is to just keep writing. By focusing your attention on your craft and away from the opinions of others, you are putting your energy into the only thing you can control… which is you. Also, by continuing to attend writer’s events, critique groups, and submitting to agents, over time you’ll naturally build an immunity to the scathing reviews.


       

You have about fifteen seconds to get their attention, and given the average modern-day attention span, which is about that of a coffee-buzzed gnat, it’s best to try doing it in five. This being the case, one of the most important lines ever written in a novel is the first one. For contemporary writers, the days of Charles Dickens-style, drawn-out opening passages are gone. Not that we don’t still love the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” type of opening lines of the golden oldies, but we generally adopt a different mindset reserved only for the classics; and even concerning them, that first line has to contain enough intrigue to move readers to the next sentence. This is a truth that has withstood era after era. One of the best examples I can think of to support this is probably the Holy Bible. Even though the bible goes on to confuse, bore, or entirely evade many of us in a literary sense, you can’t help but be a little intrigued by its first line. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth,” is, if nothing else, a pretty good hook. The bible though, is not a novel, so unless I am looking to write my own bible (which I certainly am not), I should probably look elsewhere for insights that will improve my own fiction writing techniques.

 

Probably my favorite opening line is that of Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone with the Wind. That first passage, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but seldom men realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were,” is, to me, a brilliant starting point; not because it thrusts the reader into the heart of some on-the-verge-of-death conflict, but because it is so thick with insight into human nature, and as well, gives us an immediate but subtle sense of duality and arguably, deceit. Scarlett O’Hara herself is the conflict, and that alone presents a whole new breed of hook.

 

Mystery can also be a good approach. Stating something that intrigues a person, yet doesn’t say much at all about what’s happening, can (if done well) propel the reader forward with a strong level of interest. Human beings are, by nature, very curious creatures, and a writer who knows how to strike the precarious balance between not enough information and too much information can carry a reader quite a long way on this tactic alone. A good example that comes to mind which uses this technique is the opening line of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.” How can you not continue reading something like that?

 

In The Servants of Twilight, Dean Koontz begins with the passage, “It began in sunshine, not on a dark and stormy night.” This is a strong opening for several reasons. First, it’s ominous. By saying, “a dark and stormy night,” we know something bad is going to happen, and we all love it when bad things happen. Second, it’s mysterious. We don’t know what “it” is, and we really shouldn’t care, but somehow, we do, (probably because we know it’s something bad).  The third element of this opening line that strikes me (and probably my favorite part of it), is that it gives the middle finger to the dark and stormy night cliché that so many horror stories depend so heavily on. With this line, Dean Koontz is taking fear to a whole new, far deeper level by telling us (as if we needed to be more afraid) that really horrific things can happen just as likely in the broad daylight as anywhere else. Thank you, Dean Koontz.

 

Shock value, is of course, also an option. Using shock value as an opener is probably the riskiest approach because you chance offending, and thereby losing, the reader right off the bat. In a way, I respect this approach though because if the content of a novel is going to be offensive, at least its author is being respectful enough to let you know upfront. Still, it can’t be said that shock doesn’t do a pretty good job getting, and in the best cases, holding an audience’s attention. The opening of Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth is a shining example of that. With the novel’s opening line, “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over,” we are either immediately hooked, or immediately offended. Whether or not it was Roth’s intention to shock the reader, only he knows, but there’s no denying it’s an eyebrow-raiser. This line, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much has it all: mystery, sex, shock, profanity, and self-confidence; all this in nine words, and with a poetic edge to boot.

 

Regardless of how I choose to begin each story, I have to keep in mind that the first sentence needs to pack a little punch, and that it doesn’t get any easier from there. In my experience, an interested agent will ask to see five to thirty pages of a person’s work in order to determine whether or not a submission is a worthy investment of their time. I recently re-wrote the first four pages of my third manuscript because as I reread it, I realized I’d given the reader very little, if anything at all, to hold onto. My initial intention was to start in the heart of the action, and while this is often times a fine idea, it was, in this case, not working. So I challenged myself to compact as much into the first five pages as I could, while still moving the story forward. In five pages, I tried to reveal a sense of who my character is, what normal life is like for him, and that some kind of conflict is on its way. This, while introducing a couple of characters, laying down a setting without going too heavy on description and detail, and moving the storyline forward at an interesting and engaging pace, without relying on back story and too much exposition, is no easy feat. But it can be done.  

 

In an era when people are tapping their feet, impatiently waiting for the microwave as it heats up their frozen dinner; when folks are rolling their eyes and looking pointedly at their watches in the less than ten seconds it may take while the internet uploads an entire library’s-worth of world history on their computer screens, there’s no time to dawdle. You have fifteen seconds or less to get their attention. Make it count.