Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Interview with Kelly Butterbaugh

by Gary Blake

Kelly Butterbaugh is a freelance writer and teacher whose list of publications include Hey! History Isn't Boring Anymore!, Images of America: Upper Saucon Township and Coopersburg, and Then & Now Lehigh County. Her work has also appeared in publications like Keystone Country, Back Home, Next Step, History, and Piecework, among others, and she will be speaking on Marketing Yourself as a Writer and Stepping Over the Writer's Block at the Write It Right Conference. Here, Kelly talks to our Gary Blake about the writing life.

BDWN: I like history so I'm intrigued by your book title. How did you get started as a writer?

KELLY: Hi, Gary! I remember writing stories on an old typewriter when I was just a girl, dreaming of becoming a writer. I saw the movie Crosscreek, and I wanted to be Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. But then, as I tell my students “life got in the way” and I became a teacher. Once my son was born, I had some down time to sit and be creative while he napped. Pulling out written pieces I’d done over the years, I reintroduced myself to writing and spent some time learning the business of writing for profit.

BDWN: Did you teach history in school?

KELLY: No, I teach English in the public school and writing in college. History is my passion, but not my job J

BDWN: How long have you been a writer?

KELLY: I guess I’ve been a writer all my life, but I’ve been a professional writer for 6 years.

BDWN: What are your favorite genre's of writing?

KELLY: I am most definitely a non-fiction writer with creative non-fiction and historical fiction pieces to my credit. I enjoy fiction writing, but I don’t pursue it on a professional basis. I like the personal style of non-fiction writing that makes readers feel as if I am talking directly to them; this is why I enjoy writing for specialized magazines.

BDWN: Have you published any books?
KELLY: Yes, my first book was released with White Mane Kids in 2008 titled Hey, History Isn’t Boring Anymore! A Creative Approach to Teaching the Civil War. A sequel is pending with White Mane possibly late this year or next. I also have a two local history books published with Arcadia Publishing. Images of America: Upper Saucon Township and Coopersburg was released with them last year, and Then & Now Lehigh County will be released in March 2011. I am currently working with them on two more upcoming titles.

BDWN: Switching to the BDWN conference, how will your programs help me as a writer?
KELLY: All writers fear the dreaded writer’s block. Stubborn as I am, I refuse to allow it to enter my world. Pulling what I’ve learned during my years as a writer and more importantly as my years teaching college writing, I can give writers an arsenal of information to arm themselves against the invasive block. My college students are notorious for succumbing to writer’s block, and those who follow my suggestions admit that the problem solves itself.

As for marketing, no one should feel the let down that new writers feel when they realize that work doesn’t come flooding their inboxes all on its own. A writer works quietly alone, so “selling” oneself as a writer isn’t an easy task for most. Likewise, a book contract is great but few publishing houses market their writers aggressively. Part of acquiring a book contract depends upon the writer’s ability to write advertising text for the book as well as rationales for marketing. This is something few expect, and the less surprises the better. The best part about having self-marketing skills is that this business can be catered to your individual needs. Gather more work when you have time and need, and lighten your workload when you have personal demands. With the proper marketing skills you can achieve this perfect balance in your work schedule.

BDWN: Do you use humor in your writing?

KELLY: I think the title of my first book with White Mane answers that question! Once my editor got to know me and read over my rationale for writing the book she commissioned a comic artist to draw the cover. There’s not a lot of room in history writing for humor, but I try to instill my personality into my writing whenever I can. It’s easy for me to laugh at myself, so when I write humor that’s usually what I do. I like to laugh and I like to make people smile, and that comes out when I talk to people.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Interview with J. Stuart Richards

J. Stuart Richards is the author of four books on Pennsylvania military history with a strong focus on Schuylkill County and the coal region: Early Coal Mining in the Anthracite Region (Arcadia Press), Pennsylvania Voices in the Great War (McFarland Press), A History of Company C 50th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry (History Press), and Death in the Mines (History Press). Richards also maintains four local history blogs: “Schuylkill County Military History”, “Schuylkill County History Chronicles”, “Props, Pistons and Old Jets”, and “Stories from the Great War.” At February's BDWN meeting, Richards will discuss the methods of researching, using official documents and photos, and becoming familiar with the public domain. Richards will also offer tips for writing an eye-catching query letter for an historic work that will immediately appeal to publishers. Richards talks with us about reading, writing, and researching local history.

BDWN: How did you become interested in Pennsylvania military history?

RICHARDS: My interest in Pennsylvania military history came about with a trip to Gettysburg when I was 10 year’s old. I was fascinated that all of the regiments fought with a designation of their state, like the 96th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry our local unit at Gettysburg . I immediately researched all the Pennsylvania soldiers who served at Gettysburg and started keeping lists of the soldiers.

BDWN: Is there a particular time period that you're most interested in?

RICHARDS: The American Civil War is my favorite, although I have a fond interest in World War 1 and WW II because of family members who fought in the wars. Over the years, I have become less interested in a time period and more interested in the life and times of the common soldier and what they experienced during war. I am a Vietnam veteran and know that the big picture doesn’t matter to the common soldier. It’s what happens 100 feet in front and behind one that matters and that is what interests me. I also write about the soldiers from the French and Indian War through The War on Terror.

BDWN: This is a "chicken or the egg" type of question--were you writing before you became interested in history, or did the writing stem from your historical interests?

RICHARDS: My writing stemmed from my interest in military history and the good feeling of being able to write into history people who are generally forgotten.

BDWN: How do you choose what to write about next?

RICHARDS: Choosing something to write about has never been a problem for me. I read everyday for several hours. When I find something that catches my interest in aviation, local history or military history, I begin researching whether anyone from the local area was involved and to what extent. I am fortunate as my personal library contains over 1,000 books related to military history aviation, and coal mining.

BDWN: You'll be talking about research methods at our February meeting. Without giving too much away, have you ever used any, shall we say, unconventional methods to get the information you needed?

RICHARDS: I can’t say I’ve used unconventional methods to get the information I need. There is so much available to the researcher writer especially with the advent of the internet. Through historical societies and archival collections I found almost everything I needed. Information, such as personal letters, is found through other web sites etc. Without the internet the researcher of years ago would never have access to so much information.

BDWN: Again, without giving too much away, have you ever run into "roadblocks" with your research, such as a book or item that was impossible to find, unhelpful sources, or other general difficulties? How did you get around them?

RICHARDS: Oh, yes, that happens many times. I have a blog entitled “Schuylkill County Military History”. I have been frustrated more times than I would like to say especially when writing about World War II soldiers and airmen. Many times I can’t find what unit the soldiers or airman belonged to. I like to have the regiment, company or division in which they fought. One really needs this information to add flavor to the story. After WW 1, military officers censored so much in the letters it causes the researcher to come up far short of having good information about which to write. So one has to really dig, tracing battles through books, journals and hoping something turns up that matches what one is researching.

BDWN: What can you tell us about your writing process? How much time do you usually spend on research, and then how long does it take you to actually start writing?

RICHARDS: My process for writing a book begins with the initial research and what I know is available on a particular subject. Over twenty-five years I have accumulated good source files of what I will need. I usually start with the Historical Society and old newspapers on microfiche, from there to the internet sources and from there to one of the best unknown research sources available, Google books, I gather, over several months, all available information, on disc or hard copy, which I will usually put into various folders. Laying out the book begins with organizing all my research via time line. The actual laying out and writing will take me 8 to 10 months. Especially when my wife, my first editor, gets the initial manuscript and makes me feel like I am back in fourth grade. But all in all, it will start to take a good form in about six months.

BDWN: How did your musical group come about? Can you tell us a little more about it?

RICHARDS: I was involved in living history programs for 25 years. I had a big interest in coal mining and the early coal miners’ life and times. I recited poems and sang ballads that I found in George Korson’s book, Minstrels of the Mine Patch. While doing a program at Eckley Miners Village , I met my partner Tommy Symons, a fellow actor who was interested in my program. We then got totally involved developing a program we called “Once a Man Twice a Boy”. We both are musicians and over the years we added the guitar, banjo and mandolin. It has been a very positive experience, playing all over the state for different types of venues. We try to bring the life and times of the early coal miners and minstrels back to life.

BDWN: What are you currently working on, and what's next for you?

RICHARDS: I am currently finishing two books, one on the 129th Pennsylvania Infantry, a Civil War Regiment and another on the 103rd Engineers, of World War 1fame. And it takes a lot of time managing and writing four blogs.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Interview with Maria V. Snyder

by Jodi Webb

The Black Diamond Writers Network is excited to have New York Times-bestselling author Maria V. Snyder as our keynote speaker at the 2nd Annual Write It Right Conference. Maria is the author of the bestselling Study (Poison Study, Magic Study, and Fire Study) and Glass (Storm Glass, Sea Glass, and Spy Glass) trilogies, as well as Inside Out, a YA sci-fi/fantasy novel. Its sequel, Outside In, is scheduled for release on March 1, 2011. Maria has also contributed to anthologies like The Eternal Kiss: 13 Vampire Tales of Blood and Desire, The Mammoth Book of Paranormal Romance, and The Stories In Between. Here, Maria takes some time out of her busy schedule to talk to our Jodi Webb about writing, research, and what to expect at Write It Right.

BDWN: I just finished the first book in your Study series, Poison Study. You mentioned that you learned about food tasting and the defensive arts as research for this books. For other books you've had hands on experience with horseback riding and glass blowing. I'd like to know which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did you come up with a plot for a book that happened to involve a hobby or skill and then find that you had to learn more about it to write effectively or did you say to yourself, "Glass blowing seems so interesting, I'd like to learn more about it." and then find yourself creating a book based on that newfound interest?

MARIA: I usually come up with an idea/plot for a story first. Then, as I’m writing the book, I’ll encounter something I don’t know, like what indigo plants look like, and I’ll make a list of things I need to research. Occasionally, I’ll know before the book is written. For example, with the Glass books, I knew the main character was going to be a glass artist/magician so I enrolled in a couple glass classes to learn how to work with molten glass before I started those books.

BDWN: Any other hobbies or skills you'd like to weave into a book?

MARIA: I’d like to use photography sometime in the future just so I can take classes and call it research J

BDWN: I was uncertain how to label your books. After reading the Study series I decided they were YA even though I loved them and I'm long past the YA phase of my life! But then I visited your website and saw they were published as both YA and adult...with different book covers. Is this a common practice in the publishing world?

MARIA: I don’t think re-labeling books is all that common in the publishing world. There are a few older titles that have been re-printed with new covers and placed in the YA section of the bookstore recently, mostly because, back then, there wasn’t a YA section in the bookstore to place them! My Study books were written for adults, but I was getting so many emails from YA readers saying how much they enjoyed them that my publisher decided to market the books to YAs as well as adults.

BDWN: Why we're talking about labels, you've written YA fantasy both in a historical world and a modernistic world as well as contributing to some short story anthologies about the paranormal. Any new types of writing you'd like to try? Or are you strictly a fantasy gal?

MARIA: I’m always interested in a challenge and that’s why I contribute to various short story anthologies. I would love to write a mystery/suspense/thriller someday, and I have a mainstream book for middle grade readers I’ve been trying to sell. So, no, I’m not strictly fantasy J

BDWN: You're going to travel your road to publication with attendees of the Write It Right conference. Can you share one of your biggest surprises (good or bad) while working at getting your books published?

MARIA: This might sound stupid, but the biggest surprise was that many of the people who worked at my publisher were reading my book. I had met a bunch of sales staff and PR/Marketing workers about four months before Poison Study was published, and they all gushed about the book. My editor was amused. She said, “What did you think we’d do with it?” I had thought she and maybe the copy editor would actually read the entire book, and everyone else would just read the cover copy. This led to another surprise, that the publishing professionals still get excited about books. I had thought they might be jaded and like, “Yawn, just another book,” but they’re enthusiastic.

BDWN: In addition to a talk on the Road to Publication you have a second workshop. Can you tell us a little about what you'll be sharing with us?

MARIA: My other workshop is titled, Maria’s Nitpicks. I’m going to focus on a bunch of writing…not quite mistakes, but weak, sloppy writing that drives me crazy J I see these in published books all the time. Things like passive voice, vague nouns, floating eye balls, info dumps, and unrealistic fight scenes.

BDWN: And you would know about unrealistic fight scenes since, as part of your research you choreographed the fight scenes in your books! Tell us what you enjoy about participating in appearances such as the Write It Right conference.

MARIA: I do enjoy teaching aspiring writers. It’s fun and I get to hang out with other writers – what’s not to like? Also I had a lot of help when I was learning, and teaching others is one way to thank those who helped me. Mentoring students is extremely rewarding and I love it when they improve or “get” it -- I’m like a proud Mama Bear J One thing I always tell everyone – writing is not something you can master. Writers are always learning, and interacting with students and readers has been both delightful and educational J

BDWN: Any big news or secrets about your next project you'd like to share with us?

MARIA: I’m working on book #9 (still amazed by that!). It’s another fantasy novel and it’s about a healer set in a world that is recovering from a deadly plague. Her world has blamed the plague on the healers and has hunted them down. She is finally caught only to be rescued by a group who wants her to heal their Prince. The group's leader, Kerrick, knows the healers aren't to blame for the plague and that she could do some good for a change instead of hiding. Unfortunately, she believes this Prince is the one who started the plague as an attempt at biological warfare so she isn't risking her life for some pampered Prince. As they travel to the Prince's hidden location, they're pursued by others who have realized having a healer around might just be a good thing for them, but not necessarily for her. This book is tentatively set for a January 2012 release in the United States.

BDWN: But don't worry readers, Maria won't be doing experiements in biological weapons as part of her research! No need to buy your own personal gas mask.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Interview with Josh Berk Part II

by Jodi Webb
Today Jodi and Josh pick up on their conversation from Wednesday...

BDWN: Can you give us the 30 second story of your road to publication? Agent? Sending directly to publishers? Winning a contest? Friends in the business?

JOSH: I started out extremely clueless in the business! I sent a manuscript to one agent at a time and waited to hear back. (This was on my previous, unpubbed manuscript.) One of them was kind enough to say "you write well, so even though I'm going to pass on this project, let me know when you write something else." When I finished the ms. that would become HAMBURGER HALPIN, I promptly sent to to her and just waited. It turned out that she wasn't an agent anymore! I felt crushed, but was advised by a writer-friend to send it to a bunch of agents at once. It seems like obvious advice now! So I used to find any agent interested in YA and polished up my query letter. I got a lot of interest, and coincidentally ended up signing with a young, new agent at the agency that sent me that original "let me know when you write something else letter" on the first manuscript. He then submitted it to editors he thought would like it, and found me a good home.

BDWN: So you do have an abandoned manuscripts hidden in your desk drawer?

JOSH: HALPIN was my third attempt at writing for teens. My first, technically, was an adult novel that I tried to morph into a YA book after taking a class on teen lit. (And, after realizing that the part about the young people in the book was the strongest part anyway.) Then I decided to start out writing a teen novel, and it was better, but not really ready for publication. Then HALPIN was my third one. Sometimes I fantasize about digging out those old ones, but they're probably hidden in desk drawers for a reason.

BDWN: Can you tell us the biggest obstacle you faced when trying to get your book published? If you could share one tip about publication what would it be?

JOSH: The biggest obstacle for me was my own internal struggle. I so often felt like a "faker" like I wasn't a "real" writer and that all published authors had some magic something I didn't have. I was afraid to even send things out. Once I bucked up and realized that authors are just people, and once I realized that publishing is more or less like any other field, it became less scary. You just have to be professional, courteous, and even though you might hear "no" a lot of times and feel like crumbling into a pile of tears, you just have to keep that vibe of professionalism while you submit your next one and your next one and your next one...
I'd also say to do your research on agents and make sure you find one who is dependable, reliable, and a good match for you. An offer of representation can be so exciting that you might be tempted to jump at any agent who comes along, but the goal should be to find the "right agent." It's a business partnership as well as a creative partnership and should be treated as such. The business side of it can be very stressful, exciting, etc., but ideally the agent should handle most of that stuff so we as writers can focus on what we're here to focus on: the writing.

BDWN: And our final question...what's next?

JOSH: Thanks for asking! I'm very close to finishing the revisions for my second YA novel. It's another funny/crime/high school story, albeit with totally new characters and setting. It's called GUY LANGMAN: CRIME SCENE PROCRASTINATOR and tells the tale of a guy (named Guy) who joins his high school forensics club and stumbles on a real crime scene. He also crushes on girls, fights with his friends, and comes to terms with the loss of a loved one in his family. So it's crime/comedy/coming of age. All the things I love!
And then I recently sold the first two books in what will (hopefully) be a long series for younger readers (ages 9-12 or so). These books are also mysteries, with a sports focus. Lenny Norbeck and his goofball friends ("Mike" and "Other Mike") solve a series of baseball-related crimes and have a lot of fun along the way. I'm an obsessive Phillies fan, so this is a dream come true.
Josh Berk photo by Olaf Starorypinski

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Interview with Josh Berk

by Jodi Webb

Josh Berk is the author of The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin (Knopf, 2010), a young adult mystery that combines ghosts and murder with teen angst, all set in a high school in the coal region. Berk’s second teen comedy/mystery novel is slated for release in 2012. According to Berk’s website, his past vocations have included journalist, playwright, and a guitarist for a punk band. Currently a librarian, Josh and his family live in Allentown, Pa. At the Write It Right conference, Josh will be giving 2 sessions: Writing for YA Audiences, and Getting Your YA Novel Published. In the first of a 2-part interview, Jodi Webb talked with Josh about writing for teens and 'tweens, developing an audience, and the publishing process.

BDWN: I just finished reading The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, your first YA book, and it was full of the thing that intimidates me most about writing for a YA audience--teenagers communicating. Did you lurk in dark corners spying on teens talking to one another, hire teens consultants to OK your dialogue?

JOSH: Yes, I lurked in dark corners! Well, not quite. But I was working at a public library frequented by teens. Despite it being a library, they were never very quiet and it was pretty easy to "spy" on them. Also, I managed a crew of teen workers. I must not have exactly projected managerial authority because they soon pretty much talked to me (and emailed me, and texted me) like I was a peer. Some of this definitely influenced the voices of my teen characters. Also, being naturally immature helps.

BDWN: Your book is unusual because Will, who is deaf, and his hearing friend Smiley communicate mainly through the written word...IMing, emailing, writing on paper. Was it easier to write that "dialogue" or the oral dialogue between hearing characters?

JOSH: This is a good question! Dialogue is always my favorite part to write. It tends to flow for me whereas I struggle with other parts of writing at times. I like to get the characters talking and just set them loose. The texting/IM dialogue didn't really feel any different than spoken dialogue to be honest. Will and Devon got into a good flow and the words came fairly naturally.

BDWN: Obviously you're no longer a teenager, but at least you can remember what it was like while writing your characters. But what about your main character, Hamburger Will Halpin who is deaf. I know you aren't deaf but is that something you have life experience with?

JOSH: I started writing the book knowing pretty much nothing about Deafness! I wrote the first draft pretty much just wondering "what if?" and "what would such-and-such be like" for a person who couldn't hear. Then I did research (not sure why I did this backwards) -- reading books by deaf authors, hanging out on Deaf websites, and interviewing some deaf people who I got in touch with. Some of the jokes came from this research and some of it just came from my desire to portray Will as a "regular" adolescent. One deaf reader pointed out that the sort of "earthy" humor Will has is very common in the deaf world, and then gave examples of jokes that I didn't think of as "deaf" jokes but rather plain old teen-boy humor.

BDWN: From my point of view, writing about teenagers is a nightmare simply because they're so trendy. What's in today is totally lame tomorrow. Does anyone still say totally lame? Did you ever worry that by including certain details...IM ing, gold name necklaces, etc, you would date your book? Or did you hope readers would look past details to the great plot?

JOSH: This is a good point. Youth culture moves so fast and publishing moves so slow! I actually wrote the book in 2007 and it didn't come out until 2010. I did worry about things becoming out-of-date and my editor helped pick things that we could alter to be less likely to be outdated. For example, in the first draft everyone in the book had MySpace pages, then I changed it to Facebook, then I just put something vague like "social network page" because I figured that something like that would last, whatever it might be called. And I made up a fictional device ("The Crony") rather than name a type of handheld device that would be replaced by something newer (like, the iPhone, for example, which hardly existed way back when I wrote the book but now is everywhere). My editor also had me pull references to current movie stars and rock bands who she feared might date the book.

So I'd say, yes, it is a concern when writing contemporary YA, but certain things transcend all eras. Youth culture changes, but adolescents are pretty much the same as they've always been. Maybe my book will seem hilariously out-of-date in a few years, but I was just trying to write honestly about a moment in time as I saw it. I think readers will appreciate that. And gold name necklaces will never be lame! (Haha. Maybe they already are?)

Check back on Friday for Part II of Jodi's interview with Josh!

Josh Berk photo by Olaf Starorypinski