Writing

Writing and Illustrating Funny Poetry For Kids – Author Interview with Vikram Madan, and Giveaway

At Mixed-Up Files today, we’re thrilled to have author-illustrator Vikram Madan. Vikram talks about his new book A Hatful Of Dragons that comes out on April 21, 2020. He also shares his exciting publishing journey along with other writing tips.

                                                           

 

  1. Tell us about A Hatful Of Dragons. What inspired you to write the book?

A Hatful of Dragons: And More Than 13.8 Billion Other Funny Poems’ is a quirky, eclectic collection of funny rhyming poems woven together with rich illustrations featuring recurring characters and sub-plots – a double dose of visual and literary fun for all ages 7 and up.

As a kid I loved both cartooning and writing poems but never thought of combining the two till I encountered, much later in life, Shel Silverstein’s work. I was instantly attracted to the concept of words and images working together to create a funnier experience. So much so that ‘A Hatful of Dragon’ is my third collection of self-illustrated funny poems featuring intertwined words and drawings.

 

  1. What would you want readers to take away from A Hatful Of Dragons?

I would love for readers of all ages to come away from this book with the idea that you can have a lot of fun playing with language and also with a desire to read more rhyming poetry.

 

  1. What were some of the most fun and challenging parts about writing A Hatful Of Dragons?

The poems in my original manuscript were largely disconnected from each other. While shortlisting the poems, Rebecca Davis, my editor, instinctively zeroed-in on the uniqueness of creating cross-connections between poems. As I developed the illustrations for the book, I had a lot of fun thinking of ways to interconnect the poems visually. For example, a main character in one visual might show up later in the book as a secondary character in another visual, helping create a cohesive, but weird, universe for the characters. I hope kids will have fun closely inspecting the illustrations for cross-connections.

The most challenging part of the book was stuffing 13.8 billion poems into 64 pages. 🙂

Actually I found doing the illustrations to be a challenge as I underestimated the sheer physical work required to get through multiple rounds of revisions and changes. Somewhat like running a marathon, most enjoyable, not while you’re doing it, but well after it is done. 🙂

 

 

Another challenge was coming up with a distinctive title for the book. The title poem ‘A Hatful of Dragons’ did not exist in my original manuscript. We thought of titling the book ‘There’s a Dragon in My Wagon’ but an internet search showed half-a-dozen books already had that title. Many other title poems from the manuscript did not pass internal sales and marketing reviews. I finally proposed ‘A Hatful of Dragons’ and once that title was approved, I had to then write a title poem from scratch worthy of the book. Talk about pressure! 🙂

 

  1. You began your writing career by self-publishing your work. How did the experience influence you as a children’s writer? How did you make the transition from self-publishing to traditional publishing?

Prior to self-publishing, I spent a decade trying to have my rhyming picture books and themed poetry collections published. I found agents and publishers reluctant to consider poetry. With rejections piling up, I actually gave up writing and submitting for a few years. However the itch never went away. In 2012, I spent a summer writing a fresh collection of poems. I decided then that if no one would publish my poems, I would publish them myself, which led to my first collection ‘The Bubble Collector’.

 

Once ‘The Bubble Collector’ was out, I realized writing the book was the easy part. Marketing, distribution, getting anyone to notice a self-published book, was incredibly hard (more so for us introverts!). I learnt that if I didn’t do the hustle, no one else would. With perseverance and leg work, I was able to get the book into local bookstores, gain a few favorable reviews and endorsements, and conduct some school visits. The book went on to win a 2013 Moonbeam Book Award for Children’s Poetry and was invited to apply to the 2014 WA State Book Awards. All in all, for a self-published poetry book, it did quite ok. The ‘hustling’, however, left me with deep appreciation for traditional publishing.

Upon completing the manuscript for my second collection (in 2015), I decided to give the traditional channel another shot. It took a year of querying agents before one, Rosemary Stimola at Stimola Literary Studios, expressed interest in the manuscript. (The modest success with the self-published book really helped my pitch). It took Rosemary another year to find a publisher, Boyds Mills & Kane. The publisher scheduled the book for a 2020 release, five years from when I finished the manuscript. Despite the slow pace of traditional publishing, I’ve really enjoyed working with my editors, Rebecca Davis and Barbara Grzeslo – the book is so much better than I could have made just by myself – and I’m looking forward to it being available everywhere without having to knock on doors, one at a time. 🙂

And since the second book was going to take five years, I squeezed out another self-published poetry collection, ‘Lord of the Bubbles’, in 2018, which went on to win a 2019 Moonbeam Award for Children’s Poetry.

 

 

  1. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Although I was writing and drawing from a really early age, I didn’t take my art seriously because I couldn’t see how to traverse the gap between what I made and what I admired. With no insight into the creative journey, the learning process, the blood, sweat, and tears that every piece of art demands, I did not believe in my own abilities. My epiphany came when one day, as an adult, I accidently wandered into an exhibition of original Dr. Seuss manuscripts. Typewritten sheets covered with frustrated scribbles, crossed out over and over again in search of better options. I was stunned to realize that the ‘genius’ was in the incessant revision, the twenty attempts before something worked, the trying, trying, trying and not giving up. Looking at those manuscripts was the first time I thought to myself, “Wait, if this is how it’s done, then maybe I can do this too!” Thank you Dr. Seuss – I wish I could have sent my younger self to see that!

 

  1. Do you have any other advice/tips for writers?

In visual-art circles the running joke is that ‘Only the first fifty years are the hardest’. In other words, the ‘successful’ artists are the ones who find ways to persist. The same is true for writers. Patience, persistence, working on your craft, and never giving up! (And if you do feel like giving up, read a book, any book, by creative coach Eric Maisel).

 

Here’s a cool flip-through video that Vikram made for the book: https://youtu.be/XswGM2FLlBM

Seattle-area Author-Artist Vikram Madan grew up in India, where he really wanted to be a cartoonist but ended up an engineer. After many years of working in tech, he finally came to his senses and followed his heart into the visual and literary arts. When not making whimsical paintings and public art, he writes and illustrates funny poems. His books include ‘The Bubble Collector’, ‘Lord of the Bubbles’, and ‘A Hatful of Dragons’. Visit him at www.VikramMadan.com

 

Want to own your very own ARC of A Hatful Of Dragons? Enter our giveaway by leaving a comment below! 

You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be announced here on March 2, 2020 and will be contacted  via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US/Canada only) to receive the book.

 

 

Cogheart Adventures: Interview & GIVEAWAY with Author Peter Bunzl

In the fall of 2014 I attended my first SCBWI-British Isles conference and met Peter Bunzl. Another Scoobie (as SCBWI is affectionately known in the UK) friend was in his conference critique group and introduced us when it was over. A second friend was in the same group and said that Peter’s excerpt had literally made her cry. Soon we all joined together in a middle grade critique group regularly meeting up back in London; and I too was immediately taken by Peter’s steampunk adventure novel about a girl and her mechanical fox searching for her missing airship pilot and inventor father.

A few months later we celebrated Peter getting an agent, and a few months after that we celebrated COGHEART being sold as the lead title in Usborne’s 2016 list. It came out in September 2016 and was simultaneously chosen as Waterstones Book of the Month; a huge deal for a debut. Four years later Peter’s fourth COGHEART ADVENTURE book, SHADOWSEA has just been released in the UK, and the award-winning first three volumes —COGHEART, MOONLOCKET, AND SKYCIRCUS are now available in the US with Jolly Fish Press. (SEE BELOW FOR HOW YOU CAN WIN ALL 3 BOOKS.) I am so pleased and excited to welcome Peter Bunzl to The Mixed Up Files!

The 1st Cogheart Adventure Moonlocket: Cogheart Adventure #2 Skycircus: Cogheart Adventure #3

 

MD: Hi Peter, thanks so much for joining us!

PB: Thank you for having me, it’s lovely to be here!

MD: The world in the Cogheart adventures is so much fun with mechanicals (mechanical animals and people) and other distinctive and unique details. How did you come up with the world of the Cogheart adventures and did anything help you with your world-building?

PB:  Thanks! The inspiration came from reading about the clockmaking geniuses of the 18th and 19th Century who built the first automata and androids. It was their desire to create artificial life – or an illusion of life – which really chimed with me as a writer and animator. Someone who’s primary goal it is to make people believe in imaginary characters with all their heart. 

Those tales of clockwork robots and their creators helped me envisage a fictional Victorian world where mechanical-people and humans lived side by side. A world which begged the question: What makes us human, and could that spark of life ever exist inside a machine?

MD: Your story worlds are a cool mix of imagination and historical accuracy. When you are planning and writing a book, what kind of research do you do? Do you use mood boards or other visual prompts?

PB: Research plays a big part in the crafting my stories. I use Pinterest to save inspiring images and create mood boards for my projects. I collect Victorian photos of interesting looking people and locations. I also use Evernote to save research documents. Historical descriptions of the places the characters visit etc.

For the steampunk aspects of the story, I read about real airships, like the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg. There’s lots of zeppelin battles in the Cogheart Adventures. I didn’t stick to the physics of flying, because I saw from great steampunk that you don’t have to, but I tried not to go too wild as this is an alternate reality not a total fantasy world.

In terms of the Victoriana, I wasn’t a fanatical researcher, quite the opposite. I prefer fiction that give a flavour of the era, rather than dry history books. So I read a little bit of Dickens for the atmosphere, Treasure Island for the adventure, and some Penny Dreadful type books like: Hooligan Nights and Mord Em’ly – for their sensationalist accounts of Victorian street life.

MD: Did you intend Cogheart to become a series? Once the emotional arc was completed for the characters at the end of the first book, how did you navigate creating compelling emotional journeys for your characters in each of the subsequent books? Did you find it difficult?

PB: In the beginning, I never intended to write a series after Cogheart, but when my agent, Jo Williamson, originally sold the book in the UK it was for a two book deal and it became apparent that the publisher wanted a sequel.

The lucky thing was, after writing the first book, I had a lot of different left-over bits and pieces that never made it into the story. And those became the basis for each of the subsequent adventures.

The obvious choice for the second story was to make it more about Robert’s family, because his history had barely featured in Cogheart. So that became Moonlocket. I had an idea that I wanted to write about a magician and a mysterious locket and that fed into the story too.

I had a couple of other left-over scenes from Cogheart. One where the characters visit a travelling circus. This eventually became Skycircus. There was also a pitch that the publisher turned down for book 2, that eventually became the basis of Shadowsea.

The moral of the story is nothing is ever wasted. So don’t throw your excess ramblings!Shadowsea, the 4th Cogheart Adventure

MD: Had you always intended to write for children?

PB: I actually set out to write for Young Adults first of all, but along the way my story turned into a children’s book because the plot and ideas were much more suited to that age group.

As soon as I realized that was the way it was going I wrote a little Post-it for myself with the words: MARVEL, MAGIC and HUMOUR on it. So I knew the things I needed to add more of in the edits.

The more I wrote the more I discovered that my ideas fitted well into the middle grade bracket. Before I was writing, I worked for ten years in the animation industry on various projects. I wrote and directed my own short films on the side and my scripts often featured child protagonists, so to me it didn’t feel a great leap from that to writing children’s fiction.

MD: How do you find the words and rhythm that characterize your stories?

PB: I don’t think anyone has ever asked me this question before! Thanks.

I suppose it has a lot to do with voice. Your voice as a writer, but also the specific voice of the story, which is either directly the character’s, in a first person book, or in a third person’s story like the Cogheart Adventures, it is part character-voice and part narrator-voice.

As you write a book, you start to get a strong idea of which of those is required, where and when. It has a lot to do with how the book sounds as you read it in your head during the editing process, and with who the characters are.

The Cogheart Adventures are written in third person, but the narration is always close to our heroes. Apart from the prologue, you never see or hear anything they don’t themselves. I would describe that style as ‘close third person’ or  ‘over the shoulder’.

It has moments of free indirect style, where the narration is almost directly Robert and Lily’s point of view and you try to weave their words and thoughts into what they are experiencing. And moments which are more straight up narration.

Narration can’t be too intrusive, in my opinion. For me it should paint an exciting visual picture, but fade into the background in terms of its opinions. Although I feel it can be more stylized at the beginning and end of a story, where you’re trying to draw a reader in or wrap things up.

MD: What authors or creators have had a strong impact on your work?

PB: As a young reader I adored the quirky British fantasy of Diana Wynne Jones, Roald Dahl and Joan Aiken; I was forever popping into the bookshop to see when the next Terry Pratchett was coming out. More recently I loved Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series and his Sally Lockhart books, plus I enjoy a bit of Dickens, and greatly admire Mervyn Peake’s incredible Gormenghast stories.

They all influenced me in countless ways – some for plotting, others for character or worldbuilding; or poetic language, strange names and humour. When a stunning sentence leaps out at me from a book I underline it so I can refer to it later when I need writing inspiration.

MD: Your attention to detail and the images you create are often very visual. Do you find that your past work as an animator and filmmaker influences your writing?

PB: Coming from a background of animation and film, means that I will see the story very vividly in my head. As I write it unspools like a movie.

My years studying film also taught me a lot about story structure. How to tell a story economically and cinematically. There’s a grammar in film in the way you structure a sequence of shots that’s similar to the way you structure clauses and sentences in fiction. I’ve read some great books on both editing processes that highlight those similarities.

Each shot, or each sentence, should ask a question that’s part-answered and part-added-to by the next one and the next one. And yet each answer also withholds information until you’re ready to reveal it. That’s basically how to create the illusion of a developing story with suspense. It’s when you have the elements in the wrong order that it jars and seems off.

MD: What do you enjoy most about being a full-time children’s author and what do you dislike?

PB: I love meeting readers. Especially kid readers, because if they enjoy your book they’ll tell you so in no uncertain terms. They say things like: “You’re my favourite author of all time!” “Better than Roald Dahl!” “One of the best books I’ve ever read!”

Those kind of comments are ace, especially if they tell you personally or write you a letter with pictures of the characters they’ve drawn. All of their feedback is such a joy and it’s one of the best parts of writing children’s books.

The worst part is when you see a disparaging adult review online. Especially when they say things like: “I tried to read this book, but it seems like it was written for kids”. Don’t read bad online reviews, that’s my advice. Somehow they stick to your brain much more than the good ones. Maybe it’s their spikes that make them sticky.

MD: Your record of four books in four years is remarkable! And these are not short chapter books, these are 140-page middle grade novels with tight plotting and beautiful language.  The UK tends to have a much shorter lead time for publishing than in the US, which is exciting in terms of seeing your book come out with a relatively short turn-around, but it also must be an enormous amount of pressure. What advice do you have for other writers—whether they are just starting out or already mid-career— in terms of ‘just getting it done?’ What does a typical day look like for you?

PB: Write what you love, not what you think the market is looking for. That way you will always have some joy in doing it, even on days when that joy is buried deep and seems unaccessible.

In terms of my writing process, I sit down at a desk and try and write for a few hours each day. I write on the computer and I use Scrivener, because I love the way you can keep all your documents and chapters together but separate. It lets you see the structure of your novel in one window and jump between different parts.

When I’m not writing I have a notebook for the ideas that come at odd times, and a writing diary where I try and keep track of my word counts and how it’s all going – just a short note for each day, so I know if I’m on track or not. That way you can assess your own progress. Give yourself a small gift if you hit your goal for the week or month, and a bigger gift if you finish the whole book.

MD: I’ve noticed that boys and girls equally enjoy your books. Can you speak to any secret sauce you’ve put in, or why you think your books are so appealing across what are sometimes considered traditional gender lines?

PB: I have no idea why this is. I think maybe because the books have both a boy and girl hero, who are equally brave and courageous, equally strong and equally good at problem solving and getting each other out of trouble.

I really don’t think books should be gendered anyway. As long as it’s age appropriate, boys and girls should be able to read anything they like without the publishing industry, or parents, deciding: “oh, pirates and space are for boys” or “princesses and cooking are for girls”. It’s nonsense. What’s more important is writing a good story that’s inclusive and empathetic and can appeal to everyone.

MD: Peter, thanks so much again for joining us at MUF. Your insights into your work, the writing process and writing philosophy are fabulous. Is there anything you’d like to add about your books to the writers, librarians, teachers and avid readers that enjoy our blog?

Peter Bunzl: Author of the Cogheart Adventures

PB: Thank you. If you are looking for more information about my books, I  have a website: peterbunzl.com which has updates and links about all my books. It also has a great amount of teaching resources, created by me and the publisher and by teachers who sent me their brilliant suggestions and ideas. I am pretty active on twitter: @peterbunzl and instagram: @peter_bunzl so feel free to say hi over there too!

Thanks again Peter! Cogheart Adventures are available wherever fine books can be found.

Jolly Fish Press is giving away a copy of all three books to one lucky winner! Enter BELOW for a chance to win.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

(This giveaway is only available in the US.) The contest ends at midnight on February 19th and the winner will be announced on February 20th.  GOOD LUCK!

When Life Gets in the Way: Writing through Tough Times

Four months after my debut novel, Kat Greene Comes Clean, was published, my father went missing. It was late December, bitterly cold, and he left without a coat. And his cane. At 95, my dad was extremely frail, and he suffered from dementia. I called 911 in a panic.

Within minutes, NYPD detectives flooded my parents’ Manhattan apartment, asking questions and taking notes. They issued a Silver Alert, and promised to find my dad. “The old guys never get far,” the lead detective assured me. “Don’t worry.”

My mom wasn’t worried because, like my dad, she has dementia and had no idea what was going on. But I was a nervous wreck. New York is a big place, and my dad was probably confused, hungry, and cold. I feared the worst.

Afternoon turned into evening, and then into night. Finally, my father was located at the Empire Hotel, two blocks from Lincoln Center. He had taken a cab, the fare paid in coins from a velvet Alexander McQueen makeup bag. If I found this detail confounding, imagine my surprise when the hotel manager informed me that my dad had checked himself into a room, raided the minibar, and owed $685 plus tax. I would have paid anything, of course. My dad was safe.

But then, four months and three health-care aides later, my dad went missing… again. This time, he was found wandering the streets of SoHo, with a broken finger and lacerations on his face. He was rushed to the hospital, where I met him in the ER. He wasn’t as lucky this time. He developed a severe kidney infection and, after half a year in hospice care, passed away at home. He was 96 years old.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: This story is depressing! You write funny stuff. BE FUNNY!

I wish I could. But at the time, there was no room in my life for humor—or for writing. I tried, but I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to succeed. I was always on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it did. Again, and again, and again.

I’m still dealing with my fair share of stress (my mom now has advanced dementia), but I’ve found a way to balance life-related responsibilities with my writing. Here’s how you can, too:

Adjust your expectations. If you’re going through tough times—and, like me, juggling a zillion things at once—there’s no way you can be as productive, or as focused, as you were before. Think about it: Your brain has to work overtime just to keep up! Plus, stress has a sneaky way of sapping your emotional and physical energy. So, if you can, cut yourself some slack. Set realistic, manageable writing goals. If you’re used to writing 2,000 words a day, write a thousand. Or five hundred, or 250. Or whatever number your schedule, and emotional energy, allows. If you don’t hit a specific target, that’s okay too. Just write every day, even if it’s for 15 minutes. You’ll feel good for having done it.

Try journaling. Expressing your thoughts and feelings in written form is an excellent stress-management tool. It’s also been shown to be highly therapeutic. So, if you don’t keep a journal already, now would be a good time to start. You don’t have to write pages and pages; just a few lines a day. Or one line, if that’s all you’ve got in you. Just get your thoughts (and more often, your frustrations) down on paper, and see where it leads. There are many ways to journal, but if you find that journaling is not for you, give yourself permission to stop. You can always try again later. Or don’t. Make (or break) the rules as you see fit. This is something you’re doing for you.

 

Limit social media. It’s tempting to mindlessly scroll through social media—or binge-watch Netflix, or spend hours searching YouTube for cute-kitty videos—when you’re stressed and in need of distraction. (When my dad was sick, I played Wordscapes until my vision was blurry.) But the hours you engage in unproductive phone activities are hours you can’t get back. Plus, screen time wreaks havoc on your concentration. Removing apps from your phone is the obvious solution, but it’s unlikely you will do this (I still have Wordscapes on mine). Instead, think of screen time as a reward for writing time. Five hundred words = fifteen minutes of Wordscapes; one thousand words = an episode of 90 Day Fiancé (or pick your poison). The point is, you’re allowed to zone out when the time is right—but don’t make a habit of it. Your time is too valuable to waste. (For advice on how to walk away from social media completely, check out this post from Salon.)

You do YOU. Writers often compare themselves to others. That’s what we do. But as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He was right. Knowing that your friend’s debut MG novel sold eight billion copies and has been optioned for a movie starring Kylie Jenner (or Kendall Jenner, if you prefer) while yours is languishing in a bargain bin at Costco is a fact of life—but don’t dwell on it. You have enough on your plate to worry about! By all means celebrate your friends’ achievements, but don’t let their success(es) overshadow your own. Sometimes getting out bed in the morning is enough.

Practice self-care. This should be a given, but if you’re busy looking out for others’ needs, you tend to ignore your own—or put them last. This is understandable (I’m guilty of this, too), but try to put yourself first once in a while. Squeeze in a run, or have coffee with a friend. Get a massage, if that’s your thing, or sneak out to a museum or art gallery. Catch up on your sleep; eat Frito’s Corn Chips. Dance. Whatever it takes to bring you to your happy place, do it!

And finally…

Expect setbacks. It’s important to remember that most things in life are out of your control, like when a parent develops dementia–and dies. When a child is sick or disabled and needs constant care. Unemployment; bankruptcy; a house fire; divorce… You can only do so much to keep afloat emotionally. Sometimes, it will feel like an impossible struggle. You’ll miss deadlines. Bills will go unpaid; birthday cards unsent. For every step forward, you can expect two—or fifty—steps back.

Grieving isn’t linear, and I miss my dad every day. Still, he would have wanted me to keep writing, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I hope you will, too.