Author Interview: Shana Burg, Laugh With the Moon

Laugh With the Moon bookcoverIt’s launch day for the second novel from author Shana Burg, Laugh With the Moon (Delacorte Books for Young Readers), and Shana has graciously stopped by to answer our writerly questions.

Partly based on her own experiences traveling to Malawi, Laugh With the Moon tells the story of 13-year-old Clare Silver, who feels that mourning her mother’s death is far more important than being dragged overseas with her doctor father. Mad that she has to spend 64 days in the African jungle, Clare must learn a new language and deal with new surroundings. As she begins to make friends, things get better, but she gets more heartbreak when an outing to see more of the country goes horribly wrong.

Laugh With the Moon is suitable for ages 10 and older and is already getting rave reviews, including a starred review from the School Library Journal. Shana’s success from her well-received 2008 novel A Thousand Never Evers is obviously continuing.

We posed our six little writerly questions to Shana, and her answers are as interesting as her books. Here they are:

Shana Burg

How did the story come to you? Characters? Situation? Whole thing at once?

As a graduate student in public policy, I found myself in Malawi, Africa, one winter tooling through the bush in a jeep with my driver, Norman, who later became a friend. Norman and I were investigating whether there were adequate learning materials such as pens and pencils and notebooks in the rural schools. However, we found that there were hardly any materials at all. Still, the children and teachers in the schools had incredibly creative ways of getting by with what they found. So, for example, children learned to write with sticks in the dirt. And they made letters with the mud from termite hills.

I went to Malawi back in 1997. When I came back, my sixth-grade students saw my pictures and were fascinated. That led me to think that American kids beyond my classroom would be intrigued by the way children in Malawi live. But I didn’t really have a story or a character in mind, until I began free writing from the point of view of an American girl who visits the country with her father. My main character, Clare, changed ages several times through many drafts until I finally found the age—thirteen—when she seemed real and right to me.

From your first inspiration, did you outline or jump in?

I jumped right in for the first few drafts. Once I had a character who I liked enough, I moved to an outline. My outline included a very short description of each scene, along with sensory details that I wanted to feature in that scene, the conflict in scene, and any key lines of dialogue. This launching off process of jumping in and then outlining was very helpful, but still, there were a million more drafts that followed.

Shana Burg interviewing students in Malawi

Shana Burg interviewing students in Malawi

Which do you enjoy most, the first draft or revising?

I really like both for different reasons. The first draft is exciting. You think, “Okay, this time I’m going to get it perfect right off the bat.” But then you go back and read what you wrote, and reality sets in: “Nope! It’s going to take years again.” Good news is that when I wrote my first book, A Thousand Never Evers, the entire process from free writing the first pages to publication took me eight years. Now, I’m happy to say, I’ve halved that time with Laugh With the Moon. Four years.

Revising isn’t as tummy-turning with ups and down as the first draft, because I’ve already got something to work with, and I’ve already come to grips with the fact that this is going to be an uphill climb. I love revising because the characters and scenes you don’t need, peel away and what you’re left with is the stuff that really works.

Were there any scenes or plotlines that were written but got cut, and if yes, why?

Oh, funny you should ask that next. Yes, tons!! I have to say, one thing I’ve become a lot better at is being okay with letting things that I’ve written go, including sense or plotlines that I really like but I know, in my gut, aren’t working. I find that when I’m willing to cut, cut, cut, it’s always better in the end. By the time my manuscript is finalized, it only shows a small bit of the life that character has actually lived in all the previous drafts and scenes that have been cut.

What was your biggest challenge with this story?

The biggest challenge was updating my research to the present day from the time I had been in Malawi. I was very fortunate to work with two Malawian research assistants, who had access to the Internet and helped tremendously. I also reached out to many other Malawians, as well as Canadians and Americans, who were so generous with their time and expertise in answering my questions and translating words from Chichewa to English too.

When you’re done with a manuscript, how do you celebrate?

In my opinion, you’re never really done with a manuscript until it’s actually published. Until that time, there are milestones (like first draft, second draft, fortieth draft, copy edit, etc.), but it seems like there’s always another step, until you really and truly can’t make any changes anymore. To finally celebrate my pub date today, my husband and son and I are going to the bookstore to buy a copy of the book, and then we’re going out for dinner. I’ll also be celebrating at my launch party at BookPeople on Sunday, June 24 at 4pm. There will be live African music and Malawian crafts for kids. Everyone in Austin is welcome to join me!

Thanks, Shana. The launch party will be fun.

Shana explains more about the inspiration for her novel on Cynsations today, which is also giving away a copy of the book. So go there and enter.

Also don’t miss the trailer for Laugh With the Moon:


Authors helping authors

The Mermaid's Mirror book coverWhen I joined the children’s book writing community, one of the things I was immediately impressed with was how supportive everyone was. Not all writing communities — or all creative communities — are like that, and it’s wonderful that children’s book writers are. On Verla Kay’s board yesterday, I saw another example, author Cindy Pon writing about and supporting fellow author L.K. Madigan.

Madigan, author of Flash Burnout and The Mermaid’s Mirror, was recently diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, and Pon put out a call for support. Pon and the other 2009 Debutantes are giving away copies of Madigan’s books to create awareness, but she also hopes you’ll add them to your Goodreads lists, tell your friends about them (if you’ve read them) and do whatever else you can to spread the word.

I haven’t read Madigan’s books, but they sound great and have gone on my plan-to-buy list.

So, if you haven’t read Madigan’s books, check them out and spread the word about this wonderful author.

Write On!

Interview: Kate Messner on writing and researchingW

Kate Messner headshotToday, I’ve got a great guest post on writing and researching from Kate Messner, author of Sugar & Ice, a Junior Library Guild Selection, Best Book for December and on the Winder 2010-2011 Kids IndieNext List.

Here’s the synopsis of Kate’s book:

For Claire Boucher, life is all about skating on the frozen cow pond and in the annual Maple Show right before the big pancake breakfast on her family’s maple farm. But all that changes when Claire is offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity-a scholarship to train with the elite skaters in Lake Placid. Tossed into a world of mean girls on ice, where competition is everything, Claire soon realizes that her sweet dream-come-true has sharper edges than she could have imagined. Can she find the strength to stand up to the people who want her to fail and the courage to decide which dream she wants to follow?

Sounds fun.

Now, here’s Kate’s advice on writing and researching:

It’s all in the details…

Sugar & Ice book coverWhen I was writing Sugar & Ice, I did a lot of the research you might expect – reading books about the different spins and jumps in figure skating, studying skater biographies and interviewing coaches and competitive skaters about what it’s like. But there are some things you just can’t get from a book or an interview.

How does a skater interact with a coach who’s really pushing him or her?  What kinds of things does a coach say to encourage a skater who’s struggling?  To push a skater who’s not working as hard as he or she needs to be?

To answer those questions, I spent several afternoons at the skating rink. Former Olympian and current skating coach Gilberto Viadana allowed me to attend several of his sessions with skaters, so I bundled up and listened in as they worked on everything from sit spins to salchows.

“The arms! The arms!” Gilberto would shout.  And I would scribble down his words in my notebook.  More than that, though, I watched him watching his skaters. I paid attention to the way he nodded, just a little, when they responded to his coaching, to the way a skater stood when he or she was listening to advice, to the body language of a coaching session.

When you read the scenes in Sugar & Ice that involve Claire’s coach, Andrei Groshev, Groshev’s personality is all his own. But some of his words, his gestures and his coaching strategies are borrowed from Coach Viadana.

Authors rely on experts not only to review manuscripts and answer questions, but also to open up their worlds for that inside experience, and I’m so very thankful for this. The tiniest details – the things that could never come just from my imagination – are what make a scene feel rich and real.

Want a personalized, signed copy of Sugar & Ice?

The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid is hosting a Sugar & Ice launch party from 3-5 pm on Saturday, Dec. 11, so please consider this your invitation if you live in the area! If you can’t make it but would still like a signed, personalized copy, just give the bookstore a call at 518.523.2950 by Dec. 10. They’ll take your order, have Kate sign your book after the event, and ship it out to you in plenty of time for the holidays.

Guest blogger: Sherri Woosley with 3 rookie writer mistakes

Huge apologies for not being around. I’m still busy moving house, and my brain is fried with a bunch of things. But I keep thinking about all the things I want to write on here… then don’t get around to doing it. Lame, I know.

Sherri Woosley headshot

Sherri Woosley

I’ll be back really soon. But today, Sherri Cook Woosley is visiting DayByDayWriter with a great guest post about the top three rookie mistakes writers make most often.

Sherri is the editor of The Coffee House Fiction 2009 Anthology and The Fifteenth Dame Lisbet Throckmorton Anthology, 2010. She has an M.A. in English literature from University of Maryland.  She wrote academic articles in the field of comparative mythology before switching to fiction writing.  Her stories have been published in ZoneMom, Mount Zion Fiction Review, and New Lines from the Old Line State. She accepts editing work through Check out this video of Sherri reading the winning story.

Thank you to Sherri for being here today. Let’s all give Sherri a big round of applause: clap clap clap!!!

Plus, Sherri’s giving away  a copy of The Coffee House Fiction 2009 Anthology to a lucky commenter from this page. So make sure you leave a comment!

Here’s her post about the writers three rookie mistakes:

Three Rookie Contest Mistakes

I’ve been chief editor at Coffee House Fiction for over six years now, which means that I’ve read a lot of contest entries.  Read the following list and make sure these rookie mistakes don’t tank your chances to win a writing contest or see your short story in print.

1.        The Mistake: Wrong Point of View

The Reason: Author thinks his or her entry will stand out if told from an unexpected source.

Worst Offenders:  A story told from a parrot’s POV.  I wanted to stop halfway through when the narrator (bird) called 911.  Really?  With its beak?  Did it know to press the ‘talk’ button first or was the phone on the wall?   Another story was written as if a horseback riding saddle was telling the story. Hard for a master storyteller to pull off, impossible for a novice.

The Fix:  POV should be a conscious decision.  Who is the best person to tell the story?  Who was the most affected by the events?  Finally, who has a decision to make?  It is much more vital when the audience experiences with a character rather than hearing about it from someone else.  A short story is also not the place to use multiple points of view.  There just isn’t time for the reader to connect with different narrators.  Instead, pick from classic choices like first-person, third-person limited, omniscient third, and stick with it.

2.       The Mistake: Neglecting the story for purple prose or over-description

The Reason:  The writer is infatuated with the writing and his or her own arabesque creation.

Worst Offenders:  “In a teary-eyed nostalgia, he wistfully recalled the halcyon days of his youth when, with an innocent eye rapturously fixed upon an idealistic mark, the ardent romantic had defiantly stood upon desks and dismissively ripped up texts, had passionately promoted Dead Sappo Societies and dramatically….” (the sentence goes on for a total of 61 words).

The Fix: The story is the first priority.  It may take several drafts before the writer knows what is trying to come out.  That’s fine.  But, once a writer knows, he or she must work to make the story as clear and clean as possible.  It doesn’t make you look smarter to use big words.  Nor should descriptive passages be in the story for their own sake; they must add to the story.

3.       The Mistake: Starting at the wrong place

The Reason: Author is telling the story in chronological order, the way it happened

Worst Offender: We met in first grade when we exchanged friendship bracelets, etc…

The Fix: If this is what you need in the first drafts, that’s fine.  But, then you need to find the actual start of the conflict/resulting choice, the meat of the story.  Love this description:  an egg is rolling across a table.  The story starts at the exact moment the egg reaches the edge and hovers before falling.  The friendship bracelet image from the example can go into the story, but as background once the *real* story is underway so that instead of ending with a short story trying to span fifteen years, you have action over a twenty-four time period with a clear conflict and resolution.

I remember my pastor once telling a story about a bank president who was unmatched at catching counterfeit bills.  When asked, the president said he didn’t try to learn all the different feels of counterfeit bills; instead, he always handled real money so that anything else felt wrong.

Reading about rookie errors is helpful, but don’t write trying to avoid mistakes.  Go for the real deal and get the entire first draft out before editing yourself. Read the winning stories of contests, like the anthology, The Fifteenth Dame Lisbet Throckmorton Anthology, 2010, read stories published online, or go to your library and read literary magazines or journals (except Playboy;  I’m not authorizing you to read it for the fiction!).

Do you have any examples of rookie mistakes from your first stories?

Seize the Dame!

Sherri Cook Woosley

Some great inspirational links

Between my DVD and Blu-ray website,; my books; and moving, I feel like I’m just trying to keep my head above water. So, a couple articles I read today as I was doing research really caught my eye. They’re geared toward bloggers and those trying to make money online, but their message works equally well for writers trying to get their work published and pushing through the self-doubts.

The first is How To Remain Productive When You Feel Like Giving Up. Self-doubt is a normal thing that every writer has to battle, even if they’re published but especially when they’re just starting out. It’s hard to sit at that computer and type and type without knowing if your work will have any success at all. The majority of people who start writing a book never finish it, and those who do often don’t do the work necessary to get it in a good enough shape for publication. And then there’s the querying agents process… Rejection is part of a writer’s life, and it can be hard to keep going, but this article has some great tips.

The second article, from the same site, is titled: If You Want Success Today, Let Yesterday Go and Stop Seeking Tomorrow. The article is long — and I must admit, I skimmed it — but the title itself is what I thought was great advice. I tend to look back and look forward way too much for my own good, but it does nothing except build my anxiety. And the truth is, I can’t do anything about yesterday or tomorrow. All I can work on is right now. And in this moment, I can work on one thing. So I need to choose that thing, then work on it to the best of my ability, not worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow or what I missed yesterday. If I do my best right now, if I succeed today, then tomorrow will be sorted out by itself.

The third inspirational blog post I found today is for writers. Author Bobbi Miller has a great interview with fellow author Kathi Appelt. Kathi offers up a bunch of good stuff (her answer about the “American fantasy” genre is very interesting), but the most inspirational part is at the bottom when she talks about advice she received from M.T. Anderson, who told her “write what you think you can’t.” To Kathi, that meant she had permission to fail, and that opened her up to try new things. Good advice for all of us.

Write On!

Kurt Vonnegut's rejections

The New York Times reported on a new Kurt Vonnegut library that’s going to open in Indianapolis in the fall, and my favorite part of the article is a quote from his oldest daughter, Edie Vonnegut, who said, “We have boxes of rejection letters, letters saying, ‘You have no talent and we suggest you give up writing.'”

Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t revel in the rejections great writers have suffered through. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But, knowing that if a writer as a great as Vonnegut can get rejections like that, rise above them and continue to pursue writing — and be successful at it — that’s inspirational.

Rejections are difficult to deal with, but it’s part of the business, and not personal — even though it feels personal, it’s not.

Rejections are also nothing that should stop us from writing and pursuing publication. A rejection is simply one person saying no; there will be others, but there also will be plenty of people who will say yes.

Like Edie says in the article: “He did not have an easy time of it, and I think anyone who wants to be a writer, it will be important for them to see how tough it was for him.”

It Vonnegut could do it, we can do it. Thank you, Kurt.

Write On!

Interview with Valerie Hobbs and contest winner

Manuscript update: Current word count is 14,577. I am managing to wake up early and write, but the writing is going slowly. This is a book that I think will really come together in the revision.

Valerie Hobbs headshot and The Best Last Days of Summer book coverAnd now, as promised, onto Valerie Hobbs‘ answers to your questions. You might remember that Valerie is the author of a bunch of children’s books, most recently the middle-grade coming-of-age novel The Last Best Days of Summer. Two weeks ago, I asked you to give me questions for Valerie, and her favorite one will win a copy of Summer.

First, congratulations to Susan Ruch Roush, who won the copy of Valerie’s book. Thanks for the great question, Susan. I’ll email you to get your address.

And here are Valerie’s answers to your questions, starting with the winning one:

Hi Val, can you share a magical moment of the writing of The Best Last Days of Summer … perhaps when a character did something completely unexpected/unplanned, and it was just wonderful for the story? –Susan Ruch Roush

Valerie: It was magical when I let Eddie follow Lucy to the lake. It was what he wanted and he livened up that book so much.

As a published author myself, I would like to know what you think about the Kindle and it’s affect on young readers. –Doris Fisher

Valerie: I don’t see much of an effect yet, but I expect there will be one.

How do you develop your characters? How do you create a character that seems real? How do you connect with them and know how they would think and act and effectively convey that on the page? Also, just for fun, how do you decide what your character will look like, what their name will be, what they’re house looks like, etc.? –Erin

Valerie: Great question for which there are many answers. In short, I don’t always know (!) Toby in Defiance just “came to me” out of the blue, but many of my characters (well, all of them really) are me in various guises. They become more and more “real” as themselves as I write. If they don’t, I’m “outa there”!

I try to “see” them in my mind (I think I could actually do a better job of that) and I look in a character naming source book for names.

My question for Valerie: What do you do to overcome a missing muse and get your writing going again when you become stuck? –Rosi Hollinbeck

Valerie: Hardest thing in the world! I go for a long walk. And pray.

Do you find that the best and very private qualities of yourself go into your characters? I’m thinking of those qualities of fine feeling level, which don’t necessarily find their way easily into public interactions. Thanks. –Gillian Foster

Valerie: Absolutely. Although the characters don’t usually start out with the best values, for example, that’s where they end up. So, yes, the characters get the best and the worst of me.

Valerie, when have you rewritten enough and how many times would you say you rewrite your book before you send it out to publishers/agents? –Liz Maxwell

Valerie: I just rewrote a book three times that got rejected three times. How’s that?

I feel like I’m finished when the end comes together and gives me chills. It takes a while!

Hi, Val, what do you see as the piece of the puzzle that keeps The Last Best Days of Summer from getting “lovely but too quiet” comments? If this had been your first book, would it have made a difference? –Claudia Harrington

Valerie: PW just gave the book a starred review which, I think, answers your question. If it doesn’t, write to me and I’ll try to answer it.

Are all of your stories from real life events and people? Or, have some come from your imagination alone? –Jean

Valerie: Mostly real events and made up people, although most of them are “me” in various guises. Toby in Defiance was a gift from the gods.

Thanks for all that you shared. This is twice in two days that I’ve looked at middle school and YA readers. What subjects are most appealing to middle graders right now? –Lynn

Valerie: Fantasy, fantasy, fantasy.

The title of your book, The Last Best Days of Summer, is so intriguing. What inspired the title? Was this always the title of the book? –Joannie Villegas

Valerie: The title originally was “Lucy In The Sky,” which, I guess, was not good because of the drug connection (!) So then my editor and I went crazy trying to come up with titles. I like this one now.

My question to Valerie is this: There may be many authors who have a completed manuscript but lack the financial resources, the personality required for self-marketing and/or the knowledge about publishers/publishing/agencies that will help them get their work considered. Do you think it is possible to have a platform where first time writers post/send their work (without copyright concerns) to be looked at by publishers and agents? –Farida Mirza

Valerie: I don’t think there is a free one, but there are several who will do this for a fee. I’m sorry, but I don’t know much more than that. You might check with for more information.

Thanks for the interview. So, my question for Val is, did you have a “best summer” memory or dread that you used as a springboard for this story? –Mary Ann Dames

Valerie: I didn’t have a best summer memory or a dread to use as a springboard. What I have I guess is a fear of Alzheimer’s disease!

Thanks so much, Valerie. And good luck with the book.

Write On!

48-Hour book challenge and other news

Manuscript update: Current word count is 12,621. Still going slower than I would have liked (I way behind to make my goal of finishing the book by the end of this month), because I’ve been working late hours on, but it’s moving along, and that’s the important thing.

Blogger Mother Reader recently wrote about the 48-Hour Book Challenge, happening June 4-6. During the fifth annual event, participants will read and blog about as many books as possible throughout that weekend. I love this idea. Even though I love reading books for the fun of it, reading books also is one of the best ways to learn to write books. So, 48 hours of book reading is great for the writer’s soul!

Even better is that the Challenge is used by many participants as a way to raise funds for their favorite charity. I’m always so impressed with how the writing community helps others, and this is just another example.

If you don’t have plans the first weekend of June, think about spending it reading for a good cause.

In other news, Publishing Trends has an interesting article about the trend in series. I heard from agents a few years ago that publishers weren’t signing up as many series because they couldn’t be sure of the success with just the first book. But, according to this article, series books are ruling sales.

Not that we should all rush to write a series. I’m a big believer that writers should write the story they’re passionate about, whether it’s a series or not. But it’s great to see something that’s selling well. And for writers who are working on a series, Write On. 🙂

Finally, if you haven’t submitted a question for author Valerie Hobbs yet, click here and leave on in the comments. She’ll be answering all questions here on DayByDayWriter next Friday, May 21, and will give a copy of her book to the person who entered her favorite question.

Children's Book Week and ask Valerie Hobbs contest

Manuscript update: Current word count is 10,791. Wrote 1,247 words since Thursday. It’s going … slowly, but going. Coming up to an exciting part in the story, so that’s fun.

Childrens Book Week posterToday is the start of Children’s Book Week. Yay! It’s so awesome that there’s a special week celebrating children’s books. Books are amazing for so many reasons. They tell stories of our history, our present, our possibilities. They take us to new places, real and imagined.

But for children, books are so important, because they help them understand themselves and their world and help them to grow.

Formed in 1919, Children’s Book Week is celebrated by schools, libraries, bookstores and clubs around the nation — not to mention blogs. It’s run by the Children’s Book Council. And there are a number of events going on to celebrate children’s books this week.

Valerie Hobbs headshot and The Best Last Days of Summer book  coverI’m celebrating Children’s Book Week with a contest for a copy of the new middle-grade children’s book The Best Last Days of Summer by Valerie Hobbs. I interviewed the editor of the book, Frances Foster, on Friday. And in two weeks, you can interview Valerie by submitting your questions here.

Valerie is the award-winning author of a number of novels, including children’s books Sonny’s War, Defiance and Sheep, as well as the young adult book Letting Go of Bobby James, or How I Found My Self of Steam.

To enter to win a copy of The Best Last Days of Summer, leave a comment on this post with a question for Valerie before midnight, Friday, May 14. Valerie will answer all your questions here on DayByDayWriter on Friday, May 21, and whoever submits her favorite question, will win the book. So make them good!

Write On!

The Next Top Spiritual Author

Manuscript update: I haven’t written anything yet today, but wanted to get this blog post up. Then it’s back to writing my story. Got some done, 486 words to be exact. I’m at 2,964 words out of 40K total. 37,036 left by the end of May. I need to write 714 a day.

First, I love the name of this contest: The Next Top Spiritual Author. With all the reality shows on TV, this is great.

Nanny and I book coverI hadn’t heard about this contest before, but from what I can gather, the prize is a publishing deal. I found out about it through a message on a Yahoo writers group I belong to. The message was from author/illustrator Sylvia Peltier, who’s seeking votes for her book.

Sylvia self-published two picture books a while ago in a series. The first, Nanny and I, sold out and the second has almost sold out.

From Sylvia’s description, the books sound really sweet, about a child’s relationship with a grandmother who is in a wheelchair.

It’s something Sylvia now knows a lot about. She has been a writer and artist all her life, but she’s now confind to a wheelchair due to a sickness.

If you think Nanny and I looks like a good book, I hope you’ll vote for Peltier to be The Next Top Spiritual Author. But even if you don’t, I hope you’ll check out this contest and vote for whomever you think should win. One of the best parts of this industry is the support writers give each other. This is just one opportunity.

If you know of any others, let us know in the comments.

Write On!