|Rx for Writers|
“Unpuzzling the Mysteries of Chapter Books and Other Novels” with Jane Kurtz
Jane: is Jane Kurtz, whose published children’s books span a wide range of genres, everything from picture books to novels for older readers. Jane has had 20 books published, having begun in children’s writing only in 1990. She is a specialist at writing chapter books. Jane Kurtz’s published chapter books so far are I’m Sorry Almira Ann and Bicycle Madness (both from Holt). Soon to be out is The Oregon Trail: Chasing the Dream (from Simon & Schuster). Jane is also the children’s writer’s mentor highly praised by Toni Buzzeo as the person responsible for getting Toni started on her own meteoric picture book writing career.
Thursday, September 9, 2004
Mel is Mel Boring, moderator of this chat with Jane Kurtz and web editor of the ICL site.
Green shows the user names of the people and their questions asked of Jane Kurtz.
Interviews are held every other Thursday evening for two hours, beginning at 9 CANADA/ Atlantic Time, 8 Eastern Time, 7 Central Time, 6 Mountain Time, and 5 Pacific Time.
Jane: Hi, everyone (five minutes early). This is Jane.
molly22: Jane, thank you so much for the pleasure of your instruction this evening. It's an honor to get to listen to you speak.
tkat_2: Hello Jane, good to meet you!
Jane: I'm pleased to be here.
writermom: Hi Jane!
Jane: Hi, writermom. That name brings back memories from my life.
Mel: Welcome to the ICL Chat Room for our first Guest Chat of September. Our guest, Jane Kurtz, has already been chatting with you, and will likely be familiar to any who attended or have read our two chats with Toni Buzzeo, the firebrand picture book author. Without the encouragement and guidance of Jane Kurtz, though, Toni Buzzeo might never have gotten started. Jane Kurtz herself is a picture book author, but her children's writing achievements go far beyond that in age range and genre. One specialty of our special guest is writing chapter books, a genre we have much discussed here, and for which there are many children's writers eager to know how to write. That is one special reason why we've invited you, Jane. WELCOME to the ICL chat room, Jane Kurtz!
Jane: Thanks again! I'm delighted to be with you.
Mel: Jane, are there any other writers in your family of origin?
Jane: My family was full of book lovers, and three of my siblings are working on books right now. And my brother has co-authored a couple of books with me.
Mel: What things in your grade school and high school education prepared you to be a writer?
Jane: I have to say that I don't think I had great educational background for becoming a professional writer. But I did love to read books from an early age, and my teachers (including my mom, who was my first teacher) always read aloud to us and encouraged us to read. I think that's the very best training for a writer.
Mel: Do you remember anything you wrote as you were growing up?
Jane: I think my elementary papers were pretty mundane, though my second grade teacher said, “We have enjoyed Jane’s poems. Perhaps it is one of her talents.” The teacher also said my poems were exceptionally good for my age. But in high school I had a story published in the school newspaper and I was thrilled.
Mel: Did you write poetry back then, too?
Jane: I must have written poetry in second grade, though I honestly don't remember! I do remember writing poetry in high school and college, and it was the first work I got published.
Mel: Tell us about that first publishment.
Jane: I sent some poetry to literary magazines that were posted on my college bulletin board, and they were accepted. I didn't have any sense of anyone READING them, though, which is one thing I love about picture books.
Mel: And was it always a CHILDREN’S writer you wanted to be, Jane?
Jane: Not at all. When I was reading and writing and taking creative writing classes, I had no idea I would write for children ever. It wasn't until I was reading books to my own children that I fell in love with children's literature.
Mel: I'm sometimes asked whether or not a writer needs to go to college. How do you feel about that?
Jane: Well, I think absolutely the only requirement to be a published writer is to be someone who reads a great deal and writes a great deal, and comes to know the difference between just "okay" writing and sizzingly wonderful writing. I think that could come without college. I think that should be “sizzlingly.” Maybe I made that word up! J
Mel: LOVE that new word, "sizzingly"! Now writermom wants to ask what about that username of hers brings back memories to you, and what are those memories, Jane?
Jane: As I mentioned, I fell in love with children's books when I was reading them to my own children. But what a hard time it was for finding time for my own writing. I was desperate to squeeze out a little bit of time every week. I finally finished an adult novel by sticking to two hours a week when my children were in a Mothers' Morning Out program.
caq: For those of us who are new to this, what is a chapter book?
Jane: Well, I've discovered that what a lot of teachers call a chapter book is what I call a novel. And in publishing, I think that most often a “chapter book” is a short book with chapters that might be a child's first encounter with chapters.
mythchild: Jane, what is the difference between chapter books and novels?
Jane: It's fine with me to either discuss novels, in general, or what I call chapter books, specifically, which are short novels for young readers. I find that different publishers have different ideas of what a chapter book means. It's easiest to look at examples, for instance, the ones of mine mentioned in the introduction, I’m Sorry Almira Ann and Bicycle Madness. And soon, The Oregon Trail: Chasing the Dream.
molly22: When you collaborated with your brother on Only One Pigeon (I hope I remembered that right), how did you decide who would do what. Is collaborating harder than just working alone?
Jane: I wrote Only A Pigeon with my brother because he came back from Ethiopia and told me all about pigeons and the boy he met who raised them. So he knew a lot about pigeons and I knew a lot about the craft of writing. We put our heads together. I wouldn't recommend trying to collaborate unless you know someone really well and can laugh a lot!
Mel: Only A Pigeon sounds like a FUN animal book!
mckenna: How many chapters are in a chapter book and what is the word count? Also, what is the word count per chapter?
Jane: I've found that each publisher has different standards when it comes to what they call chapter books. The ones I wrote were about 45 pages. I never counted the words, but I imagine I averaged about 250 words per page. If you're interested in chapter books, I think it's not a bad idea to ask a publishing house if they have any guidelines for chapter books.
mckenna: Are there different kinds of chapter books for different age levels?
Jane: Yes, there are different kinds of chapter books. Again, I find that this is a type of book that publishers think about in specific ways, so they seem to have more guidelines than they might for other kinds of novels. A chapter book might be even shorter than what I mentioned, 30 pages, for instance. I suppose even the Frog and Toad books might be considered chapter books, and they are
gladys1: How do you know when to start a new chapter?
Jane: It's a great question about how I know when to start a new chapter, and I wish I could give you a specific way I know, except that it's more like having filled my head with soooo many chapter books (reading them, I mean) that I eventually got a sense of how long a chapter should be. For me, that's about four or five pages. I try to keep the action moving right along and end on a cliffhanger. I can't stress enough that I think the best way to learn how to read a chapter book is to read a LOT of them!
caq: Is it easier to get into writing novels by writing chapter books first?
Jane: No, I don't think it's easier to get into writing novels by writing chapter books first because I think the voice in a chapter book is one that works in an unusual way. Chapter books tend to have short words, short sentences, short chapters, and yet the gifted writers of them somehow pull that off without making them sound choppy. So if you learn to write a really fabulous chapter book you won't necessarily know how to write a really fabulous longer novel, which has a different kind of
pacing and voice.
Mel: What is meant by "the voice" in any book for children, Jane?
Jane: Ah! Tough question. Just what does VOICE mean? I think it's hard to define and yet crucial to understand if you want to publish fiction because a strong, fresh, interesting voice is one thing that will make an editor sit up and take notice almost every time. I suppose it's like a voice of a storyteller who is speaking orally and makes you notice because of something interesting. That interesting thing could be the way the person uses words or her sense of humor or his ability to make a person cry. Or it could be that the storyteller always has the most fascinating characters or a plot that's impossible to predict. But whatever the storyteller has, everyone drops things and sits around and listens. That's what voice is in a novel, too. I can recommend certain novels for their strong sense of voice. For example, one is Love, Ruby Lavender. The minute I read some writing by Deborah Wiles, the author, who was unpublished at the time, I said to myself, “That woman is going to get published because her voice is so strong.”
Mel: Excellent defining of voice, Jane!
caq: Is a chapter book simply a multi-chapter book with or without pictures for the child who is a self-reader?
Jane: Well, some publishers might call anything a “chapter book” that has multi chapters. In general, I'd say that a chapter book has chapters; usually it also has black and white drawings every few pages, and it's usually intended to be read by the child (reading to him or herself) in about second, third, fourth grade.
Mel: What planted the idea in your own writing mind of moving from picture books to writing longer books?
Jane: I can't actually remember back when I first had the idea that I wanted to try a novel and I will say that I wrote a number of novels that were never published before I mastered the craft and found my own voice so that I could actually get a novel published. The Storyteller’s Beads was my first one. You might find it in a library or somewhere to get a sense of what kind of novel is considered a strong first novel by a publisher. I can't stress enough (and you'll get tired of hearing it from me--I'm sure Toni did) that if you want to publish anything, including a novel, you have to read enough of them to figure out what the field is all about.
Mel: Jane, that "found my own voice" is VERY intriguing. Tell us more about how you went about finding YOUR own voice, please.
Jane: I think there's something a little mysterious about finding a voice, but one thing I could say about my first novel is that: a) it was set in Ethiopia where I grew up, so I was writing about something I knew very well that not many other people knew about. And: b) I was raised on the Bible, and I think if you read The Storyteller’s Beads you will hear that rhythmic, dignified language that I believe is somewhat a part of what makes my voice unique. I think if you want to find your voice, you have to write a lot. And read a lot.
Mel: So you went from picture books to longer books, as you said. And then why the move to chapter books, in particular?
Jane: I moved to chapter books when a publisher asked me if I would consider writing a picture book I had sent her, set on the Oregon Trail, as a chapter book. So the suggestion came from an editor. Of course, at first, I was intimidated, but I read a great many chapter books until that
cadence was in my head and I found she was right. The picture book about the Oregon Trail DID need to be a chapter book.
Mel: What honesty, that you felt intimidated by an editor, Jane—thank you!
Jane: I spent many years getting rejected, too. So I was open to any lead from any editor who cared about me and my work.
Mel: Jane, would you tell us about the many places you've lived in your life, and how they affected your writing?
Jane: I spent most of my childhood in Ethiopia where my parents worked for the Presbyterian Church for 23 years and many of my books have an Ethiopia connection, even my most recent novel—The Feverbird’s Claw—which is a fantasy. I was born in Oregon and had read about it for many years. My grandma's mom traveled on the Oregon Trail as a young mother. And I've lived in Illinois where Bicycle Madness is set. Also, I've lived in North Dakota where River Friendly River Wild, after the flood. I guess I do tend to write about the places where I live and the experiences I've lived through and the people I've met!
Mel: So there is a VERY tangible connection between your books and places you've lived! How nicely concrete that is for children's books!
molly22: With the diverse background and travels and cultural experience you have had, is it possible to write on a culture realistically without ever visiting it and be able to make it come to life? Is there a way with limited means to break out of the slush pile with lively and descriptive "put you there" language when you haven't actually been where you're writing about?
Jane: We often hear the advice "write about what you know about." I think there are two ways to know about something, from personal experience and from research. If you don't have personal experience about a place, you simply HAVE to do the research to get those details that will make a place or an experience or a person spring to life on the page. I don't at all think you have to have lived through everything you write about, but you have to have a level of detail that makes the
reader believe you MUST have lived it, whether you have or not.
caq: You said your Oregon Trail needed to be a chapter book. Is that because there was so much story that the picture book needed to be enlarged or because it was more suited to the older age group, beyond picture book age?
Jane: Hmmm...good question. Some picture books have been published that tell a pretty complex story for older readers, but that's pretty rare these days. Even since I had my first book published in 1994, picture book texts have gotten shorter. So I think part of the reasoning of my editor was that the Oregon Trail is often studied in about 4th grade and a chapter book might have a better chance of being bought in large numbers than a picture book. When I first started writing, I didn't think much about the people who would BUY the books I was writing and I've gotten better at that over the years.
Mel: What is current editor thinking about the length of picture books, Jane?
Jane: Back when schools and libraries had good budgets for book buying, a picture book could be longer. For example, I've sold a picture book that was 10 pages long. But now most picture books are bought in places like Barnes and Noble by parents and grandparents, not teachers, and I think I personally wouldn't be able to sell one that was longer than about three pages. One editor I know calls this the "distractible bookstore customer" who is in a hurry and grabs something that looks short and easy to read to the kids at night.
Mel: EXCELLENT explanation! By 10 pages, I'm figuring that was about 2000 words, and three pages about 600 words?
Jane: I always think of about 250 words per page, but for some reason I don't pay much attention to word count.
Mel: Why is that?
Jane: Because it's never made much of a difference in my publishing life. I don't work with editors who have very strict word counts--except when I was writing some Level One Ready to Read books for Simon & Schuster recently. Those had strict syllable counts per line.
Mel: What's the best thing someone who is thinking about writing a chapter book can do to begin?
Jane: I love the advice I heard from a writer who said, “I always think about what my main character wants.” And that's something I try to think about if I want to start writing a novel. Who is my main character and what does he or she desperately want and need that seems out of reach? An unfulfilled longing...a gap...a hole is a great place to start with a novel. Or sometimes a character who is scooped out of normal life and thrust into an adventure with a problem to solve
that isn't easy to figure out any solution to.
Mel: What are the special challenges of writing a chapter book?
Jane: As I said, a chapter book has short words, short sentences, short chapters. But it can't sound choppy and it can't be boring. So the special challenge is getting that voice just right. Patricia Reilly Giff is another master of chapter books. Read her Kids of Polk Street School series, or the Judy Moody books or Junie B Jones. Those have all been tremendously successful.
Mckenna: Could you name some of your other favorite chapter books?
Jane: I love Sarah Plain and Tall. It's an utterly masterful book!
Mel: I agree!
Jane: But I suppose the Patricia Reilly Giff books are the ones that taught me the most about chapter book writing.
Mel: Here is a longer, thoughtful question:
caq: My daughter just bought a house on Long Island and it has a gorgeous rare tree on it and I want to write something about it. Is there any reason why a story about this tree couldn't be done as a chapter book or would that be a little lacking in area to write that much about?
Jane: Well, I once ran onto a woman who learned to ride a bicycle back in the 1890s and thought she would be such an interesting character for a book, and I ended up putting her in my book Bicycle Madness, but she isn't the main character. I made up a little girl next door to have the problem and have the adventures. In the same way, I think it might be hard to write from the viewpoint of a tree for chapter after chapter, though I know someone who set a challenge of writing
from the point of view of an inanimate object and did it. She wrote a novel from the viewpoint of the mirror, as in Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, and that novel comes out this year. In general, though,
I'd use the tree for setting and make up some characters.
Passion: It depends what size your story is, determines if it will be a chapter book or a novel, right?
Jane: In general, yes. A chapter book is shorter than a novel. Of course, the lines are blurred. I don't know if Sarah Plain and Tall is really called a chapter book, for instance, but it pretty much fits what I think of when I say “chapter book.”
mckenna: Are anthropomorphic characters inappropriate for chapter books?
Jane: Hmmm...you might look at the books by Avi that are pretty short and have animal characters as main characters, such as Poppy and Poppy and Rye. I think an animal character can certainly work in a chapter book as in a picture book or novel.
mckenna: In a chapter book, is it true that each chapter must have a complete story with a satisfying ending, and that all the chapters must have a commonality as far as characters and theme are concerned?
Jane: I don't think of my own chapters as having satisfying endings. I do think of them as scenes. Something has to HAPPEN in a chapter, and it has to be something important to the story, and it's best if it can do double duty. For instance, I might introduce a new character in a chapter but also plant a clue that I'm going to pick up later in the story, and also hint at something of what my book is really all about, which is the theme. I don't think of having “satisfying endings” so much as
having cliffhanger endings that leave the reader wanting to know “But what HAPPENS????!!!!”
Mel: GOOD points!
omalizzie: Was your Oregon Trail book published as a picture book too?
Jane: I have an Oregon Trail chapter book called I’m Sorry Almira Ann, which came out a few
years ago and I now have an Oregon Trail nonfiction book that is also chapter-book length and geared for readers in about 3rd-4th grade. That will come out this spring. Is that clear enough? I
never did publish an Oregon Trail picture book.
caq: Calling your book Oregon Trail, did you get into trouble because of the computer game called “Oregon Trail”?
Jane: Nah. The Oregon Trail was a historical event that any number of people have written stories, nonfiction books, and games about.
macnat: What type of story do you like to write the most?
Jane: Novels are extremely satisfying because there's more room to tell a story, but they also take a huge time commitment. For instance, I worked on The Feverbird’s Claw off and on for 13 years. And picture books are fun because you get to see the PICTURES, which is something I can't do, but they can be frustrating because no one can tell you exactly what makes a picture book publishable. So I like the variety. I even liked writing my little Ready-to-Read books that only have a handful of words.
Mel: Are all chapter books fiction, Jane?
Jane: That's an excellent question and something I was wondering about, myself. Again, I think of “chapter book” the way the publishers I've worked with so far think of them, and I'm pretty sure they wouldn't call a chapter-book-length nonfiction book a “chapter book.” Confusing, eh?
Mel: For your two historical chapter books--what kind of research did you need to do for I'm Sorry Almira Ann, set on the Oregon Trail?
Jane: Luckily, I'd been reading about the Oregon Trail for years and years. Because if you are going to write any kind of historical fiction, you need to know a LOT about that time period so you can weave details into your story that make the reader think, “Wow, we're not in Kansas anymore!” Sorry, I live in Kansas, and even I have to use that cliche. J So I had years of research behind me before I ever started to write.
Mel: Did you do research differently for Bicycle Madness?
Jane: Not really. I also already read about the 1890s for years. I read lots of books written by and about Frances Willard, the real character I put into my book so that I could know how she might have talked and what kinds of things she said. And I had to understand bicycle history and child labor realities (which she fought against) and all kinds of things to be able to write Bicycle Madness, even though it's short.
Mel: Did you have to provide resources for the illustrators of those chapter books?
Jane: In both cases, the illustrators did their own research. For Bicycle Madness, the illustrator wrote to the Frances Willard House in Evanston, Illinois, and got a lot of pictures from them, for
mythchild: Can a book that is intended for young adults be suitable for middle graders?
Jane: I have an opinion about what publishers will label "YA" and what they will label “middle grade,” and that is this: They will call anything YA that has gritty material in it unsuitable for middle grade, and everything else they will label “middle grade.” Does that make sense, or do you want me to elaborate?
Mel: VERY wise differentiation, Jane!
Jane: I don't know that writers need to know ALL that much about how the publisher will label the novel.
mythchild: No need to elaborate, thanks!
macnat: What advice would you have for those just starting to write?
Jane: My number one advice to Toni, who was a wonderful person to mentor, was to read, read, read, read, read, and that's pretty much the advice I give to everyone. When I started out, I didn't know what a picture book was, and I didn't know whether a story was a picture book, and I didn't know all the things I now know about chapter books and novels. But I learned those things from reading children's literature.
Mel: Jane, could you tell us more about that mentor relationship with Toni, which she has said was absolutely necessary for her? How did you meet Toni, and how did you become her mentor?
Jane: I met Toni on an online group and was interested in her writing because she was a children's librarian, so I knew that she already knew and loved children's books, and I guess I had some time in my life. Also, I had such a strong memory of when I was loving to write but getting rejected and I think I wanted to help someone cut short the agony I had gone through. So for whatever reason I started to work with her very closely on some of her picture books.
jikl: Jikl here. Can a 2000-word three-part story be chapters?
Jane: Let me think.… Since I don't work with word count much, I have to translate into pages, and I guess you're talking about maybe 10 pages. I don't personally know of any publishers who are
looking for chapter books that short. But there's nothing to say that if the writing is FABULOUS, it might not work as a Frog and Toad type of chapter book, I guess.
zoie: I've writte a chapter book about a pet I had when I was ten. It was a while ago and I would have to make somethings up. Would this be considered fiction or nonfiction?
Jane: It would be considered fiction. Any time you start with a real person or a real event but make things up the book is considered to be fiction.
brigitsmom: I'm trying to break into the infant board book market and have a few pieces that I think would work well—do you have any suggestions that would help me get them considered?
Jane: I've heard from editors that this is the single toughest place to break in of all children's book publishing, which is pretty discouraging for me, so I've never pursued such a thing myself. I think that's because most publishers seem to work with authors they already have relationships with when they have ideas for board books.
Mel: You've also written long, complex novels on the upper edge of "middle grade," Jane. Is that a very different process?
Jane: Yes, Jakarta Missing and The Feverbird’s Claw were labeled age 10-14 and I've heard from many adults that have read them and consider them a somewhat challenging read. So it's obvious that they aren't easy novels. I guess all I can say about the process is that I've needed to have a big fat chunk of time in order to write one of those novels and I've had to think of characters who have problems complex enough to take up a good many pages!
Mel: Do you sense that in children's books, the older, more rigid age groupings are blurring, so that, for instance, adults read those two books of yours, and also books like the Harry Potters?
And older children enjoy picture books?
Jane: I actually think lines are blurring all over in book publishing, between fiction and nonfiction,
between the old, traditional age-level markings, between these genres we've been discussing. And that's why I mentioned if the writing is FABULOUS, sometimes a book gets published even though it doesn't fit the traditional lines. Think of graphic novels, for instance. Think of The Spiderwick Chronicles, which is another chapter book series worth looking at because it's been so successful commercially.
Mel: Can you compare your writing process for a picture book to what you do with a chapter book?
Jane: I think picture books are extremely tough! To me, a short story for a magazine is a little more like a novel than a picture book is like a novel, if that makes any sense. When I write a short story for a magazine, I know there are certain craft elements that make a story work. For instance, you have to have a main character who is driven by a problem or by wanting something, and you need to make the reader LIKE the character and care about what happens to him or her. And you have to have a resolution that is satisfying but not predictable, and the main character usually grows and changes in some way over the process of the story. The same is true for a novel, but I can name many, many picture books that don't “work” that way.
Mel: Did you START OUT in writing by publishing magazine pieces rather than books first? And do you still write as much for magazines?
Jane: I was rejected for 10 long years before I got much of anything published and, believe me, I read a great deal and wrote a great deal over those 10 years. So you can pretty much believe that I tried everything! I don't know why I wasn't all that successful publishing magazine stories, but as I look back, I think some of the picture books I was trying to get published might have gotten published as magazine stories if I had just submitted them that way. I did have a few stories accepted but more nonfiction articles, and that's what I still occasionally write for magazines.
Mel: YIKES! We've heard that it usually takes seven years to publish, but TEN sounds like forever! It takes some kind of writer to ENDURE that long a drought in publishing!
Jane: Mind you, I was having some successes along the way, so it wasn't total drought but it was about 10 years before I reached my goal of publishing a book with a major New York publisher.
omalizzie: How did you keep yourself writing then?
Jane: Along the way, I could tell that I was getting better as a writer. I had a writers' group, and we would get together and read our stories, so that was one place where I got great satisfaction. And I took classes and got feedback from teachers, which was another source of satisfaction. And I got increasingly more positive rejections, which was probably the most important part. My mom will tell you I'm very stubborn. Also, I thought if I was going to be a doctor or lawyer; it would
take about that long with both my education and training, so why should I think book publishing
would be any easier?
Mel: How did YOU come to finding that writers’ group along the way?
Jane: I took a course at a community college, and my writers’ group came out of that class. There were only four of us, but we were serious and determined. Now my writer's group includes Toni and is all published writers.
Mel: What would you say is the MOST IMPORTANT thing that happens in a writers' group that leads to success for its members?
Jane: I think the most important thing about my early group was that I had a real audience for the first time. I do believe that we mostly write for the audience within, which is one reason why it's important to be an avid reader so that you are writing for an audience that's an excellent reader :>. But in the beginning I needed to hear from other people whether my work was hitting the mark—
making them laugh, making them gasp, fascinating them, and it's hard to get that kind of feedback in the early days of trying to get published.
omalizzie: How do you know if the writer's group is the right?
Jane: I read a great comment recently: “A writer's group is only as good as the keenest mind in the group.” I don't know if that makes sense to you, but when I think of my own groups over the years I know that's true. I think it's important that the people in the group be people who read a lot in the field where you are trying to publish, for one thing. And of course it's important that they aren't cruel but do know how to give feedback that will push you to try new things and not be satisfied with your first attempts. I didn't know how to revise until I got all those rejection letters because I was a pretty good writer from the time I was a kid, so no one had ever shown me how to revise or made me revise.
Mel: A compliment to you, Chat Guest Jane Kurtz:
tkat_2: Re: The writer's Group comments, they were excellent comments.
Mel: What basic things does a novelist need to know?
Jane: A novelist needs to know how to create a character who is gripping, someone that other people will want to read about, which usually means that your main character has to be likeable and needs to be determined. Passive people don't make good main characters. And a novelist needs to understand plot. One way I learned about plot tension was by paying attention to when I was feeling tension when I read a novel. I do think that learning to write an excellent magazine story is probably great training for novel writing because it's a similar process.
Mel: What ARE the similarities between writing a short story and writing a novel?
Jane: A short story has to have the same things a novel has to have. It has to have a compelling character and a problem to solve or a longing at the heart of it. And characters that grow and change, so they're different at the end than they were at the beginning. And a short story has to have tension and a sense of mystery that draws the reader forward. It just doesn't have to have as many complications as a novel.
Mel: You are traveling and speaking constantly now, Jane. How do you find TIME to write with all your busyness?
Jane: I've only been writing full-time for two years. The first year, I had a tight novel deadline. I was writing Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot for the American Girl company--for their Girls of Many Lands series--and it was new and exciting, so I was able to keep up with my writing even while I was on the road speaking. But this past school year I had a harder time keeping up with novel writing because I was doing so much speaking. So I've had to rely on making sure I get my B in the C (butt in the chair J) for long hours during the months I'm home.
Mel: I think you mentioned that you didn't publish the very first novel you wrote. Is that to be expected by anyone who wants to become a professional writer?
Jane: Here's my theory about that. I see writers who published the very first novel they wrote, but it was because they revised and revised and revised it until it became wonderful. And I see writers, like me, who tried a number of novels before one got published. So I know that writing a novel is a tough thing to do, and you pretty much either stick with the first one for a long time or write a number of them before getting published.
Mel: Did other authors share bits of wisdom with you that helped you break into publishing novels?
Jane: One thing a writer said was this: If you wanted to be a clarinet player in a symphony orchestra, would you assume you could get there by sitting around with a lot of other beginning clarinet players until you got to be good enough? Or would you take classes and practice and learn some craft? Well, of course, I thought the answer was the latter! And another writer told me that in any business it takes money to make money, and I should be willing to invest time AND money in my own writing, which was hard to do in the beginning, believe me. Finally, I've learned so much about what makes writing “work” by just listening to other people read their pieces out loud and get feedback.
Mel: Such helpfully wise words!!! What mistakes do you see writers making in the novels that get rejected?
Jane: I'll tell you what kinds of mistakes I made in my own first novels. I flat out hadn't read enough novels published recently, so I was trying tired old themes and characters who had an old-fashioned feel to them, for one thing. And also they didn't have a powerful enough voice (back to that word), and didn't have gripping details that felt so incredibly real my reader wouldn't be able to BELIEVE I'd made them up. In other words, they were pretty good writing but not good enough.
Mel: You've had three different publishers for novels. How did that happen?
Jane: I entered publishing at a time when things were getting crazy. My first two-book contract was with Simon & Schuster before S&S bought Macmillan. And you can believe that it became a huge company after that, so I've had five editors at S&S alone. Whether with picture books or novels, I've had to write a lot and send a lot out there and make contacts with a lot of different editors to have the success that I've had--20 books published in about 14 years.
Mel: Is it good or bad for a person's career to have more than one publisher?
Jane: I think it's ideal to have one committed, excited, wonderful editor at one publisher. But I don't have many friends who've pulled that off in this day and age and I certainly haven't been able to! My main publisher right now is Greenwillow, but it took me a lot of floundering before I hooked up with them.
Mel: You have a nonfiction chapter book coming out with still another publisher—how did that come about?
Jane: Do you mean the Oregon Trail book?
Jane: It's with Simon & Schuster, which was my very first major publisher only with their paperback arm. And I started to write for Aladdin, the paperback arm, because of an editor I met at a conference who asked me if I'd try writing for that line.
marshadiane: I'm entering late. Have suggestions for writing early readers been covered?
Jane: I don't think we've talked specifically about early readers. In my case, I started to write them because I was approached by an editor, not the other way around. And when she asked if I'd be willing to try their early reader line, I asked her specifically what she was looking for. At the time, it was Level One books, so I wrote one on Johnny Appleseed (her idea) and one on the man who
discovered the first Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton (my idea). She was looking for nonfiction for the kids just learning to read—because that's what she was hearing from teachers of those early grades. So I guess one thing you might do, if you're interested in selling early readers, is to talk to teachers and librarians to find out what kind of things are studied in Kindergarten and grade 1, for
instance, and where the gaps might be, because those books are pretty much curriculum-driven, as they say, which is tough these days because so many schools and libraries don't have budgets to buy books.
Mel: Two similar questions, Jane, for review:
gladys1: What is the difference again between chapter books and novels?
zoie: Could you cover again the difference between chapter books and novels?
Jane: I think of a chapter book as a novel for readers who are just starting to read novels. And I'd say that there isn't any super clear definition. Instead, it's good to look at lots of examples. I don't think I'd be able to tell you what a chapter book is versus a middle grade novel versus a YA novel if I hadn't read a gazillion of each. And even so, the lines can sometimes be blurred. In general, I say a chapter book is usually geared for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th grade readers, and is something
they can read on their own. It has short words, sentences, and chapters,
and usually has a black-and-white line drawings in every chapter.
ladybird39pm: How many chapters should there be in a grade two level book?
Jane: It really varies with the publisher as to what they consider "Level One" or "Grade Two" or whatever, but my sense is that many publishers have guidelines for these books in a way they don't have guidelines for “regular” middle grade novels or YA novels. So it would probably be worth writing to the publisher or going to a bookstore or library and finding a book like what you have in mind and seeing who published it and making a guess based on what you see there.
Mel: How do you keep the language simple for a chapter book?
Jane: I personally don't do it in any scientific way :>, but I think of myself as writing "by ear" so I like to fill my head with someone else's work who is a master at that kind of thing. Or I go back later and revise for simplicity, as I did with my Oregon Trail nonfiction book.
Mel: Can you give an example of something mentioned earlier: What is meant by "lively language"?
Jane: Yes. For instance, if you were to read Bicycle Madness, you would see lots of examples of 1890s slang that I worked in, and those words give a certain lively feel to the writing. Or if you were to read, say, Water Hole Waiting, one of my picture books, you'd read: “Sun cartwheels slowly up the sky, herding hippopotami,” and you would say “cartwheels is an interesting and unexpected verb there.” So it's using, not complicated, but unexpected words that are full of zing and attitude and startle your reader a bit. Even in my Level One book called Mr. Bones, I
wrote: “Smooth Barnum Brown was a charming, dapper guy.” Not everyone would think “dapper” was a word for Kindergarten and first grade, but I do :>.
Mel: Our time is up, and THANK YOU, Jane Kurtz, for opening up the writing of children's chapter books so illuminatingly—like Sun cartwheeling up the sky! Having watched you chat with people here this evening has made me even more impressed with your talent, not only at writing books for children, but at mentoring even during the process of chatting. We would very much like to have you come back sometime and continue what you've begun with us here tonight. Will you return sometime in the future, Jane?
Jane: Sure! I was an ICL instructor for a while and have been an avid learner for a long, long time, and I'm always happy to help in any way I can.
Mel: Next Guest Chat, on Thursday, September 23rd, Caroline Arnold will be our guest. Caroline is the author of over 100 children's books, and is particularly interested in writing about animals and the environment. Some of her books on those topics are Pterosaurs, Rulers of the Skies in the Dinosaur Age and Who is Bigger? Who is Smaller? Caroline Arnold has also written about fossils, ancient cultures, sports and many other topics. Before her September 23 chat, visit her web site at: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/1264. Caroline Arnold has also done many classroom book talks, and is vitally interested in children. The topic I’ll suggest to Caroline: "How I Wrote Over 100 Children's Books."
Mel: Our heartfelt thanks to you, Jane Kurtz, for being our chat guest tonight. We have so longed to know more about writing chapter books for children, and you have given us so much valuable information. And not only about the writing of chapter books, but so many other genres of children's writing besides. I am so GLAD you said yes when we invited you to come here!
Jane: Good luck to everyone on this exciting but tough adventure.
ladybird39pm: Do you have a web site, Jane?
pshell: Thank you for giving us your time and knowledge! :o)
tkat_2: Jane, Thanks for coming. It was a pleasure! You're an inspiration.
Jane: You're very welcome.
Mel: Goodnight, Everywriter!
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