No cat, no bicycle
Well, I am the middle child of five. So of course, it's a constant war zone and you have to try and balance as a middle child between the older and the younger. And ways I did that was through storytelling. So I was too young to really get to do all the things that my older sisters would do, but I could make up stories and make up game ideas to try and please them. And then I could dominate my younger brother and sister and force them to participate in my stories and games. And that's the way I sort of went in between.
But I felt very isolated, too. My two older sisters were about a year apart and my younger brother and sister were about a year apart and I was three and four years between them. So I felt like almost like a different generation from the rest of my family. I think everyone in their own way feels isolated and alone a lot of the time, but I certainly did. So I decided that the cat was my partner in the family and I was very attached to the cat and we would sit and talk often.
And then my brother got allergic to the cat and so my mother gave it away to somebody. And in order to encourage them to take the cat she gave them my bike as an incentive. My mother is the sweetest woman in the world, but everybody has to have a tragic childhood story and that would be mine. Oh, Tia and my bike all in one shot. She says I didn't ride my bike — maybe that's true. But maybe I would have! So I was lonely and books were definitely my escape. I read a lot. I told myself stories, I wrote stories. I started writing when I was ten. I started writing books at about age ten and I never stopped after that.
Mona Lisa Maybe
My elementary school teachers were so encouraging and tolerant of my craziness. I think back on some of the things I did. I would write little plays and they would let me perform them for the class. They would take time out of the curriculum to do that. And I would write poems and they'd let me read them to the class. They were so sweet. I used to get, if I look back through all my school papers, every year my teachers would give me, everybody would get one award, and I always got the creativity award.
My fourth grade teacher was the first one who really got the whole class writing and reading and was the first, she asked me at a PTA night to read a story that I had written for the whole classroom full of parents. And I was so honored. And it was called Mona Lisa Maybe, and it was about the person who painted the Mona Lisa. And I decided that it was a woman. I didn't really know anything at the time about the painter. So I just wrote about the process that this woman would do when she was painting Mona Lisa.
And the parents laughed at it. And even though that's not what I had been going for, it was still very gratifying to be up there and read something and have that sort of live response. So I fell in love with writing. And, in fact, I have a school assignment that I did in fourth grade and I wrote down, and I was writing a little article about myself, "She's in fourth grade and she hopes to be a writer." And that's the first time I wrote down what I wanted to be after that, and I never looked back. Once I decided I wanted to be a writer, I never looked back after that.
Becoming a writer
I became a writer by writing and writing and writing a lot, and lots and lots of writing. And I think the real jumping off point for me was when I graduated from college, I decided to get an MFA in creative writing. And although I had always wanted to be a writer and I was pretty bold saying that when I was in fourth grade, I was shy of it after a while because I started to get reactions from adults that let me know that that wasn't really a reality. It was like saying I want to be a princess or something.
So they tried to encourage me to do something more practical. And so I hid away that desire and kept that secret for a long time, but I was always writing and always reading. And then when I decided to get a graduate degree in creative writing, it was very scary because it was like this is the point of no return. This is where I'm telling everybody and they're going to laugh at me, and if I fail it's going to be very public failure. But I knew I had to; it was the only thing that I really loved.
And it took me, well, 20 years from the point that I declared I wanted to be a writer until I was published. I wrote 100 short stories and a couple of books before I decided that I was good enough to write to be published. So after I had written all of those and I set those aside, then I started writing books and stories I thought could be published. But even at that point, it didn't go smoothly. These are some of the rejection letters I got before I ever got an acceptance and I can't but it's about 100 feet of rejection letters.
And nine of them are for my first book, The Goose Girl, that was roundly rejected by many major publishers, and then of course six years later is in its 20th printing and has found an audience. So it's really, that has taught me that rejection isn't absolute, it's about encouraging you, the right direction. It's the universe sort of getting you to the right place, the right publisher, the right boyfriend, whatever the rejection might be — just easing you into where you should be.
Getting published is huge. It is huge. And I wish it wasn't. I wish there's no question, I have no question that if I wasn't published I would still write, because I just, I have to do it. But it just makes you legitimate. And it takes away some of the shame, although not all of the shame, because there's still, for the first few years I was still the reaction people give you when they hear you're a children's writer it's very demeaning. It's a ghetto side of literature for many people.
I got an MFA in creative writing from an institution that valued literary fiction, so children's fiction was not valued there, and, of course, other writers for adults. And I find with teachers, like kindergarten teachers get sort of patronized, too, for what they do. I think the younger that your profession deals with, the less people take it seriously or really honor it, which is so sad because my son's in kindergarten and I was in his kindergarten classroom the other day for an hour and a half and his teacher is an artist. I mean, in the way she teaches, she's magnificent and I wish as a society, we really honored that.
But after two or three years, the longer that I was in children's publishing and met all these amazing writers and librarians and teachers and book people, and, of course, the readers, I don't feel any shame any more. I feel really sad for everybody who doesn't get to be in this world, because this is the great place to be in writing.
I did theater for a long time. It was my other outlet for storytelling. In those years when I felt like I wasn't good enough with words yet, theater was the way that I expressed myself. So I love theater and I think acting is about character creation, so it was a great exercise for becoming a writer. And I think that because of theater, I have I want to say a cinematic imagination.
It doesn't always have to do with movies, but I can see them move and structure the stories like that, like you would from a play. And I often think in acts. Many of my books are organized into four acts, basically, because I do think about it that way. So Rapunzel definitely was influenced by that.
And the illustrator Nathan Hale grew up in a theater family. I mean, he really like was born in a theater and his parents run a community theater, and he would do, he would act, as well as do costumes and paint sets and do all of it. So he very much has that background as well. So it feels like a play unfolding in front of you, I think.
Meeting the readers
It is really fun to meet the readers, to get emails from the readers and letters and meet them in person. And some are so quiet. I found actually, it's interesting of a certain age if they come with a parent, they often won't talk to me very much because they're looking up at their mom and if they come with a friend they don't talk to me very much because their teasing the friend — they're sort of uncomfortable — they tease their friend. When they come alone, they'll speak to me one on one and especially these girls — 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 — I love to have them alone because then they can be really honest and speak. And also email, they're very honest. I love the honesty. I'll just read you a couple of emails I've gotten from readers.
"I am a huge fan of your Newbery Honor winning novel, Princess Academy. I really liked your use of description in the story, even on the short sentences. Although in the beginning, I found some sentences about the goats confusing, like laying the fresh goat dung out to dry. How do villagers use goat dung? Perhaps if you revise the first chapter of it so that it would explain the goat trivia a little more it would be less confusing."
I love the boldness of that! Here's this wonderful careful reader that she read the whole book but she had questions, so she's going to go to the source; she's going to go to the author and have me clarify and give me some advice. And I think that just shows these young girls ceasing their own identity, because when they can start noticing this in books. And just sort of notice these things outside yourself at first before you can notice them inside yourself. So once you can start editing other people's books, you're going to be able to edit your own. Once you can start observing other people's behavior, you can observe your own. I think it starts out and then it goes in, and so wonderful stuff and maturity. It's a beautiful thing. I love this one, too.
"My name is Delaney. I am 12 years old and I'm an author, too. I am very mature and I loved Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, but I also read less mature books and I loved The Goose Girl. When I first started reading The Goose Girl, I immediately recognized the writing; it reminded me of my own. I always want to capture my readers right away and make it mysterious. 'Once upon a time' is a graceful dive, but 'She was born Ani-dori,' which is how The Goose Girl starts, is a definite belly flop. Your writing got way better after the first two pages. Some of your names were very good and very made up. I also complement you on your battle scene; very good for a first timer. Please note at this time that anything that I say in this letter is not to offend you, authors helping authors here."
I love this little Delaney! I mean, she's 12, but she's already labeled herself an author. She said, "This is what I am." And she's entered the peerage, you know, of an author, she's an author, we're peers, we can communicate as peers. The confidence of that. And I hate to see I worry about Delaney when she turns 14, 15 and that starts to erode. And I hope — it sounds like she's going to keep reading. But I think if she keeps reading to get through those years until she can gain that back again and that self awareness and her own writing and her own reading, I think that's what books and writing do for these girls is gives them a place to experiment their own personality until they really come fully into themselves.
I think when a child or any reader is reading they are carrying on a dialogue with the author. And I really believe reading is a collaborative exercise. Even though it feels very solitary and very intimate, which it is, it's also collaborative. And people want to give me praise when they love my book, but I really believe that the reader did half the work of the storytelling. I think a good writer would only do half the work and the reader should fill in the rest.
And at the same time when a book fails, that's half the author, but also half the reader, because maybe it wasn't the right book for them or the right time or they just weren't the right style to fill in the rest of the story. So I think it's very collaborative. It's very much a team work. And so I understand why — for me as a reader, too — why people want to know an author because they do feel like they're having a conversation with me as they're reading my book, and they want to continue that conversation in person and get to know me.
And that's one reason why I actually have a blog because I can't go out and meet everybody and I can't spend — when you've got a line at a signing and it's so hard you want to spend enough time to make each person feel special, but you don't have the time. So I feel like with my blog allows the readers to know me outside of the book a little bit and make comments and feel like they're continuing that conversation.
Writing for young people
I think the main difference in books for adults and books for young people is just the age of the protagonist. And the age of the protagonist helps determine what issues they're dealing with in their life. So I've written two books for adults and it's not that dissimilar from writing for young people. It's just that when I have a 30- or 40-year-old mother, what she's going through in her life naturally is probably going to be more interesting to adults than it is for kids.
But I think with children's literature you can't ramble; you need to get to a point. And I think that that requires you to do more story crafting. So I think the best quality literature that we have is the really great children's literature. Children will read your books again and again and again. And like I showed you they will email you if they find anything that they think is an error.
I met a girl this weekend who read Rapunzel's Revenge 75 times. And you need to make sure that when you have a book for children, every sentence is going to stand up to 75 readings. So I think I take it more seriously. My adult books are a little bit more fun. They tend to be more comedies. I can relax a little bit because I know that the librarians are not going to be mad at me, because librarians — bless their hearts, they keep us honest; you cannot mess around with the librarians. They are what makes children's literature they have raised the quality of children's literature just by caring so much. They really have. So I work harder on my children's books without a doubt.
Fairy tale story starters
Rapunzel's Revenge was such a great experience. And I love the graphic novel format. We do have a sequel called Calamity Jack that comes out in January of 2010. And Rapunzel is the main character, but Jack is the point of view character in his continuing adventures. I think graphic novels, I do hear from a lot of teachers that they just love using them as a resource in their classrooms and my publisher Bloomsbury is putting together a teacher's guide to using graphic novels in the classroom that is or will be shortly up on their website as well as mine.
One thing I try to do when I'm working with students using Rapunzel's Revenge is it's a great place to start writing your own story. It's a scary thing when you're starting out writing just to have a blank piece of paper. I think you need some place to go. So I tell students to take a fairy tale that they know and change where it happens. So we took Rapunzel and we put her in the Old West.
So by doing Old West, immediately she becomes a cowgirl. She can do lasso and whip. She's fighting bandits and coyotes and these sorts of things. But if you take any fairy tale, like you could take Little Red Riding Hood and put her in outer space now it's science fiction. And the kids, already their minds start popping. So who is Little Red instead of a little girl going to her grandma's house? She's an astronaut. She's going to a space station and it's not a wolf, it's an alien.
And then they have the structure of Little Red Riding Hood, but it becomes their own story because they add those things. So you could take any place — under the sea or the big city or far away long ago or in my bathroom or at my school — and you take Sleeping Beauty or Jack and the Beanstalk or any fairy tale and match those two together and these kids, they can write their own stories from that, and illustrate them, too.
I grew up on fairy tales. And I love fairy tales for their sort of bite-size everything — bite-size romance and danger and exploration and adventure and coming home again and all those things that happen in a fairy tale just happen like that. And I also think they're very important tales because they have lasted so long in oral tradition. So that means something about them was important enough that a mother wanted to tell it to her daughter and then she wanted to tell it to her daughter and it lasted that long.
So I really honor those tales. But the ones that I choose to retell are the ones that bother me the most. The ones that are just sort of beautiful in their own I'm not actually interested in retelling. The ones that get under my skin and make me ask a lot of questions and just like but why, but how, but no, you haven't told me enough! And that's where I get the motivation to retell it.
The Goose Girl was one of my favorites when I was younger, but it was just too mysterious and there was so much unknown there that I wanted to explore. Maid Maleen was the one that I actually discovered later in life and I retold for Book of a Thousand Days. And that one I was motivated because in the original tale, a maid is imprisoned in a tower with her mistress for seven years because the mistress wouldn't marry the man her father wanted her to.
Well, after they get out of the tower, the Grimm's brothers don't tell you anything else about the maid. And it made me so angry. I was like she spent seven years in this tower and we don't even get you just drop her? I was just furious with them. So I felt like I needed to tell her story, and that's where Book of a Thousand Days came out.
And then Rapunzel is just the most irritating fairy tale of all time. She's in the tower. Does she try to escape? We don't know. The prince comes and discovers her, climbs up her hair and that has to hurt. And then he leaves. And when he comes back does he bring a ladder or a rope or anything useful? No, he brings raw silk, which he then has her weave into her own ladder and he comes and goes quite often and they end up having love children. So you know what he was going there for. He is either like a really immoral person or just not very smart. And I find it so irritating.
So our Rapunzel, I had to take it to the other extreme. She's in the Old West, she uses her braid as whip and lasso, so she gets out of her tower and goes and kicks some butt. And I find her so much more appealing. It is a huge revision of the original, but I felt like it needed to happen.
A graphic novel is very different from the post novelist. It's like writing a screenplay. So you write the dialogue or the captions or any text that will appear and then description about what you would see and then the illustrator fills that in. It started because my husband's a really great writer and I wanted to collaborate with him. So we took our two first loves. And his first love is superhero comic books and my first love are fairy tales. So we said what fairy tale heroine — because I was determined that it would be a heroine — could we turn into a comic book superhero? And Rapunzel has the built-in weapon. So it just seemed natural.
I also really love the graphic novel format because I go and do these signings and you'll have a 12-year-old girl who's just an amazing reader and she's read all of my books and then next to her is her little brother or sister and the mother lets me know they're not really a reader. And I find these "not readers" everywhere. And in my experience, nobody is not a reader, they just haven't found the right book for them yet. And so often, not readers are visual learners and they often can get left behind in the education system because so much of our education is not visual, it's spoken. And so if they don't have those skills to translate what they're hearing into information, they really can get left behind.
But when you've got a visual format, like graphic novels That's just so satisfying because you see these kids and I hear from these parents all the time my child never read a book, then they had Rapunzel's Revenge, they read it in one sitting, front to back and now they go on and they read another book and another one. And they're not always graphic novels; they'll go on and find other books because they're confidence now. They've got confidence in their ability to read from a first page to a last. And it's just they needed that visual hook. It's very satisfying.
Goose Girl and beyond
When I wrote Goose Girl, it was based on a fairy tale! I didn't imagine that it was going to be a series or spawn sequels, but it was all about the characters for me. After I finished Goose Girl the character of Enna who was a minor character in Goose Girl, was so different from the main character in Goose Girl. I was just so intrigued with her and what her story would be that I felt compelled to write her story. And then I thought I was done.
And then there was a character named Razzo, who had been in Goose Girl and Enna Burning. He's just the most insistent little character, just talks in my head, and he got his own book, which I never thought he would, in River Secrets. And then I thought I was done again, but Razzo's little sister Rin then got her own book in Forest Born. And Razzo was not supposed to have a big part in Forest Born and then he ends up being a major character because I cannot resist him. He's so wonderful.
But I don't think I think in sequels. I don't think in series like that. I think about the story, the beginning and the end right in front of me. And right now, I'm writing a book that I think might be a trilogy, but I have to write out the whole first draft first before splitting it, because I find I can't think like that. I think in a whole piece. I have to know where I'm starting and know where I'm ending to make it all work.
I think readers wanted they get attached to characters. I know I do when I'm reading. And they want to go back to be able to revisit those characters they feel like are friends. So as much as I do think the Books of Bayern are stand alone that you don't have to read the other ones, you can start with any of them. I do think reading them all in order, some of the characters grow and they learn and their lives change, and I think you can see a pattern through the whole series.
Forest Born is the fourth and I really like the way it feels between Goose Girl and Forest Born. It feels like it's a nice book end. So people always want to know if there is going to be another one and I don't know right now. I really like how it feels right now with those four.
An exquisite corpse
An exquisite corpse is an old game. It was sort of this sort of surrealist kind of game that artists used to play where they would fold a piece of paper and then someone would draw a head and then they'd fold it over and then pass it to the next artist so the next artist couldn't see the head and they would draw the next part of the body and like that, until they opened up at the end and they would call that the exquisite corpse. It was a body that had been formed by people who couldn't see the different parts.
So storytelling like that is basically someone starting and then the next person continuing on. I've gotten involved in a wonderful group that was formed to help raise awareness of children's literature, encouraging kids to read and to write as well. And it's just a fabulous but somewhat motley crew of authors. And we are writing a novel in that format.
Jon Scieszka started with the first episode and Katherine Paterson wrote the second. And she was the one that recommended me for it. And when Katherine Paterson says you should do this, you say, "Okay! Absolutely!" But I'm just so honored to be with I mean, they're fantastic authors: Kate DiCamillo and Megan McDonald, Daniel Handler, M.T. Anderson, Linda Sue Park. There are just so many of them. They're fantastic.
And it's really fun. It's play. I think it's going to be a really fun activity for kids to read this story and then try that on their own, whether in a classroom or with friends and see what they come up with. It's always crazy because you can't really make sense of that format, but it is a lot of fun. And they are going to be posting a new episode of the Exquisite Corpse Adventure every two weeks. And they should be going up now.
I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that my episode includes a villain whose face is where his rear should be and his rear end speaks. And people who've read Princess Academy may be shocked that I would write something like that, but I have to explain that my five-year-old was sitting next to me while I was writing my episode and he was reading along as I was writing and so I was trying to entertain him and so I wrote that. And, of course, I intended to delete it, but he was so, he thought it was hysterical. I mean, he'd just bust up laughing and then he went and drew me a picture of this character and then I have to keep it. I have to keep it now.
The writing life
Well, I'm a mom, so mostly my day looks like taking care of little kids. But I've gotten to the point now where I have a schedule which is nice. There are times in my life where I'm just trying to grab a little moment here to write, a moment there. But now I have, when my son's in school and my little girl is napping, I have about an hour to write. And then four days a week, I have a babysitter that comes for two more hours after that. So that's my writing time for the week.
And I sit down and I just write. I don't really have anything magical with it. I write many drafts. I write really poor first drafts. And I usually work from an outline that's pretty loose and I just sit down and first drafts just scare me. I hate first drafts. It's really intimidating for me. But I push myself through it because then I know I'm going to be able to rewrite, and that's where the storytelling happens for me, because I've got something there, I've got the clay that I can start molding.
And then I work through it. I give myself daily goals, because otherwise I'll surf the net and answer email. So I have to write one thousand words a day, and I make sure I make that goal. Or when I'm rewriting, I'll give myself something like I have to go through 20 pages a day or something like that, but I always give myself a goal. And I just keep doing it over and over and over again until all I want to change are commas. And once I get to that point, then I know I'm done.
The first of many drafts
Language is for me is the most satisfying part of writing. When I find just the right verb or just the right sentence comes out, I can get chills when I'm writing just because something worked out perfectly just came together. It's a joy for me when the language is right in the first draft, but that's not usually when it happens. Usually that comes in later drafts, because the first draft I'm laying down the skeleton. I'm must laying the foundation, it's really raw, it's mostly just events; this happened, then this happened, then this happened.
And, in fact, my characters are not formed in the first draft, either. I'm afraid to form my characters too early, because I believe the character is what they do and what they say, and if I form them too early, then I am preventing what they might do otherwise. So I lay down all of the events first and then let the characters form in the events and then come back and massage the language. And I'll do that, a dozen different drafts until I get all those pieces in.
The editorial eye
My editor has been with me from the beginning so we've done many books together. And that's wonderful because I think our relationship has grown and developed and she figures out what I need and I feel what she needs. And I think partly what an editor becomes is she starts to become part of my internal reader, because I've worked with her for so long I know, I start to anticipate, I know she's going to ask for this or want to know this. And I think one way my editor has changed me when I look back on my earlier works is I think my characters are more internal than they used to be.
I think I used to take a little more of a step back with my narrator from my characters. And she encouraged me, "Let's get closer and closer." And so I think by her encouragement that I really have developed characters that you feel like you are in them. When I write a book, I'll usually write a first draft and let my husband read it and he gives me notes and I'll write, usually I'll get to about a third or fourth draft before I send it to my editor. Then she'll read it and then she'll send me a single space 10 point font five page letter saying this was good, but...and then everything else.
And she doesn't tell me what to change or how to change. She'll just let me know this part didn't read right, I didn't understand this, this felt like it needed more development. Another writer, I can't remember who said that if someone tells you there's something wrong with your book, they're always right. If someone tells you what's wrong with your book they're always wrong.
And for me especially, the role of my editor is to point out something's not right here, but not tell me what it is, because I wish she would sometimes, I just want to fix it, okay! Fix it for me. But she just has to point a spotlight on it and then it's up to me to figure out how to fix it. We go through that process three or four times until the book is done. I'll take back her notes, I'll rewrite a couple of times, send it to her again, she sends me more notes, I rewrite a couple more times and send it to her again. And we keep doing that until it's done.
And on top of that, her job is really just my first point of contact as a publisher. She shepherds the book through publicity, through covers, through reviews, just getting it out into the world. So she really is, she's a caretaker of the story in a really wonderful way. And I cannot imagine publishing a book without having a professional editor. It makes a huge difference and I just honor her for the work that she's done.
Reading from Princess Academy
I'm Shannon Hale and I'll be reading from Princess Academy.
Mary woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat. The world was as dark as eyes closed, but perhaps the goats could smell dawn seeping through the cracks in the house of stone walls. Though still half asleep, she was aware of the late autumn chill hovering just outside her blanket and she wanted to curl up tighter and sleep like a bear through frost and night and day.
Then she remembered the traders, kicked off her blanket and sat up. Her father believed today was the day their wagons would squeeze up the mountain pass and rumble into the village. This time of year all the villagers felt the rush for the last trading of the season to hurry and square off a few more Linder blocks and make that much more to trade, that much more to eat during the snow-locked months. Mary longed to help.
Wincing at the rustle of her pea shucked mattress, Mary stood and stepped carefully over her Pa and older sister Marta asleep on their pallets. For a week, she had harbored an anxious hope to run to the quarry today and be already at work when her Pa arrived, perhaps then he might not send her away. She pulled her wool leggings and shirt over her sleep clothes, but she had not yet laced her first boot when a crunch of pea shucks told her that someone else had awakened.
Pa stirred the heart embers and added goat dung. The orange light brightened, pushing his huge shadow against the wall. "Is it morning?" Marta leaned up on one arm and squinted at the fire light. "Just for me," said their father. He looked to where Mary stood frozen, one foot in a boot, her hands on the laces. "No," was all he said.