Sprint Leader Interview

NaNoWordSprintsHi, folks!  Jill here again, operating under the happy assumption that the internet hasn’t exploded yet in my absence.  I’m still on the road (or rather, the ocean) and still desperately clawing out my tiny word contributions toward my Camp Nano goal.  One of the things that always seems to help me (you know, when I can actually get on the internet) is to participate in writing sprints and word wars on Twitter.  And, what do you know, I found a real, live sprint leader willing to chat with me!

Here’s my interview with @NaNoWordSprints sprint leader Chris K.  Come enjoy his wisdom!

Jill: Hello!  Who are you?

Chris: Okay… my name is Chris K, I live in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and have a day job as a database programmer across the bay in Burlington. I have a brother, a sister, a brother-in-law, two nieces and a nephew. My father and my grandparents have passed away, but my mom is still with us and I hope will be for a long time. I collect digital gadgets and toy animals like teddy bears, and I’ve started to learn to draw. (Link to http://drawingteddybears.wordpress.com/ , my art blog!)

Jill: What first got you interested in writing?  What sorts of stories do you typically write?

Chris: I think I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember; I had this weird story about pre-European-contact people living in Nova Scota and having blacksmithing that I tried to tell my parents when I was still in the early grades. I wrote crazy stories about wizards with little pet dragons and teenagers serving as junior officers on starships when I was in high school–basically thinly disguised fanfic before I realized fanfic was a thing.

I still write mostly science fiction and fantasy… I love to write about true love, mysterious treasure, alien invasions and starships.

Jill: I met you through @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter, where you are one of the sprint runners.  What got you interested in large scale sprints?  How did you get involved in @NaNoWordSprints?

Chris: I’m not quite sure when I first got involved with @NaNoWordSprints as a follower. Since the first years I did Nano, (which is going to be year 12 this November,) I was a regular in the “Word wars forum”, where you can set up word wars with strangers for a certain amount of time or take up challenges like writing to a 3 digit number that somebody else posted, or to the nearest round thousand in your word count.

I probably found out about @NaNoWordSprints there. I remember that I looked up how to become part of the @NaNoWordSprints team after I’d signed up to be the Hamilton co-ML for the first year, and then they had an open signup for anybody who’d already been an ML for one year. But the next year, they’d changed the policy, and said that they weren’t looking for any new sprint leaders! However, the April after that, I spotted a notice asking for MLs interested in running sprints for Camp NaNoWrimo, and I’ve been part of the team ever since.

Jill: What are the benefits of writing sprints?  What can you get out of sprints/group writing that is hard to attain elsewhere?

Chris: I think that sprints, in their own way, distill the main benefits of NaNoWriMo: meeting other writers, getting an infusion of creative energy from the simple fact that others are writing at the same time as you are, and a push to focus for a short time on writing something new and not worrying about making it perfect on your first try before you continue.

Jill: Say you had an author who was pathetically unproductive without fellow sprinters (*raises hand guiltily*)- what could such a writer do during non-NaNo months to keep moving forward on their projects?

Chris: There are lots of ways to challenge yourself or find other writers to challenge you. You can always search on twitter with tags like #amwriting or #wordsprint , or visit the Nano word wars forum at http://nanowrimo.org/forums/word-wars-prompts-sprints — though that forum doesn’t get so much activity in certain months of the year.

There’s also a site a Nano made which runs three automated word wars every hour at http://mswishlist.com/war – and other places over the net where you can join writers to share more long-term goals. Journeymen writers have gathered here on the storywonk forums – http://forum.storywonk.com/index.php?/topic/2007-tjw-goal-sharing-support-thread/ – and I’m admin of a small writer’s forum with a lot of focus on goal sharing and support, at http://stringingwords.freeforums.net/

Jill: If you could give only one piece of advice to a new writer, what would it be?

Chris: Write for the fun and joy of it, and keep writing. There are a lot of different ways to pursue success on the publishing side, but if you can’t keep writing fun you won’t get too far with it.

Jill: Closing thought: give us a one-book reading recommendation.

Chris: Terra, by Mitch Benn. This was given me by a good friend–literally, she handed me the trade paperback and said “I think you should read this.” It’s the hilarious but touching story of an Earth girl who accidentally gets abducted by an alien, (he scared her parents and then takes the baby girl because he thought she’d been permanently abandoned,) and how she saves both her adoptive home planet, and planet Earth. There’s a sequel out now, and the third part of the trilogy is upcoming I believe.


Big thanks to Chris K for the interview!  If you find yourself lagging in your word counts, you should give word sprints a shot.  It just might be the jolt your story needs to get crackin’.  Happy writing!

Mini-Interview with Matt de la Peña

MattThis last week, Fairbanks hosted the statewide Alaska Library Association’s annual conference.  It was all manner of crazy for me, which was a bit of a surprise given that I’m not a librarian.  But such is the life of a writer.

One of the highlights of this conference (which I didn’t actually attend) was the presence of this year’s Newberry Medal winning author, Matt de la Peña (Just for extra cool points, Matt was the first Latino recipient of this award.  For even more cool points, this same book, Last Stop on Market Street was also awarded a 2016 Caldecott Honor AND a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book.  How cool is that??)  While he was up here, Matt took the time to visit schools and libraries around Fairbanks, and I took the time to stalk him a little.

The first time I went to see him was at my son’s elementary school, where he talked about reading and writing before the entire school- plus me and my two preschool babies.  But I spent a lot more time chasing my 18 month old up and down the halls than I did in the gym actually listening to Matt.  So that was a bit of a bust.

But that selfsame evening, he was also presenting at the city library and I basically ran out on my family to attend.  (Sorry, honey! *peels away, cackling*)

I arrived right on time, which in Alaska means I was super early.  Matt was sitting back by a book display and I wandered back and forth in front P1070565 (2)of him until he commented on my super cool boots- and who can blame him?  We chattered about our kids and writing and the difference between Fairbanks and Brooklyn weather (and whether he was fine with my writing about him on my blog), and then he popped up to start the program.  It was so perfectly natural that I took heart.  Successful authors are people! Like me! Whoa! (My middle child had told me the week before that authors were actually a literal machine that made books and I think I may have believed him more than I should have.)

I sat in the front row with my notes, clipboard, notebook, and favorite pen (the lady next to me asked if I was a reporter- hahaha no) and happily scribbled away throughout the program, a regular Lois Lane.

(It was a fun listen and Matt even read, for the first time ever aloud in public, the first chapter of a book he just submitted to his editor.  The full program was recorded and will be posted through the Alaska OWL program.  I’ll post the link once it goes up, so remember to check back!)

Afterward, I still had a few questions that didn’t seem appropriate to the whole group.  So I did what any girl looking for an excuse to talk to the author did.  I shelled out for a book (score!) and stood resolutely at the very end of the autograph line. ‘Cause I’m classy like that!  And since he’s so generous with his time, he was (or at least had the good grace to pretend to be) happy to answer my questions in what may possibly be the miniest author interview ever.

(Disclaimer: these are his words as well as I could write them down.  He talks faster than I can write, and I was trying to actually make eye contact and be human here and there, but this is the gist of it.)

Jill: What’s your typical writing day like?

Matt: I get up with my daughter at 5:45, then take her in to my wife.  My wife works all day so this is their time together.  I write from 6:30 to three at my office, and then from three to six, I’m in dad mode.  Of course, this all gets totally disrupted when I’m on the road.  And I’m superstitious about writing, so I have all these writing rituals.  Like, I gotta wear headphones, even when I’m not listening to music, because I wrote this really good scene once wearing headphones.  *laughs*  While I’ve been here in Fairbanks, I’ve been going to the Alaska Roasting Company… mostly because they have good internet, and my hotel room DOESN’T.  So now it’s become another ritual.  I’m down there every day.

Jill: (After joking about stalking him some more at the coffee shop: ) How long did you write with an eye to publication before successful traditional publication?

Matt: Hm.  Well, I started in grad school, for probably at least a year, and then it was another year after that… Yeah, about two years.  I actually got an agent pretty quick, but it took him a while… Took him about a year to sell my first novel.

Jill: How did you find your agent?

Matt: *grins, grabs the signed book* Okay, I got a trick for you.  Find books that are like yours, and then you go to the acknowledgements page.  *scans page*  And… every… one… THERE.  See, that’s my agent.  Steve Malk.  Every author thanks their agent, so it’s like a cheat sheet right in the back of the book.

Jill: What is something that I can do to improve my odds of traditional publication?

Matt: You’ve gotta go to the national SCBWI conference down in LA this summer.  *laughs at my horror face*  Seriously, it’s great.  And everyone there’s just like you and there are agents and editors all over the place.

(Note: I think he mentioned the SCBWI conference specifically because we had been talking about the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators earlier so he knew they were on my radar.  I would guess that any larger writer’s conference would do in a pinch.)

Jill: But… but southern California.  In the summer.

Matt: It’s not that bad!

Jill: You grew up there!

Matt: Seriously, it’s not.  And you’ll meet tons of people.

Jill: *groans* I know…

Matt: *laughs* I get it.  But we’re all introverts.  I know it’s expensive and crowded and stuff, but it’s worth it.  Seriously.  Go.

I whined more about the weather and about claustrophobia, but he held fast.  So I guess I’ll start collecting nickels now and maybe some day, I’ll go.


Readers! I’m curious now- have you ever met a famous author? Did you ask questions? How was it?  Tell me about it in the comments!  I wanna know!

Librarian Interview with Kristen Zayon

P1070130My oldest son attends our local elementary school, and my second is desperate to. He wants to hang out at the school all the time and do everything Big Brother is doing. Which, he can’t. 😦 So when he wanted to check out a book from the school library, I was a heartbeat away from explaining that, no, sweetie, you can’t, these are for the students, when the librarian declared, “Of course you can!”

That was when I met Kristen Zayon, librarian at Pearl Creek Elementary School. My younger kids and I have spent a lot of time in that library over the last couple years and I’ve never ever seen her send a child away without a book.

Then one day it occurred to me. I write kid lit. She works in a children’s library.


And, look at that! She has answers!


Jill: Hi! Who are you?

Kristen: My name is Kristen Zayon. I have a degree in business, but business didn’t really interest me. Once I got most of my kids in school, I started working as a kindergarten aide at my children’s school, and then a few hours here and there in the library. I had worked as a library aide in high school, and had loved it, and also have had a long love affair with books of all kinds. The librarian at Hunter at the time was Nicky Eiseman, and she all but insisted that I take children’s lit and library science so I could be an elementary librarian in the school district. I took the classes, and applied when there were openings. In the meantime, I worked as a library assistant at West Valley High School. I interviewed at Pearl Creek over the summer of 2013, and started that fall.

Jill: This year, you participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. How did that go? What success are you most proud of?

Kristen: With a full-time job and five kids at home, I didn’t write nearly as much as I wanted. I got a good start and figured out some important plot points, and in what direction I wanted my story to go. I finished a picture book I’d been working on (the writing part, not the art part!), edited it, and sent it off to some family members to review, so that was probably my biggest success.

Jill: I understand that, on top of NaNo, you were also teaching a short story creative writing group after school. How was that? What’s the best part of teaching writing to children?

Kristen: It’s a challenge teaching the after school group, because it’s so much more casual than the regular school setting. It’s harder keeping them on track, but I was really impressed with some of their ideas and the quality of the writing. I love the imagination that children bring to writing. That’s my struggle when I write. I feel that I’m technically an excellent writer, but coming up with the ideas – that’s another story. Kids don’t have that trouble.

Jill: Speaking of children, we hear a lot of statistics about how American pleasure reading is on the decline, about how a person’s reading for fun starts to decrease around age eight. Do you see this in your students? Are the older ones less enthusiastic about it than the youngsters? Is there a way to fight this trend, or do you think that’s unnecessary?

Kristen: It shocks me when I hear statistics showing that the majority of American adults haven’t read a single book for pleasure in the last year. It’s a disturbing trend, and I think it’s brought about by our modern focus on technology over all else. Most people would rather pick up a device than a book.

Really, the frontline of this battle is taking place with our children. It’s up to parents and educators to instill the love of reading in children in their tenderest years. I was reading to my children when they were infants, and I’ve never stopped. They see me consistently reading for pleasure as well.

There does seem to be a line of demarcation some time around 3rd grade when kids decide either “I’m a reader. I love books.” or “I don’t like reading.” It’s not true across the board, though. I have a number of 4th, 5th and 6th graders who check out piles of books. There’s a few girls in particular who are hard to recommend books for, because they’ve read them all!

Jill: Changing gears a little bit now, how does a book find its way into your library?

Kristen: I add about 600-700 books to the library collection per year. I learn about new books from a variety of sources. New books in popular series get added, I listen to student requests. I read magazines such as School Library Journal for reviews. I follow blogs. I follow authors, illustrators and publishers on Twitter. I try to balance fiction with non-fiction, and books for primary readers with books for intermediate readers.

Most of my books are ordered from Follett, a company that is linked with our library software. Those books come already covered, bar-coded and labeled. All I have to do is download the list into my system and stamp the books.

My next major supplier is Scholastic. These books are NOT barcoded, covered or labeled, so I have to add them to the system individually and cover, label and stamp each one. Obviously this is more time-consuming, but since I have book fair rewards to use at Scholastic, it’s worth it.

Jill: When ordering for the library, do you have a banned book list to consider? We understand that these sorts of things are necessary when stocking a children’s library in a public school, but have you ever come across a title that you really wanted but couldn’t get? Or the reverse, a title that you could order that you thought was completely inappropriate?

Kristen: There are no books explicitly banned in our school district. Elementary libraries in our district are limited in what we can have by policy based on age appropriateness. If a book is considered “young adult, ” K-6 schools are not allowed to have it. A lot of books are designated for 5th-8th grade, and in that case I will get those. But if a book is designated for 6th grade up, I usually pass.

I come across things now and again that I want to get for my library, but can’t because of the age designation. Two that I can remember recently were both non-fiction “The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club” by Phillip Hoose, and “The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia.” I felt both had a lot of important historical merit, but they were ranged for middle school and up. I haven’t read them, so I couldn’t say if the designation is appropriate.

There have been a few over the course of time that I felt might be a little much for elementary. One was “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier, which I liked, but it seemed to have some themes for which many K-3rd graders wouldn’t be ready. Of course it’s extremely popular!

Jill: What is the best part of your job?

Kristen: I often tell people I have the best job in the world; I get to interact with kids and read and explore books all day. Of course that’s not all I do, but they are the best parts of the job. Connecting a kid to the right book is so satisfying. Making a whole group of kids laugh with a funny story-telling session is wonderful. And now that I’ve been here through three school years, I’m getting to watch these students grow and change and mature right in front of my eyes and feel that I at least have some small part in it.

I have an acquaintance whose daughter is a student of mine. She’s a sixth grader this year. My friend approached me and said “she’s too shy to say so, but I wanted you to know that my daughter thinks you are the best librarian in the world. She just loves you!” When you get comments like that; that makes it all worthwhile!

Jill: In closing, what is your favorite book and why?

Kristen: You’re asking a librarian to pick one favorite book??? That’s hilarious! There are so many. I could probably narrow it down to a top twenty! But I guess if I had to choose just one, it would be “Little House in the Big Woods,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I was little, my older sister, Cindy, used to read that to me at night. She has a wonderful reading voice, and I just feel warm and cozy when I remember that. Every time I read that book, I’m six years old again. Maybe it was those moments with her that turned me in to a reader, so thanks Cindy!

And thank you, Kristen! I loved her thoughts on child literacy, and was fascinated to learn how a book hits her shelves. (She even let me peek over her shoulder while she was in the Follett site!  She’s terrific!)

So while I have a librarian to pester, are there any other questions you readers think I’ve missed? Anything you’re dying to ask a children’s librarian? Let us know in the comments and we’ll do our best to answer! Thanks for reading!

Interview: M Elizabeth Tait

I have something a little different for you today! Last week I had an interview with my writing buddy alpha reader M Elizabeth Tait, just about her writing history and where she’s going. It’s gonna be worth big bucks when she’s mega famous, I’m sure!

In case you’re like me and live in an area with spotty internet (or you just don’t want to watch a video with a pretty girl and some lanky slob with bad hair), the interview has been transcribed below for your reading pleasure.

J: Hi. I’m Jill Marcotte. I am here with M. Elizabeth Tait, my beloved Mary. And we’re here to talk about Mary’s writing career. So, can you give us a brief bio? Just tell us a little about yourself?

M: Well, I moved around a lot as a child, so I won’t go into detail there. But essentially I graduated high school from Minnesota, Maple Grove Senior High, and then I went to BYU Idaho for a little while, got married to my fabulous husband, and he uprooted me and took me here to Alaska.

J: Scoundrel!

M: I know, right? So, since then, we’ve lived here for three years now, and it’s been a joy. Kind of… interesting. It’s- Fairbanks Alaska is a very weird place, but it’s an adventure, to say the least. So.

J: That is a good way to describe Fairbanks. It’s unique.

M: Exactly.

J: So, just curious, what’s the earliest writing experience that you can remember?

M: Oh, this is very weird. So-

J: Good!

M: So when I was little, I- one of the earliest memories I actually have is I was about three or four and I hadn’t been to kindergarten or anything yet, I hadn’t learned any of my letters, and I just remember taking a pen and a little notebook and just scribbling lines in there. Like I really wanted to write and I knew there was a language out there- I just didn’t know what it was. So my mom would catch me and we had pages and pages of just like scribbles on a page. I would follow the lines, just these little scribbles. So, it was really funny.

J: That’s cute. I like that. Okay, so, from there, you’re now here. What point are you at in your writing career?

M: Oo, very, very early on. Um-

J: Not as early as that, though.

M: Well, no, not as early. I know the language now.

J: Good! Literate and all?

M: Yeah. That’s the first step, I guess. So, now, I’m kind of just started. I’ve outlined a trilogy that I want to write. I haven’t fully written it yet. But I have scenes here and there and I know where I want to go with it. I’m just still trying to write, work on the prose and actually how I want it to fit on the page. I have an idea of what in my mind I want, but now it’s getting the reader to follow that idea.

J: ‘Kay. So, my next question: the publishing industry can seem very big and mysterious. So for you, as a writer trying to push forward in your career, for you, what’s the most intimidating thing about the industry, and then what’s the most calming, familiar, not intimidating thing?

M: Well let’s start with the intimidating: getting out there and showcasing my work, I think. From in the past, ever since I started wanting this to go somewhere, I actually want my story published. In the past it was, I want to write for myself. I just wanted to sit in a corner and not do anything. So my writings are very much my baby that I don’t want anyone else to see. I don’t want them to critique because it’s my baby. You know? So that’s kind of the scariest thing for me is to actually put it out there and be willing to get critiqued on it and I know it will help me get better at it. I just don’t want to face the music that it’s not what I thought it was. And then the neatest thing about it, I guess the easiest, most what I aspire to is getting… Okay, it’s kind of the same thing: getting my writing out there, having other people read it, other people wanting to read it, essentially, that they would- I mean, it takes a lot for someone to say, “I want to pay money to read this author.” You know? And so that’s kind of the best, I guess one of the best critiques that I could get is that someone wants to get out there and they Google my name or something like that. That’s where I want to be at.

J: Okay, so you mentioned your trilogy. Can you tell us a little about your first book, what it’s about?

M: Oo, this is a very loaded question.

J: The Elevator Pitch.

M: The Elevator Pitch. So my first book essentially is- I akin it to Alice in Wonderland. I really wanted a girl to be uprooted from everything she knows and thrust into this other world. That she needs to find her own way. Not necessarily that her goal is to get back to her home, but she does have a goal that… in this case, she wants to find her brother’s killer. And so she doesn’t really have a big desire to go back home. So in this one, it’s all about her girl power of going and finding this man that killed her brother and seeking revenge essentially.

J: Alright! Sounds adventurous. So if you had- Your main character, her name is…

M: Kalia.

J: And your antagonist?

M: Frosis.

J: Okay, so if you had to, and you do, describe Kalia as an animal, what animal would she be and why?

M: You have some very interesting questions. ‘Kay, I… This is gonna be weird. I would kind of… some kind of… cat. Okay, so she-

J: I was thinking that, like a- a tiger or something.

M: Yeah! Exactly. So, kind of some cat, where you see your prey and… In the beginning, she’s not patient. At all. She would just kind of go and, this was just her character, to run and be like, “Okay! I’m just gonna chase you.” You know? But then as the story progresses, she becomes that cat that sits in the bushes and is all tense and suddenly she’ll just spring on her prey, which is the antagonist. And so she’s just very much this cat that wants it so badly she will be patient for it.

J: So your antagonist, Frosis: what is your favorite thing about writing him?

M: Oh, my favorite thing. I think all of us kind of have this joy in writing an evil character.

J: Wheee!

M: Exactly. It’s very fun. For him, I love writing about his confidence. Because he can go into a room and know no one and suddenly everyone adores him and loves him. Just his charm. To have people follow him, which is a very big tool and very scary for Kalia because she can’t do that. She has a hard time talking to people and so for him to have so many people on his side because of his confidence and his way of talking and bringing you around to his side, is very scary for her.

J: So when you go to write, how do you get into the zone? Do you like stimulating beverages, do you listen to music?

M: I listen to music. I know a lot of authors kind from steer clear of that, because music does change your mood so much, but I have this very specific, calming music that I listen to. And-

J: You don’t, like, turn up the volume for fight scenes or anything? Play techno?

M: Oh, sometimes I do. I do. Sometimes I’ll listen to a little Rise Against or, I don’t know, just some hardcore music when I am writing a fight scene. But normally it’s very moody, like Cerebrellis, Ingrid Michealson, type that, you know, just happy-go-lucky and I can kind of- I have to have some kind of distraction. I need to be able to tune something out to focus, I guess. So kind of it’s a weird strategy, but it works for me.

J: Okay. So, you told us a little about your story. What’s your favorite genre to write, just in general?

M: Oh, definitely fantasy. The one that I’m writing right now is kind of like sci-fi fantasy type, but I do love just straight fantasy. Throw me into a world with magic and girls wearing long dresses, and I’m all there.

J: So is that your favorite to read as well?

M: Yes. Yeah, definitely. I like read what I write. What I enjoy reading is what I write. Kind of what brought me into writing in the first place was I read this quote- I can’t remember who it was, maybe it was Stephen King, but it was something about how when you have read all of the books that you like and you can’t find anymore, that’s the time that you should start writing them. And so that’s kind of what- it was kind of this wake up call. Like I had kind of dabbled in writing before, like a few scenes here and there, imagining this world, but I didn’t actually start focusing on it until I read that quote and I was like, “Oh. That’s why I like writing so much. It’s ’cause I can’t find a story that I truly love. I want to write my own.” So.

J: That’s very cool. Well. I think we’ve had a lovely interview with Miss Mary Tait. Thank you for being with us.

M: Thanks. It was a pleasure.