All through October, Alphabet Soup is celebrating turning three. We have heaps of writers and illustrators stopping by to answer THREE QUICK QUESTIONS and today’s visitor is Sandy Fussell, author of many books including the Samurai Kids series, Polar Boy and Jaguar Warrior.
1. Where do you like to write?
I write everywhere—even at the school bus stop. I like to sit in the sun and draft longhand but when it comes to the ‘spit and polish’ I work on a laptop in my office.
2. Can you name a book you’d recommend to our readers?
I am very fortunate as a reviewer to have an advance copy of The Outcasts, the first book in John Flanagan’s new Brotherband series. I think it’s even better than his Ranger’s Apprentice books and I loved those. The Outcasts is released 1 November.
3. Can you offer a word or phrase that kids could use for inspiration if they have writer’s block?
I have two favourites. ‘snizzle’ which I used in Polar boy (a snizzle of snow’) and ‘screak’ (the screak of a bat) which I used in Samurai Kids 2: Owl Ninja. I collect unusual words and often use them as inspiration or to give a description more impact.
Sandy Fussell is visiting today, to tell us about what she got up to after ‘lights out’ when she was growing up! Sandy Fussell is the author of the Samurai Kids books (The first book in the series, White Crane, is pictured below), and Polar Boy. Her latest book is Jaguar Warrior, and the fifth Samurai Kids book — Fire Lizard — will be out in September 2010.
I had a strict childhood. There were so many rules. Reading in the bedroom, in bed, under the covers, or otherwise was definitely not allowed. I wasn’t a rule-breaker to begin with but …
Rule Number One was bed time at 7.30pm. That’s doubly hard to take when you are in Year 12 and it’s summer daylight savings time, but my mother wasn’t one to argue with about anything. Her house, her rules. Rule Number Two was no more than one hour’s homework. That was also hard in Year 12 when I already had one subject over the scheduled 12 unit limit. Mum believed homework was set by teachers who didn’t get their work done during the day and she wasn’t going to help make up for their shortcomings. *sigh*
So I began doing my homework under the bed covers. My partner in crime was my grandfather who lived next door. He worked in the local coal mines all his life and firmly believed in the importance of a good education leading to a better job. I didn’t have any money so Pop bought me a torch and kept up the supply of batteries. Mum knew something was up but she couldn’t catch me. I was quick at turning off the torch and hiding the evidence. Mum thought I was reading in bed and removed my bookcase from my bedroom.
That didn’t seem fair to me. So after my illicit homework was done, I read, read, read. I was a huge science fiction and fantasy fan and luckily so was the school librarian. I loved those series of big thick books. It was pure escapism. From Frank Herbert’s Dune to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire, to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and William Horwood’s Duncton Wood.
In some ways not much has changed. Last night I finished Tallow, the first book in Karen Brooks ‘Curse of the Bond Rider’ series. The second title in the trilogy, Votive, isn’t out until March 2011. I don’t want to wait – that’s what I really want to read under the covers now. Right now! It’s a story of wonderful scope in very way – the world building, the characters and the narrative itself. Other titles on my immediate list are The Sky is Everywhere (Jandy Nelson), Thai-riffic (Oliver Phommavanh), Beatrice and Virgil (Yann Martel) and the last two books in the ‘Rangers Apprentice’ series.
There are winter days when I would be happy to stay in bed and read under the covers all day!
Alphabet Soup magazine is celebrating the launch of Undercover Readers (our new reviewers club for kids)! If you’d like to join the Undercover Readers Club, you’ll find an information pack you can download from the Alphabet Soup website. As part of the celebrations, we have a different children’s author or illustrator visiting Soup Blog each day until 29 June 2010 to talk about what they used to read after ‘lights out’ when they were growing up. So be sure to check back tomorrow!
Our author Q&A in issue 7 features Sandy Fussell, author of the Samurai Kids series, Polar Boy, and Jaguar Warrior. We could only include a selection of questions in the magazine, so we thought we’d post the full interview on Soup Blog. Enjoy!
Where do you live?
I live on the south coast of New South Wales, on the escarpment, which means I live between the mountains and the sea. What I like best is the wildlife we find in our backyard – possums, pythons, parrots, blue tongues, tree frogs, water dragons, a wallaby and once, even an echidna.
What made you become a writer?
My 10 year-old-son stopped reading overnight. One day he was an avid reader and the next day he was insisting ‘all books are boring’. Nothing I tried would change his mind so I suggested he write a story that wasn’t boring. It was my job to write his words down. I found that by the time the story was finished, I really wanted to write one of my own.
What do you do when not writing?
I love reading. Being a reader is an important part of being a writer. I also like to do puzzles like crosswords and sodoku. At the moment I am learning to draw manga. I never get bored because there are so many things I want to do that I will never even get close to starting.
Was it easy to get your first book published?
I was lucky. A commissioning editor at Walker Books heard me read a few pages at a workshop and she liked it enough to ask to see the complete manuscript. Two months later it was accepted and I was on the way to becoming a published author. I did however have wait two years before the book was finally available. Part of the reason for the delay was the beautiful illustrations by Rhian Nest-James. Definitely worth waiting for!
What was your favourite book as a child?
I didn’t really have a favourite as a child although I have many favourite children’s books now. As a kid, I spent a lot of time in the library but I didn’t own many books. The only ones I had were birthday and Christmas presents. When I was nine I was given a set of two books for my birthday – one was stories about wizards and the other stories about witches. I don’t remember the titles but I remember how magical it felt to be reading them.
My current favourite children’s books are The Tale of Despereaux (although I didn’t think the movie was half as good as the book), The Graveyard Book, The Ranger’s Apprentice series and The Dragonkeeper series.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Everywhere. Sometimes it’s a strange word I hear, like ‘snizzle’ (I used that one in Polar Boy), sometimes it’s an overheard snatch of conversation, a picture or a snippet of history. When something sparks my interest I think about it for a while and the story starts to tell itself. In the beginning, the only idea I had for White Crane was one sentence: My name is Niya Moto and I’m the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan. But I loved that sentence because it asked so many questions: about samurai, about Niya and about being a kid with one leg. And when I started to answer the questions, I found a story I really wanted to tell.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
(1) Read a lot. It’s no co-incidence that successful writers are keen readers. Not only do you learn from the work of other authors, reading encourages you to dream and imagine.
(2) Write a lot. Being a successful writer is like being a soccer player or a netballer – you have to practise.
(3) Have a go. Now, more than ever, with the help of the Internet and some wonderful recent books by teenagers, there are opportunities for early publication. Magazines. Websites. Blogs,
Of your own books, which is your favourite?
That’s a bit like asking me which of my children is my favourite *smile* I would say something different every day of the week but in the end, I love them equally. Same with my books. With the Samurai Kids series and it is wonderful to be able to spend so much time getting to know my characters and to take them on so many different adventures. But I also like to explore in a completely different direction and am looking forward to writing a story idea I have about Africa.
What are your hobbies?
I like scrapbooking. I often joke and say the most useful skills I learned were in kindergarten – cutting and pasting. But those same skills give me hours of fun sorting family and holiday photos and organising them with a few words to hold the memories in place. I try lots of new things even though I’m not very good at most of them. When I was researching Samurai Kids I went to sword fighting classes and I was hopeless at that. Still had a lot of fun and now I have a practice sword I take on school visits. My newest hobby is manga art and the next item on my wish list is learning computer animation.
Do you have any pets?
Our family has two Burmese cats. One is a huge sook and launches himself from the top of furniture to get a cuddle. The other is very affectionate but not quite so acrobatic. We also have a snake, frogs and tropical fish. In the past we’ve had mice, deerhounds, parrots, a cockatoo, lovebirds, budgies and guinea pigs. Soon we’re getting a rabbit. I belong to a family of animal lovers.
Are there any writers who influence your work?
I am influenced by everything I read in one way or another. That’s why writers need to be avid readers.
I have also been lucky to have had the support of a number of excellent writers for children and young adults. Di Bates, who wrote Crossing the Line which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award for Young Adult Literature in 2009, was my mentor for many years. I am in a writer’s workshop group which includes twice CBCA Honour book author Bill Condon. I could easily write a list a page long of writers and aspiring authors who have helped and encouraged me.
Have you been to all the places where your books are set?
Only in my head! I haven’t travelled much at all. People are always surprised to find I wrote Polar Boy having only been to the snow for a few days. But I have a good imagination. I watch documentaries, read books, look at pictures and then I close my eyes. I write historical fiction. I can’t go back in time but that doesn’t stop me writing about hundreds of years ago. In the same way it doesn’t matter to me whether I’ve been to the places I write about either. In my imagination I can go anywhere. Any time.
What are you working on now?
My newest book is Jaguar Warrior. It’s the story of Atl, a young Aztec slave boy, waiting to be sacrificed. Atl is a fast runner so when the Spanish invade and messenger is needed to take a plea for help to the nearest city, Atl is released. It’s about choices. Will Atl run for himself or the city who wanted to kill him? Or will he just hide from the Captain who hunts him? It’s an adventure but a very dangerous one.
I am currently editing Samurai Kids 5: Fire Lizard which will be released in September 2010. Yesterday I saw some wonderful illustrations for the first few chapters. And I am writing Book 6, which might be called Bat Wings. In my To Do pile is the manuscript for my first picture book, Sad the Dog. It’s a busy time for me but I feel very lucky to be working at something I love.
If a young writer or reader wanted to contact you, where could they find you?
I can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org I always respond and love to get emails from young people. I am also in the Samurai Kids forum every day, so anyone interested can talk to me there about writing, my books, ninjas, samurai and all sorts of things. Sometimes we have competitions and members get a coloured belt and samurai (or ninja) weapon based on the number of posts they make.
This is the last day of Alphabet Soup‘s First Birthday Blog Tour. What a great week we’ve had – if you’ve just joined us, be sure to check out the list of blog tour stops below!
Sandy Fussell – author of the Samurai Kids series – is hosting us over at her blog: Stories Are Light. Today we’re talking about who is on the Alphabet Soup team, and why an Editor and Publisher can’t do it all on her own. See you there!
WHERE WE’VE BEEN ON THE BLOG TOUR:
1 September What led the publisher to start Alphabet Soup magazine?
Tomorrow we are taking the spring 2009 issue on a blog tour!
From 1 – 7 September, Rebecca Newman (Alphabet Soup‘s Publisher and Editor) will be visiting 7 different blogs, where she’ll be answering questions about the magazine. Find out what started it all, how the magazine could be used in the classroom, who’s on the team at the magazine, and more!
The spring ’09 issue marks the magazine’s first birthday. To celebrate, there’s a set of the first four issues to be won – so make sure you visit Robyn Opie’s blog on 6 September!
To celebrate the magazine’s first birthday, we’re taking Alphabet Soup on a blog tour! What does that mean? It means from 1 – 7 September 2009 we’ll be visiting 7 different blogs and I’ll be answering questions about the magazine on each one.
We’ll tell you a bit more about it in a few days. But here are the links where you’ll find us in the first week of September:
Australian author, Claire Saxby, is on a blog tour with her new picture book, Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate (illustrated by Judith Rossell.) Today we are talking to Claire about how she goes about writing a book, the illustrations in a picture book, and how long it takes for a picture book to be published.
How did you get your idea for the story of Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate?
I don’t actually remember where the original idea came from. I think it started with the creaking gate as I liked the idea of the silence and tranquility of the countryside being interrupted by the grating sound as Sheep became dissatisfied with her lot.
Where do you write your stories?
I generally write directly to the computer. I always travel with a notebook and will jot down ideas but I’ve become so accustomed to drafting on computer that I seldom draft on paper. However, when I’m stuck, I do use paper and pen, or even pencil. I just write and do the ‘what if?’ thing over and over until I work out where I need to take the story. When I do use a notebook, I only write on one side of the page, using the other side for notes, or facts I need to research
What do you do with drafts of the book once the book is published? Do you throw them away?
I tend to keep drafts. I’m not good at throwing much away although I do usually file them quite neatly! I’ll print out really different drafts, or save them as separate documents, particularly if the new draft is going in a really different direction. It’s like insurance, in case the new draft just loses its way. It’s always interesting to look back at the early drafts and see how a story has changed.
How do you come up with a title for your books? Does the title come to you before you write the story?
I love titles. I love finding the right title for each story. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes the title even comes first, but not always. Then I do use paper and pen/pencil. I write down words or potential titles and keep doing it until I find the perfect title. If the story has changed a lot, often the title needs to change to reflect that. For Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate, the title came quite early although the story changed a lot through the drafting. I toyed with the idea of using specific names for the characters, but returned to the generic ‘sheep’ and ‘goat’. I’m not really sure why, but names can sometimes be too specific.
Do you ever change the title after you’ve written the story?
Sometimes, as above. But sometimes a publisher will suggest that the title change. There can be many reasons for this. For one book I did, the title was too similar to the previous one. Not in subject or style, but just in how they sounded. The title I had was also similar to another book still in print and the publisher felt this could cause confusion. That was an interesting process as I also decided to change the name of the character … even harder than changing the title. It took several weeks before I found an alternative character name that was a good fit. Then the title was easy.
Did you meet with an editor in person, or discuss your book via email?
There’s a bit of both, depending on where the publisher is. For Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate I met once with the editor face-to-face, but then we were in touch via email. Roughs (pencil sketches) and proofs (full colour art with some or all layout) are either emailed or posted to me and then there are phone and/or email discussions.
What does an editor say to you?
It varies with the project. Sometimes it’s global things, like ‘The text is a bit long, can you look at tightening it?’ Other times it can be very specific. I had an email conversation (several emails) about the placement and use of punctuation. After sketches and proofs the discussion will be about the relationship between text and illustrations and also about the layout.
Is it hard to make changes? Do you have to make the changes that an editor suggests, or can you say ‘no’ sometimes?
It can be hard, but producing a picture book is a collaboration despite the writing coming first, then the illustrations. Sometimes the changes are easy because a fresh set of eyes can point out something which then seems really obviously out of place. Other times, the changes will be about being clearer about my intention. Then I’ll clarify in discussion what I was trying to say, and the editor/publisher will say whether or not that’s been clear. Sometimes that leads to changes, sometimes tweaks, occasionally more. Editing for length can be tricky, but it’s all about making the book as strong as possible and leaving room for the illustrator to work their magic.
Do you make suggestions for the illustrations, or leave it to the publishing team and the illustrator to decide?
I generally don’t have a sense of what my characters look like unless it’s relevant for the plot (and it often isn’t). I am always very excited to see the first sketches to see what my characters look like from the outside. I write looking out through their eyes so don’t see what they look like to others. Most publishers prefer not to have any illustration suggestions, as it may limit the illustrator. There are times where I might put a very brief ‘Note for illustration’, but not often.
Do you see the illustrations before the book is published?
It varies but usually I’ll see a rough outline of the whole book. Then I’ll see coloured images, sometimes one or two, and then proofs when some layout and design has been done. Sometimes I’ll see a character sketch first, before the roughs are done. It’s always very exciting and I generally wear out my family and friends showing them everything!
When you’ve written a story, how long does it take before it is published? Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate was accepted in mid 2007, so it will be just over two years from acceptance to release. That might seem a long time, but is fairly average in the world of picture books. It can take much longer. I have several other projects that have been longer in production. The timing has many components. Once the publisher accepts the manuscript then there is the search for the illustrator. Then the illustrator has to schedule in the time (up to six months or more) that it might take to do the illustrations. Next there is design and layout time and then printing. It’s a long process.
Are you working on another project now? Can you tell us anything about it?
I’m always working on several projects at once. They will generally be at different stages and of different length. Some will be at the research and reading stage, others in first, second, tenth draft form. For example, I’m working on a poem about a beautiful old tree in our street that has just been cut down, a picture book manuscript about a critically-endangered Australian animal, a historical novel set in early Melbourne and a non fiction biography.
Do you have any tips for budding authors?
Read and write. Simple as that, hard as that. Read widely because it helps a writer understand their world. Read for fun. Just read. And write. Know that your first draft will not be perfect, but by practising a writer will discover their voice. Write shopping lists, write letters, write novels and poems. Eventually you will learn how you most want to write and to make your work sing.
You can find out more about Claire Saxby and her books by visiting her website.
As promised, today we are talking to Sandy Fussell – the author of the Samurai Kids series. The fourth book in the series – Monkey Fist – was published on 1 August 2009. (It’s hot off the press!)
To celebrate its launch, Sandy is taking Monkey Fist on a Blog Tour. We’re excited to have her visiting Soup Blog today, and we asked her some questions about how she does the research for her books.
But first, a little about Monkey Fist:
Set in 17th century China, Monkey Fist follows the adventures of a group of samurai students and their teacher, Sensei Ki-yaga. Each student has a challenge to overcome on his personal journey.When Kyoko is kidnapped and hidden away in the Forbidden City, Sensei and the kids hurry to her rescue. They are aided by the Lin, a group of Chinese forest ninja and by Master Jang, the Poisoner.
And now, some questions for Sandy!
How do you do the research for your books?
I love the Internet but when using it for research you have to be very careful that the information is coming from a credible source – someone who knows the subject. The internet is both trap and treasure. I have been collecting history books since I was a child so have a huge personal collection covering my areas of interest – and am always looking for an excuse to buy another book. I like to write about the periods of history that are not so well known so there aren’t many relevant books in my local libraries. I do consult experts and they are always very happy to be involved in research for a children’s book.
Do you have a favourite way to research?
I love the internet because it is a real treasure chest. Following a link can lead to the most interesting and obscure information. I find things I didn’t even know I was looking for.
My real favourite of course, would be travelling overseas to do my research first-hand but I don’t think that is going to happen in the near future. Unfortunately. *Sigh*
How do you record your research, and why do you do it this way?
I make lots and lots of notes. I photocopy book pages and print out web sources. It’s important to document all the facts used when writing history.
I found this out the hard way. After I finished my first book, White Crane, I threw out all my notes. Then my publisher, Walker Books asked me for references to support the historical facts I had used in the narrative. I had to relocate everything and reproduce 30 typed pages of notes. It felt like I had written another book!
Before you write anything, do you get all your research done first? How do you know when to stop researching and start writing?
I like to spend a solid month researching and thinking about where my plot will fit – as in the geographic location, any significant events occurring at the same time. Then I start to write.
I am very structured and the Samurai Kids books are always on a deadline. I allocate a month because a month is all the time I’ve got.
How do you use your research when you sit down to write?
I reread constantly. Little facts take on new significance as the story emerges. I particularly like to read primary sources – texts written by people alive at the time. One of my favourites is The Book of Five Rings by the legendary samurai swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.
Do you enjoy the research as much as the writing? (Or is the writing more enjoyable?)
If I am writing a historical novel the two are so entangled they are impossible to pull apart. But I don’t want to try as I love doing both.
Do you ever find out something in your research that means you have to take the story in a direction you weren’t originally planning to?
Recently I discovered an arquebus (gun) from the mid-seventeenth century can only fire once before reloading. In the second chapter of my current manuscript (book 5) my character shot two birds in succession. So far it has always been small stuff like that and doesn’t affect the story direction. However I am a stickler for getting the facts right and check my references quite thoroughly so I don’t often find research errors.
How much time would you spend on each book in Samurai Kids?
The Samurai Kids books are generally on a six month schedule. I research for one month, write for four months and then revise and rewrite for one month in addition to the revision I do as I go. I always say there is a lot of mathematics in writing – the planning, the pacing and all those word counts!
This is the eighth stop on the Monkey Fist Blog Tour. You can find out more about Sandy Fussell, the Samurai Kids series, and Monkey Fist by visiting the other hosts on the tour. (You can also visit the Samurai Kids website for fun activities related to the books, and take a quiz to find out which Samurai Kid you are!)
Sandy Fussell, the author of the Samurai Kids series, is taking Monkey Fist on a blog tour, starting today! Visit the first stop on her blog tour to read an interview with a character from Monkey Fist. (Sandy will be stopping by Soup Blog on 8 August to talk about how she does her research for the Samurai Kids books. See you here!)