by Kelly Carey
Alicia Potter is an award-winning Boston-based author who has published both fiction and non-fiction picture books. Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, garnered Potter the Cybils Award for Best Nonfiction Picture Book 2012 and Jubilee! One Man’s Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace, published in 2014 by Candlewick Press, was part of the “One Story Draws Another” exhibit at the Burns Library at Boston College. On the fiction side, the clip-clomping antics of a goat in Fritz Danced the Fandango, published in 2009 by Scholastic Press, and winner of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award, was followed by this year’s Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats.
This talented author graciously agreed to share her thoughts on writing and her insights into how to go from “almost published to actually published” with the readers of 24 Carrot Writing.
You have a copy of the first story you ever wrote, about a sailor cat, that you illustrated with cut outs from a Meow Mix box. Many people will say, in a wistful way, I want to be a writer, and some may even write a first story, but only a few will actually become published writers. How did you make the jump from dreaming about being a writer to becoming an award-winning published author?
Enrolling in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) was definitely the turning point for me. Up until then, I had been writing for a few years and received a fair share of personal rejection letters. But I had no idea how to unravel a story and make major changes. Pretty much, if I wrote it, then that was it – I was “done.”
But in my first semester of the program, my advisor set forth a rather formidable goal: I was to write two new picture book manuscripts and revise two picture book manuscripts a month. Needless to say, I became way, way more productive than I ever was on my own. Through sheer practice and smart feedback, I became much more comfortable with true revision; that is, jettisoning good chunks of a story or even starting from scratch.
I began to understand the types of questions that I needed to be asking to create a more polished piece of work. After my two years in the program, I was finally ready to go from being almost published to actually published. Within a year of graduating, I sold my first picture book, Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, to Knopf. It was one of the stories that I wrote during my first semester at VCFA and that I continued to revise (and revise!) throughout my time there. My second sale, Fritz Danced the Fandango (which ended up coming out before Mrs. Harkness), also was written during the program.
You have written and published both fiction and non-fiction books for children. Can you talk about how the writing process for those two differs?
Not all that much, really! I tend to hand write the first third of any manuscript, so that I’m not going back and editing every five words. Then if it feels solid enough, like I’m not going to immediately get stuck, I start typing out a rough draft.
For a nonfiction book, I might also do an outline to see how the essential scenes will flow within the picture book format. But I outline for fiction stories too. I plot out the main scenes or emotional beats or I sketch them out as spreads. I use outlining throughout my writing process, both as part of early drafting and revision.
Midway through, once I have a strong draft, I also create a version of the story in which I isolate all the sentences that reflect emotion. I can then see if they build in a way that’s logical and moving. I do this for both types of manuscripts since true stories need to have all the same storytelling elements as fiction. For my nonfiction books, I’ll also do several rounds of fact checking. But I’ll check facts for fiction too – I recently needed to find out if my depiction of a hermit crab’s house-hunting habits was correct.
For a fiction writer, the thought of the research required for a non-fiction book is intimidating. Can you offer a pep talk to the research wary?
One reason to love research: you can be productive without writing a word! I work on my nonfiction and fiction stories at the same time, so it’s nice to have something to research when I’m mulling next steps for a fiction manuscript. Still, I should add that I’m not researching huge topics. I tend to gravitate toward more obscure events or people, so I’m not facing the same daunting mountain of source material as, say, a writer researching George Washington.
But there are still plenty of small, exciting moments. It sounds kind of corny, but I actually get a little burst of adrenaline when I uncover some strange or funny detail or great emotional moment in the research. I’ve learned to really pay attention to my own reactions, because, ultimately, I hope that the reader will interact with the material in the same way. And there’s something satisfyingly nostalgic about sitting in a library and taking notes. When I visit schools, I show kids that my research process hasn’t changed since third grade – I love taking notes in regular old spiral notebooks!
Picture book word counts are very tight. How did you approach the task of whittling down Patrick Gilmore and Ruth Harkness’s life stories to those essential moments that told their whole story in a picture book format?
A lot of it again comes down to paying attention to those moments of emotion, because those are going to lead to a better story. As I put together the key story arc, I look to keep any moment that I find surprising, funny, or moving. Also anything that speaks directly to kids’ own experiences or their sense of empathy — for example, Ruth Harkness wanting to cry because her boots were blistering her feet, or Patrick Gilmore having to deal with lots of people telling him “no.”
If I am really torn about a fact, I cut it and move it to a separate document for possible use in the book’s author note. In Jubilee!, we ended up having to chop some text from the main story and it became part of the back matter. And what doesn’t survive the author’s note often turns into school visit anecdotes. Usually there’s one child who wants to know about a fact that didn’t make it into the book. I’m now able to share that, on the day of the National Peace Jubilee, President Grant enjoyed a lunch of salmon, peaches, and grapes.
You had initially envisioned Miss Hazeltine differently than how illustrator Birgitta Sif drew her. Can you talk about that experience and perhaps comment on how you release control to an illustrator? Have you ever stopped yourself from popping in an illustrator note?
When I was drafting the story, in my head, Miss Hazeltine was this expressive, bendy old lady with long, skinny legs who was spry enough to climb trees and pounce — sort of the cat lady version of Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” But I love that Birgitta imagined her as childlike and whimsical in her high tops, because it gives kids another strong point of identification in addition to the kitten Crumb.
The young Miss Hazeltine makes for a much better book. She’s less expected, and therefore, subverts the stereotype of the cat lady. I’m probably much too literal when it comes to imagining the illustrations, so I’m fine to say goodbye to a lot of the images that have been floating around in my head while writing. The illustrator brings so, so much to the story — just this incredible level of detail and meaning and another layer of humor. And for this, I’m extremely grateful!
In Fritz Danced the Fandango, the illustrator, Ethan Long, added a recurring red bird character. Kids always zero in on the bird during school visits, but it wasn’t mentioned at all in my manuscript.
For Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, Melissa Sweet traveled to China and went on to incorporate real coins and vintage postcards and maps into her gorgeous collage illustrations.
But perhaps my favorite illustrator backstory for my books is for Jubilee!, a picture book biography about Irish-American bandleader Patrick Gilmore and his efforts to put on the world’s largest concert in the 1860s. I did a school visit with Matt Tavares and he showed this funny photograph that he took of himself in bed wearing a nightcap, with the sheets pulled up to his chin and an expression of intense anxiety on his face. The photo became the basis for the illustration of Patrick “wide awake with worry.” When the photo and illustration are shown side by side, you can see the exacting level of detail Matt achieves, right down to the creases in the linens.
As for art notes, I try to use them sparingly and mostly when I’m pretty sure that a reader isn’t going to otherwise understand some element of the plot or humor. Running a manuscript by my critique group helps me find the places where the notes are absolutely necessary.
Your published works have been inspired from your work in an animal shelter to a chance reading of an article about Patrick Gilmore in a local newspaper. As a writer, do you see stories everywhere? Can you talk about how you collect your ideas?
I live right in the city and there’s always something strange or funny or quietly amazing to see. The other morning, I saw a man riding to work on a unicycle, then later on, a West Highland terrier wearing a hot pink derby. I collect the most interesting of these, as well as ideas for titles and characters and plot scenarios, in pretty notebooks (nicer than my research notebooks) or “story scrap” files (usually filled with little torn-out pieces of paper with a few words on them). Sometimes I add a drawing or a few sentences that will later help me recapture the moment that made me write the idea down in the first place.
How do you balance your work as a freelance writer, a book reviewer and a picture book writer? And the big question for every writer, how do you make sure you make time to write?
It can be tough! But I find that my different roles inform each other. I might interview a person for an article who gets me thinking about a different perspective on the world. And as a reviewer, I’m getting boxes and boxes of new books delivered to my doorstep (there are so many, I have to keep some in my kitchen). Reviewing also allows me to really analyze another picture book creator’s stories. I learn a ton from this process, as well as which houses are publishing what.
Because I’m juggling a lot, I may not work on my own children’s stories every day. But I certainly think about them, which is important, as writing is essentially thinking. I get ideas or work through story problems when I’m out running or walking or on the subway or bus. This thinking time helps me when I do sit down to write – I find that my ideas are more formed.
I also love writing while traveling, whether it’s local or a vacation (I know, not really a vacation, right?). Being out and about and going somewhere makes me feel very connected to the world — a feeling I hope to reflect in my books.
To get more connected to Alicia and her books, please visit her website at http://www.aliciapotterbooks.com/ and read her latest blog. You can find a review of the fabulous MIss Hazeltine's Home for Shy and Fearful Cats in the book pick section of this blog. Even if you are allergic to cats, like I am, you will love curling up with this picture book!
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