Today I am welcoming fellow Canadian author, Lois Peterson, to the Mixed-Up Files! Lois was a mentor of mine when I first started writing for kids. One of the highlights of my careers was the joint book launch we did for my debut and her hi-lo middle grade novel, Beyond Repair. In addition to writing contemporary books for kids, Lois works as a librarian and educator. There was so much I wanted to ask her… here’s what I could squeeze in;
You tackle a wide range of issues in your books, from mental illness (Meeting Miss 405) to grief over a dying Grandparent (The Wrong Bus) to foster care (The Ballad of Knuckles McGraw) to poverty in Africa (The Paper House.) Where do you get your ideas from? What comes first – the story or the issue?
For all but one of my books, I got the germ of the story first, and the issue only arose as the story played out in my mind and on the page. I often tell kids that I get most of my ideas in the bathroom… in fact, many of them do come from there (I take the longest showers in the world). Very often, it begins with a visual image in my head – a girl being taken down a hallway by her father for a reason I did not yet know (Meeting Miss 405) , a boy watching a train go by (Knuckles), a child scavenging in a garbage dump (The Paper House)…
Usually I have to write the story to learn where it’s going, although in some cases I do have a larger idea of the premise of the story. For example with Silver Rain, after I saw the movie ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They’, I became fascinated by how dance – which should be something for celebration and pleasure – was used to take advantage of desperate people during the Depression. I did lots of research about the era and the phenomenon of dance marathons, and out of that came the image of a young girl checking the mailbox every day for a letter from her father. I did not know until I was half-way though the book just how dance marathons would feature in the story, although I knew I was headed in that direction from the beginning. And Learning a little about Kibera from a friend who visits Nairobi regularly got me dreaming up a story set in that region of the world.
The only book that began with an idea rather than a story germ was Disconnect. I wanted to explore the issue of being over-dependent on technology… something I think about a lot. But this made it a hard book to write as I had to avoid preachiness, and instead create a believable main character with a compelling story to tell. While the book has been well-received, and rights have been acquired by publishers in six countries, I don’t think it’s my strongest book from a perspective of story or characterization. In fact, I still think too much of my own opinions about technology dependence shows through!
Ten percent of author royalties from each book of your books is donated to a non-profit organization. How do you decide who will receive the donation? Is it difficult to find the appropriate non-profit organization and make sure they are worthy or legit? Do you have any tips for authors who are considering doing the same?
All the organizations to which I direct royalties from my books are those I am involved with in one way or another. Some I work or have worked for, donate to, or volunteer with. Others do such good work that I am really proud to be able to support them in a small way. I would always suggest that anyone wanting to do something similar either look for organizations they have some knowledge of, do some research through resources such as Charity Village (www.charityvillage.com) to see what their mandate and mission is, how well they fulfill it and how well it meets their own values.
I’ve worked in the non profit sector in one way or another for more than 30 years, and have great respect for the work they do in communities at home and abroad.
You have also written books for other writers, maintain an active, informative blog, and teach a variety of writing and editing workshops. One thing that caught my attention was your process of “reverse outlining”. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Until recently, I never outlined a book before I started writing. I just toyed with the general idea, then once I had the opening scene and voice in my mind, I would start writing. However, in recent years I have been studying story structure – the Hero’s Journey, the Three-Act Dramatic structure, etc. Rather than starting with the structure and building a story outline around it, I wondered if I could analyze early drafts using those and other plotting tools, in a way that would help me see where I needed to go and what I needed to do in the next draft.
So now for some stories, after I have written the first draft I use a grid to track specific story elements so I can identify gaps, repetition and other issues. Then in my next draft I adjust and address these elements as I go along. Then I do the same thing for the next draft.
It would take too long – and too much space – to explain it in greater detail here. But anyone wanting to know more about it can download material from the Writing and Publishing Tips page on my website at www.loispeterson.blog.com, or contact me at email@example.com.
I do find that the more I write – and read – the more I learn HOW to write. So probably by the time your blog readers read this, I may well be testing out another system of story development!
Can you tell us a little about your current WIP or upcoming releases?
I have nothing scheduled for publication in the next year or so. In fact, I’ve been going through a bit of a drought lately, with too little time or energy to put in much time at my desk.
But I am now working on two very different projects. One is a YA story in verse called My Alphabet Life – written in 26 episodic chapters that I can work on anywhere (I use index cards for working away from my desk.) The other is a novel for younger readers called Cheese Dreams, which features talking mice and a girl whose father, a repeatedly failed businessman, is now running a cheese shop.
I have also recently been working and reworking picture book stories. It’s a genre I truly love, and although I have been writing and submitting them for much longer than I’ve been writing in any other genres, so far publication has eluded me. But I keep trying.
And I continue to work on Escape From the Marshes, an adventure story set in the Marshes of Southern Iraq in the 1940s. I’ve been working on it, on and off, for about ten years and often wonder if I will ever get it done.
It is somewhat comforting to know that even mentors have droughts. But with Lois’s writing talent, I don’t think it will be long until we see some of these WIP in print. In celebration of her enormous contribution to middle grade books, I want to thank Lois for taking the time to answer my questions.
Yolanda Ridge is the author of Trouble in the Trees (Orca Book Publishers, 2011) and Road Block (Orca Book Publishers, 2012). She is also in a bit of a drought but hopes to have another book on the shelves soon!