My friend Emma Bland Smith is on the blog today! I met Emma during Susanna Leonard Hill's terrific picture book writing class, "Making Picture Book Magic," and we've remained pals since. I am thrilled with all her publishing success, and happy to share her thoughts on stories . . . creativity . . . and connection:
STORIES – Discuss what inspires your ideas and stories, and share the process about your latest projects.
This may sound like a cliché, but both head and heart go into choosing my story ideas. First, the heart. I think that in order to write your best, you have to be really moved by your topic. Sometimes I’ll see a news article and think, “Someone should write about that.” But unless I feel inescapably drawn to it, that someone won’t be me. If a story you write ends up getting acquired, you will be living with it for many years—writing, editing, then everything that comes with promoting (school visits, conferences, interviews). So you do not want to get stuck with a story that you aren’t 100% proud of and fond of!
And now, the head. Some strategy does figure in. For my first book, I had been actively thinking about real-life animal stories, because I knew they were popular with kids and I thought this could be my way to break into the market. When I read a newspaper article about a headline-making wandering wolf, I jumped on it. And then I proceeded to fall in love with him (there’s the heart part again!), and I hope, to do his story justice.
I stumbled upon my next idea while researching the San Juan Islands, off Washington State. I read about a certain conflict between the United States and Britain back in 1859. At first, I thought, “how boring.” But the more I read about it, the more I was taken with it. I saw the humor and action, and I also noticed some striking parallels with contemporary times, and important lessons we could learn. I am not a history buff, but I became completely obsessed with this episode in history, and I decided to write the story in a slightly absurdist voice, which I hoped would make it fun for kids. Last summer, when I visited the spot where the conflict took place, I was so moved that I cried, all by myself on a windy bluff overlooking the ocean! I can’t wait to share this story with the world.
I have tried to write some nonfiction stories that I absolutely loved, but that were just not marketable, or at least in the way I wrote them. (Too much heart, not enough head!) One was another real-life animal story, about a famous bear who lived most of his life in captivity. Because it did not have a happy ending, and I could not figure out how to make it appealing enough for a picture book, I had to let it go.
My latest manuscript is another that was inspired by newspaper headlines and current events—and it has the happiest of endings! I hope to be able to share more about it soon.
CREATIVITY -- How do you showcase your creative side through writing/illustrating and other pursuits?
For me, in writing, being creative means writing what feels right to me and not sticking too closely to formulaic structure and conventions. I think it’s important to take the classes (like Susanna Hill’s AMAZING class, where I learned so so so much—and also met Melissa!) and learn the art form of picture books and chapter books. But what makes a work stand out is its uniqueness, even when that means breaking the rules. The manuscripts I have sold are the ones where I have deviated somewhat from the norm, and followed my heart, whereas the ones that stick to a strict picture book formula are still waiting to be acquired.
Other ways I express my creative side are through gardening, sewing, and, lately, home decorating (ooh, how fancy that sounds!). We just added a room to our house and I spent happy hours tearing pages out of magazines, clicking through Houzz and Pinterest, and wandering the aisles of Home Depot. I used to get creative in the kitchen, but with little kids, that’s hard. (How exciting can cooking be when you can’t put more than three ingredients in a dish or let the foods touch on the plate?)
I have read that to nourish our creativity, we should be bored more often, get out into nature more, and set aside anything digital. So I’m trying to avoid checking my phone while waiting in line (it’s hard!), and to take more hikes—without listening to podcasts!
CONNECTION -- How do you connect to your young readers through your writing/illustrating, and how do you stay connected to the KidLit community?
Author visits have been an extraordinary experience for me. Reading my book to a roomful of kids is the most fun, and most direct, way to connect with readers. Their questions at the end are always the best part. (Best question ever: “Do wolves go shopping?” Sneak peek into the magical thinking of a kindergartener.) Also, kids’ actions don’t lie, so if they listen without fidgeting, I know they enjoyed the book. (And if they do fidget, that tells me something about my writing!)
I feel very connected to the KidLit community, thanks to fabulous websites and groups like KidLit411 and 12x12, as well as, of course, SCBWI and Twitter. I check these sites daily and participate when I can. Social media certainly can get overwhelming, but it can also make you feel like you’re part of a community. I am also fortunate to be represented by an agent at an amazing agency, Storm Literary, all of whose clients belong to a shared Facebook group. We chat regularly, share successes, and support each other through challenges. It’s been wonderful!
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Thanks for being here, Emma - I look forward to reading all your upcoming books! And to hopefully meeting you in person one day soon!
Emma Bland Smith is the author of the award-winning picture book Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West (Sasquatch Books). Emma has several more books coming out in the next few years, including What Is It Like to Live on An Island? (Sasquatch Books), The Pig War: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught Two Great Nations to Share (Boyds Mills Press), and a series of chapter books called Zadie Jacobs, CEO (ABDO Publishing). Emma lives in San Francisco with her husband and their two kids.
FOLLOW EMMA ONLINE AT:
Website - www.emmabsmith.com