The Meaning of Magnolia.

In January of 2017, I decided to take a leap of creative faith.  The idea of starting a blog had been following me around for about six months, though I had seriously been avoiding it.  For one, I didn’t really understand the point of blogs.  Second, I couldn’t figure out why anyone would read what I had to say. Third, a few parenting/lifestyle/mom blogs and their ‘expert point-of-views’ had left a bad taste in my mouth. But like I said, it was persistent in its pursuit of me.  All the while this was happening, I was struggling to find a sense of community and direction as an aspiring picture book author.  So, I agreed to consider the blog.  I realized that the blog itself might just be the answer to what I was searching for. My one major roadblock?  I didn’t have a name for it. The short version of this long story is that I stewed over possible names for weeks, without any obvious frontrunner. Until one night in early January 2017, in a moment of sheer shower brilliance, I claimed Magnolias & Manuscripts as my very own. It was perfect, it scratched my alliteration itch, incorporated the obvious writing reference and the icing on the cake was the nod to my southern heritage.  The more I worked through it in my brain, however, I knew there was a deeper connection to magnolias that had nothing to do with the state flower of Louisiana or flipping houses. (I’ve never seen the show.)  

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I also know myself and knew that I needed to set a few ground rules before I started.  For one, it’s not in my nature to draw attention to myself; I am a very introverted extrovert. I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t going to blog to generate a following, but to make connections. I wasn’t going to offer an expert point of view, but rather it would be told from the viewpoint of an amateur, aspiring author, with little formal training but a whole lot of tenacity.  And finally, I committed myself to six months of weekly posts. As my first post formulated in my brain and then on paper, I received a wonderful confirmation that this was the right move and it came by way of my precious little Australian Magnolia tree.

My parents are avid and excellent gardeners.  Ask anyone, their yard is a beautiful display of seasonal foliage that always seems to bloom at just the right times, in all the right colors. It really is a masterpiece.  My take on flower beds is decidedly simpler.  I need evergreens, annuals and sun-loving plants that don’t require any attention whatsoever.  I don’t have much of an opinion on flowers.  I don’t know what most of their names are, anyway, and I rarely remember that they are living things in need of some ‘tlc’ (tender, loving care). There was an obvious empty space in the front corner, though, too close to the house for a shade tree and too big for a shrub.  I wanted an ornamental tree that would flower but was as low maintenance as the rest. Finally, after years (literally) of talking about it, my husband went to a nursery and came home with a baby Australian Magnolia.   

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This plucky little tree is just what the doctor ordered for my south Louisiana flower beds.  For the second year in a row, this tree bloomed earlier than any other magnolia I could find and it did so enthusiastically.  It suffered bouts of disease and drought and somehow pulled through. As an aspiring writer, I hope I have many of those same characteristics.  I hope that I can maintain an eager, determined, and vibrant disposition in this field I call my own.  I hope that I continue to find a way to bloom, whenever the time is right for me, surrounded by others who are working just as hard as I am.   

By all accounts, this past year and my blogging experiment has been a smashing success.  I have 83 followers! (WHAT! I’m speechless!) I’ve blogged often. I’ve branched out. I’ve made connections and I’ve put down roots.  I can’t wait to see what this next year will bring! Without a doubt, I’m going to continue Paper People, my interview series (second week of the month), and Be My Guest, my newly released guest-blog series (last week of the month.)  I’m also going to hone the focus of my other posts in on my current genre, picture books.  I hope to have fewer ramblings and musings and more posts with purpose.  But then again, look at today, I’m not sure if that’s even my style.   

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Today marks the ceremonious start to my second year as a blogger! Thanks for joining me here, this week and every week.  Since everything has a way of coming full circle, let me close the loop for you.  We planted our Magnolia tree right around the time that I wrote my first manuscript.  It bloomed for the first time right as I was working on my first blog post.  It wasn’t always pretty, much like many of my drafts.  And the tree now? It’s a little taller, a little fuller and still my favorite.  You could call it a coincidence if you want, but I don’t believe in such things.  We are traveling similar paths, this tree and I, and I’m so grateful to have company.

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!
-JP

 

 

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Be My Guest, Julie LaCombe!

Hi there my friends! Today I have the chance to introduce you to a dear friend of mine by way of a new series, Be My Guest! Over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to strike up friendships with a few terrific pre-published picture book authors and I want you to know (and remember) their names. Today, my dear friend Julie joins me for a soothing cup of rose tea that she brought all the way from the Lone Star state. (My attempt to enjoy tea is the REAL work in progress here.) Julie and I ended up in the same critique group and bonded over similarities in our first stories (coincidentally or not, they’ve both been shelved.) There have been countless small world connections since we first started swapping manuscripts, she married a boy from my corner of the world and I know one that grew up down the street from her. I was lucky enough to have a front row seat as Julie found her non-fiction voice and I’m so glad she did! She has a wonderful gift of spinning facts into a story and was gracious enough to Be My (first) Guest! Read along as she tells you about her journey to writing non-fiction for kids, and then stroll on over to her site (https://julielacombeauthor.wordpress.com) and see all the good stuff she has going on!

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     I’m a left-brained person. I like lists. I like learning. I like things wrapped up in neat little packages. I LOVE research! My love of research was the result of my brilliant, NASA engineer dad who paid me to research topics when I was a kid. Beginning in the third grade, he taught me how to write research papers and paid me one dollar per report. I quickly came to realize that, it wasn’t the money I wanted but the facts I was collecting! From there I started adding to my school lessons (much to my teachers’ chagrin), amazing (or boring) my friends and irritating my brother with facts.

I thrive on finding bizarre and obscure people, facts and events. I hoard newspaper clippings, and keep a traveler’s notebook filled with things I hear in conversations (yes, I eavesdrop!), on TV programs and movies, or see around me. It’s bursting with questions about everyday objects, why people invent things, how they come up with ideas, etc. Questions are constantly swirling through my brain. My children laugh at me when I begin what they call my “informational lectures” after I’ve found an odd historical fact or learned about an amazing unknown person in history. I get excited and passionate because I want to learn more.

So, how did I come to realize that nonfiction was my niche? I felt like a fraud, unimaginative and bored anytime I tried to write creative fiction. I had tons of ideas, but when I sat down to write, I couldn’t. It came out flat and boring. Then, one day my family paid a visit to a local history museum and BAM! It hit me in the face like a bug hits a windshield…There are stories to tell about all of those weird facts I like to collect. I focused my passion for learning into teaching. I used my love for research to find those unknown nuggets to interest and excite my students. As a history teacher, I did everything I could to bring history alive through primary sources and teaching the facts through storytelling. I never thought about writing … UNTIL three years ago. I was watching a fictionalized series about one of my favorite historical events with my husband and something they said ignited a spark. It was a reminder of my passion for sharing fun history with kids.

     The first lesson most writers learn is “write what you know,” but I think that is false advertisement for ANY writer, especially nonfiction writers. Think about it. Did Jules Verne travel twenty thousand leagues under the sea? Did H.G. Wells time travel? I think better advice is to write what you are passionate about. For me, writing nonfiction is like going on a treasure hunt. You start with an idea which is your treasure map, except there is no X that marks the spot. The treasure is that little tidbit of the unknown and you have to jump from one path to the next until you find your way there. The struggle I constantly have is figuring out what to include and not to include. I want to include EVERYTHING I find! Prolific author John McPhee calls writing nonfiction “literature of fact.” Newbery winner Russell Freedman calls himself a “factual author.” I like that. I’m a factual author!

     So how does writing fiction differ from nonfiction, aside from the obvious? In writing fiction, you work to lure a story line into existence. With nonfiction, we have to recognize the story line that’s already there. The structure of factual information is already in existence. A nonfiction writer has to then flesh out the story and make it interesting and add heart. That’s the hard part. Finding the voice of the story and giving it a life that will appeal to readers yet still remain factual.  And that’s what I love about writing nonfiction. I get to research and learn about something I’m passionate about and then to mold it into a story that others will love.

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I love learning new things about my friends! A NASA engineer for a father? Cool! I hope you enjoyed getting to know Julie, I can’t wait for the day when you say to yourself “I’ve actually known about her since way back before she was a successful author!”
That’s all for now! But there is always more to come, more musings, more interviews and more friends for you to meet.
Thanks for reading, come back anytime!
-JP

It’s (almost) Valentiny Tuesday!

For most of you tomorrow is Tuesday, February 13 but down here in my neck of the woods, it’s anything but an ordinary day. That’s right, it’s Mardi Gras y’all! If you aren’t familiar, I’ll catch you up to speed. It’s a sweeping cultural holiday with hints of religious origins.  Fat Tuesday, as it’s also known, is a day of celebrating, splurging and of course, sweets, before the somber church season of Lent.  Before I share my Valentiny entry, allow me to introduce you (Susanna) to the world-famous King Cake.  The doughnut shop in the small town that I call home (and every donut shop, bakery and grocer in the state actually) is known for their King Cakes.  There are as many different styles of King Cakes as floats in the parades, but my particular favorite is this one– a big, stuffed glazed donut (this one is chocolate, obviously!)  Trust me, it’s even better than it sounds. So please enjoy a digital slice of King Cake as you read through all of the wonderful Valentiny stories. Since you’re here, you might as well start with mine, right? (In case you were wondering, I’m not actually allowed to take the wrapper off- I don’t get to eat this one.)

Without further ado, my Valentiny entry… a story of hope in (under) 214 words.

Every Day but Sunday

There was a time when Amber didn’t even think about the mail.

She never wondered what was in all those envelopes and she surely didn’t know what time the mailman passed each day.  That wasn’t the case anymore.

“Will he come today?”  Amber asked.

“Every day but Sunday” her mom replied.

“What about tomorrow? It’s a holiday,” she worried.

“For you and I, it’s Valentine’s Day. For the mailman, tomorrow is just Wednesday.”

Even though her mom gave her the same answer each morning, Amber waited by the mailbox every afternoon, just to see for herself.

By now the mailman knew her by name. “Sorry Amber, nothing today” he said.  She managed a smile, but inside she felt like a balloon that lost all its air. “Thanks anyway. Maybe tomorrow,” Amber replied.

That night she reminded herself, every day but Sunday, and her heart started to feel full again.

The next afternoon, Amber stood in her spot, watching and waiting.   As the mailman turned toward her house, her heart started to race.

Was there a smile on his face? Was there a spring in his step? Amber saw him pull a big, brown envelope out of his bag. Finally, her wait was over.

Best of luck to everyone who’s participating.

Happy Mardi Gras! Happy Valentine’s Day! Happy Everything!

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

Paper People: Anna Forrester

Today is a special day.  One year ago, I published my first post here on Magnolias & Manuscripts and six months ago I started Paper People.  (It’s also my half birthday! Which is a little ridiculous, I know but its something hat I always celebrate for myself and the exact reason that I launched my blog on this date.) Most importantly, I had the chance to visit with Anna Forrester.  Anna has been kind and helpful to me, since I awkwardly introduced myself to her by way of her blog’s Contact Me page. If I was the gangly, over-eager high school freshman, Anna was the cool, calm and collected upper classman that helped me to find my locker.  I’ve had my sights set on this February interview since the beginning.  So, without further ado. 

Anna! I’m so excited to have you here. First, like always, can I get you something to drink?  Sure – thanks! I tend to start my day with either chai tea or green tea, so either one of those would be great!

I’m sure those are both great options but I haven’t made any progress on my attempts to drink tea. I think I’ll cut myself some slack and have a cup of coffee this time.  So, as we settle in and let our drinks cool a bit, would you mind telling us a little about yourself, and how you started writing for children? After college I started teaching, and quickly decided to pursue my masters in Early Childhood Education. I landed at the amazing Bank Street College, and for my Master’s thesis I opted to research and write a children’s book. That was my first manuscript. But I put children’s writing on hold for a long time after that…until just a few years ago.

 I don’t remember how, but I stumbled upon your website and then found my way to your blog but I’m so glad that I did! That’s actually where Paper People started…I read through Anna’s blog and realized, ‘I bet I could learn so much from authors like her.’  She and I had exchanged a couple emails already so I ran the idea of this author interview series by her and she was super supportive.  Anna put me in touch with Katey Howes, who put me in touch with Emma Bland Smith & Jason Kirschner…the rest is history folks! So, you mention on your website that you started it in order to make writing connections.  That’s the exact reason that I started my own! Has blogging been a successful experience for you? Is there anything about it that surprised you?  My goals for Hmmmmm were three-fold. First, I wanted to connect with people in the kidlit world and develop some community. Second, I wanted a forum for sorting through and sharing what I was learning as I worked: I think best when I write, and the blog gave me a format for that. And third, I thought a blog would give agent or editors a stronger sense of me: how I write and think, what I care about, and that I am a committed writer.

All that said: my energy for the blog flagged a bit last year when BAT COUNT came out and I got busy with book promotion. I’m in the process now of re-evaluating what/if I want Hmmmmm to be in the future.

 Ohhh, I can’t wait to see what direction you take it in.  I always enjoy reading your musings. Speaking of, you were one of the 2017 12×12 featured authors. Can you talk a little about your experience with 12×12 and how it helped you to grow as a writer? 2015 was the first year I joined 12×12, so this is my 4th year there. Julie Hedlund has created an amazingly solid, supportive, and resource-filled community. I find that each year (and week and month) I use the forum’s offerings differently, depending on where I am in my process – and I love that it has that flexibility.

 I joined 12×12 this year, after much back and forth and I’m already so glad that I did.  What an incredible community!  I can’t wait to sport a 12×12 button at my regional conference!! Okay, so on to BAT COUNT, because that’s really where it all started for you.  Was that your first picture book manuscript?  How long was it a ‘work in progress’? Aside from my Bank Street thesis way back when, it was. I wrote it pretty quickly and it logged in at 1400 words. Then I discovered that the market wanted REALLY SHORT picture book manuscripts. I didn’t think I could tell that story in so few words, so I shelved it and moved on – until I saw Arbordale’s call for math and science-themed picture books

 I love the ‘citizen science’ aspect of the story and the way it empowers children to take responsibility for their surroundings.  Do many of your other manuscripts have a similar theme?  My interests are pretty wide-ranging, but I am definitely a nature geek. I have lots of science-related projects that hover at the boundary between fiction and non-fiction: I love the challenge of trying to turn kids on to the natural world with compelling voice and story. Ideas for my fiction picture books often sprout from quirky things I see or learn about in the natural world too.

 Yes! My favorite part was that your STEM story had an equally wonderful emotional element . I find myself writing stories that straddle both worlds and I often search for books to guide me.  How did you incorporate both elements? Did one surface before the other? (STEM vs Twins!) I didn’t go into writing the story thinking ‘I want to write a STEM/bat/Citizen-science story’. The story grew from an experience my own family had. But the pitch definitely did focus on those aspects!

As for the twins: have you ever heard this idea that, as writers, we leave ourselves clues in our writing? (I wrote about this a while ago here. Those twins were one of those clues: I don’t know why I initially gave Jojo twin brothers, but I did, and when I was struggling with the story’s ending, there they were, waving their arms at me to get my attention!

I wasn’t familiar with that concept, but that is right up my alley.  I always ask my sub-conscious to help me answer questions, maybe if I just pay attention I’ll find the answers right there in my stories.  Oh, I can’t wait to learn more! Before I get too far off topic, let’s talk about your big day! On February 10 (TOMORROW) you’ll have been a published author for one whole year! Happy Book-iversary!  Do you have plans to celebrate? Does it still feel a bit surreal?  So funny – it never occurred to me to celebrate! I am just marching on, writing. But I so appreciate your asking me to do this interview – it’s a great opportunity to reflect on the past year!

 Do you remember the first time you saw BAT COUNT on a bookstore shelf? I don’t! But I love when friends send me pictures of it ‘out in the wild’ – at libraries or bookstores where they live — and I save all those photos.

I see pictures of BAT COUNT ‘out in the wild’ quite often lately, your critique group is quite a powerhouse! I’m curious about marketing strategies. What worked well for you when it was released? How did you get it ‘out in the wild’? Though the human side of the story resonates beyond the bat or citizen science content, the book is pretty “niche”. Both the publisher and I did a lot of outreach to bat groups, wildlife groups, citizen science groups, nature centers, natural history museums and the like. In the summer I did a lot of events at state parks, and I LOVE doing school visits, too –with just one or two classes at a time so I can engage more directly with the kids.

 And you can wear your author and your teacher hats at the same time! I bet you shine during a school visit.  We nurses don’t know what to do with a classroom full of excited kids… I’d probably get stage fright. Thankfully, my sister is a teacher, maybe she can help me one day. What’s been the most surprising thing about making it to the published side of the industry?  It’s really true how the goal line seems to just keep moving! But you can’t get too wrapped up in that or it eats you up. Recognizing that has helped me keep in touch with the ways that just writing feeds my soul!

 This is one of the few questions I’ve asked every Paper People interviewee, and that may very well be the most honest and encouraging answer I’ve gotten. In fact, in the few days since I first read it, I’ve said it to myself a few times already.  Can I ask, because you said you’re still writing, what are you working on now? What’s next on your agenda? Where can we find and follow you on social media?  I always have a lot of projects going at once. But I have been my own worst enemy around subbing and I want to get over it! My goal for 2018 is to do five submissions per month (rather than my typical 5 or 6 a year!) Already, I can see how subbing more makes it easier and less uncomfortable. Even having only done my January five, my queries already feel less stiff and awkward!

As for social media: you can find me on twitter, and on facebook. On pinterest, I stockpile images relating to projects I’m thinking about or working on.

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Thanks for stopping by and visiting with me! I always get excited when our paths cross.

Thanks so much for having me Jennifer, and for giving me that chance to reflect on the year!

Man that was a great conversation! The kind that leaves me energized and itching to write.  Next month will be great too, Camille Andros, author of CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST IS SQUISHED, agreed to join me here!  But first, I have a lot of homework to get to, I owe a feedback on a couple manuscripts to members of my critique group and I have a pitch that needs polishing.  Oh, yeah! I forgot to mention, I snagged another spot on Susanna Leonard Hill’s Would You Read It Wednesday? series.  I need to re-work and rewrite both my pitch and my manuscripts. 

If you live in my corner of the world, it’s carnival time! Hope you have a safe and happy Mardi Gras.  If you live in a place where Tuesday is just, Tuesday, I still hope its a great one!

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP