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When being an author is fun


Lots of people want to have written; they don’t want to write. In other words, they want to see their name on the front cover of a book and their grinning picture on the back. But this is what comes at the end of a job, not at the beginning.
—Elizabeth George

I’m one of those authors that enjoys the writing and that euphoric moment when you pull the author copy out of the package and hold the fruits of your labors in your hands. I don’t agree with the last part of Elizabeth George’s quote, though. For most writers, that isn’t the end of the job. There is still a great deal of work to be done promoting your book. It is, however, the transition from a solitary work shared only with your editor (when said editor can take a few minutes away from laughing maniacally and sharpening red pencils with a switchblade*) to something your cadres of adoring fans can enjoy.

Some of the real fun of being an author happens during the writing. That moment when you sit back and realize you’ve crafted the perfect sentence. When you figure out how to resolve that nagging inconsistency in the backstory. When you catch your botched pluperfect before the aforementioned editor sees it.

For us extroverts, though, most of the fun happens after the book hits the streets. We love standing in front a roomful of people to read our work, sitting at a book signing table with a line of fans in front of us, seeing our tweets shared far and wide.

Yesterday, I got to experience a joyful moment in the gloaming, that brief period between the arrival of the first books and the start of the hectic marketing campaign.

Dominique Woman PowerAlmost a year ago, while working on Who Pooped in Central Park, I realized that I needed the kids to encounter a bird expert in the park. I toyed with different ideas for the character until I was struck with an epiphany: I know the perfect person!

Dominique Paulus is an artist who paints, among other things, birds. We have one of her original paintings hanging on our living room wall (“Woman Power,” seen at right). She’s been my friend for years, and we’ve chatted quite a bit about birds when she’s in my bookstore shopping for bird books.

So I wrote Dominique into the book and had her spend several pages telling the children about the birds in Central Park. I sent my illustrator (the incomparable Robert Rath) a photo of Dominique and she became a part of the plot. I couldn’t resist hinting to her that I had a surprise coming, but I did somehow restrain myself and not tell her what I’d done. Yesterday, on the official release date of the book, I gave her a copy of the book and showed her the pages that featured her.

Dominique excerpt

Things that may seem minor to us, like a dedication or acknowledgement in the front of a book, mean a lot to people. Watching Dominique’s face when she saw herself in this book was a wonderful thing. As writers, we have many ways to change people’s lives. It’s up to us how we use them.


* To Will Harmon, my editor at Farcountry Press: I’m sure you don’t actually sharpen your red pencils with a switchblade. I’m guessing you use an axe.

The next Who Pooped book – the California Redwoods!


Last month, I finalized the manuscript for my 19th Who Pooped in the Park book, which will be called Who Pooped in the Redwoods.

I took this picture of a redwood grove in Hendy Woods State Park during the research trip.

I took this picture of a redwood grove in Hendy Woods State Park during the research trip.

Our intrepid regulars, Michael and Emily, will be hitting the road with Mom & Dad to visit Redwoods National and State Parks in California. Along the way, they’ll meet up with a host of critters, some of which we’ve met in other Who Pooped books, and a few new ones as well, like mountain beavers, fishers, tree voles, and ringneck snakes.

The book is scheduled to hit the streets in the spring of 2015. That may seem like a long time, considering I signed the contract back in July, but there’s a reason for that. I write these books in a grid: page numbers on the left, then a column for descriptions of the illustrations, one for the text on the page, and another for the “Straight Poop” sidebars. The manuscript comes out looking like this:

Manuscript section

This is a section of the manuscript for the Redwoods book.

When I had the manuscript done, I had two people proofread it before submitting it to Will Harmon, my editor at Farcountry Press, who went through it with a fine-toothed comb. He found a few issues, and I fixed most of them right away and argued with him about a couple of others. He does tend to be right most of the time, but I still win sometimes!

Each book is exactly 48 pages long. I put a lot of time and thought into arranging the story so that there will big beautiful color pictures, including two-page spreads, illustrating everything the family finds. But it takes illustrator Rob Rath even longer to actually draw those pictures. As I write this, Rob is sketching up his rough drafts for all of the pages. When he’s done, those will go back to Will, who will check everything carefully and then send it to me. I will look at all of the animals, scats, tracks, plants, and other content to make sure it matches the text and accurately reflects what that area looks like.

My books focus on ten main animals that appear in the scat & track guide at the end, but those aren’t the only animals in the books! I try to find a lot of other species that live in the ecosystem I’m writing about and work them in to the text and illustrations. This means Rob has to draw dozens of different plant and animal species in each book. Just to give you a feeling for it, here are the animals included in Who Pooped in the Redwoods:

Mammals

  • Black bear
  • Black-tailed deer
  • Brush rabbit
  • California Grizzly Bear
  • Fisher
  • Gray fox
  • Mountain Beaver
  • Mountain lion
  • Northern flying squirrel
  • Porcupine
  • Raccoon
  • River otter
  • Roosevelt elk
  • Sonoma tree vole
  • Spotted Skunk
  • Striped Skunk
  • Townsend’s big-eared bat

Birds

  • Bald eagle
  • Brown pelican
  • Great blue heron
  • Northern spotted owl
  • Robin
  • Steller’s jay

Reptiles

  • Northwestern ringneck snake
  • Pacific giant salamander
  • Rough-skinned newt

Fish

  • Chinook Salmon

Invertebrates

  • Banana slug
  • Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly
  • Sequoia Pitch Moth
  • Silver-spotted Skipper
  • Western Tailed Blue butterfly
  • Western Tiger Swallowtail
  • Yellow-spotted millipede

And that doesn’t even count the plants! Not to mention the fact that Rob has a tendency to sneak one or two of his favorite critters into the background here and there, which makes it even more fun.

Will and I probably won’t find much during our proofing pass – this is the 13th book Rob and I have done together – but there will likely be a few little things. Once Rob has made any required changes, he’ll do the final drawings and color everything. Then the book goes through one more proofing pass, which will involve a few more sets of eyes. The bar codes will be added to the cover and everything will be finalized. That’s when the book is sent out to be printed, which takes even more time.

By the time the book hits stores, it will have been almost a year since we started. I hope you’ll find it worth the wait!

“Who Pooped in the Cascades” is a High Plains Book Award finalist!


This is exciting! The High Plains Book Awards has added a new category this year for children’s books, and Who Pooped in the Cascades? has been chosen as a finalist! The winners will be announced at the High Plains Book Festival in Billings, MT on October 25, 2014.

High Plains Book Awards logoThe High Plains Book Awards recognize regional authors and/or literary works which examine and reflect life on the High Plains. The High Plains region includes Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

This year, there are 11 categories:

  • Art & Photography
  • Children’s Book (written for readers under age 12)
  • Culinary
  • Fiction
  • First Book
  • Nonfiction
  • Poetry
  • Medicine & Science
  • Short Stories
  • Woman Writer
  • Young Adult (written for readers ages 12 to 18)

Who Pooped in the Cascades?

Who Pooped in the Cascades? is the 18th book in my “Who Pooped” series, which is published by Farcountry Press in Helena, MT. The series began in Yellowstone National Park. This latest book follows Michael and Emily and their friend, May, on a trip to the Cascade Mountain range in California, Oregon, and Washington. Michael tries to deal with his fear of mountain lions as Mom and Dad teach him and his sister about the wildlife in the area — without ever getting close enough to be scared. In their “close encounters of the poopy kind,” the family learns about a variety of animals, and readers will become familiar with their tracks and the droppings they leave behind (scats).

The illustrations in Who Pooped in the Cascades? are by Robert Rath from Bozeman, MT. He illustrated eleven other books in the series as well.

The other two finalists for best children’s book, Baba’s Babushka by Marion Mutala and Leaving Mr. Humphries by Alison Lohans, are from Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing in Regina, Saskatchewan.

And the next Who Pooped book is…


We have a contract for my 18th book in the Who Pooped in the Park? series! This one will be titled Who Pooped in the Cascades?, and will cover the whole U.S. span of the Cascade Range through Washington, Oregon, and California. Farcountry Press will be publishing the book, and I’m working with a new editor on this one. Has anyone else noticed how easy it is to find out who wrote and illustrated a book, but how hard it often is to find out who the editor was? Well, let’s get that part out of the way right from the start: my new editor is Will Harmon, and I look forward to working with him on the next few books.

Obviously, this is a huge area to cover. I considered the Death Valley edition to be a challenge, with its disparate ecosystems, but the Cascades book has a lot of iconic scenery I’d like to cover. My highlight list for the book includes four national parks (Lassen, Crater Lake, North Cascades, and Mt. Ranier), two national recreation areas (Ross Lake and Lake Chelan), a national forest (Mt. Hood), and two national monuments (Oregon Caves and Mount St. Helens).

As my regular readers know, I select ten animals to feature in each Who Pooped? book, and then sprinkle as many more animal cameos as we can fit. In this book, I’m using mostly animals whose range extends over the entire area from Mount Lassen to Ross Lake. I’ll post some more about the animals over the next few months as I work on the text for the book.

Rob Rath will be my illustrator again. I’m trying to work in even more two-page spreads and panoramic scenery than usual in an attempt to do justice to the scenery of the Cascades. This book will also have some comments and sidebars about volcanoes, since the Cascade Mountains are home to most of the volcanic activity in the contiguous United States.

I expect the book to be released next May or June, but Farcountry hasn’t announced an official release date yet. There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip, and that goes double in the publishing industry!

UPDATE AUG 2013: The book is now out!

Things people say at book signings


If you sit long enough at a book signing table, you hear all kinds of interesting questions. During my signing tour in Yellowstone National Park this week, signing Who Pooped in the Park? books, quite a few groups of people came by, looked at the poster and/or the books, said something to each other in a foreign language, and left. I have to wonder how many different languages people used this week to say, “Crazy Americans! They write books about poop!”

Many of the questions were very logical, and some were pretty silly. As an example:

Did you write this book, or are you just here signing it?

Really? I’m sitting here under a big sign that says “Meet the Author.” My picture is on the sign. And who signs other people’s books, anyway?

Do we have to pay for the book?

I forgive the little kids who ask this question. I’m sure they haven’t been trained in the ways of capitalism yet. But adults? Oh, my.

Another favorite of mine came from a boy about nine years old. He said,

My parents bought me this book when I was a kid. I really liked it.

I chuckled and thanked him. Our perspectives do change as we age, don’t they?

Some of the serious and logical questions have quick and easy answers, others more complex:

How long did it take you to write this book?

Actually writing the book? Not that long. On each Who Pooped? book, I spent 2-3 months of research, building animal lists, writing, planning out the page layouts, drafting instructions for the illustrator, and so forth. Then the illustrator (Eli or Rob) sketches out each page and sends them in to the editor, who goes through everything and makes changes and suggestions. When she’s happy, it comes back to me. I go through the sketches and check everything for accuracy and to make sure it fits what I was trying to accomplish. At that stage, we’ll often have someone from the park check it over as well. Then it goes back to the illustrator, who does final color illustrations and page layouts. After the editor and I sign off on those, the book gets the final details, like an ISBN, and goes off to the printer. Final books appear in my hand about a year after the contract was signed.

What gave you the idea for Who Pooped in the Park?

My kids. Up until then, I had been writing mostly specialized technical stuff (like The Closed Captioning Handbook). A stack of our hay was torn up one day, and I was showing the kids how to identify the culprits (deer poop and footprints). They told me I needed to do a book about animal poop for kids. We came up with the “Who Pooped?” title, and proposed it to a publisher who turned it down. Then a sales rep for Farcountry Press suggested talking to their acquisition editor, and the rest is history!

Did you do the drawings?

I wish I had the talent that Eli Clark and Rob Rath have. They are the ones that have illustrated my Who Pooped? series: Eli did the first six, and Rob has done the others. They are both very skilled, and they are a big part of the reason the books have succeeded.

Since most of my signings in the park were in gift shops and hotel lobbies, the most common question I heard wasn’t even related to the book:

Where’s the bathroom?

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