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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 “Who Pooped” series goes urban!


Who Pooped in the Redwoods, which is on its way to your favorite stores and websites, is the 19th book in the Who Pooped series. Just like its predecessors, it is focused on the wide open spaces, especially national and state parks. The next book, which I’m hoping will be out by Christmas, is going in a completely different direction.

We’re moving the series from the big national parks to a small city park, a paltry 843 acres in the middle of the largest population center in the United States. That’s right, the next book will be set in New York City’s Central Park!

Who Pooped in Central Park header

I’m not going to give away too much just yet, as I just signed the contract last week and things may change a bit. I will tell you a few things, though:

First, this will be the first Who Pooped book that won’t feature Michael and Emily. I’m introducing a new family that lives in New York City, and the book will focus on the adventures of the kids in Central Park, without Mom and Dad there playing teacher the whole time.

We’re also changing the art style a bit, going for a more urban and edgy look.

But what animals can I include when the book is set right smack in the middle of a huge city? A lot! Central Park is teeming with wildlife, including rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, rats, chipmunks, opossums, bats, starlings, herons, geese, gulls, crows, pigeons, frogs, turtles, and more!

With the release of the Central Park book, I will finally have a book set in every state where I’ve lived*, and we’re filling in some of those big gaps on the east coast of the U.S. Here’s what the coverage map will look like:

Who Pooped Map 2015

* Trivia for the day: I was born in New York state.

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” took a silver medal in the Moonbeam Book Awards!


Moonbeam silver medalUntil ten minutes ago, I had no idea that my most recent Who Pooped in the Park book was being considered for a Moonbeam award. Then I opened my email to find that Who Pooped in the Cascades has won the silver medal in the nonfiction/animals category! According to Independent Publisher, the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards are designed to bring increased recognition to exemplary children’s books and their creators, and to support childhood literacy and life-long reading. Isn’t that the goal of everyone involved in creating books for children?

An award like this one means a lot to an author of children’s books. The slogan on the medal says, “celebrating youthful curiosity, discovery, and learning through books and reading.” That is exactly why we write. The Who Pooped series is all about curiosity and discovery — my intent in creating it was to engage reluctant readers and kids with a minimal connection to nature and science. How better to interest them in nature than through a giggle?

When I started writing these books, it was my first foray into mainstream writing. All of my previous books were highly specialized; they weren’t the kind of books you’d find in a general bookstore. I didn’t have very high expectations for that first kids’ book (the Yellowstone edition of Who Pooped in the Park?), and my publisher (Farcountry Press) hadn’t dealt with many children’s books before. Review copies weren’t submitted to publications like Publisher’s Weekly, and it wasn’t promoted to schools or libraries. Who would have thought that this summer we’d sell our 100,000th copy of that first book?

Now, 18 books later, the series is gaining mainstream acceptance. I wrote a few months ago about the Cascades book being a finalist for the High Plains Book Awards, and winning a Moonbeam award makes everything suddenly more tangible.

Thank you to all of you that have read and enjoyed my books. I hope you’ll continue to enjoy them in the future!

Random thoughts at a book signing


It’s Sunday, July 6, 2014. I’m at Old Faithful Inn signing copies of the Yellowstone edition of Who Pooped in the Park? People show up in spurts here. When the Old Faithful geyser is about to erupt, the lobby is almost empty. Right after the eruption, it teems with people. The cell service here is spotty at best (doesn’t work for me at all), so I’m jotting down thoughts in my notebook when I’m not busy. Here’s a sampling of them.

  1. Hmmm. There’s no WiFi here. I think I’ll set up a WiFi hotspot on my cellphone. I did this last year, too. Every time someone turns on their phone/iPad/computer and looks for a WiFi network, they’ll see this:
    Who Pooped WiFi network
  2. That woman was headed right for my table. She made eye contact. She looked at the sign. She looked at the books. And then her friend stopped her and pointed out something else. HEY! What are you doing? That’s a potential sale right there. Don’t distract her!
  3. This is probably the strangest thing I’ll hear today. A couple walked up and the man said, “You might want to file a police report. My wife wants to steal that radiator in the hallway.”
  4. Approximately 34,000 people have walked up to my table and asked me when Old Faithful will erupt next. Here’s a picture of me at my table. Want to guess when the next eruption is? As Bill Engvall might say, “Here’s your sign.”
    Who Pooped Old Faithful sign
  5. If you buy a fountain drink in the deli, they offer free refills all day! That works nicely when you’re sitting in the lobby for 6 hours (today) or 8 hours (tomorrow).
  6. Sometimes, when I say “howdy,” people respond and walk over to the table to see what’s going on. Sometimes they:
    Carefully avoid eye contact,
    Say, “I already bought one,” and keep moving,
    Find a quick distraction (“ooh, shiny!”), or
    Nod and walk faster.
  7. Fashion faux pas of the day: a checkered cowboy shirt with a bright multicolored bowtie.
  8. Closing my day with a smile. A young lady (high school? college? I can’t tell anymore) walked up and looked at my book sign. She then looked at me, said “Who Pooped in the Park?”, threw her hands in the air, did a little curtsy, and in a perfect Valley Girl voice, said “eeeeeverybody!”

Day Two

  1. My first customer of the day bought one book. The second customer bought two. The third customer bought four. The pattern broke there.  I was hoping it would continue. Twenty customers and I could retire. Don’t bother me with logistics.
  2. A woman walked by with her son (Or somebody else’s 12-year-old. I don’t know.) and said, “Who Pooped in the Park? Is his name in it?” I responded, “It could be!”
  3. I have a sign on the table saying “100,000 copies sold” (referring to the Yellowstone edition — the whole series is pushing 400,000 copies now). A family bought a book, and as they were walking away, one of the kids turned to me and said, “Now you can change your sign to say 100,001 copies sold!”
  4. Book signing tip: Don’t make assumptions about who looks like they’ll buy a book. That high school girl could have a little brother. That big burly biker could be a grandfather. Every single person that walks by the table is a potential customer.
  5. I have a bunch of thoughts about something I’ll call the “intimidation zone,” but I’m going to save that for its own post.
  6. This lobby is one of the coolest places in the world to sign books.
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