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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!

Summer 2012 “Who Pooped?” Book Signings

I’m starting to put together the summer book signing schedule. We’ve confirmed three signings with Yellowstone National Park:

  • Fri, Jul 20 – Lake Hotel
  • Sat, Jul 21 – Old Faithful Inn
  • Sun, Jul 22 – Old Faithful Inn

If you’re going to be in the park that weekend, please come by and say hi!

I will post more details (and more signing dates) as we get closer to summer.

Sacrificing style guides for clarity

If you have a question about writing style, there’s probably an answer in The Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook. Follow their rules and you will achieve consistency — both internal and with other writing. But will you achieve clarity?

I first faced this dilemma as a technical writer decades ago. In American English, the period at the end of a sentence goes inside the quote marks:

“This is correct.”

“This is not”.

In writing computer books, however, quotes carry a somewhat different meaning. They mean, “you should type this, exactly as it appears.” I found that if I wrote a sentence like this:

Make sure your cursor is at the bottom of the screen, and type “delete.”

People would type the word “delete” with a period after it. I could recast the sentence, of course, so that the quoted material came in the middle instead of the end, but it was easier and clearer to write it like this:

Make sure your cursor is at the bottom of the screen, and type “delete”.

The instructions at the beginning of the book could then be clear and unambiguous. If it is inside of the quotes, type it. If it isn’t, don’t.

I learned about words and grammar changing with genres when I was a contributing editor at VLSI Design magazine. As any gamer or grammarian knows, the word “dice” is the plural of the word “die.” One die, two dice. In the semiconductor field, however, where a die is an integrated circuit cut out of a wafer, the word “die” does double duty as singular and plural. The first time I wrote an article for them, I asked the editor-in-chief, Jerry Werner, whether I should pluralize as “dice,” showing that I’m hip to proper grammar, or “die,” showing that I’m hip to the semiconductor industry.

Jerry explained to me then that if an industry comes up with a new use for an existing word (complete with new conjugation rules), that word becomes “correct” within the context of that industry. That’s called jargon. It means that different books, magazines, or websites can use different styles and different rules without any of them being “wrong.”

I like that concept.

This cropped up again this week in a new book I’m working on. I won’t say yet what it is, but I can tell you that it’s technical and it deals with music. I was having a devil of a time writing sentences that refer to a song, an artist, a genre, a software menu selection, and the name of a playlist without peppering the sentence with an impenetrable maze of quotation marks. My preferred style book, The Chicago Manual of Style, says that song names should be set in italics. That helps. It does not, however, give any assistance when dealing with things like computer menus — or at least my creaky old 15th edition doesn’t. And I found myself constantly having to include explanatory words: the genre “blues” or the band “Blues Traveler.”

What to do?

I made some stylistic decisions of my own, just for the purposes of this book. I decided to set song titles in italic, playlists in bold, and window and menu text in small caps. It took a few minutes to get used to, but it makes sentences much shorter and much clearer. Instead of

Select the menu item “Genre|Blues” to make the song “Carolina Blues” by the band “Blues Traveler” appear in the “Blues” playlist.

I can write:

Select Genre|Blues to make Carolina Blues by Blues Traveler appear in Blues.

I can drop 40% of the words, all of the quotes, and the sentence is completely unambiguous.

I eagerly await commentary from some editors.

Postscript: When mentioning Jerry in this post, I decided to Google him and see what was up. It surprised me to see this blog post that he wrote about me in 2006, after I dedicated one of my Who Pooped in the Park? books to him. I have no idea how I’ve missed that for all these years. Maybe I need to do more vanity searches.

Facebook: A tool for journalists?

Facebook logoAsk anyone what Facebook is, and they’re likely to give the same short, sweet answer: it’s a social networking site. Indeed, that’s its primary use for me these days (once I have all of the games filtered out and ignore the politics and religion), but that’s not its only use.

As an example, I’m working on an article about closed captioning for the Journal of Court Reporting. I needed some interviews for the article, so I sat down to compile a list of people to talk to. I had my email program open on one of my screens, and Facebook open on the other, and it got me thinking. I’ve been fairly diligent about sorting my friends into lists, and I just happen to have a list for friends who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or work with deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

I went through the list, saying “oh, I need to talk to her” and “I wonder what he’d say about this issue.” I fired off a quick private message to each of the people I wanted to talk to, and started scheduling interview times. In the past, I’ve done a lot of telephone interviews, and a lot of email interviews. I have also done interviews using a variety of chat systems, ranging from CompuServe and IRC online to TDDs (telecommunication devices for the deaf) online, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve done online chat interviews.

Just for kicks, I decided to see how much of the communication for this article I can do using Facebook, just to see how it works out. Obviously, this limited my base of potential interviewees to people I know (or can find) on Facebook. It also slows things down a bit, as typed conversations are slower than oral ones. Here are a few comments, observations, and tips on the process:

  1. Having a verbatim transcript of the interview is handy. During phone interviews, I’m often scrambling to take notes as we talk, and doing it on Facebook chat means I can just cut and paste quotes into the article (however, see #4 below).
  2. The process is much more interactive than an email interview, allowing each question to be tailored based on previous responses. Trying to replicate this in email could stretch the process out for days.
  3. Being able to insert links in the chat is a big help if you want to show the interviewee something and get comments on it.
  4. Using chat introduces an interesting journalistic dilemma. Even careful writers have a tendency to use chat abbreviations (e.g., BTW, OTOH, IIRC) and not worry much about punctuation. When quoting them in the article, should you leave their text as-is, or write it out and re-punctuate it as you would for a phone interview? Hmmm. I think I’ll ask that question on a couple of message boards — or maybe bounce it around on Facebook. I’ll follow up here later.
  5. This could work just as well on Google+, except for the paucity of people on G+ compared to Facebook.
  6. This would be an annoying process on Twitter, worrying all the time about hitting that maximum character count. Some of the Facebook responses were quite long.
  7. The partially-synchronous nature of chat leads to some interesting responses. Often, both of you are typing at the same time (Facebook tries to tell you when the other person’s typing, but that is often flaky). Several times, I typed questions as the interviewees were typing comments that answered my questions. Reading the transcript, it looks like they answered my questions before I asked them!
  8. Sometimes it’s hard to hang back and wait for the other person to finish their thoughts before asking something else, but it pays off if you do!

So, is Facebook a social networking site? Certainly it is. But it’s a lot more these days, too.

Once the article appears in print, I’ll put a copy of it online so you can judge how well the process worked out.

Book Review: Writing with Pictures

Writing With Pictures book coverI’ve finally finished reading the book that I won at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles a couple of months ago. Well, technically I didn’t win the book; I won a gift certificate to the SCBWI store for having one of the funniest tweets at the conference, but that’s another story.

After looking through the rich selection, I settled on Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books, by Uri Shulevitz. As my editors and illustrators will tell you, I’m not much of an illustrator, although I learned to draw veiltail guppies pretty well back when I was breeding them for pocket money in high school. They’re my “go-to” critter when little kids want a picture. But I digress.

Since the first word in the title is “writing” and the subtitle begins with “how to write,” I figured the book would be slanted toward authors rather than illustrators. As I stood there holding the book, an announcement came over the PA saying that the next session was preparing to start and the store was closing. I was running out of time to pick a book, so I grabbed this one.

First impressions after a quick scan of the book:

  • Mr. Shulevitz is a talented and versatile illustrator.
  • I should have looked more closely at the title and realized that “writing with pictures” can be interpreted to mean “writing with pictures instead of words.”
  • The book was published in 1985, but the majority of the illustration is in a style that would have been more fitting quite a few decades earlier than that.
  • Most of the book is black and white, and the color section is hopelessly outdated in a world of InDesign and Quark.

I waffled back and forth on whether to actually read the book and decided to go for it. It’s good to branch out. Although I figured it wouldn’t do much for my writing skills, I’ve worked with a lot of illustrators over the years and the book might help me to understand them better. All in all, I think that was a good decision.

Writing with Pictures spends very little time addressing the writer’s craft. It doesn’t tell you how to fit your words to your target age group, how to structure a story, how to write dialog for kids, or any of the other things that make us good children’s writers. It does, however, talk a lot about layout.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I don’t work like many children’s authors do. When I write books like my Who Pooped in the Park? series, I visualize pages and plan the text to fit them. Mr. Shulevitz’ book addresses page layout well. He talks about it from an artistic point of view, but also looks at how the layout of the pages affects the flow of the story. Part Two (“Planning the Book”) is an excellent guide to the structure of an illustrated children’s book, and I think any children’s author would benefit from reading it. I had to slog through many parts of the book, but that one definitely held my attention.

Planning Grid

This is a portion of one of my manuscripts as I sent it to the illustrator. For each page, it shows the text that will appear, the sidebar (if any), and a general description of the illustration and layout. From here on in, the illustrator’s skill takes over.

My first impression was right as far as parts of the book being out-of-date. The final section had a good basic description of the printing process, but then went into great detail on color separations. Artists and designers today don’t have to think “30% yellow”; just pick a color from the palette, tweak until you’re happy with it, and use it. As long as you’re designing in the correct color space (make sure it’s CMYK, not RGB!), the software will take care of everything automatically.

Please don’t take this to mean that I think Uri Shulevitz is out of date. Heavens, no! He’s still winning Caldecott awards, and that puts him way ahead of me. But the techniques for manual illustration, layout, color separations, and so forth have changed. Younger illustrators who grew up in the digital age don’t work the same way.

I won’t even try to judge the usefulness of this book to an illustrator. That’s outside my field. If you write children’s books, however, I’d recommend reading it — even if all you read is Part Two.

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