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Interview with Nikki Loftin

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Author Nikki Loftin is everywhere these days. As a writer of poems, essays and novels, you can find her work scattered through-out your local bookstore or newsstand. In addition, locals will be able to see Ms. Loftin this spring when she will be the keynote speaker at the annual Houston Writer’s Guild conference. Recently I caught up with Nikki and we chatted about her daily schedule, working in pajamas, and the healing properties of chocolate.

Where did you grow-up and where do you live now?

I have lived my whole life in the heart of Texas. I was born in Austin, grew up in Round Rock, and moved to Wimberley after high school. I earned my undergraduate and graduate degrees from UT Austin. Now I live in between Dripping Springs and Oak Hill, southwest of Austin, with my Scottish husband, two sons, two dogs, and three chickens. I have a great view of the Texas Hill Country from my writing window!

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?

First, I check email, Twitter, and Facebook for important overnight developments. Also, funny pictures of cats. Then, if it’s on one of the days I don’t work at my other job – where I teach dance aerobics (Zumba) at the Austin YMCA – I stay in my pajamas. This is very important. Getting out of the pajamas would free me up to do all sorts of non-writerly things: grocery shopping, errands, lunches out with friends. If I keep the pajamas on until the boys get home on the bus, it’s been a very good writing day indeed.

Then, I brew a pot of cinnamon tea – or coffee if I’m still bleary-eyed. I break down the number of words I want to get through if I’m working on a novel – usually between 1,000 and 3,000 per day. I take breaks every couple of pages, to keep my brain from overheating. (Many of these breaks involve chocolate, the reason for my other job as a fitness instructor.)

Of course, if I’m writing a shorter piece or a poem, it’s a much different process – fewer words, more staring out the window and thinking deep, black-turtleneck-worthy thoughts. 

I frequently check Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet in general for any further, vitally important developments involving hilarious cat antics.

You’ve written for all types of audiences. How does your writing process differ as your audience changes?

Great question! I write for children, young adults, and adults. I’m not sure my process changes for the audience, though. It does, however, differ fairly radically for the type of project I’m working on.

For a novel, it begins with a “what if?” I’ll be walking along, living my life, not hurting anyone, when a scenario will come rushing at me and throw me completely off course.  The idea for my forthcoming novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, attacked me in a fish-and-chips restaurant a year and a half ago: What if Hansel and Gretel were alive today, in America, and they went to a charter school where the teachers were witches? When an idea happens, I have to talk about it to whoever happens to be nearby. (You should feel very sorry for my husband and hairdresser). Then I mull for a few days, even weeks. I take a lot of walks, listening to instrumental music. Usually on one of these walks, the first lines will come to me and I will run home and start writing. (Cue pajamas, tea, cute cats.) It may seem like an odd process, but I finish about three or four novel-length manuscripts a year this way.

In between novels, I like to write short stories and essays. The change of pace, and the immediate gratification of starting and finishing a piece in the same day, is like a reward after the months of longer-horizon work drafting and revising a novel. 

Poems are different. They’re like butterflies – they come into my mind when they want to. I have to drop everything to capture a poem. If I’m fast enough with a pen or pencil, and write it down when it flutters past, I get to keep it. If I ignore a poem, it goes away, and (I assume) finds a more attentive poet to bless.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Everywhere. The world is full of fascinating things, people and places and events worth telling stories about. We know that when we’re kids, but somehow we lose our sense of wonder as we grow up. I try to remember how I saw things, how I really looked at the world, when I was a child. I let my mind play.

Sometimes, though, I get ideas through obstinacy. For instance, when I finished my first novel (a malformed, grammatically twisted creature that lives in the dark recesses of my hard drive), I read on a well-respected agent’s website that books about that particular topic were overdone. They indicated that middle grade novelists should write sports books. I knew nothing about sports, and that fact annoyed me. So I did just enough research on soccer to write my next novel, which won the Writer’s League of Texas manuscript contest (and, in a circuitous way, the attention of my future literary agent).

Who are your favorite writers and why?

I love Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking books. She created characters that stayed with me my whole life, and books I couldn’t wait to read aloud to my own children. I still remember sleeping upside down in my bed like Pippi – and laughing when, thirty years later, I caught my son doing the same thing. 

I love so many present-day writers who mix magic and humor into their work: Roald Dahl, Ingrid Law, Neil Gaiman, Rebecca Stead, Kate DiCamillo, and Jane Yolen.

But I’m obsessed with older stories, too. I compulsively buy and read fairy tales from all over the world, and re-read the Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno every few years.   

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

We’re all faking it. We’re all using the Think Method and blowing on imaginary trombones. Don’t be fooled by the way authors on the other side of the publication fence seem to read every book, write thousands of words a day, know everything, and have excellent skin, teeth, and hair. They don’t have all the answers. Don’t look to an author for the magic bullet, the secret elixir. The only thing you have to do to be published is write, read, study, and stay in the pajamas.  I didn’t have any connections in the industry when I began writing, and most of the published authors I know didn’t either. What they all have – and what I hope to cultivate in my own life – is the burning desire to write, to create, and to share what they’ve written with the world. It helps to have the ability to withstand a thousand No’s on your way to the Big Yes. Chocolate helps dull the pain of rejection.

Write fast, if you can. The more words, the better. You will get better the more you practice, just like with any instrument or sport. Write whatever comes to you: short stories, essays, poems, plays, novels, picture books. They will not all be published. It doesn’t matter; they are practice. Keep writing. Never stop.

What are you working on now?

I am about to send my second novel to my editor! This one, currently titled Chloe Green and the Grimoire Garden, is the story of a girl named Chloe who has a peculiar sort of Midas Touch: the ultimate green thumb. I can’t reveal much more about it, since not even my editor has seen it yet. But there’s magic, poison, witches, and evil camp counselors in this one!

Do you have any upcoming appearances or events?

I’m thrilled to serve on the faculty of the Austin Regional SCBWI Conference, “Something for Everyone,” February 17-19. This conference is always amazing, with talks on craft, publishing, and tons of opportunities to meet agents, editors, and other children’s lit writers.

http://www.austinscbwi.com/conference2012/

On April 13-14, I’ll be the keynote speaker at the Houston Writer’s Guild annual conference. http://www.houstonwritersguild.org/welcome.html

You can purchase Nikki’s books online or at your favorite local bookstore. If you’d like to learn more about Nikki please check out her website at www.nikkiloftin.com.

 

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SCBWI Summer Conference Recap – Part 2



            Three speakers made a huge impression on me at the SCBWI Los Angeles conference. First there was Ann Angel, non fiction writer extraordinaire who spoke about finding the narrative voice within nonfiction. Ann suggested telling your nonfiction “story” as if you are on the character’s shoulder and to show the reader how the story is relevant to their life.



         
            
Her newest book, Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing
, recently won a Crystal Kite award.


           



            I also had the pleasure of sitting in on a workshop by Diane Muldrow about the Pacing of a Picture Book. Diane is not only the editor for Golden Books; she is also an author as well!



            The best piece of advice she gave was to include art directions in a picture book manuscript. This goes against the conventional wisdom of leaving it up to the illustrator, but with the word counts of picture books getting smaller and smaller by the day, the new format for manuscripts makes sense.


 


            And finally, the highlight of the conference for me was Richard Peck. He is not only a legend in young adult and children’s literature; he is also one of the most kind and generous of men. His speech was inspiring, funny and poignant. Here are a few sound bites.



On the important of reading widely:


            “We must be able to recognize the past as it will come around again.”


On writing:


            “A writer must banish herself from the page.”


On the importance of literature for young people:


            “Unless you find yourself on the page, you will go looking for yourself in all the wrong places.”


 


            Richard has a new book coming out this October titled Secrets at Sea and will be visiting Houston at the end of October 2011. Don’t miss him!



 

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SCBWI Summer Conference Recap – Part 1

 

 

Yesterday I got back from the SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles. I returned with a pile of laundry, a pile of books and a pile of inspiration. Don’t worry; I’m only going to share the inspiration.

 

 

The conference kicked off with the always entertaining Bruce Coville. I love listening to Bruce as he is a master of the craft of writing. Here are a few of his great ideas.

 

-Take your art seriously.

-Learn to read your royalty statements.

-Learn to negotiate.

-Give yourself daily goals.

-The only thing that will make your work better is repetition – write, write, write!

-Don’t be afraid to show your heart on the page.

 

Erzsi Deak head of Hen and Ink Literary Agency

 

Erzsi burst onto the publishing scene only a few months ago but already she’s got a pocket full of deals and a hen house full of talented authors and illustrators.

 

Erzsi ran a super workshop on how to pitch your material. After a few warm-up exercises, we all tried pitching our projects to the workshop participants. It was a great exercise and a wonderful help for running into editors in the elevator!

 

Here are a few of her guidelines:

-The pitch should be a one or two sentence description of your book that tells us what it is.

-The pitch must contain:

            >the hero

            >the antagonist

            >the hero’s primary goal

            >core conflict

            >what sets your book apart

 

By the end of Bruce’s keynote and Erzsi’s workshop by brain was mush – and it was time for lunch!

 

A big kiss goes out to the Houston RA Vicki Sansum for nominating me for a SCBWI Conference Scholarship. There is no way I would have been able to attend without her and the help of the SCBWI head office. You are all wonderlicious – THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

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The 40 Challenge: Day 1

Well, one day down – 39 more to go! I reached my goals today through luck, tenacity and triple dosing on the chocolate. I ran for 40 minutes, started a major rewrite of my WIP and then rounded out my hat trick with reading ELSEWHERE by Jacqueline West. (I’m not finished with the book yet but so far I adore it! The author’s voice is witty, clever and never talks down to the reader. I love books that make the reader feel smart.)

I have to admit I’m already worried about this weekend. Weekends are difficult anyway for me writing-wise. With the man-child, woman-child, himself and their various activities, play dates and birthday parties the schedule is always a little crazy.

This weekend will reach new levels of insanity since I will be gone all Saturday at the SCBWI Conference here in Houston. I’m super excited to meet all the editors, agents and authors attending. BUT HOW AM I GOING TO EXERCISE? AND WRITE? AND READ? Things I should have thought about before I started the 40 Challenge, hmm?

Well, to paraphrase Scarlett, I’ll worry about all that tomorrow. Right now I’m off to drink my mint tea and curl up with a book. Wishing you all a good night and a sunny tomorrow!

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Interview with Vicki Sansum

December is definitely a busy month. Between the holidays and the end of the year celebrations, there is always too much to do and too little time. Author Vicki Sansum is no stranger to a hectic lifestyle. In addition to her full time advertising job, Vicki Sansum finds time to read, write and organize writing events in the greater Houston area. Recently we caught-up with Vicki and visited with her about finding inspiration in the midst of a busy life.
Where did you grow up?

I was born in Schenectady, NY, moved to Houston when I was three years old and have been here ever since. My father still lives in the same house in Oak Forest where we grew up. My sister lives in Garden Oaks. I love living in Houston, it’s a great mix of people and cultures.

What made you want to become a writer?

I have loved to read all my life. As a child, I’d go to the library every week and check out as many books as they allowed. We always had tons of books in our house so I think it was a natural step for me to want to write. I loved making up stories and writing them down.

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?

In today’s world, it’s hard to have a ‘normal’ day. I work full-time so I grab whatever free time I can find to write. Sometimes it’s not until the weekends when I can sit and write. I’m always thinking about my books, you never completely turn off your brain when you’re working on a manuscript.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I find inspiration everywhere. It can be a phrase I hear on the TV, or the radio or something I overhear in the mall. I’ve gotten ideas from stories I’ve read in the newspaper or even noticing an unusual name. Occasionally my husband will say something funny and I’ll file it away for the future. I keep a notebook in the car so I can jot down ideas when they come to me. I have scraps of paper and sticky notes all over my desk, in my purse and on my computer with names, words and phrases so I won’t forget anything.

Who are your favorite writers and why?

I love an author who tells a great story. Whether it’s a children’s book or an adult book, I want the writer to compel me to turn the page to find out what’s next. J.K. Rowling is one of the most remarkable authors I’ve ever read. She has the talent of great storytelling and brilliant writing skills. Recently I’ve enjoyed reading the Luxe series by Anna Godberson and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I loved the Lemony Snicket series. I have read all of Joan Lowery Nixon’s books. Years ago, I read an article in the paper about Joan and saw that she lived in my neighborhood. Having such a well-known author living just blocks away from my house made the dream of becoming an author seem more real. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and have been a member ever since.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Never give up. Keep writing and honing your skills. Join a good critique group. Attend conferences and workshops and get the support of fellow writers. Read, read and read. Writing is a skill, just like playing the piano. The more you practice, the better you get. Follow your dreams, they will come true.

Vicki Sansum is not only an author; she is also the head of the Houston chapter of the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. Check out information about Vicki and the chapter at http://www.scbwi-houston.org.