TD Book Week Tour ~ Day 3 (robots are liars)

TD Book Week Tour ~ Day 3 (robots are liars)

Day 3 of TD Canadian Children’s Book Week marked the mid-point of my tour and it was very different from my previous days, mostly because I got to spend the whole day at one school. This was a nice switch! When you are a prop guy like me, there’s a lot of set up and pack up, and I only had to do it once today—as opposed to Monday and Tuesday, when I had to do it multiple times, and as quickly as possible to make the next event. (Hey, it’s my own fault!)

An oldie but a goodie

I spent the day in a gorgeous hundred-year old school called Summitview Public School located in the town of Stouffeville, Ontario. I was so busy hunting for the school that I didn’t even see the big sign out from with my name on it. The librarian pointed it out to me, so I rushed out at the break to take this photo, and one of the exterior of the building:

Summitville_sign

Summitville_school

Trees, doors, and a magical item or two!

Because I was there the entire day, I got to speak to the entire student body, from K-8, but in different groups, which I really appreciated. It not only made each group more intimate but allowed me to tailor my content to each age level.

For the younger group, that meant a lot of raw creativity and energy. We brainstormed magical trees and, for the group tree, ended up with a potion tree that was happy to dole out his magic to any passersby (the greedy little dragon who lived in his branches, however, had other ideas!)

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Of course, each student also created a tree of his or her own, and I managed to snap a couple of shots:

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For the intermediate groups, I was able to combine the brainstorming with a little bit more of a discussion on the writing process. They had such great questions! And, of course, they had some very intriguing designs for their doors. Here’s just a handful of the ones that were produced:

DC266BFD-1F70-4004-A52D-12731580D9D1

0D4EE817-2EE1-4F3F-9D72-99A208C1EDA1

4B73728B-72C1-4A7D-8064-5C5B069914C2

16E5F49A-76DC-48BE-9352-79F88EA737CE

224FF666-F271-43DD-85EC-7C853C184250

3588E19D-1DEC-4773-9F09-1B304DD734CA

346896B7-DF71-4E11-A5DC-B644570CA357

73486227-3862-4545-AE6B-FAC1FE592AC3

CA05CA71-94BA-40BD-8996-9D7BFA7720A9

DB6B930A-54C6-4DFF-8A83-EA93E53B96FF

My final group was with the Grades 6-8. I had a lot of time with this group so I really covered some of the professional aspects of publishing, such as how a book cover is designed. Of course, I did allot some time for brainstorming, and we did the idea of magical markets.

This group was a little reserved to begin with, but at one point the cork suddenly popped and they burst forth with ideas. They pitched so many of them at me that we actually ran out of time (the teacher had to do the equivalent of yanking me off the stage with a long cane)!

Some of the items they came up? Well:

  • a jar of human souls
  • a vial of toenails from a king
  • a skirt that allows you to fly
  • shadow spray
  • truth serum (in a bottle shaped like a question mark)
  • a bottle of dragon tears
  • a portable hole
  • an orange, which, whenever you peel it, offers you a different type of fruit (and it’s unlimited)

Summitville-magicalmarket-group

A piece of advice I gave them is to try and be as specific as possible in their ideas—and they took it to heart. That’s why I was given ideas such as “a bottle of king’s toenails” as opposed to simply “toenails.” When you’re specific, the ideas are more interesting and more evocative!

What an engaged and creative bunch—all of them! It was a really great day, which was capped off with more event . . .

Adding to the Buzz

Fiona, one of the older students, started a podcast at her school called “What’s the Buzz?” (The school’s sports teams are “the stingers”, so they got a bee theme here). So, at the end of the day, I sat down with Fiona and recorded a short interview. She was so poised and confident (and prepared)—I was impressed.

Summitville_fiona_interview

Kindred spirits

It’s not just the kids I enjoy meeting at schools—it’s also the educators. I certainly love to talk about the process of writing, but I also love to talk about the process ofteachingwriting. I’ve had so many great conversations with teachers and librarians these past few days, and it was no different at Summitview. Constance Calvert, the librarian, runs a really great show and I really enjoyed talking “shop” with her!

Favourite question of the day

I’m going to pick two favorite questions, and I feel like I’m entitled because one was from an actual session and one was from the podcast I did with Fiona.

So, from one of my workshop sessions: “Are your favorite characters always your main characters?” (The answer is “no!” I often prefer the side characters in my stories in terms of the ones I grow quite attached to.)

My other favorite question came from Fiona’s interview and was the last one she asked me, which was: “What’s the one questions that I didn’t ask that you would like me to?”

I chose: “What character in your book are you most alike!” (I won’t tell my answer here—I think I’ll wait until the podcast is posted!)

Did I get lost? Yes, because robots are liars

Um . . . does a bee buzz? In yesterday’s blog post, I mentioned that the potential for me getting lost today was low, because I had less travel. I should have never written with such bravado because the robots ganged up and sent me on a whirlwind circle around the greater Toronto area. Google Maps, my GPS, even the hotel website all provided an address that sent me down a freeway with NO hotel. So, basically, I’m in the middle of a stretch of freeway with nothing around me and the GPS is telling me I have arrived at my destination.

I pulled over more than once to try and figure it out. Eventually, I looked up the hotel on Google Maps, found a nearby Tim Horton’s, and plugged its address into the GPS and that got me to my destination. (Take that robots!) I’m staying here for three more nights, so at least I won’t have to hunt for the hotel tomorrow.

Oh, oh.

Did I just jinx myself?

Stay tuned . . .

About Book Week

TD Canadian Children’s Book Week is the single most important national event celebrating Canadian children’s books and the importance of reading. Hundreds of schools, public libraries, bookstores and community centres host events as part of this major literary festival.

 

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TD Book Week Tour ~ Day 2

TD Book Week Tour ~ Day 2

Day 2 of my TD Canadian Children’s Book Week tour was a wild one, presenting four times in three different locations. Because of that I didn’t have time to get many photos—it was go, go, go!

But here is one of me at the end of my first presentation, courtesy of one of the teachers at Carruthers Creek Public School:

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A very literary day

There was a very literary theme to my day—and not just because I’m an author on tour! I stayed over night in a town called Ajax and on my way to present at the local library, drove on Achilles Road. Obviously, there is quite a Greek Mythology theme here. At one other point, I presented at a school on Byron Road (I was tempted to take out a sharpie and add “Lord” on the street sign)!

Another theme to the day was that there was a lot of variety. Doing a tour like this can sometimes feel like your trapped in a recurring dream, in which you are doing the same thing over and over again. Since becoming a published author, I now understand why touring bands get tired of playing the same old songs over and over again. After awhile, everything can blur together and I often forget if I have already said something to a group, of if that was something said I mentioned earlier in the day.

But that was not a problem today! All of my presentations were very distinctive . . .

 

Ajax Public Library

My first presentation was at the local public library, which means the kids were coming from a nearby school. I had 125 Grade 3 kids in attendance. Once I arrived at the library, and was “on the ground” so to speak, I realized that my usual format wasn’t going to quite the right fit. The space was excellent, but it wasn’t exactly conducive to doing a brainstorming session.

Plus, my time was really tight—I had to make sure I ended right on time so that I could jump in the car and zoom to my next school. That meant that if the kids (who were coming from offsite) were even five or ten minutes late, then the whole thing would be too rushed.

On top of all this, the library tech was in a bit of a panic because the technology and hookups weren’t working. So, with all these factors floating around, I decided that “less is more” and made the call to drop the brainstorming activity and just focus on my presentation and Q&A.

As it turned out, the tech didn’t have anything to worry about because I have a Mac. Which means I simply plugged in my computer and—as always—ta da!

It also turned out that I had made the right call with the format. By the time the last group made it into the presentation space, we were ten minutes in. I jumped to it!

As has been a common thread on this tour, the kids were fascinated by my suitcase of magic stuff! If I actually start taking the offers I’m getting to purchase all of these things, I could probably retire—because when nine-year-old kids offer me four thousand dollars for my Zoone key, I can assume they’re good for the money—RIGHT?

Aunt Temperance's Zoone Key - orange background

By the way, I keep telling everyone that they don’t have to offer to buy my Zoone key. They can make their own! Mine was 3D printed by my friend Jeff Porter and he was good enough to supply the print file, which can be downloaded off The Secret of Zoone page on my website. The direct link to the 3D print file is here.

A character in a suitcase at Hatch House Montessori School

After presenting at the Ajax Public Library, I zoomed to a Montessori School in Whitby. This was an incredible 90-year old building that looks like a castle!

hatchouse-turret

The inside was just as amazing, with rich wood paneling along the narrow hallways. I simply just didn’t have time to take photos; in truth, I would have loved exploring that building for a couple of hours. (I bet there are cool doors down in the basement!)

The great thing about this presentation is that it was very intimate, with only twelve students in attendance. So, I didn’t need to set up my computer and projector; I just simple opened up my wizard’s suitcase and started showing the kids my artifacts.

Afterwards, we handed out blank paper and I had the kids design their own suitcases. The previous day, at the Children’s Book Bank in Toronto, I had provided the kids with premade templates, but that was mostly because they were younger and sometimes a bit more structure can be more helpful.

But at Hatch House, I had more time and less students, so I led them through a more organized process. As they designed their suitcases, I had them think about what characters would own them. Many of the kids chose characters such as princesses, spies, pirates, or magical animals (we even had a half-human, half-dragon—a “dragonoid”).

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One impish student, however, decided that the owner of her suitcase was ME. Based on this drawing, I need some dental work—STAT!

hatchhouse-suitcase05-mrwiz

This activity is a lot of fun because it allows students to develop character (and story) from a different perspective—by SHOWING the character’s personality by the things he or she owns. (Writing teachers? We love to harp on our students about showing not telling.)

Enchanted trees and magical markets with Immanuel Christian School

After Hatch House, I jumped in my car, set my GPS, and roared off to the next school. Unfortunately, my GPS and my Google Maps print-out (because, yes, I like to have a back-up) were both convinced that the school was in Oshawa.

It is not.

It is also in Whitby—which means I went completely the opposite direction and got lost. To be fair to everyone (including me!) the school usedto be in Oshawa. I finally pulled over, rechecked some information and got turned around in time to make it to the school in time for both lunch and my presentations.

My first workshop was with the junior grades (1-5). In this presentation, I talked about enchanted trees and showed pictures of various trees that I have “collected” during my travels (don’t worry—I don’t take snippings! My collection just involves photos).

Afterwards, we brainstormed our own trees, including what the tree looks like, what it might grow, and who might live in it!

The kids came up with their own unique designs; as for the group tree, we ended up with a donut tree.

immanuelcs-donuttree.jpg

As you can see, he is really grumpy and doesn’t want to share his donuts, even though he has such nice rainbow-coloured leaves. Thankfully, there is a donut dragon living in his foliage, ready to swoop in and help weary and hungry travellers sneak a treat!

The second group was the tweens and teens. I showed them some photos of my visits to markets in Europe, Asia, Egypt, and Guatemala then we brainstormed our own magical shops, inventing all kinds of mysterious, arcane, or enchanted items that might be for sale. As you can see, the kids took great delight in populating the shop with different sorts of EGGS (because, as soon as you tell kids you can’t stand eggs, they go to town). Also, they added dragon poop. Yep, they went there. So, if you think about it, our market features the complete cycle of life.

immanuelcs-market.jpg

Favourite question of the day

My favourite question from today was one I’ve never had before:  “Which book did you enjoy writing the most?”

I often get asked which book I like the most, but not which one I liked writing the most. I actually didn’t have an answer for this question! Each book involves its own unique challenges. I think I remember more of the emotional torment I feel while writing a book—not the positive stuff. There are certainly times when I’m writing that everything is flowing smoothly, but then I don’t think about it—I’m just going with that flow. But when something is going wrong—like I’ve just tumbled into a massive plot hole—that’s what I really remember!

Well, tomorrow will be a unique day on this tour. I’m spending the entire day at a single school! (Which, for those keeping track, really reduces my opportunities for getting lost.)

About Book Week

TD Canadian Children’s Book Week is the single most important national event celebrating Canadian children’s books and the importance of reading. Hundreds of schools, public libraries, bookstores and community centres host events as part of this major literary festival.

 

TD Book Week Tour ~ Day 1

TD Book Week Tour ~ Day 1

Today was the official start of my TD Canadian Children’s Book Week tour in Toronto and surrounding areas.

Yesterday, I chronicled my long travel day. Despite that long day, and the time difference, I sprang out of bed this morning before my alarm actually went off. Always a good sign!

I had three different places to visit, so I made sure I left with extra travel time to spare. Which I needed, because I got lost twice before even arriving at my visit—the first time just trying to find my way to the hotel parking lot from the front lobby.

Do NOT underestimate my ability to get lost!

Enchanted vessels at Shaughnessy Public School

My first visit was for an audience of K-6 in a gymnasium setting. Gyms aren’t my favorite places to present because they are often so big and vacuous and, for some reason I can never fathom, schools are always keen to arrange the kids so that there is giant 100-foot gap between me and them. At Shaughnessy Public School, though, the gym is small and intimate, and I could easily interact with the kids.

Here’s a picture of me at the presentation (photo by Grace Wu).

shaughnessypublicschool

Part of my presentation included an interactive brainstorming session based around the theme of “enchanted vessels.” I led them through the activity, asking them to consider important details for their vessels, including shape, design, decoration, and other sensory details—such as sounds that the vessel might make, or what it might feel like to touch it. Of course, they also had to decide how it could be opened and what it might contain.

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Secret doorways at St. Joseph’s Catholic School

My next stop was only a short drive away. I didn’t get lost! I had plenty of time to unload my kit, drop it off to the school, then go for lunch. The school is located in the Leslie Village neighborhood and I really dug it. There were so many old doors along Queen Street! (Anyone who knows me, knows I dig doors).

Here’s a beautiful flourish I found decorating just one of the many neat doors I encountered.

doorflourish-leslievillage.jpg

After lunch, I headed back to the school and set up my space in the library. I had an enthusiastic group of Grades 3-6 who were bursting with questions about my props and approach to writing.

Similar to the morning session, I led the students in an interactive brainstorming session, but this time around the theme of—you guessed it—doors.

Here are some of the kids’ creations:

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Spellbinding suitcases at the Children’s Book Bank

My final visit was at the Children’s Book Bank, which is a wonderful little hybrid between a library and a bookshop—except no one pays for the book. The Book Bank provides free books and literacy support to children living in low-income neighborhoods across Toronto.

I absolutely adored the space in its beautiful brick building with its delightful corners for curling up and reading a good book or two.

bookbank01

bookbank02

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But there was no time for ME to disappear into a book during my visit. I was busy presenting to two different afternoon groups!

I was also treated to a great surprise—two representatives, Emma and Kirsti, came from the Children’s Book Centre to watch me at work and take photos. I actually like it when parents, teachers, school board trustees, and other representatives come to see my workshops and presentations because I think that’s the only true way to really get to understand what I do.

Having said that, what I delivered at the Children’s Book Bank was pretty different from what I usually do. Because of the intimate setting, I didn’t show slides, but simply sat down, and told stories using all of the items in my wizard’s suitcase as visual aids.

They were enthralled, to say the least—which was good, because the activity I had for them was decorating and designing a suitcase that might belong to a traveler who would visit Zoone. Afterwards, they got to think about what that traveler might have inside his suitcase.

bookbank05

bookbank06

It was all over in a blur!

Favorite question of the day

I get bombarded with questions during a school visit, and I always like to try and pick out one or two that really stand out. The first question that pops into my head came from Shaughnessy Public School. A girl asked, “How do you get all these names for these characters and worlds?”

But I think my true favorite question came from a little girl at the Children’s Book Bank, who asked, “Can I buy your notebook?”

The answer, of course, was “NO!” Why? Well, that brainstorming notebook is howI come up with all of those names for my characters and worlds!

You can see the brainstorming book in the photo below (photo courtesy of Emma Hunter at the Children’s Book Centre).

Toronto Book Bank 01

About Book Week

TD Canadian Children’s Book Week is the single most important national event celebrating Canadian children’s books and the importance of reading. Hundreds of schools, public libraries, bookstores and community centres host events as part of this major literary festival.

 

TD Book Week Tour ~ Day 0

TD Book Week Tour ~ Day 0

I’m currently on the TD Canadian Children’s Book Week tour in Toronto (and nearby areas) and I’ve committed to journaling (blogging) each day about my experiences.

TD Canadian Children’s Book Week is the single most important national event celebrating Canadian children’s books and the importance of reading. Hundreds of schools, public libraries, bookstores and community centres host events as part of this major literary festival.

One of the great things about this tour is it takes Canadian chidlren’s writers, illustrators, and storytellers and sends them out of their “home” territory. I chose to visit Toronto, because well, I like the big city and it also gave me an opportunity to tack on a day to visit my god daughter.

Before that? Well, I’m going to babble myself to death talking about my new book, The Secret of Zoone.

Secret of Zoone - fancy door background.jpg

Today was “Day 0” of the tour. How can a tour have a “Day 0”? That’s easy! It’s called a travel day.

I had chosen an 8:00 am flight, which meant getting up bright and early to get to the airport. I had packed the day before, including carefully arranging my Wizard’s suitcase and setting it right by the front door for a quick departure:

wizard_suitcase_readytogo.jpg

I had also prepared my “travel survival kit”, which includes:

  • Coffee
  • Throat tea
  • Emergency snacks
  • Hand sanitizer

. . . and bookmarks—I thought these would be particularly helpful if I had to explain to airport security why I was carrying such a unique suitcase.

tour_survival_kit.jpg

Well, I got up bright and early at 5:20. I had checked my flight the night before, but forgot to recheck it at such an early hour. I simply jumped in a cab and off I went. On the way, my driver told me that they were busily closing down many of the major routes in Vancouver for the annual marathon.

“In another hour or two, you’re not getting to the airport quickly,” he told me.

Whew! I congratulated myself on choosing such an early flight—but all the relief evaporated the moment I arrived at the airport. Turned out my flight was cancelled.

Not delayed.

Cancelled!

I quickly hopped into the ticketing line and got rebooked on the 10:00 am flight.

Which was immediately delayed by two hours.

yvr_delayedflight_screen

So much for my plan to get into Toronto early to give myself prep and relax time before hitting my first visit Monday morning.

First things first, was getting through security. I had already been worried what they would think of my suitcase and I watched in amusement as I saw it appear on the X-ray monitor, with all the metal bits (the keys!) jumping out on the image.

Sure enough, the case got pulled over. The attendant took one look at it, with the gear and the locks, and told me to open it.

So what caused it to get an extra inspection? It wasn’t the dragon eggs, the potion bottle with glowing stones, the bestiary, or even the secret key to Zoone. It was those pesky bookmarks! I guess they couldn’t tell what they were!

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Well, I eventually boarded my flight and from there it was pretty smooth sailing, with us landing at Toronto Pearson airport without further delay. I snatched up my check bag, picked up my rental car, and off I went.

But not without circling the airport car rental lot first. That’s because I missed the turnoff to the highway, and it reminded me of the LAST time I did the TD Book Week tour. On that occasion, I was travelling with fellow author Tanya Lloyd Kyi and we must have circled that airport lot three times. So, I guess my work has improved—this time, just one circle and I was off and running.

Now, I’m finally ensconced in my hotel room, ready for my first suite of visits tomorrow. On the sched? A public school, a Catholic school, and one children’s book bank!

 

 

A storytelling carnival in Korea

A storytelling carnival in Korea

I recently returned from Korea where I led a week-long creative writing camp for tweens and teens with authors Stacey Matson and Dan Bar-el. We survived the heat (at one point, it was 49 degrees Celsius, with humidity!) and managed to deliver a great program for our students.

Creative approaches to writing

Our creative writing camp was delivered through the Creative Writing for Children Society of Vancouver (CWC) and was designed around the theme of a Storytelling Carnival. This gave us lots of fuel for creative ideas—including gift parcels (in old-fashioned popcorn bags) full of fun activities such as yo-yos, stickers, and circus animal erasers.

At our camps, students usually write a lot of stories and poems, illustrate their work, and build props, working towards the goal of publishing an anthology of their creations.

cwccamp2018_bookcover.jpg

Storytelling

This year, we added a whole other factor under the expert leadership of Dan Bar-el: Oral storytelling. Each evening, Dan led “campfire” sessions, in which the kids created stories and practiced telling them. The younger students wrote stories based around the idea of a carnival and did the storytelling in themes. Our older kids took on a greater challenge: their subject was taking traditional Korean myths and telling modernized versions.

Prop-building, steampunk style

One of the main projects I led at camp was helping the students to design and decorate their own steampunk style books. I did this project at local libraries in BC a couple of years ago, and decided to bring it to Korea.

cwccamp2018_steampunkbookbuilding.jpg

The idea is that the students not only get a cool notebook by the end of the project, but it can serve as inspiration for a short story. There are plenty of tales of dangerous or forbidden books in the fantasy genre (think of the chained books in Harry Potter), so I thought this would be a good way to stir the imagination.

Here are a few photos of some of their creations:

cwccamp2018_steampunkbook06cwccamp2018_steampunkbook05cwccamp2018_steampunkbook04cwccamp2018_steampunkbook03cwccamp2018_steampunkbook02cwccamp2018_steampunkbook01

Character brainstorming

One of my favorite activities that I led was an interactive brainstorming session. I had the kids brainstorm a character who might participate in the circus, including coming up with all the minute details. As a way to galvanize them, I brainstormed my own character at the front of the group, using their individual suggestions to help build my character.

Here’s my character . . . “poop boy”:

cwccamp2018_poop_boy_brainstorming

And here’s a few of the characters the students came up with:

cwccamp2018_characterbrainstorming03cwccamp2018_characterbrainstorming02cwccamp2018_characterbrainstorming01

Afterwards, the project was to write a short “I Am” poem about the character. I decided I would write one based on the group character we developed. Here it is . . .

I am a poop boy

I am a poop boy
Shovelling truckloads of dung
Every
Single
Day.
It never ends.

Lions, monkeys, and elephants
—which is worse?
I can’t tell you.

The monkeys swing above me
Bombarding me with feces.
Sometimes, they even fling it at me,
Forcing me to wear
A handkerchief around my head.

The lions mangle and maul me,
Snatching at me with weaponized paws;
Those razor nails scratch and scrape me
Until I look like shredded paper.

And the elephants?
They leave behind MOUNTAINS of poop.
I wear three masks around my face,
A clothespin on my nose,
Goggles across my eyes,
But nothing seems to work.
The stench always wriggles its way through,
Causing everything to run:
My eyes, my nose, even my ears.

I wish I could run.
Away.

But I can’t
—not if I want to achieve my dreams.
One day, I will stand and strut
In the glare of the bright lights
And be the star of the show
With a crack of my whip
A twirl of my cane
And a tip of my hat.
People won’t call me
Stinky Will anymore.
No, sir!

They’ll look at my fine clothes,
Not handed down to me
From some second-rate clown,
But tailored and hand-stitched
Just for me,
And they’ll call me Ringmaster Will
And all of these poopy problems
Will be just a distant memory.

~

Well, most kids came up with characters far more prestigious than a poop boy! We had a lot of ringmasters, acrobats, and knife-throwers. Having the brainstorming portion completed help them be more detailed in their poems and, also, helped me with editing their work–if, for example, I noticed a dearth of description in their poems, I could point them back to their visual brainstorming.

Many kids took the visual brainstorming to heart and did it for other stories and projects in the camp, too:

cwccamp2018_plot_brainstormingcwccamp2018_carnivalfood_brainstorming

The camp was a lot of work for Stacey, Dan, myself, and our team of counselors, but it was a giant success. No one melted in the heat (even when we made the kids go outside for certain activities) and we’ll soon be publishing our anthology.

Here’s a photo of Stacey, Dan, and I and our students at the end of the camp.

cwccamp2018_group

There was no rest to be had though; immediately after the camp, Stacey, Dan, and I embarked on a tour of libraries in Korea. But more on that in a future post . . .

Finding the threads: weaving together different strands of inspiration for a new children’s book series

Finding the threads: weaving together different strands of inspiration for a new children’s book series

Everyone has a different approach to writing. Some of my friends are unabashed “pantsers” (flying by the seats of their pants as they write), while others are plotters. I’m somewhere in between. I like to plot to a certain point, then fly by the seat of my pants, trusting in the process.

What about you?

Last year, I reached the stage that so many authors dream of: signing a three-book deal with a major publisher. In my case, it’s a children’s middlegrade book series called Zoone, which will start coming out with HarperCollins in 2019.

It’s really exciting, but it’s forced me to confront a schedule I’m not used to, essentially having to deliver three books in three years.

Book 1, no problem! It was mostly done anyway. But I took a decidedly different approach to Books 2 and 3.

I’ve written sequels before (four of them, in fact, for my Kendra Kandlestar series) and I find myself facing the same situation: the world is created, the main characters established, and now it’s time to make something that equals—and hopefully surpasses—everything I achieved in Book 1.

A New Approach

The differences with this series is that 1) it just doesn’t involve one made-up world and 2) it doesn’t have one major plot arc stretching over all three books. (An emotional arc, yes, but not a plot one).

World-Building

This time, I’ve created a multiverse filled with many different worlds. I don’t cover them all in the series, but there are dozens that are mentioned, which has prompted me to become an expert record-keepering, building a “bible” of kingdoms, empires, and lands. This bible lists all the important details of each world: flora, fauna, official symbols and colors, type of money, and of course any specific mentions in any of the books.

zoone_bible_gresswyden

Plot

In a way, world-building is the easy part for me. Or at least the super-fun part. Plot is always a bit more challenging. This time, I decided to tease the plots out of my world-building.

Inspiration from everywhere

Even before I had a contract, I knew I wanted to do more than one book with these characters and worlds. So, for the past few years, I’ve been collecting lots of inspiration, especially from my travels. At the time, I didn’t worry about where exactly anything would fit; I just focused on recording the things that inspired me.

I took a lot of photos, of course, but more important to my process are the ideas recorded in my various notebooks. I usually like to have one notebook per project, but in the past couple years, I’ve been filling those up and now am in the multiple notebooks stage for this one project.

Hunting for inspiration

Some places I went to intentionally to seek out specific inspiration. For example, Hạ Long Bay in Vietnam was a place I knew that would serve as a model for one of the worlds I wanted to build.

Of course, in today’s world of connectivity, you can browse photos and videos of virtually any place on the planet. But there are some ideas that you can simply only stumble upon by being in a place.

That’s exactly what happened at Hạ Long Bay for me. I knew the limestone cliffs would inspire me, but I hadn’t considered the interractions with the people. To be honest, I didn’t even think there were people (other than tourists) at Hạ Long Bay.

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But it was on the second day of our tour when I wandered onto the deck of our boat at the crack of dawn to hear this almost-woeful call: “Something to buy? Something to buy?”

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I gazed over the railing and there, appearing out of the mist, was a young girl on a boat full of snacks and sodas.

She was, as I later learned, a Vietnamese boat child. These children live with their families on their junks and traditionally eke out a living by fishing, but now they’ve adapted to the hordes of tourists and add to their income by selling stuff. We were told that many of the children live out their entire lives on the boats. It’s only recently that the government has been making some changes to try and ensure these kids get some formal education.

That whole situation sent a spark flying through my imagination. I remember sitting with my wife afterwards and stopping halfway through a sentence to stare blankly into space (I do that a lot). When she asked what was going on, I replied with one of those countless “What-if” questions that every author asks his or her partner about a plot.

After I asked my question (which, of course, I can’t reveal) I immediately rejected the idea. I knew it would cause A LOT of problems overall to the series. In particular, it would flip something already established in Book 1 completely on its head. As soon as I realized THAT, I knew it was completely the right call to make for the series. Yes, it’s a problem for me to write, it’s a problem for the characters to deal with. So now I’ve got to go that way—it will make the rest story. That initial spark of inspiration has become a lightning bolt. And it would have never have happened if I hadn’t actually gone to Hạ Long Bay.

Inspiration accidentally discovered

There are times when I’m not seeking for inspiration AT ALL. When we went to Hawaii a couple of years ago, it was to seek true R&R, to take a break from our creative but consuming careers, and to switch off.

Yeah, right.

Thankfully I was clever enough to pack my brainstorming journals. Inspiration walloped me from every direction on that trip, not only in terms of the diverse landscape of the big island of Hawaii, but in terms of the wonderful wildlife.
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Time to deliver

So, now I’m in this fun (harrowing?) stage of combing through everything, trying to find some thread of a storyline from this tapestry of setting sketches, character and creature doodles, and ramblings scribbled across all these different notebooks.

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There’s not only drawings and words made while in Hawaii and Vietnam, but also Korea, Cambodia, Ireland, and England. I am now seeing a theme in my notebooks: I rarely wrote facts down about each of the places we visited. I was already creating new worlds in my sketches and notes. Those experiences went through my filter and instantly became alternate realities.

It’s still the roughest of brainstorming, but at least there is a lot of fuel for me to dwell upon and to—hopefully—turn into something concrete.

Well, there you have it. Time to do some plotting—and some pantsing.

 

Our days in Cambodia: exploring the Killing Fields

Our days in Cambodia: exploring the Killing Fields

The last couple of days my wife Marcie and I spent in Cambodia were spent exploring the Killing Fields. Even though the focus of this trip was about seeking fantastical inspiration by exploring the temple ruins of Angkor and exotic cultural experiences, we knew it was incumbent upon on to examine this aspect of Cambodia’s history. When it came to the Killing Fields, this was not about finding inspiration, but about increasing our awareness.

We made visits to two different sites related to the Killing Fields: the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, just outside of Phnom Penh, and the Tuol Sleng Prison Genocide Museum, which is located within the city itself.

Both visits were difficult experiences. That probably goes without saying, but our visits coincided with the storm coming out in the news of certain presidents referring to developing countries as “sh*thole countries.” There’s been a lot of debate about what was actually said, but to me, it’s not the specific words that matter—it’s the sentiment. And that unthinking, unfeeling attitude pervaded my thoughts as we trudged through the grounds where thousands—thousands—of people were killed because they did not fit a political leaders view of what fit. Men. Women. Children.

I had read quite a bit about the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and, in preparation for our visit, had rewatched the 1984 film The Killing Fields. Still, nothing had prepared me for our visit.

I knew that there was a memorial “stupa” at the Choeung Ek Genocidal site, and that it was filled with the skulls and bones of victims. I had seen photos online. The ones below are the ones we took:

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The bones and skulls have all been exhumed from the grounds. They are all real and grimly categorized by researchers who have tried to determine the sex of the victim and the means by which they were killed. There are over 5,000 skulls in the stupa.

So, yes, I was prepared to see the stupa. But what I didn’t know was that the grounds themselves are still scattered with human remains. It’s a testament to just how many people were slaughtered there between 1974 and 1979. Cambodia lost one-quarter of its population during the time and there are dozens of killing fields scattered throughout the country.

Choeung Ek was one of the main killing fields and because there are so many bodies buried there in mass graves, human remains are still rising to the surface. You can see them as you walk about—bones, clothes, teeth. They boil to the top of the ground, especially during the rains. It’s overwhelming, shocking, eerie, and heartbreaking to see them as you tour the place. There are not just one or two. They are everywhere.

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There are so many in fact, that the caretakers go through every few months to gather the ones that come to the surface. There are many display cases throughout the site, containing rags and human remains, and even on top of the cases there are piles of bones and teeth, newly-discovered and waiting to be put away.

There are many specific horrors described on the tour. We found the ones involving children and babies especially difficult to comprehend and absorb. Actually, I’m not sure we have absorbed it yet.

And now? The site is quiet, green and peaceful. Chickens wander the grounds. There are cattle grazing beyond the fences. Blossoming flowers. The shallow depressions in the ground, the remnants of the mass graves and the scattering of bones and rags are the only things that reveal the tragic nature of the site.

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After visiting Choeung Ek, we climbed into the tuk-tuk we had hired for the day and headed back into the city. We were actually meant to visit Tuol Sleng Prison afterwards, but when our driver pulled up, we just didn’t have it in us to do it. We had our driver take us back to our hotel and worked up the fortitude to visit the prison the following day.

Which we did.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is situated in one of the most famous prisons that was used during Pol Pot’s regime. It was once a high school, converted into a prison and torture chamber. People did die here, but that was never the regime’s intention. This was meant for detention and interrogation. It’s estimated that between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (also known as “S-21”). Many people, after torture, were sent to the Killing Fields to die. There are only twelve people confirmed to have survived the horrors of the prison.

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I’m glad we went to Tuol Sleng, but I’m also glad we didn’t do it in the same day as Choeung Ek. It allowed us to manage it emotionally and to give us a fighting chance to absorb it.

Here, you can see the prison cells and torture chambers, many of them in the exact same condition as when they were first used.

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tuolsleng-cell

Rooms once used to educate high school students were converted into individual or mass cells, hastily built with wood or bricks. Holes were punched crudely into the walls to allow guards to see down the entire chain of cells. Many of the floors are still stained with the result of gruesome torture.

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There also many rooms in the buildings that showcase exhibits related to the genocide. One of the most overwhelming aspects are the photos—there are hundreds of them, the mugshots of the people who were detained there. Every single prison (man, women, and child) were photographed and catalogued. You can see into their eyes in the photos—going to Tuol Sleng, it’s impossibly to escape the grisly reality of the genocide.

And that is a good thing. Nothing about the prison—or Choeung Ek for that matter—is sanitized.

Marcie and I are still thinking about our visits to these places and trying to rectify the Killing Fields with our other experiences in Cambodia. We have found the people here so friendly, kind, and generous. How can this possibly be after having gone through such atrocity?

When we attended a show of cultural dancing, the host of the evening said that it was Cambodia’s hope to be known for its art, and not the Killing Fields. That made me ponder. In truth, the first thing that always popped into my head about Cambodia was the wonders of Angkor. And I think that will still be the case in the years to come. When I remember our time in that wonderful country, I think I will dwell on the temples first. But it is certainly hard to not think of what we saw at the Killing Fields.

My former student, Dona, is currently volunteering in Cambodia and learning more about it’s culture everyday. After parting with her, she messaged me to say, “I hope that you two had a good time in Cambodia and find inspiration but also knowledge on how this country has been shaped and continues to persevere. I hope you take back your learnings to the communities you meet everyday.”

Such a wise person (and isn’t it humbling when your student becomes the teacher?). Perhaps what I will take away from Cambodia is not a visual memory, but an emotional sentiment: Empathy.