Wednesday, April 6, 2011

2011 Conference Series- Faculty Q & A with Brent Hartinger

The 20th Annual Writing and Illustrating for Children Conference is right around the corner (a good reason for a mid-week dance of joy!). We've still got so much to share about our faculty, events, and more (more celebratory dancing!). Here's an Faculty Q & A with Distinguished Faculty member Brent Hartinger. You can check out his conference bio here if you missed it.

What is the best and worst advice you were given when you started in children's literature?
Oh, the worst advice was probably also the best: "Relax! Don't worry about reviews or sales or anything. Everything will be what it will be!"

It's absolutely the right advice. Writers should try as much as possible to focus on the craft and the project they're working on, and ignore the ups and downs of the marketplace and the mixed signals your publisher might be giving you at various times in your career -- all of which you really ultimately have very little control over, so what's the point in worrying about it anyway? It's like worrying about the weather: wasted energy.

That said, for me anyway, it was simply impossible NOT to worry about it, even obsess about it, with my first few books. For the record, this is why so many authors are so miserable, despite being published!

I'm much better now -- I make a conscious point to avoid all the "marketplace" stuff as much as possible. But it's always a struggle.

What advice would you give now to others?
Well, this will sound like I'm contradicting my first answer, but I'm not: in addition to learning the craft, learn the business of publishing. Work in a bookstore or publishing house or library, go to conferences, take classes. Absorb all the information you can.

Look, here's the truth: a career as a published author is extraordinarily difficult and very, very stressful. The competition is insane -- and it's a contracting industry to boot.

So I'm a big believer in doing everything you can to avoid all those rookie mistakes that we all make at first, before we learn the unwritten rules of the industry and the marketplace. Basically, there's already so much rejection and heartache -- why invite even more on yourself by doing things that are basically certain to fail?

What was your favorite book as a child? And now?
(by C.S. Lewis) and THE GREAT BRAIN books (by John D. Fitzgerald). And I might say they're still my favorite books! They don't just get any better than that, and I still examine them regularly to try to figure out why and how the storytelling is so damn good.

Which authors/illustrators do you feel are most influencing current trends in children's literature genre?
This is a fascinating question, and I'm sure all the bestsellers and award-winners are creating and influential the trends. Or are they? I guess when push comes to shove, I'd say that "trends" are sort of out of the control of individual authors: they happen (for WHATEVER reason), and sometimes we authors are lucky enough to take advantage of them, either by writing the right book at exactly the right time (which starts a new trend), or by writing a book
that sort of taps into an existing trend.

I've actually done both these things, and it's a heady thing. But did I plan it? I wish I could say I did, but I think I was just lucky. Because other times I've tried to predict or start a new trend -- and fallen flat on my face.

I think we authors are flattering ourselves if we say we "created" a trend. Ultimately storytelling is all reinvention -- and random chance. I'm quoting William Goldman
, who first said it about screenwriting, but ... "no one knows anything." It's sadly true.

As you know, those who are in children's literature tend to have lengthy discussions on the important topic of snacks (usually a baked good). What's your favorite snack?
It's my opinion that the best food of all time -- not just the best snack! -- is popcorn. But I don't even want to be within a 50-mile radius of that microwave stuff, which I think is way over-salted, stale, and dreadful. Popcorn simply has to be popped in oil in an actual popper.

Attendees are often nervous to meet you at a conference. What, if anything, makes you nervous about being part of the faculty?
Ha! I'm never nervous if someone asks me what I think makes a good book or story -- maybe I'm deluding myself, but I think I know what I'm talking about there and actually have something worthwhile to say, an angle you don't usually hear from most other creative writing teachers
(plot is my forte, something I think is too often slighted).

But ask me what will win awards or make the best-seller list? That makes me nervous, because I have absolutely no idea whatsoever. (For the record, I don't think anyone else does either. And if this is the primary reason why you're writing, you're in the business for the wrong reason.)

What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?
It all boils down to the writing, which I love, and the feedback from readers who are so incredibly generous. Basically, the rest of it I could take or leave -- especially the traveling, which is exciting the first few times you do it, but then gets really old really fast.

What do you most want our attendees to know about you?
That I'm generally, well, an open book. I've been teaching creative writing
for years (at Tacoma's School of the Arts, the Masters in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College, and many other places (many of my students have gone on to be published very successfully). I don't teach for the money (truthfully, I make more money doing actual writing), but because I enjoy it, and I genuinely think I have something to say.

Great answers from Brent! You can learn more about Brent, and his work at his website.

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