Welcome to the six hundred and thirty-seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with children’s author and editor Maggie Lyons. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Maggie. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Maggie: I’m a trapeze artist, astronaut, spy—just kidding! Well, the bit about being a spy is true. It was a long time ago in a far off land, lots of fun, and planets away from my middle-class upbringing in the UK. I was born in a little coal-mining town in South Wales and properly brought up in England where I did English things like attending an all-girls grammar school, playing rounders, doing two hours of homework every day, and going on soggy caravan holidays with my family. I also trained as a classical pianist, which meant annoying family and neighbors with daily four-hour practices. Once I grew up—wait, that’s a fib; I’ve never actually grown up—I experimented with hedonism in Paris, where, among other things, I taught English to very proper French schoolgirls, and I failed to abide by the British embassy’s social rules in Romania, but that’s another story. My job in Bucharest was to appease visiting Royal Ballet dancers. If you’ve ever attempted to herd butterflies, you’ll know what I mean. Soon after that I gravitated to the USA because the streets there were supposed to be paved with gold. They weren’t, but I stayed anyway and finally wound up catching my breath in a tranquil fishing and farming community on Virginia’s coast.
The rest of my so-called professional life has been a regal zigzag through a motley variety of careers from orchestral management to law-firm media relations to academic editing, all of which entailed a lot of writing and editing. Although that work brought me plenty of satisfaction, it didn’t produce the kind of magic that can come from writing fiction and nonfiction for children.
Morgen: You’re a funny lady. I expect there’s a lot of humour in your writing. You write children’s books, was there a reason to choose this genre?
Maggie: Children’s literature has always fascinated me. My parents read bedtime stories to me when I was a child and I read stories to my son when he was small. All I needed was an excuse to borrow books from the children’s library, and declaring myself to be a children’s writer did the trick. Studying the work of great children’s writers gives me the chance to indulge my love of that enchanting mix of innocence, escapism, imagination, and humor that bubbles out of children’s literature.
Morgen: It certainly does. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Maggie: Several of my articles and poetry have been published in the online children’s Stories for Children Magazine, and most generously, Phillip Chipping published the entire adventure story Dewi the Red Dragon in his online children’s magazine knowonder! Vin and the Dorky Duet, my adventure story for tweens, published by MuseItUp Publishing, is available as an e-book at the publisher’s bookstore, Amazon, and other outlets. My adventure fantasy Dewi and the Seeds of Doom will be published by MuseItUp in October 2012. They are all published under my own name. The books’ website is: http://www.maggielyons.yolasite.com.
Morgen: What age group do you write for?
Maggie: The adventure stories are written for children around the ages of seven to twelve. I am also trying my hand at picture books, which I find to be a surprisingly difficult genre.
Morgen: I’ve heard that. I’ve never had children and have written very little for children. How would you say writing for children compares to writing for adults?
Maggie: Writing for children is just as difficult if not more so. There are rules—conventions, if you will—that children’s writers must be aware of, although they may not follow all of them. You have to know the ages of your readers, their interests, their language. You have to know what is appropriate and what isn’t for certain age groups. You have to know what children want to read, or what you think you can interest them in reading. To make things more difficult, you have to appeal to the grown-ups who decide what children should read, who buy the books children read, and—your first hurdle—who guard the entrance to the kingdom of publishing.
Morgen: I love the way you put that. Do you get a second opinion on your stories before they’re published – if so from adults, children or both?
Maggie: I belong to a critique group of fellow children’s writers whose advice and suggestions are invaluable. My publisher’s editors contribute their viewpoints, and my fiancé, who has an unfailing sense of humor, is also a priceless resource. For Vin and the Dorky Duet, I was fortunate to have the help of an eleven-year-old who educated me on the intricacies of kidspeak and kidthink. Language, being a living entity, has changed a great deal from when I was young and even from when my son was young. It’s particularly challenging for me because having been brought up in Britain and having returned with my son to live there for a few years before going back to the USA, I often confuse British and American English. As they say, Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.
Morgen: We are indeed (my editor is Californian). Do you have any tips for anyone thinking about writing for children?
Maggie: It’s one of the most competitive businesses out there—at least, it is if you want to be published, and who doesn’t want that? Write and read and read and write as much as you can—books by other children’s writers, publications on writing, and publications about publishing and marketing your work, and try writing nonfiction and short stories for children’s magazines. Join online groups of writers on LinkedIn.com and at Yahoo. Join a critique group—online or local—but be discriminating in your acceptance of the group’s advice. If you concede to all of it, you’ll wind up with homogenized, ultrapasteurized goo. If you are surrounded by children, so much the better. If you’re not already a schoolteacher, consider offering your services as a teaching assistant or substitute teacher. If you don’t have children of your own, persuade your friends to let you borrow their children or grandchildren for critiques of your writing. The children you ask to read your stories will be pleased to be treated as experts.
Morgen: I have a family living next door; 5 years to late teens so a great test market should I take the plunge. Are your books available as eBooks?
Maggie: My books are published only as e-books by MuseItUp, but I’m working on my own print versions.
Morgen: Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Maggie: I have a soft spot for Dewi, the Welsh dragon who seems to go out of his way to get into trouble and for Vin who is dogged by trouble despite his best efforts to stay out of it. If Dewi the Red Dragon were to be made into an animated movie—ah, what a fantastic dream! The voice would have to be a young actor, and child actors grow up so fast. I’ve no idea at this point who’d make a good Dewi.
Maybe Daniel Radcliff or Elijah Wood would make a good narrator for Dewi’s role, and perhaps Ian McKellen would be a good choice for the voice of Dewi’s father. As for Vin, child actors grow up so fast, but maybe the young American actor Preston Bailey would fit the bill.
Morgen: I don’t know of Preston (great surname though!) but getting the rest of the cast would be fantastic. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Maggie: For Vin and the Dorky Duet, I designed the cartoon of Vin in his go kart, which my publisher’s cover artist then turned into finished cover art. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but who doesn’t take a book’s cover into account when browsing and when doesn’t an attractive cover tempt a browser to open the book? If the cover is the first impression a potential reader has of a book, it had better make an impact, don’t you think? Studies have shown that a potential buyer’s interest in a book can be influenced by three attributes: the author’s reputation, the publisher’s reputation, and the attractiveness of the book’s cover. And it’s important that the cover represents the story well. The cover for Vin and the Dorky Duet, for example, was inspired by one of the book’s main events.
Morgen: I guess children’s book covers are even more important than adults because, as you said earlier, they have to appeal to the children and their parents. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Maggie: I’m writing a picture book that plays with the music of language while it sings about nature’s vulnerability.
Morgen: What a lovely idea. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Maggie: Big confession: I don’t write fiction every day. I should, just as I try to practice the piano every day. I’m painfully aware that skills are like silver: you can’t acquire them and expect them to stay bright and shiny without polishing them. But I do write less elevated prose every day, and I try to polish even my e-mails if time allows.
I suffer horribly from writer’s block. Sometimes a walk down a country lane will clear it. If it doesn’t, I move to another country.
Morgen: Ouch. An expensive way to cure writer’s block! Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Maggie: I plot a general outline, and the ideas sprout as I start to fill the outline in. I ask what-if questions all the time: What if he did that? What if she said that? What if this happened? Some ideas drop in from outer space all by themselves.
Morgen: Don’t they just; I have far too many but I’m not complaining. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Maggie: I’m not at all methodical when it comes to character creation. The character forms as the storyline progresses. To make a credible character, you have to add a heaping pinch of consistency to the mix of behavior, speech, and thought. Having a character act out of character requires cordon bleu finesse. That’s a challenge like baking the perfect Cornish pasty. I haven’t risen to it yet.
I love inventing names, especially those with a hidden meaning, which the beautifully flexible medium of children’s literature is made for—the dreadful Baron Doom in Dewi and the Seeds of Doom being an example. Jones the Tongue is another name I had fun with for the chemistry-mad toad in that same book.
Morgen: I think only the Cornish can create Cornish pasty. Every now and then there’s a big hoo-har about other areas of the country making them. I’m not a huge fan of them but you can’t beat authentic anything really. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Maggie: I do tons of editing. I earn my living as an editor, so I actually like editing—fancy that!
Morgen: Indeed. I’m not a fan of it, although I do a lot of it. I’d love to just write and pass it on to someone else to sort out but (a) it’s not fair (b) it would be expensive. Do you have to do much research?
Maggie: I spend a fair amount of time doing research because I enjoy it—sometimes too much; it becomes an excuse not to move on with the story. I had fun researching early ragtime music for Vin and the Dorky Duet, which, as the title suggests, has music as one of its themes. I was captivated by research on the gorgeous countryside around the west coast of Wales to set the scene for Dewi and the Seeds of Doom. I was born in Glamorganshire but have never taken the time to browse the beauty of Pembrokeshire, a sad oversight which I fully intend to rectify very soon.
Morgen: It wasn’t until I was preparing to move area (50 miles up the M1) twenty years ago that I realised how much of my original area (south Buckinghamshire) was unknown to me. Whilst I’ve not investigated it, I have explored my ‘new’ area. What point of view do you find most to your liking?
Maggie: I’m still experimenting. Vin is written in the first person. Dewi is written in the third person. They both have their advantages and their drawbacks. First person seems to throw up verb-tense traps, for example, when the main character, who writes his story in the past tense, muses on something that is still a feature of his current situation or is a thought he’s having as he writes. On the other hand, one of first person’s endearing characteristics is to throw its arms around reader and writer and draw them closer together. It’s more intimate than its third-person cousin, which may or may not be a virtue.
Morgen: As you say, they both have their fors and againsts; I’ve written one novel in first person and the rest (five) in third person. First gets you inside your protagonist’s head but sadly that’s the only one it can be in. Sometimes you just need to explore everyone’s. Do you write any poetry, novels, non-fiction or short stories?
Maggie: I have written a few children’s poems and want to find the time to write a few more, maybe even publish an anthology. I have written a number of articles, several of which were published by the online Stories for Children Magazine. I’ve written short stories for adults. One, “History Repeats Itself,” was published in the online magazine Apollo’s Lyre. My article on the trumpets of Tutankhamun was published in Ancient Egypt magazine and the children’s version was published in Stories for Children Magazine. I’m currently seeking a publisher for a picture book.
Morgen: Good luck with that. Do let us know how you get on. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Maggie: There are several that will quietly expire at the bottom of a file.
Morgen: What an image. 😦 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Maggie: Dewi was rejected by at least ten agents and one or two publishers before MuseItUp Publishing accepted it. Vin received rejections from about eighty agents. Again, I didn’t query many publishers. Agents prefer that an author doesn’t approach publishers because it can jeopardise the agent’s efforts, which is understandable.
Rejections inflict pain, which doesn’t subside with experience. If you don’t want to stand trial, you can settle for self-publishing, but you won’t enjoy the thrill and benefits of successfully proving your case to a jury.
Morgen: Wow. You have perseverance. I’m so glad it worked out for you. So you don’t have an agent, do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Maggie: In children’s book publishing, at least, writers can still find publishers open to queries, although an increasing number of major publishers are no longer open to unagented solicitations. The upside to this is that a growing number of small presses are open to direct inquiries from writers.
Morgen: They are, absolutely. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Maggie: My publisher is a small, new company. I’m expected to do my own marketing. I probably average three to five full days a month doing nothing but promoting my books. I’m such a recently-published book author I haven’t yet established myself as a “brand.”
Morgen: It’s tough to do it but it’s fun as we get to talk to potential readers directly, like being in a global bookshop… although being in that bookshop along with thousands of other authors. 🙂 What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Maggie: I love playing with words. I’m still not used to the standard rejection in which the editor or agent doesn’t explain why a manuscript was rejected, although I fully understand the reasons for not going into detail. It’s like trying to play a game of darts after being blindfolded and spun around. I applaud—no, I worship—those agents / editors who throw out a directional clue or two.
Morgen: That’s the trouble with so many authors after the same goal; agents / editors just don’t have time to answer personally, unless they really see potential. Any personal reply is encouraging. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Maggie: Join a critique group. Finding the right one for you may take a while. Critiquing is a skill that requires politely proffered perspicacity. I once belonged to a group in which one member was addicted to negative contributions, delivered in uppercase triplicate. He seemed to have more problems than the piece he was critiquing. You will be expected to critique the work of your group mates as well as receive what they have to say about your work with at least a nice smile and a thank you. You have to be discriminating about what you’ll accept of their advice and what you’ll reject. If you accept all recommendations for change, you’ll wind up with homogenized, ultrapasteurized goo. To be able to discriminate, you need to read—lots. Read what others in your genre are writing. Read and absorb the work of the best writers and apply it to yours.
Morgen: I’m very lucky with the critique groups I belong to. I’ve spoken to many authors who have not been so lucky so I set up five online writing groups. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Maggie: Germaine de Stael, that feisty femme fatale, whose writing, thinking, and intellectual Parisian salons had a big impact on the literary and political community at the turn of the nineteenth century; Arthur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century, who could thrill me with a performance of all Chopin’s waltzes; and the courageous pioneer, Jeffrey Smith, who has done so much to educate people on the dangers of genetically modified food.
Whatever I were to cook, it would be organic. Maybe I’d include French onion soup with Gruyère cheese, Polish sausages, and chocolate brownies to honor countries represented by my guests.
Morgen: What a great idea, and I’m sure a great party. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Maggie: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free”—Frederick Douglass.
Morgen: That’s very true, and writing is the icing on the cake (with the cherry on top). Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Maggie: I’m a freelance copyeditor of fiction and nonfiction.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Maggie: Editing, playing the piano, wandering around the Internet, gardening, partying, traveling, and annoying people with my enthusiasm for good health.
Morgen: 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Maggie: Useful websites include: resourcesforchildrenswriters.blogspot.com; rachellegardner.com; sharingwithwriters.blogspot.com. Books include: Word Magic for Writers by Cindy Rogers; The Frugal Book Promoter by Carolyn Howard-Johnson. Also writers’ groups on LinkedIn.com and Yahoo.com.
Morgen: New websites and books to me, thank you. I’m on many writers’ groups on LinkedIn and they’re great. I’m on Yahoo but haven’t explored it much yet, I really should. Are you on any specific forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Maggie: I belong to several writers’ groups, such as Children’s Books; Authors, Writers, Publishers, Editors, & Writing Professionals; and Children’s Publishing at LinkedIn.com, and Children’s Writers and Illustrators at Yahoo.com. Group members are invaluable resources for many questions a writer may have, and, of course, participation in discussions is an indirect means of self-promotion. I’m also a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association and its forum.
Morgen: The great thing about LinkedIn is that whenever you ask a question there are so many people to answer, and put a shout-out for something, there’ll be people interested; that’s what I did when I was running low on interviews and I was inundated. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Maggie: Do you have several more hours? We could talk about the difference between what children enjoy reading and what editors / agents think they enjoy reading. We could talk about the importance of encouraging children to become avid readers and the importance of reading aloud to children. We could talk about … well, there you go, tons of interesting topics …
Morgen: I was going to suggest a spotlight but you’ve done that already. I have had very few (four) authors guest blog about writing for children so it would be great if you’d like to write something. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Maggie: Who are your favorite authors and why? What major projects are in your pipeline?
Morgen: If I had to pick one it would be Roald Dahl. I was mad keen on Stephen King’s tomes when I was a teenager so I’ve always had a dark side and would tune into Tales of the Unexpected every Sunday (I think) night. His ‘Complete Short Stories’ would be my desert island book. As for modern, Kate Atkinson is my favourite current author, especially her short story collection ‘Not the End of the World’. She’s quirky and I like to think I write like her and Roald. My stories usually have a body in them so that’s certainly Roald’s style. Thank you for joining me today, Maggie.
I then invited Maggie to include an extract of her writing…
We put the leash on Krypto and he pulled me down the driveway. As we passed my bike, this really cool idea popped in my head. I hooked the leash over the handlebar, sat on the bike, and yelled, “Mush.”
Krypto trotted out of the driveway, towing the bike with me on it. We turned right and headed down the sidewalk. On the driveway ahead of us Gran-Gran’s neighbor Gandalf—that’s what Meg and I called him because he looked like an ancient wizard—was taking mail out of his mailbox. We were a few feet away when Gandalf’s cell phone began to ring.
That was magic music to Krypto. He lifted his ears and took off like a Saturn V rocket. The dog, the bike, and I headed straight for the old man. I pulled on the leash and yelled at Krypto to stop, but he ignored me.
I tried to steer the bike, but the handlebars wouldn’t turn. Gandalf seemed to be hypnotized by Krypto and didn’t move a toe. We were three feet from him when he managed to jump out of the way. Krypto didn’t stop. He charged ahead, taking the bike and me with him.
The wind we stirred up as we rushed by blew Gandalf’s white hair all over his face and he dropped the cell phone, which continued to ring. When Krypto finally realized he was headed away from the magic music, he wheeled to the right. His leash came off the handlebar, and he boomeranged back to the phone, but my bike didn’t. It hurtled around the side of the house toward a large pile of something I didn’t have time to inspect. The front wheel struck a low fence and the bike catapulted me headlong into the waiting pile.
The smell told me everything. I’d found Gandalf’s compost heap. It oozed all over me. Gandalf must have just put some fresh garbage on it because fumes rose—well, almost. The mess stuck to my hair, my pants—you name it. It stuck and it stank. It could have been worse, though. My mouth could have been open.
and a synopsis…
The moment he walks through the door and sees the sharky grin on his older sister’s face, Vin suspects Meg is hatching a plot. He’s right. Worse still, he’s central to the outcome. Meg tells him that their music teachers, parents—everyone—expect him to play her duet for trumpet and piano at the upcoming student concert. Vin is horrified.
Meg insists that his only escape route is to persuade another trumpet player to take his place. She has the hunky Brad Stewart in mind, and she challenges Vin to introduce her to him. Vin doesn’t know Brad any better than Meg does, but Meg points out that Vin is in two classes at school with Brad’s nerdy brother. Eyeballs Stewart is the last person Vin wants to befriend until Meg’s promise of a David Beckham autographed soccer jersey changes the seventh-grader’s mind. He has five days to accomplish his mission—Operation BS—before the concert practice schedule kicks in.
His game plan, thwarted by exploding fish tanks, magnetic compost heaps, man-eating bubble baths, and other disasters ultimately succeeds, but not exactly as Vin expects.
Maggie Lyons was born in Wales and brought up in England before gravitating west to Virginia’s coast. She zigzagged her way through a motley variety of careers from orchestral management to law-firm media relations to academic editing. Writing and editing nonfiction for adults brought plenty of satisfaction but nothing like the magic she discovered in writing fiction and nonfiction for children. Several of her articles, poetry, and a chapter book have been published in the children’s magazines Stories for Children Magazine and knowonder! Vin and the Dorky Duet is published as an e-book by MuseItUp Publishing and is available at the publisher’s bookstore, Amazon, and other outlets. A paperback version is available at Halo Publishing International, Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Smashwords. Her adventure fantasy Dewi and the Seeds of Doom will be published as an e-book by MuseItUp at the end of October 2012, and as a paperback by Halo Publishing International. It will be available at the publishers’ bookstores, on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.com.
More information at website: http://www.maggielyons.yolasite.com.
Vin and the Dorky Duet e-book at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008AK7ALE.
Halo paperback available at: http://halopublishing.com/bookstore/Maggie-Lyons.
Update Feb 2013: Dewi and the Seeds of Doom is now published as both e-book (MuseItUp Publishing) and paperback (Halo Publishing International).
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