It's my pleasure to host Lori Z. Scott. Lori and I are members of the Facebook Red River Writers group. Lori is the author of the Meghan Rose series of children's books. In a wonderful interview, Lori gives us some insight into how she got started, writing tips, and her sources of inspiration.
Without any further delay, here we go:
How did you get started in writing?
My writing journey is somewhat atypical. I taught elementary school for nine years before retiring to raise my kids. During this hiatus from teaching, I got into writing. It started when I saw a flyer for an amateur science fiction/ fantasy writing contest. I entered and won second place. Encouraged by my success, I tried MOPS International story writing contest…and WON! After that, I tried most anything that caught my fancy—short story fiction contests, personal essays, poetry, and devotions. When I wrote my first children’s story for a contest, I discovered my true love. Plus, all my years of teaching gave me an edge in the children’s market. Many poems, puzzles, and short stories later, I penned my first full children’s chapter book, which eventually led me to a contract with Standard Publishing for the Meghan Rose series.
Where did Meghan Rose come from and how has her series impacted your writing?
This is a long story I have told many times.
I enjoyed the humor in those books, but didn’t like the name calling, grammar slips, and bad attitudes. Then Meghan started acting and talking like Junie B., and I started looking elsewhere. I thought there had to something better—a book that was just as funny, but had a better role model. I simply SCOURED the Christian bookstores and talked to MANY store managers begging to find THAT BOOK. They carried Bible stories, devotional books, and picture books for that age group, but no chapter books.
At the time I did all this searching, I had already started publishing children’s stories, poems, and puzzles for magazines that I mentioned above. So when my daughter finally got fed up with my hunting and said, "Mom, you're a writer. If you can't find what you want, then YOU write it for me!!!!!!!!!" I did. I wrote the book I couldn’t find—a book just for her. I put in everything she wanted—an interesting story filled with giggles and characters worth rooting for—and everything I wanted—good moral values (but with nothing preachy about the story at all). (I hate preachy, I love amusing.)
I was preparing a VBS program to pitch at a writing conference when my bookstore conversations came back to mind. Almost on a whim, I wrote up a proposal for a whole series based on the book I wrote for my daughter. After all, I knew there had to be an untapped market because I WAS part of that untapped market.
How does your experience as a teacher help your writing?
One big advantage to being a teacher is that I’ve worked extensively with my target audience. I understand the challenges they face, the jokes they enjoy, the way they talk and act, and how they play. I believe that understanding gives my writing authenticity. I know the kids I’m writing for…and that better equips me to reach and entertain them.
The Meghan Rose series is geared for an age group that has shared a huge part of my life. I taught primary grades (K, 1, 2) for nine years before retiring to raise my own kids, and now I’m back in the classroom full time. I’ve also worked with kids this age on a volunteer basis as a leader for VBS, Sunday school, AWANAS, Pioneer Club, and Team Kids at church. In addition, I helped with an Outdoor Education camp, worked at a children’s museum, and ran an after school art club.
The teacher in me also enjoys extending my stories. That’s one reason why I included activities and discussion questions at the end of each book. I put even more ideas, games, and jokes on my web site, www.MeghanRoseSeries.com .
Please, tell us more about those extensions.
Those came about as a desire to bring the lessons home. I mean, how many times have you as a mother read a book and thought, “There’s a good lesson in here” but didn’t know how to draw your child into a discussion about it? That’s why I included questions for parents or teachers to use after they read the story, so they can capitalize on each book’s underlying message. And the activities are all for the kids. They love extending the story experience by creating their own volcanoes or whatever. I also put a ton of other ideas for parents and kids on my website under the BLAM (Brilliant Little Activities to Make) link.
So each book has an underlying message? Tell us about that.
I wanted the stories to do more than entertain. I wanted them to have takeaway value. Each book’s message is very subtle but still evident throughout the book. While Meghan Rose on Stage! talks about discovering your talents, it’s ultimately about friendship. Meghan Rose Has Ants in Her Pants explores the idea of patience. Meghan Rose All Dressed Up and Meghan Rose Has a Secret address inner beauty and kind words. But none of it is preachy. It’s heavy on the humor and very, VERY light on the lesson…yet neither quality is lost on the child.
As an author who has written for both adults and children, what can you tell us about the similarities and differences between writing for the two groups?
All good stories share certain elements. No matter what the target audience age, stories must have a compelling (or at least entertaining) plot with believable characters. In addition, writing must be tight, well-crafted, and engaging. Dialogue has to move the story forward. And humor almost always sells.
Also, the takeaway value of a story is important. I have seen both adult and children’s stories tackle complex topics, such as death. Writers may use different words, images, or viewpoints, but both help their readers empathize or cope with the issue.
One difference between writing for children and writing for adults is the complexity of the story. Simply stated, an adult novel can tackle a major plot and several subplots whereas a story for young children works best with one central focus.
Another area of difference can be found in writing technique. Children’s authors often employ tricks not often found in adult writing, including writing in rhyme (like Chicken Soup with Rice), using alliteration (as in A my Name is Alice), writing in patterns (as in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?) writing a circle story (as in If you Give a Mouse a Cookie) and grouping events in sets of three (as in Goldilocks and the Three Bears).
In some sense children’s stories hold an edge over adult stories, for a well written children’s story transcends age. Many adults regularly read (and treasure) books geared for children. C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is a prime example. In fact, I regularly choose to read YA novels over adult novels.
What resources have you used over the years to help hone your writing skills? What resources do you use now?
The best move I made as a new writer was to join a local writing group. That group not only gave me support and encouragement, it pointed me to potential markets, helped me critique my work, and kept me motivated. I also took a free online writing course, which proved helpful, and joined an online writing group.
Writing for magazines is great for honing skills. It forces you to write tight, meet deadlines, and (often) address a theme. I also enjoy short writing exercises. You can often find these challenges online for free. It’s a great way to wake up the muse...and fun! Sometimes these exercises will even lead to a publishable piece of writing.
Can you give us some insights into your childhood?
Sure. My favorite childhood activity (besides sports—I especially loved volleyball) was drawing. Though I never took formal art lessons, I devoured those “How to Draw” books. I still love to doodle. In fact, I can draw with both hands at the same time! (It’s a cool trick kids love.)
I grew up with three sisters. Our television only got two channels—maybe three on a good day—so we spent a lot of time playing together. They are still my favorite people, and I used the names of their children for characters in the Meghan Rose books.
My mom said I had an imaginary dog that sat on top of the refrigerator, although I don’t remember it. However, my own daughter has a roomful of imaginary friends, so it’s possible! My character Meghan Rose carries that same strong imagination with her.
In second grade, I colored the entire surface of my desk at school. My teacher didn’t appreciate my stunning artwork and made me clean all the desks in the room. That’s just the type of thing my character Meghan Rose might do…and the exact thing Mrs. Arnold (Meghan Rose’s teacher) would do.
In high school, I wrote “The Adventures of Super Cat” cartoon up and down the margins of my science notebook. Super Cat still inspires me…he turned up in my winning MOPS entry, in my first children’s short story publication, and in the Meghan Rose series. Maybe someday my illustrator, Stacy Curtis, will make Super Cat (and the villainous Poultry Gang) into a comic book series! Wouldn’t that be something?
As a kid, I was always making up lame jokes. In the Meghan Rose series, my character Ryan reflects that joking side of me. I also make up the jokes on my web site and explain to kids how they can make up their own jokes.
I love fun words! My dad used to recite “Jabberwocky” to us, as well as other crazy songs and rhymes. You see some of that word play reflected in the jump rope chants Meghan Rose makes up.
What suggestions would you give to a seven or eight year old who was interested in writing their own story?
Simply put, GO FOR IT!!
On a more practical note, here are some ideas to get you going:
First, THINK LIKE A WRITER. Writing is simply telling something. So lists, emails, poems, jokes, a report, a birthday card—these are all forms of writing. Some forms help us keep track of our thoughts. Others help us express our feelings, entertain, or learn new things. If you view writing as a valuable activity, you’re on the right track!
Second, COME UP WITH IDEAS to write about. The best ideas come from your own life. What is a regular day like for you? What foods do you like or dislike? What frightens you? These things can all serve as story starters. I would love to write a story sometime about all the different flavors of gum at a store, and what one flavor I would really like to try (chocolate)! Be funny too. Everyone loves to laugh.
Third, USE YOUR COMMON SENSES. You know…sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Including such details in a story makes a difference. For example, which do you find more interesting? “We ate cake” verses “We ate chocolate cake covered with creamy frosting and those brown sprinkles that crunch in your mouth (taste/sight/touch). Michael’s mom plopped a big scoop of soft vanilla-scented ice cream on top of my cake, so my first bite tasted icy cold and warm-crumbly all mixed together (smell/touch/taste).”
Fourth, HAVE FUN with it! My children and their cousins like making up stories during long car rides. Each kid has a notebook and pencil; each starts a story, writing about three sentences. When everyone is ready, each passes his story to the person on his right, who reads the story and then adds three new sentences. The process continues until someone writes THE END. Each story is then read out loud. The kids laugh A LOT at all their crazy creations. (You can actually tell when someone stopped their part of the tale and another started.)
Fifth, SHARE your writing. Half the fun of writing is sharing your thoughts with someone else. Read your story to a stuffed animal, your dog, the fish, your parents, the piano, an old shoe…whatever handy thing you can pin down long enough to hear your tale.
Which brings me to the final point…READ, READ, READ! The more you read, the better writer you are likely to be!
Where do you get the inspiration for the humorous parts of the books?
Most of that comes from my upbringing. My dad was always coming up with puns and jokes. He made them up on the spot, and they were hilarious! I can’t tell you how many hours we spent laughing around the dinner table. I think dad influenced all my sisters. Plus I grew up on a steady diet of comic books. Peanuts and Garfield were my favorites, and later Calvin and Hobbes. And we’d also watch comedy on television, especially The Carol Brunette Show.
That said, some of my inspiration just comes from everyday life. My kids crack me up. They both have a great sense of humor.
Where can readers learn more about you and the Meghan Rose books?
They can visit my website Meghan Rose Series. My award-winning illustrator, Stacy Curtis, designed it. It offers jokes, puzzles, and activities for kids and great ideas for teacher and parents (on Mrs. Arnold’s BLAM page). It also introduces the books and characters, provides links to book reviews, and gives ordering information. I posted a retold fairy tale reader’s theater that gives visitors a good feel for the style of humor found in the books at www.meghanroseseries.com/teachers_LittleRed.asp .
The books have been on the market for a year. How have they fared? And are there more on the way?
I think they’ve been well received. All four have consistently stayed on Amazon’s top 25 bestsellers for Standard Publishing. Plus I was recently invited to showcase them at the Christian Book Expo in Dallas, Texas. I got to be on stage opposite Michael Berenstain! (And all I can say about that is WOW. My books were in good company and I feel very humbled!)
As far as more books goes, I can’t tell you too much because they are not under contract yet! That’s up to God and the editors at Standard. But I will tell you this…I drafted the next three books in the series…and as much as I enjoy the first four books in the series, I like the next three even better! The characters’ personalities shine stronger than ever. Meghan’s friend Kayla is a complete side-stitching HOOT. I laugh even thinking about the punch lines she delivers. And I introduce a new character named Sophie, a perfect foil to all of Meghan’s clever plans.
Boy, you have your work cut out for you finishing up three more in the series. Thanks so much for visiting with us - it's been great!
Thank you, Karen, for letting me visit with you.
Go to Lori's site and be sure to check out the Meghan Rose series.
Stayed tuned, in a few days I'll post the May 1st touring schedule for VBT - Writers on the Move.
See you in blog world,