Friday, 30 October 2009

Interview with Jan Fields

It is my privilege to be able to post my interview with Jan Fields, Children's Author, ICL Instructor and Web Editor. I feel honored to know Jan, even if it is only through the medium of computers, message boards, and live chats. I hope you will enjoy reading my interview with Jan, and that you may learn just a little more about her.

Terrie: Please tell us something about yourself?

Jan: Something relevant or something weird? Let’s go with weird. I once rode on an elephant. I’ve also been licked in the face by a puma (it gives you a bad case of cat tongue burn). Oh, and I once almost drowned because a tall young woman was standing on my back in a pool (she was afraid of the water and I’m assuming she mistook me for a ladder.) How’s that for odd things?

Terrie: Where or how do you get your ideas for your books and stories?

Jan: At the idea store. Actually I’m not sure. A lot of times they originate from questions that come to me when I see something or read something that makes me think. For instance, I was dragging garbage cans out one day and noticed a spider had hung egg cases on one of them. I thought of how much trouble the spider had gone to in spinning this snug waterproof case, but then hung it on a garbage can – which seemed ironic. At any rate, thinking about egg cases and perception (my garbage can was her safe place) led to a story about a spider who won’t tell her neighbours what she’s spinning so they all guess based on their own perceptions of what is important. And that became “Spider’s Riddle” which eventually published in Spider magazine.

Terrie: You’ve adapted a few children’s favourites. Where did the inspiration come from to do these adaptions? From who’s POV were the adaptions written? And how many more do you plan to adapt?

Jan: Ah, the adaptations were all done as work-for-hire for an educational publisher. So the number that I’ll ultimately adapt is totally up to them. If I had to guess (and I love to guess) I would guess that I’ll probably do about a dozen ultimately. These were all classics and not necessarily children’s books, though I look for the things that the kids will most enjoy in each book and try to really stay true to that. For instance, Moby Dick and Great Expectations have parts that are laugh out loud funny and I wanted to make sure to keep that in my adaptation – that sense of surprise that makes a reader laugh. The point of view of the adaptations always match the point of view in the original.

Terrie: What drew you to the ICL and becoming an instructor with them?

I was a writer for a number of years before I had a computer so my “writing world” expanded hugely when I got online. I had been writing my own course material to teach writing at community colleges so I was familiar with teaching but I’d never considered distance learning. Still, online I “met” more and more people with experience either taking the Institute courses or teaching them and they raved about them. Also, I got married and had a child and found I couldn’t really keep teaching in the college setting but I wanted to keep that part of my life – the part where I pass on what I know. So ICL seemed a great outlet for that. I applied, was accepted…and the rest is history!

Terrie: What is the best and/or worst thing about being an instructor?

Jan: I learn a lot. My students bring a constantly fresh perspective to writing. There are plenty of things I teach them about getting published but they always teach me things about thinking…about approaching ideas. And many of them also teach me about the world since I have students all over the globe.

Terrie: How do you juggle your writing projects with your instructor commitments?

Sometimes not so well. I try to do my instructor commitments first and all my other writing projects after. Responding to students takes my best, more creative efforts so I
try to jump on that while I’m fresh. But it’s actually amazing because sometimes it seems I
couldn’t possibly add another thing to my work schedule, but then I do (because I’m not so
good at saying no) and yet everything still gets done. It’s kinda magic that way.

Terrie: I’m sure you’ve had many rejections in your writing career. How do you overcome the disappointment and go on to the next project?

Well, first I call the editor names. No, not really. Though …you know…they are making a mistake. I sulk a little but I have so many irons in the fire that I really cannot spare a lot of energy on getting too bummed. When I finish one project, I’m starting another before the first gets mailed out. Plus with all the commitments that come to me – there’s never really time to get too “blocked” or stopped in any way. I might take a couple hours off and watch “Bones” on TV while nibbling chocolate, but that’s really about all I can do.
Rejection still hurts, don’t get me wrong. I hate it. I want to sell everything first time out. I
really want kids to connect with my work and that doesn’t happen with it sitting on my hard
drive, but I’ve become a bit more accepting that everything happens in its time. For some of
my stuff, the right time hasn’t come yet.

Terrie: The writers market is a difficult one these days. Do you have any
suggestions for giving our work the “wow” factor? Anything that will make an editor read our work over someone elses?

Have fun. People forget to have fun when they’re writing. And new writers can be positively grim. They get really wrapped up in making their work “meaningful” and
therefore pick the grimmest stuff to write about sometimes. You know, I rarely shop for a
story by looking for the most dismal thing or the thing that assumes I need a good lecture –
and kids don’t either. If you have fun, you’ll help them have fun…and that’s something
editors look for.

Another important thing it to be careful who you’re connecting with. I see so many stories
where the mom is this amazingly fleshed out character with strong motivation and heroic
actions. And the kid is practically a cardboard cut-out marked “Fix me Mom.” Kids aren’t
looking for stories about mom. So editors aren’t looking for stories about mom. If you find
that your attention (as writer) shifts to the mom as soon as she walks into the story, you really
need to consider not letting her in at all. You have to relate to the young characters. If you
can’t, then your reader can’t either because young readers just aren’t going to connect with
the mom character.

Terrie: Thinking about your writing career, if you could do anything
differently, what would it be and why?

I would have stopped writing crap more quickly J. Actually, I don’t know. I’ve not been terribly focused in my career and that’s had an effect on how “successful” I am. I mean, I make a decent living on writing and related activities – but because my work is scattered over so much, I don’t have much celebrity, you know? But then, I suspect I’m probably not really the celebrity writer sort. I’m more of a workhorse. I do go work and it’s consistently good so a publisher can count on me, BUT I suspect I’m not really bestseller material. I sort of like the fickle writing life…though, you know…sometimes being a household word would be cool too.

Terrie: Have you ever been asked something about your writing (stories, books or career) that you really didn’t want to answer, but had to? If you have are you willing to share it, and tell us how you dealt with it?

No, I have no personal boundries so that isn’t likely to pop up J. I mean, folks have asked me things like, “Will you look at my book?” Or “I have this idea for a book you could write – wanna hear it?” And mostly I don’t. Well, that’s not totally true…I do look at people’s writing a good bit in a very cursory “this is why it’s not selling” kind of way. Folks rarely ask me twice. I suspect most people don’t really want to be told what’s actually wrong with something when they come up to a writer on the street – they want to be told something like, “This is too daring for publishers, that’s why they rejected it.” Or “You’re just too new and different.” And when the answer is “this really doesn’t work because of XYZ…no one seems to like that.” So I hate strangers popping up with “will you read my book” because I know they won’t like what they hear. Students and real beginning writers, on the other hand, they tend to actually take criticism and run with it so I love helping them. It’s just hard sometimes to tell which kind of person is asking and I’ve had folks pretty disgruntled with me before.

Terrie: You are the editor of Kids Writer Magazine. Do you write the articles for this magazine, or do others write them and you just edit them?

I used to write ALL of it. You wouldn’t believe how much I wrote for that thing. But over time, more and more folks have been willing to step up and help. And sometimes I beg friends. I am totally shameless about begging. I started KMW because I believed it was needed. Children’s magazine were a revelation to me when I was a kid – the idea of stories and articles that come to your house every month. That was like heaven! We couldn’t afford to subscribe but I read them at school and the library and I wanted subscriptions so much. I remember that excitement and how important they were to me. So I value them. But lots of people don’t value children’s magazines. They’re too ephemeral. They aren’t as “good” as books. But that’s not true. They’re amazing. And honestly, if you get a story in HIGHLIGHTS, it’s going to be seen by more kids than most kidlit bestsellers – if your goal is to be read by tons of kids, magazines are where it’s at. So I wanted to start an online magazine that showed magazine writers and magazines some respect. And I wanted to give the writers tools to help them meet the needs of editors. KMW can be a wicked time suck for me, but it’s important to me so somehow I always find time.

Terrie: If I remember correctly, you used to be a journalist. Why did you start writing books and stories for children?

Well, I’ll write anything for money J. Actually when I escaped from newspapers, I wrote for magazines. I wrote for the magazines that *I* was familiar with so that meant magazines my mom read. I’ve had stuff in craft magazines like Teddy Bear and Friends and National Doll World because my mom read those. I got stuff into Christian magazines because those were available at church. I went into magazine writing assuming that the way to do it was to get to know the magazine well, then write what they seemed to use – it was the only way I could figure to go about it. No one was there to give me hints. I was getting submission information off the masthead because I had no idea things like market guides existed.

Then, I began to do some parenting stuff (because I didn’t have any children. I find it so
much easier to be an expert parent when you don’t have kids J) and my craft stuff started
being more and more kid oriented (because I designed crafts to do with our church groups of
kids). I ended up writing some children’s church curriculum for a large Christian publisher. I
just kind of fell into these things. But I could see more and more of my work was relating to
kids. So I started really looking at kid magazines and that’s when they brought up all these
memories – and I started writing for them. And they bought the work or sent really nice
rejection letters (better than I deserved sometimes). But I brought the same technique I’d used
to sell to adult magazines – I read them like crazy and then started submitting. I do that
because I hate rejection and I seem to sell more when I start with the magazine and then

Now I also do work for hire. That again sort of fell in my lap – friends telling me about
openings. I applied. Now I do them. I like work for hire because it’s a sure paycheck and a short deadline. It’s easier for me to handle it when time is kept short.
Terrie: Thank you Jan for answering my questions. I really appreciate you giving of your time to do this. I hope my readers have found answers to some of the questions they might have, but didn't want to ask.
Thank you to my readers for visiting my interview today. I hope you have enjoyed your visit. I look forward to my next interview - details to follow.


Jan Fields said...

Aww, that was fun. I see the results of my sad and sorry typing in some of my answers...but if you put on your magic jan decoder ring, it sorta makes sense. Thanks for asking me -- you're a peach.

Terrie said...

Thanks again for answering my questions. It was so kind of you to let me dig a little deeper than we usually do.

Angelia Almos said...

Great interview, Jan and Terrie. Neat learning the sordid history of the wise and all knowing Jan. :-)

Jan Fields said...

Ha, right...all knowing. :-)
Can I get you to tell my husband this insight you've gotten about me?

ColoradoKate said...

Excellent interview, Terrie and Jan--great questions, lively answers.

Jan, you're a master of writing what various markets are looking for, and you talked about that a bit in the interview. But how do you manipulate your writer's "voice" to suit different markets? Is that a conscious process, or something that has just come to you with practice?

Jan Fields said...

It's mostly a function of reading, I think Kate. For instance, to "sound" like Dickens or Melville while still writing for young people ...I read much of the books outloud until I could basically "play" the narrator in a play. I can "do" the voice when I talk. Then I sit down and write the scene for kids while that voice is "playing" in the back of my head. What comes out is definitely a kid scene, but with the right voice of the original author.

So I guess I read until I feel like I can "get in character" which means I have to write as much as I possibly can at each sitting since it takes some time to "get into character" each time before I sit down to write again.

Jan Fields said...

It's mostly a function of reading, I think Kate. For instance, to "sound" like Dickens or Melville while still writing for young people ...I read much of the books outloud until I could basically "play" the narrator in a play. I can "do" the voice when I talk. Then I sit down and write the scene for kids while that voice is "playing" in the back of my head. What comes out is definitely a kid scene, but with the right voice of the original author.

So I guess I read until I feel like I can "get in character" which means I have to write as much as I possibly can at each sitting since it takes some time to "get into character" each time before I sit down to write again.

Terrie said...

Angelia and Kate thank you for visiting today, and for your lovely comments and question.

Kristi Faith said...

Great interview, Terrie! Jan, I love your sense of humor in the wild world of writing. I'm so glad you did eventually begin teaching!

Have a great weekend

Mikki Sadil said...

Great interview, Terrie! Thanks, Jan, for all the information and insight into what makes Jan Fields tick! I think everyone who gets you for an ICL teacher has an awesome experience awaiting them !

Terrie said...

Kristi and Mikki, thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed it. Isn't our Jan just such an exciting person.

ColoradoKate said...

Thanks, Jan, for your answer to my question about writing in different voices. Wow. Sounds like a lot of work.

Why am I not surprised? ;-D

Jan Fields said...

well, Kate, it's entirely possible that smarter writers do it a different way...I've often been accused of always doing everything the hard way :-)

Donna M. McDine said...

My apologies I'm a few days late. Fascinating interview. I enjoyed getting to know Jan better. Also, my double apologies my first comment I inadvertantely placed in your current post.

Children’s Author
Write What Inspires You Blog
The Golden Pathway Story book Blog
Donna M. McDine’s Website

Yaya' s Changing World said...

Great job on the interview. I am learning quite a bit and I love getting to know more about our authors.

You can tell your husband that if he doesn't recognize how lucky he is, he must be wearing his blinders. But I'm sure he does.
~ Yaya

Terrie said...

Thank you everyone for visiting and reading.

Petra (Christina) said...

Hi Terrie! I loved your interview with Jan ~ helped me to get to know this special lady a bit better!

Word Designer said...

Very informative interview. Thank you both for an impressive work. My favortite was the part where someone stood on Jan's back while she tried to drown. Word Designer
Architect of Prose