It may sound fishy (hah!) but we are so tickled to share our interview of multi-talented #Notable19s member Jessica Lanan today! THE FISHERMAN & THE WHALE is Jessica's debut picture book as the sole creator. As if that wasn't exciting enough, Jessica will also illustrate fellow #Notable19s member Rich Ho's next book, LOST!
As Maria Von Trapp so aptly sang, let's start at the very beginning: How did you get the specific story idea?
Jessica: I had read a news story about a fisherman off the coast of California who helped rescue a whale, but wasn't until I went to a music concert that I had the idea to make a book about it. I was listening to one particular piece and the idea just connected suddenly in my mind. It was called "Soledad," which means "solitude," and it's melancholy and hauntingly beautiful. It got me thinking about how lonely we humans have become, whether we know it or not, by cutting ourselves off from nature and killing other living things indiscriminately. I wanted to bring that feeling to life through the story of the whale. If you're curious, I highly recommend taking a few minutes to listen to "Soledad" here: https://austinpiazzollaquintet.bandcamp.com/track/soledad
Notable19: Isn't it wild how our minds can piece together things from two different senses and create a coherent, beautiful story? Of course, sometimes our minds are slightly less helpful, like when it's racing at bedtime. What do you think about when you have trouble falling asleep?
Jessica: Often I'm tired enough that I have no trouble falling asleep, but if I wake in the night ruminating I sometimes "paint" a watercolor in my mind, imagining the strategy I'd use for each wash and brush stroke. It might sound strange but I find it meditative.
Notable19: Whatever works, though, right? Speaking of strange, what's the weirdest job you ever had?
Jessica: I've had a lot of weird jobs, but none can top the summer spent working alone in a storage facility taking inventory for an eccentric collector who had purchased thousands and thousands of teapots.
Notable19: Spending a summer alone in a storage facility sounds a bit like a dream job for an extreme introvert, actually. LOL! But I imagine most people would want to travel in the summer instead. If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
Jessica: Another habitable planet, definitely! It would be fascinating to see ecosystems that evolved on a different world somewhere else in the galaxy.
Notable19: How interesting! You should chat with #Notable19s member Teresa Robeson. She had wanted to be an astronaut for years. Since hanging out on another planet is not quite within reach, where is your favorite place to write?
Jessica: I like to go to my local library, which has a bridge over the creek with a cafe where you can sit for hours and watch the ducks. I get the most done when I don't bring digital devices along. The walkway is right next to the children's section of the library so it's easy to wander over there for inspiration.
Notable19: What a gorgeous location. It must be hard to concentrate on writing at times there...but what is the hardest thing about writing in your opinion? Easiest?
Jessica: Each story seems to present unique challenges. The challenge with this book was finding a way to make it engaging, since there is just one boat, one whale, and a big empty ocean for pretty much the whole story. I had to think like a filmmaker and use all sorts of points of view. The easiest part were the words--that is, I chose to not have any. I wanted the characters to speak through their actions. Imposing a human voice would have detracted from the idea that both the human and the whale are equals: whales speak too, and I since I can't write in both English and whalespeak I chose to not write in words at all.
Notable19: Love that insight into the story. It is sure to enrich readers' enjoyment of your book. Thank you for sharing these fun tidbits about you and your work, Jessica!
Today's wonderful writerly advice is brought to you by Shauna LaVoy Reynolds. Take it away, Shauna!
My name and the illustrator’s name are on the cover. My agent’s and editor’s names were in the deal announcement. My husband and kids are named on the dedication page, and even my dog is mentioned in my jacket flap bio.
Anna, Andrea, and Amelia deserve a mention too, so I’m going to do it here. I don’t think I’d be published without my critique group.
We found each other 4 years ago, on the 12x12 message boards. Our goals were similar. We wanted to find agents, we wanted to be published, and we each wanted to write 12 drafts over the course of a year. We needed each other to make it work. Sometimes I don’t know if my writing is any good. It’s hard to separate myself from my stories. I ask my family, but their responses are — I almost hate to say it — too positive! My critique group is built on encouragement, but we’re also comfortable giving constructive criticism. We understand the necessity of criticism to strengthen our work, write the best stories we can, and achieve our writing goals. We’ve also helped each other with queries, bios, moral support, and the occasional bit of parenting advice. We live in 4 different states and haven’t met in person — not yet, at least. But I can’t wait to see their books on my shelf someday soon.
Here are 5 ways working with a critique group has improved my writing:
Sure, I can tell myself that I need to finish this draft by the last weekend of the month. But I’m a lot more likely to do it if there are three sets of eager eyes waiting for it. A critique group helps me stay motivated.
2. Power in numbers
One great thing about having a critique group of 3 or more, rather than a single partner, is that we can comment on each other’s comments! It’s easy to write off a single comment I disagree with as a matter of opinion, but when others agree or make similar notes, I know I should take a closer look.
I frequently see new writers expressing concern about sharing material for critique. (It’s a common message board topic.) They’re afraid they might find an unscrupulous critique partner who might steal their idea or even their story! It’s hard to trust a practical stranger with something so close to your heart. There’s an element of blind faith involved in sharing your work with someone new. But the more time I’ve spent with my critique group, the more trust we’ve built. While we started out sharing complete and semi-polished manuscripts with each other, I’m now comfortable sharing unfinished drafts or even throwing out “does this concept make any sense?” questions in the very early stages of drafting.
4. Someone to impress
We hope that our stories will eventually reach their intended audience. But until then, it’s fun to know we can make each other laugh, cry, or say “hmm!” with the stories we write. It’s nice to have an audience in the meantime. (Bonus: we all have children, so we can also get that crucial “other people’s kids” feedback!)
5. The support of people who “get it.”
I’m sure you’ve seen it — that look on your non-writer friends faces when you’re gushing about a much-anticipated new release from your favorite author or making Caldecott predictions. And I’m sure there’s certain questions and assumptions about how the industry works that you’ve heard over and over again. It turns out that not everyone is obsessed with kidlit. Who knew? It’s such a comfort to know who to email about writing triumphs and roadblocks, but also about picture books in general.
I'm so thankful for Anna, Andrea, and Amelia. I recently looked at their notes on early drafts of POETREE and it wouldn't be the same book without their insight and encouragement. So if you’re ready to take your writing to the next level, try to find a critique group. They’re the coworkers/friends who will be your loudest, proudest cheerleaders. (And tell you when you might want to try a stronger adjective.)
Shauna LaVoy Reynolds' debut book, POETREE, published by Dial/Penguin will be released on March 19th! You can find the preorder links on our Books page.
We are a group of writers and illustrators who have debut books (actual debuts , debuts as author-illustrators, or debuts with medium/large publishers) forthcoming in 2019. Thank you for joining us on our exciting journey!