Finding one’s niche in the field of children’s writing is oftentimes an adventure that includes numerous twists and turns. Teaching backgrounds top the list as a stepping stone to entering the arena of children’s authors. After years of being and educator, teachers definitely understand readers’ needs. Nancy J Cavanaugh uses her skills as a language arts teacher to create books that adhere to some of the core ingredients of writing. Lists helps students organize their ideas. Writing prompts harvest those ideas by putting them in different formats. In a delightful and lighthearted way, Nancy uses lists and writing prompts as the format for This Journal Belongs to Ratchet and Always, Abigail. Today, she will talk about these books as well as her journey to become a writer.
At what point in your life did you first realize that you had a passion for writing? How would you describe your writing journey?
I’ve always loved to write, but I didn’t really think about writing a book until the early 90’s when I was teaching third grade. I loved turning my students on to reading, and one of my favorite times of the school day was when I read aloud to them. It was like our little oasis away from all the other hard work we did in the classroom. That’s what inspired me and made me want to write the kinds of books I loved to read to my students.
But my dream to have a children’s book published was very slow in coming. It actually took me eighteen years to see that dream come true. Not exactly what you’d call an overnight success.
Many writers attribute their success to their participation in writing groups. When did you first connect with the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators? What does this group offer aspiring children’s writers? How did this group improve your writing?
I joined SCBWI in the very beginning – in 1994, and I’m so thankful that I did! Not only did I learn all the practical things aspiring writers need to know, but I also met some of my very best friends as a result of this wonderful group. I participated in critique groups and attended many conferences and workshops. All these things not only made me a better writer but also a better person.
Starting a first book can be an overwhelming process. Many first-time authors are not sure where to begin. Why did you choose to take an unconventional approach? (Books centered on writing prompts & lists)
THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET and ALWAYS, ABIGAIL, though they are my first “published books,” were not the first books I wrote. I actually have several other finished manuscripts. I have written several picture books and about three other complete middle grade novels. Those were my “practice books.” I learned a lot about writing while working on those manuscripts, and what I learned allowed me to go forward and have enough confidence to write ABIGAIL and RATCHET in such unique formats.
Using different formats felt really creative to me and also gave each project its own unique challenges which inspired me.
In addition to teaching, your website lists a wide assortment of jobs. Has your varied work experience influenced your writing? Can you point to a particular resource or experience that was the most beneficial asset in your writing journey?
I believe I use ALL my past experiences every time I write because our experiences are part of what makes us who we are. In my school visits, I always tell young people, “Pay attention. You don’t know what you’re going to end up doing when you’re an adult. You may not believe it right now, but everything you’re learning and doing and experiencing will come into play later on.” I think this is especially true for me as a writer. All my experience help me connect with the universal story and truth of life, and incorporating that in my characters helps me connect my stories to my readers.
Nancy, on your website you talked about how some of your firsthand experiences have enhanced your writing. Can you share another example of how your personal life has provided a template for an episode in one of your books?
Readers who have read ALWAYS, ABIGAIL will remember the scene when Abigail fell into the big parking-lot-sized puddle. That was me! Right before I fell in it, my friends and I were looking out the window at the end of the school day, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be terrible if someone fell in that?” A few minutes later, I was running with my friends to our bus, and the next thing I knew I was soaking wet. I had a forty-five minute bus ride home. It was a long, wet ride.
Can you provide 3 suggestions for aspiring writers who are struggling to find a gatekeeper who will crack open the publishing door? If the doors to traditionally publishing remain closed, should writers consider self-publishing?
Patience, persistence, and perseverance. Having a book published can take a VERY long time. I’m living proof of that, but I’m so glad I didn’t give up. Now as I look back, I’m thankful for all the years I had to learn my craft, learn a lot about the business of publishing, and learn even more about myself as a person. I have so much more to offer now because of the long journey it took me to get here.
There was a time, near the end, when I contemplated self-publishing. I actually even thought about it after I had an agent because it was taking us so long to sell my first book; but for me, I’m thankful I didn’t go that route. I am so happy to have a wonderful editor like Aubrey Poole who makes my books so much more than I ever thought they could be. I’m also thankful for the art and design team at Sourcebooks who make my books look so cool and fun – almost like candy for readers. And I’m beyond grateful for the publicity and marketing team at Sourcebooks for how hard they work to get my books into the hands of really important people who take my books farther than I ever dreamed they would go. If I had self-published, I would never have had the opportunity to work with any of these people, and I know my books would not be what they are today.
This Journal Belongs to Ratchet uses a unique format. Why did you choose to use writing prompts as the backbone for your first book? What did you hope to accomplish by using this method for a first person narrative?
I love reading books in different formats, so I thought it would be fun to write one. Kate Klise is a favorite author of mine, and she is a master at creative formats. She was definitely an inspiration to me.
I also liked the different formats because it made it easier to work on my writing. I could work in shorter spurts. I wrote both of these books when my daughter was young and still took naps. The format made it easier to work on a section when I had a limited amount of time for writing.
Lastly, I have a heart for reluctant readers, and I think the different formats really appeal to young people who struggle as readers.
Even though Ratchet lives an atypical existence, readers can commiserate with her unusual situation. What steps did you take to make a quirky father-daughter relationship resonate with the average reader?
I think many young people struggle with the relationships they have with their parents, and a lot of young people think their own parents are weird, even if they are fairly typical. Also, we often don’t appreciate the people closest to us – the ones who love us the most. I just think these are things everyone can relate to – young people and adults.
Always Abigail also follows an unusual first person narrative format. The 300+ page book has subheadings that focus on different types of lists. The lists fit together like pieces of a puzzle and as a result maintain a consistent pace. What techniques did you use to create the proper flow?
Really in both ABIGAIL and RATCHET, I really wasn’t sure my unique format was going to work. Both books could’ve easily flopped, but I just kept at it and believed that I’d find a way to make it work. I didn’t know what that way was when I began. It was much more a case of figuring things out as I went along.
Many authors use a combination of narrative, dialogue and chapter cliffhangers to keep readers interested in a story. Can you share 3 tips on how to sustain an engaging pace?
- Put your characters in difficult places – emotional and physical ones.
- Create tension with character conflict.
- Be sure your character is really striving for something.
The late elementary and middle school years are oftentimes filled with a wide variety of relationship issues. Why did you choose tryouts and membership on a pom pom squad as an underlying thread for Always Abigail?
Trying out for something and wanting to make it really, really bad is pretty universal. Adults sometimes forget how stressful and emotional this can be for young people. I wanted ABIGAIL to make readers feel as if they were not alone in the heartbreaks sometimes caused by the drama of team tryouts.
Many independent readers would prefer to find ways to “fit in” and avoid standing out. Both of your books focus on this issue. What message(s) are you trying to share with your readers?
I want readers to know that EVERYONE wants to fit in – kids and adults. I also want readers to know that everyone has their own unique way of making that “fitting in” happen. It’s not the same for everyone, and some people have to dig deeper inside themselves than others to find it.
Are you currently working on your next book? If so, can you share any information or an anticipated publication date?
My next book is called CAMP SISTERS and is likely to be published sometime in the spring of 2016. It’s a story that will make readers think about their own personal life stories, their own friendships, and how those stories and those friendships come together to make them who they are.
Nancy, is there anything else that you would like to share with my readers?
I’ll leave everyone with the words I put inside my books when I autograph them:
Create Your Own Style
Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by Sunday, November 23 will be eligible for a book giveaway. Nancy Cavanaugh will send the randomly selected winner an autographed copy of Always, Abigail.
In exchange for an honest interview and review, Nancy sent me a copy of This Journal Belongs to Ratchet and Always, Abigail.
Sandra Bornstein is the author of MAY THIS BE THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. It is available on Amazon. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons. The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, the 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and received an Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.