Interview Transcripts

Writing Across Age Boundaries: Virginia Castleman 12/15/05

Event start time:

Tue Dec 13 15:29:17 2005

Event end time:

Thu Dec 15 21:06:55 2005



Legend:
Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in black.
The Moderator's comments are in blue.

Mary Rosenblum

Hello, all.

 

Tonight we'll be visiting with Virginia Castleman, writer, professor, and ICL instructor with Long Ridge's sister school.

 

Author of Mommi Watta—Spirit of the River, Sky High, Pile of Pups, Strays (2006) and Erosion, Virginia Castleman’s work has appeared in Highlights for Children.

 

An instructor for The Institute of Children’s Literature, she teaches Writing for Kids at Truckee Meadows Community College and is a Professor of English and Speech at Morrison University. Her unpublished novel is being produced as a motion picture.

 

Welcome, Virginia!

Virginia Castleman

Hi there!

Mary Rosenblum

How's the weather out your way? It's awful everywhere else!

Virginia Castleman

It's miserably cold here, too

 

The skiers are happy

Mary Rosenblum

Virginia, I called this 'writing across age boundaries' because you do that...writing for both kids and adults, yes?

Virginia Castleman

Yes, I mainly write articles for adults on how to, and interviews

 

The interviews are generally with editors for specific articles.

Mary Rosenblum

So how did you get started? Did you begin with children or did you write for adults first?

Virginia Castleman

I started writing for adults, mainly for the local newspaper, covering things like how to survive going back to college and raising a family

 

and progressing to fiction relating to everyday life situations.

Mary Rosenblum

Don't worry about typos...we'll figure it out and I'll fix 'em in the transcript. :-)

Virginia Castleman

Writing for local newspapers and tabloids is a great way to break into writing, by the way.

Mary Rosenblum

Since we have many people working on that very thing, lets digress here just a bit before...

 

I ask you about getting into children’s writing. What kinds of pieces do you find to be good 'break in' routes?

Virginia Castleman

Pet stories for one. We have a pet local pet magazine that is great at accepting stories about different animals.

Mary Rosenblum

What about newspapers? Local interest pieces? Seasonal pieces?

Virginia Castleman

Our town also has a "family" magazine that accepts stories about raising kids, teaching kids, and the like. That's another great resource. Newspapers! YES.

 

Reporters must come each day with five new ideas to present to their editors.

 

That's a lot to come up with, so if you have an idea and can "pitch" it to a reporter or writer, you stand a good chance of landing a story

 

or being part of an interview for the story, I might add.

Mary Rosenblum

Excellent advice, Virginia, and thank you! (You're all taking notes out there, right?)

Virginia Castleman

Remember, too, that there are MANY sections to a newspaper. Features, Lifestyle, News.

Mary Rosenblum

So what led you from writing nonfiction and realistic fiction to writing for children?

geezer

So, you approach a reporter and not an editor with a story?

Mary Rosenblum

Good question.

Virginia Castleman

The need to get paid. Nonfiction is much easier to sell at first than fiction. Yes, good question about who to contact.

 

What I recommend is actually contacting the editor of that section of the paper when you are really clear on what you want to pitch.

 

If the editor likes what s/he hears, they may put a writer on it, or better yet, may ask to see a sample of your writing to see if you might be the best writer for the story.

cherley

I've written a lot of articles and handed them to reporters to be published in the newspaper. Best way to make sure your article is what you want it to be.

Virginia Castleman

But reporters are hungry, too, and you can suggest a collaboration on a story. Good point about writing it and making sure it's what you want it to be!

Mary Rosenblum

So where did you first break into children's writing? Highlights?

Virginia Castleman

Highlights was a huge "hit" and yes, it opened a lot of doors, but the articles for SCBWI newsletters offered bylines and actually, my first picture book came before the story in Highlights.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, cool! And your SCBWI articles were nonfiction?

Virginia Castleman

The thing that's hard to face but important to remember is that this is not an instant gratification "business" (Publishing, I mean) and that everything takes time.

 

Yes, the articles were nonfiction, but I also started a children's newspaper and wrote a lot of stories and articles for that as well.

 

That project proved successful on two levels.

Mary Rosenblum

Somehow I missed the fact that you did a children's newspaper! What was the name?

Virginia Castleman

One, it provided a vehicle for my own stories and articles, as well as others submitted to us, AND it provided an excellent resource for the schools. I named the newspaper THREE LEAPING FROGS and while I'm not still with the paper

 

it's still in production and circulation today. I'm VERY proud of its creation

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, very cool!

tory

Where and how did you market your children's newspaper?

Mary Rosenblum

And what kind of circulation does it have?

Virginia Castleman

This is where creativity comes in...

 

One cannot put advertising in a paper that is distributed to schools in our area, so we had that hurdle to leap over. I came up with the idea of having "sponsors" for the columns

 

and approached businesses to sponsor the columns, It worked like a dream. The businesses were happy to help education, we got cash to help with printing, and 25,000 school kids got a FREE newspaper with lots of quality stories and articles in it!

Mary Rosenblum

I am so impressed. What a great project! How many were on your staff?

Virginia Castleman

We started with three: Me, author Ellen Hopkins, and poet Bill Cowey. It's now being published by Ellen and she's got an underwriter, I believe, to help with printing costs. It's a big project to do alone.

Mary Rosenblum

No kidding.

andi

Where was the newspaper started?

Virginia Castleman

I am now starting a newsletter, TURTLE TALES which will be more multicultural in nature, but will follow the same premise as the paper for distribution. The paper is a Reno, Nevada publication through Juniper Creek Publishers

Mary Rosenblum

Will it also be distributed to local schools?

Virginia Castleman

That's the plan. I have a fellow writing friend who is from China and has a lot of incredible stories. We hope to include other stories from other lands, and hopefully will broaden kids' understanding of different cultures.

Mary Rosenblum

I like that idea a lot. I bet there are grants out there that you could apply for, also.

Virginia Castleman

That's a good point, Mary. In each state there's an arts council that offers grants to artists.

cherley

Was it similar to a school newspaper that is done by students?

Virginia Castleman

One can apply for grants. SCBWI also offers grants for different projects, so there are a lot of options available to writers and artists to further advance their careers or to help bring a dream to fruition.

 

Three Leaping Frogs has its own style. But it does have a "news" section, and we set it up by "theme" so that each month a new theme was laced through the paper.

sailor

Did schools pay for the paper or was it funded solely by sponsors?

Virginia Castleman

Other sections covered success stories, how things work, a "dear Abby" column for kids (by a kid), a travel column, a food column and a back page for submissions of poetry and fiction.

 

It was funded solely by sponsors!

lapart

How long did it take to complete a project like that?

Mary Rosenblum

Yes, from your inception to the first issue?

Virginia Castleman

If you want to try it, lay out the newspaper, count the columns, find out what the printing costs will be, divide that by the number of columns and you'll know how much to ask the sponsors for to cover your costs.

 

We work fast. I presented the idea, the other "partners" approached me, and within two months we had the first one out. But not everyone works that fast or has the right connections.

 

Marketing was the tricky part, but once we figured out the sponsor program, it ran very smoothly

Mary Rosenblum

That's a marvelous system, Virginia. My hat is off to you and your partners.

janecj333

How did you get the paper into the schools? I can imagine the school board going over the sample issues with a fine-toothed comb.

Virginia Castleman

Thank you. While it may turn into a money maker, should Ellen ever sell the paper, it really was more a labor of love for me.

 

We had to get cleared through the superintendent, but once they saw our proposal, which were VERY CAREFULLY researched and through out,

 

it would be hard to say anything but "WRITE IT!" Especially when there's no cost to the school system. How often does THAT happen!

Mary Rosenblum

It would be highly surprising if they had turned you down, that's for sure!

lapart

Did your sponsors offer referrals or did you cold call?

Virginia Castleman

I cold called, which I happen to love. It's like a fishing expedition, I would imagine, though I don't actually fish. But, I love that feeling of believing in something, presenting it, and watching the process naturally unfold as they take the bait.

 

It helps when you know you have something that's good for kids, good for the community, AND good for yourself!

 

A project like that does take great marketing skills. It's not enough to know how to write. One must also know how to sell oneself.

Mary Rosenblum

So when you proposed this, did you have publishing credentials in the children’s markets? Just the adult markets?

Virginia Castleman

We were all published authors. That was a big help.

Mary Rosenblum

I suspect it would be. :-)

Virginia Castleman

But being published doesn't mean necessarily that one is well known. Marketing is still essential. Not many writers feel truly comfortable with marketing themselves.

Mary Rosenblum

That's a real truth, Virginia...that many if not most novice and aspiring writers

 

have a hard time marketing themselves. I was certainly one! What suggestions do you have

 

for those people?

Virginia Castleman

There are some "tricks" to the trade of self promotion

 

and some essentials tools one must develop.

 

These include really good cover letters

 

and those take practice. What I suggest is pretending that you're writing about someone else and "selling" that person...then swallowing hard and going back to slip your own information in the slots reserved for that phantom person.

 

This helps some people overcome that self-consciousness that comes with talking about themselves.

Mary Rosenblum

That's actually the method I used when I first started out, Virginia. Talk about swallowing hard! But it does work.

Virginia Castleman

But back to cover letters...to me there are three effective ways to begin them.

 

Start with a question...start with a sensational fact...or start with an excerpt from your work...GRAB THEM!

Mary Rosenblum

Ah, the hook. It's undeniably VERY important.

Virginia Castleman

Many writers spend a lot of "space" writing "I hope you will like..." and "I have enclosed..." when to me, these are the "obvious" things that every writer hopes.

 

It's better to spend that space saying, "I chose your publication because..." or "I had such a passion for penguins that..." (should penguins be your topic),,,and let the confidence come through.

 

Yeah, Mary. The hook brings us back to that fishing analogy!

Mary Rosenblum

That's a major point, I think. Be confident about what you are offering.

Virginia Castleman

Confidence is definitely the key, even if one has to fake confidence. Ironically, it's like clothes, once you try it on, maybe it actually fits and you won't be faking ANYTHING!

janecj333

When you say you went to children's 'to be paid' do you mean sales to or pay from newspapers was unreliable?

Mary Rosenblum

You made this comment way earlier, Virginia,

 

but I wasn't sure if you meant it the way it seemed.

Virginia Castleman

I meant that I went to nonfiction to be paid. Nonfiction simply is easier to place than fiction in today's competitive market.

Mary Rosenblum

That's what I thought you meant. :-)

janecj333

Could you tell us about your children's fiction, the picture book and Highlights story...how you developed them?

Virginia Castleman

Mommi Watta--Spirit of the River is a Liberian "living" legend, meaning that the story is still being told to children in Liberia today to teach them about temptation.

 

I heard about the spirit from a friend serving in the Peace Corp in the village of Dada, and thought it would make a compelling story. That's how that book was conceived.

 

My first story in Highlights, Rabbit and Tiger, was a retold Vietnamese story that a publishing friend shared following a trip overseas. I liked the message and courage of that story, and was THRILLED when Highlights accepted it.

 

The next story, The Talebearer's Lesson," will appear in the April 2006 issue of Highlights. It's a retold Jewish story that I totally fell in love with that focuses on spreading rumors and what can result.

 

When I first approached Highlights on the Talebearer story

 

I wrote it as a contemporary story. The editor wrote back and said, "Can you retell it as the traditional story."

 

I researched it, called a local Rabbi, and rewrote the new version (ironically two years later!) and after a few revisions, it was accepted.

info

When you hear about a story like that, do you run into any kind of rights problem?

Virginia Castleman

Highlights wants to see what you are drawing your story from (the original) and your resources, and the stories are retold, meaning totally rewritten, so there shouldn't be a right's problem that I'm aware of.

Mary Rosenblum

These sound like old folktales, too. There should be no existing copyright on them.

 

Just as you can retell Sleeping Beauty or Snow White all you want.

Virginia Castleman

But your point is well taken. Both these were very old tales.

megger

Virginia, I'm writing historical fiction. What suggestions would you have for making historical figures, ones that kids never hear of, more interesting for kids?

Virginia Castleman

What a great question. I think the key is drawing from themes that are very common to kids, no matter WHAT the era.

 

This can include hardships, challenges, loneliness, fitting in...shooey...the list goes on and on.

Mary Rosenblum

Find the universals, in other words?

Virginia Castleman

and making the characters actions and reactions compelling...yes, find the universals!

janecj333

Have you had any luck placing reprints of your original fiction that first appeared in Three Leaping Frogs?

Virginia Castleman

I never pursued it. Mainly because I'm so busy with other projects. But it's worth looking into. On that note

 

Highlights has sold the reprints to Rabbit and Tiger many times over and has sent checks to me. It's like opening a surprise each time!

Mary Rosenblum

That's one of the lovely benefits of writing short fiction...reprints!

Virginia Castleman

Definitely!

sailor

Switching gears: How did you get a motion picture deal for an unpublished novel?

Mary Rosenblum

Yes, this is an interesting story

 

and I have to apologize because I misquoted the title when I posted the event on our calendar page.

 

Which book was it?

Virginia Castleman

Through my hairdresser. Seriously! As you know, one tells a hairdresser nearly everything.

 

And on one particular occasion, the person following me was a producer for Boxcar Productions. She was looking for a script. So, the hairdresser said, "Call Virginia."

 

When she did, I presented her with 3 chapters from 3 novels I've written. She selected "A Day Shaped Like a Stop Sign," and then the fun started...or should I say.

 

WORK! I had to turn the manuscript into a screenplay in a VERY short period of time.

Mary Rosenblum

(okay you guys, now you all have to go out and get hairdressers)

 

Interesting...had you ever done a screen play before?

Virginia Castleman

Nope. But rather than panic, I decided to "just do it," and ordered Final Draft software. I plunked the novel into the program and went step by step. Boy did a learn a lot. For instance

 

I will NEVER again go to a movie based on a book and say, "It wasn't anything like the book," because now I know why!

Mary Rosenblum

LOL

 

So tell us why.

Virginia Castleman

Personally, I think everyone should turn their manuscripts into screenplays BEFORE submitting them to publishers. You'll be amazed at what you discover. For instance

 

your book might be going on and on in a narrative pass that you think is brilliant, until you try and put that narration into a script. Suddenly, it feels long and arduous and BORING

 

and you realize sadly that it should be revised.

Mary Rosenblum

No kidding. Talk about a thorough analysis of structure and dialogue!

sailor

Did the producer pay you up front for the screen rights, then separately for the screenplay after it was written?

Virginia Castleman

No, this is a whole different process than selling to big time producers. I have never done a movie, so I am doing this for the experience. The producer, upon completion, will submit the movie to Sundance Film festival.

 

And should it even get in, which is a feather in the wind, well, then there's potential for money down the line. I know everyone is anxious to make money, but I hope that writers can see the value in doing something just for the love of doing it!

 

For me, seeing the movie in a year from now will be an experience like non I've ever had. The process alone has been exhilarating.

Mary Rosenblum

And it gave you a totally different understanding of the visual medium of film, right?

 

And how story translates from page to screen.

Virginia Castleman

Yes. Definitely. If you're interested in having your work made into a movie, check with your information librarian on local filmmakers and make a connection. Who knows what will result!

 

Sometimes an opportunity sits right in your own backyard!

 

And there are many steps to Hollywood.

Mary Rosenblum

Actually, local filmmakers and graduate students in film are ALWAYS hungry for scripts. :-) That's how my one movie sale happened.

janecj333

I really wonder if some of that sense that scenes might be too long is just part and parcel of our 'instant gratification', TV, taco bell culture. I do remember books that were lovely and broad in description, poignant, not tiring to read.

Virginia Castleman

See there. Hungry editors, hungry filmmakers, hungry students...I sense a common theme here.

Mary Rosenblum

Or do you think it's simply a different medium, Virginia? The difference in rhythm between page and screen?

Virginia Castleman

I can't agree with you more. I remember enjoying long poetic passages in books I read as a kid, and things ARE different today, but I agree with Mary...there is a different rhythm in scripts

janecj333

Your experiences in publishing feel very unconventional to me; it's a nice change of perspective.

Virginia Castleman

Personally, I love the immediacy of plays and movies, so this is an exciting pond to be swimming in.

 

The intimacy of books was a more personal experience...this one is more a shared one, if that makes any sense.

 

They are unconventional, and sometimes that can lead to a door no one knew even existed, since they are all flocked at the front door, trying to get in.

Mary Rosenblum

That is certainly true!

 

It's like my friend Deborah Wood, you made her way into the nonfic world by noticing that our local big city paper lacked a pet page

 

and gave the editor good sound reasons why he needed one. And got the page.

Virginia Castleman

The same way that a student in a writing class I teach developed a story from an exercise, and it turned into a publishable piece. Had he not taken the class, he might not have had the opportunity to explore that topic.

Mary Rosenblum

I don't think you can say enough about 'see an opportunity and seize it'.

Virginia Castleman

EXACTLY, Mary, or a local writer friend who pitched a humor column to the newspaper and GOT IT. Then collected her columns to submit to an agent, and GOT ONE!

Mary Rosenblum

There you go. :-)

 

That's actually the way I broke into SF.

 

I sold a story and proposed others on that theme...a mini series.

Virginia Castleman

See there! Way to go!

 

The key issue is often TIME

lapart

What advice do you have about how to be prepared?

Virginia Castleman

Prepared as in preparing a manuscript, or prepared for acceptance/rejection?

lapart

manuscript

Mary Rosenblum

Maybe prepared to take advantage of opportunity?

Virginia Castleman

First and foremost, learn proper formatting. Setting up the manuscript in proper format shows the editor you've done your homework. Then make sure there are NO typos

 

and that you've followed all the rules of writing. This attention to detail, while boring perhaps, is SO important.

 

And if you submit to a publisher and they write back that what you've sent doesn't meet their current needs, but they'd like to see more of your work, PREPARE something and send it.

 

So many writers are either discouraged from the rejection, or don't have anything to send that they miss out on a golden opportunity. Remember, it was TWO YEARS after I pitched the idea to Highlights that I sent a revision...and it sold. You never know!

Mary Rosenblum

Any advice on how to look for new or unexpected market opportunities?

Virginia Castleman

I don't recommend waiting two years. Don't get me wrong, but FOLLOW UP is a very important part of the process.

 

They're all around us, Mary. We're often so busy we don't see them. Anniversaries of just about anything happen just about any time. Piggy backing off of these can be one way.

Mary Rosenblum

Want to give our audience an example?

Virginia Castleman

The Anniversary of the Wright Brother's flight happened a couple of years back. I have an airplane book. So, I pitched it as a product commemorating that anniversary. The forest service almost bought it

 

but they are so immersed in red tape and bureaucracy that by the time someone could make a decision, the anniversary had passed. It was my fault, not theirs. I should have foreseen the anniversary a couple of years prior and submitted the proposal to

 

them then. That way they'd have had time to work through the kinks.

Mary Rosenblum

Too bad it didn't go, but that's

 

an excellent example of seizing an opportunity.

 

You have to get out and PITCH.

 

People do not come to you...not often anyway.

 

Not in my experience at least.

Virginia Castleman

Exactly. It helps to be on nip ahead of the shark.

 

One nip

Mary Rosenblum

Virginia, we're almost at the end of our time and you have shared some wonderful insights with us

 

so here's your chance to pitch YOUR work! :-) What do you have coming out?

 

What are you working on?

Virginia Castleman

Thank you so much Mary and everyone who came on. I'm working on a novel with Simon and Schuster and my novel STRAYS might finally have a home soon as well. I'm also putting together an exciting website, but that's a whole new ballgame.

 

That and teaching 4 classes keeps me on my toes. What about you out there. What are you working on?

Mary Rosenblum

So what are all of you working on? Hmmm?

 

I know we had quite a few Nano completions here.

 

The National Novel Writing Challenge to write a novel in November.

 

I was impressed.

aurora1

I am working on a fantasy novel

cherley

I'm working on two novels and several short stories.

Mary Rosenblum

Wow, great!

cherley

Plus I am doing research for my next lesson

Virginia Castleman

While I'm waiting, I can't help but mention that I'm an Instructor for the Institute of Children's literature, and that students say they really benefit by working one on one with an author or editor. Wow! A fantasy novel! Good for you!!!

Mary Rosenblum

Ah, I was JUST going to mention that, cherley, LOL

andi

I'm working on a short story of space journey called the collectors. It was rejected characters didn't stand out.

janecj333

I wrote the last scene of my SF novel first draft, today.

aurora1

I agree with the one on one, I am just finishing the course

Virginia Castleman

Fantasy is still very popular thanks to you-know-who, but talk about challenging! Don't give up, Just work on making the character's more compelling!!!

janecj333

Is your novel with Simon & Schuster a YA or adult, and what genre?

Mary Rosenblum

Good question, Virginia. Is this another adult novel? And when will it be out?

Virginia Castleman

Doesn't that feel good? Writing the last scene! It can also feel sad...like letting go!

 

The novel with S&S is a YA about gang-related issues.

Mary Rosenblum

Great, Virginia.

Virginia Castleman

Tough to write, but hopefully packed with insights for kids.

 

Hopefully it will open some eyes.

 

The Collectors is a captivating title... I hope that you have success with it.

sailor

I just submitted an article about North Carolina's only licensed privateer (pirate) and the tall ships race he won.

Mary Rosenblum

Cool, sailor!

Virginia Castleman

Oh, yeah! Love those pirate stories!!!

Mary Rosenblum

Well, Virginia, you have been a delightful guest and you've offered everyone some valuable insights

 

into writing, publishing, and seizing that moment. Is there

Mary Rosenblum

one piece of advice you'd like to leave us all with?

Virginia Castleman

Yes. My dad always said, "Pay yourself first." He was talking money, but over the years something more precious has surfaced: TIME. If you give yourself 20% of each day

 

and devote it to yourself, your dreams, your writing, your goals...you will, over time, find yourself wealthy in ways you never dreamed.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, Virginia, that is an EXCELLENT piece of advice!

 

What a great end note to our evening!

 

Thank you SO much for coming and I hope you'll come back and join us again.

aurora1

How beautiful, thanks Virginia

Virginia Castleman

Thank you all again. It has been wonderful talking with you.

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you so much for coming!

 

We'll let you escape and rest your fingers.

 

Have a lovely holiday season and happy New Year to you!

andi

Thank you Virginia, you gave me something to keep going on.

Virginia Castleman

You go! Keep the faith!

Mary Rosenblum

Thanks for coming, Virginia.

 

Good night!

Virginia Castleman

Bye all.

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you all for joining us tonight!

 

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