Meet DIANA MURRAY, May Guest Guru
[From November 2020 - Pro Newsletter]
RATE YOUR STORY: Welcome, Diana! As you are, notably, one who defies the idea that writing in rhyme is a Kidlit crime, please share a little bit about your background. Are you trained in writing in verse? If not, how did you hone this particular talent? And how did you come to write rhyming children’s books?
DM: Lynne! We go so way back! And I’m glad we got to meet in person at my first SCBWI conference. Thanks for having me.
I am not formally trained in writing verse. I began around 2007 and slowly practiced and learned more about it through extensive reading (of poetry, books on craft, and blog posts), joining SCBWI, joining a critique group, attending SCBWI conferences, and entering contests. When I was starting out, I was also lucky enough to meet a very knowledgeable poetry mentor on the SCBWI boards who pointed me in the right direction. His name is Robert Schecter and we are still members of the same wonderful children’s poetry critique group (the Poets’ Garage).
In general, what inspired me to begin writing for children was reading with my first daughter. I have such warm memories of those times.
RYS: Are all your stories written in rhyme? Do they always start in rhyme? Or do they just end in rhyme?
DM: Yes! All my stories are written in rhyme. I often plan outlines using page numbers and brief text descriptions. This helps me with the story arc. But once I start really writing, I write in verse. The only exception is Groggle’s Monster Valentine. That story is written in prose, but it features lots of rhyming poems, so poetry is still a major element. I’m working on an early chapter book written in prose, but when it comes to picture books and early readers, I always stick with poetry. I’m better at it and I’m more passionate about it.
RYS: Do you recall your first rhyming manuscript(s)? Has it/have they sold? Which was your first manuscript to sell? Tell us a little bit about that experience.
DM: Ha! I haven’t thought about that in a long time. Yes, I remember the very first rhyming picture book manuscript I wrote. It was called “Paint the Sun”. It was about some animals in a barn who can’t go to the town fair because it’s raining, so they decide to paint the sun, each in their own unique way (and each relating to a different famous artist’s style). I showed the first few stanzas to my husband and he said, “That’s pretty good!” I was excited that it wasn’t terrible. And my journey began. That particular manuscript went through about fifty different versions, including different types of meter and rhyme schemes, prose, and even blank verse (which is metrical verse without end rhymes). I researched publishers who were open to unsolicited manuscripts and started submitting. For the next couple of years, the rejections poured in, including a handful of “positive” rejections with encouraging personal messages from editors. In the meantime, I kept learning, and I ended up finally tearing myself away from that first manuscript to work on lots of new stories and poems.
My first successful pb manuscript was Grimelda the Very Messy Witch. In 2010 I won the SCBWI WIP Barbara Karlin Grant for an early draft. Then I got my current agent with that manuscript in 2012 and it sold shortly thereafter, kind of simultaneously with Ned the Knitting Pirate.
RYS: How does the rhythm/meter usually come to you? What would you recommend as checks and balances to make sure that rhyme is consistent throughout a project? Do you often opt for a refrain?
DM: I just try to write from the heart and see what pops out. Often, I’ll begin with a first couplet or last couplet that sounds just right for what I’m trying to capture, and then I’ll write the rest to match that. As for checking consistency, I just read it over many times. And have others read it.
RYS: Please share your favorite rhyme resource. Also, if someone were to want to learn how to write or better write poetry, is there a favorite book that you might recommend to them?
DM: For beginners, I recommend “Icing the Cake: Writing Stories in Rhythm and Rhyme” by Dori Chaconas. http://www.dorichaconas.com/Icing%20the%20Cake%20page.htm It’s online and it’s free. For people who want to learn more about the technical aspects, I recommend the book “All the Fun’s In How You Say a Thing” by Timothy Steele. Reading that book made me have some huge breakthroughs about writing in meter. There is a free excerpt here: https://learn.lexiconic.net/meter.html. Finally I highly recommend the video resources of Renee LaTullipe who teaches Lyrical Language Lab https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8oq0wOZjP6EFfv9SUgy4MA
RYS: You have some fun titles with some interesting names for your characters. What are some of the methods you utilize in naming your books and characters? Please share. Have titles ever changed after the book has been purchased?
DM: Hmmm, I’m not sure I have any methods for that. It’s just whatever comes to me and feels right.
RYS: Two of my favorite books of yours are NED THE KNITTING PIRATE and GRIMELDA THE VERY MESSY WITCH. What inspired Grimelda’s messiness? Ned’s knitting? Please tell us a little bit about the inspirations for these characters and how their stories came to be.
DM: Grimelda is basically me. I always joke that someday my husband could write a biography called “Living with Grimelda” (much to his dismay). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked around the house wearing one shoe, desperately trying to find the other one. Being messy is frustrating, but at the same time, I hate cleaning. So my inspiration was the character trait of messiness, and then I cranked it up by making the main character a witch. That made the potential for messiness even bigger and more interesting. It added an element of fantasy.
For “Ned the Knitting Pirate”, I was inspired by an episode of Anthony Bourdain (on his food and travel show). He went to Sweden and met with some extreme snowboarders who were descended from Vikings. And they knit their own hats. I thought the contrast was very funny and that was my inspiration.
RYS: I love the puns in Grimelda. Can you share any guidelines you may have in how to utilize puns in an effective, but not overwhelming, way?
DM: I do love puns! When writing any sort of humor I find that, if I can make myself smile or surprise myself, then I’m probably on the right track. And then I always share with my critique group so if a pun is a real groaner, I’ll hear about it! Of course, I might choose to keep it anyway. It’s subjective.
RYS: Here’s an excerpt from Grimelda.
She used her broom to fly, not sweep.
Her floors had dirt six inches deep.
But though she said she didn’t mind,
Sometimes things were hard to find.
What technique do you employ when writing in rhyme to make sure the story comes first and always moves forward?
DM: Well, that is super important! It’s easy to let the story get away from you. But you can’t let the rhyme take the reins. I like to outline the story in prose, along with page numbers, to give myself some direction. However, the surprise factor of rhyme is part of the fun. So you don’t want to restrict yourself TOO much.
For example, Grimelda is looking for a missing ingredient to make her pie. That ingredient is “pickle root”. Would I have come up with that name if it hadn’t rhymed? Probably not. But I think it works (witches often work with odd herbs and such) and it’s funny. Finding surprising directions like that is part of the joy of writing in rhyme. You just have to make sure that it makes sense, feels natural, and doesn’t take you off track from the story.
RYS: Grimelda employs a twist at the end that is somewhat unexpected. How did you come up with that twist?
DM: I felt that a circular ending was the only ending that made sense in this case. I didn’t want the story to seem didactic. The message that it’s easier to find things when you’re tidy and organized is clear. The reader knows that Grimelda is making a terrible decision at the end. And it’s fun for readers to feel smarter than the main character. Like you said, it’s a “twist”, which is almost always a good way to end a pb. As long as the twist makes sense for the story. In this case, the twist further reinforces Grimelda’s character, so it works. It doesn’t matter that Grimelda doesn’t learn a lesson. The reader will learn the lesson instead and can laugh at Grimelda’s stubbornness.
RYS: How did Grimelda’s spooktacular sequel come about?
DM: The first manuscript sold in a two-book deal. In other words, the sequel was already under contract when I started writing it. That was a lot of pressure since I had never considered making it a series when I first wrote it. I worked on a bunch of different rough ideas and went back and forth with my editor. We settled on the pet competition idea. The publisher really wanted to see some other characters in Grimelda’s world and to give Wizzlewarts (her cat) a bigger role in the second book. I had an absolute blast world-building and imagining what Grimelda’s neighbors might be like. In the story, Grimelda is kind of jealous of another young witch who has an impressive dragon for a pet. And I had to keep Grimelda’s messiness in mind. It was important that messiness came into play for the climax. So I had Grimelda accidentally smudge a page in her spell book with her messy fingers. The sequel was both difficult and fun to write. I was happy with how it turned out.
RYS: As a New Yorker, I just love the art and imagination in CITY SHAPES. What was the
inspiration behind this book? How did you pitch it?
DM: Thanks! I spent many years living in midtown Manhattan. I used to like taking long walks through the city, for several hours. I would put on hiking boots and trek all the way down to Canal Street in Chinatown. I found it fascinating to see the way each neighborhood changed. Each neighborhood had its own character and its own unique sights. That was the inspiration for the book. I didn’t show it to my agent initially because I thought it might be hard to sell a concept book. But my writing friend encouraged me to show it to her. My agent loved it and that ended up being the first manuscript I sold at auction. There was a lot of interest in it. I remember feeling quite shocked and excited. I remember my agent called it “deceptively simple” in the pitch. But I don’t recall all the specifics.
RYS: As someone who had my own personal copy of Chase’s book of days and loves holidays, I would love to know the inspiration for Unicorn Day, as I am certain others would too. Please share!
DM: I was on a Disney trip with my kids. We went on one of those “swimming with dolphins” adventures. It was awe-inspiring. The dolphins were so beautiful and shiny. They had intelligence and magic in their eyes. I thought they seemed like unicorns of the sea. I started thinking about writing a story with dolphins having a party. Then I thought, if they seem like unicorns, why not make them actual unicorns? That would let me add magical elements to the story and that’s always fun. Magic allows for more exaggeration. And that idea eventually led to “Unicorn Day”. When my kids were little, they played a game where a bunch of ponies were trotting around and then a single unicorn came along, inviting them to fly. The unicorn was different, but they all got along. That idea, with a few tweaks, figured into the twist of the story. I didn’t realize that there was an actual National Unicorn Day until after I wrote the story. I also found out it was on my birthday!
RYS: I love veggies, eggplant being my absolute favorite, so I agree that one can never have too much veggies, of course! But what inspired you to bid them goodnight in Goodnight, Veggies? How did you give them a story and make it kid-accessible?
DM:I wanted to write a bedtime story. I wrote a list of ideas (e.g., “Goodnight, blank”) and when I wrote down “Goodnight, Veggies”, it kind of made me laugh to myself. I thought it seemed a little absurd. That’s when I decided to try it out. I already had a pun-filled poem about a veggie garden. It had been published in Highlights. So that was also in the back of my mind as I wrote. Other than that, I just let it pop out to see what would happen. The ending took a while to work out but the rest flowed pretty quickly.
This is an example of when I write from my own prompt. Sometimes I just sit down and deliberately try to come up with my next pb idea. I find writing to be highly satisfying and relaxing so I always like to be working on something new. Keeps me sane. Especially when I’m going through something tough in my personal life or I’m worried about the state of the world.
RYS: Pizza and pigs are two more of my favorite things, so of course, I have a copy of this
book, too! How exactly did this book come about? Was it an idea? Work-for-hire? Was it assigned, or did you pitch it?
DM: No, it wasn’t work-for-hire. I had always wanted to write an early reader. I did a bunch of research on them and then tried writing a few. My agent sent them on exclusive to the editor at Random House, Step-into-Reading. It was a three book series about an oddball couple. She said she loved the voice but that they were a bit too quiet. She said their brand needs mega commercial hooks. Something that will “jump off the rack and into kids’ hands”, was the way she put it. She invited me to try another story and I did. I used the inspiration from an old picture book I had about a cow chef named Mootilda. It was an idea I tossed around a lot over the years, but I never really carried it through. I was never happy with the ending. But working on it again with an early reader in mind, everything suddenly came together. It was originally “Pizza Dog”, by the way. The editor accepted it, but asked if I’d mind changing the dog to a pig. I agreed and ended up loving the final product. I thought the illustrator, Maria Karipidou, really nailed it. And my second early reader, “Double the Dinosaurs”, just came out this September.
RYS: We are looking forward to having you be one of our Guest Gurus next year and rating a few of our Member Manuscripts! In addition to that, what’s on the horizon for you?
DM: Well, in spring of 2021, two of my books will be releasing as board books (as well as translations), so I’m super excited about that! Never had a board book edition before. Those will be for “Goodnight, Veggies” and “Unicorn Day”. Also in ‘21, the sequel to Unicorn Day will be coming out. It’s called “Unicorn Night”. I just saw Luke Flowers’ sketch for the cover and it is adorable! There is another pb manuscript I just sold that is also scheduled for ‘21, but it’s still top secret so I can’t mention the title. I’m about to work on revisions for that. In 2022, I’m expecting to release a third unicorn sequel and a futuristic pb called “Someday, Maybe” (Macmillan). I was supposed to have a truck themed pb out this year but it got delayed and they’re having to find a new illustrator for that. So that one will also be in ‘22, hopefully. And much more to come and in the works!
RYS: If you had one important piece of advice to share with our readers regarding revision, what would it be?
DM: Be relentless! Really. Save the version you have and start a new version that you can totally rip apart. You aren’t really “killing” darlings. You’re just putting them somewhere else for safe-keeping. It’s especially difficult to revise rhyming text. It can feel like rearranging a house of cards. But don’t be too gentle. If something gets broken, you can build it back up.
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Interview by Lynne Marie