Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Carole Boston Weatherford dishes about her new book; BECOMING BILLIE HOLIDAY


I’m honored to have you here at The Fractured Keyboard. I read your new book, BECOMING BILLIE HOLIDAY, in less than a day. I’m normally not a fan of books in verse, but I couldn’t put yours down. What made you choose to write this book in verse instead of simple prose?
Billie Holiday conveyed enormous emotion in her small voice. Poetry was the ideal medium to capture the lyricism of her life story and the mood of her music.

What inspired you to write about Billie Holiday and why as a YA and not a PB like some of your other biographies? (I, MATTHEW HENSON – BEFORE JOHN WAS A JAZZ GIANT – JESSE OWENS: FASTEST MAN ALIVE – MOSES)
Billie Holiday is my muse and she enlisted me to write the book. She lived an R-rated life. So that ruled out a picture book.

Was there anything you learned during your research that challenged or changed your perceptions about Billie?
I did get to know her a bit better. I discovered that she loved movies and read pulp fiction, that she loved dogs and hated insects. She was a hopeless romantic beneath her street-smart exterior.

An illustrated novel for Young Adults is not the norm. How did the decision to include illustrations in your book come about?
That was the publisher’s decision—and a good one, if I do say so myself.

Floyd Cooper’s artwork is amazing. Did you choose him to illustrate BECOMING BILLIE HOLIDAY? Has he illustrated any of your other books? The publisher chose Floyd Cooper. Becoming Billie holiday was our first collaboration. I hope for another chance to work together.

How long did it take to complete BECOMING BILLIE HOLIDAY, from concept to final release?
About two and a half years.

Why did you end the book in the middle of Billie Holiday's career?I wanted end on a high note rather than to rehash Billie Holiday's heartbreaking decline. At the peak of her fame, 25-year-old Billie could not have imagined that she would die broke at age 44 of liver failure due to drug and alcohol abuse. But she may have sensed that her legacy would endure through her music.

BECOMING BILLIE HOLIDAY, like most of your books, is very powerful. In fact, one poem in particular held a certain resonance or punch for me. It is the one called AIN’T NOBODY’S BUSINESS IF I DO. I felt it summed up the lives of so many American youth. Do you hope to inspire these children with your writing? Billie Holiday, who was born Eleanora Fagan, used art to transcend her circumstances—poverty, parental neglect, rape, racism, and domestic abuse. Perhaps Eleanora suffered so Billie Holiday could sing.

How many books have you published? Are they all for children?
I have 32 books, 27 of which are for young people.

Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication? Were there any hurdles along the way?
I got my first two contracts by dropping names in cover letters. I knew somebody who knew somebody. My first book, JUNTEENTH JAMBOREE, was published by Lee and Low in 1995. I struck options clauses from contracts and proceeded as a free agent, submitting my work to various houses as I worked my way up the industry’s feeding chain. Awards helped me get my foot in the door even though my subject matter was sometimes obscure. Perseverance has been key to my success. I just keep plugging until some editor sees the potential or value in what I have written.

I notice MOSES was published by Jump At The Sun/Hyperion. That is a closed house. Can you tell us how you got them to look at your manuscript?
An editor called to invite me to submit.

Is there a discussion/reading guide available for MOSES and some of your other titles?
There are study guides for several of my books. I provide links from my web site:

Thank you so much for stopping by The Fractured Keyboard! It’s been a pleasure having you here with us today. On behalf of myself and everyone who pops in, we wish you the best of luck with BECOMING BILLIE HOLIDAY. As usual, I really think you’ve got a winner!

-Niki Masse Schoenfeldt

Be sure and check out my reviews for some of Carole's other books:


Wednesday, April 22, 2009


When I first began my writing career, these three words: SHOW, DON’T TELL, grated on me worse than fingernails down a blackboard. I just didn’t get it. Time and again, I thought, “I am TELLING a story! What is the problem?” Then somewhere down the line I finally figured it out. It didn’t come to me like a sudden epiphany, but at some point, it all started to make sense. And when it did, I realized just how important those three words really are to a well-written story.

Let me begin by saying my first impression was wrong. As a writer, I thought I was supposed to simply TELL a great story. Not so. I soon learned that my job isn’t to TELL a story, but to thrust my reader smack-dab into the action where they can experience it first-hand. As you can imagine, much of my early work read more like a newscast where the reader understood my story, but never connected with it.

Here's an example:

Then suddenly, after all this time, Annie received a letter from Grandma’s lawyer, Mr. Barclay, asking her to come to Charlotte Immediately. Daddy was in trouble and he knew a way that she could help. She immediately called Mark. He was overjoyed and agreed to meet her at the bus station the next day.

The above paragraph came from page 2 of a manuscript. Page 1 was filled with backmatter. But that's another article for another day. From it, you get the basic gist of what is going on but not the whole picture. You understand only what I’ve TOLD you, but you probably don’t feel like a part of it. Because I’ve left you on the outside looking in, you’re unattached. You have no real feel for Annie, her Dad, Mark or the situation.

Now, here’s the rewrite:

Four years after Annie’s last visit to Charlotte, she received a letter.

Dear Annie,

My name is Ambrose Barclay and I was retained as legal counsel by your late Grandmother, Theodora Davis, before her death. It has recently come to my attention that her property at 582 Magnolia Drive, which is presently inhabited by your Father, Maxwell Davis, will soon go into foreclosure. Due to legal matters and a secret trust set up by my client, I ask that you, as beneficiary, come to Charlotte immediately to stop these proceedings.

Annie booked a ticket for the next day then called her old friend Mark.

“Hello,” Mark’s familiar voice shot through the line.

“Hi, Mark, it’s Annie.”

“Annie! Great hearing from you. What’s going on?”

“Well, it looks like something’s happening at Grandma’s place.”

“Yeah,” Mark agreed. “Something sure isn’t right over there. The place is practically falling apart.”

Annie blinked back tears. Gran had been so meticulous.

“I bet Dad’s gold-digging wife has something to do with it," she said. "I’m heading there tomorrow on the bus. Can I stay at your house?”

“Hey, that’d be great!” Mark answered. “I’ll pick you up at the station.”

From the rewrite, you get a lot more than just the gist of the situation. Instead of TELLING you what happened, I’ve SHOWN you and let you experience it first-hand the same way the main character does. You know exactly what happened and, if I've done my job right, you should feel some sort of attachment to the story that you didn’t feel upon reading the original.

One way I SHOWED in the rewrite is with the use of dialog. In the real world, information is usually passed from one person to the next by the use of language. In books and stories, dialog is a great way to give information too. But make sure it is realistic and not an information dump. (See article: Dialog Despair.) Another way I SHOWED more than TOLD is by sharing the media-related info with you. Instead of telling you about the contents of Annie’s letter, I actually let you read it; or at least the important parts.

SHOWING instead of TELLING takes practice, but once you get into the habit, you shouldn’t have any trouble. Here are a few tips to help you recognize areas where you might be TELLING and how to change it to SHOWING:

- Don’t TELL your reader how a character feels.

Example: Martha was disappointed when her Dad didn’t make it to the party.

Instead, SHOW Martha’s disappointment through her words and actions:

Example: Martha wore a fake smile as she said goodbye to her guests. She shut the door behind the last one and leaned against it. “He didn’t make it, again.”

- Never tell the reader what another character says.

Example: Kevin’s Mom said he could go to the park with Ron.

Instead, show the exchange.

Example: “Mom, can I go to the park with Ron?” Kevin asked.
“Sure,” Mom answered.

- Watch out for those unnecessary adverbs.

Example: He walked dejectedly away from the jeering crowd.

Instead, show his feelings without the crutch of a flimsy adverb. Beef it up.

Example: Head hung low, he left the jeering crowd for the safety of home.

So, if you want to be a better writer, stop TELLING stories. Instead, breathe some life into them and SHOW the world the exciting tales that stem from your imagination. Let your reader experience the excitement, the drama, and the emotion as it occurs. Because after all, readers don't want to just read a story, they want to live it!

-Niki Masse Schoenfeldt