Author Spotlight: Diana Murray
Happy Tuesday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight.
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In all seriousness, I'm very excited to share today's Author Spotlight. Diana Murray is nothing short of a rhyming picture book superstar. A true Word Ninja Master. A Couplet Queen of the highest order.
If you haven't read one of her books you are, in a word, wrong. Please right that wrong as soon as you possibly can. And you can do that with Diana's new book! Unicorn Day was just released and is just to die for!
To thank you for reading this interview, Diana has a special giveaway for her fellow rhyming writers. So if you are also a poet (or are and don't yet know it) this post is for you.
Strong tea, a laptop, time alone.
What’s something you absolutely must have in your refrigerator or pantry?
Anchovies, garlic, sriracha, tea, walnut milk, chocolate.
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
My patio at the edge of our yard! I love the fresh air, the cool breeze, and the sound of birds chirping. Plus, I always wanted a backyard, ever since I was little, and I never had one till a few years ago.
I was introduced to poetry in high school. I had a wonderful creative writing teacher who was a big inspiration to me. At the time, I only wrote free verse. I also kept a journal for many years and liked to sometimes write down interesting bits of conversations that I overheard in coffee shops and such. When my first daughter was born in 2005, we started reading tons of children's books. I fell in love with the experience of reading together and with picture books in general. I started writing picture book texts in 2007 and joined SCBWI. I found the rhythm of metrical verse to be infectious. In a good way! Ha. And I enjoyed the challenge of getting things right. Met some other writers and joined a critique group that specialized in poetry. I still belong to that group now. This is a very condensed version of events. Everything seemed to take forever!
I’m so excited for Unicorn Day to come out! Congrats! The premise and everything I’ve read about it sound fantastic. Give us the elevator pitch of Unicorn Day.
Thanks so much! I’m really excited, too! Let’s see, elevator pitch: a horse wearing a fake horn sneaks into a magical unicorn celebration.
Even when I'm on vacation, I'm always working. Drives my husband a little crazy, but I just find my job so enjoyable! So, while in Sea World, I was inspired by watching (and swimming with) dolphins. I thought they seemed like "unicorns of the sea" because they were so playful and majestic, and had a sparkle about them. I started thinking of ideas for a book based on a dolphin party. But it eventually morphed into a unicorn party, because that let me push things over the top more. And I love stories with magic. My kids also used to play a game when they were little that involved a horse interacting with unicorns. So that was another piece of the inspiration.
What are you doing to celebrate and promote Unicorn Day?
I've been doing a lot of book festivals (like Maplewood, NJ; Kentucky; Poughkeepsie, NY; Hudson Valley, etc.). I wear my unicorn horn and give out rainbow unicorn horns with every purchase. Everyone keeps saying how popular unicorns are these days. I thought they were always popular! But anyway, yeah, I can certainly see that kids are drawn to the book cover.
Hmmm. Perhaps black with a rainbow horn and mane and silver hooves. But I would have to do some serious research if I were to commit to that. :)
I’ve recently been nerding out about story structure. I want to understand what makes stories work. As you have traveled along your journey, what have you picked up about story structure that you can share with us? What must a story have to truly work?
Yes! I feel that having a better understanding of story structure is what helped me write manuscripts that would finally sell. Picture books have a certain pacing that you get used to after a while. You just have to read a ton of them. There are lots of different kinds of structure depending on the book (whether it's a concept book, character-driven, cumulative, mirror story, etc.). Personally, I never start writing till I have some idea of what the ending will be. A book needs to end with some impact, even if it's a simple concept book. It's also great if there is a solid takeaway message that goes a little deeper.
For example, in CITY SHAPES, the final message is: it's great to explore, but there's no shape like home. Or sometimes there can be a sort of poetic device that makes the ending feel a bit richer. For example, in ONE SNOWY DAY, the story begins and ends with "ONE puppy" and is bookended by "millions of snowflakes." Another example of a "circular" story like that is GRIMELDA THE VERY MESSY WITCH. It starts with her losing something, and then ends with her losing the same thing again in a circular and unexpected twist. Twist endings are always a good thing.
Well, I could talk story structure forever, but I guess I just want to say that ensuring a satisfying ending is definitely a top priority. Also, if you have a largely plotless story, find a way to include a gentle arc (such as day to night transition) and some kind of surprise in the middle that can serve as a climax (such as when the dog steals the snowman's carrot nose in ONE SNOWY DAY).
I found it helpful to type out picture book texts (with pagination) in order to study their structure. You will notice patterns when you do this. Conflict almost always happens around the 2nd or 3rd page turn. Tension usually begins building on a certain page. You'll see. You can also try to copy the exact structure of the book with a different story of your own. Great exercise.
I’m very interested in your poetry style as a writer. And I may or may not have included your books as comps for some of my own projects. (cough) Okay, I have. (cough) I totally have. (cough) And you’re awesome. Do you have a particular meter that feels most at home to you when you’re writing, or is it dependent on the story?
I'm incredibly flattered! Yes, it's always dependent on the story. When I'm ready to begin writing, I try to write from the heart. I just see what rhythm pops out. After I have the first couple of lines, then I think about what kind of meter I've got going on, exactly. Sometimes, if I have one line I really, really want to use (like a perfect last line, for example) I might even do my best to write the whole thing to fit with the meter of that one line. I find it's really fun to match the meter to the tone of the story. Sleepy stories can feel languid and fast-paced stories can have more of a thumping beat. You can get a great deal of variety out of metrical verse and I adore the musicality.
What excites you the most about writing in rhyme? Why should picture book authors write in rhyme at all?
As I said, I LOVE the musicality. Writing in metrical verse is totally different from writing in prose. It's mathematical in the same way that music is mathematical. I've read that human beings developed an understanding of music before they even developed language. So I think poetry hits on a deep, visceral level. This can be true for free verse, as well, but that's a bit different. It's not as uniformly patterned.
Revisions! It is so darn hard to revise rhyming text. But I'm getting used to it. You can't tiptoe around because you're scared to break things. You just have to get in there and smash, and then rebuild. It reminds me of playing jenga or making a house of cards.
What words of encouragement can you offer picture book authors who are interested in dabbling in rhyme but maybe intimidated or who can’t turn their inner-editor off?
Don't let your inner editor cripple you. First, get it all out there. Get your words on paper. There will be a time to revise and analyze, but that will come later. It's just like any endeavor. If it interests you, then go for it. Why not? You can't be instantly fabulous at anything. Comes from practice and determination. And even after all that, some people will still say, "This sucks!" And that's OK, too. Can't be afraid of criticism. If you practice enough, you will be confident enough in what you're doing that you can let the criticism just roll off your back. OR, if it's constructive criticism, you can be open to agreeing with some things and disagreeing with other things. It's a process. A long one. If you're enjoying the process (despite challenges), then why stop? Challenges can be fun, right?
When you have a new story, does the rhythm and meter come to you or do you work it out in prose and then translate it into poetry later?
No, the rhythm always comes to me. HOWEVER, I almost always plan out the story arc (with page numbers) in prose first. I just make a short note about what will generally happen on each page. Then I go back and fill that in with verse. The outline keeps me on track and keeps the story arc tight.
I write one manuscript till it's done. I only stop working on it if I run into trouble or start to feel like my eyes aren't "fresh" anymore (which makes it hard to be decisive). Sometimes I'll set things aside for several years. Other than that, I critique work for others just about every day. That includes short poems. I also review illustrations that editors send me and stuff like that. I don't know how I balance things. I think my issue is more that I would rather be doing writer-related activities than ordinary personal chores. Hence my inspiration for GRIMELDA THE VERY MESSY WITCH! And I guess I'm quite prolific. I need to have at least one or two new manuscripts I'm working on at all times. I'm not happy unless I'm writing.