Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Interview with Jennifer Hamburg

Jennifer Hamburg, author of the picture book A Moose That Says Moo and creator of Dramatic Fanatic mystery theater parties for kids, also writes for children's television. I've always wondered how shows like Super Why! and Little Einsteins are created, so I just had to interview Jennifer.  Learn more about her exciting career at www.jenniferhamburg.com.

How did you land your first job writing for children's television?

I always knew I wanted to work in children’s television. I went to grad school to study Educational Psychology, and after I graduated I was hired as a research analyst for a Blue's Clues spin-off called Blue's Room. They knew I was interested in writing (because I kept reminding them!), and after my contract was up they asked me to stay on as an assistant writer. I was so lucky to have that opportunity. It was a short contract but in that time I really got to see the ins and outs of how a TV script was written (plus, it led to many more wonderful opportunities with the same group of people). After that, I started contacting other production companies and sending around samples. I had previously had a book of children’s plays published, so I used that as my sample for a while. I worked for a couple of different shows right off the bat, and it kind of went from there!

What is the process like writing scripts? 

Every show is different. For some we'd do a roundtable where we’d brainstorm ideas together and then each walk away with specific script assignments. Other times a show would send me a treatment (a summary of the episode) and a deadline, and that was it. Sometimes I would spend lots of time at the production offices and was very involved; for other shows, I never met the producers in person. The time frames also vary depending on the project. Generally, two weeks is typical for writing a script and maybe one week for a revision.  Sometimes I’m asked how long I need, and other times I’m given the date and time to have it in!

What's the biggest challenge writing for children's television?

Each show has a specific tone, feel, style of humor, etc. My job as a writer is to take my writer “personality” and fit it into the particular show I’m writing for. It’s harder than it sounds! Writers are obviously creative, and it’s natural to want to write scripts that show off your creativity – but it’s not always right for that particular show. It takes a lot of self-editing. Also, lots of the preschool shows I write for also have a curriculum with specific lesson plans for each episode. I need to be able to integrate the learning moments into the story, which can be tricky.

What's your favorite part of the job?

Well, I love the whole process! I like diving into a new script and going over and over it until it sounds just right. And then most of the time I have to rewrite the whole thing again ☺ But I think of it as a creative exercise. Some writers don’t like getting notes and rewriting; they can get defensive. But I look at it like this: The creators of the show have a specific idea of how they want the show to be, and whether I agree with their ideas or not, it’s my job to make it work for them. It’s their show! When I have a show I’ll write it the way I want.

One last thing: Tell me about A Moose That Says Moo!

A Moose That Says Moo was originally called A Moose Doesn’t Moo. Totally the opposite! It was basically about all of the things animals don’t do, which I thought was kind of funny. My husband gave me the idea. We were in a camping store when my son was a baby, and there was this giant stuffed moose. My husband was playing around and said to our son, “This is a moose. But a moose doesn’t moo.” And I said, “Hey, that’s funny!” So I wrote the book that week (yes, that quickly!) and sent it out to about five literary agents. One of them called me soon after and offered to represent me.

What we found, however, was that the story needed something more, more of an arc. So I played with it a bit and turned it into a “What if…” kind of story, where a kid imagines a zoo in her backyard – it’s still nonsensical and silly but it’s more active. And we sold it! (well, she sold it) It comes out next year, 2012.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Interviewing the Cast of "Annie"

Do you remember "Annie"? Yeah, if you're a girl who grew up in the '70s and '80s, I'm sure you do. As a generation, we were obsessed, right? I know my best friend and I were. We wrote our own plays based on the original, learned the songs and dances, and collected everything "Annie"-related we could find: dolls, figurines, magazines featuring the cast. One of those magazines got me into journalism (though I admit I didn't realize it at age 13). And if you think about it - since all writing is good practice for more writing - the work I did for newspapers led to the writing I do today.

It was a People magazine with Aileen Quinn's face filling the cover. I remember it well... Maybe because 28 years later, it's residing in my basement. The article featured interviews of the girls who played the orphans, and lucky for us, after each girl was quoted, the magazine listed her hometown city and state. Jackpot! It was 1983. We couldn't use the Internet on our home computers to find what we were after. But we could get the home phone numbers of minor movie stars by simply calling information and consulting the out-of-state phone books in the reference section of the Colonie Town Library.

Back at my house, we wrote out our questions, tested the phone extensions and made our calls. As the phone rang, we'd whisper to each other over the line: "It's ringing!" The way I remember it, I did the talking while my friend handled the tape recorder. After each interview, we'd hang up and scream. "We just talked to Molly! Pepper! Duffy!"And then, we'd replay the tape, analyzing what we'd learned in such detail that I remember the girls' answers even now (yes, I believe they did get to keep some of the costumes).

So those were my first celebrity interviews, back when we were all kids. About 10 years later, I went into journalism for real, writing for newspapers and magazines and interviewing all sorts of people. But there's still one interview I've yet to get.

Can you guess who it is?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Writing Dialogue

Last weekend, I visited my sister-in-law and brother-in-law who have an idea for a screenplay. Or possibly a stage play. When they said writing dialogue was the hard part (compared to developing the plot), I said I thought writing dialogue was much easier. Then, of course, they asked me how I do it. I had to think for a minute, since for some reason I never think of myself as an expert on anything. But then I realized I really do have some tips and ideas about this topic.

1. Let characters talk about themselves. This exercise can help you get to know them. The better you know them, the easier it is to understand how they speak and what they want to say.

2. Imagine characters as people you know. Maybe you've already based your characters on certain friends and family members with colorful personalities. As you're writing, it can help to simply imagine what the real people you know would say in your invented situations.

3. Write tons more dialogue than you need. Allow characters to go off on tangents and say whatever they want to say. You can edit down later to make sure the dialogue moves the plot along and actually belongs in your story.

4. Read dialogue out loud. That way, you can hear whether it flows and sounds real. (Actually, I'd say reading anything you write out loud is a good idea.)

5. Eavesdrop! Listen to people around you having interesting conversations. If you want to get really sneaky, write down what they're saying. When you read it over, you'll see how the interesting parts of a real conversation are often buried among asides and interruptions. Those are the parts that make dialogue sound real, but they can also be distracting if you don't do a bit of editing when you write.

So those are my tips and techniques for writing dialogue. Do you have tips of your own? Please share in the comments - I'd love to hear your ideas!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Guest Post: Fanfiction, Part II

Wondering how published authors feel about fanfiction? Read on for more insights from my guest expert!

Entering a Fake World (continued)

By Helen Armstrong

Some authors ban fanfiction being written based off their story. I can understand why – their story is their baby, their creation, they don’t want it being picked apart. However, most authors are pretty cool about it. A spokesperson at the Christopher Little agency said this of JK Rowling: "JK Rowling's reaction [about fanfiction] is that she is very flattered by the fact there is such great interest in her Harry Potter series and that people take the time to write their own stories.” Harry Potter fanfiction is huge – there are entire sites dedicated to it, like sugarquill.net. This is, of course, in addition to the 533,519 Potter fanfics on fanfiction.net.

Some fanfictions become famous in their own right. There is a fanfiction based off of the TV show Glee that takes place at Dalton Academy (the school Kurt Hummel transferred to in the second season, where he met Blaine Anderson). The cast of this fanfiction, Dalton, is made up of mainly Original Characters created by the author, CP Coulter. The characters of Glee are used occasionally, but because the story is set at a different school, it’s mainly Kurt, Blaine, and dozens of Original Characters. This story has become a kind of phenomenon in the Glee fandom. Most everyone who loves Glee has heard of or read Dalton. The story is slated to be 29 chapters, 25 of which have been written so far. And get this – those 25 chapters together are over 200,000 words, nearing 300,000. It almost seems unfair that CP Coulter doesn’t get paid to do this. One of the best parts about Dalton is the fanfiction written about it. It’s fanfiction about a fanfiction, which just goes to show the levels that fanfiction can reach.

Reading fanfiction is very fun – to see other peoples’ takes on the books is a really enjoyable experience. Sometimes it takes awhile to find one written by a person who knows the difference between the three forms of ‘there,’ but fanfiction.net allows authors to write a summary of their story. Normally one can tell the quality of the writing just from the 100-word summary.

I’d recommend fanfiction to writers and readers alike. There is fanfiction out there on everything, from the Hunger Games (6,464 on fanfiction.net) to Wuthering Heights (92). Whether reading it or writing it, fanfiction is a great way to improve your writing and enjoy a good story.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Guest Post: Fanfiction, Part I

Hi, everyone! I got in touch with teen writer Helen Armstrong when she so graciously took the time to read and comment on my MG manuscript. She mentioned she writes fanfiction, which I knew nothing about. I'm happy to post her article on fanfiction here - it's both enlightening and informative!

Entering a Fake World

By Helen Armstrong

What if Lily Evans had chosen Severus Snape over James Potter?

What if Frodo had taken the Ring into Mordor alone?

What if Juliet hadn’t killed herself?

What if Katniss had chosen Gale?

To find the answers to these questions, you need only to visit fanfiction.net. There are hundreds of thousands of stories in their online database, written by thousands of authors worldwide, all based on questions like these.

Fanfiction is a story based off of characters or settings in a book, movie, TV show, or sometimes celebrities. Fanfiction authors take the characters and put them into different circumstances and write about ‘what would happen if.’ They sometimes create original characters and throw them into the mix, and sometimes they create a cast of completely original characters and put them into the setting of the book/movie/TV show.

I’ve been writing fanfiction for three years, since the age of twelve. I started out writing Twilight fanfiction, which was so bad I want to curl up in a hole and never be seen by humankind again. As I got better at writing in general and writing fanfiction, though, and wrote all kinds of it (fanfiction for Harry Potter, celebrities, other books, etc.) I learned that it can sometimes be tougher to write fanfiction than original stories. The author has to get to know a character that is not their own. The actions and thoughts need to be consistent – the character has to remain In-Character if the author expects any kind of good reviews.

The review part of fanfiction is the part that I really love. I’m a teenage girl, in need of constant gratification, and I love being able to weave a story and watch readers' reactions as I update it chapter by chapter. Sometimes I take reader’s opinions into account, sometimes I just sit back and laugh as they get frustrated over the two main characters dancing around each other for 30 chapters before finally getting together at the very end.

It’s pretty fun to read a book and conceptualize a fanfiction based off of it. I’m one of those people who’s always thinking ‘what if?’ Fanfiction is all just a big ‘what if?’ It’s a fun, harmless way to explore the possibilities.