Roxyanne Young is the co-author of Tales of the Cryptids: Mysterious Creatures That May Or May Not Exist, with Kelly Milner Halls (author interview) and illustrator Rick Spears (Darby Creek, 2006). She's also the creator and Editorial Director of SmartWriters.com, a professional resource site for children's writers and educators, and administrator of the Write It Now! Competition.
How did the writing life first call to you? Did you shout, "yes!" Or run the other way?
I've been writing since I was able to hold a pencil. I wrote, illustrated, and self-published my first book in second grade. It was about a wild mustang pony and I still have it.
I began my first novel in 8th grade chemistry class. I was living in Savannah at the time, and attending an all-girl parochial academy downtown in the historic district, so my novel was a Southern Gothic Romance featuring a pampered belle named Olivia Dupree that thankfully never made it past chapter one.
In high school, I fell in love with Indiana Jones and set my sights on being a feature writer for National Geographic. I was going to travel the world and write about archaeology, foreign cultures, and all those wonderful, amazing things in that magazine. I even majored in anthropology at Auburn, with a double minor in history and journalism.
Shortly after graduation, I went on a cruise to the Bahamas with some girlfriends--my first experience in an actual foreign culture, which I loved, but found out along the way that I get frightfully seasick. Turns out I don't travel well. Alas. So much for the globetrotting writing career.
After that, I did a few years as a social worker, and then earned my M.A. in English Education studying with Dr. Janet Allen and taught for a while. In doing that, I was reintroduced to an old love: books. As much as I enjoyed teaching, I really, really love children's literature, and it awakened in me a new dream. Janet encouraged me to write for children and young adults. I've been pursuing land-based writing ever since.
Why did you decide to write for young readers specifically?
I had something of a turbulent childhood, and books were my salvation. They literally kept me sane and showed me that there was more to the world than what I was living. I'd forgotten how much they meant to me until I began reading them again in grad school. Here were my old friends, and lots of new ones. Richard Peck, Jane Yolen, Robert Cormier, Katherine Patterson, Bruce Coville, and so many more. I wanted to write novels like the ones I'd been reading.
Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles?
My first professional children's writing credits were for a now-defunct magazine called Kids' Wall Street News. I wrote an article about a shipwreck in the Mississippi River. Then they assigned an article on a shipwreck off the coast of San Francisco. And then another on the Titanic. I was fast becoming the Maritime Tragedy Queen, but I had my foot in the door and my full membership to the SCBWI. I attended conferences, did some freelance work for The San Diego Union-Tribune, started some really awful novels and completed some really awful rhyming picture books, and then a couple of years later, I started getting more positive editorial feedback on my submissions.
In the meantime, I was helping my husband start and run a Website design company, and I started SmartWriters.com and began really learning how this business works. I had to get over my timidity about meeting the people who had created the books that I loved so much (meeting Jane Yolen was a biggie for me, as were Richard Peck and Bruce Coville), and I confess that I'm still starstruck much of the time at conferences, but I'm still learning. I'm still very new at all of this. Or at least I feel like I am.
One of the most influential writers I've met is Kelly Milner Halls. We got to know each other and become friends after I emailed her a congratulatory letter for an article she had published in Writer's Digest about ten years ago. We've been friends ever since, and she actually brought me on for the Tales of the Cryptids book as co-writer.
Congratulations on the publication of Tales of the Cryptids: Mysterious Creatures That May or May Not Exist (Darby Creek, 2006). What was the initial inspiration for this book?
Thank you! It was Kelly's idea. She's regularly working on three or four books at a time, all very interesting subjects. We Instant Message each other several times a day to check in, and one day she popped up on my screen with a "Hey, I'm writing a proposal for a book on cryptozoology. What do you know about Bigfoot?" And I started gushing everything I knew, which turned into pages and pages of text. I had helped her research other books for an educational publisher, and I offered to do the same with this book--cryptozoology is a subject that really fascinates me. She brought me on as co-writer instead.
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
It was fast. After Kelly's IM and my gushing everything I could tell her about Bigfoot (which turned into much of the the sample chapter), she finished the proposal and sent it to her editor, Tanya Dean at Darby Creek. I think that was in August. It was approved and we began researching it in earnest within the week with the help of Kelly's illustrator friend, Rick Spears, who is a major crypto fan himself. We finished writing it in December. There were some final edits to be made, of course, and Rick did an amazing job on the art. The book went to the printer in March and was released on September 1, 2006.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
Keeping up with Kelly was a challenge. The woman is a writing machine! As far as writing the book, my main role was to research what would come to be called the Cryptidictionary, a resource of cryptid profiles at the end of the book. I also did some filler pieces for the front part of the book, some of which were kept, some of which were cut.
So cryptids...! Could you give us a sneak peek into these "mysterious creatures" featured in the book?
Cryptids is a term that applies to all the creatures in the world that we talk about, but have no proof that they really exist, like mermaids, sasquatches, lake monsters, and so on. Bigfoot and Nessie fall into this category--they're probably the best known.
The lesser known creatures lurk in local myth and legend around the country, around the world, really. There's the Bunyip of Australia, the Beast of Bodmin Moor in southwestern England, the Mapinguari of the Amazonian rain forest, the Kongamato of Africa. I read that there is an area of the Congo larger than the state of Florida that has not be explored yet because it's so remote, so harsh a landscape. The local peoples tell of giant snakes and dinosaur-like creatures living in the swamps of this region, creatures with plates on their backs, thick legs, horns, and some that fly. In other parts of Africa, they have cryptids whose names translate to things like "overwhelmer of boats" and "elephant killer."
Here in North America, there are stories of Bigfoot-like creatures in every single one of the continental United States and every Canadian province, and these sightings go back hundreds of years. There are lake monsters, too, and sea creatures off our coasts that are described as long, serpent-like creatures with heads like horses...and these reports are coming from experienced fishermen. People who can tell a whale or a shark from a horse with a serpent body.
Which cryptid most intrigues you and why?
Bigfoot, hands down. My grandmother told me a story about the Bardin Booger when I was little. This is my hometown's version of the Bigfoot legend, and I've heard about sightings since then in the marshy forests that separate the small towns and cities of North Florida. It's fascinated me since I was little.
What is the appeal of these mysteries? What about them is so especially fascinating to kids?
I think these stories capture their imaginations. They allow for the possibility of being. And that, for a young reader (and old ones, too), is truly a gift beyond compare.
You worked with two co-authors on this project, Kelly Milner Halls and Rick Spears, who also was the illustrator. Could you tell us about your collaborative process?
Because Kelly and I already have a great working relationship, I think the writing went really smoothly. Kelly was the lead writer, so I followed her direction. I would get an email from her with a request to research a particular creature, and I was on it, writing up the piece and sending it back to her for inclusion in the manuscript.
Conversely, I'm already on several message boards and other sites that cover crypto news, so I was emailing her almost daily with new research findings, experts to contact, and so on. I helped get some of the photos together (another friend, author Sandra McBride, even made a trip to get a photo of the Champ Sightings sign at Lake Champlain, and that made it into the book).
Rick and I brainstormed on the list of cryptids to profile and Kelly handled all of the actual interviews for the book, and we served as copyeditor for each other, double checking references and resources. It was a blast, really. And Rick was right there, too, with the art, sending us image files of preliminary art for the book and getting our input. (And thanks to him, one of my favorites, the Piasa Bird, made it into the book, too!)
It was a three-way collaboration all the way through.
What did Rick's illustrations bring to the text?
Rick's background is in building exhibits of animals and other creatures for museums, including dinosaurs. He has a lot of experience in anatomy and the general musculature of these creatures, as well as a lot of insight into how their respective environments will determine how much fur they have or what kind of skin they have, or what their eyes or teeth might look like, or how large they can grow, what they might eat, etc. For creatures based more on myth than actual evidence, that kind of insight is critical.
You're also the editorial director of www.SmartWriters.com! Fill us in on that? What do you do? What is SmartWriters all about?
Well, SmartWriters.com started out about four years ago as an informational Website for children's writers and illustrators. We've grown since then to include an international writing contest, the Write It Now! Competition, which has helped lots of writers get their first works published. I'm really proud of that. We also publish a monthly e-journal for writers with articles on the business and craft of writing for children, and we have done teleseminars over the summer--I'll probably start those back up soon--and we have other projects in the works, too, which will be announced closer to their launch dates.
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
Let me save you five years of banging your head against the wall. In a nutshell:
1. Stop talking about writing and sit your butt in the chair and do it. 1,000 words per day will get you a first draft of a mid-grade novel in about a month.
2. Find a good critique group, either in person or online, with members who will challenge you to do your very best. You don't need a rah-rah group. You need people who will point out that your plot has holes or your characters are two-dimensional, or this or that could just never happen, with love and support, of course, and you need to do the same for them.
3. Study the best of your genre. Read for entertainment, yes, but read to study the structure, too, and plot, and character, and descriptive language. Read, read, read.
4. If you're working on a rough draft, stop editing yourself. The thing I see that freezes up new writers more than anything else is that they continuously edit their first drafts of novels, to the point that they get locked up around chapter three and are unable to move forward with the work. Shut the Inner Editor off and free your mind, let those ideas flow. When you're done with the first draft, then you can let that Editor go to work.
How about those interested in picture books specifically?
Read at least two hundred picture books before you get serious about writing your own. Good ones, bad ones, mediocre ones. Study them. Look at what the very best writers can fit into 500-to-1000 words. See what they are able to do with that economy of language. Look at what the illustrator brings to the story, how the pictures help propel the plot and inform the characters. Picture book writing is perhaps the most challenging field of children's writing, simply because you have to do so, so much with so few words. I admire picture book writers more than I can tell you. In fact, our Grand Prize W.I.N.NER this year was from the Picture Book Category, Leslie Muir's C. R. Mudgeon's Cure.
And how about those who're writing non-fiction?
Respect your reader. Do quality research. Check and double check your sources with experts. (You'd be surprised at the mistakes that make it into print because someone read it on a Website and didn't get a verification from a more trustworthy source.) Present the information you find and cite your sources, and then let your reader make up their own mind about the subject. Don't editorialize.
What do you do when you're not reading or writing?
Is there anything you'd like to add?
I want to thank you, Cynthia, for the great work you're doing here. The more resources we have that offer quality information to children's writers, the better our industry will become, and that means better books and magazines for kids, and better reading material for kids means more intelligent, more thoughtful kids who will grow up into intelligent, thoughtful grownups, which means there's hope for us all.