A native of Monteal, Quebec, Kim McDougall is a multi-genre author, photographer and fiber artist. Under her married name, Kim Chatel, she writes children's books. Her titles include the young adult novella, The Stone Beach, and the newly released picture book, Rainbow Sheep. I'm excited to have Kim here today to talk about her writing and specifically about Rainbow Sheep, a one-of-a-kind picture book where the pictures are from settings and characters created from sculpted wool.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
I have always written. I have a book of poems that I wrote when I was 8 or 9 (Cats have fur. They often purr…) In high school, I won an award for a descriptive flash I wrote about someone drowning. Then in college, I was lucky enough to have several encouraging professors who inspired me to continue writing. After my daughter was born, writing slipped by the wayside, but when she started school, I decided it was now or never. I put aside all my other projects (photography and crafting) and became a full-time writer. It took 3 years, but I'm finally reaping the rewards, with several projects being published in the next few months.
Do you have another job besides writing?
You mean other than mom and housekeeper? Those keep me busy enough, but I also edit a newsletter for one of my publishers and I've recently started making DVD's of picture books. I still take pictures and I have a small portfolio on iStockphoto.com. I have my own ezine, called Between the Cracks Digest too, but I've put that on hiatus for the summer to spend time with my family and promote Rainbow Sheep.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
I read all the time as a child and teenager. I could spend hours by myself with a good book. As a young child, I loved the Bobsy Twins series. Later I fell in love with fantasy fiction when I read Madaleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. I remember how she explained time could be folded like a blanket to travel over its surface faster. It was a true WOW moment for me. I had never read anything like it. Then my brother gave me the Belgariad series from David Eddings and I was hooked on fantasy.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
Well, one evening during a storm, my daughter couldn’t sleep. I started a game with her that would last for years. I gave her a dream. This funny story was something she could latch onto while she tried to sleep and I told her to finish it in her dreams. The first of these story-dreams was an early version of Rainbow Sheep. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. The plot and characters went through many revisions before it was ready to submit for publication, but the basic story is the same one I told on that rainy night so many years ago.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
I get so excited when I start a new project that I need to create an outline, because I worry all my great ideas will get lost if I don't put them on paper. Rainbow Sheep was different though because it evolved from an oral tale. It did require extensive revising. The original version was much too long for a picture book. I wrote it down in full, and then put it away for a few months. When I took it out again, the initial excitement was gone and I could look at it with a critical eye. I think, like many authors, I'm often enamored with my own words, when they first materialize. I need to distance myself a bit before I can revise. This is where critique groups come in, and I have been very fortunate to be a part of good writers groups, with wonderful, supportive friends who have helped me improve my writing over the years.
Did your book require a lot of research?
I always research. For The Stone Beach I interviewed two veterinarians to make Casey's illness as realistic as possible. For Rainbow Sheep I learned some interesting facts about sheep. There is also an article on needle felting at the back of this book, so I researched the origins of this craft. I've learned that research doesn't end with publication either. Finding unique ways to promote a book also requires research. I am currently looking into different venues, such as craft and specialty gift shops, to sell Rainbow Sheep.
How did you come up with the idea of using felting to create the pictures in the story?
I was always fascinated by picture books illustrated with alternate forms of art such as Eric Carle’s collages or Barbara Reid’s plasticene-relief illustrations from The New Baby Calf, (author Edith Newlin Chase). These books worked on my subconscious, inspiring me to merge my own art with my fiction.
Tell us a bit about this special technique?
Felting happens when wool is shrunk down. Rubbing wool with warm water and soap is called wet felting. Needle felting is the art of sculpting wool with a special needle. Wool roving (unspun wool) is poked repeatedly, until it compacts into a solid shape. The results are fun, whimsical and fuzzy.
I first discovered this craft in 2004, on the Carol Duval show on HGTV. At the time, I dabbled in all kinds of crafts, but the first time I picked up a felting needle and a hunk of wool roving, I was hooked. I knew I’d found my medium. I can’t draw or paint. I don’t like to sew or knit, but needle felting lets me express my imagination with ease. Needle felting is fast becoming a mainstream art. When I first started, I could find only two books on the subject. Now there are dozens of books and chat groups for needle-felters.
Is this something young children could do at school? Where may parents and teachers find more information about this craft?
I suggest needle felting is suitable for children 8 years and older with adult supervision because the needle is quite sharp. My daughter has been felting since she was 6 years old though. Kids love it, even boys. There are many wet felting projects that don't require a needle and these would be great for school projects with children as young as 4 or 5.
While needle felting hasn't quite reached the big box craft stores yet, there are many good online stores for felting supplies and books. I have a list of them on my website. The DVD version of Rainbow Sheep will also include a short home movie of me making a little felted sheep, as per the instructions in the book.
What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
A bit of both. I find scenes from my life appear in my stories, Montreal, Nice, France (I went to college there). For the rest, I'm a story collector. I listen and read, watch the news and find stories everywhere. Often two or three stories will combine to make one plot. I keep a file of "Story Sparks." This could be anything from a name of a character or a conversation, to a video of a news story.
Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?
A jar of green olives and a glass of wine (I know a horrible combo!) usually does the trick for me. But if I relied on that method, I'd weigh too much to get out of my chair! I often get ideas in the middle of the night too. If I can't sleep, it's because an idea has a hold of me and won't let go. If I want any peace, I'll get up an write it down. I think ideas strike me at night because my brain has time to mull over the masses of media that I see every day. We live in an information crazy society. Sometimes it's hard to pick one voice out of the noise.
Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?
My muse used to frighten me. I let her rule my work schedule. If she didn't feel like writing, I wouldn't write. Since I started writing full-time, I've learned that it's a job, like any other. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes not. To break my muse's hold on me, I created my "9am Disciplinary Hour." I put a bunch of writing prompts in a jar. They were anything from plot ideas, to character descriptions to dialogue prompts. As soon as my daughter was off to school, while I was still fresh, I wrote 500 words on a topic that I pulled out of the jar. Not only did I end up with quite a portfolio of rough stories, but I learned to rule my muse.
Now I write on my time. It helps to have several projects on the go. That way, if one is not happening, I can move on to another. Also, the business end of writing takes up a lot of time. Some days, I'm just too exhausted or uninspired to write, but I still work at one of the dozens of other aspects of my job like, newsletters, websites, critiquing etc.
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
Rainbow Sheep took about two and a half years from that first rainy night when I lulled my daughter to sleep with the story of a sad rainbow, to holding my first copy in my hands. As I mentioned, I put it away for several months before revising it. About the same time, I made my first needle-felted pictures. I had no idea if any publisher would be interested in such a thing. And because each frame took about 8 hours to complete, I made only three to begin with. Then I started the long process of trying to find a publisher. Luckily, I met Lynda Burch, from Guardian Angel publishing at the Muse online conference in October of 2007. She was interested in not only in the story, but in the art as well, I quickly got busy making another seven frames! By the end of November, I had completed the artwork. Then I suggested to Lynda that we include the Fiber Art activities. So, my job wasn't really done until January. The book was released in May 2008.
Describe your working environment.
I am lucky enough to have my own office at home. I usually have a cat draped across my lap as I type and a dog snoring loudly on the floor at my feet. I recently bought a laptop so I can work anywhere, but I prefer my office. I keep it quite cold in there, to stay awake through my sleepy time (2 to 4pm). I also have all my reference books handy.
Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?
I try to write to the end before revising. My first novel, Caul, Shroud and Veil took me 12 years to write! Partly because I went for months (or years) at a time without working on it. But I also wrote and rewrote seven drafts before actually completing one. It was a learning experience. Now I know the value of a good outline. I make copious notes for revisions, but try to forge ahead and complete one draft before going back.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
I have enough rejection letters to paper my office. And I think that's how it should be. Taking creative writing in college really helped to thicken my skin. While I had some supportive professors, others were only interested in finding the next Alice Munroe; they weren't impressed by my brand of literary fantasy. In my classes, students critiqued other students' work. This was my first exposure to peer review. It was baptism by fire. There is no harsher critic than a fellow student. It was good experience for me. When it came time to send my stories to editors, I was ready to hear no. I realize that my writing style is not accessible to everyone, but I write what I like to read, and hope there is an audience.
As a writer, what scares you the most?
I worry that I will lose myself in my writing at the expense of my family. My computer has become an extension of me and sometimes I need to remind myself to step away. I've read about authors losing spouses to their writing addiction or alienating children. I don't want to be one of those. To combat this, I make sure that I volunteer and my daughter's school. I help with her softball team. During the summer, my family spends time camping and boating. All these things remind me that writing is only one important part of my life.
When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?
In my adult fiction, I like dark, psychological fantasy. I explore the reasons why people make the big gestures in life, or why they make the wrong choices that drag them down. Mythology and fairy tales fascinates me. My children's fiction up until now has been all over the board. I write stories that I think children want to read or need to read, even if they might be emotionally draining to write.
Are you a disciplined writer?
I am very disciplined. I think any writer who is serious about this business needs discipline and talent in equal proportions.
How do you divide your time between taking care of a home and children, and writing? Do you plan your writing sessions in advance?
I write in the morning, as soon as my daughter is off to school. This is when I'm freshest. I work right until 4pm, when she gets off the bus. I stop to help her with homework, take care of the house, make dinner and do all million others things a mom needs to do. I try not to work on the weekends. That's family and house time.
When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?
I am definitely not a night owl. My creative juices shut off at 6pm. Though I enjoy needle felting in the evenings as a way to wind down. I often rise early, at 5 or 6 am, mostly because my cats are restless. Once I'm awake, I write for a couple of hours before everyone else gets up.
Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?
I did try to find an agent when my first novel, Caul, Shroud and Veil, was complete. I was offered contracts from two agents, but when I researched them further, I discovered they had very little experience. Though it was tempting to jump on the agent bandwagon anyway, I felt that having a bad agent would be worse than having no agent. I have not regretted that decision. Shortly afterwards, I was offered a contract from Double Dragon for not only the first book, but also the entire trilogy. Shortly after that, I won contracts from Eternal Press and Guardian Angel Publishing. I may one day pursue an agent again, but for now, I am happy with the state of my career.
Do you have any unusual writing quirks?
I have an addiction to the word 'that.' It is the bane of my existence. I am slowly learning to cut it from my stories.
What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?
I have been fortunate enough to belong to some amazing crit groups. I have also made the mistake of joining too many crit groups and not being able to keep up with the required reviews. I've learned to say no, and not join every group that pops up even when they sound intriguing. I have been overwhelmed by the generous support from the online writing community. Not just crit groups, but writers' chat groups and forums too. Between interview opportunities like this one and invitations to blog, I've been able to bring Rainbow Sheep to a wider audience than I could have alone. I have friends all over the world (whom I've never met face-to-face) offering to promote Rainbow Sheep to local stores, libraries and schools. I feel so privileged to be part of this community.
As for new writers, I think the benefits of crit groups far outweigh the chance of a bruised ego. In my experience, most critiquers are caring and honest. And the few that aren't…well that's part of the business, and any writer who wants to be successful had better learn to take what the critics dish out.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?
The only time I suffered from writer's block was in college when I took a Writing for Children course. I had no experience with kids at the time. The were an alien species to me and I couldn't think of one story to write.
Now writer's block seems like a myth to me. I have so many ideas I want to get on paper. I know I will never have time to write them all down.
Technically speaking, what do you struggle the most with when writing? How do you tackle it?
For my children's fiction, I struggle with keeping my stories contemporary. I love all things old-fashioned and these tend to creep into my stories. I want to bring the joy of reading to kids, but I know the first step is to hook them with an idea that is relevant to their time and place. If I could, I would write like Anne of Green Gables or the original Winnie the Pooh, but I suspect that brand of narrative prose wouldn't fly with many of today's kids.
For my adult fiction, I find writing romance the most difficult. Love is the greatest theme of all, and the most overdone theme too. I want to bring some heat into fantasy fiction, which is traditionally very chaste. But I struggle with writing love scenes that are not cliché. Critique groups are very helpful in this area. I've also attended workshops on various world-building techniques.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
When I first started writing, I read that to be published you need to make contacts. Being a bit of a recluse, I didn't believe it and I started blitzing editors with little success. Then I joined several chat groups and crit groups. I started my own ezine and helped to promote other authors. What goes around comes around. Soon I had friends recommending me to their publishers. Of my three current publishers, two of my contracts came about from contacts made in writers' groups. So that's my advice. Get out there. Help your fellow writers. Critique other stories. Go to conventions and conferences. Make a name for yourself.
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
I'm new to the promotion side of publishing, so I can't really say what works best. I can tell you what I have planned for Rainbow Sheep: Books signings, school and library visits, craft fair appearances, direct mailing to fiber stores. I have sent out multiple review copies and I take advantage of the world of blogs. I enjoy making trailers for all my books and they appear on YouTube and other venues. Today I did errands and dropped off postcards printed with the Rainbow Sheep cover and blurb at the bank and the post office. I sold 7 books!
What is(are) your favorite book/author(s)? Why?
Adult fiction: Timothy Findley, Ursula LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett. These authors all write that kind of between the cracks fiction–somewhere between fantasy and literary fiction–that I aspire too. They each had a huge impact on my writing.
Children's fiction: Kate diCamillo, Madaleine L'Engle, Ursula LeGuin. These are storytellers in the true sense. They don't try to be didactic or cash in on modern shock value. They write beautiful, simple stories that will be as relevant in 100 years as they are today.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
It only takes one editor to say 'yes.'
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
I am currently working on another picture book for Guardian Angel Publishing entitled A Talent for Quiet. This is the story of a shy little girl who bonds with her new step-dad while they photograph critters in the creek. It will be illustrated with my photographs, and include a short nonfiction section with photography tips for kids.
I am also working on the sequel to my fantasy novel Caul, Shroud and Veil coming soon from Double Dragon Publishing. So far, it's untitled. Double Dragon will also be releasing my novella, Angel Venom, this summer and I have two stories in their recently released Twisted Tails III Anthology, Pure Fear.
I also enjoy writing short stories and flash fiction. In the next few months, I have stories appearing in Albedo One Magazine, Hobart, Everyday Fiction, Flashshot, Necrotic Tissue, and a Coffee Break Short from Eternal Press.
I have several works in progress, but I intend to dedicate my summer to promoting Rainbow Sheep.
Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my world with your readers!