Spilling Ink with Anne Mazer,
Ellen Potter, & Matt Phelan

h1 July 13th, 2010 by jules

I have been doing my own writing lately, occasionally feeling a lot like the young girl featured here, and that has made 2010 Busier Than Normal. For that reason, my visitors to the 7-Imp bungalow this morning, authors Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter, deserve an award. And that would be because I contacted them a long while ago about their wonderful new handbook on writing for kids, Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook (Roaring Brook, March 2010), told them I loved it, and asked them if they’d like to stop by 7-Imp to talk briefly about it. Sure! they said. LENGTHY TIME INTERLUDE. (All my fault.) Apologies sent to them. EVEN LENGTHIER TIME INTERLUDE. (Still my fault.) Finally, I said to them: I haven’t forgotten, but I’m so swamped. Would you accept an open invitation to say whatever you’d like about the book and I promise to work it up into a nice post? I gave them some basic guiding questions, mind you, but what they returned to me is what you see below. They took some of my questions and adapted them a bit, and then they came up with some questions of their own. Nice.

All of that is to say that, if you like the questions below, Anne and Ellen get big-time credit for essentially interviewing themselves. (And here’s hoping they don’t think I’m the lamest blogger in the history of Blogistan.)

I’m so happy they’ve stopped by. (One could say I’m spilling over with joy, but then one would roll one’s eyes at my bad play-on-words.) Have you seen Spilling Ink? Oh my, it’s wonderful. I wasn’t kidding when I said “lengthy time interlude,” because I’ve had an ARC of this title for a while now — and have been slowly enjoying it ever since then. It is practical and playful, “crafted with joy and verve,” adds VOYA. After giving young writers a pep talk in Part I, they address the crafting of a story (everything from characterization to plot to narrative voice to writing dialogue) in Part II. Part III is devoted to the writing process itself. Kirkus praises their “engaging and informal” style, even calling it the “best of recent volumes on the subject”: “Clearly the authors had fun compiling their tips, and original metaphors and images for the writing process keep things light…” Filled with effective tips for brainstorming, it’s accessible and informative, and Matt Phelan’s lively interior illustrations add much to the cheery mood of the book.

In fact, this interview below with the book’s two authors is peppered with a few of the book’s interior illustrations from Phelan, since I knocked on his cyber-door and asked if he could share. “Since Spilling Ink was a book about process,” he told me, “I wanted to illustrate it with sketches as opposed to ‘finished’ drawings that started with pencil and then were cleaned up and inked. I drew with charcoal, so I wouldn’t have the option of erasing.” Ooh: Me likey. Smart illustrator, that Matt.

Quick introductions, for those who need it: Anne is the author of more that forty books (picture books, short stories, and novels), most recently The No-Nothings and Their Baby, and the editor of four anthologies. She is also the creator of the best-selling The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes series, as well as the Sister Magic series, both published by Scholastic.

Ellen is the author of the award-winning Olivia Kidney series (middle-grade titles), as well as the novels Pish Posh and SLOB.

I thank them for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Why did you write Spilling Ink?

Anne: I had wanted to put together a book about writing for years. I had intended to call it Writer’s Blocks—as in building blocks—but nothing ever came of it other than a thick stack of notes on index cards until I met Ellen Potter. After we met, it occurred to me that we could write this book together. (Note: We originally had a third partner, author Megan Shull.) I wanted to get to know Ellen and Megan and writing a book together to inspire kids seemed like a great idea. In retrospect, this was just a teensy bit risky. There were way too many things that could have gone really, really wrong. However, they didn’t. All three of us are now great friends. And Ellen and I had a dreamy collaboration and wrote a book that we’re both proud of.

There were other important reasons we wanted to write the book, of course. During school visits, both of us had, at times, witnessed kids’ and teachers’ frustration with writing, and we felt that we had some good ideas about how to alleviate it. Ellen and I had also received floods of writing questions from kids. It was like that scene in Harry Potter where the letters come pouring in through the windows, the doors, the fireplace, the vents… It seemed that there were so many kids who wanted to know all about writing. We first addressed this book to them.


From Section 4: Convincing Your Characters That They Are Alive,
“Truth or Dare: Getting to Know Your Character’s Deep, Dark Secrets” by Ellen:
“Ask your character the following questions; then write down their answers. They will answer you, I promise. At first it will feel like the answers are coming from your own brain, but you are sort of sharing a brain with your character at this point. You are imagining what it is like to be them (a very useful skil, both in writing and in life!).”

7-Imp: What’s the biggest surprise that happened after the publication of this book?

Anne: When we started the book, we envisioned it as solely for kids. We imagined it as a handbook for young aspiring writers, and we tried to make it so much fun that even kids who hated writing would want to do some of the “I Dare You” exercises. I mean, who wouldn’t want to don dark glasses and stalk their characters?

We didn’t anticipate how enthusiastically classroom teachers would embrace the book. They have adapted our book in so many creative ways for elementary to high school classrooms. That has been immensely gratifying.

7-Imp: Why did you start the Spilling Ink site?

Anne: We wanted it to be a resource for teachers, parents, kids, homeschoolers, and other writers. The centerpiece is the Creativity Blog, where we invite writers, artists, and others to reflect about whatever aspect of creativity interests them. We also dreamed up lots of free downloadable goodies (posters, bookplates, bookmarks, I Dare You cards) for kids and teachers. There’s also an “Inspiration Library” that has links where kids can publish their work.

7-Imp: What’s next for you, individually and/or together?

Anne: I’m writing a book for Feiwel and Friends; Ellen and I are brainstorming future projects.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: How did you and Anne work together? What were the best and worst moments?

Ellen: We both had so much we wanted to say on the subject of writing. Anne was more interested in covering writers’ habits, and I wanted to write about craft. We divvied up the subjects and off we went. Every few days we’d e-mail new sections to each other and we’d critique each other’s work. Now, this was the part that worried me initially. We’d have to be totally honest with each other if the collaboration was going to work, and there’s nothing that can ruin a friendship faster than total honesty. However, we both shared a deep vision about the book that allowed us to give and hear critiques in a positive spirit. We were both so determined to make Spilling Ink a genuinely useful, fun, and inspiring book that we welcomed each other’s suggestions, no problem.


From Section 19: Two Heads Are Better Than One, “Daring Duo” by Ellen:
“Do you have a friend who also loves to write?
If you do, you both might consider becoming writing partners…”

Some of my favorite moments were the oddball conversations we often had. We called each other every day to weigh in on our chapters. While discussing a section on setting, I would be trying to stop my 4-year-old from diapering the dog and Anne would be dodging UPS trucks, while walking in blizzards. Our work and our lives became deeply intermingled, and they seemed to feed each other beautifully.

The most difficult time we had was trying to agree on a title. Oh, we came up with some doozies along the way! After weeks of conversations like this, “What do you think of Mad Scribblers?” “Don’t like it” “Yeah, you’re right. It stinks,” we thought we’d NEVER find the right title. Finally, though, one of us (I can never remember who, because the whole process of writing this book seemed like such a mind meld) decided on Spilling Ink. Phew!

7-Imp: What do you want kids to take away from Spilling Ink?

Ellen: My ideal reader would never actually finish Spilling Ink. They would get so inspired while they were reading it that they would toss it aside and start writing.

7-Imp: What have you heard from teachers about the book?

Ellen: We suspected teachers would like this book, but nevertheless we were surprised at just how much teachers love it. Maybe it’s because Spilling Ink appeals to both the students who enjoy writing and the ones who struggle with it. One teacher recently told me that she had her students do one of our I Dare You writing exercises, and forty minutes later she was amazed to see that every single student was still scribbling away—even the ones who didn’t like to write. Several schools have started Spilling Ink writing workshops in the classroom. We couldn’t be happier!

7-Imp: What’s next for you?

Ellen: I have a middle-grade novel titled The Kneebone Boy, which is coming out in September, and I am working on a new novel now. Of course I would do another book with Anne in a heartbeat!

* * * * * * *

SPILLING INK: A YOUNG WRITER’S HANDBOOK. Copyright © 2010 by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter. Illustrations © 2010 by Matt Phelan. Published by Roaring Brook, New York, NY. All images used with permission of Matt Phelan, with the exception of the book covers. Quoted excerpts taken from an uncorrected proof/advance reader’s edition and subject to change.





6 comments to “Spilling Ink with Anne Mazer,
Ellen Potter, & Matt Phelan”

  1. This book looks awesome – I heard about it from Da Bird, and thought, “YES.” When I was teaching, this would have been so much fun to have. And will still be fun to have.

    And I can’t WAIT to read the new Ellen Potter! I saw it at ALA and resisted picking it up, since someday I have to actually, oh, write, but soon! Soon!


  2. I’m an illustrator that’s been dabbling in writing for some time now. I have no formal training so I have been reading a TON. When I stumbled on this book, I felt lucky because (even though it’s marketed to a younger audience) it speaks clearly to ME (almost 30)! I prefer simple, toned down… and these ladies are FUNNY :)
    I have been practicing using some of Anne and Ellen’s suggestions…the words flow much easier now. Thank you!


  3. I had my eye on this one in our library’s review room, but one of the other librarians beat me to it! I’ll have to check it out once she finishes, since it sounds like a great resource.


  4. Whoa! That book sounds AWESOME! I think I need a copy just for me, both for the writing exercises/pointers and for more Matt Phelan.

    Also? The cover on THE KNEEBONE BOY completely rocks! (Even though it’s not a Matt Phelan production.)


  5. What a lovely interview! Must keep my eyes peeled for Spilling Ink! Thanks Jules for sharing!


  6. Thanks for the interview! Spilling Ink is a great handbook for writers of all ages. I talk about it to wherever I go!

    Looking forward to The Kneebone Boy, Ellen


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