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Classical Jazz 2005: Home

An Interview with Picture Book Author
Dianne Ochiltree

by Debbi Michiko Florence

Dianne Ochiltree is the author of several books for children. She shares her enthusiasm for reading and creative writing in school visits and writing workshops. She is a book reviewer for The Children's Literature Newsletter and is a member of the Rutgers University Council of Children's Literature and Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, among other organizations. She and her husband split their time between their homes in Dingmans Ferry, PA, and Sarasota, FL. For more information about Dianne and her books, visit her at www.ochiltreebooks.com.

Your newest picture book, LULL-A-BYE, LITTLE ONE (illustrated by Hideko Takahashi) is a perfect bedtime book. How did this story start out and how long did it take you to write it?

LULL-A-BYE, LITTLE ONE grew out of my earliest memories of being read to as a child, along with a fond recollection of the many funny, warm moments I shared with our two grown sons when they were very ‘little ones’ so many years ago. It started out much longer than its final version, which is typical for my writing process, I’m afraid — so many characters, so little page count needed! But as I wrote successive drafts of LULL-A-BYE, LITTLE ONE over the course of three years, its focus sharpened on the essentials, most particularly the love with which all these familiar bedtime routines are done. The ending, naturally, involves reading bedtime books — because I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to say ‘I love you’ to a child is to read a story together.

The story is lush with soothing rhythm and rhyme. Many people are under the impression that rhyming picture books are easy to write when the opposite is true. What advice do you have for writers who want to write in rhyme?

Yes, it’s true — rhyming picture books, when successfully done, give the impression that they were written quickly and easily. But let me assure you, if the rhyming text in a picture book rolls off the tongue and keeps the beat, it took the author many rewrites to get it that way! While not simple to write in rhyme, my advice is simple: write your manuscript in prose for the first few drafts. This helps you get your plot on solid footing, and find sensory details you’ll draw upon for the next phase of writing — that is, translating it all into rhythm and rhyme. Establish your desired rhythm first, then move into tentative rhyme schemes. (A strong, consistent rhythm is more important than rhyme in terms of 'read-aloud' appeal, which all picture books must have to succeed.) The last step is to refine the rhymes while pulling everything together — plot, characters, setting, rhythm, etc. Don’t sacrifice storytelling in order to facilitate a rhyme. The biggest mistake is to forget that a rhyming picture book must have in place all the elements that you’d expect in any other piece of fiction.

Did you have a certain little one in mind when you wrote this book?

No particular little one was in mind — actually, I felt like I was writing for every 'little one' out there when I was crafting this story — and for the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other loving caregivers in their lives. My goal was to create a bedtime book that both grownups and kids would enjoy sharing together again and again. Hopefully, the story does just that!

You’ve also written other books and a short story for an anthology (will include list of your other books). Does your writing process change for each project? What was different about writing picture books versus a short story?

My writing process is pretty much the same for any project, from picture book to short story to novel. First, I brainstorm characters, plots and settings within a chosen theme. Then, I make a list of what factual information is needed to finish a first draft, and start doing my research. A story is 'in the details' and I like my details to be accurate. My writing process always involves oversized and awkwardly-awful first drafts that morph with self-editing (eventually) into something that my writers workshop colleagues can critique a time or two, which is then transformed through the miracle of endless rewriting into a manuscript that an editor might want to pick out of the slush pile and read. When I speak to kids at schools, they are somewhat shocked at the stack of drafts any one of my books has gone through prior to publication. But, as I tell them, the biggest job of a writer is to rewrite until everything’s right.

Did you always know you wanted to be a children’s writer? Tell us a little about your journey.

From childhood, I’d dreamed of being a writer but didn’t know until I was in my forties that I wanted to write for children. In fact, I’d been writing for adults, as an advertising copywriter and freelance nonfiction writer, since college graduation. As a young mom, I loved reading and re-reading all sorts of picture books to our sons — and when they 'outgrew' these children’s books, I discovered I didn’t want to say goodbye to them. I decided to take a crash course in writing for children, which included joining SCBWI, and attending any pertinent writers conference in the tri-state area. I wrote, wrote, wrote. I got rejected, rejected, rejected. Until one magic day, an editor said, yes!

Look around your office space. What do you see?

What don't I see in my office space? It's a mess! You'd expect the papers scattered on every flat surface, including the floor. You might guess the reference books on the shelves, the pens in the coffee mug, the family cat sleeping on the desk. But you might not expect the small waterfall fountain in the corner (trying to create a Zen environment in which to create) or the '8-ball' fortune-telling toy (very popular in the sixties) which I consult when stumped on what my characters should do next.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

My two favorite things to do when not writing is taking the family dog for a walk on the hiking trails in the woods around our neighborhood, and going to yoga class.

What’s the best thing about being a children’s writer?

The best thing is being so wrapped up in writing a story that I don’t even notice that the clock is ticking or that our son’s rock band is practicing in the basement.

What’s the hardest thing about being a children’s writer?

The hardest part is being patient because there’s a lot of waiting required in this business. For example, it takes longer than childbirth for a manuscript to go from the contract-signing stage to sitting on a bookstore shelf — the average time is two and a half years.

Where and how do you write? Do you have a writing schedule?

I write in a home office just beyond the kitchen, almost always composing on a computer keyboard. My dream schedule is to write in the morning; to take care of telephone calls, correspondence and paperwork in the afternoon; and to do all else in the afternoon. Of course, this doesn’t always happen exactly as planned. So I adjust and write in whatever pockets of time are available throughout the day. One thing is not negotiable, however. I always write my three pages of 'whatever comes out of the pen' in my writing journal each morning, with a cup of coffee to coax the muse. If that’s all I get accomplished that day, at least I’ve given my writing muscles a little bit of exercise!

What’s the best writing advice you’ve been given, and by whom?

I think it was from Paul Zindel, who recommended reading THE WRITER’S JOURNEY; MYTHIC STRUCTURE FOR WRITERS by Christopher Vogler prior to writing each and every novel. Paula Danziger once suggested that a starting point for getting to know your main character is to inventory his or her bedroom closet, and I’ve found that helpful, too.

What can fans expect from you next?

This is an uncertain business so it’s not certain what will be published next. But I can say that I’m working on a young adult novel and a historical fiction picture book at the moment.

Will you be doing any book signings? Do you do school presentations? How can teachers/fans contact you?

My schedule of author appearances, information about school visits and all sorts of other useful information about my books, the encouragement of reading and creative writing techniques can be found at my website, www.ochiltreebooks.com. I can be contacted at DianneOchiltee@ochiltreebooks.com. Look forward to hearing from you all!

Interview © October, 2006, by Debbi Michiko Florence.
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For more about Dianne and her books, check out her web site.