And now for something a little different! It’s time for an Alaskan Giveaway. If you are planning a road trip or just like to solve puzzles, then you will definitely want to check this one out.
Usually at least once a summer I like to giveaway something uniquely Alaskan or writerly, etc. Well today is that day. In my local writing community, there is a writer who has cornered the market on puzzle books (among other things). She created one all about Alaska and has more coming out for other states in the near future. I thought I would interview her about her work for those of you who might be curious about how you even get into a market like this one.
Jen Funk Weber began writing professionally while working as a winter caretaker for remote lodges in Alaska, often passing six months or more with no electricity, running water, or human neighbors. Jen has written numerous puzzle and activity books, including Nancy Drew: Hollywood Head Scratchers, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Wild About Alaska: A Children’s Puzzle Book, Wild About Sudoku, and Alaska’s Puzzle Bears. Been There, Done That: Reading Animal Signs was her debut picture book. She lives with her husband in a house they built overlooking the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska. They see their moose and bird neighbors often, their human and porcupine neighbors sometimes, and occasionally catch a glimpse of a coyote or lynx. You can learn more about her at her website or find her on Facebook or on Instagram.
Today we’re going to talk about THE PUZZLER’S GUIDE TO ALASKA (and at the end you can enter the giveaway for one copy of the same book). This is a unique compendium of games, jokes, fun facts, and trivia all about Alaska (also known as “the Last Frontier”). If you like a suduko puzzle every once in a while or a crossword puzzle, then this is for you. If you love Alaska and have always wanted to learn more, then this is for you. If you have kiddos you need to entertain on a car trip this summer, then this is for you. There are many reasons why this fun book could be perfect for you and I thought, why not give away a copy to one lucky winner along with one of those interviews I give so frequently?
Me: When did you develop a love of puzzles?
Jen: I’ve enjoyed puzzles for as long as I can remember, both solving and making them; although, I think I enjoy making them more than solving them. Those are different skills. I can get bored solving puzzles, but I don’t get bored making them.
I made puzzles as a kid: a homemade birthday card would be a puzzle to solve; I wrote letters in code; I sent my parents on a scavenger hunt to find their Easter basket.
Not all that many years ago, I wrote a cryptogram for my mother, cut it into jigsaw-style pieces, and gave it to her for Christmas. Once she put the pieces together and solved the cryptogram, she had a clue as to where her Christmas present was. Then she had to find it.
It can be hard work being my mother.
Me: LOL! Tell us a little bit about your journey. How did you get into the business of publishing puzzle books?
Jen: I came to Alaska in 1990 to work as a natural history guide. A couple of years into that, I decided kid-visitors needed something to entertain them when grown-ups were doing boring things, like lounging in comfy chairs along the river, hanging in the lodge bar, enjoying hors d’oeuvres, or just yammering about boring stuff the way grown-ups do. So, I made some natural history puzzles and coloring pages for the kids. The lodge bound printed copies into a book and gave them to all young guests.
It crossed my mind then to maybe have a go at being a writer.
I submitted the lodge puzzle book to the Highlights Foundation Writers’ Workshop at Chautauqua, back before Highlights had its own campus, and it garnered a full scholarship. At the conference, Mary Lou Carney, then publisher of Guideposts for Kids, was my assigned editorial mentor. She sped through her critique of the story I submitted and said, “Now, let’s talk about your puzzles.” She had seen the booklet I’d submitted for the scholarship.
Mary Lou wanted puzzles for her magazine. This was still before we all had personal computers, and I asked how I should submit them. She said, “It doesn’t matter. You can scribble them on napkins for all I care.”
I did a little better than that. My first puzzles were created on a Canon Star Writer, an early word processor, one step up from an electric typewriter. I submitted puzzles to Mary Lou’s magazine for years and branched out to other kids’ magazines and eventually wrote a proposal for a puzzle book.
Me: What gave you the idea for an Alaskan puzzle book?
Jen: In addition to wanting to entertain kid-visitors to Alaska with puzzles, my interest in travel was another source of inspiration. On a trip to Australia, I purchased a beautiful puzzle book for kids produced by a professional photographer. The emphasis of that book was on the photos, but I was already publishing puzzles in magazines, and I immediately imagined a similarly beautiful book about Alaska.
Me: How did that turn into a series on other states?
Jen: After completing and submitting the manuscript for The Puzzler’s Guide to Alaska, I still had a mountain of fun information that there wasn’t room for, so I pitched the idea for two more Alaska natural history puzzle books: Puzzler’s Guides to Alaska’s Terrestrial Wildlife and Marine Life. The editor asked if I’d be willing to make books for other states instead, which, unbeknownst to her, was going to be my next pitch. I’d love to do more travel-inspired puzzle books.
Me: How many books are planned in that series so far? When can we look forward to seeing the new ones coming out?
Jen: Puzzler’s Guides to Oregon and California are currently in production. The Oregon book is scheduled to hit shelves on October 17, 2023, and the California book is slated for release on March 26, 2024. I don’t have covers for either yet.
Me: Ohhh! Those sound fun. What is the funnest part of making puzzles for you? What is the hardest part?
Jen: Making puzzles is fun from start to finish. At least I think so! I love that moment when I hit on a fascinating nugget of info that screams “puzzle, puzzle, make me a puzzle!”
In April, my husband, sister-in-law, and I were watching a Great Courses series on the best geological sites in the world. In one episode, I learned that Los Angeles is not on the North American tectonic plate where the rest of California resides. LA is on the Pacific plate. The way the plates are moving, at some point in the way-yonder distant future, Los Angeles will be north of San Francisco. I looked at Mike and Barb and said, “Oh, that’s going in the California puzzle book.” We’ll see if that pans out; it’s a complicated topic for kids.
Then there’s choosing what kind of puzzle to use for a certain tidbit of info, or maybe I can twist a familiar puzzle style to make something kinda new. Coming up with something even slightly original is super-fun! Maybe the funnest.
One reviewer on Amazon noted that there were puzzle styles in one of my books that she’d never seen before. Hooray! I loved that.
And there’s making the puzzle work—you know making the steps and clues get puzzlers to the right answer . . . eventually. Not every idea works out in the end. Sometimes I can alter a dud to make it work, and sometimes I throw it out and start again.
Now that I’m thinking about it, though, I think the funnest part is when something especially clever or funny results, be it a clue or puzzle title or funny comment or joke that can be made alongside the puzzle. Clever and fun connections make my day—and life.
The hardest part of making puzzles used to be getting them into a format for designers and publishers. I was told (more than once) that my puzzles, with their varying layouts, drove designers crazy because they would have to insert them as un-editable images or they’d have to recreate them in their design software, which is a tedious, time-consuming process.
So, I got Adobe InDesign and took two classes to learn how to use it. Now, I can turn in a document that is sort of Step 1 for designers. They can hop right into the document and change anything and everything, from fonts to table designs to line thicknesses.
Me: Wow! That’s great initiative on your part. Any advice for someone looking to get into the puzzle market?
Jen: Just as it helps writers to read, it helps puzzle writers to solve puzzles.
You don’t need to learn InDesign; you can make puzzles in Word or any other word processing or drawing program. Tables are handy for making charts and grids.
When you’re ready to submit, magazines are a great place to start because they need puzzles regularly. When I have a gap in my schedule or just get a bee in my bonnet, I jump back into the magazine puzzle market. It’s a good deal faster than writing puzzle books.
There’s puzzle software out there, too, which some people use, but I’m old school, still making puzzles much the same way I did before I had a laptop or the internet.
I love that! Thank you for stopping by my blog today Jen, and thank you for hosting this giveaway.
Dear readers, don’t forget to enter the giveaway for this most excellent Alaskan puzzle book! You can enter the rafflecopter here. Good luck!