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1. Guest Post: Mary Amato on Behind the Scenes of the Art in Good Crooks

By Mary Amato
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

What if a brother and sister had parents who were raising them to be crooks? And what if the kids wanted to say goodbye to their life of crime and become…good?

Mom and Dad would be horrified if they found out! The kids would have to do their good deeds in secret!

As soon as I came up with this idea for a chapter book series, I couldn’t wait to get cracking. After much scheming and some critical feedback from my editor, I figured out the voice and overall structure and decided to call the series: The Good Crooks Books (Egmont). My editor loved it and wanted to nab an illustrator right away.

Lots of editors and publishers dislike author involvement in finding or choosing an illustrator. Since publishers are the ones paying for the book to be produced, they are definitely in the driver’s seat. In my case, I had a long-term relationship with my editor, and so she kindly asked if I wanted to give any suggestions for illustrators or for styles of illustration.

Copyright Ward Jenkins
As if on cue, I had just received the monthly magazine from my professional organization, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

The cover was illustrated by a guy named Ward Jenkins. I was drawn to the art and impressed by what the artist had to say about his process in the profile.

I checked out Jenkins’s website. The multitude of characters in his viewable sketchbooks gave me the ability to spy on his range as well as spot characters that I could imagine sneaking onto the pages of The Good Crooks Books.

Quickly I emailed my editor: I think Ward Jenkins could pull off this job!

The editor and her team looked at Ward’s work (as well as other illustrators). They sent him my draft to read and asked him to draw a few quick sketches. Hired!

Copyright Ward Jenkins

While I put finishing touches on the manuscripts for the first two books in the series, Jenkins drew sketches for the covers and for the spot illustrations inside.

Just as I had to revise my writing, Jenkins had to revise his sketches, based on feedback from the publishing team—and from me, too. This is not common. Often, authors are not given the chance to see sketches for fear that they will be too picky. It’s kind of like the “too many cooks in the kitchen” rule. Authors can make the process difficult by being unrealistic or demanding.

Copyright Ward Jenkins

If given the chance to see art, I try to keep my comments focused on whether or not the images are accurate. Sometimes, an illustrator will forget an element or a fact in the text and then create an illustration that does not match what’s happening. For example, if the author says the kids are wearing hats and carrying flashlights and then the illustrator shows them bare-headed and bare-handed, the reader will sense, even on a subconscious level, that the picture isn’t true to the book. Big inaccuracies do happen, and they can be distracting to the reader.

Copyright Ward Jenkins

Thankfully, Ward did a great job and any little glitches we did find were corrected. I loved seeing his illustrations progress from sketches to final art. He captures such a range of facial expressions and body language. And, he has a fantastic sense of humor!

Now, both Ward and I have the great thrill of seeing Good Crooks stealing spots on the shelves of bookstores and libraries.

Cynsational Notes

Mary Amato is the author of fifteen books for children and young adults. Her latest: Good Crooks Book Three: Sniff a Skunk! (Egmont, 2015) is the third in The Good Crooks series.

Ward Jenkins is an illustrator and animator. 

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2. Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The Winner of the 2015 Children's Africana Book Award is The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (Little, Brown, 2014).

Character Talents & Skills: Strong Breath Control by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "A practitioner skilled in this area must also be able to find their center of calm quickly, neutralizing fears and anxieties when they appear as a result of environmental changes, circumventing fight-or-flight responses tied to survival instinct."

Context Matters: On Labels and Responsibility by Jacqueline Koyanagi from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: "The difference between 'generic eccentricity' and a formal diagnosis is just that–formal diagnosis. It seems absurd that it bears stating, but a person on the autism spectrum is on the spectrum even before they are diagnosed. Similarly, bullying is bullying regardless of when diagnosis/identification occurs–and, yes, even if it never occurs."

Constructing an Image System from a Verse Novel by Cordelia Jensen from E. Kristin Anderson at Write All the Words! Peek: "Image systems are about showing the reader a new way to look at the world, but they can also add a layer of depth to your writing by helping you convey to your reader a character’s growth and evolution."

WNDB Tells AWP 15: Write Diverse Books That Sell by Claire Kirch from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Referring to a backlash to the growing momentum of the calls for the publishing industry to publish more multicultural books, Leung pointed out that diversity in literature is the wave of the future. 'Writing about diversity is as much of a fad as writing about human characters is a fad.'"

Learn more!
The Letting Go from Marion Dane Bauer. Peek: "...I can see that the times I gave up on a major project were usually a mistake. But right now I’m talking about the moment when I release something I’m working on so that it can come back to me fresh."

Top Twenty Picture Book Agents, compiled by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Note: Not all agents report their sales to Publishers Marketplace.

There Are No Secondary Characters by Jill Hill from Project Mayhem. Peek: "You see, the secondary character that I’m dealing with hasn’t been in the story for a couple of hundred pages, and I kind of forget what was driving him. That’s a problem."

Spellbind Your Readers With Realistic Magic by Tal Valante from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "...obviously magic needs some limitations, otherwise it all becomes too easy. But what kind of limitations? The trick answer is this: the more interesting (and intuitive!) your limitations, the more interesting your story would be."

Combine Babies & Bylines by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "So between now and Mother’s Day, I want to blog about practical ways to combine writing and parenting throughout these stages. Just as beneficial, I hope I can show you some ways that your kids can be your best source of material." See also Kristi on Combining Writing and School-Age Kids.

The Children's Book Council Partners with the Unprison Project to Provide Prison-Nursery Libraries from CBC Diversity. Peek: "In honor of Mother’s Day on Sunday, May 10, the last day of Children’s Book Week 2015, the Children’s Book Council (CBC) is partnering with The unPrison Project — a 501©3 nonprofit dedicated to empowering and mentoring women in prison, while raising awareness of their families’ needs — to create brand-new libraries of books for incarcerated mothers to read with their babies at prison nurseries in 10 states: California, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, New York, South Dakota, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming."

Cynsational Giveaways


This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Thanks again to the Texas Library Association, Texas SCBWI chapters and Candlewick Press for your hospitality and support at last week's TLA annual conference in Austin. It was a joy to see y'all and visit about connecting great books to kids!

TLA Author Goodies! Thank you!

Keep scrolling to check out a very sneaky peek at Greg Leitich Smith's new cover for Chronal Engine II (Clarion, fall 2015).

Personal Links



Cynsational Events

Borrowed Time by Greg Leitich Smith (Clarion, Nov. 2015)
Join Cynthia from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. May 2 at Saratoga Springs Public Library for a celebration in conjunction with Saratoga Reads! at Saratoga Springs, New York. Note: Cynthia will be presenting Jingle Dancer (2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (2001) and Indian Shoes (2002)(all published by HarperColllins).

Join Cynthia at 11 a.m. May 30 in conjunction with the YA Book Club at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Cynthia will serve as the master class faculty member from June 19 to June 21 May 2 at the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency in Montpelier, Vermont.

Cynthia will speak from June 25 to June 30 on a We Need Diverse Books panel at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.

Cynthia will lead a breakout session on "Diversity in Children's and YA Literature" Aug. 22 at East Texas Book Fest at the Harvey Hall Convention Center in Tyler, Texas.

Cynthia will appear Sept. 19 at the Mansfield, Texas Book Festival.

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3. Guest Interview: Dana Walrath on Like Water on Stone

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. In 1984, Dana Walrath journeyed to Palu, in Western Armenia (now part of Turkey), where she saw the mill and farmlands that once belonged to her maternal ancestors, who were forced to flee the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

Her family story became the basis of her acclaimed novel in verse Like Water on Stone (Delacorte, 2014).

Dana Walrath is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts and the author of the graphic memoir Aliceheimer’s (Harvest, 2013).

See also the companion post Writing from the Marrow from Dana Walrath from Cynsations.

Much of the story is narrated from the point of view of Ardziv, the eagle who suffers, witnesses, and ultimately intervenes. What role do eagles play in the Armenian culture and folklore?

In the last stages of writing Like Water on Stone, Ardziv appeared in the story to protect the young ones as they traveled, to make it safe for readers, and also to protect me as I wrote. This fits with the eagle’s place as a symbol of strength and power in Armenia, both ancient and modern. Eagles grace the currency, the coat of arms, and the architecture of contemporary Yerevan.

The earliest Armenian eagles predate Christianity as on the flag of the Artaxiad Dynasty (189 BC-1 AD) that has two eagles facing each other with a flower between them. When Armenia adopted Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD, eagles were incorporated into the designs of their churches.

Eagles’ ability to soar fits well as this brings them close to heaven. Because the genocide often involves religious divisions, Ardziv gave me the opportunity to connect the story with a symbol that predated religions to underline our common humanity.



Throughout the novel, thirteen-year-old Shahen refers to his father and his older brothers as "fools." Would you consider his questioning of them anomalous within his culture?

More than anything, Shahen wanted to go to New York to be with his maternal uncle. You are right that respect for elders counts in Armenian culture. But a mother’s brothers have a special place in the family. They select husbands for their sisters and often these husbands go through life being called “pesah” or groom. Shahen behaves respectfully towards his father and brothers; it is only with an inner angst and voice that he calls them fools. This intensifies after violence comes to their home as Shahen struggles to make sense of the horrible events that have transpired. In the face of horror, we all do or think things that don’t completely make sense, or wouldn't fit in with normal life.

As well, Shahen’s small size and his place as the youngest boy in the family, who had not yet hit puberty, also accounts for some of his internal struggles. He felt impotent. Like no one listened to him when he saw the trouble coming. While researching the biology of eagles, I learned that male eagles are all smaller than females. This in a way brought Shahen and Ardziv even closer.



Shahen is the bold one while the girls and women are more cautious and submissive. Are these gender relationships specific to this one family, or is it more typical of their culture?

I have to admit that the gender roles in Armenia are definitely of a pre-feminist sort! My mother said that her Armenian father did not speak to her or her sister because they were girls.

It is also important to place the Armenians in the larger Ottoman cultural framework. Many of the Muslim women with whom they co-existed were veiled, making Armenian women quite daring in comparison. Marriages were arranged, but this is the dominant pattern throughout the globe.

The United States is unusual in leaving such an important economic decision, the union of two families, to the whims of young people in love. Against this backdrop, however, I think the female characters in Like Water on Stone have tremendous strength. Mariam shows her tenacity and determination with her writing. Mama always had her own opinions and, like a good mother, insisted that Sosi behave according to acceptable norms. I see Sosi and Shahen as equals. Sosi never wanted to leave her beloved home, but she finds the strength to support and honor Shahen during the hardest parts of their journey.

Because this is loosely based on my grandmother, Oghidar’s story—she and her younger brother and sister hid during the day and ran at night from Palu in today’s Eastern Turkey to Aleppo, Syria—I was very conscious of Sosi’s strength. For me going back to Palu in 1984 was such a powerful experience, to walk that land, to stand inside the ruined church, to find a mill that may have belonged to my family.



You don't shy away from portraying the violence and devastation of the Armenian Genocide. How do you handle this in a way appropriate for middle grade readers? How can the novel-in-verse format contribute to making difficult material easier for young readers to process?

The white space of verse absolutely gives readers (and writers!) space to process the violence and devastation of the Armenian Genocide. We do not speak or think in full sentences when something terrible happens. Often words disappear altogether. Free verse allowed for that fragmentation. I could write in rhythmic patterns that captured the fear and panic without leaning into the goriest details.

Ardziv’s role as protector was also important in terms of the violence. He narrates some of the most brutal scenes, following as adults who lovingly cope with the consequences of the brutality. Late in the book, Sosi narrates one terrible scene instead of Ardziv. This is because I see Ardziv as the strength and power that lives inside of each of us. She found her own strength—her inner Ardziv—and used this tough moment to pull her family together and to face the truth about what had happened.

I thought that I had handled the violence delicately enough that it could work for middle grade readers. As a parent, I shared similar works with my children when they were that age. Some of the gatekeepers do not agree and feel that that the book is appropriate only at a high school level and above. I was so honored to have Like Water on Stone be named a book of outstanding merit in poetry and historical fiction yet the mature content 14-16 age range was there again. I suppose this might mean that I have to figure out a way to tell the story of the Armenian genocide for some younger readers.

You received a Fulbright grant to travel to Armenia. Was the grant specifically for the research of this book? What advice would you give other writers seeking funding for international research? 

My Fulbright application, “The Narrative Anthropology of Aging in Armenia” was related to Aliceheimer’s, my graphic memoir series about my mother and dementia, and was not specifically written for Like Water on Stone. I was gathering stories and making art about growing old in Armenia.

It was just amazing good luck that Random House acquired Like Water on Stone during my first few months in Armenia. This meant that in addition to the Fulbright project, I was completing the final revisions of the novel while totally immersed in Armenian culture.

Anthropologists often work through participant observation, so every minute of every day, I was soaking in details that were relevant to both pieces of work. The elders I worked with spontaneously shared their family’s genocide stories with me. I had genocide scholars and the Genocide Museum and Institute right there for fact checking. Regular folk dancing refined the music and dance threads of the story. I had countless maps to draw upon to try and sort out the young ones' journey and got connected to primary sources about life in Palu.

The two projects naturally became connected. Armenia is consumed by memory of the genocide, something that is especially important in the face of Turkish denial. When I told people here about my mother’s memory loss, they immediately asked if she were a genocide survivor, linking trauma to memory loss.



The year in Yerevan also let me reconnect with relatives who landed on the other side of Mount Ararat after the genocide, among them my cousin, Shushanik Droshakiryan. Her great-grandfather and my grandmother Oghidar were brother and sister in Palu. Shushanik has led the direction of a stunning animation of Like Water on Stone that premiered at the Tumo Center for Creative Technology this week. It has been wonderful to be back here in Yerevan for this.

In terms of practicalities, because it is an academic program, you have to have the highest degree in your field in order to be able to apply. In the case of writers, the MFA will do it. I know many writers create beautiful works without this degree. For me, getting an MFA from Vermont was the best present that I ever gave myself. The mentoring the inspiration from stellar lectures and readings pushed me farther in two years than I ever could have managed on my own. Being able to apply for a Fulbright would be an added bonus.

You mention in your author's note seeing the Turkish family that now lives on the land once owned by your ancestors. What did that woman say when you told her this?

This moment of truth was when she decided to tell me that the mill had been owned by Armenians before it came into her family. I think she had already put it together that I might be an Armenian because it was so out of the ordinary for two American tourists to end up in the woods outside of town. She shared that fact and then I told her my story. Then together we shared a moment of silent respect.

I imagine that many families in Turkey who benefited materially from the Armenian genocide feel guilt about the material gain they received. Armenians were forced from their homes, and forced to leave all their possessions behind. The people who remained just took them over.

Charity or Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam. To benefit by taking the property of others stands in stark contrast to this notion. I like to think that this woman recognized our common humanity and that she told me the truth out of a desire to make amends for the breaches of the past.



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4. Guest Post & Giveaway: Anne Bustard on Musicality: Composing with Repetitions

By Anne Bustard
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Every writer wants her work to sing.

Writing that sings is exquisitely crafted. It lifts its voice in praise of language. Its story is pitch perfect. It invites readers to sing along and has the power to linger in a reader’s consciousness long after the last note.

Like a composer creating a musical score, a writer must consider every note, every sound, and use repetition and even silence to bring harmony to the musical score.

Through careful crafting and attention, writers discover which notes to amplify, which sounds to hold, which refrains to reproduce, which rests to sustain and which melodies to draw all the way through.

In music, a refrain is a repeated phrase, verse or group of verses repeated at intervals. Used by authors, repetitions emphasize emotion. Repetitions say, “Pay attention, this is important.”

In The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse (Scholastic, 1996), the word “dolphin” is emblematic of Mila’s world, her life and her desire. Hesse uses it more than 140 times. At first, the abundance of “dolphin” would seem obvious given the large role of dolphins in the story. However, because the artistry of language comes in choice, Hesse has reason to flood the novel with this word.

Hesse creates a character with limited language ability. “Dolphin” is the one word that Mila knows for sure. It is the word that will not change, and the one that she holds close. “Dolphin” is the word that she relates everything else too.

Even as Mila grows her vocabulary on land, her use of “dolphin” remains prolific. Mila talks about them, sings about them, dreams about them. Hesse ensures that readers cannot escape the word and its influence.

With each use, Hesse pulls the heartstrings of the reader. “Dolphin” is Mila’s one-note song. It shows what Mila wants most of all and who she identifies with. It is also the word that brings music to her life. It is the music of dolphins that she cannot live without.

The choice to use the same word over and over, not only serves the story, but defines Mila’s character. It shows who she is on the inside.

Flurries of repetitions can also make an impact. Like trills that sustain a note, bursts of repeated words and phrases make readers notice them above all others.

Used effectively, repetitions deepen the emotional trajectory of the story by underscoring the progression of a character’s growth. Repetitions can build in power and strength as a story reaches its crescendo and then resolves. For instance, when repeated words are introduced early or midway through the novel and come full circle to repeat at the end it, that brings closure and satisfaction to readers.

The story is complete, right down to the word level.

Crafted with care, repetitions are not superfluous, excessive or monotonous. Blending seamlessly into the narrative, repetitions keep readers conscious of what is at stake, what is important, what matters. Repetitions keep the emotions flowing. They take up no extra space. Each counts.

As I wrote and revised what would become my middle-grade debut, Anywhere but Paradise, the last word of the story appeared—home. That word led me to Peggy Sue’s heart’s desire.

Used repeatedly, it led us both home.

Cynsational Notes

Anne's assistant, Sweet Baby James
Anne Bustard is a beach girl at heart. If she could, she would walk in the sand every day, wear flip-flops, and eat nothing but fresh pineapple, macadamia nuts and chocolate.

She has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is the author of the award-winning picture book Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster).

Her debut middle grade historical novel Anywhere But Paradise (Egmont, 2015) was released on March 31.

She lives in Austin, Texas. Find Anne at Facebook.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two signed copies of Anywhere But Paradise by Anne Bustard (Egmont, 2015). From the promotional copy:

It’s 1960, and Peggy Sue’s move from Texas to Hawaii, the newest state, sounds like a dream—palm trees, blue skies, big waves.
But her cat has to be put in quarantine like he’s a criminal, and Peggy Sue is worriedly counting the days until Howdy will be released—if he can survive.
Then her first encounter with a girl at Hanu Intermediate School is shocking. Kiki, an older student, takes an instant dislike to Peggy Sue, warning her that the last day of school is “kill haole day.” Peggy Sue’s only hope of being spared is to help Kiki with her home ec sewing project.

Things get better when she meets neighbor Malina and starts hula lessons, but it takes a tsunami, a missing dog, and an intervention from the vision of Pele herself to help Peggy Sue understand that even though her new home in paradise isn’t perfect, she’d rather be in Hawaii with her family and new friends than anywhere else.

“. . . evocative descriptions highlight both the local and universal aspects of island life. 
Born in Hawaii, Bustard adeptly weaves elements of 
Hawaiian culture, lore, and history into an emotionally rich story.” 
a Rafflecopter giveaway

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5. Guest Post: Joy Preble on Being a Mid-Career, Mid-List Author

By Joy Preble
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I took pause for a moment when my lovely friend and mentor, Cyn Leitich Smith, asked me to write about what it’s like to be at this stage in my career.

“You know,” she said. “You’ve got a foothold but you’re not a new voice or (yet) a grand dame.”

The truth is that she nailed it exactly. Like so many authors—most of us in fact—I’m somewhere in the middle.

Finding Paris (Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins, 2015) will be my sixth book, following on the heels of two paranormal series. It will be my first darker contemporary YA, which is very exciting.

Next spring, I’ll follow it with It Wasn't Always Like This, a wildly romantic novel coming from Soho Press, about an immortal girl in search of her long lost immortal true love. Tuck Everlasting meets "Veronica Mars."

To many of my writing colleagues, this means I’ve made it. And in some ways, I have.

Seven published books on shelves is wonderful. It’s more than I ever dreamed of when I was first starting out. I began this career later than some, which makes me even more grateful for how it’s turning out.

I have been toured around the country and presented on panels at various book festivals in various places. I have a new world of author and publishing friends and colleagues. I teach writing as a working writer now, and schools and libraries ask me to visit and often pay me nicely. I’ve been invited to give keynotes and workshops and have had panels accepted at conferences of all sorts.

My first novel, Dreaming Anastasia (Sourcebooks, 2009), is in its fifth or sixth printing. Fairy tale fans continue to find and embrace the series, which is awesome.

I get fan letters. Well, emails, but still!

My family and ‘civilian’ friends and former English teacher colleagues think I’m a rock star. I have stopped trying to tell them otherwise. It’s me in dirty yoga pants typing, I say.

The trade reviews have been lovely for Finding Paris. Really lovely. It’s a genre shift for me, a foray into darker contemporary after five paranormal books, and so this is good to hear. My editor sends me happy notes. The risk reward of trying something new has been worth it.

But.

My career is still not a sure thing. I have written for three different publishers—which is common, but also means that the power of my backlist is sometimes lessened. But not always. I have to work a little smarter to wrangle invites to events. I’m not generally the first name my publicists think of when they’re pitching for panels. Sometimes I am.

The top tier events are still a club that sits just out of reach, at least most days.

I don’t have the luxury of saying, as we’d all like to say: My only job is to write better and better books. (Well, actually most authors except for the elite few worry about publicity and promotion. It’s part of the job.) I really do love reaching out and making my own opportunities.

But mid-listers have to hustle a little harder. Yes, hustle. I know it’s word all fraught with connotation, but I don’t know a better one right now.

In an article on “Top Ten Spring Books You Should Look For,” I might appear in the scroll down as “other titles we’re excited about.” My buzz is a little softer.

Another truth: It’s just less thrilling to promote the breakout of the seventh book. Or the tenth. The splash of the debut is generally the more exciting story. So much so, that I recently saw a very brilliant YA author break out after a number of titles and still be mistakenly referred to as a debut.

It is often easier to trumpet the miracle than it is to promote the norm, which is that after writing a body of work of increasing substance and value, we write the one.

Do you know the actor J.K. Simmons? He just won an Oscar for his role in "Whiplash." He has been a working actor for a very long time, the guy whose face and voice you know but whose name probably escaped you until this year.

He was the police psychiatrist on "Law and Order SVU," Peter Parkers’s boss in the Spider-Man movies. He does tons of commercial voice over work and all those Farmer’s Insurance commercials and cable series like "Oz."

But Whiplash—for whatever reason—that was the breakout. The role that got people talking. A full and varied body of work over many years until it was his turn.

Anyway. I am thrilled about Finding Paris. It’s a more serious platform for me, about blind spots and secrets and how hard it is to find our way, and the imperfect people who love us, even if they don’t know how to help us. I am so excited to talk about this book!

I am fortunate beyond measure to get to make a living (at least part of one!) doing something I love. I am lucky to work with amazing people who love books as much as I do and grateful to everyone who has been so kind on this journey, particularly my wonderful and clever editors and my readers who keep coming back for more. All of these people have allowed me to stay in the game.

And when the breakout moment comes, I will look up J.K. Simmons’s Oscar speech.

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6. Guest Post: T.A. Maclagan on Spy Novel Covers & They Call Me Alexandra Gastone

By T.A. Maclagan
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

From the promotional copy of They Call Me Alexandra Gastone by T.A. Maclagan (Full Fathom Five Digital, 2015):

When your life is a lie, how do you know what’s real?

Alexandra Gastone has a simple plan: graduate high school, get into Princeton, work for the CIA, and serve her great nation.

She was told the plan back when her name was Milena Rokva, back before the real Alexandra and her family were killed in a car crash.

Milena was trained to be a sleeper agent by Perun, a clandestine organization from her true homeland of Olissa. There, Milena learned everything she needed to infiltrate the life of CIA analyst Albert Gastone, Alexandra’s grandfather, and the ranks of America’s top intelligence agency.

For seven years, “Alexandra” has been on standby and life’s been good. Grandpa Albert loves her, and her strategically chosen boyfriend, Grant, is amazing.

But things are about to change. Perun no longer needs her at the CIA in five years’ time. They need her active now.

Between her cover as a high school girl—juggling a homecoming dance, history reports, and an increasingly suspicious boyfriend—and her mission in this high-stakes spy game, the boundaries of her two lives are beginning to blur.

Will she stay true to the country she barely remembers, or has her loyalty shattered along with her identity?

Find T.A. at Facebook, Tumblr & Twitter
As a book cover art aficionado (I have a Pinterest page of covers I fan girl over – yes, I’m that much of a book nerd), I headed into the cover design phase of my publishing journey with both excitement and trepidation.

I wanted a cover that I could love so badly, but knew that authors don’t usually get much input on cover design.

I was both surprised and thrilled, however, by how open Full Fathom Five was regarding the whole process. They asked me for my thoughts at the start, and then after each cover that came in, until we found the perfect one! It really felt like a journey we took as a team.

Yeah, I know how cheesy that sounds, but it’s true nonetheless.

My initial idea for the cover was a close-up face shot of Alexandra that emphasized her heterochromia (two different eye colors), but with the rest of her face being a bit hazy.

With the book’s title being what it is, I thought Alexandra needed to be staring out at the reader and as her heterochromia is a pivotal component of the book, I also felt that should be emphasized. I liked the idea of the rest of her face being a bit hazy because Alexandra struggles with her identity as the story unfolds and the haziness, I thought, could allude to that struggle. In addition to her face, I pictured a Washington D.C. skyline in the background, and a two-headed swan at the base of the cover (a symbol from the book).

As you can see from the final cover, which was the fourth iteration, some of my ideas made it onto the cover while others didn’t and thankfully so, because when I was thinking of cover design, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of book marketing.

With Full Fathom Five being generous about including me in the cover design process, I was able to learn quite a bit about what goes into making a successful cover. What I didn’t at first realize is that the cover should not only represent the book but also represent the genre.

For They Call Me Alexandra Gastone, that is spy fiction, in general, and YA spy fiction, in particular. This is something my original vision for the cover didn’t take into account. When someone looks at your cover, they should know what kind of book they are looking at.

With They Call Me Alexandra Gastone, I doubt anyone would think anything other than spy with the red and black color scheme and the riflescope. The red and black practically screams spy. Just look at these covers for popular spy novels...(photos of spy book covers).



The style of the cover is also in keeping with advertising for one of my favorite TV show, The Americans, which is also about sleeper agents living in the United States. My first drafts of They Call Me Alexandra Gastone were written before "The Americans" hit the airwaves but some of my later editing was definitely influenced by the dynamics of the relationships on the show.

So I find it fitting that there’s some resemblance between Alexandra’s cover and advertising for the show as I believe the book, despite being YA, could easily cross over into the adult market and would appeal to fans of the show.



As far as representing the YA spy genre, broadly speaking YA spy books fall into two subgenres, the “lighthearted adventure” subgenre, and the “darker, more serious, suspense” subgenre. These two subgenres have very different styles of covers.

Books like Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series (Hyperion), Robin Benway’s Also Known As series (Walker), and Jennifer Lynn BarnesThe Squad (Laurel Leaf) are all very popular YA spy books that fall into the “lighthearted adventure” category and as such they all have similarly styled covers.



Because They Call Me Alexandra Gastone doesn’t fit into this subgenre, it was important the cover didn’t, in any way, resemble this cover style. Instead, the cover for They Call Me Alexandra Gastone is much more in keeping with books like Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (Hyperion) and Lindsay Smith’s Sekret (Roaring Brook) from the “darker, more serious, suspense” subgenre—note the use of red on both covers.



After the cover designer nailed the color scheme and spy vibe, we faced one last hurdle. The model featured on the cover was used in every cover version we saw and looks very much like how I envisioned the character. That said, we were struggling a bit with her expression as the cover designer zoomed in for the third cover attempt. It looked too flat. That’s when the riflescope idea came into play. With the scope overlaid across her face, her expression morphed from flat to defiant.

As Alexandra is a kick butt kind of girl, this last minute addition to the cover, sealed the deal for me and gave me a cover I’m more than a little proud to have as the face of my debut!
 

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7. Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Interview with Anne Urse About The Real Boy by Corrine Duyvis from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: "Oscar isn’t labeled as autistic or having any kind of special needs in the book, and it’s been interesting to see who picks up on his autism. And many readers don’t. I’ve found that it tends to be people who are closely associated with autism in some way or another who see it." See also The Joke's On Me! Humor & Autism by Lyn Miller-Lauchmann.

Hand-holding in Dialogue Tags by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "The star of dialogue is the dialogue itself. Holding the reader’s hand through each snippet of dialogue says to me that you don’t quite trust yourself to communicate the scene in a way that the reader gets it."

Interpreting César Chávez's Legacy with Students by Jill Eisenberg from Lee & Low. Peek: "His remarkable achievements towards social justice and human rights serve as an excellent example to young people of how vital their voices are in bringing about change and championing causes that are as relevant today as they were in his day."

Word Count Intimidation by Deborah Halverson from DearEditor.com. Peek: "First, be done with numbers. Pledge not to count words until you type 'The End' on the final scene."

Showing Emotion: Moving Beyond the Face by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "The face is the first thing we notice in real life, and the focal point during any conversation."

On Writing & Self-Censorship in Writing for Young Readers by Mitali Perkins from Mitali's Fire Escape. Peek: "Aren't all stories containers for worldview, messages, and morals, even if it's the view that the world is morally uncertain?"

How I Got Into Publishing by Faye Bi, publicist at Simon & Schuster from CBC Diversity. Peek: "A love of books is not enough to work in publishing. Some candidates can’t afford to accept an unpaid internship to get their foot in the door, let alone three. Some need to consider higher paying industries to pay off their loans or take care of their families. Others don’t live near New York, or have any publishing companies near them."

Children's Literature for Math Awareness Month (April) by Jennifer Schultz from ALSC Blog. Peek: "Even if you don’t have a special program planned for Math Awareness Month, you can easily mark it with a counting-themed story time or display."

Ten Children's Bookseller Challenges and How Stores Solved Them by Judith Rosen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Every bookstore faces obstacles, but the way that it overcomes them can make the difference between being a so-so store and being a great one."

Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of a signed copy of Silence by Deborah Lytton (Shadow Mountain, 2015) was Rachel in Arizona.

YA Fantasy Cover Survey from Teenreads.com. Once you complete the survey, you'll be able to win a fantasy book or a $100 gift certificate to the bookstore of your choice. Note: for readers age 12 to 29.

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

With Michelle Knudsen, Texas librarians & Candlewick peeps at Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill!
Colorful Canon panel at the Texas Library Association Conference, featuring Jeanne Devlin (Roadrunner), Lee Byrd (Cinco Puntos), me, Don Tate and Marina Tristan (Arte Publico), Keri Rabe (moderator). My enthusiastic thanks to all!
Novelists Lindsey Lane, Brian Yansky and Katherine Catmull at the Austin SCBWI Monthly meet at BookPeople.

Local Authors Leading Campaign for More Diverse Books by Sharyn Vane from the Austin American-Stateman. Peek: "Quick, check your kids’ bookshelf: How many characters look just like them? The answer likely depends on what race they are. And that’s a reality that many in the literary community — including key players from Austin — are working to change." Note: requires registration to read in full.

Personal Links


Cynsational Events

This morning Cynthia will appear on the panel "Let's Hear Their Stories: American Indians, Arabs and Arab Americans" from 10 a.m. to 11:50 a.m. in Convention Center Room 10 C, Level 3 at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Texas Library Association in Austin. Peek: "Representing American Indians and Arabs/Arab-Americans in library collections is an important component of diversity. The panel of authors and library science specialists surveys the availability of children's and YA books about these groups and will point out ways librarians can evaluate books for accuracy, fairness and freedom from stereotype." Panelists also include: Nancy Bo Flood, Janice L. Kowemy, Elsa Marston, and Loriene Roy.

Join Cynthia from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. May 2 at Saratoga Springs Public Library for a celebration in conjunction with Saratoga Reads! at Saratoga Springs, New York. Note: Cynthia will be presenting Jingle Dancer (2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (2001) and Indian Shoes (2002)(all published by HarperColllins).

Join Cynthia at 11 a.m. May 30 in conjunction with the YA Book Club at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Cynthia will serve as the master class faculty member from June 19 to June 21 May 2 at the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency in Montpelier, Vermont.

Cynthia will speak from June 25 to June 30 on a We Need Diverse Books panel at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.

Cynthia will lead a breakout session on "Diversity in Children's and YA Literature" Aug. 22 at East Texas Book Fest at the Harvey Hall Convention Center in Tyler, Texas.

Cynthia will appear Sept. 19 at the Mansfield, Texas Book Festival.

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8. We Need Diverse Books & Children's Book Council To Partner on Publishing Internship Program

From Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The Children’s Book Council (CBC), the non-profit trade association for children’s book publishers in North America, and grassroots nonprofit We Need Diverse Books™ (WNDB) today announced their partnership on educational programming and resources for interns selected for the WNDB Internship Program, launching this summer.

The program is designed to open up the children’s book publishing industry to talented job-seekers from diverse backgrounds, providing them with an invaluable opportunity to learn about the industry through professional guidance and hands-on experience.


As part of this effort towards creating a more diverse children’s book publishing industry, the CBC will offer WNDB Publishing Interns:
  • Exclusive educational opportunities, including a luncheon with the CBC Diversity Committee, comprised of children’s book editors and publicists at top publishing houses 
  • Inclusion in the CBC Early Career Committee’s summer event, connecting the interns with publishing staffers in their first five years in the industry Invitation to a CBC Forum, a CBC-member event which provides information and discussion on current publishing trends and issues 
  • Invitation to a CBC Diversity Panel, a CBC-member opportunity which brings together voices within and outside of children’s publishing to communicate the challenges they face in selling and promoting diverse books, and to work together to develop solutions. 
  • Tip sheets for getting jobs in the publishing industry and making the most of their internships CBC-member exclusive multimedia content, including videos and recordings of educational programming 
  • Access to the CBC Early Career Committee’s ECC Newsletter, featuring interviews with mid-level publishing staffers, industry job moves, & member-exclusive news, opportunities, and invitations 
  • Access to Diversity in the News, the CBC’s monthly newsletter rounding-up relevant news in children’s books and diversity 
Ellen Oh
“The Children’s Book Council has been a dedicated champion of diverse books and voices since the launch of the CBC Diversity Initiative in 2012” said CBC Executive Director Jon Colman. “We are excited to team up with WNDB to further the work of creating an inclusive and representative children’s book publishing industry.”

WNDB President Ellen Oh says of the collaboration: “We are thrilled to be partnering with the CBC on our pilot internship program. Not only do we need diverse books, but a diverse and dedicated workforce.”

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9. New Voice: I.W. Gregorio on None of the Above

Browse-able Excerpt from Epic Reads
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

I.W. Gregorio is the first-time author of None of the Above (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2015). From the promotional copy:

What if everything you knew about yourself changed in an instant?

When Kristin Lattimer is voted homecoming queen, it seems like another piece of her ideal life has fallen into place. She’s a champion hurdler with a full scholarship to college and she’s madly in love with her boyfriend. In fact, she’s decided that she’s ready to take things to the next level with him.

But Kristin’s first time isn’t the perfect moment she’s planned—something is very wrong. A visit to the doctor reveals the truth: Kristin is intersex, which means that though she outwardly looks like a girl, she has male chromosomes, not to mention boy “parts.”

Dealing with her body is difficult enough, but when her diagnosis is leaked to the whole school, Kristin’s world completely unravels. With everything she thought she knew thrown into question, can she come to terms with her new self?

Incredibly compelling and sensitively told, None of the Above is a thought-provoking novel that explores what it means to be a boy, a girl, or something in between.

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I never would’ve been published if it weren’t for my critique group. Writing a book, like the process of development for any craft, is such a marathon. You need people cheering you on and passing you water and nourishment in the form of thoughtful, constructive critique. You need to have people who push you to become the best writer you can be.

Most importantly, if you’re going to be publishing a book that is going to be read by the world, you need to help yourself by giving your book baby to kind readers first, because not all critics will be kind. Which is okay - literature is a highly subjective art.

That’s why my critique partners Abigail Hing Wen, Sonya Mukherjee (The View From Gemini (Simon and Schuster, 2016)) and Stacey Lee (Under a Painted Sky (Putnam, 2015)) are the first people I mention in my acknowledgements after my agent and editor.

So where does one find critique partners? Like many, I first met Abby, Sonya and Stacey through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

SCBWI was essential to me because it taught me the nuts and bolts of the publishing process, dispelling some of the mystique. There’s nothing like running into a famous editor in the restroom to help you realize that editors and agents aren’t mysterious deities.

L-R Stacey Lee, Sonya Mukherjee and Abigail Hing Wen and I.W.

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?


I’m a big fan of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor, 1995) because it’s funny and honest and generally inspirational.

It’s title also sums up the one trusim of writing advice: Books only get written if you write. Even if you only take one step a day, you’ll eventually finish that marathon.

For writers who have completed their novel but want to polish it, Renni Brown and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How To Editor Yourself Into Print (William Morrow, 2004) is an excellent primer that offers really specific examples of ways to polish your writing on a sentence level.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Research was an enormously important part of my story because I’m not intersex myself (a biological condition in which a person’s chromosomes, internal or external sex doesn’t fit the typical definition of male or female). It was so very, very important for me to hear the voices of actual intersex people, rather than treating the topic of intersex as a writing exercise, or curiosity.

So I did a lot of reading, scouring medical libraries and the Internet for first-person accounts. Then I took a deep breath and cold-emailed some support groups. There was silence at first, but I tried different people, and followed-up, and eventually someone agreed to read my manuscript. One one person had read it and vetted it, she invited me to a conference where I met more intersex women and men who wanted to read it.

HarperCollins was gracious enough to provide over a dozen ARCs of None of the Above which I sent to members of the intersex support group. Many of them were kind enough to offer advice and edits that I implemented as late as my second-pass pages (just before the book went to printers)!

Ilene at the AIS-DSD Support Group Conference (Credit: aisdsd.org)

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

This is the question. When I wrote None of the Above I was working full time and had one child. Because the hours between when I come home and when I put my daughter to bed were sacred, I squeezed writing after we tucked her in, typically opening my computer at around 8:30 p.m. and then reluctantly going to bed myself shortly before midnight. Luckily my husband has a career in the arts too (he’s a musician) so he understood the urge to create, and didn’t feel snubbed if I wanted to write instead of hanging out with him.

The day after I sold my debut, I had my second child. Six months after that, We Need Diverse Books was born.

Both of these worthy “babies” have taken up a lot of my time in the past year! It’s been harder and harder to eke out the time to write - I’d say that my window has shrunk to a period from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.. But throughout the day during quiet times, I’m mulling over my plotline, trying to get angles on my slowly developing characters. Bird by bird, as Annie Lamott says.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

I actually met my agent, Jessica Regel at Foundry Literary + Media, at a New Jersey SCBWI conference! I was actually in the middle of revising my novel from dual narrative to single point of view, and wanted to test drive the manuscript with some critiques.

The conference also offered a pitch session with agents, so I surveyed the list of participants and was delighted to see Jessica on the list because she represents emily m. danforth, who wrote one of my favorite books, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins, 2012). The book is a thematically perfect analogue to None of the Above with its LGBTQI+ theme, so I thought Jessica and I would be a good fit.

I was lucky enough to have my first critique right before the conference, and I was so happy when the editor I was paired with loved it and wanted to see None of the Above on submission.

Of course, I had to explain to her that I wasn’t done with my revision yet, and that I would have to query, etc. I asked her what agents she would recommend. When she mentioned Jessica, I mentioned that I had a pitch session with her the next day.

“Oh, great,” she said. “Tell her that your manuscript is the one I talked to her about.”

I’m pretty sure my response was “!!!!!!!!”

The next day at the pitch session, Jessica asked for the partial manuscript, read it in her subsequent two hour break, and offered representation that afternoon. Afterward, I took some time and actually got two more offers on the partial manuscript, but had to choose Jessica because of her enthusiasm, her representation of a book I adore, and her general professionalism. She sold my book within a month to Alessandra Balzer at Balzer + Bray (who happens to also be The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s editor!) and the rest is history!

Agent Jessica Regel and I.W.

The long and the short of it is: I would recommend that you look closely at the acknowledgments section of books that you love, and try to discover who represented them. Go to conferences not because they’re the guarantee of an offer, but because they can give you a sense of who you might click with as a person. And keep trying! You only need one.

Cynsational Notes

I. W. Gregorio is a practicing surgeon by day, masked avenging YA writer by night. After getting her M.D., she did her residency at Stanford, where she met the intersex patient who inspired her debut novel, None of the Above (Balzer & Bray / HarperCollins).

She is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books™ and serves as its V.P. of Development.

A recovering ice hockey player, she lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. Find her on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram at @iwgregorio.

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10. Cynthia & Greg Leitich Smith at TLA 2015: Sync Up!

From Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will appear this week at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Texas Library Association in Austin.

Cynthia will speak on the panel, "A Colorful Canon: Building Diversity in Children's Literature from 2 p.m. to 3:50 p.m. April 14  in Convention Center Room 10 C, Level 3. Peek: "Small presses offer a powerful response to the cal for diverse children's literature. Learn how small publishing houses and authors are contributing to an important conversation about books that help children see themselves in the books they read." Panelists also include Lee Byrd, Jeanne Devlin, Don Tate and Marina Tristan.

Cynthia will sign Feral Pride (Candlewick, 2015) and other titles from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in aisle 12 of the author area.

Greg Leitich Smith will sign books from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. April 15 in aisle 4 of the author area.

Cynthia will speak on the panel "Let's Hear Their Stories: American Indians, Arabs and Arab Americans" from 10 a.m. to 11:50 a.m. April 17 in Convention Center Room 10 C, Level 3 Peek: "Representing American Indians and Arabs/Arab-Americans in library collections is an important component of diversity. The panel of authors and library science specialists surveys the availability of children's and YA books about these groups and will point out ways librarians can evaluate books for accuracy, fairness and freedom from stereotype." Panelists also include: Nancy Bo Flood, Janice L. Kowemy, Elsa Marston, and Loriene Roy.

Cynsational Notes

Cynthia also will be appearing at additional select teen, librarian and publisher events in conjunction with the conference. Keep an eye out and come say, "Howdy!"



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11. Agent Interview: Linda Camacho on Prospect Agency

Linda at Cliffs of Moher
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

You're a writer and an agent. Let's start with Writer You. How did you come to literature for young readers?

When I was in middle school, I was obsessed with YA, like R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series (St. Martin's Griffin), Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High books (Bantam), and L.J. Smith’s Night World series (Simon Pulse).

The YA section used to be a lot smaller, so I think I burned through most of them at Walden Books way back when! I tried my hand at typing up my own stories set in the wilds of high school, but never finished them.

I soon moved into the adult section of the store, and years later, got my first job on the adult side at Penguin. I enjoyed my time there, but one day I found myself going through my childhood book collection and wondering why I hadn’t even considered children’s book publishing. I loved the books I was working with, but children’s books were more special to me. Once that train of thought started, there was no stopping it!

After much job hunting and waiting, Random House children’s books called and I made the jump.

Describe your apprenticeship and the types of stories that call to you.

My tastes are broad and I have a varied background at different houses. My first job at Penguin was in production under the Berkley/Jove/Ace/Riverhead imprints, so that was a healthy dose of genre fiction with some literary fiction. After some time, I left Penguin when I briefly toyed with the idea of law school. I missed publishing, however, so to get back in, I interned and rotated through the departments at Dorchester, Simon and Schuster, Random House, and Writers House literary agency.

Luckily, Random House children’s eventually took pity and hired me to work on marketing picture books all the way through young adult titles, which is where I’ve been the last five years.

I have to say, I do skew toward darker books, ones that reflect the human condition in all its ugliness and beauty. Ones that make my heart pound or tear it right out in the telling. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls (Walker, 2012), Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now (Wendy Lamb, 2004), Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone (Henry Holt, 2012), and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (Knopf, 2006), come to mind as examples.

You are a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Why did you pursue an MFA?

I knew I wanted to get my graduate degree in something I was really passionate about. I considered getting my MFA to continue building my editing skills, but wasn’t interested in pursuing one at a program that denigrated genre fiction (which, unfortunately, most do).

It wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt (Front Street, 2006) that I noticed her author bio mentioned the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I then started seeing that VCFA name in the dedication pages of other books, a few of which Random House published. I reached out the admissions folks, and after that, VCFA was the only place I wanted to go. It was a happy day when they accepted me!

What did you gain from the experience?

Like all writers, I was a reader first. I had a gut instinct for what worked in a story, especially as I got hands-on experience in the publishing world; however, I wasn’t always great at articulating those impressions. VCFA really pushed me me to pinpoint what was working (or not) in a manuscript.

It was an intensive two years of craft boot camp. I became much stronger in providing editorial feedback—not to mention, I became a much better writer in the process.

Beyond that practical aspect, I made the most wonderful colleagues and friends at VCFA, ones that I know will be with me for the rest of my life.

What would you say to someone considering an MFA in writing for young readers?

Depending on your goals and means, I would encourage it. Is an MFA necessary for publication? Definitely not. If publication is your only aim, I’d steer clear of the MFA.

If, however, you’re also looking to improve your craft and/or teach writing, I highly recommend it.

And if you didn’t already have it, you’ll gain a supportive writing community and build confidence in yourself as a writer.

In terms of financial means, I found the low-residency format beneficial because I could continue working while I studied. Some programs offer financial assistance and scholarships, so potential applicants should reach out to admissions to learn their options.

How about Agent You? What inspired you to take on this additional career?

I did an internship at Writers House years ago and that was the beginning, really. Before that, I had only been interested in editorial (like many people trying to break into the industry).

I didn’t know much about agenting, but boy did I learn! I took any job I could to get my foot in the door and learned so much about the different publishing departments, but ultimately, I always knew I would settle into an editorial/agenting role. Agenting feels like a better fit for me because I’m not tied to an imprint like editors are. I can acquire anything that catches my eye.


Could you tell us about the history of the Prospect Agency? How has the agency changed over time?

Emily Sylvan Kim is the owner who, after working six wonderful years at Writers House literary agency, decided to hang up her own shingle. Her mission was to provide top-notch representation and a warm community for authors and illustrators, and she has certainly done that these past ten years.

Prospect Agency has grown tremendously and I anticipate that upward trajectory continuing.

What types of clients do you represent—in terms of body of work, art vs. text, age levels, genres and more? Are you looking for a certain kind of book that says “Prospect” or for a widely diversified body of work from your client base?

Prospect is very open-minded in terms of representation, so I’m looking for a high quality, diversified body of work. My tastes range from picture books to young adult, from clean and lighthearted contemporary to edgy and dark fantasy. And I’d love to see diverse stories of all types (ethnicity, disability, sexuality, etc.).

My focus is on genre fiction (romance, horror, fantasy, realistic, light sci-fi, and graphic novels), namely in the middle grade and YA age ranges. I’ll also be taking on literary fiction with commercial appeal (à la Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion 2012), I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (Dial, 2014), or When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb, 2009)), along with very select picture book projects (both writers and illustrators).

I’m not looking for early readers/chapter books or standalone short stories.

To get a better idea of what I like, on my Prospect Agency page, I’ve included a list of titles that are dream representations.

What makes Prospect different from other literary agencies?

Prospect is a boutique agency of six women who really do embody Emily’s mission statement of creating a warm community. The agents not only advocate strongly for their clients, but they do so in a positive way.

When the editors at Penguin Random House learned I was going to be an agent at Prospect, I only heard wonderful things said about the agents there. And that says a lot—not only are they successful, but they’re actually a pleasure to work with.

Why should an unpublished but competitive writer consider querying Prospect (and you specifically)?

Linda's Bookshelf
Prospect Agency is staffed with publishing professionals who are very experienced and open to a broad range of genres. They all have either big five publishing experience or Writers House experience (owner Emily Sylvan Kim used to be agent there).

I’m a new agent, but I’ve been in the business a decade and am being mentored every step of the way.

I’ve seen publishing from just about every angle—publicity, marketing, production, editorial, writing—and it will help me advise my clients about the process.

Want to know what goes on in an acquisitions or launch meeting? Want to know what a standard marketing plan is? Want to know about NetGalley, metadata, or the annoyingly complicated process of cover reveals? If so, I’m your girl! I can give them the inside look at what occurs even beyond the editorial and marketing screens.

How about established authors who, for whatever reasons, finds themselves without representation?

I’d repeat everything I said above. It really depends on what an established author is seeking out of their next partnership, but I’m flexible and can devote the time in helping take his/her career to the next level.

From my years in publishing, I have many editor friends to whom I can already reach out personally, so I’m not coming into this without support.

There was a time when children’s-YA authors and illustrators debated the need for an agent at all. Do you think that time has passed? Why or why not? What considerations should be weighed?

Lucy
It’s understandable that children’s-YA authors and illustrators used to question the need, especially since they might wonder if agents are worth the 15% domestic commission. I would advise getting an agent, especially if an author would prefer to be traditionally published.

At the big publishing houses, editors don’t generally accept manuscripts that aren’t submitted by an agent (there are exceptions, but even if it results in an offer, you’d need to go back and get an agent to proceed with publication).

An author can certainly score a publishing contract at an indie press without an agent, but is he sure that he’s getting the best deal possible when signing on the dotted line?

Publishing houses aren’t actively trying to take advantage of authors, but they are part of big business and do want to get the best deal possible on their end, sometimes to the detriment of the author.

Now, an agentless author can hire a publishing attorney to look over the contract for each deal. If the author wants to do it that way, there isn’t anything wrong with it. It’s just that (and clearly I’m biased) a good agent is a counselor/manager that can help guide the author throughout the course of his career.

A good agent can also be the bad cop who crosses the I’s and dots the T’s while the author gets to be the good cop who smiles and focuses on the creative aspects.

Still, there are those authors who are more hands on and want to handle every single aspect of their career and publishing process. If that’s the case, I encourage smart self-publishing and indie press publishing. It might work better for some than others (I would say that it works best depending on genre—romance writers do better with this, at least on the self-publishing end.)

Personally, if I ever decide to publish, I’m getting an agent of my own. But that’s because I know my own needs. Authors and illustrators need to know themselves as they figure out the best course to take. Word of caution, though: No agent is better than a bad agent. so do your research!

To what degree do you do career framing and consultation with your clients?

Sweet treats from Linda's pantry!
I anticipate working closely with my clients, so beyond editorial feedback and submission check-ins, I’m absolutely available for career consultation. I’m ideally taking on a client for the course of his career, not on a project-by-project basis. I’m available for project brainstorming sessions, marketing tips, and encouragement as they traverse the wilds of publishing.

Do you promote your client list? If so, how? Or do you think that the agency should be more behind the scenes? Why or why not?

I’m on Facebook and Twitter, so I would be promoting my clients on those platforms. Other than that, I’m not in this business to be a star. My clients are the stars and I’m there to support and foster them in the background.

We've corresponded about your strong interest in the current discussion around diversity in youth literature. What are your thoughts about where we are now, where we're going, and how we can best get there? How do you see yourself fitting in the conversation?

I’m so excited about the ongoing discussion! I’m aware that it isn’t a new one, but it’s really cresting and I’m proud to be part of the wave of diverse people in the publishing realm. Things are improving, slowly but surely (and certainly not without a few missteps), and I remain optimistic about the future.

It’s a complicated issue with no clear cut method of engagement, considering that the disparity affects industry folks and consumers at every level—the writers, agents, editors, marketers, publicists, production staff, sales reps, booksellers, readers, and everyone else in between. Still, so long as there is increasing awareness about the lack of diversity, steps can be taken and matters can only improve.

There really needs to be recruitment outside of the typical channels (nepotism or people in the know) and outreach to people in diverse communities. I’m a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx and I never had any exposure to writers or publishing people. And I was a big reader who frequented the library constantly!

Still, I was completely unaware of publishing as a career. Even in college, I didn’t quite connect my love of reading into a job beyond writing, and even that didn’t seem feasible. If a human resources person (a person of color and fellow Cornellian) hadn’t taken an interest and steered me towards publishing, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Matt
To be clear, I understand that diversity goes beyond ethnicity. It spans religion, sexuality, gender, and physicality, extending to anyone who finds himself underrepresented in the stories being told.

As a matter of fact, my masters thesis was related to my desire as a plus-sized woman to see characters of size portrayed without the stereotypical weight loss journey, titled “The Anti-Ugly Duckling Tale: Fat Protagonists Who…Stay Fat?”

I’m looking to get even more diverse writers published, so I’m keeping a weather eye out for those narratives. And they don’t need to be issue books. As Matt de la Peña wondered in his 2014 CNN.com article “Where's the African-American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss,” that’s what I’d like to know!

How do Writer You and Agent You inform each other?

Before my MFA program, my marketing brain dominated.

Now, though? I have more sympathy for the difficult writing process and better comprehend the need to tell the story you’re burning to tell. As I read submissions, I’m not only asking myself: Will this sell? That’s an important question I do take into account, but it it’s no longer the question since I’ve already turned down some marketable projects.

An even bigger question for me is: Do I love it?

Trends change with the wind, but the projects I love? Those grab hold of me for good.

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12. Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Q&A with Rita Williams Garcia by Sue Corbett from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "I am a product of the Great Migration. My grandmother, my mother, and my father all came north from the south. We did not spend a lot of time home-going, but that didn’t stop me from imagining what it would be like." See also Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth 2015 from Booklist.

New Award for Historical Middle Grade Fiction or Nonfiction from SCBWI. Peek: "A new book award, The Grateful American™ Book Prize, has been established to honor children’s books of fiction and nonfiction that feature the events and the people that shaped the history of the U.S. The Prize was co-founded by author and publisher David Bruce Smith..."

The Troubling Debate of Autism as a Fad by Jessica Mulqueen from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: "The objections to literary critics complaining about autistic characters are obvious. Despite the increase in the number of portrayals, autism is still underrepresented and highly misunderstood. Such remarks are not only misleading, but discriminatory."

2015-2016 Boston Public Library Children's Writer-in-Residency Program from Children's Book Council. Peek: "The Associates of the Boston Public Library is currently accepting applications for the 2015-2016 Children’s Writer-in-Residence fellowship program. The fellowship offers an emerging children’s author a $20,000 stipend and an office at the Boston Public Library to complete his or her work of fiction, nonfiction, dramatic writing, or poetry for young readers."

Capstore Sponsors Residency for Children's Authors and Illustrators by Claire Kirch from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Beginning this summer, Capstone will select one artist annually to participate in a month-long residency at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minn. Fellows will be provided with room and board, as well as space in which to work."

How We Talk (Or Don't Talk) About Diversity When We Read With Our Kids by Matt de la Pena from Brightly. Peek: "We’re mixed kids. Half Mexican, half white. Back then you never found 'mixed' dolls, so my mom would opt for the 'Latino' doll, or, more commonly, the white doll. But here she was, staring down at three African American Cabbage Patch Kids." See also The Color of Character from Nikki Grimes.

Writing Humor: The Lighter Side of Writing Is Heavy Stuff by Michael McDonagh from QueryTracker Blog. Peek: "Without an unexpected outcome or high degree of contrast between the situation and the actor’s response, there is no joke."

Interview: Agent Tina Wexler by Lee Wind from I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? Peek: "More stories where the kids babysit or have a job at the DQ or struggle to complete their homework while putting dinner together because both parents (or the remaining parent) work outside the home, overworked, underpaid and put on wonky shifts that aren’t conducive to helping with homework or making a wholesome dinner (or any dinner) at night."

Agent Heather Flaherty of the Bent Agency Defines Voice and Shares Her Wish List from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: " So many famous authors actually wrote anywhere between four and seven books before getting nabbed."

Fallacy: The Primer for Surprise by Ron Estrada from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "Story surprises happen not when a reader lacks important information that leads to the correct conclusion about story events, but rather when, through the abundance of misinformation, the reader is forced into wrong conclusions."

Canadian Children's Literature: Damaging to Black People? by Zetta Elliott from Media Diversified. Peek: "In 2011, I began to compile a bibliography on my blog and discovered that since 2000, on average, only three Black-authored books for children were published each year. And, in that time, of the nearly thirty middle grade or young adult novels featuring a Black protagonist, only two depict Black children living in contemporary Canada."

Cynsational Screening Room

Vlog: Austin SCBWI Regional Conference (Day 2) by Ariane Felix from A Writer's Life.



Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of Things I'll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015) is Linda in Virginia.

The winners of How to Surprise a Dad by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish (Knopf, 2015) are Becky in Utah, Jane in South Dakota, Rachel in Arizona, Jacqui in Illinois and Vanessa in New Jersey.

This Week at Cynsations
 
More Personally

Jerri Romine and Paige Britt perform a reader's theater at last week's launch of The Lost Track of Time (Scholastic, 2015).

From Sara's Sweets in Austin!
Talking Craft, Diversity & Genre Hopping with Cynthia Leitich Smith from Joy Preble. Peek: "Choose yourself. Don’t wait for the publisher to promote your book to lead title. Don’t wait for your head to be graced with a crown or your slippers to be buried in laurels. Raise that chin and vow to do this..." Note: Thanks to all who shared this link. I'm honored by your support and enthusiasm.

The Bulletin of the Center of Children's Books cheers Things I'll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves, edited by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015): "There are even two fantasies, one by Cynthia Leitich Smith about a guardian angel who has fallen in love with a human boy, and another by Katy Moran that owes much to the story of Bluebeard.... The secrets’ often mature content raises the moral question of whether a thing is secret because it’s shameful or shameful because it’s secret, making this a thought- provoking collection."

Thank you to author-illustrator Shelley Ann Jackson for her first-rate service as assistant regional advisor of the Austin chapter of SCBWI. Most appreciated! Now P.J. Hoover takes over the mantle. Lucky us!

Personal Links

Behold my snapdragons!

Cynsational Events

Cynthia will appear from April 14 to April 17 at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Texas Library Association in Austin.

Join Cynthia from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. May 2 at Saratoga Springs Public Library for a celebration in conjunction with Saratoga Reads! at Saratoga Springs, New York. Note: Cynthia will be presenting Jingle Dancer (2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (2001) and Indian Shoes (2002)(all published by HarperColllins).

Join Cynthia and representatives from We Need Diverse Books for a panel and (free) writing workshop from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. May 12 at BookPeople in Austin. Register here.

Join Cynthia at 11 a.m. May 30 in conjunction with the YA Book Club at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Cynthia will serve as the master class faculty member from June 19 to June 21 May 2 at the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency in Montpelier, Vermont.

Cynthia will speak from June 25 to June 30 on a We Need Diverse Books panel at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.

Cynthia will lead a breakout session on "Diversity in Children's and YA Literature" Aug. 22 at East Texas Book Fest at the Harvey Hall Convention Center in Tyler, Texas.

Cynthia will appear Sept. 19 at the Mansfield, Texas Book Festival.

TLA Con Schedule & Latest News!

See more info & RSVP!

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13. Interview: Freelance Editor Francoise Bui

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

How would you describe yourself? A writing coach? Freelance editor? Independent study instructor?

Definitely a freelance editor. I'm not a writing teacher. I love to work on manuscripts that I feel have the potential to be published--ones where my feedback can help a writer shape his/her characters and story.

You're a former Delacorte (Random House) editor, with a history of publishing children's-YA books across age markets and genres. 

Could you tell us more about the insights you gained through this experience?

I love editing books for all ages--picture books, chapter books, middle grade and YA novels. The variety keeps things interesting. I find it especially liberating that middle-grade stories do not include romance, something that's largely a must in YA novels. In terms of insights, I guess it's that marvelous storytelling exists in every age group and in all genres.

Of the titles you edited, which stand out in your memory and/or might serve as models of study for writers interested in working with you?

In middle grade:



--Paperboy by Vince Vawter (Delacorte, 2013) received a 2014 Newbery Honor. I'd never encountered a protagonist with a speech impediment. It's told in a memorable first-person voice that makes you feel what it's like to be a stutterer. Plus, there are so many rich plot threads to the boy's coming-of-age story.



--Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea (Delacorte, 2010) features seven very different kids in the same third-grade class. Pure fun, very kid-friendly, with a lot of heart. Each character is so well defined. In young adult:



--Orchards by Holly Thompson (Delacorte, 2011) is a gorgeous novel in verse. Beautiful, spare language. It's also a multicultural and multi-generational story.



--The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab is a rich family drama, with a mystery at its core. Very textured narrative that is both absorbing and thought-provoking.

All the books I've mentioned stand out for their memorable voice(s), compelling characters, layered storytelling, and emotional pull.

All the books also happen to be examples of realistic fiction, which I have an affinity for. But I love a new twist on a fairy tale (Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier (Knopf, 2007)), not edited by me), thrillers (All Unquiet Things by Anna Jarzab (Delacorte, 2010), which I edited), and all-around page turners (The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2006) and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2010), both very different and edited by others).

What kind of writer would be best suited to your working together on a freelance basis?

I prefer to work on a complete manuscript. It's easier for me to assess and give constructive feedback on.

What can you tell us about how you approach a manuscript?

I read with an eye toward sufficient character development (protagonist and secondary cast), plot structure, setting, and overall pacing.

How would you describe your feedback style?

I am honest--what's working, what's not--and I do my best to suggest ways to rethink the weaknesses so that the revision gets the story to the next level. I try to be constructive.

What would be the logistics? How should writers get in touch with you? What would happen from there?

I can be reached at fbui.editor@gmail.com. I'd like a short note, saying whether the manuscript is middle grade or YA and a brief synopsis. Please attach the first chapter so that I get a sense of the story and voice. Then I'll decide whether I can be of help.

My fee depends on page count and what is required: general feedback only; revision letter and possible mark-up of manuscript; a line edit, etc.

I'm happy to answer questions.

Do you have any interest in joining writer conferences or workshops as a critique (or other) faculty member?

Francoise (center) with authors Mari Mancusi (left) and April Lurie (right)
I'd be happy to offer critiques as a guest editor at writers' conferences.

More globally, what should writers consider in choosing a freelance editor?

It's helpful to see what types of books a freelance editor published when employed at a publishing house. A shared sensibility goes a long way.

FYI: I'm about to create a website, so a more comprehensive list of the books I've edited will appear there.

More and more writers are seeking the assistance of a freelance editor before submission or publishing independently. For the latter, the reason is fairly obvious (they want to ensure a professional-level book). But why do you think agented and trade published writers seem more predisposed of late to take this route?

It's something I've encountered in recent years only, but it's becoming more common. Editorial staffs have shrunk and editors are overburdened. Because publishing schedules have to be met, there isn't necessarily the flexibility to work on every manuscript until each one is truly at its best.

A freelance editor can devote the time to multiple rounds of revision. So I guess agented and trade published writers now seek out freelancers to ensure that their manuscripts are strong enough for acquisition, as well as thoroughly polished for reviewers.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Thank you for this interview, Cynthia. I look forward to editing some wonderful stories.

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14. Interview: Author Allison Estes & Illustrator Tracy Dockray on Izzy & Oscar

By Allison Estes & Tracy Dockray
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

From the promotion copy of Izzy & Oscar (Jabberwocky/Sourcebooks, 2015):

Have you ever taught an octopus to roll over? It's harder than it looks. 

Discover why octopuses make the best pets in this charming picture book about friendship and embracing individuality!

Izzy has always wanted a pet. So when an adventurous octopus squiggles into town, Izzy decides to keep him. After all, a real pirate captain has to have a mascot. Oscar is not very good at going for walks or playing fetch. (Although he is amazing at hide and seek). And he's definitely not like other pets...

But he is just right for Izzy.

Readers will be tickled by Izzy's attempts to teach Oscar to behave like a dog, a parrot, a pony-and gratified by Izzy's realization that in the end we love others for who they are...eight arms and all!

Visit Sourcebooks' Izzy & Oscar Pinterest page!

Allison Interviews Tracy

AE: To get to be a published author, I had to read a lot and write a lot of course. But I didn’t study it in college, I just sort of went out and did it. 

My first published book was a ghostwriting job I got through a friend who recommended me. I had to write a few sample chapters, but the editor approved and I got the job. It was for a YA action/adventure series called Adventurers, Inc. by Mallory Tarcher (Kensington, 1994). 

So, my question for you is, how did you get your first illustrating job and what was the title?

Tracy Dockray
TD: I was living in the Lower East Side of New York, making puppets and painting murals when I decided that I really wanted to illustrate children’s books. I created what I thought a portfolio should be and my boyfriend pretended he was my agent and showed it to publishers.

A wonderful young editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux saw my portfolio and hired me to do a nonfiction book titled MicroAliens. I said “yes!” and was beside myself with joy… even though I had no idea what a microalien was.

AE: Some books are harder to write than others, and in different ways, and no matter what, I love the process of writing. It’s also a wonderful moment when you hear that a book has been accepted for publication. But the best thing is when I finish a book: I get elated, and full of energy. 

What’s your hardest/best thing in the illustration process?

TD: I run around the brownstone doing the Snoopy happy dance every single time I’m told I have another book I get to do. I guess, the best thing about the illustration process is that I get to do what I love to do for a living! Wow!

It’s not all sun and roses because sometimes an editor or writer has a definite idea of what your illustrations should be. And we are all good at some things and not as perfect at others.

AE: When I am writing, I tune out everything, enter another realm of consciousness, am irritable if interrupted, and feel dreamy and satisfied when I finally emerge. I have heard it called the “flow state.” What is your illustrating state-of-mind?

TD: I love the feeling that happens when doing something enjoyable with concentration. Flow state sounds a little groovy but for lack of a better word we’ll use it.

Whether it’s cooking, illustrating, writing or even hammering nails into wood, it’s moving and thinking and concentrating on accomplishing something. Usually, my kids bring me back to earth a lot quicker. Shocking sometimes, but what're you going to do…?

AE: Right now, what is your favorite book that you have ever illustrated?

TD: My favorite book that I’ve illustrated, so far, is my Lost and Found Pony (Feiwel & Friends, 2011). I absolutely love drawing horses. So much so that I had to write a book about them so I could draw even more of them.

Allison, I know that you’ve written lots of horse books, funny that you and I got together to illustrate one about…. An octopus!?

But I really enjoyed that challenge. Octopi are so much more than I thought they were. It’s been so exciting illustrating your “Izzy and Oscar” although, making sure to get Oscars tentacles just right in the illustrations would mess with my groovy flow… in a big way.

Tracy Interviews Allison

TD: Neil Gaiman wrote, “People who wrote the rules know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not, the rules of what is possible and impossible in art are made by those people who have not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them.” 

Sometimes, I think that not knowing how hard it is to break into the world our craft gave us the courage to try it. In your question to me, you mentioned that you didn’t study writing in school and that you applied yourself after school learning your craft. This is interesting because that is the way I approached illustrating too. 

So, what did you study in school? Have you used it in your work now?

Allison Estes
AE: I loved acting when I was a teenager, and when I went to college I studied Theatre and English. I also competed on the forensics team (which doesn’t have anything to do with crime scene investigation—it’s speech and debate) in the speech and interp events. And somewhere in there I took a broadcast journalism class that I really loved, where I had to write and produce ads for radio.

The performance aspect of the theatre degree has stood me in good stead when I do author appearances, especially for large audiences: I learned how to use physical gestures to help portray characters and how to project!

On the forensics team, I learned to cut a longer piece of literature into a short excerpt, and several tricks that help you be really good at reading aloud—it’s a bit like acting with a book in your hand.

And writing 30-second radio ads is a lot like the way you have to think when you’re writing picture books: short and to the point, but still with some conflict, characters you care about, and emotional interest, so you have to choose your words very carefully!

And I think all the things that fascinate us throughout our lives, all the things we throw ourselves into for the sheer love of it, end up coming through us to shape our craft.

TD: There are always the upsides and down to everything. You’d said you were always so excited to get another writing project to do. So, on the flip side, what was your worst book experience: was it the making of the book, a very difficult time that you were working through while writing, or was it a review that made your feelers droopy?

AE: I wrote a lot of books for series, that I really poured my literary soul into because it was the writing I had to do at the time.

And series by nature are more likely to go out of print, because there are just so many titles and so many series that can fit on the shelves, and your reading audience outgrows them after a while.

So I think when The Short Stirrup Club went out of print was a big downer in my writing career.

TD: They often say that writers are sponges absorbing their experiences and then using them in their writing. Are you that type of writer? Can you cite an example?

AE: I think that’s true, but I don’t think I go around consciously noting things and storing them away to write about later.

It’s more like the stuff soaks in, and then when you go to write something, there it is: the analogy you want, or the idea for a character, or the late afternoon light shining through icy tree limbs…you can’t help but be a sponge, and you can’t help writing about what you’ve absorbed.

TD: As a writer yourself, I was interested in who were your favorite writers to read?

AE: I think I have read thousands of books: truly.

As soon as I learned to read, I was always with a book. My first favorite was Little Black, a Pony, by Walter Farley (Random House, 1961). The second was a little grocery store book called Fawn Baby by Gladys Baker Bond (Whitman, 1966).

As I got older, I read all the Newbery award winners (and I still do), and, really I read anything, everything: magazines, whatever was on my parents’ book shelves, whatever was at the school library…the library in our town had one wall of children’s books, and I’m pretty sure I had signed my name on the check-out card of almost all of them.

Now I still read every night before I fall asleep. For a few years I’ve been trying to catch up on classics I never got around to: I think Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813), David Copperfield (1849), and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862) are some of the most sublime literary inventions ever.

Austen, Dickens, Hugo: no one can write like that anymore. No one.

I’m also a great fan of Kipling and have read nearly everything he wrote. I love Steinbeck. I love short stories; Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall (Scribner, 2010) is one of my favorite collections.

I could go on and on…but I’ll wrap it up with this: I’m currently reading George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series (I’m on the fifth) and I keep a copy of James Stephens’ Irish Fairy Tales by my bed and never get tired of reading it: it’s some of the most beautiful prose ever written.

TD: I really related to you when I read about your never getting your gray kitten. I always wanted Sea Monkeys. They always looked so amazing in the comic book ads. I never got them as a child but for my 18th birthday my mom finally got me Sea Monkeys! She said she didn’t want me to feel like I’d been denied my dream. Ha! 

When I got them, I was dismayed to discover that they were really just brine shrimp. 

You have a lot of animals in your life now, what is a memorable pet moment for you, happy or sad? Do you regret not having an octopus as a pet?

AE: Well, finally getting a gray kitten was a biggy, of course. Once Santa brought me a hamster. I was thrilled! It was the best Christmas ever! My first pony…my first dog…my first horse…But, happy and sad? Actually, this pet moment will always stay with me:

Last October, the same day my folks left town on vacation, our sweet old lab Stella commenced to dying. Sad as it was, she was ancient—about 105 in human years—and came naturally to the end of a long, happy life.

It is a long, hard, sweaty job to dig a hole in the hard-packed Mississippi dirt big enough to bury an 80-pound dog. No one was around to help except my 11-year-old son, Lucas. And help he did. Together we hacked and chipped and dug through the hard, red clay until we got Stella’s grave dug, and together we laid her down on her favorite old bed and covered her up.

It is no easy thing to look at death. Lucas never faltered. That day my old dog left this world, I saw the little man in my son.

Cynsational Notes

Allison Estes has written more than a dozen books. Izzy & Oscar is her first picture book, and was really different and fun to write!

Some of her other books are The Short Stirrup Club series (ten titles) for middle-grade readers, four titles in the Thoroughbred series (fun because she got to start over in #24 with all new characters), and Paw & Order: Dramatic Investigations by an Animal Cop on the Beat, which is an adult book but fine for animal lovers of all ages and full of happy endings.

After 29 years in New York City, Allison recently moved back to her home town, Oxford, Mississippi. She lives in the country with her son, two grandparents, two dogs, and two horses.

Right now, when she isn’t busy cooking supper, taking care of dogs and horses, teaching writing workshops and driving to soccer, she is working on another picture book, another adult book, and more happy endings.

Tracy Dockray grew up on the plains of West Texas with a love of books and innumerable pets. She moved to New York where she studied fine art and acquired several old motorcycles.

Her career veered from sculpture to puppet making to murals and finally to children’s books. She is ecstatic to have illustrated 30 books including two that she wrote herself.

Tracy now lives in a creaky, cavernous brownstone in Greenwich Village, with a hairless cat, two fuzzy dogs, two children and a very tolerant husband.

She is thrilled to have been able to illustrate Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series and The Mouse and the Motorcycle series since she has a soft spot for them both.

Although Tracy studied Fine Arts in school, she has come to the happy conclusion that drawing pictures for children’s books is the finest art she knows.

Find Tracy at Facebook.

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15. Guest Post: Janet Lee Carey on Tips for Writing Fantasy

Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin, 2015
By Janet Lee Carey
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

So good to be back visiting the multi-talented Cynthia Leitich Smith here on Cynsations with my third book in the Wilde Island trilogy. Cynthia hosted an interview for the first Wilde Island book, Dragon’s Keep (Harcourt, 2007) so this visit brings it full circle.

I thought it would be a good time to look back and share a few things I’ve learned on the way up the twisty fantasy writing road.

Be Flexible

This is my first published trilogy in an ongoing series, but it’s not the only series I began building toward a trilogy.

My third book set in Noor following The Beast of Noor (Atheneum, 2011) and The Dragon’s of Noor (Egmont, 2010) did not go anywhere. Neither did a draft of a book taking place in Zolya following the YA fantasy, Stealing Death (Egmont, 2010).

If you love writing fantasy as much as I do, you have to learn to be flexible. You can’t hold on too tightly. In my case, anyway, I had to learn to let go and create new worlds, places for the stories I was passionate about to unfold. Wilde Island and its sister island Dragon’s Keep has been particularly fruitful. These islands are home to Dragons, fey folk and the indigenous Euit people. There were layers of bitter history already rife in this world before book one began.

Perhaps this line from the Kirkus Reviews review for In the Time of Dragon Moon says it best:

“Humans, dragons and fey coexist on Wilde Island, but this uneasy peace masks a simmering, mutual distrust.” 

There are so many possible plots created by this “simmering mutual distrust” and given time, more stories can grow there.



Keep Your Cuts

So in the above paragraph I’m saying learn to let go.

In this paragraph I’ll say the opposite, learn to hold on.

By the time I’ve revised a book twenty or thirty times, I’ve cut out nearly as many pages as I’ve kept. Some early clippings are never retrieved, but some later cuts are often well polished scenes by the time they’re severed. What to do?

Mine the treasure there! I create a “cuts” file and keep notes on the cuts. Sometimes I use snippets from cuts, finding those little gems and placing them just so in a new scene during the final revision.

And best and most secret of all, I used an entire rescue sequence originally set in one world (Noor) in another world (Zolya). The scene worked beautifully in Stealing Death.

Of course I had to reset it changing context and characters, but the baseline scene depicting a daring rescue from a desert prison turned out to be a great fit. Voila!

Recognize Story Seeds

Finally, I’m learning not to pack books too tightly. I had what amounted to a double ending to In The Time of Dragon Moon. The last chapters felt very powerful and true, but I ended up having to cut them out of the book because they brought in some new elements when the story was essentially over.

I later realized these important scenes were actually seeds for a new book. I was being given a new theme dealing with romantic ties, mothers and children, abandonment, betrayal and renewal. The strong feelings I had for those last chapters were meant to carry me into another full length novel I’m writing now and setting in a new world.

If you write fantasy, I hope you find the pointers helpful. But if you work in other professions you can translate these practices:

  • Be Flexible --a healthy survival technique in any workplace.
  • Keep your Cuts -- take a little time to honor your ideas, and store them in a place you can readily retrieve them. Those of us who think outside the box sometimes need actual storage boxes. Ideas that don’t quite fit the workplace now, might be perfect if introduced at a later time.
  • Recognize Story Seeds --keep abreast of your passions and learn to recognize the inklings of something new forming in you, something teasing you toward an entirely new adventure. 

Whatever your passion or profession, I leave you with a healer’s saying from Uma’s Euit tradition:

~ Ona Loneaih – be you well~


About the Book

Beware the dark moon time when love and murder intertwine

All Uma wants is to become a healer like her father and be accepted by her tribe. But when the mad queen abducts her and takes her north, Uma’s told she must use her healing skills to cure the infertile queen by Dragon Moon, or be burned at the stake. 

Uma soon learns the queen isn’t the only danger she’s up against. A hidden killer out for royal blood slays the royal heir. The murder is made to look like an accident, but Uma, and the king’s nephew Jackrun, sense the darker truth. 

Together, they must use their combined powers to outwit a secret plot to overthrow the Pendragon throne. But are they strong enough to overcome a murderer aided by prophecy and cloaked in magic?



About the Author

Photo of Janet by Heidi Pettit
Janet Lee Carey grew up in the bay area under towering redwoods that whispered secrets in the wind.

When she was a child she dreamed of becoming a mermaid (this never happened). She also dreamed of becoming a published writer (this did happen after many years of rejection).

She is now an award-winning author of nine novels for children and teens. Her Wilde Island Chronicles are ALA Best Books for Young Adults. She won the 2005 Mark Twain Award and was finalist for the Washington State Book Award.

Janet links each new book with a charitable organization empowering youth to read and reach out. She tours the U.S. and abroad presenting at schools, book festivals and conferences for writers, teachers, and librarians.

Janet and her family live near Seattle by a lake where rising morning mist forms into the shape of dragons.

She writes daily with her imperious cat, Uke, seated on her lap. Uke is jealous of the keyboard. If Janet truly understood her place in the world, she would reserve her fingers for the sole purpose of scratching behind Uke’s ear, but humans are very hard to train.

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16. Cover Reveal: Golden Girl by Mari Mancusi

By Mari Mancusi
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The day I learned to snowboard was not the best day of my life. I actually spent most of it on my butt. And the bruises the next day were more than brutal. I was cold, I was frustrated. I was pretty sure anyone who even attempted this sport had to be a masochist and maybe I just needed to cut my losses and go home.

After all, I was already a decent skier. Maybe I should go back to what I already knew was safe.

But I didn’t go back. And the next day got easier. And the next week, easier still. Now, when I do have a chance to go snowboarding (not as often, thanks to now living in Texas!) I have a blast. I’m not Olympic caliber by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s become a sport I’m passionate about and truly love. And the fact that it wasn’t easy? Well, that only makes it better.

I think the same could be said about the writing and publishing industry. Just like snowboarding, it’s not for the faint of heart. You get a lot bruises—to your ego, to your heart, to your sanity—as you try to send books out into the world, only to face disappointment, rejection and frustration. It would be so easy to go back into the lodge. To play it safe and give up on this seemingly unattainable dream.

Mari with Cory Putnam Oakes & Christina Soontornvat
But for those of us who stick with it, who keep writing in the face of rejection, in the face of disappointments, day after day, we do get better.

And while saying it gets easier is a stretch—we do start finding small successes and maybe even large ones. And whether we become multi-published, bestselling, or just remain hobbyists, writing can become a passion and something we truly love.

And the fact that it isn’t easy? That only makes it better.

I’ve done a lot of adult and teen novels, but Golden Girl (Aladdin Mix, January 2016) is my very first middle grade novel and one I’m particularly proud of.

My heroine, Lexi, has dedicated her entire life to snowboarding, hoping to someday achieve Olympic gold. But when a freak accident may put her out of the running for good, she is forced to reexamine her life—and what’s really important to her. It’s a life lesson that applies to everyone—even those who have never set foot on a mountain and I’m so excited to share Lexi’s story with the world.

Cover Reveal

Cold meant snow. Snow meant snowboarding. Snowboarding meant everything.

Lexi Miller--aka "Golden Girl"--is Queen of the ‘Cross--snowboard cross, that is. As the most promising student at the elite ski and snowboard school, Mountain Academy, she is a sure lock for the Olympic-level trial team and has the most promise for a future Olympic gold medal the school has ever seen. 

Until a freak fall during a snowboard-cross competition crushes her dreams and puts her future on hold.

One year after her disastrous fall, Lexi is back at Mountain Academy and attempting a comeback. But everything has changed—her best friend is suddenly friends with her arch-enemy on and off the slopes, and everyone seems to be rooting for her to fail.

Everyone except Logan Conrad that is. Logan is a “staff rat” whose mother works at the school and he believes snowboarding should be for fun—not sponsors. With his help and friendship, Lexi begins to discover a whole new world outside her favorite sport and even a new passion for music.

But Lexi's dad--who just happens to be her coach and lead instructor at Mountain Academy--has strong opinions on his daughter's future. Can Lexi figure out how to balance her dreams with the dreams of her dad's--and find out what exactly happened on that mountain a year ago?

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17. Cynsational News & Giveaways

Image by Don Tate (used with permission)
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Austin author Chris Barton and Austin illustrator Don Tate on the release of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans, 2015) From the promotional copy:

A unique biography of a remarkable Reconstruction figure...

John Roy Lynch spent most of his childhood as a slave in Mississippi, but all of that changed with the Emancipation Proclamation. Suddenly people like John Roy could have paying jobs and attend school. 

While many people in the South were unhappy with the social change, John Roy thrived in the new era. He was appointed to serve as justice of the peace and was eventually elected into the United States Congress.

This biography, with its informative backmatter and splendid illustrations, gives readers an in-depth look at the Reconstruction period through the life of one of the first African-American congressmen. 

See also The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch Educator Guide by Debbie Gonzales and Freedom Tour: A Children's Book Literature Tour Celebrating Inspiring Historical Figures and Their Journey to Freedom, both from Don Tate.

 

More News & Giveaways

Making Storytime & Curriculum Connections: 2015 Pura Belpre Winners from School Library Journal. Peek: "This year’s Pura Belpré winners and honor books provide the ideal opportunity to get to know these authors and illustrators better, look back at some of their previous children’s books, and use these distinguished titles in a library or classroom setting." See also The Rise in Latino Children's Literature by Elizabeth Bird from A Fuse #8 Production.

Viva Yuyi: An Interview with Yuyi Morales by David Haldeman from Spark: The Online Magazine of Humanities Washington. Peek: "My books are a combination of my culture growing up, but also my entering a new culture as an immigrant and having to learn—to re-learn—everything so that I’d actually be able to survive in a new country."

The Importance of Grounding Characters in the Reader's World by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Emotional anchors (emotion-rich events that readers have experienced themselves) will ground your hero in the reader’s world. Here’s a few anchors to drop into your character’s experience that readers will recognize and relate to..."

The Importance of Girls' Stories: Nova Ren Suma on The Walls Around Us by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek: "I’m not reading for someone I want to be friends with. I’m reading for someone who’s interesting and fascinating, and that’s often a difficult character—a 'bad character'." See also Gender Representation (By the Numbers) in Children's Films, Children's Literature & YA Literature by Roger Sutton from Read Roger.

Using Delete Key by Anne Bustard from Janet Fox. Peek: "What I have come to realize is, the DELETE key can be a writers’ best friend. Pressing it may, in fact, save your story." See also Anne on When It's Too Close to Home from Pub Crawl.

PRAESA of South Africa receives the 2015 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Peek: "Based in Cape Town, PRAESA (Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa) is an organisation that has worked to promote reading and literature for children and young people in South Africa since 1992."

Poet's Novel Turns Young Sports Lovers Into Book Lovers: An Interview with Writer & Literary Activist Kwame Alexander from PBS News Hour. Peek: "It didn’t come to mind that the mother was talking to her young black boy and saying, you know, you’re going to — if you’re angry, you’re going to end up like this. It was just, you know, a mother trying to tell her child that you need to have a little bit of joy in this world. You need to find a little bit of peace."

Talents & Skills Thesaurus Entry: Enhanced Sense of Smell by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "There are two parts to having a strong sense of smell: being able to detect scents, and being able to identify them."

Emotional Work by Donald Maass from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...there’s help for breaking emotional blocks. That help is one’s own characters. The method is to flip the usual dynamic of writing on its head. Instead of asking characters what they feel, instead get them to ask, in a sense, what you feel."

Celebrate Día

Cynsational Screening Room

Vlog: Austin SCBWI Regional Conference by Ariane Felix from A Writer's Life. Peek: "...resurgence of picture books." Note: Terrific glimpse into a typical conference day with insights from various friends and faculty (including me) on advice for first-timers!



Cynsational Giveaways
The winners of A Work of Art by Melody Maysonet (Merit, 2015) are Cathy in Florida, Rosie in Texas, and Lisa in Florida.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

I've been busy! I read and critiqued an incredibly ambitious and promising YA manuscript by one of my best friends. This week also brought copy edits for Violent Ends (Simon Pulse, September 2015). Peek:

"A novel with 17 authors (including me!), edited by Shaun David Hutchinson. The story centers on a 16-year-old school shooter named Kirby Matheson, with each chapter set before and after the shooting and told by characters who knew him, each trying to answer one question: Why?"

Rain Is Not My Indian Name
How lovely to see Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) on the bibliography #StoryGirls Run the World: Booklist Celebrating Diverse Girlhoods from The Dark Fantastic.

On a related note, I've been thinking about Debbie Reese and David Arnold's ongoing discussion about diversity in writing and publishing and the importance of including Native Americans in that conversation.

When non-Indian children's-YA writers mention to me that their work in progress includes Native characters or content, my natural first question is to ask about their related conversations with citizens of the specific Nation(s) that's being reflected.

The majority of the time, it hasn't occurred to them to seek out those voices. (But they're reaching out to me, which is a start. Even if it's not my tribe that's the focus, I can often point them in the right directions).

To those non-Indian children's-YA writers approaching Native content, please set aside any preconceptions. You may need to unlearn what you think you know. Take a breath, put on your snazzy author hat, and invite Native people into the research process for crafting your story.

What an opportunity! We're talking living primary sources here. Not long-dead peoples who can be accessed only through the pages of books written by outsiders.

Celebrating Texas bluebonnets!
Successful research is key to successful writing. It's best practice to respectfully seek out primary sources, listening carefully, thoughtfully contemplating their insights.

Of course you shouldn't expect or take for granted that anyone will be a fit to assist you. However, initiating a request is probably your best bet to achieving that match.

See more of my thoughts on writing across identity markers and Reading Lives: Debbie Reese: a podcast interview from BookRiot.

Congratulations to my pal and fellow University of Michigan Law School '94 graduate Nicole Burnham on Slow Tango with a Prince (a romance for grown-ups) being named a RITA finalist!

Link of the Week: Irish Town Builds Memorial to Thank Choctaw Who Helped During Famine by Frances Mulraney from Irish Central.

P.S. If you missed Ariane Felix's Austin SCBWI conference video above, check it out! You'll see tons of my friends (and even get a glimpse of me)!

Personal Links

Weekend Activity!

Cynsational Events

Cynthia will appear from April 14 to April 17 at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Texas Library Association in Austin.

Join Cynthia from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. May 2 at Saratoga Springs Public Library for a celebration in conjunction with Saratoga Reads! at Saratoga Springs, New York. Note: Cynthia will be presenting Jingle Dancer (2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (2001) and Indian Shoes (2002)(all published by HarperColllins).

Join Cynthia and representatives from We Need Diverse Books from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. May 12 at BookPeople in Austin.

Join Cynthia at 11 a.m. May 30 in conjunction with the YA Book Club at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Cynthia will serve as the master class faculty member from June 19 to June 21 May 2 at the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency in Montpelier, Vermont.

Cynthia will speak from June 25 to June 30 on a We Need Diverse Books panel at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.


Cynthia will lead a breakout session on "Diversity in Children's and YA Literature" Aug. 22 at East Texas Book Fest at the Harvey Hall Convention Center in Tyler, Texas.

Cynthia will appear Sept. 19 at the Mansfield, Texas Book Festival.

See more info & RSVP!

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18. New Voice: Cindy L. Rodriguez on When Reason Breaks

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Cindy L. Rodriguez is the first-time author of When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury, 2015). From the promotional copy:

A Goth girl with an attitude problem, Elizabeth Davis must learn to control her anger before it destroys her. 

Emily Delgado appears to be a smart, sweet girl, with a normal life, but as depression clutches at her, she struggles to feel normal. 

Both girls are in Ms. Diaz’s English class, where they connect to the words of Emily Dickinson. Both are hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice. One of them will attempt suicide. And with Dickinson’s poetry as their guide, both girls must conquer their personal demons to ever be happy.

In an emotionally taut novel with a richly diverse cast of characters, readers will relish in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and be completely swept up in the turmoil of two girls grappling with demons beyond their control.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

Writing with assistant Ozzie
My manuscript went through tons of pre-contract revisions. I first revised based on my agent’s feedback prior to going on submission to editors. The rejections with notes were helpful because we saw trends and knew those aspects needed to be fixed.

Around the same time, the editor who would eventually buy my novel wanted revisions before she’d take it to her team. She sent general notes and line-edited the first 40 pages, so I could really understand both the global and line-level changes she wanted.

These included scaling back the adult character, Ms. Diaz, further developing some of the secondary characters, and working on making the two main teen characters distinct and the diary entries and letters indistinct, meaning they had to read as if they could have been written by either girl.

This version was the one that ended with a contract.

But, as we all know, revising doesn’t end there. After the contract, I received a four-page, business-style editorial letter with further revisions needed.

This part of the process involved some back-and-forth through emails, and the draft traveled between me and my editor a few times—to get certain scenes just right—before it was approved for the next step, which was copy editing.

Throughout all this, I sometimes felt frustrated—I’m not going to lie—because it’s a long, emotionally draining process.

So, when the manuscript was sent back again and again with more notes, I’d sometimes wonder if I’d ever get it right.

In hindsight, though, all of the changes my editor requested were spot on and helped to shape the story into its best possible version. Nothing she proposed didn’t sit right with me.

Some authors have had the opposite experience, so I was lucky that way.

I’ve learned that revision is a hugely important and necessary part of the process, so my advice to other writers is to listen, be open to the suggestions, and be willing to make major changes if it means creating a better story.

near the Emily Dickinson House/Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts
As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

What about being a teacher hasn’t been a blessing?

My students have influenced me in countless ways as both a person and writer. In general, though, being a teacher means I have direct access to today’s young people. I get to see how they dress and talk and what they talk about. I witness teen life first hand instead of having to eavesdrop on conversations at the mall or watch countless YouTube videos.

Some things haven’t changed since my teen years, like the emotions and confusion that are part of coming of age, but of course, many things have changed. I’m lucky that I get to interact with young people every day and learn about their lives.

They often say something, and I tell them, “That’s going to end up in a book one day.”

They just laugh and tell me I’d better spell their name right!

Cynsational Screening Room

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19. Guest Post & Giveaway: Jean Reagan on Writing from the Hole in Your Heart

Jean's children, John and Jane
By Jean Reagan
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Many years ago in a writing class, Kathi Appelt said, “Write from the hole in your heart.”

At the time, I had just received sketches for my first picture book, Always My Brother, illustrated by Phyllis Pollema-Cahill (Tilbury House 2009).

This story about sibling loss is told from the perspective of the surviving sister, and it mirrors our own family tragedy.

Of course, I connected with Kathi’s wise words immediately. But she challenged us to tap this "hole in our heart" for all of our writing, not just for stories about devastating trauma.

Fast forward: Two hundred rejections later, my books, How to Babysit a Grandpa and How to Babysit a Grandma, both illustrated by Lee Wildish (Knopf, 2012, 2014 respectively), made the NYT bestseller list. And now, a third book in this How-To series, How to Surprise a Dad, is out.

Jean Reagan
A sibling pair advises, "Shhhhhh. If you want to surprise a dad, you have to be tricky."

Then after tips on How-to-Hide-this-Book, they share everyday surprises you can "make, do, or find."

Finally, they instruct the reader on how to pull off a big, special day surprise, including what to do if a dad gets suspicious.

I'm thrilled the publisher embraced my request for a racially-diverse family. (And, yes, once again, Lee Wildish's illustrations steal the show.)

Race or ethnicity is not pertinent to the story, but I wanted to question the "assumption of white."

So, how is Kathi's advice relevant to silly, funny books like these?

I've come to believe her challenge is even more compelling. Humor, without heart, is empty. Shallow humor is merely a one-line joke that doesn't beg repeating or re-reading. The characters don't resonate on first encounter, and you don't carry them with you after closing the book.

Jean with her sister, Katherine Pate
The "hole in your heart" needn't be a fresh, gaping wound.

Rather, tap childhood worries, fears, and longings that still linger. Did you feel left out? Unnoticed?

As a shy child who struggled to learn to read, I have a lifetime of material. And I was (still am) an expert worrywart to boot.

No doubt you also have plenty to mine from your childhood as a powerless, tender soul.

What about the specific hole created by the death of my son, John?

Well, I make sure every book I write has glimpses of him. Including him is a gift to myself, my family, and hopefully to my readers as it helps to deepen the humor.

When John was five he asked if jails had carpeting because he didn't want "the bad guys to skin their knees if they fell down." This kind of tenderness I strive to portray in my books, especially in my silly ones.

There are three more books in production in my How-to series. Hopefully they will also convey humor with heart.

Thank you, Kathi, for your sound advice so many years ago.

Cynsational Notes

Jean Reagan was born in Alabama but spent most of her childhood in Japan. She now lives in Salt Lake City with her husband. In the summers, they serve as wilderness volunteers in Grand Teton National Park, living without electricity or running water. 

At the ranger cabin
Enter to win one of five copies of How to Surprise a Dad by Jean Reagan (Knopf, 2015). From the promotional copy:

So you want to surprise your dad? 

You’re in luck! The pages of this book are full of tips on how to become a super dad surpriser, including tips for things you can make, do, or find—just for your dad.

Be sure to read up on:


  • Yummy treats and presents for a dad
  • What to do if he starts getting suspicious
  • How to prepare for the big moment (where to hide everyone, and how to practice whispering “Surprise!”)

From the author-illustrator team behind the New York Times bestsellers How to Babysit a Grandpa and How to Babysit a Grandma comes an adorable, funny, surprising celebration of dads!

Publisher sponsored. U.S. only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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20. New Voice: Paul Greci on Surving Bear Island

Paul Greci
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Paul Greci is the first-time author of Surviving Bear Island (Move, 2015)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

How did you approach the research process for your story? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

The research for Surviving Bear Island was very hands on and spans twenty-five years. Since my teenage years, I have always been drawn to remote places. I have worked in roadless areas on the North and West Coasts of Alaska doing field biology. I have witnessed 12,000 walrus hauled out on a beach, 120,000 caribou crossing the tundra, and Killer Whales hunting and eating a porpoise.

Even though none of the above experiences are directly in this book, my long history of extended wilderness travel permeates the story on many levels.

sea lions

In 1991, I went on my first sea kayaking trip, which was a nine-week, 500-mile journey in Prince William Sound on the South Central Alaska Coastline where Surviving Bear Island is set.

Since then I have returned almost every year to paddle part of the Sound, doing trips ranging from one week to one month both solo and with friends.

kayak

On my wilderness trips I have always kept journals. When I decided to try to write a story set in Prince William Sound, my journal entries became much more detailed regarding what I was experiencing at both the sensory and emotional levels.

On one trip my wife and I spent several days circumnavigating an island and that island became the template for the fictional Bear Island in my story. I took very detailed setting notes and was able to use them, sometimes word for word, in parts of the story.

Without creating spoilers for people who may read Surviving Bear Island, many of the experiences that the main character has are inspired by experiences that I have had. Basically, I used my experiences as springboards for some of the trials that Tom faces in the story.

"a terrific thrill on the page." -- Kirkus Reviews
As I started to add new incidents not inspired directly by my experiences, I tried to experience or replicate what I was writing. For example, Tom has an emergency blanket that in damaged in a fire. For research, I burned part of an emergency blanket to see how it would respond to fire and it turned out to be quite different than how I imagined it. Instead of bursting into flames, it melted and made crackling noises.

I have been fortunate to have witnessed bears fishing for salmon, to have paddled a kayak in large stormy seas without disaster, to have spent extended periods of time in remote places cut off from all other human contact so where you are becomes your whole world and you can experience a place deeply and without distractions.

The main roadblock I ran into when writing Surviving Bear Island was how to write a story with primarily one character and have it have authentic emotional depth and complexity. Early drafts of my story were very plot heavy and episodic.

As the years went by and I wrote other stories where characters were interacting with each other, I developed my skills for exploring emotional depth, and also for writing in first person. I think those other manuscripts I wrote gave me the tools I needed to transform a single-character third-person narrative into a single-character first-person narrative that was much more character-driven and emotionally authentic.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

My identity as a writer has informed my identity as a teacher in significant ways. I have spent most of my teaching career working with struggling and reluctant readers and writers. As a writer teaching writing, I brought to my teaching a passion and enthusiasm for something I love, coupled with experience. I tried to design writing activities that as a writer were meaningful.

Paul writing on his treadmill desk.
When I was teaching fiction writing to my fifth graders, I did every pre-writing and writing activity that I required my students to do, with the end result being that each student would write, edit and revise a short story.

Each morning during writing time I would start by sharing how I had completed the assignment that I was about to give them. I would show them what I had done and answer questions and then they would apply whatever the lesson was to the story they were writing.

When I taught high school English in an alternative school for students who had exhausted all their other public school options, a job I held for fifteen years, I tried to honor student differences and strengths by using more of an open format for teaching writing.

As a writer, I wrote what moved me, and as a teacher I let my students write what moved them. Some wrote science fiction stories, some wrote essays about challenges in their lives, others wrote poetry. There were some writing assignments tied to the reading/literature part of the class, but for the straight writing I gave my students room to roam and tried to support their interests.

Many experiences of being a teacher have also informed the part of me that is a writer.

When I worked as a Naturalist for a few different outdoor education programs, I had my students build shelters for a survival activity weekly. Years later, when I was writing Surviving Bear Island I mined those memories and used them to inform my writing when Tom, the main character, needed to build shelters.

Prince William Sound

Teaching in an alternative high school setting for fifteen years helped me to stay in touch with the issues and challenges that young people face daily. I also got to witness how incredibly strong individuals can be even when they are facing circumstances that are overwhelming, like homelessness, changing foster homes on short notice, or dealing with an abusive family member. I developed a deep respect and compassion for students who were going through difficult times.

My students were my greatest teachers, and I hope the characters I create are as complex as the amazing people I’ve been fortunate to interact with as teacher over the years.

a rare warm day


Cynsational Notes

Surviving Bear Island is a Junior Library Guild selection.

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21. Guest Post & Giveaway: Ann Angel on The Power of Secrets in Things I’ll Never Say

Ann Angel
By Ann Angel
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Right about the time I pitched my first anthology, a writer friend said she’d hate that sort of work.

“It would be so time-consuming to read all those stories,” she said. “I can’t imagine having to edit all that content and you’ll have to write all that front and back matter and it will take away from your own writing.”

Even thought everything she said is true, I love editing anthologies. The reading can sometimes feel overwhelming and selecting stories is time consuming; editing requires right-brained analytic work and lots and lots of analyzing and thinking and rethinking.

While editing anthologies takes huge chunks of time away from personal writing time, there are so many good reasons to take them on.

Anthologies provide diverse viewpoints on a single topic, and they provide broad and unexpected stories in a single volume.

The best reason I choose to edit an anthology is that I get to take a topic that has far reaching consequences and bring a varied perspectives into the world of young adults. This varied perspective provides young adults the benefit of observing a variety of responses to a single concept while also helping them figure out how they might think about and respond to the concept themselves.

That wider view is what motivated me to take on media’s perspective of beauty with my first anthology, Such a Pretty Face, Short Stories About Beauty (Abrams, 2007).

More recently, after volunteering at a writing workshop for survivors of domestic violence and trafficking, I was motivated to take on the idea that secrets shape who we are and who we will become in the anthology Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves (Candlewick, 2015).

The best part of reading stories for this project was to realize the many layers of secrets. It appears some secrets can be innocent while others hold us hostage to the person whose secret we share. Secrets can be playful and funny or dark and dangerous.

I had expected some of the stories of secrets to show that keeping secrets can shame us into permanent silence.

But I was delighted to receive funny and sweet stories. Cynthia Leitich Smith wrote about an angel falling in love with her tale of Josh in “Cupid’s Beaux.” Although the humor was a bit darker, Ron Koertge’s “Call Me” developed the California voice of a wild teen girl who hides a slew of secret boyfriends from one another.

In contrast, I was heartbroken by the story of a girl who hides her mother’s hording in “The We-Are-Like-Everybody-Else Game” by Ellen Wittlinger. Other heartbreaks portraying the power of our secrets can be found in Louise Hawes’ “When We Were Wild” and Kerry Cohen’s “Partial Reinforcement.”

I learned the power of reporting a secret to protect a friend in “A Thousand Words,” from Varian Johnson. Chris Lynch’s “Lucky Buoy” showed that the darkest secret’s power is diminished if you reveal it to just one person who cares, while Mary Ann Rodman’s “Easter” was a sensitive portrayal of a teen choosing to keep the secret of adoption for his baby boy.

Ann with fellow author P.J. Hoover at Texas Book Festival
Another reason I like editing anthologies is that each call for stories allows me to glimpse inside each writer’s diverse creative process around a singular topic or similar concept.

While writers might all begin heading toward a similar plot problem, I’ve observed that the most cliché idea takes on a new un-clichéd life through distinct characters or in the way the story is set and carried out.

For instance, two writers might take on a secret surrounding sexuality, but the story takes on new life if it’s set in a fantastical world which occurs in Katie Moran’s “Little Wolf and the Iron Pin” as well as in Zoe Marriott’s “Storm Clouds Fleeing from the Wind.”

Other times writers push the envelope on a story so that readers get a glimpse inside the most dysfunctional—and well hidden--moments in a family which is what E.M. Kokie did with her story “Quick Change,” Kekla Magoon accomplished in “For a Moment Underground,” and J.L. Powers did in “A Crossroads.”

In observing how different writers’ work their minds around a problem, and in closely observing how they craft action and scene around the concept, it shouldn’t be a surprise that each writer brings his or her own sensibility to a story, almost always turning it into an intensely personal experience that resonates with readers.

With fellow alumnae Sarah Aronson at VCFA
One of the most pleasant surprised about this anthology was seeing the cover for the first time. Created by collage artist Wayne Brezinka, this cover made me tear up over the rich and layered depiction of our secret stories.

This anthology also demonstrated the power of sharing our gifts and secrets. The teaching authors included were asked to invite one past student to submit a story for possible selection.

In the end, the selected story is the heartbreaking tale of a girl who parents her own mother and protects her little sister from a family secret. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to erase the image of a teenager dancing a slow waltz to Meatloaf songs with her drunken mother. While erica l. kaufman’s “Three-Four Time” may be one of her first publications, watch for this talented writer’s future work, as it won’t be her last.

Finally, I wrote a story based upon an idea that came out of the workshop that spawned this anthology. “We Were Together” looks at what happens when a boy loves girls too much. I have to admit I was seriously pleased when one of Candlewick’s editors responded that it’s refreshing to read something from the jerk’s perspective.

I hope you find each story refreshing, emotionally resonant and a great joy to read.

Cynsational Notes

Ann Angel loves the world of young adults and writes both fiction and nonfiction for this group. She is the author of the 2011 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award winner Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing (Abrams, 2010) among many other biographies.

Her most recent biography, for younger audiences, is Adopted Like Me, My Book of Adopted Heroes (Kingsley, 2013). Previously, she served as contributing editor for the anthology Such a Pretty Face, Short Stories About Beauty (Abrams, 2007).

A graduate of Vermont College’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Ann directs the English Graduate Program and teaches writing at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee where she lives with her family. She was drawn to this idea of Things I’ll Never Say because she believes that the secret self is often the true self.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of  Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015). Publisher sponsored. U.S. only. From the promotional copy:

Fifteen top young-adult authors let us in on provocative secrets in a fascinating collection that will have readers talking.

A baby no one knows about. A dangerous hidden identity. Off-limits hookups. A parent whose problems your friends won’t understand. 

Everyone keeps secrets—from themselves, from their families, from their friends—and secrets have a habit of shaping the lives around them. 

Acclaimed author Ann Angel brings together some of today’s most gifted YA authors to explore, in a variety of genres, the nature of secrets: Do they make you stronger or weaker? Do they alter your world when revealed? Do they divide your life into what you’ll tell and what you won’t? 

The one thing these diverse stories share is a glimpse into the secret self we all keep hidden.

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22. Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Rebecca Van Slyke on the release of Mom School, illustrated by Priscilla Burris (Random House, 2015). From the promotional copy:

In this adorable kid’s-eye view of what would happen if Mom went to school, a little girl imagines Mom School, where all moms learn their amazing skills, like fixing a bike tire and baking cupcakes. 

With warm, funny illustrations and a fun role-reversal story in which moms act like kids, young readers will love imagining what would happen if their own moms went to Mom School.

More News & Giveaways

Heather Has Two Mommies Author Leslea Newman on New Edition & Reflecting Back by Katharine Whittemore from The Boston Globe. Peek: "The 2000 version, for example, included a long note to parents and teachers that recounts all the controversies surrounding the book. In the 2015 one, 'we made a conscious decision not to have a foreword or afterword,' says Newman. 'No explanation, no fanfare; it’s just a kids book about many kinds of family.'"

Why Does My Action Read Slow? by Deborah Halverson from Dear Editor. Peek: "The reader gave one bit of elaboration: 'Some of the paragraphs ‘feel’ long even though they aren’t.' I’m not sure what to do with that. Suggestions?"

About the Girls: Appropriate Literature by Elana K. Arnold from Stacked. Peek: "...it all happened. To a good girl with a mother who thought her daughter was protected. Safe." 

Picture Book Apps & The Vanishing Author by Sandy McDowell from Digital Book World. Peek: "Picture book apps often don’t even cite a writer. When they do, the author is likely the animator, designer or developer."

Leveling and Labeling: An Interview with Pat Scales by the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committe from ALSC Blog. Peek: "...the practice of limiting students’ access to materials based on reading levels that infringes on students’ right to read. Unfortunately, this is common practice in many school libraries, and some public libraries feel pressured to implement such restrictions. Librarians serving children should evaluate how these systems are used and develop policies that promise free and open access to students of all ages."

Why Do We Need Diverse Books in Non-Diverse Schools? by Taun M. Wright from Lee & Low. Peek: "While equity and inclusion are necessary, especially for those of us too long without them, social change is more likely to happen when everyone understands how they will benefit directly from increased diversity and, what’s more, why their ability to embrace the benefits of diversity will be a key determinant of their future success."

Critique Etiquette: The Ultimate Guide for Giving & Receiving Feedback by Angela Ackerman from Writers in the Storm. Peek: "For this to work, a person must respect the other’s role, value the time and energy writing and critiquing takes, and follow through without letting emotions overrun good judgment or manners."

Children's Books Could Save the Independent Bookstore by Jonathan Brett from BRW. Peek: "Brick-and-mortar book shops that sell printed books are enjoying a resurgence in Australia just a few years after the rapidly expanding digital book sector threatened their very existence."

Texas Institute of Letters

The Best Books in Texas: Texas Institute of Letters Finalists Named by Michael Merschel from The Dallas Morning News. Peek: "The venerable Texas Institute of Letters has named finalists for its annual awards, which honor the state’s best writing."

Denton Record-Chronicle Best Children’s Picture Book: Pat Mora, I Pledge Allegiance, illustrated by Patrice Barton (Knopf); Arun Ghandi and Bethany Hegedus, Grandfather Gandhi, illustrated by Evan Turk (Atheneum); J.L.Powers, Colors of the Wind, illustrated by George Mendoza (Purple House).

H-E-B/Jean Flynn Best Children’s Book: Nikki Loftin, Nightingale’s Nest (Razorbill); Naomi Shihab Nye, Turtle of Oman (HarperCollins); Greg Leitich Smith, Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook).

H-E-B Best Young Adults Book: Claudia Guadalupe Martinez, Pig Park (Cinco Puntos); Katherine Howe, Conversion (Putnam's).

For Teen Writers & Artists

If Someone Only Knew from Never Counted Out. YA author e.E. Charlton-Trujillo Challenges At-Risk Youth to Write Their Stories for Each Other and Not as Suicide Notes. Peek: "Write an essay that answers this sentence: 'If someone only knew...' A selection of submissions will be published to the Never Counted Out blog. Select essays will be published anonymously in 2016 in a paperback anthology..."

 

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the vivid, imaginative pop-up-book style trailer for Move Books' 2015 middle grade list.

 

Cynsational Giveaways


The winners of signed copies of Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb (HarperCollins, 2015) were Kathleen in Missouri and Deena in New York.

The winner of The Dickens Mirror by Ilsa J. Bick (Egmont, 2015) was Alicia in Alabama.

Enter Diversity in YA's 2015 Anniversary Giveaway. Peek: "With generous donations from publishers and authors, we are thrilled to be giving away 100 books with main characters who are of color, LGBT, and/or disabled." Note: includes Cynthia Leitich Smith's Feral series (Candlewick, 2013-2015).

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

A touch of spring beauty in Austin.

Great news! This week marks the release of Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015)! The anthology includes my short story, "Cupid's Beaux," which is told from the perspective of the guardian angel Joshua from my Tantalize-Feral universe. Learn more and enter the giveaway from Cynsations. 

Congratulations to Katie Brown, recipient of the 2015 Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentor Award from Austin SCBWI. Peek: "Eleven finalists were chosen...2015 mentor Brian Yansky has announced Katie Brown as the recipient. Congratulations, Katie!"

Link of the Week: Personal Wholeness (Or Lack Thereof), Strife & Story from Marion Dane Bauer.

Personal Links:

Now Available!

More Personally

Now Available!

Cynthia will appear from April 14 to April 17 at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Texas Library Association in Austin.

Join Cynthia from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. May 2 at Saratoga Springs Public Library for a celebration in conjunction with Saratoga Reads! at Saratoga Springs, New York. Note: Cynthia will be presenting Jingle Dancer (2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (2001) and Indian Shoes (2002)(all published by HarperColllins).

Cynthia will serve as the master class faculty member from June 19 to June 21 May 2 at the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency in Montpelier, Vermont.

Cynthia will speak from June 25 to June 30 on a We Need Diverse Books panel at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.

Catch up with the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels!


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23. Guest Post & Giveaway: Deborah Lytton on What's True to You

By Deborah Lytton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

My new contemporary YA, Silence (Shadow Mountain, 2015), is a story about a fifteen year old girl who has an accident that changes her life forever. The only person she can relate to is a boy who has his own tragic past. Out of tragedy comes true love.

I spent years writing Silence, and the experience taught me several important lessons about being an author. It took me draft after draft (and many working titles) to find a way to tell the story. I think my agent has lost count of the number of drafts of Silence she read. I even set the manuscript aside and wrote novels in between. But I kept coming back because the characters stayed with me.

The lesson I learned from this is to tell the story in my heart. So now if a manuscript of mine isn’t working, I try approaching it from another direction, turning it sideways or upside down, telling it in reverse order or through a secondary character’s point of view. But no matter what, I know the key is to trust my inner voice.

Silence is my second published book, but not my second novel. I wrote several novels before my first book was published and several novels before Silence was published.

When each one of those other novels didn’t sell, I was really discouraged. I think anyone who has ever gone through the submission and rejection process can relate.

But I learned to turn the sting of rejection into a spark of inspiration through perspective. In focusing on writing rather than selling a manuscript, I recaptured writing simply for the love of writing.

When I wrote my first published book Jane In Bloom, I didn’t know if anyone would publish a book about a forgotten sister, but I needed to tell her story.

With Silence, I once again found myself writing a book I wasn’t sure anyone would publish. But I wrote it anyway. That focus helped me lose myself in the story and simply write.

Finally, writing Silence taught me to stay true to myself.

I had a vision of what kind of story I wanted to tell—a romance with clean content so my own daughters could read it. The characters would attend church, and they would volunteer to help others in need.

I knew there was a chance no one would want to publish a young adult book like this. But I also knew that I needed to be authentic and true to my vision. So I wrote the book the way I needed to write it. I didn’t hold back details because I thought someone might not like them.

Instead, I poured my whole self into the book. And my story did find a home after all, with Shadow Mountain.

So whatever you want to write, make sure it stays true to you. Don’t worry about editors and reviewers. Don’t hold back from storylines or characters because they might cause your book to be passed on by editors or because the book might be controversial when it is published. Just write the best book you can write because only you can write it.

I know that book will find a home.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Silence by Deborah Lytton (Shadow Mountain, 2015). Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America. From the promotional copy:

Stella is a vivacious teen with a deep yearning to become an accomplished Broadway musical star. Her dreams are shattered when a freak accident renders her deaf. 

Struggling mightily to communicate in a world of total silence, she meets Hayden who has such a pronounced stutter she can easily read his lips because he speaks so slowly. 

Communication leads to connection and an unexpected romance as they learn from each other and discover their own ways to overcome setbacks, find renewed purpose and recognize their true voice.

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24. Video: A School Visit with Author G. Neri

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

G. Neri is the Coretta Scott King honor-winning author of Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty (Lee & Low) and the recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award for his free-verse novella, Chess Rumble (Lee & Low).

His novels include Knockout Games (Carolrhoda Lab), Surf Mules (Putnam) and the Horace Mann Upstander Award-winning, Ghetto Cowboy (Candlewick). His latest is the free-verse picture book bio, Hello, I'm Johnny Cash (Candlewick).

Prior to becoming a writer, Neri was a filmmaker, an animator/illustrator, a digital media producer, and a founding member of The Truth anti-smoking campaign. Neri currently writes full-time and lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida with his wife and daughter.

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25. New Voice: Trina St. Jean on Blank

Read an excerpt.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Trina St. Jean is the first-time author of Blank (Orca, 2015). From the promotional copy:

All Jessica knows is what the Man and Woman in the hospital room tell her:

She’s fifteen.

Thanks to a bison bull in a rage one Very Bad Day on the family ranch, she was in a coma for weeks.

The Man and Woman are her parents.

The rest of her life is a long blank that her damaged mind refuses to fill in for her. The doctors say that brain injury is to blame for the explosive temper she can’t control. What scares her most is the coldness she feels towards though she’s supposed to care about, including the Girl staring back at her from the mirror.

When the doctors say they can’t do anything more for her, it’s time for her to go home and rebuild her shattered life. But no matter how hard she tries, she can’t be the old Jessica that everyone misses so much. And the memories of who she used to be, and what exactly happened on that Very Bad Day, stay stubbornly hidden in the shadows of her mind. Everything she does ends in disaster: returning to school, trying to reconnect with friends, struggling to fit into a world where she no longer belongs.

Just when Jessica is losing hope that things will ever be normal, a new friend offers an alternative to staying in her old life. 

Jessica must confront the reality of what it means to truly leave the past behind.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

Before I describe the long (years!) process of revision I went through with my YA novel Blank, I should tell you a little about the approach I took when writing it.

One word sumps it up: random.

Really, really, as-random-as-you-can-get random.

Essentially, I wrote little snippets of scenes, in no particular order, whenever they came to me, with no thought to plot development or story arcs or any kind of structure.

A few years later, when I had hundreds of pages of these snapshots, I entered into an exhausting, extended wrestling match in which I tried to force those scenes into some kind of logical order.

During this wrestling match, which I often felt I was losing, I berated myself: why, why, why had I done this to myself? Once I had it in an order that made sense, I spent another stretch of years trying to make the prose tighter, develop characters more fully and tweak subplots.

I should mention, though, that there were many distractions during this process. Specifically, two cute little distractions with diapers and chubby cheeks.

Some strategies I used for revision had me feeling a bit like Russell Crowe’s character in the movie "A Beautiful Mind." One spring break from my day teaching job, I sent my daughters (now well out of diapers) to visit Grandma and Grandpa’s farm and I covered the living room wall in sticky notes representing scenes, playing around with the plot. I created giant mind maps using a wonderful free program, called MindNode, to visualize the connections between themes and characters and symbols. I’m also a huge fan of Scrivener, a writing software made for Macs with a nice cork board you can move scene cards around on.

Once I had the novel structure down, I hid myself away in my bedroom, door locked, and read the manuscript aloud and recorded myself. Then I hid away again and played it back, pausing and replaying and fixing more things. On the next round, I printed the manuscript off in a different font to trick my mind into seeing it with “fresh” eyes and read through it again, and then again.

All of these things eventually got me to the place where I felt Blank was the best I could make it.

As long and arduous as revision was, I learned a lot about writing, about structure, about polishing and cutting and getting to the heart of a character. And maybe the biggest lesson of all: For my next novel, I will avoid the random approach to novel writing, taking the time to think at least a little about the “big picture.” Hopefully this will shave a few years off the process.

Once the novel was accepted, I used my editor’s comments to do one overall revision, with some plot changes and enhancement to character motivation, then several revisions for smaller details like language choice and dealing with inconsistencies.

I remember the moment on my final go through, while gazing out at the water on vacation on a houseboat, when it hit me that people were actually going to read this thing I had been obsessing over all these years (or hopefully, at least).

Photo of Trina by Eileen Abad
Panic set in. I think I could have gone on editing forever, but luckily, I had a deadline to put a stop to my fanaticism.

How did I feel during the stages of revision?

There were times when I was extremely frustrated, especially when nailing down the plot. I am an indecisive person – I can change my mind several times just picking yogurt at the grocery store – so the limitless number of choices when writing can be overwhelming.

I went for long, brooding walks. I talked to myself. I scribbled endless notes on scraps of paper, and talked through ideas with my husband and my daughters.

During other parts of editing, I felt more exhilarated, especially when polishing the language. There were fewer decisions to make, but it was easy to see the immediate result of changes.

Overall, the journey of novel revision was challenging beyond anything I could have imagined but also extremely rewarding and satisfying. I survived the wrestling match, and developed some muscles and better techniques that should help me now that I am back in the ring working on book number two.

I've recently created a new home office space for myself, with folding screens that I am using as giant bulletin boards for my mind maps and sticky notes.

Trina's writing space
As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn't address these factors? Why or why not?

When I started Blank, there was no such thing as texting. Cell phones were around, of course, but they were more of a tool for working adults rather than a teen must-have/extension of self, and social media was only just beginning to pop up.

Jessie, the main character, struggles desperately to put together the puzzle of who she was before a brain injury and memory loss. In my first draft, she studied photo albums, read her old journal and checked her email from time to time in search of clues of her past.

During revision process, I knew I had to add texting and social media and all the other ways a teenager now would go about tracing her past and reconnecting with her life. Including the technology ended up bringing some fun and meaningful elements to the story, too, which was a nice surprise.

Without the changes, for example, I wouldn’t have created The Hedgegod, a wise creature Jessie follows on Twitter who dispels quills and inspiring quotes. He's based on my daughters' real pet hedgehog, Velcro, who we all think is pretty wise himself.

Velcro
In the very near future, I know facebook might be passé (some argue it already is) and teens will be onto something completely different. Having it play a key role in Blank may date the novel, but it’s so prevalent it couldn’t be ignored.

Even further down the road, when my grandchildren read Blank, it’ll seem completely old-fashioned. Texting? What’s that? By then, teens might have implanted devices that allow them to share even a smell or thought with others.

Cynsational Notes

Like Trina St. Jean on Facebook, and follow @thehedgedog on Twitter. 

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