New Voice & Giveaway: Nikki Loftin on The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Nikki Loftin is the first-time author of The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy (Razorbill, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Lorelei is bowled over by Splendid Academy–Principal Trapp encourages the students to run in the hallways, the classrooms are stocked with candy dishes, and the cafeteria serves lavish meals featuring all Lorelei’s favorite foods. But the more time she spends at school, the more suspicious she becomes. 

Why are her classmates growing so chubby? And why do the teachers seem so sinister?

It’s up to Lorelei and her new friend Andrew to figure out what secret this supposedly splendid school is hiding. What they discover chills their bones–and might even pick them clean!

Mix one part magic, one part mystery, and just a dash of Grimm, and you’ve got the recipe for a cozy-creepy read that kids will gobble up like candy. 

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

“They will rue the day.”

This was the promise one of my best writer friends in the world whispered to me through years of querying and rejections.

“Don’t worry, Nikki,” Shelli would say, kindly unwrapping another chocolate bar for me and handing me a tissue. “In the not-too-distant future, they will look back on this day and rue it so hard.”

I agreed. “One day, they will cry and bite themselves. They will wonder how they could have been so short-sighted, so stupid, so ridiculously blind to my amazing talent.”

Okay, maybe I didn’t get quite that dramatic, but it was close.

It sounds silly now, but honestly, having a friend who believed in me that much, and who was willing to share the ups and downs as well as countless chocolate and latte-filled hours re-hashing rejections, re-reading manuscripts to find what was wrong, what was missing…?

Having her kept me going.

When I first started writing for publication – really going at it, hours every day, intent on my goal – I quickly learned that the solitariness of the writing life was going to make me mad. As in, death beetles ticking in the wall, body hidden under the floorboards, Edgar Allen Poe-mad.

So, to avoid that, I started reaching out to other fledgling writers. In addition to my friend Shelli (who I had known in my previous career), I found a handful of talented, unpublished YA and MG writers at our local SCBWI meetings and lured them to my house with the promise of homemade soup and cookies.

We laughed, we cried, we critiqued. We also went to local conferences, and met more writers.

Published ones, sometimes, who – even though they were busier than we could have imagined or known – took time to give advice, sit down for coffee or lunch, and invite us into their circle.

Then, when I got the offer from Penguin for a two-book deal, those published writers sat me down again and talked me through the potential pitfalls of the debut year, and so much more. What a blessing! (Even if some of the warnings gave me the screaming heebie jeebies.)

I know now that this isn’t the way it is for most writers. Most live in communities where there aren’t any published writer/mentors (or if there are, they’re hiding really well). I meet solitary writers often when I speak in different cities about queries and pitches, when I sign books and do readings. They know they need community. They crave it like I did.

So, since they can’t all move to Austin, I send them to the next best place for kidlit writers: Verla’s.

Verla Kay, picture book author and grande dame of the online kidlit community, has created a safe place online for writers to meet, chat, and ask the awkward questions, at any stage in the game. 

On the Blueboards, as the forum is called, you can meet agents, editors, famous writers and newbies – all on the same thread. I found critique partners there, and spent countless hours in the online “trench” – where writers hang out while they wait to hear back from agents or editors.

Knowing that there were so many other people in the world who cared deeply about children and children’s literature, and who were not just willing but eager to talk about those things?

It transformed my writing life. They became another family, of sorts.

(The sort who all agreed that someday, those editors would absolutely rue the day.)

Of course, if I didn’t mention my actual family, I would be remiss. (And also, I would never hear the end of it! My mom reads everything I publish.) My two sons, both middle grade-aged, serve as my first readers as well as listeners for the final copy-edit read-through. My patient husband listens for months as I think out loud about characters. When he reads, he’s appropriately proud and particular, helping me hone my work, while saying all the nice things that we insecure writers like to hear.

The rest of my family does their part, watching the kids while I do signings and book-related trips.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, 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?

Right now, as I write this, it is noon. I am in my pajamas. (I saved valuable work time by not getting dressed. Or, um, brushing my teeth. Hang on just a second. That may be taking it too far.)

My children are at school. I am not at their schools. Not volunteering for their art days, or their science labs, or eating special lunches with them. (Not that they would want me there, with the whole pajamas, no-brushed-hair look I’m sporting.)
Learning to say no to the thousand phone calls and emails from the PTA and teachers was horrifically hard, but necessary.

Here’s why: when my kids come home from school, I like to be able to engage with them. Pester them about how their day was, ask who they played with at recess, fuss over their homework. I like to be a mom, not a writer, for a little while.

But if I volunteer all day, if I go have lunches with my friends (who call me, and taunt me with their lunch plans!), I would have to use that precious afternoon kid-time for writing.

(By the way, I do volunteer. But I do it in an intentional way – that feeds my need to foster early literacy, through the Reading is Fundamental program, where I give away books to kids in disadvantaged schools. I get to read and talk to kids about books, and that’s the only acceptable reason to interrupt the sacred writing hours, in my book. Everyone reading this? Donate to RIF!)

I watch almost no television. Don’t get me wrong; I like TV. But when it comes down to it, I can’t be a productive writer, promote my book, parent my kids, and keep up on the latest “Toddlers and Tiaras” and “Hoarders” episodes.

The view from Nikki’s writing desk

So I pick my own kids over “Honey Boo Boo.” And my own crazy characters over “Mad Men.”

Advice for other parent/writers?

Teach your children how to cook.

If my children hadn’t learned how to feed themselves (and me), I don’t know if they would have survived the past few years.

Sometimes, the time crunch gets on top of a writer. Sometimes, you remember to pick the kids up at the bus stop, but forget to buy groceries. Cut yourself some slack. Then teach the little tykes how to make a decent omelet and spaghetti. Not only will they gain a valuable life skill, you will avoid the dozens of burnt casseroles, like the ones I used to accidentally incinerate every time I started drafting a new novel.

Learn to overlook the kids’ messes in the kitchen. I mean, really – who are you to judge? You’re still in your pajamas at 5 p.m., and probably didn’t remember to brush your teeth either. The kitchen is way down on the list.

And never forget: If you spend time cleaning the kitchen, when you could be playing with your kid, or writing a new scene?

You will absolutely rue that day.

Book Trailer – “The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy” from Dave Wilson on Vimeo.

Cynsational Notes

“A mesmerizing read…a fantasy that feels simultaneously classic and new.” —Publishers Weekly

“A pinch of Grimm, a dash of Greek mythology and a heaping helping of fresh chills make for an irresistible contemporary fairy tale…Deliciously scary and satisfying.” —Kirkus Reviews

Cynsational Giveaway

Attention, teachers, librarians, and reading group coordinators! Enter to win a Sinister Sweetness Book Club Kit (10 copies, plus bookmarks and swag, plus a 30-minute Skype visit with Nikki)! Eligibility: North America. Note: please be sure to indicate the name of your reading group.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

5 thoughts on “New Voice & Giveaway: Nikki Loftin on The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy

  1. As a fledgling Austin writer, I can say that everything Nikki's gotten from the Austin writing community, she's given it back in spades! She is so supportive and encouraging. It really goes to show that good things flow back to generous people. AND I just finished Sinister Sweetness and can honestly say it is SO, SO good! She's such a great writer, one that anyone who's writing in MG should follow and learn from!

  2. I'd love to live in Austin for the amazing writers community. Loved hearing Nikki's advice on how to get the writing in. I totally agree that you have to cut out most TV time to have time to write and read.

    I'm excited to read this. Wish I could enter the giveaway but I don't qualify.

  3. GREAT piece, Nikki! I loved it. Friends and crit partners are priceless. And as much as writers love their solitary life and peace and quiet, we *do* crave people, too! Especially people who are part of our tribe and *get* it. 🙂

    Looking forward to seeing you and Cynthia in Houston in February!

  4. Completely agree about Austin being a haven for us newbie writers, especially with the overwhelmingly talented, supportive and welcoming group.

    We read Nikki's book out loud with my 8-year-old, who would beg us to read "just one more chapter" each night and I'd find my husband going back and reading the parts he missed on his own when he had to work late. 🙂

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