New Voice: C. Lee McKenzie on Sliding on the Edge

C. Lee McKenzie is the first-time author of Sliding on the Edge (WestSide Books, 2009). From the promotional copy:

It’s not a heart-grabbing noise like when somebody jiggles the doorknob to see if it’s locked. It’s not a bitter smell like the electrical short we had last month, when all the breakers popped.

No. It’s something in the air, something like a ghost making its way through the room. And it can’t be Monster, not after last night.

Shawna Stone is sixteen going on twenty-five. Already deeply scarred, she has learned to survive with a tough attitude and a thin blade. Her journey is destined to be short.

Sliding on the Edge enters the world of a desperate teen and her disillusioned grandmother, each with secrets that stir mutual distrust. As these two unlikely companions struggle to co-exist, we are reminded that the human spirit has the capacity to overcome even the deepest suffering.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I’m definitely a plunger. Before I set out, I usually have in mind where I want my characters to be when I write “The End.” Once I’ve got a rough draft–beginning, middle, and end–I go into revision mode, and I may re-write a manuscript several times. Each time, more comes to the character or the setting, and I do tweak the plot along the way when I spot things that seem contrived.

I like plunging because I love to let the new idea out as soon as I have it in my head. That first draft is sometimes terrible, but if, after I finish it, I like the idea and the people, I get excited. Then the real writing begins.

When I struggle with plot it’s because I don’t know my people well enough. I often set a project aside until I hear them talking, see how they move, know what they eat, or how they choose their friends–when these kinds of things come, then the plot rolls onto the page.

I guess my advice to writers is know your characters and let them lead the way.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises?

I can’t do exercises to write a story about someone. I’ve tried, but I fall asleep after I make the first notation. Then I lose interest in writing. So, “no to exercises” for me.

Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk?

I don’t go out of my way to find young people, but I am guilty of eavesdropping when I happen to be near a group. It embarrasses my family, so I usually turn into a snoop when I’m by myself.

Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

I suppose a lot of my voice is in Shawna, my first-person protagonist in Sliding on the Edge. She’s a little more mouthy than I was when I was a kid. My grandmother would have had none of that kind of talk in her house.

Thinking about it now, I guess I turned some of that inner adolescent loose, but the character isn’t me. She’s unique with quirks and fears and enough spunk to survive in her world.

I can’t say I found her voice by magic. It was more by connecting with the character on a very intimate level. I slept with Shawna “talking” to me for over a year.

Every writer has to find a way into her characters, so my advice would be to experiment until you find what works, and then do it.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Oh dear. I’m such a turtle in this respect. However, I have navigated through the online maze, and I’m on so many sites now that I need crib notes. I have a great website, but all I did was provide the information. My web designer did the Flash-Fabulous stuff.

I’m very lucky to have great writers in my life who are supportive and more knowledgeable than I am. Then I stumbled into 2009 Debutantes, and they’ve provided amazing help. I feel like I owe all of them a lot.

I have my days when I’m absolutely ecstatic; then on others, I could use a counselor to hold me above water. It’s really like being on a roller coaster for me, but I wouldn’t miss the ride.

As far as advice, I think I’d tell writers who are serious about publishing to create an online presence before they sell one book. I know a few people who have done that, and when they become published, they will have a head start on making that book successful.

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.

Craft, Career & Cheer: April Pulley Sayre

Learn about April Pulley Sayre.

What do you love most about your creative life? Why?

Wow, I love so many aspects of the creative life. That feeling of inspiration makes me feel alive. My favorite part about the creative life is its flexibility. I can pursue projects I am passionate about. I can change topics month-to-month or year-to-year.

Writing nonfiction books gives me an excuse to explore and learn what I’d like to know anyway. Even when I write about assigned topics, I discover things that surprise and delight my brain.

The time flexibility is important, too. I work 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. But I don’t have to commute, and I schedule it as I please. I can run outside to look at a butterfly or photograph a squirrel that is doing headstands. I can stop all work to rescue a wood duck orphan or toads crossing a road. I just stopped in the middle of typing this to watch a baby downy woodpecker being fed by its parent on a tree trunk eight feet from my computer.

This flexibility allows me to fit my life to nature’s seasons, particularly to migration, which is my lifelong passion. My husband and I have weeks blocked out on our calendar for bird migration and wildflower blooming. Any trip can be “research” for a book. Working at home, interspersed with travel for conferences and school talks, suits my personality.

Crafting speeches and programs is as much a creative joy as book writing. It gives me a use for the tens of thousands of photos and videos I have taken while traveling to rain forests, coral reefs, and other biomes. So, that public aspect of the children’s book author life has been a surprise and a delight.

When you write a book, you have no idea who will read it. But then, to go out and actually see kids getting fired up about writing and science…and educators pouring their creativity into their work . . . it inspires me. It fires me up to write more!

How have you come to thrive in such a competitive, unpredictable industry?

Be who you are, do what you do best, and eventually that will come into fashion. Oh, and take your vitamins so you can live that long. Yes, I am joking around here. You have to laugh a lot in this crazy business. It is a business.

I favor thinking about it as a business. Don’t just try to figure out the publishing business. Read business books from other fields. See how they might apply to what you do. Think of yourself as an entrepreneur. That’s important, especially as publishing changes because of digital technology.

The best thing you can do is to make friends with writers and other folks in the publishing business. Read their blogs. Keep in touch by email or in person. They will give you perspective and give you good advice, i.e. keep you from selling yourself short in moments of weakness.

The most important thing is not to remain a solitary writer, with no clue about the business. You need to know what is customary and what your rights are. An agent or literary lawyer can help.

Another bit of advice: don’t burn bridges. Be professional in your interactions. Again and again, this has helped me. People I worked with, peripherally, at one company have ended up at another company years later. They remembered me, my writing, and the ease of working with me.

Every six months, like most writers, I entertain getting some kind of sensible job with a bi-weekly paycheck and more predictability. But then, after searching jobs online, I get over it. Because, doggone it, I just love what I do.

In your own words, could you tell us about your latest book?

My most recently released book is Honk, Honk, Goose! Canada Geese Start a Family (Holt, 2009). It is a narrative nonfiction picture book illustrated by Huy Vuon Lee. It is great for studies of life cycles. It began, as many of my books do, with experience. For many years we had Canada geese nesting in our yard, on the edge of a creek. So I watched every step of their family life from fluffy nest to fluffy chicks to what my husband and I call the “dinosaurs,” that hilarious juvenile stage when the young geese are awkward and flapping.

As one reviewer pointed out, this book, instead of just celebrating mother goose, celebrates father goose! It focuses on the defensive role of the male Canada goose. But that sounds rather serious. When you read the book, you can see that the father goose’s chasing things is protective, but it’s also a little over the top sometimes. I can speak to this because I have been chased and hissed at many times. I actually had to learn to stand tall, chase back, and do a little hissing of my own in order to reach my garden.

I am glad that readers and reviewers have embraced Honk, Honk, Goose. Next year I have two narrative nonfiction books being released. One is a re-illustrated, revised and updated edition: Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out! (Charlesbridge, 2010). This is my most asked-for picture book, and it was no longer available. I think folks will love the new spin on the sea turtle story, and it is informed by recent experiences I have had with sea turtle research.

The other picture book is Meet the Howlers (Charlesbridge, 2010), a book about howler monkeys, focusing on what howlers can “get away with” that kids can’t! Jeff and I have been to Panama seven times, so we’ve spent a lot of time observing howler monkeys in rain forests. Really, you cannot ignore them. They are natural alarm clocks. Just before dawn, sometimes right outside your window, they begin to hoot and howl with their incredibly loud, booming voices. Ah, the peace and quiet of nature….

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Hunger Mountain Announces Winners of Katherine Paterson Prize

Montpelier, VT— The winner of the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing is Liz Cook from Roslindale, Massachusetts; the editor of Hunger Mountain: the VCFA Journal of the Arts announced today.

Liz Cook’s short story for young adults, “Crazy Cat,” has earned her a $1,000 prize and publication in Hunger Mountain, the national arts journal published at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

“We received 300 entries—and the talent and dedication apparent in those entries was overwhelming,” says Miciah Bay Gault, managing editor of Hunger Mountain.

Katherine Paterson, the award-winning author of Bridge to Terabithia (Crowell, 1977), judged the contest. Along with a first place winner, she chose three honorable mentions: Susan Hill Long from Portland, Oregon; for her middle grade novel excerpt “Tornado;” Emily Jiang from Palo Alto, California; for her young adult novel excerpt “Paper Daughter;” and Tricia Springstubb from Cleveland Heights, Ohio; for her story for young children “No Mistake.” Each honorable mention receives $100 and publication on Hunger Mountain online.

Miciah Bay Gault called Liz Cook last week to let her know she’d won the much-publicized Katherine Paterson Prize. “She couldn’t believe it,” says Gault. “She was so excited to think that Katherine had read—and enjoyed—her writing.”

Hunger Mountain
is a print and online journal of the arts showcasing fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, interviews, writing for children and young adults, and visual art.

Visit Hunger Mountain for more information about the Katherine Paterson Prize and three other writing prizes offered annually.

Vermont College of Fine Arts, which houses the editorial offices for Hunger Mountain, is the first college devoted entirely to low-residency, graduate fine arts programs, offering three MFA degrees in Writing, Writing for Children and Young Adults, and Visual Art.

New Voice: Pam Bachorz on Candor

Pam Bachorz is the first-time author of Candor (Egmont, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Oscar Banks has everything under control. In a town where his father brainwashes everyone, he’s found a way to secretly fight the subliminal Messages.

He’s got them all fooled: Oscar’s the top student and the best-behaved teen in town. Nobody knows he’s made his own Messages to deprogram his brain.

Oscar has even found a way to get rich. For a hefty price, he helps new kids escape Candor, Florida; before they’re transformed into cookie-cutter teens.

But then Nia Silva moves to Candor, and Oscar’s carefully-controlled world crumbles.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I am a plotter who tries to be open to the possibilities of plunging as I write.

Before I start writing, I decide on my story’s major plot points: two turning points with a midpoint between ’em, and the climax. I also try to see what the two “pinch points” are–things that help to hold up the plot between the “big events.”

This may sound a bit clinical or overdone to some, but I find it much easier to be expansive and creative when there’s a structure to start with.

Next, I turn to my “story wire:” a long, long horizontal wire hanging in my office (a $10 IKEA curtain hanger) with lots of curtain clips dangling from it. While I plot, I write down very brief (e.g. 10 words or less) scene descriptions on index cards, and hang them on the wire. Then I move them around, taking individual scenes off the wire (and sometimes putting them back on) as needed, until I feel like I have a good sense of how my story will be “shaped.” Usually I end up discarding as many scenes as I keep.

This entire planning method borrows heavily from Syd Field’s screenwriting techniques (Syd Field’s Screenwriting Workshop DVD by Syd Field (Final Draft, 2002). I love that guy. I watch his DVD at least once at the start of each project, to stop the ever-escalating panic that I have no idea what I am going to do with my bright, shiny idea.

While I’m working on my plot, I also like to do freewriting about my characters: sometimes in their voice, sometimes as an impartial reporter, sometimes as a weird mother-figure who loves them terribly (can you tell I’m a mama in my “real” life?). I find this really helps to inform what happens in my plot. As we all well know, the best plot is driven by the characters’ actions… and how will I know what they’ll do unless I get to know them a bit?

That being said, I discover an awful lot about my characters as I write the story—and the plot changes too. Even with all my preparation, I still ask myself at the start of each chapter: “What really should be happening next? Does my story wire leave anything out? Can I skip ahead to something more interesting?”

Often the answer is to stay on the path I already sketched out with my plot cards. But sometimes the story and the characters, take over. I just hold on tight and let them take me for a ride—but not without some kind of map! During those times, I’ll usually make sure my next big plot point still makes sense (if it doesn’t, I’ll change it), then just figure out the new plot, one or two chapters as a time, as I write.

This approach appeals to me because I like to know what’s coming next. Awhile ago, my son was having a problem with transitioning between activities at daycare. The teacher said she had to first inform him a change was coming and then tell him what was coming next.

I couldn’t understand why this was a bad or unusual thing. “Of course,” I told her. “Who doesn’t want to know what’s coming?” So I guess my writer self is a two-year-old who just wants structure and a hint at what comes next.

I’ve tried it the other way: I have a completed National Novel Writing Month middle-grade novel in my drawer that I wrote by plunging. And it’s pretty bad. Of course no NaNoWriMo baby is truly great, but this one wasn’t even worth editing. And I hating the wild lost feeling I had the entire time.

Can you tell I’m one of those people who doesn’t drive anywhere without my GPS? No control issues here, no siree.

For writers struggling with plot, I’d suggest turning to plot-writing guides by screenwriters. It’s always good to experience art outside of the realm you’re creating in.

Plus, in my experience, it seems like plot is far less mystical and more of a learned craft for screenwriters. Many of the novel “plotting” books I’ve read suggest doing things like just “letting it grow organically” and “writing what makes your toes tingle.”

Bah. If my toes tingle, it’s because I forgot to turn the heat up. I think people struggling with plot should try concrete techniques and exercises, and then see what works for them.

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?

It’s not easy, but I can’t afford to be a full-time writer, not yet. So I work a full-time job, mother a preschooler, and try to find time to ensure that my husband doesn’t forget what color my eyes are! I have to schedule my writing time.

At the end of each week, I pull out a little calendar template that I made for myself. It has certain “guaranteed” writing times that I use every week (for example, 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. on the weekdays). And then there are blanks to fill in other times.

I schedule a minimum of ten writing hours per week (sometimes many more when I am in the midst of a project), on top of any “pro” time I spend answering interviews, talking with my agent, working on my website, etc. Then I post my little calendar on the door to my study.

My husband can check anytime and see that he’ll be having some quality solo-daddy time on Sunday morning, but I did leave Monday night open, etc.

I try to vary my schedule a little each week to stay on my toes and not get too settled into a routine. I find it’s harder to get started if I write at the same time week after week (except for my weekday mornings!).

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win the Reading is Fundamental/Super Contest sponsored by Lee A Verday at Lee A. Verday’s Book/Writing Blog. Winner-take-all prize package includes:

– a signed copy of The Hollow by Jessica Verday (Simon Pulse, September 2009);

– a “R.U.H2?” T-shirt (R-U-H-Squared?)(Stands for aRe yoU Haunted by the Hollow?);

Ruined: A Ghost Story by Paula Morris (Point, 2009);

The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central, 2009);

The Palace of Strange Girls by Sallie Day (Grand Central, 2009);

Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2009); and

– an “I HEART My Guardian Angel” T-shirt (which ties into Eternal).

New followers of Lee’s blog can also enter to win a signed ARC of Darklight by Lesley Livingston (HarperCollins, December 2009). Deadline: midnight PST Oct. 12. See more information.

Video Book Trailer Contest for Teens — $1000 Prize

Open to ages 13 to 18…

Create a video book trailer for the novel Hugging the Rock by Susan Taylor Brown (Tricycle, 2008).

Put together a cast and act it out, create an animation, or use photos with text set to music – it’s up to you. Be creative. Have fun. Make people want to read the book. More details can be found at the website:

– U.S resident only between 13 and 18 years of age (as of the close of the contest);
– 30 seconds to 2 minutes in length and in a standard video format (.wmv, .mov, .avi, .mp4);
– your own creation, no copyrighted material;
– include a brief description of the process you followed;
– deadline for entries: Dec. 15.

(judging will be based on the following criteria; please see the official rules for more details)
– creativity (50%);
– consistency with the book (25%);
– fit and finish (25%).

– the winner will receive a $1000 scholarship;
– the winner will also have their trailer featured on the Random House website.

Book Club Contest

Would you like to read Kate Messner‘s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. (Walker, 2009) with your book club?

It can be a mother-daughter group, a class literature circle, an after-school book club…any situation where a group of kids (and maybe grownups, too!) get together to talk about books.

Kate and her publisher, Walker Books for Young Readers, are sponsoring a drawing.

One book club will win:

– hardcover copies of The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. for your book club (up to 12 copies!);

– six copies of Tree Finder: A Manual For the Identification of Trees and Their Leaves by May T. Watts (Nature Study Guild Publishers, 1963), a great resource for creating your own leaf collections;

– Gianna Z. silicone bracelets and bookmarks for everyone in your book club;

– Gianna Z. discussion guide, a recipe for Nonna’s famous funeral cookies, and the “What Kind of Tree Are You?” quiz;

– an author visit to your book club meeting! If you live nearby, Kate will visit via Skype videoconferencing software to tell you all the juicy stories behind the writing of Gianna Z. and answer questions.

Details on how to enter are on Kate’s blog.

More News

In the video below, Melissa de la Cruz talks about The Van Alen Legacy (Hyperion, 2009), the latest in her Blue Bloods series. Source: The Compulsive Reader. Read a Cynsations interview with Melissa.

Banned Books Week Q & A: E. Lockhart from Emily at BookKids: from the Crazy Folks at BookPeople. Peek: “I will say that in books where I don’t need them for the language to remain true and emotional, I have often kept expletives out. I find creative alternatives for the usual slang.” Read a Cynsations interview with E. Lockhart.

7-Imp’s 7 Kicks #133: Featuring Elizabeth O. Dulemba by Eisha and Jules from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: “I figured the embedded Spanish, light graphic-novel format (for reluctant readers to segue into graphic novels), and touch on bullying would be a pull (those I did on purpose), but I never considered the muddy-to-clean part. Duh!”

Check out the book trailer below for Soap, Soap, Soap / Jabon, Jabon, Jabon by Elizabeth O. Dulemba (Raven Tree, Sept. 2009). Note: don’t miss Coloring Page Tuesdays from Elizabeth.

Agent Interview with Jennie Dunham of Dunham Literary Inc. from K.L. Going‘s Writer Resource Page. Peek: “…a strong voice, real characters, and compelling, memorable stories. I’m not so keen on easy readers and short story or poetry collections.” Note: open to writer-illustrators.

Welcome back, Buried Editor of Buried in the Slush Pile! We missed you while you were gone, but oh, what a beautiful baby! Note: BE’s focus this week is religious fiction.

Publishing Darwinism – Where Are You On The Food Chain? from Babbles from Scott Eagan, the literary agent for Greyhaus Literary Agency, representing romance and women’s fiction. Peek: “You have to be there mentally. Those successful writers have found ways to talk themselves over those barriers and to be ready to face the day when it is cloudy.” Note: I don’t know that children’s-YA authors are expected to “dress for success” in the same way as romance/women’s writers, but there’s still a point here to consider. Source: Children’s Book Biz News.

Interview with Mary Pearson from Writer Musings: A place to ponder books, as well as how the words get on the page. Peek: “Every book feels like a first, and really it is. Each character and their story requires a unique approach. So finding my way through a story is still an exciting, uncertain, and often bumpy process, just as it was with my first book.” Read a Cynsations interview with Mary.

Do Unpubbed Authors Need a Bio? by Kate Fall at Author2Author: 5 Authors, 5 Journeys. Peek: “I have two bio paragraphs, one informal and in third person for social networking, and another, more formal one written in first person for queries…”

Brown Bookshelf Opens Submissions for 2010 28 Days Later Campaign from The Brown Bookshelf: United in Story. Peek: “The Brown Bookshelf (BBS), a website designed to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers, will open submissions for its third annual 28 Days Later Campaign on Sept. 28 with hopes for its deepest candidate pool yet. ‘I go into each year thinking, who’s left that we haven’t highlighted–because the number of African Americans writing for children isn’t huge,’ says BBS member and author/illustrator, Don Tate. ‘And then I’m happily baffled to see the submissions stream in with names of authors I’m unfamiliar with.'”

Blogfest 2009: 40 Authors, 14 Questions, 2 Weeks, 1 Blog from Sept. 21 to Oct. 4 from Simon & Schuster. Peek: “Featuring Holly Black, Kate Brian, Ellen Hopkins, Lisa McMann, L.J. Smith, Scott Westerfeld and more!” See also Noni Carter, Jenny Han, Cynthia Kadohata, Nessha Meminger, Lisa Schroeder, Elizabeth Scott, Jessica Verday, and the whole list!

“And Stay Out of Trouble: Narratives for Black Urban Children” by Lelac Almagor from the September/October 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine and A Response to Lelac Almagor’s “And Stay Out of Trouble” by Sharon G. Flake, again from The Horn Book. Source: Read Roger.

Photo Contest in celebration of the forthcoming release of Flash Burnout (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2009) sponsored by author L.K. Madigan at Drenched in Words. Peek: “The winners of the photo contest will have their photos hosted on my website, plus receive $50 gift certificates to the online merchant of their choice.” Deadline: midnight Oct. 19. See more information.

Postcards from the Recession: From L.A. to Alabama: The university job was too good to pass up; or is it? by Kerry Madden from the Los Angeles Times. Peek: “True, we had never been able to afford to buy a house on our teacher-writer household income. But we loved our home and our friends. We’d spent 21 years in Los Angeles, raised our three children there. I’d written all my books there. I’d long had a hazy dream of buying a place in the Great Smoky Mountains–a place to go and write–but Birmingham wasn’t on the radar.” Note: a personal look at a writer’s life. Read a Cynsations interview with Kerry.

The Elephant in the Room: Databases by Marc Aronson at School Library Journal. Peek: “Our sole goal in creating, or purchasing, nonfiction is to 1) engage readers 2) present a point of view 3) challenge, stimulate, entrance readers. We are in the writing business, not the information business.” Read a Cynsations interview with Marc.

Showing vs. Telling from Nathan Bransford–Literary Agent. Peek: “My interpretation is this. With the understanding that ‘if it works it works,’ and there are always exceptions, in general: universal emotions should not be ‘told.’ Instead, we should be shown how the character is reacting to their feelings.” Note: think about exceptions when you hit your protagonist’s epiphany. Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

Magic Carpet: Books, Identity, and Assimilation by Mitali Perkins from Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “My father’s tales still have the power to carry me to a faraway world. The Bangla words weave the same colorful patterns in my imagination. My pen, however, like his own halting translation, is unable to soar with them.” See also Story, Language, and Identity from Uma Krishnaswami. Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali.

The Wedding of Anastasia Jessica Packwood and Lucius Valeriu Vladescu: a fiction extension of Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey (Harcourt, 2009) at Beth’s website.

Banned Books Week Q & A: K. L. Going from Emily at the BookKids Blog! from the crazy folks at BookPeople. Peek: “I have gotten e-mails from kids who have literally said they were at the point of suicide, like Troy is in the beginning of the novel, and that reading about a character like themselves made them rethink their decision. How dare people take that connection away from the kid who needs it!” Read a Cynsations interview with K.L.

Seven Ways to Write a Book Faster by Evan Marshall at The Cuckleburr Times. Peek: “When I’m writing a novel, I don’t allow myself to print out a hard copy until the first draft is completely finished. Printing out–for me, at least–leads to all kinds of distractions that slow writing down.” Source: April Henry.

The Turning Point by Jo Whittemore at Jo’s Journal. Peek: “…the turning point is not always a happy one, but it does allow us to see how your character has grown. Sometimes, it happens just before the final conflict, and sometimes it happens a wee bit earlier.” Read a Cynsations interview with Jo.

How to Get Your Book Reviewed on a Blog by Anastasia Suen at Blog Central. Peek: “Read, read, read blogs, so you don’t waste your time and money chasing folks who don’t even read what you write!” Read a Cynsations interview with Anastasia.

Balarama: A Royal Elephant by Ted and Betsy Lewin (Lee & Low, 2009): a recommendation from Uma Krishnaswami at Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: “Lavish paintings depict the decorated and caparisoned elephants, and capture the dust and foliage, color and vibrancy, of the Mysore setting.” See also an interview with Ted and Betsy from Uma.

In the video below, “author-illustrators Ted and Betsy Lewin invite us inside their Brooklyn studio to talk about their new book, Balarama: A Royal Elephant,” courtesy of Lee & Low.

Perspiration: Professional Critiques from Cynthia Leitich Smith Children’s Literature Resources. Listing of paid children’s-YA manuscript critiquers/coaches. Note: industry pros may want to point beginners to this page.

Olu’s Dream: an interview with author-illustrator Shane W. Evans from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: “It is not about ‘race,’ and I want to make that distinction, as race is often a construct that divides us. It is about stories… Culture covers our world. So we look at two people from two distinct stories that come together and have a child.”

List of YA Authors by State from YALSA’s wiki. Peek: “This page will collect the names of YA authors and list them by state, for the purpose of helping librarians, library workers and educators to plan author visits and other such programs. If you know of a YA author who resides in your state (or if you are one!), please add the name of the author and his or her web site information below under the appropriate state.” Source: Paula Chase Hyman.

Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles: an interview and reader discussion at the YA Authors Cafe. Peek: “Sometimes, you just have to wait for the stars to align exactly right. Seriously. There is a lot of luck involved in this crazy business. But there is also a lot of heart and bravery and believing in yourself and the characters you love.” Read a Cynsations interview with Jo.

What a Girl Wants #7: Because We Are Not All Rich Girls by Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray. Peek: “…by not making money part of the story are we ignoring her yet again, along with everyone else in or near her situation?”

Agent Spotlight: Joe Monti from Literary Rambles: Being a blog of desultory thoughts on writing and life. Peek: “I’ll be focusing on children’s and young adult, or teen, literature as well as some adult genre fiction. I’m also interested in working with folks who are writer-artists of graphic works, from graphic novels to picture books. Specifically I love work that breaks new ground, a work that is subversive or enlightening by utilizing a different approach.” Source: Children’s Book Biz News.

Writing in the Zone by Brian Yansky at Brian’s Blog: Writer Talk: Random thoughts on the art and craft of fiction writing. Peek: “…there’s that one very magical part to writing (like with Taekwondo); everything has to work together without the writer consciously forcing it to do so (of course when rewriting the writer will be very conscious about his choices). The writer has to find that unconscious place where he becomes the story.” Read a Cynsations interview with Brian.

An Interview with Libba Bray by Gwenda Bond at Shaken & Stirred. Peeek: “…if you want to know the true meaning of silence, sit in a conference room with your publisher and editor when you cheerfully announce to them that the follow-up to your Victorian schoolgirl supernatural fantasy series is a funny mad cow disease road trip novel narrated by a profane sixteen-year-old boy. Good times, good times.” Read a Cynsations interview with Libba.

Interview With Joni Sensel by Janet S. Fox from Through the Wardrobe. Peek: “The great thing about young protagonists is that they’re still being formed and shaped by events and their own actions.” Read a Cynsations interview with Janet.

Teaching Nonfiction Writing by April Pulley Sayre from I.N.K. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: “A new tool for educators teaching young writers is S Is for Story: a Writer’s Alphabet, written by Esther Hershenhorn and illustrated by Zachary Pullen.” Note: from Sleeping Bear Press. Read Cynsations interviews with April and Esther.

Nest for a Children’s Author, Her Family and Her Flock by Julia Lawlor from The New York Times. Peek: “A love for for animals infuses the 30 children’s books that Jan Brett has written and illustrated in 30 years, and it is reflected in myriad paintings, photographs, pottery and carvings that decorate her summer home here in the Berkshires.” Source: The Longstockings.

2010 Houston-SCBWI Conference will be held on Feb. 20, 2010 at the Merrell Center in Katy. Registration is now open. Faculty includes Cynthia Leitich Smith, award-winning author and Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty member; Ruta Rimas, assistant editor at Balzar & Bray/HarperCollins; Patrick Collins, creative director at Henry Holt; Alexandra Cooper, senior editor at Simon & Schuster; Lisa Ann Sandell, senior editor at Scholastic; and Sara Crowe, agent at Harvey Klinger. Note: “All the speakers will be doing critiques. Critique spots are limited.” See registration and information. Read a Cynsations interview with Sara.

Children’s & YA Writers’ Reading List: Links
from Cynthia Leitich Smith Children’s-YA Literature Resources. Mega round-up of information on agents, book design and art direction, editors and publishers, education, illustration, promotion, publishing, and writing.

Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey (Book 2 of A Resurrection of Magic)(Atheneum, 2009): a recommendation from Greg Leitich Smith at GregLSBlog. Peek: “…an intense and fascinating story of obsession and evil.” Read a Cynsations interview with Kathleen about Skin Hunger (Book 1 of the Resurrection of Magic)(Atheneum, 2007).

Paula Chase Hyman: Extroverted, Earnest, and Earthy from Mitali Perkins at Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “It would be easy for a young writer of color to look at the literary landscape and become very discouraged because still, much of what’s out there is somewhat ‘typical’ of what authors of color are supposed to write. But never let that stop you.” Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali and a Cynsations interview with Paula.

Why Was My Manuscript Rejected? 3 Literary Agents, 3 Opinions: Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary Agency, Anna Olswanger of Liza Dawson Associates, and Ann Tobias of A Literary Agency for Children’s Books will be hosting a manuscript workshop from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 15 at Shelburne Hotel (303 Lexington Avenue (at 37th Street)) in New York. “The workshop promises to be lively with three, possibly different, opinions about the strength and weaknesses of each manuscript. We will also discuss marketplace considerations, writing tips, and hold a general Q&A session. Register early for the special rate of $195. After Oct. 25, the rate goes up to $225. Group size is strictly limited to allow a full discussion of each participant’s manuscript, which the agents will read in advance of the workshop.” Note: “Our first workshop, in April 2009, was a sell-out.” Read a Cynsations interview with Anna.

Drains In Disguise by Kristi Holl at Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “Taking care of the unfinished business that nags at your mind–and keeps you from feeling like you can settle down to write–may be necessary before you can tackle your writing assignment.”

Cynsational Tip

Connect/find the curriculum and reader’s guides for children’s YA books at Lesson Plan Search and Sites for Teachers. Note: teachers also should check out

More Personally

During the heat of my Blessed (Candlewick, 2011) deadline, I hosted a giveaway in which entrants were invited to ask me a question. Here’s one example:

“How do you approach covering multicultural children’s and young adult books on your blog?”

While this is a priority, it’s not at all a personal challenge. My natural inclination to read books by and about a wide diversity of folks, and like-minded people make up a substantial portion of my audience.

What’s more, because I’ve long (and loudly) supported a variety of voices and visions, I regularly receive a lovely range of titles to consider from authors, publishers, and publicists.

On my official author site, I double or triple “shelve” books where appropriate.

For example, in the children’s-YA literature resources section, Rita Williams-Garcia‘s Every Time A Rainbow Dies (HarperCollins, 2001) is listed on the multicultural and young adult bibliographies.

It’s my way of making sure to feature such titles for all prospective readers who surf by while still highlighting them to those teachers, librarians, and child caregivers who may be thoughtfully building collections or seeking a particular curriculum tie-in. Or, for that matter, teens who want to read about someone like them in that way.

On Cynsations, the approach is fully integrated, especially for the news wrap-ups. But among many others, I do tend to read blogs like The Brown Bookshelf: United in Story, which which promotes African-American youth literature, and Mitali’s Fire Escape, where author Mitali Perkins often discusses race and culture in children’s-YA books. If I see a substantive post that draws attention to multicultural literature, I’ll certainly share the link, which may provide a reason to include a book cover.

I keep an eye out for opportunities to make a difference. Feature. Highlight. Cheer!

Big “push” efforts and celebrations are important, but I’d like to encourage y’all to embrace a consistent, day-to-day approach as well.

What else? Last weekend I signed onto Twitter @CynLeitichSmith! Please find me! Note: check out Twitter Chats for Writers by Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Daily Diversions for Writers.

I also added an IndieBound widget to the sidebar of Cynsations at Blogger (haven’t figured out how to do that at LiveJournal), and I’ll ask my genius webmaster, Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys, to add it to the main site on the next monthly update. Note: I recommend that authors/illustrators check out this easy-to-use feature and consider adding it to their own sites/blogs.

In other news, my JacketFlap and YA YNot? pages also have been updated.

Book Bag: Sink your teeth into these by Lani Stack from The Advocate Weekly Online. A full-article review recommending Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2009). She writes: “Tantalize offers a substantial plot and a charismatic lead character. The first-person narration captures both the self-questioning angst and brash confidence of a headstrong teenager. Add devilish supporting characters and complex, clever and well-paced plot, and Tantalize is a darkly delicious read for older teens.”

Giveaway Reminders

Enter to win a contributor-signed copy of Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci (Little, Brown, 2009)! My short story, “The Wrath of Dawn,” co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith, is included in the collection, and we are happy to sign and personalize the book, if the winner so desires. To enter this giveaway, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Geektastic” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, and MySpace readers are welcome to just message me with the name in the header). Deadline: Sept. 30.

Enter to win one of four paperback copies of Not Like You by Deborah Davis (Graphia/Houghton Mifflin, 2009). One copy will be reserved for a teacher, librarian and/or university professor of children’s-YA literature, and three will go to any Cynsations readers! To enter this giveaway, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Not Like You” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, and MySpace readers are welcome to just message me with the name in the header). Deadline: Sept. 30. Reminder: teachers, librarians, and professors should ID themselves in their entries! Read an excerpt, listen to an excerpt, see discussion guide. Read a Cynsations interview with Deborah.

Enter to win Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Cycle by John Abbott Nez (Putnam, 2009). To enter this giveaway, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Cromwell Dixon” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, and MySpace readers are welcome to just message me with the name in the header). Deadline: Sept. 30. Read a Cynsations interview with John.

Cynsational Events

Liz Garton Scanlon will celebrate the release of her picture book, All the World, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane/S&S), with storytime at 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 26 at BookPeople in Austin. Read a Cynsations interview with Liz.

Jessica Lee Anderson (Border Crossings (Milkweed, 2009)) and P.J. Hoover (The Forgotten Worlds Book 2: The Navel of the World (CBAY, 2009)) will have a joint book release party at 2 p.m. Oct. 18 at BookPeople. Read Cynsations interviews with Jessica and P.J.

The Texas Book Festival take place Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 in Austin. Featured children’s-YA authors include: Jessica Lee Anderson, Libba Bray, Janie Bynum, Kristin Cast, P.C. Cast, Rosemary Clement-Moore, Keith Graves, Heather Hepler, K.A. Holt, Jacqueline Kelly, Rick Riordan, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Rene Saldana, Jr., Tammi Sauer, Liz Garton Scanlon, Anita Silvey, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Samantha R. Vamos, Rosemary Wells, Kathy Whitehead, Mo Willems, and Sara Zarr. See the whole list!

The Hill Country Book Festival will be from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 14. Featured authors/illustrators include Lupe Ruiz-Flores, Don Tate, Liz Garton Scanlon, Lila Guzman, P.J. Hoover, and Jennifer Ziegler.

SCBWI-Illinois’ Fifth Annual Prairie Writer’s Day: Brick by Brick: The Architecture of Our Stories will be from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 14 at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois. Speakers include: Stacy Cantor, associate editor at Walker; Nick Eliopulos, associate editor at Random House; T.S. Ferguson, assistant editor at Little, Brown; Yolanda LeRoy, editorial director at Charlesbridge; Cynthia Leitich Smith, award-winning author and Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty member; and Michael Stearns, agent and co-founder of Upstart Crow Literary. Read Cynsations interviews with Yolanda and Michael. Note: Michael has recently changed literary agencies.

Austin SCBWI Presents “Destination Publication” on Jan. 30, 2009

Destination Publication: An Awesome Austin Conference for Writers and Illustrators is scheduled for Jan. 30 and sponsored by Austin SCBWI.

Speakers and Events

Keynote speakers are Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson and Caldecott Honor author-illustrator Marla Frazee, who will also offer an illustrator breakout and portfolio reviews.

Presentations and critiques will be offered by editor Cheryl Klein of Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, author-editor Lisa Graff of FSG, agent Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary, agent Mark McVeigh of The McVeigh Agency, and agent Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

Advanced critique break-out sessions will be led by editor Stacy Cantor of Bloomsbury.

In addition, Cheryl and author Sara Lewis Holmes will speak on the editor-and-author relationship, and Marla and author Liz Garton Scanlon will speak on the illustrator-and-author relationship. Note: Sara and Liz also will be offering manuscript critiques.

Illustrator Patrice Barton will offer portfolio reviews.

Additional authors on the speaker-and-critique faculty include Jessica Lee Anderson, Chris Barton, Shana Burg, P.J. Hoover, Jacqueline Kelly, Philip Yates, Jennifer Ziegler.

Special opportunities include a party with the conference faculty on Friday evening at the historic home of Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith and a barbecue with the conference faculty on Saturday evening at the lake home of Meredith and Clay Davis!

See registration form, information packet, and conference schedule (all PDF files)!

New Voice: Malinda Lo on Ash

Malinda Lo is the first-time author of Ash (Little, Brown, 2009). From the promotional copy:

In the wake of her father’s death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, re-reading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do.

When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.

The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash’s capacity for love—and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.

Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

Ash has gotten a lot of attention because it is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. But my first draft had nothing gay about it–Ash, the main character, fell in love with the prince.

After I got some feedback from a friend, I realized that Ash was actually much more interested in one of the female characters, the huntress. That realization was startling to me; I had written all of that into the story without even consciously knowing it.

When I began work on my second draft, I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to turn the story in that direction. Did I truly want to write a “lesbian Cinderella”?

I knew, from my experience covering gay issues as a reporter–and from my experience working in publishing years ago–that this might totally hobble my book. It might make it entirely unsellable.

The concept of a “lesbian Cinderella” was certainly edgy, but I knew that if I committed to that idea, I would need to work very hard to make sure it didn’t turn out to be laughable.

I decided, through many drafts (on my own and with the help of my editor), that the world of Ash does not contain homophobia. People in this world simply love whomever they love. Obviously, people are more likely to be straight, but there is a long history in this world of same-sex love, and nobody bats an eye.

That enabled me to write Ash as a true fairy tale, rather than a coming-out story. Ash simply falls in love with her Prince Charming–in her case, this person just happens to be a woman.

I think that my decision to normalize same-sex relationships in this world was absolutely the right one. Basically 99% of the feedback I’ve been getting–from gay and straight people alike–is that they appreciate the fact that a girl gets to fall in love with a girl, and it’s not only okay, it’s wonderful. It’s just as good as falling in love with the prince.

As a fantasy writer, how did you go about building your world?

I was an anthropology graduate student when I began working on Ash, so I approached the world-building from an anthropologist’s perspective. I thought a lot about the rituals that mark the turning points in life–birth, marriage, and especially death.

This was particularly important for Ash because the story begins when Ash loses both her mother and father. I studied funerary rituals in China when I was in grad school, and I relied heavily on that knowledge when I wrote about Ash’s parents’ funerals, and when thinking about how people in that world think about death and dying.

Another of the most significant aspects of the Cinderella story is the fact that the stepmother wants her daughters to make wealthy marriages. I read a lot of analysis of fairy tales, and discovered that many tales included stepmothers because mothers often died in childbirth, and fathers were forced to remarry because they needed a wife to help raise the children.

These family structures might set up a situation in which a stepmother is forced to raise both her own children and another woman’s, and in a world of scarcity, this naturally sets up a kind of competition.

For girls, marriage was basically their ticket to freedom–a girl had to marry in order to support herself later in life, and it was to her advantage to marry well.

If a stepmother is raising both her daughter and her husband’s daughter from his earlier marriage, and there are few eligible males around, it might not be surprising that she would favor her biological daughter.

Obviously not all stepmothers are like this! But doing this research helped me to understand why a stepmother might act this way.

So, I guess I thought about the worldbuilding in a fairly intellectual, anthropological way! But then when I wrote, I kind of just loosened my focus and allowed it to become the background–the motivator for characters’ actions. I didn’t bother describing all the rituals or reasonings behind decisions; I focused on how those rules and practices would influence a character’s behavior.

In the following three videos, you can virtually attend Malinda’s book launch for Ash. First, she offers a talk about the book.

Next, Malinda reads from the novel.

Finally, Malinda answers questions from the audience.

Cynsational Notes

Read chapter one of Ash.

Malinda Lo on Making Space for Diversity from Blog. Peek: “I found myself thinking about it several times, and I realized that what disturbed me wasn’t the idea that some people might be homophobic (this is just basic reality), but the idea that someone would attempt to avoid an entire group of people in their reading material.”

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.

Editor Interview: Daniel Kraus on Reviewing Book Trailers for Booklist’s Likely Stories

Daniel Kraus is a Chicago-based writer and filmmaker.

He is the director of six feature films, including “Sheriff” (2006 season premiere of PBS’s Emmy-winning “Independent Lens”) and “Musician” (2007 New York Times Critics’ Pick).

His first novel, The Monster Variations, has just come out from Delacorte. His second novel, Rotters, will come out from Delacorte in 2011.

Visit him at and

Could you tell us about Booklist and your job there?

Booklist is one of the oldest and most hallowed of all review publications, and I’m not just saying that because I work there. We receive around 50,000 books for review every year and review around 7,500.

Booklist is mainly used by libraries for collection development purposes, but non-librarians use our reviews all the time, too, even if they don’t realize it– reprints our reviews for their individual book listings.

I’m an editor in the Books for Youth section, where I write and edit reviews for everything from picture books up to upper-grade YA, as well as the occasional adult book.

I’m also in charge of Booklist’s video component; in recent months, we’ve done video interviews with everyone from Avi to Lauren Myracle, and we’re just about to start posting all of the Printz Award speeches.

Usually, though, when someone asks me what we do at Booklist, I refer them to this video:

How does the Likely Stories blog fit into that, and what is its focus?

Booklist has several blogs–including Points of Reference, Audiobooker, Bookends, and Book Group Buzz–but Likely Stories is the unofficial voice of Booklist proper, the place where we editors–brains numb and fingers sore from reading thousands and thousands of pages–can take a few deep breaths and let our hair down for a few minutes.

It’s headed up by Booklist Online Senior Editor Keir Graff, but nearly all of the staff editors blog to some degree. Almost anything is fair game: book design, literary feuds, web comics, gossip, controversies, you name it.

Could you tell us about your new series of posts featuring book trailer reviews? What approach do you take?

A couple of months ago, I started a weekly feature called Book Trailer Thursday, in which I embed a book trailer, give it a review of sorts, and make a verdict on its effectiveness.

The trailers I review are wildly different in approach (compare Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice travelogue to the fake infomercials for Jessica Hopper’s The Girls’ Guide to Rocking), so I let my approach be just as fluid.

I might be deadly serious if the topic demands it, or I might just make fun of YouTube commenters, as I did when reviewing the trailer for Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan.

What inspired you to begin blogging about book trailers?

Ever since book trailers hit the scene several years ago, they’ve become enormously prevalent–but not enormously popular.

There are notable exceptions, of course, but in general, book trailers receive low numbers of hits, and yet they keep getting cranked out.

The reason for this seems fairly obvious: in many cases, trailers should work. There are plenty of them that have made me sit up and take notice of a book I might have otherwise missed.

So my goal with these blog posts is to highlight trailers that deserve attention, whether for being unusually effective, spectacularly disastrous, or just really original.

Authors have limited marketing tools at their disposal and, with video so cheap and easy to disseminate, it makes sense that my posts become a sort of “best practices” for videographer authors, as well as serving as a heads-up for interested readers.

What special insights do you bring to the process?

Believe it or not, I’m an old pro at this. I’ve directed six feature films that have played in theaters and on TV all over the world (and are available for Netflixing, if you find your queue is dwindling).

I’ve been making movies every since I was a teen (if you don’t believe me, check out my horrible high-school horror movies on my Francis Ford Iowa blog) and making films professionally for over a decade. I also used to make a living writing film analysis and criticism and interviewing directors and actors.

So while I may not be Martin Scorsese, I do have a sense of what goes into both mounting a production and watching a movie critically.

Big picture, what are the essential ingredients of a successful book trailer?

First, you have to remember that you’re marketing a book (a non-cinematic product) by using a cinematic medium. This will seem strange and even off-putting to a lot of people, so your best weapon is efficiency. Keep it short. Under two minutes is ideal. If you ever, ever hit the four-minute mark, you are doomed. Doomed!

Second, avoid doing the same old same old. Ninety-percent of book trailers are the same exact thing: panning and zooming across still images from the book (or public-domain photographs found on the Internet), inserting a few expository sentences of text, and setting the whole thing to music. Now, you can still do this, but you need to do it, really, really well.

Either way, the key is original content. Create something wholly new. It could be an animation, it could be you talking to the camera, it could be a video diary entry from a character in the book–the point is that it is something that didn’t exist before you created it (kind of like your book). Viewers are looking for authenticity and immediacy.

In a sense, that’s why people spend all day watching kitten videos on YouTube–you can’t doubt the authenticity or immediacy of that.

Third, figure out what makes your book different than other books and then push that.

Look, it’s not easy. I made a couple of trailers for my novel, The Monster Variations (Delacorte, 2009), one of them playing up the pastoral, coming-of-age elements, and the other playing up the thriller plot engine.

My approach was not overly different from the tried-and-true images/music formula, but the key was that I shot original footage. It gives the trailers energy and vitality beyond that which would be available from still photos.

Obviously, not all marketing departments provide book trailers and not all authors have a background in film-making or the budget to hire pros. What tips do you have for them, when it comes to making their homemade trailers the best they can be?

Until book trailers begin paying reliable dividends–and that may never happen–very few publishers will pony over a cent for these things.

For the most part, book trailers are the responsibility of enterprising authors, most of whom have no filmmaking experience. That’s why they should to keep their efforts focused and simple. It’s better to have an evocative thirty-second teaser than a unimpressive epic that ends up making your rich and nuanced book appear cheap and flimsy.

Likewise, many YA book readers–including teens–create trailers for their favorite books. What suggestions do you have for them–especially (as many seem to) if they want to include themselves and their personal thoughts?

This is kind of a different beast, because fans have the right to see what they want to see in any given book. If someone reads The Monster Variations and wants to choreograph a tap-dance routine to it, well, more power to them.

There’s only one author, though, which means you have one chance to explicate how you, the creator, visualize the book’s content. That’s a lot of responsibility, and a lot of pressure, too, because your visualization may not match up with those of your readers.

Just remember what you told yourself during the writing of your book: don’t be middle-of-the-road, don’t be wishy-washy, don’t be boring.

Pick a concept, stick to it, and maybe you’ll at least be considered a weirdo auteur. There are worse fates.

Cynsational Notes

See also New Voice: Daniel Kraus on The Monster Variations from Cynsations. Peek: “With The Monster Variations, I began with this sentence: ‘Then he realized his arm was gone.’

“That’s exciting to me, that potential of taking something inexplicable and maybe horrible, and then making sense of it, and then, if I’m lucky, making it meaningful, too.”

Craft, Career & Cheer: Libba Bray

Learn more about Libba Bray, and read her LJ.

Could you tell us about your writing community—your critique group or critique partner or other sources of creative support?

I’m really grateful for my fellow writers, both local and far-flung. I love that they understand this insane process and so, mid-freak-out, you can make a series of desperate grunts and hand gestures at them, and they will know exactly what you mean and will give you a cookie.

When I say, “Aaahhh! This is ghastly! I wouldn’t line my cat box with this!”

They can counter with, “Calm down, young Padawan. That may, in fact, be an excellent cat-box liner.” Or some such.

When possible, I write with Maureen Johnson, Robin Wasserman, E. Lockhart, Coe Booth, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Cassie Clare, and Lauren McLaughlin. That’s sort of the core NYC group. I always feel like we’re that old Looney Tunes cartoon with the sheep dogs punching in and out, “‘Morning Ralph.’ ‘Morning Sam.’”

(No word on who gets to spank Wile E. Coyote. Oh wait, I think I’m Wile E.)

Holly Black is my Obi-Wan Kenobi. She is such a genius of structure and logical, linear follow-through, which I lack utterly. I can call her up and once we get past the whimpering, she will ask me hardcore structure questions and get me thinking about whether B follows A and, if so, how B follows A. Sometimes you just can’t see your way through your own book, and so you need somebody else to slap you out of your hysteria.

Jennifer Hubert Swan ( is an uber-librarian and good pal, and she–being the pragmatic, Midwestern, tough love gal she is–also tells me to get off the crazy train. And she does it in a Midwestern accent.

And if I want to feel that warm bunnies are nuzzling my toes, I call the lovely and comforting Jo Knowles.

Then there are the writers with whom it’s great to get together and not talk about writing. Rachel Cohn and I play with her cats and do yoga. (Well, she does yoga, and I watch her glide into positions not natural to womankind and try to follow her through my laughter.)

I enjoy going to the theater and for food with Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman. Tanya Lee Stone and I like to gab on the phone about motherhood and time management, or lack thereof.

David Levithan and I will go for lunch and talk music.

I’m also in a band comprised of the YA authors Daniel Ehrenhaft, Natalie Standiford, and Barney Miller (yes, he’s really Barney Miller). We get together in the spirit of YA rock—HELLO CLEVELAND! Any creative juice is good as far as I’m concerned. As long as you don’t put wheat grass in that creative juice. ‘Cause then it’s just icky.

Sara Ryan, who lives in Portland, and I are doing a work-in-progress manuscript exchange. It’s the first time I’ve really done that, and I’m curious to see how it works out.

Mostly, I’m looking forward to being inside Sara’s brain for a while, because that is a delightfully weird and creative place to be. Plus, she likes The Mountain Goats.

I’ve met writers through list servs like YA Writer. There is something comforting about knowing writers all over the country, like having a “safe house” anywhere.

What is the one craft book that you refer to again and again? Why?

I’m not a reader of craft books, per se, my feeling being that when you read wonderful writers, you are already reading their craft books. However, I did enjoy Stephen King‘s On Writing (July, 2002).

He’s so generous and unpretentious. It feels like your favorite uncle has come to visit, the one who makes your mother go a bit pinch-faced with wariness.

He’s just given you your present—a naughty ballpoint pen that, when turned, causes the floating sailor inside to lose his drawers.

It is a pen obtained under nefarious circumstances, and now Uncle Steve’s going to tell you about his adventures, but those stories are going to make you laugh and gasp and nod in identification and then vow to go out and make your own adventures because, suddenly, it seems possible to do so.

So, um, yeah. I recommend On Writing.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I’ve always loved to write in funky little coffee shops where multiply pierced/tattooed baristas play an eclectic music mix that ranges from steampunk electronica to Icelandic folk ballads. I love the people-watching and the white noise.

But now, I’m starting to appreciate the enforced discipline of a nice, quiet room. I’ve been thinking about renting a little corner in a writer’s space. It would be nice to ping-pong between the two environments.

I often write better when I’m plunked down in a new environment—I once visited Holly Black’s house and it was an amazingly creative space.

The one place I find incredibly distracting? Home. Unless there are other people there to keep me on the straight and narrow, I’m useless at home.

I just notice the dust bunnies and burn a trail between the couch and the refrigerator and occasionally decide that now would be the time to arrange my books according to some random taxonomy that will make no sense to anyone, not even me, later.

As for time, I work during the hours my son is in school out of necessity. My favorite time to write is first thing in the morning when everything feels possible.

My least favorite time to write is late afternoon because my brain goes to “scan” then.

Sometimes I can get a second wind in the evening, but only if I am somewhere other than home or I’m with others who are also writing and so it would be bad form to say, “Hey, do you think I can get this whole sandwich in my mouth? Huh? Huh?’ Usually, my drool cup’s in place by that time.

How do you define artistic success?

When, during the writing process, I am surprised by the discovery of something true that I hadn’t realized before. When a reader tells me s/he has been affected by something I’ve written. The other day, someone told me that the characters I’d written felt like real people, and that was a gold-star day for me.

So far, as a reader, what is your favorite children’s-YA book (other than your own) of 2009 and why?

I’m woefully behind on my reading—woefully behind! I’m embarrassed!—but I really enjoyed How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford (Scholastic, 2009). It was quirky and odd in all the best ways with two characters I’d not met but felt as if I did know and wanted to continue knowing. And it had such heart.

I really love reading a book that doesn’t tie things up so neatly, that lets me walk away with some empty spaces it doesn’t try to fill.

I was also deeply affected by Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb, 2009). I had jury duty—I actually love jury duty because it’s enforced reading time and no one can bother me—and I sat in the Kings County Courthouse in downtown Brooklyn wiping away tears while people wondered why I was so emotional about my civic duty.

That book…well, “haunted me” is the phrase. It stayed with me for a long time afterward.

God, aren’t books wonderful?

Why is your agent the right agent for you?

Because he takes out the trash.

Other than his domestic duties, I love Barry‘s passion for children’s and teen literature. He lives it, breathes it, lives for it.

Because he comes from a background in publishing, he has an exhaustive knowledge of how the industry works—and how it doesn’t. He is not a slash-and-burn sort of agent, a let’s-make-money-at-all-costs-and-who-cares-about-your-career sort.

He wants to know that his clients will continue to grow and thrive. I think he really takes into consideration who his clients are individually and works from there.

He really thinks about the author-agent relationship, playing matchmaker.

And when things on the publishing surface seem to be going crazy in some way, when we think, well, gee, maybe we should write those Rabid, Post-Apocalyptic Koala Bear novels that are selling like hot cakes right now, he’ll say, no, you should write the book you need to write. Write what speaks to your soul. That’s why we’re here.

So, obviously, I agree with his philosophy. But I also value him editorially. He can sniff out what’s not true in your work lightning-quick. I’ve had him tell me where I’m pulling punches.

I always tell the story—with a laugh—about when I was in the death throes of writing The Sweet Far Thing (Delacorte, 2009). For the umpteenth time, I had cornered him into letting me talk out the ever-changing plot. I got about midway into the description when he stopped me cold.

“That’s never going to work,” he said.

I felt, oh, a soupçon of annoyance, and I said, with the sweetest little fang-baring snarl, “It has to work. It is the fulcrum upon which this plot rests.” So there, Agent Man.

Now, he knows me well, and so he said, “Then you are seriously up the creek, babe, because that is not going to work.”

He then proceeded to tell me why it wasn’t going to work and how I was making it hard on myself and asked me questions that of course I couldn’t answer because my plot was built on sand.

And then, with the greatest amount of love and affection, I told him to take a hike.

After ten minutes of feeling very sorry for myself for being married to someone so clearly unable to see how very tenable my plot was, I realized he was right and I was wrong and now I was free to get rid of this hideous albatross of a plot device and find something that really would work. He freed me with his clear-headed, tough love.

But if he had said, “well, gee, why don’t you see where that goes, Kum Ba Yah with your bad self, you’re a beautiful, beautiful flower, my delicate Writer Grrrl,” I would have wandered in the wilderness for another forty, torturous years while rending my garments.

I find, by and large, that Barry is really able to zero in on that thing that isn’t working and will take the lumps for telling you so. He’s brave that way.

He also gives great pep talks and is a fantastic cook.

You know what?

I’m gonna keep him. I’ve just decided.

So far, what has been the highlight of your professional career? Why?

Well, it’s hard to top walking the streets of New York City in a cow suit.

That’s what we authors call living the dream.

Other than that little surreal book trailer moment, I’d have to say touring with Shannon Hale AKA one of the funniest women in America. For such a sweet, white-picket-fence individual, she is incredibly subversive. And insane–in all the good ways.

Despite the fact that she is represented by my husband, Barry Goldblatt, Shannon and I had never met. She lives in Utah; I live in New York.

Our publicists cooked up the idea of having us do a book tour together as we both had books of a similar feel coming out at the same time. And, as Shannon noted, our covers both featured torsos. That’s reason enough right there. Hence, we became “The Torso Twins.”

The first day of the tour, we were at Walter Mays‘ school in California. There was a piano, and while we were waiting for the teens to file in, we started messing around on it and began spontaneously singing bad eighties songs. This cracked us up.

Most things cracked us up. The problem was getting us to settle down. We set a bad example all across America.

Anyway, we settled on that gold standard of overwrought eighties’ ballads, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Neither of us knew the words, really. That didn’t stop us. We made up our own.

And so we decided, right there, that we would close every event with what would become our signature song, and we would recruit teens from the audience to be our back-up dancers.

It was a beautiful, beautiful thing. And those kids are doing very well in therapy now.

The whole tour was just surreally delightful. We were exhausted and giddy.

At one bookstore appearance, I wheeled Shannon in on a dolly and nearly killed her. She returned the favor at another event using a rolling ladder. I still have the bruises.

In Seattle, we were so tired that when we got tickled by something at one point, we both burst into uncontrollable, knee-slapping laughter that went on for five, deeply uncomfortable minutes. It took forever to get ourselves under some semblance of control.

Then Shannon made the mistake of saying, about her book, Princess Academy, “…a tutor to the Princess…” and I (because I’m incredibly well-bred and mature) responded with, “heh-heh, you said ‘tooter!'” and we were on the floor convulsed again.

I’m sure they’re very eager to have us back in Seattle. Very eager.

But the kids and teens who came out were fantastic! And that’s the heart of the story—these amazing teens who were passionate about books.

We talked about what they read, what they watch, what they listen to. They gave us suggestions about all of the above. It was a wonderful conversation. And those conversations happened across the country.

Plus, we really got to know these amazing booksellers, librarians, and teachers who are out there fighting the good fight every day. It’s humbling, and it reminds you that there’s a there there. You know?

I just came away feeling incredibly connected to what we do and why it matters. I realize that I was very, very lucky to be able to go on a tour, and that doesn’t always happen.

But the connections I made with real live human beings go on. Those teens come to my blog where we continue the conversation. I talk to those booksellers and librarians. We keep in touch.

By the way, Princess Academy was a Newbery Honor book, and Shannon has that embroidered onto all of her underwear. These are the things you get to know on the road. Feel free to spread that around.

In your own words, could you tell us about your latest book?

Going Bovine
(Delacorte, 2009), AKA the feel-good-mad-cow-disease/string-theory-book-of-fall, is about a 16-year-old slacker named Cameron who is diagnosed with Creutzfeld-Jakob’s disease (the human variant of mad cow).

While in the hospital, he is visited by a punk angel named Dulcie who tells him there is a cure if he is willing to go in search of it. Oh, and also, he’s the only person who can save the world from a band of dark energy from another dimension. No pressure.

Cameron and his new best friend, a death-obsessed video gamer named Gonzo, and a yard gnome who might be the Viking god Balder set off on the mother of all road trips.

Cue smoothie-drinking happiness cults, Jazz musicians, Mardi Gras, philosophical musings, weird sightings, strange signs and coincidences, snow globe vigilantes, bad dudes from other dimensions, exuberant physicists, tabloids, Norse mythology, and true love.

You know, the usual.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Many wonderful things, I hope.

Oh. You mean from me. Right. I’m working on a satire about a planeload of teen beauty queens who crash on a deserted island. Think Lord of the Flies [by William Golding (1954)] meets Lord of the Dance, but with slightly less spandex. Slightly.

You know what? I’m not willing to commit to that. Put me down for spandex. I want to live the dream right on the edge of unnatural fabrics.

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Here’s the book trailer for The Sweet Far Thing:

And here’s my most treasured gift from Libba:

New Voice: Cynthia Jaynes Omololu on When It’s Six O’Clock in San Francisco: A Trip Through Time Zones

Cynthia Jaynes Omololu is the first-time author of When It’s Six O’Clock in San Francisco: A Trip Through Time Zones, illustrated by Randy DuBurke (Clarion, July 20, 2009). From the promotional copy:

As one little boy is eating breakfast in San Francisco, another kid in London is playing football with his mates, a girl in Harare is eating dinner with her family, and another child in Sydney is calling for a drink of water in the middle of the night.

Poetic language and charming vignettes simplify the concept of time zones by providing glimpses into the everyday lives of children around the world.

Cynthia’s debut YA novel, Dirty Little Secrets, will be published by Walker in winter 2010.

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

This was an easy one to answer –Karen English, author of Nikki & Deja, illustrated by Laura Freeman (Clarion, 2007) and Hot Day on Abbot Avenue, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe (Clarion, 2004), among many other wonderful books.

When my kids were small, I decided to write children’s books because, after all, how hard could it be? I’d never really written anything longer than a thank-you note, but that didn’t worry me at all.

I picked Karen’s name out of a SCBWI Bulletin and sent her an email asking her if she wanted to be in a critique group.

Rather than ignore or laugh at the incredibly newbie email, she actually answered me. Not only that, but even though she didn’t need a critique group, she agreed to meet with me and read over the two sad little stories I’d written. She was so gracious and encouraging—pointing out what was working and gently nudging me in the right directions. Karen even took me to bookstores and jump-started my education as a children’s book author.

Even after she moved several hundred miles away, she kept encouraging me and sending me writing information. In my copy of her book Speak to Me, illustrated by Amy June Bates (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2004), she wrote to my kids: “…thanks for having an extremely talented mother who will one day be a famous writer.”

Karen could have easily turned her back on a fledgling writer who didn’t have a clue, but she took a moment and that made all the difference. I’m not exaggerating when I say I owe any future success to her—without her encouragement, I would have made a few false starts and probably quit.

The day I sold When It’s Six O’Clock in San Francisco, I called her right after I told my husband. Every time I’m approached by someone new I meet online or at a writer’s conference, I think of Karen. Because she took the time, I have a career, and it’s my job to pay it forward and help the next new writer who comes along.

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 met my agent, Erin Murphy, in an elevator—no lie. I wasn’t really looking for an agent. I’d only written a couple of picture book manuscripts at that time, but I was halfway through a middle grade novel so I was starting to put my ear to the ground.

I live in Northern California, but I’d flown to Kansas City to attend a weekend conference because there were some speakers I wanted to see and some BlueBoarders I wanted to meet (those Southwest Airlines miles can come in handy).

I’d seen Erin speak on a panel the previous day, and I could tell she was someone I’d probably get along with, so when I saw her in the elevator I struck up a conversation.

We didn’t talk about my books. Mostly, we talked about the trouser jeans I was wearing and I told her where she could get a pair. I bumped into her a few more times over that weekend, and we chatted a bit but nothing memorable.

Fast forward about six months, and my middle grade novel manuscript was finally finished. I did some research on Erin and talked to a few of her clients, deciding that her editorial style and personality would probably mesh with mine.

She doesn’t know this, but at another conference I asked two different editors what they thought of her agency, and both had nothing but good things to say, which clinched it for me.

I queried her, reminding her that we’d met at the conference (she only takes new clients by referral or if they have attended a conference together) and referenced the cool trouser jeans we’d talked about.

Surprisingly, she remembered me, invited me to submit, and after a revision we signed together. We sold my YA Dirty Little Secrets to Walker in September 2008 and continue to have a productive relationship that I see lasting a very long time.

One thing that new writers often don’t understand is how much like a marriage a writer-agent relationship is. I got lucky with Erin—it was love at first sight, and I didn’t have to date anyone else. But many people get together with the first agent who says “yes” and find themselves unhappy later.

Research the agent that is passionate about the kinds of books you write and has the contacts to sell them, who has the kind of editorial and communication style you like, and then by all means, try to go and meet them or hear them speak. You can only get so much information from an email or blog. Nothing compares to seeing them in person.

If they aren’t coming out where you are, go to where they are. It may be inconvenient and expensive at the time, but this is a relationship that will hopefully go on for years and you want to be sure you make the right choice. There’s a saying that “the wrong agent is worse than no agent,” so it pays to do your homework.

Cynsational Notes

Read a Cynsations interview with Erin Murphy.

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.