Cynsational News & Giveaways

Congratulations to Jody Feldman on the release of The Seventh Level (Greenwillow, 2010). From the promotional copy:

“Lauer Middle School has a super-secret society—The Legend. No one knows who is in it. Or how they pull off the spectacular schoolwide events.

“Seventh grader Travis Raines may be about to find out. A shiny blue envelope marked For Your Eyes Only mysteriously appears in his locker. You have been chosen, the message says. But if Travis is to become Legendary, he must first solve a series of mind-bending puzzles and complete their challenges. Then he needs to stay out of trouble. The assistant principal has her eye on him. So do his parents.

“And even if he does all that’s asked of him, Travis still has one question: is the message really from the Legend?”

See From the Writer’s Desk: He’s Not that Guy or the Walk that Instantly Influenced The Seventh Level by Jody Feldman from Under the Green Willow: The Official Birthday Blog of Greenwillow Books. Peek: “I had that boy and title and premise rolling around in my head. And as is my process, I hadn’t put any words to screen or paper because I didn’t yet have an opening scene.”

More News

Does Age Matter in Publishing? by Steph Bowe from Steph Bowe’s Hey! Teenager of the Year. Peek: “Know that you won’t be a different person when you get a book deal. You’ll be a living the same life you live now, but with more responsibilities.” Peek: “I’m a 16-year-old YA author. My debut novel, Girl Saves Boy, will be published by Text Publishing this September in Australia & New Zealand and by Egmont USA in America in 2011. I’m represented by Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown” Ltd.

Literary Agents Talk Trends in Children’s Publishing at NESCBWI: a guest post by Theresa Milstein from Guide to Literary Agents. Note: insights from the agent panel, featuring Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary Agency, and Edward Necarsulmer IV of McIntosh and Otis. Read Cynsations interviews with Ammi-Joan and Sarah.

A Look at School Visits: Part One: Why Bother? by Verla Kay from Verla Kay’s Blog. Peek: “When I do school visits, I never plan on selling any of my books. If some have sold, I consider that a bonus. I go to schools to inspire the students, to touch their lives for a moment, to connect with just a few of them and to inspire them to read more and write their own wonderful stories.” See also A Look at School Visits – Part Two: Booking Visits, Setting Prices & Contracts. Read a Cynsations interview with Verla.

Work Your Inner Fierceness by literary agent Jennifer Laughran from Jennifer Represents… Peek: “… I still need my authors to have a spine, be driven and at least a bit fierce. That means speaking up for yourself, having self-confidence, putting yourself out there (even if you don’t necessarily feel like it…) It also means bravery in terms of your writing.” Read a Cynsations interview with Jennifer.

On Perfectionism by Lisa Schroeder from Lisa Schroeder’s Journal. Peek: “I think every author struggles with the issue of perfectionism in one way or another. For me, it’s more of a big picture thing – I’m not as good of a writer as I wish I was, and sometimes that keeps me from opening the document. Like – what’s the point?” Read a Cynsations interview with Lisa.

Folio Literary Management Unveils Children’s Book Division by John A. Sellers from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Four-year-old agency Folio Literary Management is expanding its presence in the children’s book market with the launch of Folio Jr., which will represent creators of middle-grade and young adult novels, as well as ‘selective’ picture books. Two new hires at the agency—Marcy Posner and Emily van Beek—as well as Folio’s Molly Jaffa will represent clients for the division, though Folio Jr. will also encompass other children’s/YA authors at Folio, including those represented by other agents.” Source: Alice Pope’s SCBWI Children’s Market Blog.

Prospering in the Gig Economy: Simple Habits for Writers That Pay Off Quickly by Christina Katz from BronzeWorld Latino Authors. Peek: “Spend time with other writers who make money writing. If they are too busy (making money) to spend time with you, sign up for their newsletters, read their blogs or connect with them via social networking whenever possible.”

Agent Mandy Hubbard’s Submissions Guidelines from her official author-agent site. Includes lists (by category) of a few of her favorite books and some of her clients. Read a Cynsations interview with Mandy.

The 15th Annual Postgraduate Writers’ Conference will be from Aug. 9 to Aug. 15 at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. The conference is designed for writers with MFAs and equivalent preparation, and features an award-winning faculty of devoted author-teachers; intimate small-group workshops limited to six participants; readings by both faculty and participants; craft classes, issues forums and individual consultations, all within a vibrant, inclusive community atmosphere. For this summer, the event will include a pair of YA workshops, led by An Na and Carolyn Coman. Limited space is still available in these workshop groups, as is funding for partial scholarships for interested writers requiring financial support to attend. For details, visit Contact Ellen Lesser, Conference Director, at or 802.828.8835 with questions.

Public Speaking as a Promotional Tool by L. Diane Wolfe from QueryTracker. Peek: “At its most basic, speaking places the author in front of real human beings. The lure of the Internet has prompted more and more authors to remain hidden behind a website. While blogs and social sites provide a certain measure of interaction, it cannot replace real-world contact and physical appearances.”

Stop Apologizing for the Things You’ve Never Done by Joanna Young from BronzeWorld: Latino Authors. Peek: “One of the defining features of confident writing is that it’s not apologetic.”

Are You Blogging Too Much? by Meghan Ward from Writerland. Note: an interview with Kristen Tracy. Peek: “I see the use in social media for building an audience, but I also think you can build an audience by writing the best books you can, while maintaining a small web presence.”

Picture Books for Asian American Heritage Month: Part 2 (China) by Jama Rattigan from jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. See also Part 3 (Japan).

Twitter for Writers by Elizabeth Spann Craig from Mystery Writing is Murder. Peek: “I think the best way is to steadily increase the number of people that you’re following. And you’re probably going to want to target readers and other writers.”

Interview with Magic Under Glass author, Jaclyn Delamore by Cindy Pon from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: “It was setting first–I wanted to do a Victorian Gothic type story in a creepy house like Jane Eyre or Rebecca–but Nimira swiftly followed. I knew I wanted a Victorian story, but how to prevent the main character from falling into a stereotype, like the wealthy girl who doesn’t want to get married or the governess-with-heart-of-gold?”

There by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick (Roaring Brook, 2009) has won the 20th Bistro Children’s Book of the Year. Source: ACHOCKABLOG. See more information.

Interview with Lila Guzman, author of Lorenzo and the Pirate by Mayra Calvani from The Examiner. Peek: “Every experience I’ve had—from being an officer in the U.S. Navy to getting a Ph.D. in Spanish has prepared me for this. Luck and persistence play a role in this business, but a natural talent for writing and an active imagination are crucial.”

The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults is pleased to announce that award-winning authors Franny Billingsley and Coe Booth are visiting faculty, and after a hiatus, Susan Fletcher is returning to active faculty status, beginning with the July 2010 residency.

Time Management by Jo Whittemore. Peek: “Look at your deadlines. Does the interview come before the school visit? Then quit working on those sock puppets for the kids and answer the interview questions. You’re not always going to get to do the fun stuff first.” Read a guest post by Jo.

What’s taking so long? I want your third book now! by Carrie Ryan from Carrie’s Procrastination Outlet. Peek: “One question I’ve been asked a few times is why, since the book is already written, is it taking so long for it to come out?” Read a Cynsations interview with Carrie.

Tenacious, Talkative, and Teachable by Mary DeMuth from Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent. Peek: “…you will not go far in this industry by being cocky. And when you’re brand spanking new, it behooves you to be overly teachable.” Source: QueryTracker.

Cynsational Screening Room

Congratulations to Kristina McBride on the release of The Tension of Opposites (Egmont, 2010). Check out the book trailer:

Here’s the book trailer for The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez by René Colato Láinez, illustrated by Tom Lintern (Tricycle). Trailer by Tina Nichols Coury.

More Personally

I’m pleased to announce that Amber has purchased the Polish language rights to Eternal. My literary agency, Curtis Brown Ltd., also received an offer yesterday for Tantalize and Eternal from another international publisher, and I look forward to announcing details when the paperwork clears.

Highlights of the week included attending Jennifer Holm‘s signing of Turtle in Paradise (Random House, 2010) last Friday night at BookPeople in Austin. Note: Jenni is pictured here with Greg, her new novel, and a drawing she did of an angelic Babymouse, just for me!

From the promotional copy of Turtle in Paradise:

“Life isn’t like the movies, and eleven-year-old Turtle is no Shirley Temple. She’s smart and tough and has seen enough of the world not to expect a Hollywood ending.

“After all, it’s 1935, and jobs and money and sometimes even dreams are scarce. So when Turtle’s mama gets a job housekeeping for a lady who doesn’t like kids, Turtle says goodbye without a tear and heads off to Key West, Florida, to stay with relatives she’s never met.

“Florida’s like nothing Turtle has ever seen. It’s hot and strange, full of wild green peeping out between houses, ragtag boy cousins, and secret treasure. Before she knows what’s happened, Turtle finds herself coming out of the shell she has spent her life building, and as she does, her world opens up in the most unexpected ways.”

Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Naomi Canale from Dreams Can Be Reached. Peek: “I would likely relate most to Kieren Morales from Tantalize and the upcoming graphic novel Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick). He’s a serious reader with aspirations of being a writer and he excels academically. He’s also family oriented, loyal, and takes commitment very much to heart.”

In other exciting news, we’ve had a traveling guest of late. His name is “Critter” (created by Ian Sands). He’s visiting kidlit blogs, and he’ll be auctioned off for St. Jude when his travels are over.

Christy Evers is tracking Critter’s journeys, so visit her to find out more about him, where he’s been, and where in the world he’s off to next. Join the Critter group at facebook.

Here’s critter with Newbery Honor author Kathi Appelt and her new book, Keeper (Atheneum, 2010).

Here’s Critter with author/librarian Debbie Leland and Greg.

And here’s Critter with authors Janet S. Fox and Debbie Gonzales.

Giveaway Reminders

Nathalie Mvondo is celebrating the 10th anniversary of my first book, Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) at Multiculturalism Rocks! A blog on multiculturalism in children’s literature. Surf over to check out her thoughts on the book and to enter to win a copy of Jingle Dancer for the school of your choice. Note: Recipients (reader and school) of the giveaway will be announced May 28.

Thank you to fellow YA author Holly Cupala for my most recent interview Story Secrets of Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010)! Leave a comment at the post for a chance to win a copy of the novel. Deadline extended to: 5 p.m. PST today. See details.

Enter to win a copy of Smells Like a Dog by Suzanne Selfors (Little, Brown, 2010)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Smells Like Dog” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post; I’ll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: May 31. Publisher sponsored; U.S. entries only. See also Suzanne on Why I Love Writing for Middle Graders.

Enter to win a copy of Morpheus Road: The Light by by D. J. MacHale (Aladdin, 2010). To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Morpheus Road: The Light” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message/comment me with the name in the header/post; I’ll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: May 31. Publisher sponsored; U.S. entries only. See also the book trailer.

Cynsational Events

SCBWI Florida: Mid-Year Workshop and Intensives will be June 4 and June 5 at Disney’s Coronada Springs Resort at Walt Disney World. Note: I’m honored to be leading the marketing track with author/social media consultant Greg Pincus and Ed Masessa, author and Senior Manager Product Development, Scholastic Book Fairs. Picture book, middle grade, YA, and series tracks also are available.

Austin Area Events

“The Metaphor: So Much More Than a Simple Comparison,” a lecture by Varian Johnson at 11 a.m. June 12 at BookPeople.

Picture Perfect! A Spit-Polish Workshop at McKinney Rough Nature Park, featuring famed Lisa Wheeler as Keynote Speaker is scheduled for Oct. 9 and sponsored by Austin SCBWI. Faculty also will include Sarah Sullivan, Stephanie Greene, Don Tate, and Laura Jennings. See more information (PDF).

Writing Across Formats: Kathi Appelt

Learn about Kathi Appelt.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?

Aside from boredom, you mean? Actually, my writing began to “grow” with my kids. As I found myself reading older books to my boys, I also found myself wanting to write for those older audiences. Nothing more mysterious than that.

And there is the boredom factor. Maybe I have ADD and just can’t seem to concentrate on one form for too long. Plus, it seems to me that the forms themselves allow for different ways of approaching a subject.

The form of a picture book, for example, asks for a different look at, say, love for a baby, than a novel does. Same theme, different form. But in order to fully examine the subject, why not look at in the various forms so that no stone is left uncovered?

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

At the end of the day, they all require a good story. Even a concept book has to have a narrative arc. That sounds cliché in a way, but with every book I write, I learn something new that informs the next book, regardless of the subject or the form.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

I can understand, from a marketing standpoint, how a publisher might want to create a “brand.” But to me, that undermines the basic human drive for creativity. I think humans are larger and wider than brands.

This is not to say that a good mystery writer is going to necessarily be successful writing a romance, any more than Madonna can be successful writing a children’s book (and I had such high hopes).

But I resent and resist the urge for anyone to be cornered into a pigeonhole. I think it underestimates what is possible in our human ability to stretch and discover and to create.

Imagine what might have happened if E.B. White had been branded? He was an excellent, well known author of adult letters before he ever wrote Charlotte’s Web (HarperCollins, 1952). What a loss to the world it would have been if his publisher had refused to publish that book because it might have damaged his brand.

It seems to me that there is a huge urge these days to “standardize,” beginning with testing in our schools. And I’m worried that our drive for standardization is carrying over into trying to identify people as “one particular, standard thing.” We see this in medicine with the move towards specialization. It’s a rare doctor now who is a general practitioner. Likewise, we want our authors to be specialists in science fiction or non-fiction or poetry or whatever. I think it’s limiting for the author as well as the audience.

Why? Why this drive to have everyone and everything boiled down into one kind of entity? It doesn’t make sense to me, and it diminishes the very real potential for human expansiveness and ability.

Cynsational Notes

Watch the book trailer for Keeper by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum, 2010).

Watch the book trailer for The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum, 2008).

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

New Voice: Vicki Oransky Wittenstein on Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths

Vicki Oransky Wittenstein is the first time author of Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths (Boyds Mills, 2010). From the promotional copy:

He has discovered more planets than anyone in history.

In this inspiring true story, Geoff Marcy’s love of space helped him overcome struggles in his studies until finally he became an astronomer.

Since 1995, he and his colleagues have discovered nearly half of the 380 known “extrasolar” planets.

Stunning paintings transport the reader to the exotic worlds that he and others have found.

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?

Thanks, Cynthia, for giving me the opportunity to talk about Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths. I’m still pinching myself over the book’s release and the reviews!

As a child, my eyes glazed over after reading about two sentences of a science book. I certainly didn’t want that to be the case with my book! So, my greatest challenge in writing a middle grade astronomy book was to find a way to hook kids on the science behind planet hunting.

How could I make the material more accessible to young readers and get them as excited about planet hunting as I was?

One of the ways I chose was to focus on Geoff Marcy, the astronomer in my book. Marcy is not only a famous planet hunter, but has a compelling life story.

As a child and young adult, studying did not come easily. Even as an astronomer, he struggled to overcome self doubt and to put his career on track.

It wasn’t until he went back to the questions that excited him as a boy that he was able to find direction and success. Are we alone? Are there other Earth-like planets? These questions still inspire him today.

Marcy’s life and personal struggles added human interest to the book, and gave the science a context that readers can latch onto.

I also wrote the book as if the reader were in the telescope control room, “sitting” beside Marcy. In this way, readers watch an evening of planet hunting unfold in real time. Through Marcy’s actions, the science is naturally absorbed and more readily understood.

This vantage point, though, also turned out to be challenging. With only 48 pages, discussing Marcy’s life and the science didn’t leave much space for many scenes with Marcy manning the telescope. As with all nonfiction, I had to figure out the proper balance.

Right from the start, I focused my research on interviewing other experts in the field. Again, I wanted young people to learn by reading what real scientists think and do.

Also, talking to experts helped my own understanding. I am not a scientist (I was an Assistant District Attorney in my “first” life), so many of the science concepts were hard to grasp. Finding a group of experts to explain the key ideas was critical.

What was helpful, too, was building relationships that might be useful in researching other science books, as well.

My greatest coup was getting an invitation from Marcy to watch him planet hunt at the W. M. Keck Observatory on the Big Island of Hawaii. The observatory sits on the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, about 14,000 feet above sea level. It’s freezing cold up there, and the air is so thin that I had to use oxygen to help me breathe.

[Photo of Vicki at the Keck Observatory (with oxygen plugged into her nose!) by Sarah Anderson.]

But the mystery and magic of this remote spot is intoxicating. I was completely captivated by exploring the universe in such close proximity to the heavens. So, using the Keck Observatory as the main setting in the book seemed perfect.

Marcy couldn’t have been more gracious – he patiently (and slowly!) taught me the important concepts. He also continued to be available for the (many!) questions I had during the following year, as I wrote and revised the book.

[Photo of the two observatory domes at sunset by the W. M. Keck Observatory.]

As a nonfiction writer, what first inspired you to take on your topic? What about it fascinated you? Why did you want to offer more information about it to young readers?

As a child, I loved camping. At night, I gazed at the stars and wondered if there was life beyond Earth. The possibility of alien life is thrilling! As Marcy says, the ramifications are huge – advanced civilizations may one day influence our arts, music, and literature. Who knows? Seeing ourselves as “Earthlings” might even promote peace and understanding between all the countries and people on our planet.

The market is saturated with books that depict aliens as funny-looking creatures, or focus on U.F.O.s, but few books discuss the science behind detecting Earth-like planets, the planets astronomers think have the greatest possibility for life. I wanted to teach the concepts—as opposed to the sci-fi—behind planet hunting.

My hope is that another generation of young people will become fascinated with space. Perhaps they, like Marcy, will one day search for life beyond the stars.

[Artist rendition of the star 55 Cancri and orbiting planets is NASA/JPL-Caltech.]

Guest Post: Bettina Restrepo on Propping Up Your School Visit

By Bettina Restrepo

When I wrote Moose and Magpie (Sylvan Dell, 2009), I knew it would be a good school-visit book.

The book uses fiction to tell the story of a moose’s first migration with jokes, songs and riddles. I wanted find cool props to bring the imaginary to life–a hook to keep kids’ attention.

I began with props and a budget.

I made a list of all the things I wanted to have for a school visit. Then I made a budget of $300.

Would I make enough money doing school visits to earn back my investment? I took the chance, because the best thing you can do is invest in your book and yourself.

My “wish list” included antlers, moose teeth, a stuffed magpie, a preserved moose hoof or footprint, and the nest of a magpie. I knew I would get everything–and I had an idea of how I could use each item to explain science and nature in a fun way.

I wrote and called several taxidermists, looking for economical pair antlers, moose teeth or hoof sample and was shocked! Several of them thought I had a weird fetish for moose parts. One guy said I would never find moose teeth. Another laughed so hard when I asked for a moose foot, I heard the phone hit the counter.

All they had were antlers. They all quoted prices over $300!

The stuffed magpie would have been impossible on my budget. Taxidermists only made museum samples, costing thousands of dollars. The nest was out of the question because of its fragility. I marked those off my list.

It was the wrong approach. A friend once told me, “If you can’t find it at Walmart, you don’t need it.” Walmart didn’t have moose parts either, but a clerk offered to sell me a gun. Since I’m not a hunter, nor did I want to be the person who killed a moose just to get school visits, I had to find another way.

I turned to Ebay. I browsed and found many antlers for sale because crafters love to use them to make chandeliers! I lost auction after action by bidding too low. Then I noticed a lonely single antler. It was “damaged” and discolored from some leftover blood (it said so in the notes).

The damage originated from squirrels and other rodents nibbling on the tips. This happens naturally when the antlers are shed each winter because they are fantastic sources of calcium. This antler was perfect for me.

No one else bid. I won my antler for $55! The shipping was $60 from Portland, Maine–because moose antlers are heavy and require a huge box. I had spent one third of my budget.

Moose teeth were elusive. I decided the only way to get them would be in a skull with the teeth still intact. A skull would show the enormity of the animal.

I could even use it to demonstrate and how its teeth could strip trees and how the back teeth processed the cud from a moose’s four stomachs.

I Googled “skulls.” The first result was Skulls Unlimited (who knew?) They specialized in legally obtained osteological parts.

I didn’t even know that “osteological” meant! (The fancy word for skulls and bones.)

But I did like the term “legally obtained” because once again, I didn’t like the idea of someone poaching for my picture book.

They offered a beautiful plastic version of a female skull for $277–not in my budget.

I returned to Ebay. I watched for a moose skull for over three months. When one came up, I decided that I would bid the rest of my budget to get it.

Carefully, I stalked the computer. In the last five minutes of the auction, another shopper upped the ante and won. I came in second place to a Canadian.

I wrote the seller and told him I was a poor writer who just wanted to educate children about moose (can you hear the violins?). I asked him to notify me if he had any other moose skulls or parts that I might be able to buy at a reasonable price.

Three days later, the seller notified me that the Canadian had to default because skulls (or any animal parts) can’t be shipped across international borders. Hallelujah for international poaching laws! The skull cost me about $125, so I would have a little left for other props.

I excitedly waited for the UPS man to deliver. It was a tall box. As I ripped open the box, a pair of teeth jutted out. I screamed. Somehow, it wasn’t what I expected.

As I carefully unwrapped the skull (now named Daisy), I knew I had hit the jackpot of props.

I use the skull in so many ways. I have a child pretend he is a tree, and I use the skull to “eat” him. I pulled shy children into the conversation with a “moose kiss” from the horrible teeth of Daisy. The kids and teachers love it–and so do I.

I invested $30 in plush moose that “mooed” a bull moose call and a small plastic figure showing a moose with a full rack of antlers. In the end, I spent $255.

When I visit the schools, I carry my “moose in a bag” in a large blue plastic IKEA shopping bag. Essentially, everything I do in the classroom fits over my shoulder (although heavy). It’s essential to be able to carry your own stuff as you rush through the school. I ask for a table to set up my “toys”.

While the kids enjoy my crazy antics while reading the story, it’s the science that spurs them on. I allow them, in small groups, to come up and touch. This requires close supervision, because the objects are delicate, and kids are like bulls in a china shop.

If you are looking to enhance or develop your school visit program – I suggest you find props.

• Make a wish list and a budget.

• Find unique items that tie into your book.

• Remember to teach and entertain.

• Be a savvy shopper. Look in odd places.

• Make sure you can carry your items easily.

I’m looking forward to the rest of my school visits this year. I wonder if Southwest Airlines will allow my antlers on the plane as my one carry-ons, or if security will consider them a weapon?

About Bettina Restrepo

Bettina is a mother, wife, and twice-a-day dog walker.

Moose and Magpie won the silver medal in the Mom’s Choice awards. She looks forward to the release of her young adult novel, Illegal (HarperCollins, 2011). She’s trying to figure out which props to buy from Ebay to support the book.

Author Feature: Lisa Ann Sandell

Lisa Ann Sandell on Lisa Ann Sandell:

“I have written three young adult novels, including The Weight of the Sky (Viking, 2006), Song of the Sparrow (Scholastic, 2007), and A Map of the Known World (Scholastic, 2009).

“I love to sculpt, travel, and spend time with my husband, who is also a writer by the name of Liel Leibovitz, and my puppy, Molly Dog Leibovitz. We all live in New York City.”

What were you like as a young reader?

Insatiable. My mom took us to the library every week, and every week I would check out the maximum number of books allowed.

I couldn’t pull myself out of my books–I read past my bedtime, my little sister was forever begging me to put down whatever book I had my nose buried in and play with her, and I even mastered a Ziploc-baggie-waterproofing system so I could read in the shower.

Why do you write for teenagers today?

I think teens are the coolest audience. They’re so receptive and eager for new books. Plus, they’re really open to experimentation, to exploration. They’re just the best.

What about young fictional heroes appeals to you as a writer?

I love that teen characters are going through the hardest and most dramatic growing-up process that we undergo as people. Teens are figuring out who they are, who they want to be, and what they want to do with their lives–what makes for better fodder, better drama than that?

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

On my path to publication, I was extremely and rather incredibly fortunate. When I had completed my first manuscript, I sent it to a handful of agents.

All of them passed but one–a young woman from the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency who was just starting to build her own list. She told me that if I did some revisions, she’d represent me. You can guess that I immediately sat down and began fixing the manuscript. This woman left the agency, but I’m now represented by a wonderful kindred spirit, Meredith Kaffel.

At any rate, when my agent sent out the manuscript to a few editors, most passed, but one, happily connected to my story and offered for it. It was such a magnificent, thrilling day!

On the flip side, what was most helpful to you in terms of developing your craft?

Being an editor, I think, has really helped me to develop my sense of when a story is working, when it’s not, why it’s not, and how to fix it. And most importantly, how to appreciate–and actually, crave–an editor’s touch.

Congratulations on your latest release, Map of the Known World (Scholastic, 2009)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

Thanks, Cynthia!

A Map of the Known World tells the story of 14-year-old Cora, who is just beginning high school and who is also going through a mourning process for the death of her older brother Nate.

Cora is an artist, and she dreams of running away from her small town and her parents’ suffocating grief.

When she discovers that her brother was also an artist, with the help of his best friend and fellow bad boy, Damian, Cora realizes that the best way to remember Nate and to stay connected to him is through her own artwork and remember what she loves about her hometown.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the story?

Cora just sort of popped into my head one day. I was visiting my in-laws in Tel Aviv, and I remember I was sitting on the couch in their living room, and all of a sudden, poof, there she was, pretty much fully formed. She drew maps and longed to get out of her tiny hometown, and her older brother had died. My grandmother, with whom I was very close, had died a few months earlier, and I am still mourning her. I think that her passing was definitely a trigger.

What was the timeline between spark and each publication, and what were the major events along the way?

My first book, The Weight of the Sky, took about 7-1/2 years to manifest itself as a finished first draft. There was a lot of foot-dragging and not concentrating. All together, from initial spark to publication, though, it took around nine years!

Song of the Sparrow was pretty quick. I did the research in about four or five months, wrote it in about six months, and it was published about a year later. This one was so much fun to write.

A Map of the Known World was on the quicker side too. I think it took me about two years to think of it, write it, and see it published.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing the book to life?

A Map of the Known World was a tough book for me. I really didn’t want to write a book about grieving and death. But I really felt compelled to tell this story, so I just plugged away at it. I think I had some kind of psychological or emotional block, though–I didn’t want to keep being reminded of my own loss. I tempered this with the romance, which was very fun to write!

I’m absolutely fascinated by the cover art! Could you tell us how it developed? Did you have any input into the process?

The cover art is really amazing. The art director, Elizabeth Parisi, came up with this concept; I can’t take any credit for it. She knew of this artist, Leo Sewell, who does amazing found art sculpture (you should check out his web site–it’s incredible), and had seen one of his pieces, a giant red apple. She got his permission to photograph a segment of this apple, and then had another artist, Tim O’Brien, paint the heart, using the photo of the apple as a basis. It’s so cool, right?

Your publications also include a short story, “See Me,” which was included in the anthology 21 Proms, edited by David Levithan and Daniel Ehrenhaft (Scholastic, 2007). Could you tell us about that book?

Writing “See Me” was really fun, and a big change for me. I don’t enjoy writing short stories as much as I do writing novels, but for this, I just thought about the opposite of my prom experience, which was so boringly typical, I could die. And I wrote that story. I loved writing a prom story about not going.

In terms of marketing and outreach, how do you connect with your readers?

I email with my readers, connect on Twitter and Facebook. Whenever someone writes to me, whether by email or snail mail, I always write back.

I love hearing from my readers–it’s truly the most amazing part of doing this job.

Looking back, if you could talk to your beginner-writer self, what advice would you give her?

Be disciplined, get into a habit of writing every day, be prepared to sit down in a chair, not talk to anyone, open my mind, and just do the work. Also, read as much and as widely as possible.

So far what are your favorite YA novels of 2010 and why?

Well, one of my favorite books of last year was Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2009), and now I’m waiting on pins and needles for Mockingjay (Scholastic, Aug. 24, 2010). I cannot wait!

What do you do outside the world of books?

My whole world is wrapped up in books. During the day I work as a book editor.

But on the nights when I’m not reading, editing, or writing, I sculpt and ride my bike and listen to music and go to plays and travel and hang out with my husband and friends and pup.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Cynthia, thank you so much for having me as a guest on your blog! I read Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008), which you were gracious enough to sign for me, and I loved it. Thanks again!

Guest Post: Kelly Bennett on Celebrating Fathers: Daddy, Father, Pop, Son, Shel, Cash And Cole

By Kelly Bennett

“My Heart Belongs to Daddy” a’ la (Cole Porter, 1938).

Okay, maybe not my heart, but certainly the inspiration for my two latest picture books belongs to Daddy, wherever he may be….

I grew up without a father. My parents married young and hatched two babies: my brother Joe, arrived nine months after their wedding, and I followed 22 months later.

I never saw my father. Word is, he saw me when I was a few weeks old, then took off.

No dramatic pause needed: I grew up in a loving family which included brother Joe, my mom, grandmother, and the best father model any child could ask for, my grandfather, Joe Silva. Frankly, I didn’t give fathers much thought until I became a mom.

As my children moved through childhood to teenville and then adulthood, I’ve examined the vital roles fathers—birth father, step father, father figures—play in their lives. And, as writers do, I used my work, creating picture books, as the basis for this exploration.

One of the most difficult (for me) decisions when writing is deciding when/where to enter a story. When I set about creating Dad and Pop, illustrated by Paul Meisel (Candlewick, 2010), all I knew was that I wanted to write about a child with two fathers, but I couldn’t figure out where to begin.

I allowed myself to get bogged down in the myriad of “family dramas,” which could create such a situation: Were her parents divorced and remarried? Were her dads gay? Was she adopted? Did she switch houses every Wednesday? etc.

Like a hammer, the truth hit finally me: While the “drama” resulting in a child having two fathers could serve as the basis for a Lifetime Movie, it was of little importance to my character. After coming to this realization, Dad and Pop came easy.

It is the story of a girl who, while creating a scrapbook, compares and contrasts her two fathers. Along the way discovering that, in the most important way, both fathers are exactly the same–they both love her!

Author Toni Morrison said, “I always know the ending; that’s where I start.”

That’s how my process works, too. I back into my stories.

The idea for Your Daddy Was Just Like You, illustrated by David Walker (GP Putman, 2010) came from watching my son, Max, trying so hard to be like his fathers, to do all the things that are easy for “big guys”—a struggle which regularly ended with him being frustrated, angry, or disappointed.

I wanted to tell him: “Give yourself a break. You’ll get there.”

At the same time, when Max frustrated his fathers, I wanted to say to them: “I’ve talked to your mother; I know you were a terror when you were little, and a scaredy cat, so lighten up.”

But I wanted to write a picture book, not a sermon, and I didn’t know where it would lead, and so the idea languished—for years.

Then, one day when I was in the backyard pruning—that’s what I do so I don’t have to stare at the blinking cursor—the last line came to me: “Your daddy is my baby…and he will always be my baby. Just like you.” With that line my narrator switched from mom to grandmother, and opened the door to a very different story.

Rather than a finger shaking sermon, Your Daddy Was Just Like You became a multi-generational love fest.

Thank you, Cynthia, for suggesting I consider why I’ve focused on fathers and family relationships in these books. It made me wonder what I’d be writing if my father had been in the picture, and brings to mind another song, this one courtesy of Shel Silverstein (as sung by Johnny Cash) “A Boy Named Sue.” Maybe Shel had Daddy drama, too.

P.S. According to Wikipedia, “Silverstein wrote a follow-up named ‘The Father of a Boy Named Sue,’ in which he tells the old man’s point of view of the story.”

Cynsational News & Giveaways

“I spent three days a week for 10 years
educating myself in the public library….”
Ray Bradbury
American Way magazine
(May 1, 2010; pg. 62)

Congratulations to Busing Brewster by Richard Michelson, illustrated by R.G. Roth (Knopf, 2010). From the promotional copy:

“Brewster is excited about starting first grade . . . until Mama announces that he’ll be attending Central—a school in the white part of town. Mama says they have art and music and a library bursting with books, but Brewster isn’t so sure he’ll fit in.

“Being black at a white school isn’t easy, and Brewster winds up spending his first day in detention in the library. There he meets a very special person: Miss O’Grady. The librarian sees into Brewster’s heart and gives him not only the gift of books but also the gift of confidence in himself.

“This powerful and tender story of desegregation busing in the 1970s introduces readers to the brave young heroes who helped to build a new world.”

More News

The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee (Candlewick 2010)(ages 12+): a recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog. Peek: “With her background in Victorian literature and culture, Y.S. Lee provides texture and pungency without overshadowing the characters or plots.” Read a Cynsations interview with Y.S.

Sunday Sweets: Reading Rocks from Cake Wrecks. Note: check out these gorgeous cakes, inspired by classic children’s books.

What Writers Can Learn from Betty White by Sarah from Glass Cases. Peek: “Surprise your audience and your peers, but, more importantly, surprise yourself.”

Now In Hardcover: The Series in 2010 from Publishing Trends: News and Opinion on the Changing World of Book Publishing. Peek: “‘When we bring an author’s proposal or manuscript to acquisition, often sales will ask if there are more, and we’ll sign them up as a series from the beginning,’ says Stephanie Lurie, Editorial Director of Disney-Hyperion Books for Children. ‘Other publishers might be more cautious at first and they’d rather see how the first book does before taking on more.'” Source: Nathan Bransford.

Calloo Calling: a new official blog from author Kathi Appelt. Peek: “It’s no coincidence that the inaugural blog is on the same day that I’m heading out for a book tour for my second novel, Keeper (Atheneum, 2010). I’m going to use this space as my travel notebook. And guess what? I bought one of those tiny Flipcam Video Cameras so I can record some of the places that I’m going.”

Writing Great Picture Book Poetry: All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee: an analysis by Julie Larios from Story Sleuths. Peek: “The real miracle of its read-aloud quality is that Scanlon wrote this poem in couplets, and (as anyone who has ever tried knows) it’s not easy to get away with a book full of couplets. Usually, the sing-song quality becomes irritating, predictable doggerel. But not with All the World.”

Public Speaking for Introverts: Jonesing for the Zone by Nancy Ancowitz from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: “You’ll need to rest up, prepare, and practice to do your personal best. Here’s what else you can do to get into the zone….”

Cynsational Author Tip: be discrete in your business relationships. Do not publicly complain about your agent, editor, publisher, fellow author or an event planner, especially on the Internet. This includes locked posts.

It Takes a Village to Acquire a Book from The World of Peachtree Publishers. Peek: “When a book is to be brought to an acquisitions meeting, it is made available to everyone in our office for review, and in turn, we fill out readers reports.” Source: Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid.

Coffee Break with Cynthea Liu from Debbi Michiko Florence. Peek: “…I’ve gotten many messages from adults in our industry that I am ‘supposed’ to write about my race. I am supposed to be more ‘POC.’ I am supposed to put things in my books that address the differences between our culture and white culture. That my books are meant for POC children. Whatev. I’m a regular person, too, you know, and I write for every child. Not just my Asian-homies.” Read a Cynsations interview with Cynthea.

The League of Extraordinary Writers: a new blog from “a group of debut YA authors who write science fiction and dystopian works.” Source: P.J. Hoover at Roots in Myth.

J. Aday Kennedy: official site of the Texas-based Christian children’s author. See also J. Aday Kennedy: A Writing Playground. Peek: “Read interviews of children authors, children illustrators, teachers, homeschoolers and tips on writing.”

Quirks Are Character Life Support: Character Worksheet Part 3 by Martina Boone from Adventures in Children’s Publishing. Peek: “Making a character true to life while simultaneously making her larger than life is one of the hardest tricks a writer has to pull off. Success requires balancing strengths and weaknesses, and introducing sympathy and lovable, memorable quirks.”

Summer Blog Blast Tour 2010 Master Schedule by Colleen Mondor from Chasing Ray. Featured authors include Malinda Lo, Rita Williams-Garcia, Donna Freitas, Jess Leader, Nancy Bo Flood, and more. Check out the whole list.

Every Writer Gets Rejected by Nathan Bransford – Literary Agent. Peek: “…publishing is a human institution. Not everyone is going to see what others love in a book, even one that goes on to big success.” Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

The Odds of Getting Published Stink and Why You Shouldn’t Care by Harold Underdown from The Purple Crayon. Peek: “Those 8,000 manuscripts received by the publisher do not all have an equal chance of getting published. Of those 8,000, at least 7,500 are going to be rejected almost as soon as they are opened, as a reader note poor writing of one kind or another, a type of manuscript that the publisher never publishes, or some other critical flaw.” See also Five Reasons Why You Don’t Need an Agent and the latest updates to Who’s Moving Where? Read a Cynsations interview with Harold.

Writers’ Attention Deficit Disorder by Brian Yansky from Brian’s Blog: Writer Talk. Peek: “Writers simply have to live with the fact that their minds will often wander out of the moment. They have to try to control it so that they don’t agree to things they don’t mean to agree to.” Read a Cynsations interview with Brian.

What If My Agent Doesn’t Like My Next Book? by Rachelle Gardner from Rants & Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent. Peek: “The agent or publishing house signed you because they like you, they really like you. There were forty thousand other authors they could have signed, and they signed you. Yay.” See also Rachelle on Reputations.

The Highs and Lows of Publication by Holly Nicole Hoxter from Crowe’s Nest. Peek: “Some moments fell drastically short of my most modest expectations, while other moments far exceeded anything I could have hoped for. Some days I feel like a rockstar writer, some days I feel like a total failure…”

forwordsbooks from Kathy Bloomfield. “From the very beginning, forwordsbooks has always focused on bringing the best in Jewish children’s literature to the school’s we serve. But we have also had another, rather unique niche, in the types of books we have tried to deliver to our core audience. In addition to the best in Jewish children’s literature, we also look for secular books with Jewish values content.”

Time Management by Maggie Stiefvater from Words on Words. Peek: “…when you know exactly how much time you have and how much you have to get done in it, it makes you more efficient.” See also Maggie’s post on “bad” parent characters and writing for young adults. Note: not badly written, but badly behaving. Read a Cynsations snapshot interview with Maggie.

Singapore Connections: a series of posts by Uma Krishnaswami on the Asian Festival of Childrnen’s Content and more. See also Multilingual Publishing: Walking the Tight Rope. Read a Cynsations interview with Uma.

Picture Books for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month by Jama Rattigan from Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup. Peek: “I celebrate and cherish the picture books I’m featuring today. The child in me says, ‘At last…but I wish there were more!’ The adult in me says, ‘There absolutely should be more. I’ll keep looking!'”

On Playing Nice by Alexandra Bracken. Peek: “Treat others respectfully. Don’t dump the playground sand on someone’s head just because you think it makes you look clever, or because you want to stir up controversy.”

Q&A with Literary Agent Adriana Domínguez of Full Circle Literary by Nilki Benitez from musings. Peek: “Adriana is based on the East Coast (New York), and interested in building a strong list of children’s picture books, middle grade novels, and (literary) young adult novels.”

Creating a Book Series: an Interview with Marietta Zacker, an agent with the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency, by Stephanie Greene from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “The development of a series is usually much more organic than people imagine. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think of the infinite possibilities that exist with the characters and worlds you create, but always write as if that is the last time anyone will hear from those characters.”

Manage Your Expectations: Rants and Ramblings by Rachelle Gardner from BronzeWorld Latino Authors. Peek: “…there are many writers who hold on to unrealistic expectations long after reality should be setting in. This is an ongoing concern for agents, editors, and publicists who constantly find themselves not living up to writers’ expectations. In many cases…the writer’s hopes and beliefs were simply too idealistic to begin with.”

Hard-boiled Teens: a bibliography of recommended reads from School Library Journal. Peek: “These mysteries all feature a teen protagonist trying to deal with a problem while keeping up with daily life, a challenge that many teen readers can identify with, though likely with less severe consequences!”

Will the Internet Replace Nonfiction Books? by Tanya Lee Stone from I.N.K. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: “Context. Is one word too short of an answer?” Note: Look for Tanya’s upcoming book, The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us (Viking, Oct. 15, 2010). Read a Cynsations interview with Tanya.

Agent Perspectives: Alyssa Eisner Henkin from Denise Jaden. Peek: “I am accepting new queries primarily for YA and MG novels. I am also looking to take on a very select number of new and returning author/illustrators with picture book dummies, as well as picture book manuscripts by previously published authors only.”

Agent Interview: Chris Richman, Upstart Crow, from Alice Pope’s SCBWI Children’s Market Blog. Peek: “In terms of what I’m seeking, I’m beginning to get a reputation for the ‘funny boy’ books. Part of that is my own background in comedy, and part of it’s because I truly believe there’s a place in the market for these types of projects.”

Talk Story

Talk Story: Sharing stories, sharing culture “is a literacy program that reaches out to Asian Pacific American (APA) and American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) children and their families. The program celebrates and explores their stories through books, oral traditions, and art to provide an interactive, enriching experience. Children and their families can connect to rich cultural activities through Talk Story in their homes, libraries, and communities. We welcome all ethnicities to customize Talk Story as needed for your community family literacy needs.”

It’s a joint project of the American Indian Library Association and the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association.

Check out the American Indian/Alaskan Native Book List, the Asian Pacific American Book List, Tips for Selecting Books, Resources for Librarians, and more. Note: Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), and Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002), all by Cynthia Leitich Smith, are included among recommended reads.

Cynsational Screening Room

Candlewick Press Channel from YouTube. A new opportunity to view author interviews, animations, book trailers and more. See an animation for Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein, a book trailer for Movie Maker illustrated by Gary Parsons, a book trailer for Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness, and a book trailer for Girl Parts by John M. Cusick–all fall releases from Candlewick.

In the video below, author Laurie Halse Anderson talks about the importance of libraries with students at the Mexico Academy school library. Learn more from the American Association of School Libraries. See also Save Libraries and Librarians by Deborah Heiligman from I.N.K.

On a related note, support the New York Public Library (whether you live in New York or not). Source: E.C. Myers.

Check out this video in celebration of Poop Happened! A History of the World from the Bottom Up by Sara Albee (Walker, 2010). Note: trailer by Jake Cohen.

Check out this video for I So Don’t Do Makeup by Barrie Summy (Delacorte, 2010).

Signing in the Waldenbooks by Mystery Author Parnell Hall. Note: I don’t normally feature authors of books written for grown-ups, but I suspect many of us can identify.

More Personally

Definitely last week’s highlight was participating in the New England SCBWI regional conference in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. I had the honor of offering the opening keynote to an enthusiastic and generous audience, signing with my fellow faculty members, and sharing the stage for a question-and-answer interview by author Melissa Stewart, who asked terrific, thoughtful questions.

Thanks to everyone who was part of this amazing event, especially conference directors Anindita Basu Sempere and Greg R. Fishbone! I don’t dare try to list everyone, so I’ll just say quickly that it was a particular treat to hear fellow keynoters Marla Frazee and Allyn Johnston as well as workshop co-leaders Mitali Perkins and Deborah Sloan discussing “Social Media Tips and Tricks: How a Savvy Online Presence Can Serve Your Career.”

Here’s me with Mitali at the faculty dinner on Friday night. (Thanks to Mitali for the photo!).

While I was having fun in New England, Greg joined many of our fellow Texas writers at an Austin SCBWI advanced workshop with author Carol Lynch Williams (author interview).

Here’s Austin SCBWI regional advisor Debbie Gonzales with Carol.

As promised, here are a few photos from my previous trip to the Pechanga Chámmakilawish School of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. It’s a K-5 elementary school on the reservation. I had a wonderful visit.

My warm greeting included signs…

enthusiastic audiences of young readers (and the folks who connect books to them)…

as well as a few generous gifts (flowers not shown).

I also had the pleasure of staying at Pechanga Resort and Casino. I’m not a gambler, but the hotel was excellent.

And so were the views.

Special thanks to librarian Mike and my event coordinator Jean Dayton of Dayton Bookings.

Beyond that, it was fun to see a notice of Eternal (Candlewick, 2010) making the New York Times list under “Alumni News & Notes” on page 11 of the spring 2010 issue of J-links (PDF), a publication of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at The University of Kansas. I graduated from KU in 1990 with degrees in news/editorial and public relations.

Eternal Story Secrets & Giveaway

Thank you to fellow YA author Holly Cupala for my most recent interview Story Secrets of Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010)! Here’s a peek:

“Occasionally, a character will emerge who’s something of a composite of a number of folks I’ve known.

“Nora from Eternal is someone like that. She’s an older lady—the chef at the castle, nurturing, likes to treat trouble with a hot meal, and is always willing to listen. She’s a tribute of sorts to my grandmothers and aunties.”

Leave a comment at the post for a chance to win a copy of the novel. Deadline: 5 p.m. PST Monday. See details.

Jingle Dancer Giveaway

Nathalie Mvondo is celebrating the 10th anniversary of my first book, Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) at Multiculturalism Rocks! A blog on multiculturalism in children’s literature. Surf over to check out her thoughts on the book and to enter to win a copy of Jingle Dancer for the school of your choice. Note: Recipients (reader and school) of the giveaway will be announced May 28.

More Giveaway Reminders

Enter to win a copy of Smells Like a Dog by Suzanne Selfors (Little, Brown, 2010)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Smells Like Dog” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post; I’ll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: May 31. Publisher sponsored; U.S. entries only. See also Suzanne on Why I Love Writing for Middle Graders.

Enter to win a copy of Morpheus Road: The Light by by D. J. MacHale (Aladdin, 2010). To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Morpheus Road: The Light” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message/comment me with the name in the header/post; I’ll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: May 31. Publisher sponsored; U.S. entries only. See also the book trailer.

Cynsational Events

SCBWI Florida: Mid-Year Workshop and Intensives will be June 4 and June 5 at Disney’s Coronada Springs Resort at Walt Disney World. Note: I’m honored to be leading the marketing track with author/social media consultant Greg Pincus and Ed Masessa, author and Senior Manager Product Development, Scholastic Book Fairs. Picture book, middle grade, YA, and series tracks also are available.

Austin Area Events

“The Metaphor: So Much More Than a Simple Comparison,” a lecture by Varian Johnson at 11 a.m. June 12 at BookPeople.

Picture Perfect! A Spit-Polish Workshop at McKinney Rough Nature Park, featuring famed Lisa Wheeler as Keynote Speaker is scheduled for Oct. 9 and sponsored by Austin SCBWI. Faculty also will include Sarah Sullivan, Stephanie Greene, Don Tate, and Laura Jennings. See more information (PDF).

Guest Post: Jo Whittemore on Everybody’s Doing It: Writing From Life

By Jo Whittemore

There are three things all writers do without even realizing it:

1. Use a particular word over and over again in a manuscript (mine is “so”).

2. Perk up at email notifications and then deflate when they turn out to be spam.

3. Use their lives to write every single story.

I had you until that last one, right? Because you don’t think your fantasy/adventure/story from the opposite gender’s point of view is rooted in who you are. You’ve never been in a spaceship. You’ve never fought off a fire-breathing dragon. At most, you think you’ve contributed a few traits to the character and maybe you share a common interest.

But the story is you. Your characters know about the celestial wonder of outer space because you’ve laid in a country field and seen the stars fill the night sky. Your characters can react to the heat of a dragon’s flame because you’ve touched a hot stove and know the pain.

All your experiences and senses are poured into the story, and that’s what lends realism and makes people believe that the events could actually happen.

So now that you’re aware, how can you enhance your story even more?

Practical rules for consciously writing from life:

1. Embellish a real life situation/sensation. They say truth is stranger than fiction, but the truth can also be more boring than fiction. Nobody wants to hear about your character drinking milk in the kitchen. They want to hear about your character drinking spoiled milk in the kitchen.

2. But don’t overdo it. There’s a certain suspension of disbelief with any story where the audience is willing to concede that something might happen. It’s believable that your character would accidentally drink spoiled milk. It’s not believable that he would die from it.

3. Rely on physical memories to conjure mental and emotional ones. Look at old photographs of trips you took or go through that footlocker of high school memorabilia you’ve held onto. Touch and smell and see and taste (if you’re brave) to bring back those sensations. Listen to music from your past. We all have songs that remind us of certain events and feelings.

4. Research. Many of us already do this. If you don’t know a particular sensation or experience, learn about it. Read books and do interviews and, if possible, go through the experience yourself. When I was writing a sword-fighting scene for a book, I choreographed the moves with my husband. (Note: An excellent alternative to marriage counseling!)

5. Discover the dark side. Some of us are only interested in the positive aspects of something because we’re afraid to experience and know the negative. We like parrots because they’re colorful and intelligent. But many people don’t know that, if not raised properly, they can be dangerous. They bite, and with 350 pounds of jaw pressure, you can be missing a chunk of your finger just by poking it in the cage.

Good luck! And stay away from angry parrots.

Cynsational Notes

Jo Whittemore is the author of the newly released contemporary novel Front Page Face-Off (Aladdin Mix, 2010), as well as the fantasy trilogy The Silverskin Legacy (Llewellyn, 2006-2007). She has been featured in newspapers and national magazines and loves all things chocolate, most things sparkly, and nothing that involves the words “back hair.” See also Jo’s Journal, and read a Cynsations interview with Jo.

Celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Jingle Dancer at Multiculturalism Rocks! & Enter to Win a Copy for the School of Your Choice

Huge thanks to Nathalie Mvondo for celebrating the 10th anniversary of my first book, Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) at Multiculturalism Rocks! A blog on multiculturalism in children’s literature.

Surf over to check out her thoughts on the book and to enter to win a copy of Jingle Dancer for the school of your choice. Note: “The recipients (reader and school) of the giveaway will be announced on Friday, May 28, 2010.”

Cynsational Notes

See also my Jingle Dancer Curriculum Guide from my official author site.

New Voice: Mara Purnhagen on Tagged

Mara Purnhagen is the first-time author of Tagged (Harlequin Teen, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Can Kate Morgan stand up for herself—without being labeled a snitch?

Kate is just as confused as her best friend Lan when she arrives at Cleary High to find the building’s been “tagged” with a life-size graffiti mural. Could the culprit be one of their friends or classmates? And is the kind-of-amazing creation really vandalism, or a work of art?

She’s tempted to stay out of it—mostly because, as the police chief’s daughter, she’s worried about being labeled a snitch. But when the same mysterious graffiti starts appearing throughout the state, putting more pressure on the authorities to catch the vandal, her investigative instincts kick in.

Now Eli, Kate’s favorite coworker at the local coffee shop, is MIA. With Lan preoccupied with her own boy troubles, Kate needs to figure out some things on her own. Like why she can’t stop thinking about Eli. And what she will do when all the clues about the graffiti point to someone she’s close to…

Are you a plotter or a plunger?

I’m a plunger who always plots the first and last scene. I need to know where I’m starting and where I’m ending, but everything in the middle is unknown to me until I begin writing.

I like this approach because it allows me flexibility within a basic structure. If a writer is struggling with plot, I would suggest stepping back for a little while. Ask yourself what would be the expected thing to happen—then come up with something different.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to carve out time to write?

As the stay-at-home, primary caregiver of three small children, finding a quiet moment to write during the day is nearly impossible! I have adapted how I write to fit my busy schedule.

Before I had children, I would sit at my desk for an hour and write.

Now, I write for a few minutes at a time. It works well for me. I’ll write a few sentences, then get up to change a diaper or pour a cup of juice or throw laundry in the dryer. But while I’m completing those tasks, I’m turning over the next sentence in my mind.

When I get back to the computer, I know what I want to write, even if it’s just one or two lines.

My advice for other writers in a similar situation is to adapt as best you can, prioritize your family, and realize that even if you’re not at your desk, you can still write in your head!