Critique Group Interview: Kathi Appelt, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Jeanette Ingold, Kimberly Willis Holt, Lola Schaefer

CLS: Thank you for inviting us to peek in on your group! Who are the members?

All (from left to right): Lola Schaefer, Kimberly Willis Holt, Kathi Appelt, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Jeanette Ingold.

CLS: How did you all come together?

JI: Kathi’s the force behind us—and the hard-working glue.

I remember sitting at a wet table with her in the authors’ tent on a rainy day in Nashville, trying to cram both our writing and personal-life catch-up with each other into one more too-brief visit. We dreamed a bit about how nice it would be to get together for more than the occasional meeting at a festival or conference.

KA (pictured): Not long after that, I met up with Kimberly at an IRA conference in Orlando over donuts and coffee and we started a conversation that got cut off by our individual schedules. Frustrating. It really was these quick moments, in which we caught up just long enough to wish that we had more time together that made it all happen. I’d say we all dreamed hard. There’s a lot to be said for that.

The thing is, my husband’s family has a working cattle ranch outside of La Grange, Texas, that’s about an hour from Austin. The house is roomy and comfortable, perfect for a retreat.

So, one day I asked myself, “why not?” Then I asked Jeanette, and she said, “why not?” Kimberly agreed to come.

LS: In the meantime, Kathi invited both Rebecca and I to join her with Kimberly and Jeanette. We accepted her generous offer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

KWH: I remember being excited by the chance to meet with other writers, but also a bit apprehensive. I’d met Kathi in ’96 and was fortunate enough to cross her path several times. Jeanette and I spoke on a panel at the Texas Book Festival the year my first book, My Louisiana Sky (Holt, 1998), came out. I remembered her as a soft spoken, gentle soul. I’d never met Rebecca or Lola, but I had a hunch I’d like them, too.

My apprehension was over the amount of time our group would be spending together. Four days is a long time to spend with anyone, much less folks you don’t know that well. What if we ended up not liking each other? What if they didn’t like me?

I decided to build in some insurance. I told Kathi I’d be renting my own car at the airport because I may have to leave early. An hour into the retreat, I knew I wouldn’t be. These were women who lived my life–balancing family with writing.

A couple of years ago I confessed my back-up plan. Of course to this day they call it, “Kimberly’s Escape Plan.” Thank goodness they laughed about it instead of being offended.

KA: Well, heck, how often have we all wished that we had an “Escape Plan,” but weren’t as smart as Kimberly?

CLS: How do you structure your schedule, meetings, menus (if applicable)?

RKD (pictured): The mornings start with coffee. Always coffee. By the way, I have learned to like strong coffee. These are cowgirls, after all.

I love the fact That no matter when I get up (and it’s usually early, like 6 a.m. or so) someone else has been up and put the coffee on. Love that. Ready to pour, knowing someone is up and writing already. (I do sometimes get it ready the night before, so hey…)

LS: Breakfast is a wake-up time. We chat, we eat, and sometimes share our goal for the day. Many mornings, Kimberly and I take a vigorous walk from the house down to the highway and back – about two miles round trip.

KA: Yes, Lola and Kimberly used to do this, but at our most recent retreat, I had to go rescue Kimberly from the mad cows.

LS: For the rest of the morning, we all find our little spot to sit and think and write. Around noon, we gather when we hear the clink of silverware. It’s another time to chat and eat. One by one we leave the kitchen and again find a place to call our own for the afternoon.

RKD: During the day Jeanette and Kimberly both are usually propped up in their beds, writing away, Jeanette on her laptop, Kimberly on her yellow pad. It takes me longer to get going.

I futz around for a bit, maybe go in and sit on Jeanette’s bed, ask her how the writing is going, and we might talk over a certain passage or place in her manuscript.

When Lola is there, she takes off to a quiet place and gets working. I like to interrupt her and ask her opinion on where I am on a story. Kidding. Kind of.

KA: We’re all guilty of interrupting each other. I’ve discovered that if I put on a fresh pot of coffee, and stand next to it, the smell will eventually lure someone toward me. It’s sneaky, but it works. (Shh…don’t tell the others that I do this).

RKD: That’s the thing…no one is ever too busy to stop and look up and offer ideas or advice or a listening ear. Kathi walks back and forth quietly, goes out onto the porch, into the back bedroom, and works.

Sometimes we’ll have breakfast together, but at times each of us will go in alone and pour a bowl of cereal or toast a bagel. More coffee.

KA: See how sneaky I am? Rebecca thought I just walked back and forth aimlessly, when really, I wanted someone to notice. Coffee has so many uses.

LS: (Don’t look too closely. You might catch someone napping for a few minutes!)

JI (pictured): Each retreat is different, shaped by the needs we bring to them.

Our days shape themselves. We’re all morning workers. Usually Kimberly or I am up first, switching on the coffee pot.

Sometimes there’s quiet visiting, but pretty soon we’re all in our spaces. Writing. Reading one of the manuscripts left out on the table for critique, or having a quiet talk about it.

Afternoons are more varied—more reading and writing. A trip to town to check email or buy groceries.

Evenings are for gathering in the pit—the living room sofa area where we talk shop and recount what our kids are doing. We read aloud and critique. Bring up problems. Challenge ourselves with writing games—ten minutes using five words. One time, Kathi wrote a longish piece about a boy who wouldn’t even be in the story when it became The Underneath.

LS: After dinner, there’s usually some porch and swing time. It’s lovely to sit outside, watch the sky turn soft purple and listen to the leaves in the trees. Some evenings we sit together and read and offer celebrations and suggestions on our work. Other nights we chat about the industry. Once in a while we offer up a writing exercise or two and end up laughing ourselves silly.

KWH: Here’s the beauty of it all. We don’t have much of a structure and yet a lovely routine seems to have organically formed from our gatherings. Somehow meals get cooked and dishes get washed.

And we still devote a great deal of our time to writing and reading each other’s work. We have all found our spaces at the ranch–Rebecca’s is always one corner of the dining table. Kathi, Jeanette and I have squatters’ rights on certain benches on the back porch. However, we move inside the house when the heat becomes unbearable.

Some rituals are a must–We always make one visit to town to check email, grocery shop, and eat pie at Royers Round Top Cafe and the last evening is always reserved for a meal at the Mexican restaurant in LaGrange.

JI: There’s always our lunch in Round Top (have to buy the pie) and our final Tex-Mex dinner night to look forward to, and disasters to enjoy remembering–my efforts to introduce Rebecca to tofu, the time Lola set the oven on fire….

RKD: I love evenings the most. Pouring a glass of wine after dinner, we listen to what each of us has written during the day. We offer comments. We dig in to the manuscripts with precision. And eat pie.

We’ve come up with titles, character names, plot promises. Sometimes we get goofy and laugh ourselves silly. They often laugh at things I say, which amazed me at first, because they think I’m funny. At home, no one thinks I’m particularly funny!

KA: It’s important to have at least one “thrill” per retreat. The burning oven certainly ranks as one of those.

RKD: I remember setting the oven on fire (was it bacon?) with Lola. She claims it was her fault, but since she’s the cook and I’m not, it was probably mine.

Kimberly, Jeanette, Kathi and Lola are all good cooks. So they let me off easy and I make a simple dinner one night (maybe) and revel in their meals (except the Tofu) and do dishes. I help chop and pour wine, too. Just sayin’…

KA: This past fall, we had a drive-by with a coral snake. I can’t remember which came first—snake? cows? snake? cows?

CLS: Where do you meet? Why is that space good for y’all?

KWH: The ranch is near LaGrange. It is a rambling hacienda with plenty of room and taxidermy to set the mood for women writers who like to think of themselves as daring and mysterious.

That is what happens to one when they pass a bobcat in the hallway and are peered at by wild prey from every corner. It creates a wild atmosphere, and one finds courage to face the page each day. Unless you count the time on this last retreat when Kathi had to rescue me from a group of cattle.

LS: It’s an idyllic location to forget about other responsibilities and find yourself and your writing.

JI: It’s a perfect place for a retreat, beautiful, quiet, isolated, spacious, and with corners that we’ve all staked out for ourselves. It’s a place where the land talks to you.

CLS: So, who’s your big-picture person? Your logic guru? Your poet? The line-editor of the group? What other superpowers have I missed?

LS (pictured): Kathi is our general manager. She organizes the date of the retreat and arrival times at the airport. If that wasn’t enough, she typically buys food and prepares that first evening meal to welcome us all to the ranch.

As far as other roles, we all step in at different times on different days. Although I do have to say that when it comes to parsing out a sentence, Rebecca shines. She’s all about “just the right word.”

KA: I agree that Rebecca is our poet extraordinaire.

JI: Lola’s our practical teacher, structured and encouraging. Rebecca and Kathi are our by-definition poets, but Kimberly’s lovely prose is poetry, too.

Rebecca’s our gentle soul, Kimberly our home soul, Kathi our push to get out and do something with our musings.

KWH: I can’t quite peg anyone. All I can say is this–each of these women have many gifts and my work is better having had them read it and giving me their input. They have my respect, admiration, and love.

KA: It seems to me that we each bring different strengths to the table at different times. We completely trust each other and that is perhaps the huge value that we’ve given ourselves over the years. I may not agree with what one of them has to tell me, but I trust that the advice is solid and worthy and I would be crazy to not pay attention.

RKD: Every single one offers some of the same to the group; patience, hard work, a listening ear, an inviting ‘come on in’ even while they are working, yet something special, too.

You can always interrupt Jeanette (or at least, I do) because she works hard yet is always ready for a bit of a breather and an interesting idea for you to try or think about when you get back to working.

Kathi is such a good teacher and offers advice on the whole picture, Kimberly zeros in on character development and structure, and Lola will help you take everything apart and put it back together.

KA: I would say that Jeanette is the best copy-editor ever. Just before I turned in The Underneath, she went over it line by line. Her background in journalism is a boon for all of us.

Kimberly is the questioner. She asks the hard questions that help us see our work from the inside out.

LS: Some of us work on picture books or poetry and some work on novels or early chapter books. Since our work is varied, so are our opportunities to offer suggestions.

CLS: What have been a few of your most glowing moments? The memories that stand out?

KA: I’ll never forget sitting on the porch for the inaugural reading of Lola’s picture book about butts.

LS: Pie at the Round Top Cafe puts a smile on all of our faces. It’s a tradition. Literary memories–we were the first to read or hear parts of award-winning novels and picture books.

We watched Kimberly use a line from an evening writing exercise in her book Part of Me: Stories of a Louisiana Family (Henry Holt, 2006)(see movie). We watch crude ideas come full circle to extraordinary literature.

KWH: The waitress that assumed we were together to shop.

Kathi remarked, “Why do people always think a group of women out of town together means a shopping trip?”

There are many more memories, but this one symbolizes so much of our time together. Shopping is the last thing any of us wants to do.

JI: Every retreat starts out with glowing moments as we come together at the airport, two of us and then three, and then we’re all there, in the middle of conversations picked up as though they were never broken off.

There have been successes to celebrate with pie. Starred reviews. Awards. We pored over outfit possibilities for Kathi to wear to the National Book Awards.

We’ve got our myths going, and growing. Kimberly will probably never live down needing to be rescued when a bunch of cows tried to join her morning walk.

KA: Nope, Kimberly will forever be reminded about the cows.

JI: Kathi has earned her reputation for being able to handle wildlife from snakes to scorpions.

KA: Actually, I think it’s Rebecca who handles the wildlife. She’s the scorpion spotter and swatter. I’ve never seen anyone smack a scorpion harder with a shoe than Rebecca!

RKD: One of the things I love the most is process and watching the process of all these amazing writers I call my friends; my cowgirls.

You get to see a first line turn into the beginning nugget of something. You hear the plot forming as they are talking. You can stop by a chair and talk over a word, a line, a paragraph taking on a life of its own.

I am the peeping tom of process. Did I say I love it?

CLS: Biggest challenges?

KWH: Finding a week where we all can attend. We all travel a lot and have family obligations, but I think our retreat has become a high priority.

JI: Yes, calendars are a problem. We haven’t yet resorted to Excel for finding times when we’re all free, but if one of us actually knew Excel…

LS: Disciplining ourselves to work in isolation when there is so much to learn from one another and a year of personal experiences that we’re anxious to share.

KA: The cows, y’all!

CLS: How has the vibe and/or membership changed over the years?

KWH (pictured): Any apprehension that I felt prior to that first retreat has grown into finding a safe haven with good friends that I look forward to attending each year.

LS: I think that Kathi, Kimberly and Jeanette have faithfully met each and every time.

The past two years I’ve been absent. My consulting work in schools has increased, and I’ve taken a sabbatical from the ranch, hoping to return one year in the near future.

But since we sometimes share works-in-progress via email, we’re never more than a keystroke away from one another.

RKD: Lola and I always shared a room, and I’ve missed her these last few years (I missed a few myself). But now Kathi shares the room with me, and what I have loved about both of them is that we lay in our beds and talk quietly and share bits about family or what we’re working on or the day or thoughts on a book we love or are reading.

Often it helps me to fall asleep. At first I was a scaredy cat at night, out there all alone on 2200 hundred acres surrounded by nothing but cows, horses, and assorted wildlife. But I’ve gotten used to it.

JI: We’ve become more a part of each other’s non-writing lives as we’ve shared personal challenges and joys and followed each other’s kids growing up, going through school, taking jobs.

KA: We’re growing up together, we are. And even when one of us is absent, that doesn’t change.

CLS: What makes your group special?

LS: Five unique women who totally support one another.

KWH: Kathi, Jeanette, Rebecca, Lola.

KA: Kimberly.

JI: It’s the kindness—the absolute generosity of dear friends sharing their talent and their lives.

KA: Each other.

(Pictured: Jeanette, Kathi, Kimberly and Rebecca.)

CLS: What do you see in your crystal ball?

KWH: More and much much more of the same.

LS: Unconditional kindness, generosity, support and understanding!

JI: Nothing crystal clear, that’s for sure. This feels like a time for trying something new—new forms, new subjects—and probably part of our talk will be about how we’re going to change in this business that is so different from the one we all entered.

But there’s strength in coming together, especially at a place where there’ve been women looking out over the same land for the last 150 years, wondering what the future holds.

KA: I can’t see Kimberly taking a walk with the cows again, but beyond that, what everyone else said.

RKD: I am looking in my crystal ball, and I see many more years at the ranch and even some years in Paris or in a house by the sea in Maine. We will investigate and explore other places, other genres, other books, and yet we will keep and love the tradition of what we have and what brought us together.

We will push each other and support each other and…maybe one day…I’ll cook them a really great meal.

KA: We’ll have pie.

Last Call: Giveaway of Manuscript Critique by Elizabeth Law & Convo in the Comments

Have you been following the conversation in the comments following Egmont USA Publisher Elizabeth Law’s recent interview with YA author Allen Zadoff?

Here are some highlights:

From Elizabeth:

“It’s easier to help an author build a career when you have the luxury of taking several books to do it.”

“I’m a very bad prognosticator, but I continue to hear that horror and ghost stories are coming back, and that middle grade adventure will also be coming on strong.”

“…we are seeing amazing, extraordinary YA writing right now. The bar keeps getting higher and higher. And with such very good material coming out, and more talented writers than ever entering the field (like Allen, for example) I think the success of YA will continue.”

From Allen:

“Yes, I do get stuck. Here’s a little trick that helps me. I pretend someone else is working on my manuscript tomorrow. A different writer, but someone I like. My only job today is not to screw that guy by leaving him in a tough spot. I get something on the page for ‘him’ so he doesn’t have to start cold in the morning.”

“For me characters appear as who they are, not as who I’d like them to be. So if a female character wants me to tell her story, she’ll tap me on the shoulder and let me know.”

“Sometimes editors don’t know how to give a note/editorial comment in the most effective way. I was actually taught that it’s not their job to tell me well; it’s my job to interpret well and fix the story.”

Last Call

In celebration of Egmont USA Publisher Elizabeth Law’s recent interview with YA author Allen Zadoff, she is giving away a critique of up to thirty manuscript pages.

Her response will include a thirty-minute phone call and short, written notes about the submitted work, which can be fiction, nonfiction, or chapter book. The winner will have two weeks to submit for critique. The phone call/feedback will occur within a week after that. Submissions should be writing targeted to ages 8 and up (middle grade or YA). The phone call may also touch on submissions, the market for the book, the publishing process–anything the author wants to know!

To enter, comment at Elizabeth and Allen’s interview and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you may email me with “Elizabeth and Allen” in the subject line.

An extra entry will go to those who comment with a thoughtful question or make a related comment. Extra entries also will go to those who promote this giveaway. Please indicate your efforts/URLs in your comment. Deadline: midnight CST May 31. This giveaway is international.

New Voice: Maureen McGowan on Cinderella: Ninja Warrior and Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer

Maureen McGowan is the first-time author of Cinderella: Ninja Warrior and Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer (both Silver Dolphin, 2011). From the promotional copy of Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer (see more on CNW below):

In this thrilling story full of adventure and romance, Sleeping Beauty is more than just a lonely princess waiting for her prince–she’s a brave, tenacious girl who never backs down from a challenge.

With vampire-slaying talents that she practices in secret, Sleeping Beauty puts her courage to the test in the dark of night, fighting evil as she searches for a way to break the spell that has cut her off from her family.

In a special twist, readers have the opportunity to make key decisions for Sleeping Beauty and decide where she goes next-but no matter the choice, the result is a story unlike any fairy tale you’ve ever read!

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

I love how you used the word “apprenticeship” because that’s what it’s like. So many people, including me, go into novel writing thinking they know how to write and tell stories, only to discover it takes time (and often several manuscripts) to develop the skills required to write publishable novels, no matter how talented you are and no matter how much you think you know about writing or literature going in.

I’m a bit of a craft junky and have quite an extensive collection of writing books—some that I go back to often, some that I’ve only skimmed. Lately, the books I find most interesting and helpful are books on storytelling structure by screenwriting gurus such as Blake Snyder, Robert McKee and Michael Hauge, but I’m not sure I would have been ready for those books, or would have gleaned as much from them, when I was a beginning writer.

As for books that helped me early on, I find it hard to pick just one so I’m going to cheat and pick two very different books, because each made a huge difference to me for very different reasons.

The first is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (Harper Collins, 1993). I had taken courses on writing fiction before finding this book, and I had received critiques and heard advice similar to that contained in this fabulous resource book, but I didn’t initially believe some of that advice I’d been given, especially since I was writing humor at the time and so much of that is voice.

While reading this book, huge light bulbs went off for me, and I finally let go of excuses like, “But that’s my voice!” and learned to critically analyze how I was using words. I discovered that the “rules” they suggested didn’t have to kill my voice, or make me sound generic or flat. Rather, they could help to enhance and develop my true storytelling voice.

It’s no coincidence that my submissions started to gain attention from agents and contest judges soon after I read this book.

The other book was On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (Scribner, 2000). I’ve enjoyed other “writers’ life” books, such as Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (Pantheon, 1994), but King’s book lit a Las-Vegas-hotel-sign-worth of light bulbs for me. For one thing, he helped me get over the literary vs. genre fiction struggle I was having with myself, by validating great storytelling as a difficult and worthy creative profession to pursue.

Also, at the time, I was working with a large group of critique partners whose voices were getting into my head as I wrote, making me question my judgment, and either stalling my process, or sanitizing the stories I wanted to tell.

King’s suggestion to write the first draft with the door closed was a huge breakthrough for me, and the manuscript I wrote (with the door closed) after reading his advice was the one that landed me my first agent.

Now with a few more manuscripts under my belt, I do have the confidence to let a few very trusted critique partners peek behind the door while I’m writing my first draft, but only if I need help or reassurance, and while I rely, more than I can say, on my critique partners to read and give feedback on that first draft, I no longer let anyone see my work until I have at least a rough draft of my vision down on paper.

Also, Stephen King’s personal story is incredibly inspirational.

As a paranormal writer, what first attracted you to that tradition? Have you been a long-time paranormal reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?

I had written a few contemporary set manuscripts before heading in paranormal and “other world” directions. And I did love writing stories set in the real world, but there’s something very freeing and exciting about writing paranormals and/or urban fantasy.

As a child, I enjoyed fantasy fiction–I remember the C.S. Lewis books in particular–but at some point found all the strange names and other-world histories in fantasy got in the way for me and slowed the stories down.

I might get rotten tomatoes thrown at me for admitting this, but I still haven’t read all the way through The Lord of the Rings (by J. R. R. Tolkien (1954-1955), in spite of trying again just before the movies came out. I get caught up in the pages and pages of wars in the second volume every time. For me, it gets tedious.

As a reader, I didn’t delve back into anything paranormal (or fantasy) until Anne Rice. I devoured her books when I discovered them. Then, more recently, the books in J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series were like crack for me. (Not that I know what crack is like.) But I inhaled the first four or five books in her series, and after that, decided to try my hand at writing something in the urban fantasy or paranormal realm.

Then I started reading YA authors such as Suzanne Collins, Carrie Ryan and Kelley Armstrong and was awed by the scope and boldness of the stories. I think that some of the most exciting books coming out these days are for the teen market and crossover to adults really well.

I find creating stories with one foot in reality and one foot in fantasy or the future exciting and freeing.

As a reader, I love the fast pace of many recent paranormal and post-apocalyptic stories, and I think this kind of story lets the reader (whether teen or adult) explore dangerous situations and fears—and even dangerous relationships—under the safety blanket of “it’s all make-believe”.

All fiction is make-believe…but add a paranormal element and you can heighten so many elements.

With my new Twisted Tales series, I loved taking well-known tales and re-imagining them as more action-packed and exciting stories. I placed my heroines in lots of dangerous situations, but gave them the skills, both physical and internal, to survive and earn their happy endings.

I also wanted to “fix” some of the problems I saw in the classic fairytales. For example, the prince in Cinderella falls in love with her at the ball, but then he can’t recognize her the next day because she’s no longer dressed in fancy clothes? Really?

Maybe in the original story this was intended as a comment on class structure, or something, but I don’t like the message it sends to modern girls.

All in all, I hope I’ve re-imagined these classic fairy tales in a way that will satisfy readers who love traditional happy endings and handsome princes, but I’ve also made the stories more exciting and given the heroines the courage, power and ability to save themselves.

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?

Although I’m still early in my career, I’ve already been with two agents.

The first time I was looking, I pitched to an agent at a conference. And I was lucky enough to have had a personal introduction to that agent ahead of time, through a great writer-friend and now HarperTeen author Diana Peterfreund who didn’t know me from a hole in the wall at the time, but had read the first 50 pages of my manuscript in a contest. Diana actually pitched my book for me to her agent at a party. (You’ve got to love the generosity of so many authors.) Ultimately, I signed with a different agent at that same agency, but it all started with that pitch.

I do believe in conference pitches, because to me it’s like a free pass past the sometimes tricky query stage. Also, conferences give writers a chance to size up the agents, by hearing them speak on panels and/or meeting them in person. Following agent blogs and twitter feeds is another way to get a sense of an agent, if you can’t make it to conferences.

While my first agent was great, we never did end up finding the right home for any of the projects I wrote while with her (all adult fiction), and ultimately, when I decided I wanted to write for young adults, I knew it was time to move on—the scariest decision I’ve made in my writing-career to date.

The second time around, I’d like to claim I did everything the smart way. And I meant to. I really did. But in the end, before I was even finished my new project, I sent out a very small number of queries, just to test the waters, and much to my surprise, within a couple of days of finishing the new manuscript, a dark post-apocalyptic YA, I already had two agents who wanted to represent me, so I didn’t have time to cast the net more widely.

Ultimately, I decided to go with a newer agent at a major agency, Charlie Olsen at InkWell Management, and this time it started with a cold query—proving they can work. However, I don’t advise others to send queries before you’re finished. There were some extenuating circumstances in my case.

In terms of fit, I think a writer should choose an agent who’s over-the-moon excited about your manuscript. One who’s very confident in his or her ability to sell your book and can articulate a plan to make that happen.

But enthusiasm alone isn’t enough. An agent should be able to demonstrate or show evidence of his or her ability to sell the kind of story you write to the kind of publisher you want to work with.

While you don’t need to be best friends with your agent—it is a business relationship, first and foremost—I think it helps if you share a similar sense of humor and find it easy to talk to him or her. They will be representing you, so you need to feel confident they understand what you want and believe you’ll be proud to have them as your advocate.

I’ve also discovered that, for me, I want someone driven and whose advice, vision for my work, will reinforce my dreams, not my fears. I’m a master at reinforcing my fears all on my own.

Cynsational Notes

From the promotional copy of Cinderella: Ninja Warrior:

In this fast-paced story full of adventure and romance, Cinderella is more than just a servant girl waiting for her prince—she’s a tough, fearless girl who is capable of taking charge of a dangerous situation.

Seeking to escape the clutches of her evil stepmother, Cinderella perfects her ninja skills and magic talents in secret, waiting for the day when she can break free and live happily ever after.

In a special twist, readers have the opportunity to make key decisions for Cinderella and decide where she goes next—but no matter the choice; the result is a story unlike any fairy tale you’ve ever read!

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Congratulations to Libba Bray on the release of Beauty Queens (Scholastic, 2011)! Don’t miss the writing contest from Scholastic, in part featured in the video below! Note: it’s well worth watching, especially for the ventriloquism/singing.

After the Acceptance: The Editorial Letter by Brian Yansky from Brian’s Blog. Peek: “…the approach of the editors I’ve had varies. Some like to mention a problem and then spend some space explaining why they think it’s a problem and then move on. Some like to spin out possible ways to fix a problem.”

The Art of the Blurb Request by Agent Kristin from Pub Rants. Peek: “Even with noble intentions, most writers who experience success end up having to put a moratorium on offering blurbs for a couple of reasons.”

2011 Américas Award winners are Clemente! by Willie Perdomo, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Holt, 2010), The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Peter Sis (Scholastic, 2010), and the Américas Award Honorable Mention went to The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle (Holt, 2010.) Peek: “The Américas Award is given in recognition of U.S. works of fiction, poetry, folklore, or selected non-fiction (from picture books to works for young adults) published in the previous year in English or Spanish that authentically and engagingly portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States.” See more information. Source: PaperTigers.

Congratulations to Cheryl Rainfield on the paperback release of Scars (WestSide, 2010, 2011). From the promotional copy: “An edgy, realistic, and hopeful novel about a teen survivor of sexual abuse who uses self-harm to cope.” Read a guest post from Cheryl on Writing Bravely.

Beyond Orcs and Elves Part 3: Writing Cross-Culturally by Stacy Whitman from Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire. Peek: “…you can’t assume that if someone’s Asian, for example, that they’re from the culture you want to write about (big difference between Chinese/Japanese/Korean/other Asian cultures) or that they’d have any more experience than you do with it if they’ve lived here in the U.S. their whole lives. They might. But they might not.” See also part one and two.

Agent Interview: Tracey Adams by Nathalie Mvondo from Multiculturalism Rocks! Peek: “We have many books with characters whose parents are from another culture, books full of diverse characters in our own country, but honestly I would love to see more submissions featuring characters in foreign settings – this is something we don’t see often enough.”

Writing Outside Your Experience by J.A. Yang from Diversity in YA Lit. Peek: “If the only authentic stories we could tell were related to our personal experiences, wouldn’t that be horribly limiting?”

Chatty Main Characters by Tabitha from Writer Musings. Peek: “We want our characters to have opinions, and a clever comment here and there, but if we’re getting a comment every other sentence, that’s too much.”

Your Truth Isn’t Necessarily Someone Else’s Truth by Miranda Kenneally from The YA-5. Peek: “The truth is, not everybody comes from the same place, so everyone’s ‘reality’ is different. So how do you bring readers in so they ‘buy’ your story?”

6 1/2 Reasons to Love Mother-Daughter (Or Any) Book Clubs by Cindy Hudson from Donna Gephart at Wild About Words. Peek: “Any time communication happens between the generations is a good thing. I know. I have teenagers.” Note: Cindy also is giving away a signed copy of Book By Book: The Complete Guide to Creating Mother-Daughter Book Clubs (Seal Press, 2009).

9 Tips for Finishing That Novel by Anna Staniszweski. Peek: “Make sure there are consequences if you don’t reach your goal. If you’re not good at cracking your own whip, ask a friend to bully you into staying on task. Or better yet, ask an enemy, someone who would like nothing better than to see you fail. How’s that for motivation?”

Interview with the Little Introvert Who Could (AKA Allen Zadoff) by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: “I’m an introvert with a taste for extroversion. I really enjoy people.” See also an interview with Allen and Publisher Elizabeth Law of Egmont USA.

Writers Links: On Publishing from Children’s & YA Lit Resources. Note: a listing of annotated links to substantive posts on the publishing process. See also links on agents, editors & publishers, and promotion.

Last Call for May Giveaways

Cynsational Screening Room

Uma Krishnaswami‘s recent post, Reinventing Your Children’s Writing Career, is among the most popular of late at Cynsations. Check out what she has to say on the rest of The Grand Plan Blog Tour.

In the video below, Uma reads from the book and then discusses it with Kathi Appelt.

See also Uma at Through the Tollbooth from Michelle Knudsen, Explorations from Sarah Blake Johnson and Inside the Writer’s Studio from Bethany Hegedus at Writer Friendly, Bookshelf Approved.

Austin Scene

Highlights of the week included Saturday brunch with author pal Janet Nolan (above) at Opal Divine’s Freehouse, followed by a trip to BookPeople. See Janet Nolan on The Firehouse Light.

The Austin SCBWI monthly meeting speaker was D. Anne Love, talking about the Care and Feeding of Editors and Agents.

The Chills and Thrills Teen Book Tour came to Austin May 15. Here’s Jennifer Archer, Tracy Deebs, Sophie Jordan, Mari Mancusi, Jordan Dane, and Tera Lynn Childs (holding Lara Chapman‘s book). Attention: Houston and Katy, Texas; readers! The tour will stop in your towns this weekend. See schedule for more information.

More Personally

Dear Teen Me from Author Cynthia Leitich Smith from E. Kristin Anderson at Dear Teen Me: Letters to Our Teen Selves. Peek: “Part of me can’t help observing that you’d be a lousy YA novel protagonist. You’ll stay this way through high school without ever stepping up and owning what’s great about you. On the other hand, you are doing a few important things right…”

I Heart YA Books says of Tantalize: Kieren’s Story: “The characters and story plot was strong, and with it being in comic book format, made it a fun read. I would recommend this for middle grade to teenagers, or to anyone who loves comic books.” Read the whole review. Note: Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle, will be released by Candlewick in August.

Kate Hall at Book4Ever says of Blessed: “Beautifully evocative, Blessed combines the ideas of good and evil, heaven and hell in such a way as to make the reader rethink what they know about the world. I hope there will be more in this series.” Read the whole review.

Jessica at Reading Inspires says of Blessed: “…when I finally got it I sat down and read for four hours straight. On day three, I finished it already. Because, yes, it was that good. Blessed had all the elements I loved from Eternal and Tantalize combined. It’s really amazing to see how much Cynthia has improved as a writer.” Read the whole review.

My YA short story “Cat Calls” (Candlewick, 2011) is now available for free as an e-book from Barnes & Noble. “Cat Calls” is set in the Tantalize series universe and features entirely new characters. You can download “Cat Calls” for free from Barnes & Noble. It’s also available for free download to Kindle readers from “Cat Calls” was originally published as a short story in Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists and Other Matters Odd and Magical, edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, 2009).

From Greg Leitich Smith

Personal Links:

Cynsational Events

The First Annual BooksmART Festival will be from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 11 as part of Arts & Letters Live from the Dallas Museum of Art. Peek: “Come spend the day with authors, illustrators, musicians and actors, and enjoy talks, workshops, gallery tours, and entertainment, designed to appeal to every member of the family and every age group.” Featured children’s-YA book creators include Rick Riordan, Norton Juster, Laurie Halse Anderson, David Wiesner, Jerry Pinkney, Gene Luen Yang, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Duncan Tonatiuh, Antonio Sacre, Joe McDermott, Jan Bozarth, and Ann Marie Newman.

Authors Jennifer Ziegler and Cynthia Leitich Smith will speak to YA readers at 2 p.m. June 18 at Bee Cave Public Library in Bee Cave, Texas. Mark your calendars for book talk and pizza! See also event planner information on booking Jennifer and Cynthia for the joint “From Classics to Contemporary” program–two authors for the price of one!

Cynthia Leitich Smith will speak to the Cedar Park Teen Book Club at 11 a.m. June 25 at Cedar Park (TX) Public Library.

In Memory: Bridget Zinn

YA author Bridget Zinn has died after a battle with colon cancer.

From author April Henry: “Bridget was funny, smart, and passionate. If I was going to use one word for her, it would be vibrant. Or radiant.”

From author E.M. Kokie: “She was a good person, excellent to talk writing and publishing and life with. Someone to laugh with. And celebrate with. Share cake with and smile with.”

From agent Michael Stearns: “Sad just doesn’t cut it. No how no way. Doesn’t come anywhere near to capturing the weighty emptiness we feel. And to amp things up with adverbs—well, that sort of lousy writing she wouldn’t stand for.”

Bridget’s debut novel, Poison, has sold to Disney/Hyperion. Michael says, “You’ll get to read it one of these days…. The story is a fantasy about a girl fugitive who fancies herself tough-as-nails until she finds love, humility, and more through an unexpected partnership with a wee enchanted piglet named Rosie.” More on that to come.

New Voice: Erin E. Moulton on Flutter

Erin E. Moulton is the first-time author of Flutter: The Story of Four Sisters and One Incredible Journey (Philomel, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Big things are about the happen at Maple’s house. Mama’s going to have a baby, which means now there will be four Rittle sisters instead of just three.

But when baby Lily is born too early and can’t come home from the hospital, Maple knows it’s up to her to save her sister.

So she and Dawn, armed with a map and some leftover dinner, head off down a river and up a mountain to find the Wise Woman who can grant miracles. Now it’s not only Lily’s survival that they have to worry about, but also their own.

The dangers that Maple and Dawn encounter on their journey makes them realize a thing or two about miracles-and about each other.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

Well, finding my protagonist, Maple, was a journey in and of itself. Flutter is a Vermont College of Fine Arts baby. I remember starting it in my second semester. Ellen Howard [pictured] was my advisor.

Prior to that, I had worked through a novel my first semester, which shall remain nameless and in a drawer for all time. I sent the nameless novel to Ellen, hoping beyond hope that I could continue working on it for the semester. I was clearly delusional.

Ellen read the story and nicely mentioned that she was “exhausted” from reading the draft. Within the same packet, I had included a biography. She noted in her letter back to me that she liked the biography, that it was a surprise. She thought it had unique voice and seemed more real.

She told me that I was not going to continue the draft of my previous/nameless novel for the time being.

Instead, she wanted me to focus on something that I knew about, something that would show what I knew about life. I was saddened, a bit frustrated and more than a little confused, so I went and stood on my head (against the wall) and thought about my biography.

It seems like my main character, Maple, jogged loose from my heart and fell straight into my head. When I sat up, I walked over to the computer and began typing. Maple was simple, she was heartfelt and she trying to prove herself. She was a very easy protagonist for me to listen to because she was similar to me as a kid. Maybe similar to me, still.

The secondary characters? I took Ellen’s sage advice and considered, for a while, what I knew about life. At the time of writing that first draft, I was 23 years old. I felt as though I didn’t know much at all about life. But I figured I didn’t need many things. I just needed to know about something.

After some mulling, I managed to recognize that I knew about home, about family and about love. So, in my head, I shot myself back to the mountain I grew up on, and I thought good and hard about the different traits each of my sisters had. And I mined their characters for my writing.

Maple is primarily with Dawn throughout the book. Dawn is a “scholar” in Maple’s eyes. The older sister who knows everything. The real-life Dawn, Amber, in fact, has a PhD from Harvard University and is very much a scholar today. Turns out, she knows mostly everything.

There’s also the younger sister, Beetle, whose thinking cap is a war helmet. She loves to lift things and carry them around. Coincidentally, or perhaps not so much, my younger sister, Casey, is a coach and an athlete.

Lastly, there’s little Lily, who everyone is out to save. And we don’t see Lily a whole lot because she’s just barely been born and the kids are all concerned about her premature birth and whether she will make it or not.

My littlest sister, Moie, was born, not prematurely, but with a few little complications along the way, which made me nervous as a kid. I didn’t know the words “Caesarean” and “breech,” and it sounded pretty scary. So I mined and amplified those feelings and thoughts for Flutter.

Sisterhood is prevalent in Flutter. Writing them into the story was simple since I have known them my entire life.

And as far as an antagonist? The antagonist took me much longer to tie down. First, there was nature. That one was easy. Since the kids journey out into the mountains a plethora of scenarios could have taken place. It was deciding which scenarios would happen and where those would send the kids next. Along the way, they meet some pretty gruesome poachers, an annoying park ranger and his kid, and the natural elements.

Conflict and these antagonists came last and developed over several drafts.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? 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?

Voice is a tricky thing. On one hand, there is voice that flows up as part of the creative process. And that level of voice, for me, is more along those “magic” lines.

I know it’s working only by the feeling in my spine. It’s that feeling you get when you hear your favorite song. Shoulders curl, eyes close, fingertips tingle, and you’re transported.

You’re in a magic little bubble where you can only hear that voice. It has the ability to make my limbs heavy, my heart pound and my stomach flip.

And when I feel that, somehow, my writing has different rhythms and beats than when I am forcing it.

So what is that? And how do we identify and harness it?

It’s almost one of those things I don’t want to examine too closely lest it escape. But that doesn’t make me any less curious about it. Many writers have a signature voice. And you can tell immediately when you are reading their work.

Sometimes I wonder if it is all derived from the dusty archives of the mind. Do the rhythm and beats of certain lullabies, nursery rhymes, poems, storybooks, and novels from life-so-far embed themselves in your subconscious? Only to tangle there until they are strung together into unique threads of voice? Or is it something beyond the veil…woooo, wooo (those are supposed to be ghost sounds.) I could really mull over it all day and never come to a conclusion except that I know it is working when I feel it.

So, how to harness that? Based on what I have previously said in this interview, sadness and headstands while singing a lullaby might get you there, or perhaps getting one of those little dental instruments to dig rhythms out of your brain crinkles also might get you there.

Okay, that last one is definitely not recommended. But in all seriousness, usually, at least for me, a character pops up saying just a few interesting words. And those words stick and won’t settle until I start writing.

For example, Maple begins by saying, “It all starts at home. On the mountain. Three miles up a rutted dirt road, out past Mr. Benny’s apple orchard, and over the hill from Nanny Ann’s farmstand.”

And I say that line over and over again, until a few more lines pop up and those lines match that first line. And, I suppose, if you weren’t “feeling it” you could go ahead and examine those lines to see what makes them tick. I would opt to put on some music, drink some tea and mull over those lines until the rhythm is internalized… and give it time.

Now, that is primarily voice that comes alive during the creative process.

For me, there is also a different level of voice that can flourish during revision. It’s during revision that I can see where the voice is clear and where it lags. And it has much to do with understanding and knowing the heart of the character.

After I had written, and was in the process of revising Flutter, I knew that Maple used lots of nature metaphors. She used short sentences when she was upset. She had a slight mountain accent, and she never had all the answers, but she had a genuine soul that was filled with compassion. I didn’t know those things setting out, but by the time I had let the manuscript marinate for a while, I was able to add and tweak to really fortify her voice throughout the story.

In short (she says after writing several paragraphs), for me, it’s a marriage of the creative and the logical, the left brain balancing the right. Let feelings and the creativity and the wild string of words flow forth, but look at it, scrutinize it, pull it back and expand where necessary.

Guest Post: Lisa Bullard & Laura Purdie Salas on Can I Turn “Children’s Book Writer” Into a Full-Time Job?

By Lisa Bullard
& Laura Purdie Salas

“Can I turn ‘children’s book writer’ into a full-time job?”

New writers ask us the above question all the time—because we’ve both managed to do just that!

Sure, we’ve had tons of ups and downs, but we’ve each relied on writing and related activities for our full-time incomes for over ten years.

And we’re not high-profile authors who make thousands for every speaking gig; our books win awards and honors, but we haven’t yet made the bestseller lists.

We decided to interview each other about the behind-the-scenes realities for all of you out there who have contemplated this career option.

Lisa: How much time do you spend writing every day?

Laura: I analyzed my time sheets once. I wish I hadn’t. I spend 5 percent of my time writing original work and 12 percent doing educational writing. Overall, less than 20 percent!

But my writing career is a small business, and business tasks eat up much of my time. That 20 percent makes everything else worthwhile.

What about you? What’s the best thing about turning “children’s book writer” into your full-time job?

Lisa: Three words: writing, which I’ve adored since I penciled my first word (it was “chair”); books—do I have to tell you?; and children, who have the capacity to fall head-over-heels in love with books.

I focus on those rewards because frankly, the monetary rewards are harder to come by.

What about you—do you live big on six-figure advances?

Laura: Whew—sorry, I’m out of breath from laughing! Try $4,000 as my highest advance. But that’s okay. There’s still a chance for royalties.

I think huge advances are overrated—they put great pressure on authors to create enormous sales numbers so publishers aren’t disappointed.

But $4,000 for a book when you’ve poured your heart and countless hours into it—that can be hard to accept, too.

Lisa: I know! There are a lot of days that I wish I could ignore the money side of things and just write for the love of it. But there are other kinds of bonuses to this work, right? Like, most people assume we get to work in our pajamas all day!

Laura: Well, the UPS guy delivers daily, so it’s best for me to at least wear jeans or yoga pants. For conferences and school visits, I wear actual pants—gasp! The ALA Newbery Banquet last year was stressful—my shopping standard was “anything too dressy for lunch at Chipotle.”

How about you—are you a PJs-every-day writer?

Lisa: There aren’t enough PJ days! That’s because a lot of the things I do to help make ends meet involve other people: Skype mentoring sessions with new writers, teaching writing, and book marketing consultations (those draw on my background in the publishing industry).

Speaking of new writers, what’s your best advice for somebody who would love to build a job like ours?

Laura: Write amazing stories—that goes without saying. But don’t overlook your other responsibility: Learn about the industry by talking to writers and editors, reading voraciously, and studying the market.

So—what would you tell someone who is thinking about quitting their day job to become a full-time writer?

Lisa: How about: It will be harder than you expect and more satisfying than you can imagine!

Cynsational Notes

Lisa Bullard and Laura Purdie Salas collaborate on numerous projects, the most recent of which is a coaching and critique service for children’s book writers called “Mentors for Rent.”

If you’d like to explore further questions about the writing life, you can visit their website for more details.

New Voice: Angela Cerrito on The End of the Line

Angela Cerrito is the first-time author of The End of the Line (Holiday House, 2011)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Robbie is locked in a room with nothing but a desk, a chair, a stack of paper and pencil. No belt, no shoes, no socks. He’s starving, but all they give him is water.

Robbie has reached The End of the Line, AKA Great Oaks School, and at Great Oaks there’s no time off for good behavior.

All good behavior will get you are points. Enough points and you get something to eat, a bed, bathroom privileges.

Thirteen-year-old Robbie’s first-person account of his struggles at the school—at times horrifying, at times hilarious—alternates with flashbacks to the events that led to his incarceration.

If Robbie is to survive The End of the Line, he must confront the truth: He is a murderer.

(Jacket photography by Edward McCain/Workbook Stock Collection/Getty Images.)

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2011, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Debuting in 2011 did not seem inevitable. There were times I wondered if this novel would make it at all and continued to work on other projects as I revised, re-revised and re-re-revised The End of the Line.

My journey started by subbing the first few pages to the (currently inactive) WIN contest in 2006. It was unfinished and middle grade, and I worried that it was just too dark. I was thrilled when the submission placed second in the middle grade category.

You were the judge, and you had the most encouraging words for the finalists. This inspired me to continue.

A few weeks later Roxyanne Young at wrote with the news that editor requested the full manuscript. I started waking up at 4 a.m. so I would have more time to write.

In addition to the WIN contest, some significant events along the way to publication were:

Reading the first few pages aloud at informal critique group meetings at SCBWI events (NY and Bologna, Italy). It was also significant to me that my friends who heard those early first pages continued to ask me about the project over the years.

An editor being totally honest with me –my setting was not believable and my climax was absent. She was 100 percent correct. I didn’t know much about revising at that point. I thought it happened after the contract and with the editor and author together. My writing was rough. Great Oaks didn’t come alive on the page. And I avoided writing the climax because it was too difficult for me. (This is explained more in the next question.)

An agent was totally honest with me and sent three pages of concerns about the manuscript. It was my first look at what a real revision would require. I actually highlighted the rejection letter and learned a great deal. Before this I’d only revised to chop words, strengthen sentences. I hadn’t ever taken the novel apart and tried to rebuild it. It needed so much work. But, thanks to this agent, I had a road map.

My critique groups – I belonged to an in-person critique group and online critique groups. The heartfelt critiques from these wonderful writers helped me a great deal with this novel and other projects too.

Continuing to learn from SCBWI conferences and workshops and being accepted to the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-one Plus Conference.

Whenever I got discouraged, I thought of the WIN contest, my SCBWI friends who heard the pages, my critique buddies and the encouraging words the first readers who read early drafts. They all wanted The End of the Line to succeed –and so did I!

The most significant step was connecting with Bill Reiss at John Hawkins & Associates. He liked the manuscript, wanted to represent it, and found a perfect home for the novel at Holiday House.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? 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?

The voice of Robbie wasn’t something I had to discover, I heard it in my head one day along with his greatest problem – he hated himself for his role in the death of his friend, Ryan.

It took me a lot longer to discover Ryan, and it was a long wait before I came to know him and could start writing the first page.

One day I was part of a conversation about several kids. One eight-year-old boy had been reported at school for not doing his homework. A month later, he was reported to social services for not being clean and for sleeping in school. They discovered the boy was the sole caregiver for his newborn sister. His father was not living at home, and his mom had postpartum depression and literally wasn’t getting out of bed to take care of the baby.

A friend told me about new kids in her neighborhood who were always hanging around her house. She was setting the table for dinner, and their eyes widened. The oldest said excitedly, “Look, she uses plates!” These were children whose meals at home were served in the can that was heated up on the stove. I knew by the end of the day that I had the building blocks for Ryan.

He would be a kid who pushed limits, broke a few rules, acted like he didn’t care. A kid who returned bottles to get money for food and tried (but failed) to take care of his newborn sister. A new kid who didn’t bother to fit in.

After I came to know Ryan, he told me his entire story. There is so much of Ryan’s past that didn’t make it into The End of the Line, an entire prequel. I love this kid as much as I love Robbie. Writing the scene of his death was one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever written.

(And this showed in the novel for many drafts because I didn’t dig deep enough to write that scene. I kept glossing over Ryan’s death and writing it in a very distant voice.)

I don’t think finding the voices of Robbie and Ryan were freeing my inner child but rather striving to “become” the characters. Even if it wasn’t related to the novel, I often asked myself “what would Robbie / Ryan think about (blank)?” The blank could be anything from a town I was visiting to a news story or a piece of artwork I liked. This never made it into the novel, but it helped me understand the two boys better and helped make their voices distinct.

The final revisions with my amazing editor (Julie Amper at Holiday House) did take me back to my childhood. Julie added so much to the novel. She asked me to clarify if Robbie and Ryan were really friends. Reflecting on fun times spent with my best friend, Jane, when I was Robbie and Ryan’s age helped me answer the question: what does being “friends” mean to Robbie and Ryan?

Cynsational Notes

Follow Angela at Twitter.

Guest Post: Audrey Vernick on Getting to the Funny (Writing Humorous Picture Books)

By Audrey Vernick

If you want to sound as unfunny as humanly possible, start writing about humor. Once you stick that sucker under the microscope, it’s gone. Which is, of course, a pretty good practical joke if you think about it.

There’s an interview with Daniel Handler in Leonard S. Marcus’ book, Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy (Candlewick, 2009), that I reread with alarming frequency. Handler quotes Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997), a book I’ve never read, by the way. But I will. Because this always makes me laugh, and reminds me of the best way to approach humor (Warning: Not for the faint of heart): “Isn’t it awful that all of these children have been killed in such terrible ways—and now let me list them alphabetically for you so you can learn the alphabet.”

Absurd. But funny. Or possibly dark and awful. But still, funny! (Note: It’s fiction.)

There’s something hilarious about a matter-of-fact stating of the absurd.

Make no excuses for your absurd world. If I had written Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, 2010) five years ago, I’d have ruined it by spending nearly half my words trying to explain how it came to be that there was a cud-chewing ruminant in a kindergarten classroom.

Cut to the chase. Get out of your own way. That’s the main thing I have figured out. Create the world that serves your story and make no apologies or justifications for how that world came to be.

That carries over to character.

There’s something similar going on in the movies and improvisational comedy performances that my children and I enjoy the most. Think about how Will Ferrell approached the character of Buddy the Elf. Or Amy Adams as Giselle in “Enchanted.” They may have been over the top but there is no denying: they were all in.

Once you’ve invented a character to inhabit your world, endow her with the riches of a full character or else you might be left with a hollow, one-laugh gag.

As for finding those ideas in the first place, this next bit may be the most trite thing you’ve ever heard, but consider it for a week before you toss it out.

When I sat down recently to update my school-visit presentation, I had one of those scary engine-won’t-start moments. Sputtering. I wanted to talk about where writers find ideas but I couldn’t think up a single idea to explain this in an engaging way. Then I realized something.

Most of my ideas have started as stupid, offhand comments I made that, for whatever reason, echoed in my head after I said them. I do my best thinking, apparently, when I’m not thinking. But now, instead of ignoring myself, as I did for decades, I started to listen, and use those throw-away comments as starting points.

I’ve learned to move fast; I try to slap down a first draft the very day an idea occurs to me. If I don’t capture that essence right away, whatever was funny about the idea in the first place could run away. It’s rarely a good first draft, but it flows from the originating thought.

It’s crucial for me to get that down, and then to let it sit—to let my subconscious do its work. The director Mike Nichols once said something like, “The great thing about your subconscious is it has the same exact sense of humor as you do.” Let it do its work.

Don’t let your funny run away. Capture it, dance with it, and have fun.

Cynsational Notes

Look for Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Daniel Jennewein (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, summer 2011).