Cynsational News & Giveaways

Suggested for Hispanic Heritage Month.

Books for National Hispanic Heritage Month by Kim Baccellia from Diversity in YA Fiction. Peek: “I looked for some of my favorite reads that show Latinos in a positive image. I hate the gangbanger stereotype and feel it’s important, especially now with some of the anti-sentiment out there, to share books that reflect what it’s like to be Latino.”

Tips for a Better Book Signing by Theresa Meyers from 1rst Turning Point. Peek: “Handouts! You can still be helpful and make a personal connection to this person with a few very important handouts.” Source: Jon Gibbs.

Process Talk: Tami Lewis Brown on The Map of Me from Uma Krishnaswami at Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: “Most great juvenile road novels start out at home then enter a transitional space—neither here nor there. The unsettling experiences on the road give the protagonist the power to return home with greater strength or knowledge. Sociologists and literary theorists call this a liminal journey.”

Thoughts on Middle Grade Voice by Stacy Whitman from Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire. Peek: “…self-consciousness can sometimes work in YA, at least more than middle grade, because teens are more likely to notice things  comment on them in a snarky way. Middle graders aren’t expected to be jaded just yet.” Note: Stacy is the editorial director of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low.

The Continued Accumulation of Post-Book-Deal Stuff by Mike Jung from EMU’s Debuts. Peek: “It’s having these souvenirs of the publication process that still feels like a new thing, even though I’m actually not so far away from the first anniversary of my book deal.”

25 Years in the Making!

Picture Book Revision Takes 25 Years by Anastasia Suen from Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “Yes, this one has been a lo-o-o-ong time coming. I started this book when my son was 2…and now he’s 27!”

Interview with Kate O’Sullivan, Editorial Director at Houghton Mifflin Books for Children by Aline Pereira from PaperTigers. Peek: “Houghton is known for creating picture books that appeal across generations, so while there are increased expenses now associated with warehousing slow-selling books, it’s always our intention when signing a book that it has a long, vigorous life.”

How to Write Fiction Without the “Right” Ethnic Credentials by Mitali Perkins from Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “I don’t want to write only about Bengali-American girls growing up in California — been there, done that. So why should I protest if a topnotch Korean writer features a Bengali-American girl growing up in California and does it astoundingly well?” See also What Does “Authentic” Mean Anyway? from Malinda Lo and Authenticity and Authority from Kate Elliot.

Gradual Exposure from Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “Gradual exposure simply allows you to take actions toward your daily and long-term writing goals little by little. These small actions build on each other over time and form habits (such as daily writing, networking with other writers, writing a novel, etc.).”

Graphic Novel Book Clubs from Good Comics for Kids at School Library Journal. Peek: “Formats force all of us to pay attention to stories in different ways, and it’s always a great discussion to try to articulate why formats work differently.”

Interview with Kelly Milner Halls on Searching for Sasquatch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct. 2011) by Deborah Heiligman from INK: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: “Many of the legends seemed unlikely to be real, but a few were surprising in that credible evidence did exist to support the possibility of their being true, undocumented new species of animals. Sasquatch, also known as Bigfoot, was one of those surprises.”

Banned Books Month: Author Jessica Lee Anderson on Celebrating Our Freedom to Read from E. Kristin Anderson at The Hate-Mongering Tart. Peek: “Too worried to cause a rift which could compromise my job, I let the conversation move on naturally.  And to this day, I still regret not saying something that might’ve assuaged my supervisor’s fears or made her rethink the consequences of having the book removed.”

Why Your Story Might Need a Gandalf or an Obi-Wan — Adding a Sage Character from Project Mayhem. Peek: “There’s a long tradition in fiction of the Sage character. Joseph Campbell describes the wise old man or old woman, the Mentor, as appearing throughout history in storytelling, drama, and mythology.”

Oh, Internet… by Kiersten White from Kiersten Writes. Peek: “I’ve been thinking lately about my online activity and how it impacts me. I went ahead and illustrated my worst tendencies for you, because I’m honest like that.” Note: unicorns for everybody! Source: rockinlibrarian.

Happy 20th Anniversary, Midsouth Region!

SCBWI Midsouth Conference: read posts (keep clicking back in time) to “virtually” attend this conference. Highlights include insights from Emily Mitchell on Voice, Alexander Cooper on Developing a Character, Elizabeth Dulemba on Technology and the Future of Books, Michelle Poploff on the Acquisition Process, and much more!

This Pig Wants to Party: Maurice Sendak’s Latest from National Public Radio. Note: audio and scroll to read text coverage. Peek: “Bumble-ardy is an orphaned pig, who has reached the age of 9 without ever having a birthday party. He tells his Aunt Adeline that he would like to have a party for his ninth birthday, so Aunt Adeline plans a quiet birthday dinner for two. But Bumble-ardy instead decides to throw a large costume party for himself after his aunt leaves for work — and mayhem ensues.”

On Traveling Libraries and Heroic ‘Book People’: Inspiring children’s books about getting books to people in remote places and difficult circumstances by Abigail Sawyer from PaperTigersBlog. Peek: “I wonder how many lives are better today because a poor child of Appalachia or a German war orphan discovered books 50 or 60 years ago at the hands of an intrepid librarian.”

Open Call for Submissions for YA Humor Anthology Open Mic, to be edited by Mitali Perkins and published by Candlewick. Peek: “…a compilation of funny short pieces written by some of today’s best YA authors, people who grew up along the margins of race and culture in North America.”

Jacqueline Woodson Fellowship for a Young People’s Writer of African or Caribbean Descent: a $1,000 fellowship for The Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College. The award will be based on the quality of a writing sample. Applications are due Oct. 14 (not a postmark date; materials must be received before or on Oct. 14). Applicants are strongly encouraged to apply early. Notification letters will be mailed to winners only on Nov. 15. Awards must be applied toward the winter residency/spring semester directly following acceptance; fellowships cannot be deferred or applied toward a summer residency/fall semester start.

Using Powerful Cliffhangers in Quiet Times by Chris Eboch from Write Like a Pro. Peek: “If you don’t have an action novel, you can still have dramatic chapter endings, whether or not the characters are in physical danger.”

Publicity Beyond Your Book Launch by Crystal Patriarche from Writer Unboxed. “Accept that not everything is going to work, that if you get a “no” it has nothing to do with  your abilities or work (reviewers turn away more good books a day than books they actually review) and go back to the drawing board to come up with some additional ideas and keep going.” Source: Phil Giunta.

See also Best Articles this Week for Writers from Adventures in Children’s Publishing and the ever-eclectic and brainy Thursday Hangovers from Gwenda Bond.

Cynsational Canadian News

From Lena Coakley

Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be wins Lane Anderson Award from The Canadian Children’s Book Centre. “The two winners of the 2010 Lane Anderson Award were announced last night by Hollister Doll and Sharon Fitzhenry, Directors of the Fitzhenry Family Foundation, at a celebration dinner in Toronto. The annual Lane Anderson Award honours two jury-selected books, in the categories of adult and young reader, published in the field of science, and written by a Canadian. The winner in each category receives $10,000. Evolution: How All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton, published by Kids Can Press, won the young reader category.”

TD Canadian Children’s Book Week: TD Canadian Children’s Book Week will run from Saturday, May 5 to Saturday, May 12, 2012. Twenty-nine English-speaking authors, illustrators and storytellers will visit schools, libraries, bookstores and community centres in every province and territory across the country. Apply to host a reading.

Bookweirder by Paul Glennon (Doubleday Canada) wins 2011 YA Sunburst Award from Locus Online News. See link for finalists. Peek: “The annual Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic is a juried award. It is based on excellence of writing and awarded to a Canadian writer who has published a speculative fiction novel or book-length collection any time during the previous calendar year. Named after the novel by Phyllis Gotlieb (1926-2009), one of the first published authors of contemporary Canadian speculative fiction, the award consists of a cash prize of $1,000 and a hand-crafted medallion which incorporates a ‘Sunburst’ logo, designed by Marcel Gagné.” Note: more on Bookweirder.

Cynsations Canada reporter Lena Coakley is a full-time writer living in Toronto. Witchlanders is her debut novel. Lena contributes news and interviews from the children’s-YA creative, literature and publishing community in Canada. See also Lena on Why Fantasy Saved Her Life.

This Week’s Cynsations Posts

Cynsational Giveaways

Last call! Enter to win one of three Snuggle Mountain apps (IPhone and IPad users only). To enter, comment on this post (click link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with “Snuggle Mountain app” in the subject line. Author sponsored. Deadline: Sept. 26.

For extra entries (itemize efforts in your entry comment/email with relevant links): blog about this giveaway; share the link to this post on facebook; share the link to this post on Twitter; share the link to this post on Google+; like Lindsey’s Facebook author page.

The winner of Liar, Liar and Flat Broke by Gary Paulsen (Random House, 2011) is Irene in Alabama. See also Gary Paulsen on Writing About Boys.

Enter to win a copy of the 2012 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market from Donna Gephart at Wild About Words.

Solve a Cynsational title mystery to enter to win Firelight by Sophie Jordan and Through Her Eyes by Jennifer Archer from Joy Preble at Joy’s novel idea. Peek: “In the above post I have included the titles for three of Cyn’s YA paranormal books!! If you want to play today, email me…and tell me those titles and the phrase in the post in which I hid them.” Deadline: Sept. 26.

More Personally

The highlight of this week was fellow Austin author Jessica Lee Anderson at Book People and my school visits/bookstore trip to Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston–full photo report and bowing thanks to come soon! In the meantime…

Reflections on Influences for Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Undercover: The Best YA Fiction from Walker Books (U.K.). Peek: “…it was time for me, research-wise, to kick it old school. This was well before the paranormal trend in YA literature, so I started with the few YA Gothics and worked all the way back to Stoker.” Note: the Walker release date is Oct. 6.

Young Adult Authors Thrive in Austin by Joshunda Sanders from The Austin-American Statesman. Peek: “The convergence of that growing e-book market with tech-savvy, engaged young readers has drawn more and more voices to Austin’s young-adult author community.”

Bloggers on Blogging: Cynthia Leitich Smith from Megan Frazer. Peek: “It’s critical to put positive energy into any creative community, and blogging is one way to do that. By positive, I don’t mean superficial or Pollyanna, but rather being consistently substantive and uplifting.”

Personal Links:

From Greg Leitich Smith:

Cynsational Events

Austin Teen Book Festival is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 1 at Palmer Events Center in Austin. The event is free! No need to register, just show up! Students do not need to be accompanied by an adult.

Illustrator Ming Doyle will be signing Tantalize: Kieren’s Story at 2 p.m. Oct. 2 at Brookline Booksmith (279 Harvard Street) in Brookline, Massachusetts. Guests are invited to participate in a vampire/werewolf costume contest.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will be appearing at Austin Comic Con, scheduled for Nov. 11 to Nov. 13 at the Austin Convention Center.

Guest Post: Sarah Cortez on Responding to Mystery’s Implicit Invitation

By Sarah Cortez

Rare is the person who doesn’t remember his or her first experiences reading mystery.

Whether that person was a younger reader of Encyclopedia Brown or a slightly older fan of the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Cherry Ames, or Ruth Fielding series, the adult mystery-lover can effortlessly spin a list of a favorite sleuth’s appealing qualities in these “juvenile series” books: an explorer’s love of action, resolute bravery, independence, clear and logical thinking, a well-developed sense of fairness, a satisfying participation in justice, and firm loyalty to family and friends.

No wonder so many young readers believe these sleuths are “real.”

An even more appealing, if not downright magical, characteristic of the mystery story in all its guises is its implicit invitation to each reader to step inside the story and solve the mystery along with the sleuth.

While all types of fiction must engage the reader in the created, i.e. imagined (but not necessarily imaginary), world that the author has written, it is only the mystery which says, “Step inside. Observe. Think. Figure it out.”

What could be more engaging? What could be more fun?

And once this invitation is issued, the reader’s attention must be kept through a clever plot, good characterization, believable dialogue, and an admixture of obvious and non-obvious clues leading to a satisfying resolution.

As the reader enters the mystery’s world, he/she is challenged in a plethora of ways: to remember; to analyze conversation, clues, and personalities; to compare; to rearrange data; to construe; to sift facts; to draw conclusions.

And due to the mystery’s intrinsic forward thrust on the page, the reader does all of this without bothering to think of those pesky, formalized “Essential Skills and Knowledge” goals, or their equivalents. Certainly, this is one of the minor miracles of a well-written mystery’s interaction with a reader.

More about Sarah Cortez.

For tweens and teens, in particular, the dynamics contained within a mystery make the excitement of reading one both timely and compelling.

Part of this is because a mystery ultimately confirms the solidity of the moral axis of the world. Remember that a mystery demonstrates that violence and crime do not pay, that problem-solving skills based on close observation and thoughtful analysis win the day, and that justice prevails.

Another additional crucial reason why young adults gravitate toward reading mystery is the mirroring of the naturally occurring, age-related upheavals in the teen’s life. At which other age are humans confronted with so many apparently unsolvable occurrences, i.e. mysteries, in daily life as when attempting to negotiate the transition from childhood to adulthood? At what other age do the parameters of social interaction, accepted and acceptable behavior, and occurrences of uncertain but intense mood swings weigh so heavily?

So, for the young adult, the pages of a mystery can be comforting due to the sure sense that justice will win and the mystery will be solved. The disrupted world of the sleuth will be normalized.

The pages of a mystery are a safe arena in which to glimpse a teen sleuth acting with more confidence, more bravery, or more independence than is yet available to the reader.

I would also like to point out that the expert mystery writer will leave ample space within the fiction not only for the reader to use logic, but also for the reader to use intuition, thus building on the young reader’s previous experience with people and augmenting it.

So as a mystery story works its magic, the reader—again, without knowing it—uses both left brain and right brain hemispheres, responding to the implicit invitation to solve the mystery.

Heather Wells mysteries.

Luckily, many talented authors have created young adult fiction in the mystery genre. Who can resist the loopy, consumer-driven, yet fiercely loyal protagonist Heather Wells, created by Meg Cabot? For other readers, the single-minded, fierce oddity of Robert Cormier’s characters in Tenderness (Bantam Doubleday, 1997) will be compelling. Perennial favorites include authors, Joan Lowery Nixon, Wilo Davis Roberts, Caroline B. Cooney, Lois Duncan and others.

Recently, I had the pleasure (and distinct honor) to be able to make an addition to the mystery stories available to the YA reader by selecting and editing the eighteen short mystery stories for You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens (Arte Público, 2011).

I originally conceptualized the project—the first of its kind—in order to create more resources for the legions of teachers and librarians across the U.S. who constantly ask Latino/a writers and editors for more books for Hispanic teens.

In issuing my challenge to Latino/a authors to write edgy, fast-paced mystery fiction for young adults, I was thrilled to receive compellingly crafted stories showcasing the unique realities and neighborhoods of Latino/a protagonists from the preppy, sophisticated, private school teen to the chubby, loyal and loving, only daughter in Los Angeles’ sprawl to the Bronx rapper with a heart of gold.

In closing, I would like to invite you to enjoy the almost infinite pleasures of reading mystery. Thus, I have joined my explicit invitation to the implicit invitation of the mystery story.

The fictional world between the pages is calling you to enter, to observe, to think, to figure out clues, and to solve the mystery right along with the sleuth.

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Booklist says of You Don’t Have a Clue: “This excellent collection, enriched by a thoughtful foreword by YA scholar James Blasingame, gives faces to Latino teens in a most original way.”

Sarah Cortez is the author of an acclaimed poetry collection and winner of the PEN Texas literary award in poetry. She has edited Urban Speak: Poetry of the City and Windows into My World: Latino Youth Write Their Lives, winner of the 2008 Skipping Stones Honor Award. She has also edited Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery and Indian Country Noir. She is a co-editor for the crime literary journal Lineup: Poems on Crime.

Sarah has been a police officer since 1993. She lives and works in Houston as a freelance editor and writer. She brings her French, Comanche, Spanish, and Mexican heritage to the page and serves as the national treasurer for the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers.

Sarah graduated from Rice University and holds graduate degrees from UT-Austin and the University of Houston-Central. She has been named a Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and is the only scholar to have been named to two consecutive years of a Visiting Scholar appointment at the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston.

New Voice: Audrey Vernick on Water Balloon

Audrey Vernick‘s debut novel Water Balloon (Clarion, 2011) is now available. From the promotional copy:

A warm debut novel about friendship and first love, from a popular picture-book author.

Marley’s life is as precarious as an overfull water balloon—one false move and everything will burst. Her best friends are pulling away from her, and her parents, newly separated, have decided she should spend the summer with her dad in his new house, with a job she didn’t ask for and certainly doesn’t want. 

On the upside is a cute boy who loves dogs as much as Marley does . . . but young love has lots of opportunity for humiliation and misinterpreted signals. 

Luckily, Marley is a girl who trusts her instincts and knows the truth when she sees it, making her an immensely appealing character and her story funny, heartfelt, and emotionally true.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

I have visions of myself in a small white rocking chair in my bedroom, an open book in my lap. That could likely describe who I’ll be in another few decades—a reading grandma—but it was also who I was at five. Sometimes I would read to my gerbil, which sickens me to my core now, as I’m not a fan of rodents. But I digress.

It was all about character for me then, as it is to this day. I didn’t mind a great adventure or a historical setting, but if the author didn’t deliver on character, forget it.

As a young reader, when I was in love with a book, I felt like the authors had written them with a reader exactly like me in mind. I celebrated the characters’ quirks. I worried when they faced difficult decisions. I felt their sadness. Being a child who read often and widely was the ultimate training ground for empathy.

I was enamored with the friendships I read about. Adult-me has realized that these wonderful, idyllic friendships may have had something to do with the real-world disappointment I felt in many of my actual childhood friendships. I found literary friends to be far more interesting, loyal, funny, and daring than most of the friends I knew at school and in the neighborhood.

As a writer, I want to deliver that kind of character-reader connection.

The view from Audrey’s office window.

Plot has never been of great importance to me as a reader, so it wasn’t a tremendous surprise to learn it wasn’t one of my strengths as a writer. I wanted enough to happen to interest my reader, but I found that one of my plot pet peeves presented a huge challenge to me as a writer.

I take great exception to the moment in a book—and it happens in so many books—when a character acts in a way that seems at odds with who he/she is. As a writer, I know we are supposed to make life difficult for our characters, throw challenges at them, let them make mistakes. But I find, so often, that the mistakes characters make read like choices an author made to take it up a notch, to ensure the plot twists and turns.

These are the books I throw across the room.

I did not want such a moment in my book. But something had to happen.

My main character has really good judgment. She can be a little self-pitying at times (as can many a thirteen-year-old), but she’s reliable, with good common sense. She doesn’t get into trouble.

The scene in which she makes a really bad decision was a pivotal one for me, part of a big revision with an eye toward making the book less quiet. I think it’s a believable moment; I hope young-Audrey would not toss Water Balloon across the room when she reached that pivotal page.

I imagine most writers set out to create the type of book they would like to read. It’s a little extra-satisfying for children’s writers, as the time spent thinking and writing is akin to a lengthy visit with our younger selves.

Audrey’s office is decorated with art by her children; this fox is by her son.

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?

My first agent primarily represented writers of adult fiction. When I was first seeking representation, I read many of her clients’ books and felt something in the undercurrent of their texts that seemed present in mine too. I was thrilled when she offered to represent me, as she had some young adult sales, loved my upper middle grade book, and was determined to sell it.

As time went on, I kept writing for younger audiences and she stopped selling in the children’s market, so we parted ways.

Lesson learned: You can make what feels like the right choice and still have it not work out in the end.

Learn more about Audrey.

I wrote a second novel. I talked to friends about their experiences, read information in books and on discussion boards, attended conferences.

I went to one conference specifically to get a critique from Erin Murphy, an agent about whom I’d heard good things. The critique went very well.

I don’t remember why I reached the conference lunch late, but by the time I got there, there were hardly any open seats. I am very much not the kind of person who sits next to the agent who critiqued her work. But it was the only open seat that didn’t require me to get everyone at a table to stand. I took the available seat next to Erin.

Before long, my future agent and I shared a very large piece of chicken.

I am kind of a conference nightmare. I don’t want to be that annoying schmoozing person. I realize that networking is not generally considered annoying at a conference, but it is so far out of my comfort zone, the self-promoting schmooze. Just taking the seat next to Erin felt hideous.

Despite my discomfort, we had an instant and very natural rapport. We were comfortable. We laughed. We went halfsies on an entree.

I don’t think poultry sharing is a requirement when seeking representation. But it is important to do research, to know as much as can be known. In the end though, you can’t know everything.

It’s impossible to know with certainty whether or not, say, your agent’s enthusiasm will wane if your first manuscript doesn’t sell. Or if he will like your next project. Or turn out to be a reasonable communicator.

When possible, I’d urge people to find ways to get specific information from clients. When I relied upon reputation, I barked up a few wrong trees. There are some agents many consider top-tier whom I know would not be a good fit for me. One such agent considered my work very seriously. I had occasion to see that agent at a conference while still under consideration and it was plainly evident to me: it wouldn’t work. I felt the weight of the word “representation” and knew that person could not be the one to represent me.

Find out what you can and then use your best judgment. From there, it’s a leap of faith.

Spending that time eating chicken with Erin made me fairly desperate to have her as my agent, so I’m very grateful it worked out. Our senses of humor overlap. She connected to the emotional heart of my story. And I can’t say enough about her enthusiasm – what’s better than your agent being wildly enthusiastic about your work? I also like that she focuses on my career.

This depiction of Cookie Monster is by Audrey’s daughter.

One insight especially stayed with me…

Sometime in the past year or two, I told Erin that I felt like I was in a zone, which likely wouldn’t last. It felt like a tiny window in which the picture books I was writing were matching up reasonably well with what the market wanted. It seemed crazy to turn my attention to another novel, as they are so hard and I tend to write quiet ones, which are hard to sell.

I’ve also always been mindful of the way novels consume me—the way they pull me out of family life for a while. I’m ever-mindful of the fact that my kids will only live with my husband and me for a finite time, and it seemed crazy to make myself so much less available.

Erin pointed out that it would be a good idea to look beyond now, to think ahead to when my kids don’t live here, and how well novel-writing will fit into my life then. She added that I should probably continue to nurture the skills required to write a novel, not let them go dormant. She further made the point that if I sold Water Balloon, the acquiring editor would likely want to see another novel at some point, which has turned out to be true.

Lesson learned: when a piece of chicken is clearly too large for one person to consume by herself, sharing can sometimes lead in unexpected and wonderful directions.

Cynsational Notes

From IndieBound: “Audrey Vernick is the author of the picture books Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten?, She Loved Baseball, and Brothers at Bat (Clarion, 2012), as well as the novel Water Balloon. She has published short stories for adults and twice received the New Jersey State Council of the Arts‘ fiction fellowship. She lives with her family in New Jersey.”

Literary Friendships: Musings on Writing, Children’s Books, Stalking Strangers’ Dogs, and Friends: a blog from Audrey Vernick.

See also Audrey Vernick on Getting to the Funny (Writing Humorous Picture Books) from Cynsations.

Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (North America) Giveaway & Houston Event Reminder

Comment at Tantalized Graphic Novel Giveaway from Cari’s Book Blogs from a chance to win Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick, 2011). U.S./Canada only. The winner will be announced Sept. 23.

Event Reminder

Houstonians! Please join Cynthia Leitich Smith for a discussion and signing of Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick, 2011) at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston.

Note: “This event is free and open to the public. In order to go through the signing line and meet Cynthia Leitich Smith for book personalization, you must purchase Tantalize: Kieren’s Story from Blue Willow Bookshop. A limited number of autographed copies of Cynthia’s books will be available for purchase after the event. If you cannot attend the event, but would like a personalized copy of her book, please call Blue Willow before the event at 281.497.8675.”

Guest Post: Vicky Alvear Shecter on Cleopatra’s Moon & Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Info (Arthur A. Levine, 2011)(F)

By Vicky Alvear Shecter

I started out writing middle grade nonfiction, specifically biographies of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.

It never occurred to me to write fiction until I came across a fact that grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. And it was this: Cleopatra was the mother of four children (one with Julius Caesar and three with Mark Antony). The only one to survive to adulthood was her daughter, Cleopatra Selene.

My initial response was: Wait, Cleopatra had a daughter?

I was floored. How come nobody ever talked about her? What, I wondered, must it have been like to have Cleopatra as a mother?

I mean, talk about mother issues!

Sadly, we have little information about Cleopatra’s daughter, which made it nearly impossible to tell her story with nonfiction. Knowing her date of birth, her parents, where she lived after her parent’s died, and who she married may be interesting, but it would make for a pretty short bio.

But oh, the opportunities with fiction! As long as I worked within the facts we knew, I could imagine what her life was like. So I went for it.

Along the way, I learned some things about writing historical fiction:

1. Never assume.

Info (Darby Creek, 2006)(NF)

No detail could be inserted without making sure that it was consistent with what we knew of the period. So, for example, in one scene, I had my characters sitting under an orange tree in a garden in Rome. And then it occurred to me—wait, did Rome have orange trees then?

After checking it out, I discovered they did not (they were introduced from China in the Middle Ages). So I had to change the tree.

2. Beware of modern words or phrases that will pop your reader out of the history.

For example, I had a character grab the side of a Roman ship in one scene. My first instinct was to call it a gunwale (the proper term). But there were no guns in the ancient world! That’s not what they would have called it. I deleted it.

3. Make sure it could’ve happened that way.

The fiction in historical fiction does not mean you have license to mess with the facts. You can’t make up a scene that contradicts the facts we do know.

Info (Boyds Mills, 2010)(NF)

Still don’t avoid being true to your character. Even though feminist ideals are a modern invention, it made sense to me that the daughter of the most powerful woman in the world—who saw great men bow at her mother’s feet—would have a sense that she was “equal to” or “better than” the men surrounding her. It might not have been true for the average ancient girl, but it certainly could’ve been true of Cleopatra’s daughter.

4. Get the sensory details right.

One of the best ways to capture this “other” world/other time is to thoroughly research the sensory details that will make the world come alive.

For example, what did Cleopatra Selene’s palace in Alexandria smell like? (Of ocean breezes mixed with the heavy sent of blooming lotuses.) What did the port in Roman Ostia smell like? (Of vats of rotting fish innards left to melt in the sun.) What did the Roman streets sound like? (Cacophony of accents and the constant thudding of hammers as construction flourished.) What did the Temple of Isis in Egypt sound like? (Jangling bells and low chanting.)

Learn how your characters experience the sounds, sights, tastes, smells and feelings of their world to make it come alive for your reader.

Having made the leap from nonfiction to fiction, I’m sure that if I can do it, you can too!

Vicky’s editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, Cheryl Klein, sent her an adjustable snake necklace.
Vicky promptly tried it on everything (arms, neck, wrists, ankles; cat; dog). Peanut liked the look very much.
Cheryl Klein also sent Vicky a Cleopatra action figure.
Vicky calls her “Drag Queen Cleo” “because of the GI-Joe face.”
DQC often makes appearances on her blog, History with a Twist
Vicky says: “This includes just one my many bookcases.
“Check out the museum replica Spartan helmet.
“It’s usually not on my desk, but I wanted it in the shot.”

Guest Post: Karen Blumenthal on the Power & Challenges of Using Photos & Cartoons in Nonfiction

By Karen Blumenthal

As a nonfiction author, I’ve come to appreciate that powerful photographs and cartoons of the day can truly help bring a time period alive for a young reader. But finding and acquiring those images from recent decades can be surprisingly difficult.

I ran into the problem headfirst working on two books that have just come out–Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition (Roaring Brook, 2011), about the prohibition era, and Mr. Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America’s Richest Man (Viking, 2011). Somehow, I nearly drowned in the potential images from the early 1900s, when photography was relatively new–and I struggled to find material for Mr. Sam, though he built his business after World War II.

How do you figure that?

It appears that the folks who commission and collected photographs, cartoons and other images were much more thorough and thoughtful about taking care of their collections when photographs were expensive and precious than they were when they became more common.

Decades-old magazine and newspaper photos, for instance, often have been turned over to libraries like the Bentley at the University of Michigan, historical societies or the Library of Congress, which had an extensive collection of Anti-Saloon League propaganda. Or they can be found in huge photo houses, like those at the Associated Press, Corbis and Getty Images, where I found a fabulous New York Daily News image of children trying to scoop up wine poured into the street.

But fantastic photos of Sam Walton that appeared in Fortune magazine in the late 1980s were nowhere to be found. A woman at the magazine–who had been laid off and was in her last few days–informed me that copies weren’t kept and I’d need to find the photographer. Unfortunately, his last known phone number was disconnected and letters I sent to two previous addresses, including his current driver’s license address, were never answered. I never located him or his photos.

A search for 30- and 40-year-old BusinessWeek photos hit a similar dead end. A Forbes photo was a particular favorite, but Forbes didn’t return emails or phone calls. Based on some threads on the Internet, I concluded the photographer, Bill Batson, had worked for a Kansas City newspaper. A helpful person in the photo department couldn’t find the image, but told me Batson had left Kansas City to work for the paper in Omaha, Nebraska. Sadly, a former Omaha colleague informed me, Mr. Batson died in 2002 and the whereabouts of his photos the late 1970s were unknown.

Luckily, the University of Missouri had run the image in an alumni magazine, and I was able to use it from a scan, crediting the photographer.

Several people I spoke to told bone-chilling stories of librarians tossing old photos and negatives during one clean-up or another.

Contemporary cartoons are almost as hard to find. Outside of Doonesbury, finding a comprehensive electronic archive is almost impossible; you need to find some kind soul who has kept a file of favorites or call the artists directly.

Eager to find Wal-Mart cartoons from the 1980s, I emailed a half-dozen or so long-time editorial cartoonists whose information I found through the National Cartoonists Society and other searches. I came up empty–until Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Paul Szep wrote back that he hadn’t done a cartoon, but he would happily draws a caricature of Sam Walton. A wonderful cover design grew out of that email exchange.

From about the mid-1990s on, images and cartoons commonly have been kept in digital form and increasingly are searchable. But too many contemporary images from the decades just before are being lost to budget cuts and general sloppiness.

Even if the images are donated to libraries or archives, budgets are so tight that they may languish in boxes for years before they can be catalogued, let alone digitized.

I don’t have a simple answer. But as a believer in the importance and power of history to educate and enlighten us, I can only hope that today’s photographers, cartoonists, archivists and librarians will make an effort to preserve these important images for the benefit of generations to come.

Karen’s Tips for Image Research

  • Start early. This work takes times, so don’t wait til the end to do it.
  • Be persistent. If you love an image, keep looking. After searching several photo archives for a congressional photo, I found it in a university library, in the papers of a former Congresswoman.
  • Three words: Library of Congress. The photo collection is amazing, but you can also order scans of almost anything it has, such as long-defunct magazines.
  • Tap historical societies, local museums and university archives., a giant library catalog, can tell you which libraries have historical papers.
  • Go beyond photos. Advertisements, cartoons and political “ephemera” can add a lot of flavor to the page.
  • Buy it. eBay can be great for old magazines and knickknacks. Old books may have valuable illustrations.
  • Negotiate. The cost of permissions really adds up. Plead, beg, grovel and remind everyone that this is for a children’s book.

Cynsational Notes

Karen Blumenthal is the author of two new nonfiction books for young people, Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition (Roaring Brook, 2011)(excerpt) and Mr. Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America’s Richest Man (Viking, 2011). She lives in Dallas.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Congratulations to Alan Cumyn on the release of Tilt (Groundwood, 2011)! From the promotional copy:

Stan is an intense sixteen-year-old loner who desperately wants to make the junior varsity basketball team. And it seems that he may be about to do so, until he’s blindsided by the unexpected attentions of Janine Igwash.

Suddenly Stan is no longer thinking about jump shots. Instead he is obsessed with Janine’s spiky hair, her milky white shoulders and the mysterious little tattoo at the base of her neck, not to mention the heat of her breath, her dark eyes, wide hips and . . . Then Stan’s father arrives on the scene with Stan’s four-year-old half brother, and things become truly insane. 

Tilt is a wonderfully droll and insightful story about a sensitive, intelligent and gently funny young man living through an impossibly absurd time of life. This book is a rare achievement — a witty, sexy compulsively readable work of high literary quality.

Note: Alan is on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

More News

Teen Read Week 2011 from YALSA. Join us for Picture It @ your library, Oct. 16-22. Now is the perfect time to begin planning your Teen Read Week celebration. See also Picture It Book List from YALSA. Note: learn more about Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins).

Character Entry Trait: Prejudiced by Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse. See also the Emotion Thesaurus and Character Traits Thesaurus.

Advice for Agents (Including Me) from Rachelle Gardner. Peek: “…it’s important to remember that the writer not only paid a lot of money to be at that conference, they also used up their precious “agent meeting” slot on you. They’ve probably been thinking about this meeting for days or even weeks. They deserve your very best, even if it stretches you.” Source: Jon Gibbs. Note: much of this also applies to critiques of beginners by established authors. See also Let Your Agent Be the Bad Guy.

Safety Tips for Authors/Bloggers by The Buried Editor from Buried in the Slush Pile. Peek: “…think twice before telling the world how much you hate XYZ editor or ABC publishing house. You may want to do business with them someday, and if they find your comment (and they will), they may not want to do business with you.”

How to Get the Most Out of a Critique by Tabitha at Writer Musings. Peek: “If there is something in the feedback that doesn’t make sense, ask for clarification. The information might be a gem if phrased in a different way.”

Frustration: Your Novel’s Best Friend by Angela Ackerman from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “…while we try to avoid this emotion, it’s important we make sure our characters don’t.”

Remembering 9-11-01 by Alvina Ling from Blue Rose Girls. Note: Alvina highlights a series of 9-11 animated short stories by Story Corps as well as related thoughts from authors David Levithan, Meg Cabot, and Maureen Johnson (click byline links to view/read). See also Remembering 9-11: a children’s book bibliography by Dianne White from ReaderKidZ and yet another author post from Bethany Hegedus.

Little Island Comics from Eric Orchard. Note: a peek into Toronto’s newest comic book store.

A Talk with Award-winning Illustrator David Diaz by Kimberly Gee from Where the Sidewalk Begins. Peek: “The last few years have been a sort of perfect storm of change in the book industry which we are still navigating through. I recognized that I had to become proactive, to do things differently. Whenever there is uncertainty, there is opportunity.”

Where Do I Go from Here? Three Literary Agents, Three Opinions: a workshop featuring Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary Agency, Anna Olswanger of Liza Dawson Associates, and Ann Tobias of A Literary Agency for Children’s Books from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at SLC Conference Center in New York, New York.

Cynsational Reader Tip: beware of pirate download sites, purporting to offer the text of children’s-YA books in their entirety. Many are scams–the text isn’t there and/or the download comes with computer viruses. All of them are violating the authors’ copyright. “Stolen” sales undercut both the authors’ ability to financially support themselves so they can continue writing and their official sales numbers, which publishers take into consideration when deciding whether to purchase future manuscripts. On a budget? Go to the library instead. If the book you want is not on the shelves ask the librarian to order it or request an inter-library loan.

What Are You Trying to Say? a question for author-bloggers from Megan Frazer. Peek: “How casual or formal do I want to be? Is this a place for my take on pop culture or more lengthy discourse on societal, cultural, and literary trends? Am I writing as an educator or a writer?”

Congratulations to Jessica Lee Anderson on the release of Calli (Milkweed, 2011)! From the promotional copy: “Fifteen-year-old Calli has just about everything she could want in life—two loving moms, a good-looking boyfriend, and a best friend who has always been there for support. An only child, Calli is excited when her parents announce that they want to be foster parents. Unfortunately, being a foster sister to Cherish is not at all what Calli expected. Funny, moving, and emotionally rich, Calli is a portrait of an endearing young woman caught between adolescence and adulthood, striving to do the right thing even when all of her options seem wrong.” Note: Jessica will be doing a brief reading (with refreshments) following the Austin SCBWI monthly meeting at BookPeople on Sept. 17.

Call for Papers on “Children’s Literature and Imaginative Geography” from IBBY Canada. Peek: “In October 2012, the Department of English at the University of Ottawa will host a symposium on ‘Children’s Literature and Imaginative Geography: Past, Present, and Future.'”

Editing Books for Girls When You’re a Boy by Daniel Nayeri of Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Peek: “As a male editor in children’s books / YA books, I get a lot of questions around the fact that there aren’t a lot of male editors in the children’s books / YA books.”

Looking Around For A New Agent While Still Represented By Another Agent by Mary Kole from Peek: “It reflects poorly on you (even if we sign you, we will always wonder…are they querying others behind our backs?), and the agent you contact might, if they end up offering representation, get a reputation as a ‘poacher,’ someone who steals clients from other agents.”

On Eurocentricity in Fantasy Fiction by Cinda Williams Chima from Diversity in YA Fiction. Peek: “I want the people in my books to reflect the diversity in the world at large, including people of color, strong characters of both genders, gay and straight people. Yes, it’s fantasy, but believable fantasy is always based on real life. In fact, much of the conflict in my high fantasy series is driven by racial and cultural clashes.”

Congratulations to Marianna Baer on the release of Frost House (Balzar + Bray/HarperCollins, 2011)! From the promotional copy: “Leena Thomas’s senior year at boarding school begins with a shock: Frost House, her cozy dorm of close friends, has been assigned an unexpected roommate: confrontational, eccentric Celeste Lazar. But while Leena’s anxiety about a threat to her sanctuary proves valid, it becomes less and less clear whether the threat lies with her new roommate, within Leena’s own mind, or within the very nature of Frost House itself. Mysterious happenings in the dorm, an intense triangle between Leena, Celeste, and Celeste’s brother, and the reawakening of childhood fears, all push Leena to take increasingly desperate measures to feel safe. Frost is the story of a haunting. As to whether the demons are supernatural or psychological . . . well, which answer would let you sleep at night?”

The Great Migration: Journey to the North by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist (Amistad/Harper, 2010): a book trailer by Gina Saldana and readers’ guide by Annabel Moreno from Sylvia Vardell at Poetry for Chidren. Note: includes summary, review excerpts, awards and honors, questions to ask before reading, suggestions for reading poems aloud, follow-up activities, and related websites and books.

Stats on LGBT Young Adult Books Published in the United States from Malinda Lo. Peek: “…a number of LGBT YA books weren’t actually about an LGBT teen, but rather were about a straight teen and his LGBT parents or adult guardians.” Note: nifty use of graphs and charts.

This Week’s Cynsations Posts

Cynsational Giveaways

Last call! Enter to win Liar, Liar and Flat Broke by Gary Paulsen (Random House, 2011). To enter, comment on this post (click link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email me directly with “Paulsen” in the subject line. Publisher sponsored. Deadline: Sept. 16. U.S. readers eligible.

Enter to win one of three Snuggle Mountain apps (IPhone and IPad users only). To enter, comment on this post (click link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with “Snuggle Mountain app” in the subject line. Author sponsored. Deadline: Sept. 26. For extra entries (itemize efforts in your entry comment/email with relevant links): blog about this giveaway; share the link to this post on facebook; share the link to this post on Twitter; share the link to this post on Google+; like Lindsey’s Facebook author page.

Cynsational Screening Room

In an interview with the creators of Babymouse, a graphic novel series from Random House Children’s Books, Jennifer and Matthew Holm discuss Babymouse, the character, the series, and the inspiration behind it all. Source: Random House.

Congratulations to Carrie Jones and Steven E. Wedel on the release of After Obsession (Bloomsbury, 2011)! Note: Carrie also is a co-anthologist for Dear Bully (Harper, 2011).

Congratulations to fellow Austinite P.J. Hoover on the paperback release of Solstice (Andrea Brown, 2011). See the award-winning trailer below.

More Personally

Quiet week here, filled with writing. I did receive my author ARC copies for Diabolical (Candlewick, Jan. 2012), though, and I look forward to sharing the cover with you soon.

Generations United recommends Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) as a great book for Grandparents Week. Note: “National nonprofit works to connect children, youth and older adults through intergenerational programs and policies.”

Cover Stories: Tantalize: Kieren’s Story by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Melissa Walker. Peek: “He has a full head of hair and generous nose, both befitting a Wolf, but he’s still firmly human, too. This is important because it’s Kieren’s intelligence– rather than his instincts—that he relies on most.” Note: see cover under “events” below.

Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith: a review from Moirae (the fates) Book Reviews. Peek: “All of the relationships felt believable, and I never felt like they were forced. The dialogue is strong, and Smith isn’t afraid to show that her characters have flaws, which is really refreshing….”

Personal Links:

From Greg Leitich Smith:

Cynsational Events

Attention, Houstonians! Please join Cynthia Leitich Smith for a discussion and signing of Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick, 2011) at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston.

Note: “This event is free and open to the public. In order to go through the signing line and meet Cynthia Leitich Smith for book personalization, you must purchase Tantalize: Kieren’s Story from Blue Willow Bookshop. A limited number of autographed copies of Cynthia’s books will be available for purchase after the event. If you cannot attend the event, but would like a personalized copy of her book, please call Blue Willow before the event at 281.497.8675.”

Austin Teen Book Festival is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 1 at Palmer Events Center in Austin. The event is free! No need to register, just show up! Students do not need to be accompanied by an adult.

Illustrator Ming Doyle will be signing Tantalize: Kieren’s Story at 2 p.m. Oct. 2 at Brookline Booksmith (279 Harvard Street) in Brookline, Massachusetts. Guests are invited to participate in a vampire/werewolf costume contest.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will be appearing at Austin Comic Con, scheduled for Nov. 11 to Nov. 13 at the Austin Convention Center.

Guest Post: Penny Colman on A Book Title with a Mind of Its Own

By Penny Colman

With three minor exceptions, the titles of my sixteen books are the ones I originally proposed.

In A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins (Atheneum, 1993), “Not Afraid” was changed to “Unafraid” (the designer said it fit better on the cover).

“The” was changed to “A” in Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom (Atheneum, 1994)(my editor thought “The” was presumptuous).

And “Cemeteries” was changed to “Crypts” in Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial (Henry Holt, 1997). My editor wanted to evoke “Tales from the Crypt,” a hit television show at the time.

Given that track record, the title of my new book—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World (Henry Holt, 2011)—had a mind of it’s own; at least that’s how it seemed to me.

My original title for this book about the legendary friendship between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and their fierce fight for women’s rights was “I Forged the Thunderbolts, She Fired Them: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, a Biography of a Powerful Friendship.”

The main title is a quotation by Elizabeth Cady Stanton that describes the dichotomous way that their friendship was and still is typically characterized. But as I immersed myself in my research, I realized that that quote oversimplified the complexity of their friendship. I also began to wonder if perhaps Elizabeth and Susan, both brilliant strategists, perpetuated the notion that one excelled at this and the other at that as a way to legitimate their closeness.

Those realizations prompted me to rethink the title. So what were they about?

“Stirring up the world,” according to Susan, a sentiment that Elizabeth also echoed. That then became the new title: “Stirring Up the World: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, a Biography of a Powerful Friendship.”

For several years, it remained the title, which I affectionately shortened to “Stirring,” whenever I talked to the graduate students in the classes I taught at Queens College, the City University of New York, about doing research and writing about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and their fifty-one-year friendship that fueled and sustained the nineteenth-century fight for women’s rights.

Then one day, as I was about to finish the manuscript, the thought occurred to me that they did more than stir up things—they changed history.

And with that insight, this title spontaneously popped up: Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed History. I emailed my editor, who liked it very much and agreed to use it.

But the title wasn’t done yet, for as I reviewed the first pass pages, I noticed two changes: the word “and” replaced the ampersand and “history” was replaced by “world.”

Replacing the ampersand was okay, but, whoa, I thought, how did “world” get inserted?

My editor didn’t know, but said it was up to me whether or not to keep it.

And I did because it is true. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony did change the world; besides who was I to argue with a title that clearly had a mind of its own.

Cynsational Notes

Like Penny’s author page at facebook.

New Voice: Shayne Leighton on Of Light and Darkness

Paperback cover.

Shayne Leighton is the first-time author of Of Light and Darkness (Book 1: The Vampire’s Daughter) (Decadent, 2011). From the promotional copy:

When one human stands before an army of impossible obstacles, the likelihood of overcoming them in this coming-of-age modern fairytale may result in war between light and darkness. 

Abandoned as an infant in Prague, naive and strong-willed Charlotte Ruzikova was raised by one of the last vampires left alive. As a human, she knows no other home than the one nestled deep in the woods of Eastern Europe, where witches drew spells of enchantment, phasers threw tea parties, and elves are the closest in kin. 

Charlotte has lived her life in the dark with her guardian, content to having him to herself and reveling in his attention, until she’s realizes she wants more… 

Resident medical doctor and vampire, Valek Ruzik fears the day his ward would come of age and blossom into a fine woman, and he is forced to confront his own motives as time is of the essence once his past catches up to him, and their lives become endangered…

As genocide and war threatens their secret society, the dictator in power is ready to wipe out Valek’s race, but Charlotte will not allow that to happen. Fighting for the only one she’s ever loved and truly believed in, she will do whatever it takes to save their love…before the sun comes up and light takes over.

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

“Shayne” by Margo Hulse

I began writing Of Light and Darkness (Decadent, 2011) when I was sixteen years old and in high school. At sixteen, you think you know everything. I remember writing several pages when I probably should have been paying attention in class, sharing them with my friends, and since the feedback I was getting was so positive, thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread.


Of course, I’m (mostly) joking. I knew I wasn’t anywhere near the greatness of sliced bread yet. But when I set out on this story, I loved the quirkiness of the characters and the plot so much, I knew this was the first novel I would finish. I made a decision that someday this would be published. I just wasn’t aware of how much work would be involved!

My pre-contract revision process was sort of like finding your way through a dark room with a dim flashlight. I could sort of tell that a lot of things needed to be fixed, and I tried my best to fix them. But being a young writer with no formal training or experience, the “how-do-I-fix” was the hardest part.

I consider Cynthia Leitich Smith my biggest mentor throughout writing this manuscript. In the really early stages, I sent her my opening pages, and she wrote back with tons of encouragement. She recommended that I get a beta reader, which was the best advice she could have given me at that point.

I had many of my friends and family members beta read.

Ebook cover

For any writer starting out, that is the best advice and I can lend as well. Get people to read your book. (The best are people you don’t know because then they can give you an unbiased opinion.) It will change your outlook. It changed mine.

But the real shock didn’t occur until my post-contract revisions began and Decadent Publishing assigned me my brilliant editor, Barbara Sheridan! (Terry Bruce was also a huge help and support and always on stand-by.) It wasn’t until this point, that I saw my manuscript as it was–a great story that needed a lot of tweaking.

These wonderful ladies shed light on everything I was missing. There were so many head-hops (point of view shifts) from paragraph to paragraph, unneeded scenes, slow moments, and other technical issues. They became my teachers.

Yes, it was painful to nix some things, but in the end, the story shines brighter.

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

I had a lot of help and inspiration from my husband who hails from the Czech Republic, where this story takes place.

Building the magic in this setting came easily, because Czech’s rich history and culture go back a long way and are shrouded in mystery. Prague provides the perfect backdrop for vampires, wizards, and other creatures of the night.

Since I was a very little girl, I always loved fairy tales, and I was introduced to fantasies early.

I pulled my mythical objects, words, and events from every culture and story. I went the library and read about mythologies and legends, looked up the meanings of various symbols.

The research for building the Of Light and Darkness world took months, and I continued it throughout my writing process.

I write whenever I get the chance and something inspires me. I always carry around a small pad of paper and a pencil. I’ll write in the middle of coffee shops, book stores or at home after everyone has gone to bed.

Of Light and Darkness is my absolute favorite story that I’ve come up with so far, and I have a lot planned for the series’ future.

Guest Post: Ellen Jensen Abbott on The Pain in the Backstory

By Ellen Jensen Abbott

First, a little quiz from the Queen of Sequels, Carolyn Keene and her minions:

Match the character name to the description:

  • Bess Marvin
  • Nancy Drew
  • Carson Drew
  • Hannah Gruen

____ a. pleasantly plump with a motherly expression

_____ b. a slightly plump pretty girl

_____ c. blue eyes, “titian blonde” hair

_____ d. tall and distinguished

And, all together now: What car did Nancy drive?

A blue convertible!

I remember giggling with my girlfriends over the repeated phrases in Nancy Drew novels as Keene reintroduced characters we had met in five, ten, maybe 20 previous books. We could each recite the epithets that we were sure to find in the first two or three chapters before the mystery really got going.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this technique—and secretly longing to use it—as I wrote my own sequel to my debut novel, Watersmeet (Marshall Cavendish, 2009). Sequels are everywhere these days, and readers seem hungry for them. One of the most common questions my writing friends and I get asked is, “Will there be a sequel?”

But the “slightly plump, pretty girl” (poor Bess, seen reaching for a “third sandwich” on the first page of The Clue in the Diary) was not going to work for my sequel.

Nancy Drew is a static character living in a sort of Ground Hog’s Day of middle grade literature. She’s always just gotten the blue convertible for her birthday, it’s always summer, and she’s always about seventeen. This can be comforting for a reader. You know exactly what you’re going to get when you pick up a Nancy Drew mystery.

But in The Centaur’s Daughter (Marshall Cavendish, 2011), the sequel to Watersmeet, the seasons have changed; Rueshlan, the shape-shifting leader of Watersmeet, is dead; and my main character, Abisina, has become a full-fledged young adult.

She has to ask herself who she wants to be now: Can she be the leader her father was? Can she keep her new home, Watersmeet, from being destroyed? And how does she feel about that guy, Findlay, who had always been just a friend?

The art of writing a sequel came down to one essential question for me: How do I handle backstory? Readers who read Watersmeet want to be reminded of important events in the first novel but don’t want to re-read it. New readers need to know enough to follow the events of this novel without feeling like they came late to the party and are missing all the inside jokes.

I tried several techniques and read a lot of sequels to figure out how to strike the right balance.

How jealous I was when I read the following line in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Of Avonlea (L.C. Page, 1909): “Both girls laughed over the old memory…concerning which, if any of my readers are ignorant and curious I must refer them to Anne’s earlier history.” (The ellipsis is Montgomery’s!)

But I didn’t think I should do that. My novels are fantasy novels, and to allude to the fact that they are crafted novels sold in bookstores or online pulls the reader out of the moment of the novel and reminds them that it’s 2011 and they have homework to do or a text to send.

The same was true for character descriptions. I would have loved to go back to Watersmeet and recycle my descriptions of Icksyon, the maniacal centaur who tries to kidnap Abisina. After all, I had worked hard to get just the right words and images when I described him initially. How could there be another set of “right” words and images? At the same time, it didn’t seem fair to my returning readers to recycle from the first book.

The most important lesson I learned was when I teamed up with a writer friend who was also writing a sequel. Neither of us had read each other’s first books so were perfect “new” readers: We agreed to read drafts of the sequels, telling each other where we needed more information and where we were overwhelmed with backstory.

Because she was on a different schedule for her book than I was, we only managed to trade pages once, but I learned two important lessons. In reading her early draft, I hit blocks of backstory that I found frustrating as a new reader. I wanted to say, “Get on with it already! I know you wrote another book, but I’m reading this one!” I held onto that feeling as I waded into my own sequel.

At the same time, when I pointed out the backstory to this writer, she talked about how it helped her see how parts of the story fit together, even as she knew it need to be cut. Another lesson to hang on to.

In my early drafts of The Centaur’s Daughter, I just let myself go. My approach has always been to put it all out there, then cut, cut, cut, so I decided to do that with my backstory as well. To some extent, all novelists do this. We know so much more about our characters and settings than ever shows up in the final draft.

(Thank goodness! I could bore you to extinction with details of the world of Seldara. Do you really need to know the step-by-step process of drying and grinding cattail reeds into bread flour?)

My first draft of The Centaur’s Daughter clocked in at 423 pages, the last draft at 295. And some vast proportion of the 128 pages I cut was backstory.

To some extent, this was unavoidable. I didn’t know exactly where my story was going when I started, even though I thought I did. But on later reads, it became very clear what story I was telling and where to weed out extraneous backstory.

Of course, it helped that I had a great editor.

And yes, I did find sentences or phrases as late as my final read that I had to cut.

There is ego involved, too. Let’s say I include some backstory from a bit I think was particularly cool or inventive or interesting in my first book. I am less likely to see that it’s unnecessary, because I like it. I read it again, and I think, “Oh yeah. There’s that great bit!”

Again, that’s where your editor—and hopefully your own sense of proportion—comes in.

So as I look back—and if I were to give advice to someone contemplating writing a sequel—I would say this:

  1. You will struggle mightily. It’s writing, isn’t?
  2. Don’t worry about it too much. You will put in too much backstory because you don’t always know what’s relevant. If you want to write: “Hey! Reader! Go back and read my book! I’ll give you the bookstore link!” that’s a good sign that you’re doing too much.
  3. It will get clearer what you should cut. If you are sighing with boredom and using “had been” a lot, it’s time to hit delete.
  4. Get it down as far as you can—and then tell your editor not to hold back.

This backstory struggle was worth it because there are many rewards that come with sequel writing. Writers often talk about their characters as if they were their children. A sequel allows you to watch these characters grow and develop—at times in very surprising ways.

In The Centaur’s Daughter, I got to be there for my main character’s first kiss! (Do you think my kids would ever let me do that?) I got to see her grow up and develop the leadership qualities and courage that was just budding in her at the end of Watersmeet.

Stopping after one book can feel like sending your child to boarding school when she is eight or nine. With a sequel, you can at least get her through adolescence.