Guest Post: Ed Briant on Hitler, Miss McNally & Stephen King

By Ed Briant
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations 

When I was a kid living in London we used to have this Scottish neighbor lady called Miss McNally.

She’d survived being a nurse in World War One and Hitler’s Blitzkrieg in World War Two, but when I knew her she was in her mid-eighties, arthritis was getting the better of her. In spite of that she used to have a saying:

“Every day in every way I am getting better and better.”

Being a bit of a scallywag I thought this was quite funny. To my un-empathetic eyes she was clearly getting worse if anything.

I used to try to avoid her, but one day she cornered me in the stairwell. She asked me if I knew why the north side of our street was pretty Victorian row houses, and the south side was all ugly, modern buildings.

I told her I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, while I glanced around for an escape route.

She told me that one sunny spring afternoon in 1945 a German V2 rocket had landed across the road, obliterating all the buildings, and everybody in the buildings, which was mostly women and children as all the men were either in the military or at work. She’d only survived because at the time the missile struck she’d been taking a stroll on Primrose Hill, a nearby park.

All she remembered was that one moment she was walking, and the next, she was flat on her face, surrounded by brown smoke. It wasn’t her first near miss with a Nazi bomb, but this one was the closest and the biggest.

She reckoned she was lucky the war finished a couple of months later, because she was certain the next one had her name on it.

I had to laugh. I had a mental image of a big, fat bomb with the words “Miss McNally” daubed on the sides in Gothic script, and I began to have a little more respect for her, but she wasn’t finished with me yet.

“Nowhere Man” by Ed Briant, used with permission.

She told me I wasn’t very good with words and handed me a stack of cryptic crossword puzzles she’d clipped out of the Guardian newspaper. She then told me to fill out as many of the answers as I could, and bring them back to her the following week.

I spent the next seven days racking my brains, but I could barely fill in more than one or two of the clues. I went back to see Miss McNally. Even the one or two clues I’d managed were wrong.

She then showed me that day’s crossword. It was all filled out. Every single clue, and the answers would not be published until the next day. She told me it had taken her ten years of doing the crossword every day before she finally finished one. Now she finished them regularly, but it took her all day. Her next goal was to finish one by lunchtime.

And that was when she told me her mantra:

“Every day in every way I am getting better and better.”

Over the next few months, she coached me until I could do about a quarter of the clues in the Guardian crossword. In return I did a little grocery-shopping for her and a little furniture moving. After that we moved to London’s East End, where the rents were cheaper, and I lost touch with Miss McNally, but her mantra has always stayed with me.

Recently I Googled Miss McNally’s mantra. It turns out it originated in the early twentieth century by the French psychologist, Émile Coué. Coué believed that if you repeated the mantra every morning and every evening, then you really would improve. I can’t guarantee that it works, but it could be worth a try.

Self-improvement isn’t difficult when you’re a kid. All you have to is eat, and you’ll get bigger. It’s not hard in your teens, and it’s still pretty easy when you’re in your twenties, but by the time you get into your thirties it gets a lot harder.

The only way you can really improve yourself in mid-life is to set yourself new challenges.

The good news is that if you’re involved in type of creative activity then setting new challenges should be a breeze, especially so if you’re a writer.

With the publication of my latest YA novel I Am (Not) the Walrus (Flux, 2012), I have to ask myself if it’s better than my previous novel, Choppy-Socky Blues (Flux, 2010).

Regardless of what the critics say, and regardless of how many copies are sold, do I, myself, think it’s a better book and, if so, then why?

I do think it’s better. I tend to think of Choppy-Socky Blues as a slice-of-life confessional. It has its good qualities in that it is funny, but it’s light on plot and secondary-character development. Looking back it’s also probably a little too anchored to autobiography for its own good.

I Am (Not) the Walrus on the other hand does have plenty of plot. It has quirky secondary characters, and it has suspense. The humor is still there, but it takes a back seat to the plot. Plus, it’s autobiographical, but only as much as it needs to be. Finally, the subject matter is way closer to my heart.

  1. An improvement, at least in my opinion, but what challenges am I going to take on in my next book?
  2. I want to write from the point of view of a character who isn’t remotely like myself.
  3. I want to write dialogue scenes between more than two characters.
  4. I want to write in past tense, which isn’t as easy as it looks if you’re used to writing in present tense. One day I’ll try third person, but I don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet.

Right now I’m reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (Simon & Schuster), with the intent of figuring out how to write scenes that are so suspenseful it’s impossible to put the book down.

I’ll see how things turn out. Right now I have to go back to reading Stephen King.

“Paperback Writer” by Ed Briant; used with permission

Cynsational Notes

Ed Briant grew up in Brighton, England, but now lives just outside Philadelphia, where he writes, illustrates, and creates the popular comic strip “Tales from the Slush Pile” (scroll to end of page). He has two daughters, teaches creative writing, and plays the alto saxophone (quite badly).

Book Trailer: The Book of Wonders by Jasmine Richards

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for The Book of Wonders by Jasmine Richards (HarperCollins, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Magic, Djinn, Ogres, and Sorcerers.

Thirteen-year-old Zardi loves to hear stories about fantastical beings, long banned from the kingdom of
Arribitha. But anyone caught whispering of their powers will feel the rage of the sultan—a terrifying usurper who, even with his eyes closed, can see all.

When her own beloved sister is captured by the evil ruler, Zardi knows that she must go to any lengths to rescue her. 

Along with her best friend, Ridhan—a silver-haired, violet-eyed boy of mysterious origins—and an unlikely crew of sailors led by the infamous Captain Sinbad, Zardi ventures forth into strange and wondrous territory with a seemingly impossible mission: to bring magic back to Arribitha and defeat the sultan once and for all.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Recent Thurber House author.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

2013 Children’s Writer in Residence from Thurber House. Now accepting applications; deadline Nov. 2. Peek: “…a month-long retreat in the furnished third-floor apartment of Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio. Besides having time to focus on his/her own writing project, each resident spends up to ten hours per week teaching children the joys of writing in both a community-based agency and as part of the Thurber House Summer Writing Camp for children.” See resident CWR author Donna Gephart‘s report on her experience.

Writing About Racism in the Past from Justine Labalestier. Peek: “The fact that those attitudes were historically accurate for the period
she’s writing about is irrelevant. You can show racism without condoning
it.” See also Good Company for Thinking about Race in Novels from Ashley Hope Perez.

How to Impress the People You Interview (And Be Professional) by Christina Katz from Jane Friedman. Peek: “If you can be thoughtful and prepared enough for the interview that the source thanks you afterward for stealing away their time, then you have done a good job.” Note: applies as much to career informational interviews and book research ones.

Diagnosis: Storyteller by Jan O’Hara from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Much of what they do—the interview, the exam, the tests—is about selecting the most plausible storyline for your illness.”

Writers Born, Not Made by Sarah Enni from YA Highway. Peek: “Writers write because when they don’t, they feel badly. Writing is something that has a positive impact on their lives and they crave it.”

Mary’s model book for ramifications.

Establishing Ramifications by Mary Kole
from Peek: “The ramifications of getting chosen at the
reaping are very clear: you will go to the Hunger Games, and you will
probably die.”

Character Trait: Creative by Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “…innate giftedness, coming from a creative family or environment, a desire for power or recognition, an unavoidable need to share what’s inside with others, finding a void and wanting to fill it, seeing and appreciating beauty in untraditional forms.”

Forensics Q&A: Fingerprinting by Kristy Lahoda from Peek: “Our fingertips have skin called friction ridges that secrete sweat through pores. The composition of this sweat actually forms the latent print as well as any variety of materials that are on the friction

The Book’s The Thing: A Conversation with Elizabeth Law, Vice President and Publisher of Egmont USA from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “The followers who are really engaged with you, who’ve been enjoying your blog and adding it to their own blogrolls or agreeing with your goodreads recommendation or laughing at all your tweets, those are the ones who buy your book. In the business, we say those are the ones who ‘convert.'”

“Brother. Prince. Snake.” a new original short story by YA author and fiction editor Cecil Castellucci, illustrated by Sam Burley from Peek: “A retelling of the Prince Lindwurm fairy tale, Brother Prince Snake is a story of love, sibling rivalry, and how a monster became King.”

45 years and going strong!

SLJ Talks to S.E. Hinton on The Outsiders Turning 45 by Rocco Staino from School Library Journal. Peek: “…about the 45th anniversary of her most popular novel, experience with
writer’s block, and her most recent fascination with Twitter.” Source: April Henry.

The Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop in October is dedicated to writing the young-adult novel. The faculty includes award-winning writers Rita Williams-Garcia, Coe Booth, and Varian Johnson, as well as Sara Crowe,
a top agent in young-adult fiction. From the promotional copy: “This is the place to work seriously
on your manuscript and get it in shape for submission. No matter what
the genre or style of your novel, if you are writing for young adults,
you won’t want to miss this engaging week in the woods.” For more
information about the Whole Novel Workshop, contact Jo Lloyd by phone at
570-253-1192, or e-mail Jo at, or visit to request an application.

Refer to Parents By Name in Third Person Point of View? from Peek: “Unless a statement is exactly what you want, don’t risk having your readers chew over a relationship issue that doesn’t exist.”

Nominate your favorite Philippine-published picture book for the 1st Filipino Readers’ Choice Awards by Tarie from Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind. Peek: “The Awards aim to: develop awareness and appreciation of Philippine-published books, engage Filipino reading communities and honor their favorite Philippine-published books, and give Filipino readers a greater voice and recognize their vital role in the Philippine book industry.” Note: don’t miss the children’s picture book category.

Seven Ways to Sell More Books with Pinterest by Beth Hayden from Book Baby. Peek: “Use Pinterest to tell your story as an author. Tell your followers and
readers who you are, where you came from, and how you came to be a
writer. Give them a glimpse into your world, allow them to get to know
you and let them discover what’s important to you.” Source: Samantha Clark.

My Life in the United States by René Colato Laínez from (Part 2). Peek: “The ideas to write many of my books are born in the classroom. One day, a first grader told me, “I want to write a letter to my mamá. She is in Guatemala and I miss her so much.” That night I wrote a story named Waiting for Papá/Esperando a Papá and it became my first published book.” Read part one.

How to Break Up with Your Agent by Kristina Springer from Author2Author. Peek: “…check your agent-author agreement and see what it says as far as
terminating the relationship. There may be a clause in there that says
you have to give 30-day notice.”

Are You a Real Writer? by Carolyn Kaufman
from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “A writer is someone who shows up
every day and writes. Writing is incorporated into the writer’s daily

The SingTel Asian Picture Book Award

By Christopher Cheng

The SingTel Asian Picture Book Award offers a total of $10,000 for the First Prize — consisting of $5,000 for an author and $5,000 for an illustrator.
Beginning in 2013, the award will be presented annually at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (in Singapore) to an outstanding unpublished picture book with a distinctly Asian theme. Closing date for applications is Dec. 31.

Entries will be accepted from writers and/or illustrators of any nationality and from any country who are age 18 and up.

Cynsational Giveaways

Walker Books (U.K.)

The three winners of their choice of novels in the Tantalize series were Gaby in Georgia, Susan in Virginia, and Daria in Germany.

The winner of a set of seven author-signed books by U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis was Lisa in California.

The final winner of Laugh with the Moon by Shana Burg was Pat in California. 

Enter to win The Roller Coaster Kid by Mary Ann Rodman, illustrated by Roger Roth (Viking, 2012) from Teaching Authors. Deadline: 11 p.m. July 25; eligibility: U.S.

Cynsational Screening Room

Are you enough? In this video tribute to Denise Jaden‘s Never Enough (Simon Pulse, 2012), various YA authors talk about their own teen insecurities.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Fellow Candlewick author Annette Simon (she’s an illustrator, too) returns to Austin for an event in celebration of Robot Zombie Frankenstein! at 11:30 this Saturday at BookPeople, and then YA rock-star Beth Revis joins Austin authors P.J. Hoover and K.A. Holt at 4 p.m. at the store that same day.

Bookshelf as Prism by Edith Campbell from VOYA: Voice of Youth Advocates. Peek: “Cynthia Leitich Smith writes wonderfully strong female characters.” Note: article also references Cynsations.

Congratulations to fellow Austinite Shelli Cornelison on the publication of her short story, “The Hard Shells of Turtles” on the online YA magazine, Verbal Pyrotechnics!

Personal Links:

Editor Interview: Daniel Ehrenhaft on Soho Teen

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Daniel Ehrenhaft is the author of far too many books for children and young adults. He has often written under the pseudonym Daniel Parker (his middle name, which is easier to spell and pronounce than his last), and occasionally Erin Haft.

He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Jessica; their son, Nate; their scruffy dog, Gibby; and their psychotic cat, Bootsy.

When he isn’t writing, Mr. Ehrenhaft is the editorial director of Soho Teen, at Soho Press. He is also a member of Tiger Beat, the only all-YA-author band on the planet.

(Other work experience includes a short term of employment at the Columbia University Library. He was fired.)

What inspired you to focus your career on books, especially those published for young/YA readers?

I knew I wanted to work in children’s literature the moment I reread The Westing Game
by Ellen Raskin senior year in college. I’d remembered that it was the
book that inspired me to start writing—and most importantly, reading

With three days left until graduation, I consulted the Columbia University “Job Board” to see if there were any jobs available in children’s publishing. This was pre-internet; the “Job Board” was exactly what it sounds like: a 30-foot length of cork smothered in post-its offering entry level jobs in every conceivable field.

The only job in children’s publishing—production assistant—came care of a packaging company called Daniel Weiss Associates. It promised the following opportunity (I am not making this up): “Write cover copy for Sweet Valley High novels!”

I called and got the job. Daniel Weiss Associates later became 17th Street Productions, and finally Alloy Entertainment. I worked there for the bulk of my career, off and on from 1993 – 2009. And I did write some Sweet Valley High cover copy!

Could you tell us about Soho Press/Soho Teen? It’s history and vibe?

Soho Press was founded in 1986 by Laura Hruska as a small literary Indie Press. Later, it became famous for its exotic crime titles: Soho Crime only publishes mysteries that take place outside of the U.S. When Laura passed away in 2010, her daughter, Bronwen, took over as publisher.

She felt YA was a natural place to expand the Soho brand, and I was looking for an editorial home. The timing was fortuitous. As mystery is my first love—and Bronwen wanted to launch an imprint with a mystery focus, with the same high bar for literary excellence set by Soho Press—we clicked.

Soho Teen launches in January 2013. We’re publishing one book a month, so that each gets the special care and attention it deserves. And while we publish a broad range of YA fiction, every story must have a mystery at its heart.

That said, our titles include sci-fi, the paranormal, a dystopian, some contemporary realistic fiction (some humorous), and a star-studded anthology to benefit the literacy non-profit 826nyc. So there’s plenty of diversity!

How would you describe your editorial focus? Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, realism, fantasy, etc. — level of edginess?

Per above: YA mystery. “Edgy” is a four-letter word! I am fine with sex, drugs, and violence, provided that they serve the story. If they’re not needed, wonderful. If a risqué or graphic or controversial element is essential: wonderful, too. In short, I loathe anything gratuitous or sensational.

What titles should we be on the lookout for?

All of them! Seriously, I am so excited about every single book on our launch list. It’s small, only six titles. For more about all of them, you can go to our website and download our sampler.

Big picture, what makes Soho Press special?

The quality of everything they have published to date. It’s a thrill and challenge to try to live up to the Soho pedigree with Soho Teen.

What outreach strategies do you have or are planned for teachers and librarians? 

We’re looking to familiarize teachers, librarians, booksellers, and our publishing industry friends with the story of Soho Teen and what sets it apart from the wider world of YA.

Then we’re going to follow up on the promise of something entirely new with What We Saw at Night by Jacquelyn Mitchard (our launch title) and a list of five other undeniably fantastic books.

Outreach to teachers and librarians is a central focus; we’re already working hard to keep the Soho Teen brand in front of them, getting books in their hands well in advance of pub date through participation in major trade shows (hello if we saw you at ALA or BEA!), advertising and ARC offers in major school and public library publications, and direct outreach.

Closer to January, we’ll schedule author events in schools and libraries. We’re well aware that teachers and librarians are the number one advocates, proponents, and tastemakers in the YA world—and they need to have access to our new authors and titles before anyone else.

What is your big-picture marketing plan?

  • Listening to fans. Overall, Soho Teen is obsessed with giving readers what they want—by fostering conversation.
  • Involving ourselves with literacy outreach through partnerships with 826nyc, I <3 Daily, and Figment. (With lots more to come.)
  • Partnering with real-life underground and alternative communities that play a role in the novels. (Parkour, anyone?)
  • Lots of contests!
  • Putting Authors front and center: from giving our Twitter feed over for a day to author videos and vlog posts, our job is to facilitate contact with authors as much as possible.

How do you connect with your authors? Do you accept unagented submissions?

So far, I’ve only signed authors I know and have worked with previously, or who were recommended by a trusted agent.

Are you open to speaking/critiquing at writer’s conferences?


As a reader, what is your favorite YA of 2012 (so far) and why?

I can’t say! Literally. I’m a 2012 National Book Award judge in the Juvenile category, so I can’t say until November 14.

What do you do when you’re not editing?

Read. And play guitar. (Occasionally with Tiger Beat.) And hang out with the wife and kid.

Typical boring middle-age editor guy stuff.

Career Builder & Giveaway: Ron Koertge

Candlewick, 2012

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Ron Koertge is the author of a dozen or more books for young readers. Most of his novels are ALA choices and two (Strays (2007) and Stoner & Spaz (2002), both Candlewick) are PEN prize winners.

He is also an accomplished poet with grants from the NEA and the California Arts Council. His most recent books of poems, both from Red Hen Press, are Fever (2006) and Indigo (2009).

An instructor in Hamline University’s low-residency MFA program (Writing for Children & Young Adults), he lives in South Pasadena, California, with his wife Bianca Richards.

Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock across the rapids? Why?

Clearly, I’m jumping from one rock to another. I’ve been a poet all my life.

When I was forty (that’s about thirty years ago!) I put poetry aside for awhile and jumped to a novel for adults (The Boogeyman (1980)). From that I tried YA (Where the Kissing Never Stops (Candlewick, 2005)), wrote a few of those, then tried a novel-in-verse (The Brimstone Journals (Candlewick, 2001)). Boy Girl Boy (Graphia, 2005) was an experiment in POV, Margaux with an X (Candlewick, 2004) a foray into vocabulary and attitude.

I bore easily and am restless by nature.

Did you ever consider giving up? What happened? What kept you going?

Photo by Sonya Sones

I write every day, so giving up never occurs to me. I’m so used to writing badly (anybody who writes a lot has days when nothing is working) that I shrug it off and assume I’ll do better next time.

I like the medium. I enjoy working with language like painters enjoy paint and canvas. Not for the picture as much as just the materials. So not for the poem or story so much as just bossing some nouns around.

Where do you want to go from here? What are your short- and long-term goals? Your strategies for achieving them?

My strategy for achieving both long and short-term goals is to stay alive. I don’t have the time that younger writers have. I don’t feel a tremendous sense of urgency; I’m just realistic.

Writing regularly is, for me, the best revenge.

I’m not sure what I’ll write next, and I’m interested in finding out.

What advice do you have for the debut authors of 2012?

Buddy the poetry cat

I remember being a debut author and how terrific it felt to see a book with my name on it.

Although I followed my first YA (Where the Kissing Never Stops) with another that was about a boy-girl relationship (The Arizona Kid (Candlewick, 2005)), I wish I’d tried something that baffled and frustrated me more.

I’ve advised my MFA students to write something very different for their second novel. A lot of them have said what a relief it is not to have to “do that again.” A historical novelist, for example, turned to fantasy. A fan of dystopia going for something much lighter-hearted.

The Brimstone Journals was my first novel-in-verse, and it was, in fact, a relief not to write margin-to-margin prose. Not only did that book attract new readers, it gave me another way to look at fiction and it made me a better teacher when it came to working with other novelists-in-verse since I’d struggled with the verse-part just like they had.

Ron’s studio desk

Cynsational Giveaways

#1 Enter to win a first chapter critique (up to 15 pages) by Ron Koertge. Response will be via notes or phone call (not Skype). Turnaround time will be less than a week. Eligibility: international.

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#2 Enter to win one of two sets of Ron’s bestselling books, including hardcover copies of Knives, Lies and Girls in Red Dresses (2012), hot off the presses! Winners will also receive Koertge’s bestselling Stoner and Spaz (2011) in paperback, the sequel, Now Playing: Stoner and Spaz II (2011) in hardcover, and The Arizona Kid (2005) in paperback. This giveaway is courtesy Ron’s publisher, Candlewick Press. Eligibility: U.S. and Canada.

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Cynsational Notes  

The Career Builders series
offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published
books for a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both
the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business landscape
of trade publishing. 

Guest Post & Giveaway: Liz Garton Scanlon on Why We Should Think Big

By Liz Garton Scanlon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

A few years back, I realized that we often mean only two or three things when we talk to kids about art — certainly painting and drawing, perhaps sculpture, maybe music.

We mean “art-that’s-the-kind-the-art-teacher-teaches”. Which is both awesome and true, but also limited. What about photography? What about dance?

What about knitting or writing or acting or cooking?

When I wrote Think Big (Bloomsbury, 2012), that’s what I wanted to play with. I wanted to say to kids, “All of your creative ideas and experiences? Those are art!”

And the great thing about saying that to kids is, they respond with, “Okay, then, let’s do it, let’s make some!” whereas a grown-up audience might say, “Right, yes, those things are all art. But not for me. artists do art.”

As adults, we’ve learned that there aren’t limits on types or kinds of art, but we proceed to limit ourselves, our possibilities, our attempts. We tend to stop trying new forms of art and, when we do dabble, we’re self-deprecating about it.

Kids are a lot bolder and braver in this than we are.

Courtesy of Liz Garton Scanlon; used with permission.

During my school visits, I ask kids how many of them are writers, how many of them are artists, and you know how many raise their hands? Almost all of them!

I want that to continue, past kindergarten and second grade, past fifth grade and through middle school and on into high school. I would love to speak to an adult audience and see everyone raise their hands!

Liz on ALA 2010

Not because we necessarily need more paintings on the museum walls or performances in Carnegie Hall or even new five-star restaurants, but because we as people are really fed by our own creative expression.

Making art can energize us, can help us heal, can feel like play, can provide a way to process things, can bring us joy.

I hope that this book is just a teeny tiny playful reminder of that — who wouldn’t want to be part of that group of wily kids (and cat!) that Vanessa Newton’s illustrations brought to life? It’s just kind of a giddy rollick!

In the meantime, I’m going back to my desk.

With a big breath and a brave heart…

Cynsational Giveaway

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In Memory: Donald J. Sobol

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Encyclopedia Brown Author Donald J. Sobol Has Died by Jason Boog from Media Bistro’s Galley Cat. Peek: “…Edgar Award-winning mystery series. …Sobol also wrote the Two Minute Mystery series from 1959 until 1968. He launched Encyclopedia Brown in 1963, and the books are still available today from Penguin.”

Donald J. Sobol Dies at 87, Twitter Remembers ‘Encyclopedia Brown’ Author from the International Business Times.  Peek: “Leroy ‘Encyclopedia’ Brown, the books’ title character, was a boy whose
adventures involved solving mysteries and would sometimes assist his
detective father at crime scenes.”

Donald J. Sobol Dies, Author Wrote Popular Encyclopedia Brown Series by T. Rees Shapiro from The Washington Post. Peek: “Mr. Sobol was a newspaper reporter in New York before embarking on a literary career in the late 1950s. He wrote more than 60 children’s books on topics as varied as Medieval knights, the American Revolutionary War and the Wright Brothers.”

Donald J. Sobol, Creator of Encyclopedia Brown, Dies at 87 by Denise Grady from The New York Times. Peek: “…translated into 12 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide…. He continued to write every day until a month or so before his death, his son said. The 28th book in the series, Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme, is to be published in October.” Note: the first Encyclopedia Brown book was published in 1963 “after being rejected by two dozen publishers.”

Learn more about Donald.

Dutton, 2012

New Voice: Joanne Levy on Small Medium at Large

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Joanne Levy on Small Medium at Large (Bloomsbury, 2012). From the promotional copy:

After she’s hit by lightning at a wedding, twelve-year-old Lilah Bloom develops a new talent: she can hear dead people. 

Among them, there’s her over-opinionated Bubby Dora; a prissy fashion designer; and an approval-seeking clown who livens up a séance. 

With Bubby Dora leading the way, these and other sweetly imperfect ghosts haunt Lilah through seventh grade, and help her face her one big fear: talking to—and possibly going to the seventh-grade dance with—her crush, Andrew Finkel.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2012, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Yes, I am surprised to be debuting in 2012, because I (very naively) thought it would have happened a lot sooner. Like several years sooner. And quite honestly, if I’d known at the beginning that it would take this long, I’m not sure I would have even started writing.

True story: I recently remembered that a friend and I went to see a psychic many years ago—I think it was about when I was writing my first book—and I asked if I would ever be published. The lady said yes, but only after a lot of rejection and it would take about 13 books.

Simon dislikes Joanne spending too much time at the computer.

I laughed and looked at my friend and said something to the effect of, “Yeah, like I would bother writing thirteen books with no results.”

Needless to say, I dismissed the psychic’s prediction (a good thing, methinks), and forgot all about this until recently.

Well, my publishing journey is definitely not one of those straight roads, but when I add up all the books, Small Medium at Large was the 13th book I wrote.

And it’s about a medium.

Spooky, huh?

Anyway, there were a lot of bumps in the road and there were many times I wanted to quit, but I’m stubborn and the harder it got, it seemed the more determined I became. I felt I was a good enough writer to get published (most days—who doesn’t have days filled with crushing doubts?) and I was willing to work on my craft to get even better.

It was just a matter of writing the right book to get into the right editor’s hands at just the right time. Seems like an easy enough thing to do, right?

Well, not so much, but it did happen eventually.

From starting my first book to publication date, my journey has spanned over eleven years, sixteen books written (like I said, it hasn’t been a straight road) and over a thousand rejections from agents and editors. Which brings me to the last part of the question—how did I keep the faith.

Joanne with Zoe.

Well, I won’t lie and say I faced each day with a smile and a basket full of optimism. By the time the offer finally came, I’d pretty much given up and hadn’t written anything new in about a year because it felt pointless. I’d lost the joy that comes from writing because I was focused only on the prize of being published.

And yes, it would have been healthier to focus on the writing and getting fulfillment just from that, but I couldn’t. My dream was to be published, to share my stories with the world, and that dream was being crushed daily when either I didn’t hear from my agent or I did hear, and it was bad news.

But then there was one day in December 2010 that changed it all. The day when my agent called to tell me we had an offer on the book I’d been working on for three years (which had been written and rewritten and rewritten again until I pretty much hated even thinking about it).

We had an offer.

It had all fallen into place somehow, and I was going to be published.

And now, looking back, it was all worth it. Every single drop of sweat, every tear, and every groan of frustration. It was all worth it. Seriously: it was all worth it.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

Chester on the printer.

I’m a funny person.

You’re probably not buying that based on this blog post so far, but you’re going to have to trust me on this one.

I’m funny. Really, I am. It feels weird talking about it, but I have been known to be a bit of a class clown, doing just about anything to get the validation of laughter from others.

How do I decide what’s funny?

Well, I wouldn’t call it a serious decision-making process; I use my instinct to know what’s funny.

If something makes me laugh, then chances are, it will make other people laugh, too.

I think I have a knack for having good timing, which is that nebulous thing that actors and stand-up comedians talk about that make the difference between jokes landing well and jokes flopping to the sound of crickets chirping.

I’m not sure if timing is something you can learn or if you just need a good ear for it, so I’m going to talk here about a couple of other elements that I use to make things funny that I think you can work at.

Physical Comedy. I love physical comedy.

As a kid, I enjoyed watching “Three’s Company” for Jack’s physical antics (am I dating myself?).

“Seinfeld” was popular for the same kind of thing from Kramer, a master of physical comedy. There are lots of opportunities for physical laughs.

For example, in my book, Small Medium At Large, the main character, Lilah, is in Sears buying her first bra with the help of a couple of old-lady ghosts, (which is a funny scene on its own), but then after she makes her purchase, she drops it in front of her mega crush that she’s just run into.

Goodness. Can you imagine being twelve and dropping your first bra in front of the boy you’re crushing all over? Of course, it happens in slow motion right before your eyes and you’re completely powerless to stop it. And then the boy reaches down to pick it up for you…

Which brings me to another thing that I regularly mine for laughs: humiliation. I think we bond with our characters when we see them in humiliating situations that we can relate to.

Poor Lilah is horrified that she has dropped her bra in front of her crush, but let’s be honest; it’s pretty funny, too. And she doesn’t react very well, tearing out of the store and leaving her dad behind. Then she has to explain to her dad who the boy was = more humiliation.

Snappy dialogue is another way to get laughs and endear your characters
to your reader. I love nothing more than witty banter between
characters, especially when they’re razzing each other, showing both
their intelligence and senses of humor. I think you need a good ear for
great dialogue, so I like to listen often to people talking to make
sure I get that back and forth cadence of banter. A Starbucks
(particularly one near a high school at lunchtime) is great for this

Gabby is as mean as she looks.

But I think the best advice I can give to those looking to write funny, is try not to work too hard at it. You’ve seen that guy at parties who tells jokes badly or tries so hard to make a story funny, but everyone around him looks like they just want to crawl away. Don’t be that guy.

Be critical of your work and get a trusted critique partner to tell you the truth about if your jokes are landing the way you want them to.

I think everyone has their forte, what they’re good at writing, and if you are good at funny, do funny. It took me a while to realize I’m better at funny than I am at serious, issue stuff. But that’s okay because making people laugh is pretty darn validating.

Itemized breakdown of Joanne’s office at The Debutante Ball.

 Cynsational Notes

Joanne Levy’s love of books began at a very early age. Being the
youngest and the only female among four children, she was often left to
her own devices and could frequently be found sitting in a quiet corner
with her nose in a book.

After much teenage
misadventure, Joanne eventually graduated from university and now spends
her weekdays as an executive assistant at one of Canada’s big banks
planning meetings and thwarting coffee emergencies. When Joanne isn’t
working, she can usually be found at her computer, channeling her
younger self into books.

Find Joanne at facebook and Twitter.

Giveaway: Starcrossed by Josephine Angeline

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win a signed copy of Starcrossed by Josephine Angeline (HarperTeen, 2011). Eligibility: U.S. only. From the promotional copy:

How do you defy destiny?

Helen Hamilton has spent her entire sixteen years trying to hide how different she is—no easy task on an island as small and sheltered as Nantucket. And it’s getting harder.

Nightmares of a desperate desert journey have Helen waking parched, only to find her sheets damaged by dirt and dust.

At school she’s haunted by hallucinations of three women weeping tears of blood . . . and when Helen first crosses paths with Lucas Delos, she has no way of knowing they’re destined to play the leading roles in a tragedy the Fates insist on repeating throughout history.

As Helen unlocks the secrets of her ancestry, she realizes that some myths are more than just legend. But even demigod powers might not be enough to defy the forces that are both drawing her and Lucas together—and trying to tear them apart.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Cynsational Notes

Look for Dreamless by Josephine Angeline (HarperTeen, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Can true love be forgotten?

As the only scion who can descend into the Underworld, Helen Hamilton has been given a nearly impossible task.

By night she wanders through Hades, trying to stop the endless cycle of revenge that has cursed her family. By day she struggles to overcome the fatigue that is rapidly eroding her sanity.

Without Lucas by her side, Helen is not sure she has the strength to go on.

Just as Helen is pushed to her breaking point, a mysterious new Scion comes to her rescue. Funny and brave, Orion shields her from the dangers of the Underworld. But time is running out–a ruthless foe plots against them, and the Furies’ cry for blood is growing louder.

As the ancient Greek world collides with the mortal one, Helen’s sheltered life on Nantucket descends into chaos. But the hardest task of all will be forgetting Lucas Delos.

Josephine Angelini’s compelling saga becomes ever more intricate and spellbinding as an unforgettable love triangle emerges and the eternal cycle of revenge intensifies.

Eagerly awaited, this sequel to the internationally bestselling “Starcrossed” delivers a gritty, action-packed love story that exceeds all expectations.

New Voice: Katherine Longshore on Gilt

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Katherine Longshore is the first-time author of Gilt (Viking, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

In the Tudor age, ambition, power and charismatic allure are essential and Catherine Howard has plenty of all three. Not to mention her loyal best friend, Kitty Tylney, to help cover her tracks. Kitty, the abandoned youngest daughter of minor aristocracy, owes everything to Cat—where she is, what she is, even who she is. 

Friend, flirt, and self-proclaimed Queen of Misrule, Cat reigns supreme in a loyal court of girls under the none-too-watchful eye of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.

When Cat worms her way into the heart of Henry VIII and becomes Queen of England, Kitty is thrown into the intoxicating Tudor Court. It’s a world of glittering jewels and elegant costumes, of gossip and deception. As the Queen’s right-hand-woman, Kitty goes from the girl nobody noticed to being caught between two men—the object of her affection and the object of her desire.

But the atmosphere of the court turns from dazzling to deadly, and Kitty is forced to learn the difference between trust and loyalty, love and lust, secrets and treason. And to accept the consequences when some lessons are learned too late.

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

Because I write historical fiction, I have to incorporate situations into my novels that may be considered more “adult” than “young adult”.

Marriage, for example. My narrator, Kitty, is betrothed to a man more than twice her age. And her best friend, Cat, marries a fifty-year-old at the age of seventeen.

But I think those situations can be swept under the rug of historical fiction. In the sixteenth century, it was the norm for teenage girls to marry and have children. In an era when the life expectancy averaged at about thirty, it was even imperative.

There is one situation, however, that occurs early in the novel. The scene itself was astonishingly easy for me to write clearly and passionately. The historical record made it plain that it happened the way I presented it (though I invented my narrator’s ability to witness the event). But I found it emotionally very difficult to write because of the subject.

The first time I took this scene out for critique was at a conference workshop. I had already read my first chapter with the group, and I wanted to see their reaction to this scene. I wanted to know how far I could go with it.

The agent who mediated the group told me, “This is where I would stop reading.” And I knew I had gone too far.

So I revised. And took it to trusted readers. More than once, someone suggested I take it out entirely. And when I queried, in speaking with agents, I realized that this scene was still a cause for concern. But I felt that it was extremely important and indicative of the true nature of the historical character I was trying to represent. So I fought for it. And it’s still there.

I didn’t set out to write “edgy” YA, and I don’t think I have. But I did want the events in the novel feel like a true experience. Not sugarcoated. Not like a fairytale. Real. And unfortunately for most of us, reality incorporates edginess.

Katherine and her sister at the Tower of London

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

I went about finding an agent almost entirely by the book. I finished my novel, revised it, revised it, revised it, sent it to my beta readers, revised again, and wrote a query letter. I asked for suggestions from friends, and researched Query Tracker. And then I sent out 10 queries at a time. As soon as one rejection came in, I sent out another. And I got quite a few rejections.

I was just at the point of considering a query revision, when I got a request for full. And then another. I asked a good friend for more suggestions, and she suggested Catherine Drayton.

So I looked her up, read that she represents Markus Zusak, and said to myself, “Pffft, she’s not going to want to represent me.” But I queried her anyway. Query Tracker said that she had a quick turnaround time, so at least I knew I’d be sending out another query quite soon.

But she asked for 50 pages. And then I got an offer from someone else. So she read the whole thing overnight, and made an offer as well.

I was very lucky to receive offers of representation from four amazing, professional, intelligent agents. And the choice was extremely difficult. But I felt that Catherine really “got” what I was trying to do with the book. And that’s what tipped the balance in her favor.

For writers for seeking representation, I can only add to the standard advice. Do your research. Find out who represents your favorite authors. Talk to people. Attend conferences, and listen to the agents when they speak. Read blogs carefully. Follow them on twitter.

But at the end of the day, you have to close your eyes and jump. It’s like using Internet dating to find your spouse. And it’s scary.

But the most important thing to remember is that if an agent reads your work, and loves it as much as you do, he will want the best for it. And he will work hard to make that happen.

So the best thing you can do is to write the book you love. And that book will attract the right person. I wish you all the best.

Sun-worshiping dog, Toddy