New Voice: Jeanne Ryan on Nerve

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jeanne Ryan is the first-time author of Nerve (Dial, Sept. 12, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

When Vee is picked to be a player in Nerve, an anonymous game of dares broadcast live online, she discovers that the game knows her. They tempt her with prizes taken from her ThisIsMe page and team her up with the perfect boy, sizzling-hot Ian. 

At first it’s exhilarating–Vee and Ian’s fans cheer them on to riskier dares with higher stakes. 

But the game takes a twisted turn. Suddenly they’re playing all or nothing, and the prize may be their lives.

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?

This issue came up all the time in Nerve. Given that it’s based on an online game of dares that are supposed to draw in a large audience, the dares themselves had to be extreme enough to entice viewers and promote an uber-contemporary vibe.

At the same time, I wanted my main character, Vee, to be a “normal”, relatable girl. The way I approached this was to fashion the dares with the mindset of a cynical game designer, but then show Vee’s reaction to performing each dare, revealing her mortification, trepidation and concern about the unsuspecting people who might be impacted by her actions.

This meant I often had to do battle between my innate desire to make things right with the world (I have a degree in social welfare) and wanting to ensure that the story felt authentic.

For example, one of the dares has Vee posing as a prostitute until she can get a high enough offer from a potential client. “Pretty Woman” notwithstanding, there’s nothing light or funny about such a situation and the plight of girls caught in that lifestyle.

Yet it’s the type of dare a cynical group of game designers might dream up if their motivation was luring viewers who’d pay to watch.

I tried to portray Vee’s experience during that dare as starting out with false bravado, which wilts as she encounters danger and rejection. At times, she empathizes with the women on the street who aren’t there as part of a game. Since this is a fast-paced thriller, I couldn’t delve too deeply into these issues, but they are brought up to provide some measure of balance.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

Technology plays a huge role in this story in both the day-to-day interactions between the characters and in the mechanisms of the game itself. The dares in Nerve are captured on video via phones by both players and “Watchers,” and then broadcast on the net to be viewed on computers and phones.

Since I didn’t want to date the book, I tried to keep the technology as generic as possible, describing it more by function than name.

In the case where I did need a name for a ubiquitous social networking site, I called it ThisIsMe, which hopefully gets across the idea.

When it came to the phones, which are so integral in this book, I went with the highest common denominator, assuming that smart phones would become more the norm than they are now. So much so, that in the near future, they won’t be considered so “smart.” (In fact, there’s only one line where I refer to them as “smart” and that’s kind of a joke.)

The story simply presents kids whipping out their phones to take video and use the Internet. Another thing I was careful to do was say “phones” rather than “cell phones” since for most teens, this differentiation isn’t necessary, and, in my opinion, would already sound dated.

Of course, there’s no way to predict what’ll be available even a few years from now; nor would I since this is not sci-fi. So, like pretty much all contemporary fiction, aspects of this story will eventually become dated. All I could do was try to delay that as long as possible.

Guest Post: Sarah Lynn on Major Revisions

By Sarah Lynn 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations


It’s a struggle to see the manuscript through different eyes, to know where to cut, where to add, when to scrap the whole thing. There’s revision on your own, revision with the help of critique partners, and revision with an editor.
I’m a pleaser, so when an editor makes an editing suggestion I pretty much jump to complete it. This has worked for me in some situations, and not in others.

Sometimes I’ve been so eager to make a sale or please the editor that I lose sight of my own vision and in so doing my story loses its spark, its originality, its voice, its momentum, etc. But sometimes an editor’s comments can change my entire perspective on a manuscript.


The writing of 1-2-3 Va-Va-Vroom—A Counting Book, illustrated by Daniel Griffo, is an example of the latter.

This original manuscript was titled “If Numbers Were Racetracks.” I had this whole vision that the illustrations would show children actually driving on racetracks shaped like numbers.

I got the idea when I was trying to teach my oldest son how to write his numbers. Like many five-year old boys, he avoided holding that pencil at all costs. So I made those vroom, vroom car noises little kids love and told him we’d play an imaginary game. I pretended the pencil was actually a car, and the pencil was drawing its own track (shaped like numbers).

He couldn’t wait for his turn. He picked up the pencil right away.
Inspiration struck. If my son was more likely to practice writing letters this way, then maybe others would be, too.

The original text was very different than what is published today. This is an example of the benefits of being willing to revise drastically. The original text was slow and lilting. Here’s a taste.

If numbers were racetracks,

I’d rev my engines, Vroom, vroom,

Driving so fast

The crowds and cars would blur together.

Then I’d slam on the brakes

With a screech.

For number one.

If numbers were racetracks,

I’d turn my wheel hard,

Skidding down for a quick loop

And out

Past the pit stop

And my crew

For number two.

And so on…

Get the picture? Does this sound like a racecar book? It did to me. The manuscript was rejected multiple times, but when my editor at Marshall Cavendish (now Amazon Children’s Publishing) read it, she told me it had potential, but that it wasn’t fast paced enough for a racecar book.

She had a point. She also felt that it would be too complex for the racetracks to actually be shaped like numbers. So, I revised. And revised. And revised. The ending text is more snappy and fast-paced. Here is a taste of the end result.

Lap One!

Checkered flag.

Seat belt strapped!

Helmet snapped!

Screeching down the lane!


Lap Two!

Crouch down low.

Give it gas.

Try to pass,

zooming for the lead!


And so on…

So much more engaging, right?

Sarah’s older boys creating a “road” for matchbox cars.

And fun to read-aloud. When I read this story at school visits or signings, I bring a bunch of matchbox cars and pass them out. I let the kids hold them in their hands, and they can “drive” the shape of the letter in the air as we say together, “Va-Va-Vroom!”

This is a good example of how an editor’s vision can really guide our work.
The cost of revision is minimal. In this day and age, it’s simple to save each version as a separate file on my computer.

If I make a revision that doesn’t work, all I’m out is the time it took to rewrite it.

I also know that editors see the big picture. They have to consider the quality of the work, what it will compete with on the market, whether it will appeal to its intended audience, whether it’s different enough from what already exists, and a zillion other factors that wouldn’t occur to me.

So I say, “revise!” Take time to consider an editor’s suggestions, no matter how drastic. But in the end, don’t lose sight of your own vision either.

Cynsational Notes

Sarah Lynn is the author of (1-2-3 Va-Va-Vroom! A Counting Book (Amazon, 2012)(formerly Marshall Cavendish) and Tip-Tap Pop (Marshall Cavendish, 2010).

Cynsational Screening Room

New Voice: Jay Kristoff on Stormdancer

U.S. cover

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jay Kristoff is the first-time author of Stormdancer
(Thomas Dunne/St Martin’s Press (USA)/Tor UK (United Kingdom), 2012). From the promotional copy:

The first in an epic new fantasy series, introducing an unforgettable new heroine and a stunningly original dystopian steampunk world with a flavor of feudal Japan.

A Dying Land

The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. 

The skies are red as blood, the land is choked with toxic pollution, and the great spirit animals that once roamed its wilds have departed forever.

An Impossible Quest

The hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a thunder tiger – a legendary creature, half-eagle, half-tiger. But any fool knows the beasts have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shōgun is death.

A Hidden Gift

Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a talent that if discovered, would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. 

Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. 

Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her.

But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire.

What inspired you to choose the particular point of view–first, second, third (or some alternating combination)–featured in your novel? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view at some point? If so, what made you change your mind?

Stormdancer is told in third person. I’m going to speak some hard truths here to our friend First Person Point of View (First Person PoV) here, if you’ll indulge me:

JK: *turns to First Person PoV, who is watching across the table, eyes already welling with tears*

“First, you’re an awesome person. Really. I have so much fun when we’re together. You’re great for establishing character voice very quickly. You pull readers into the heads of my protagonist like a super-magnet. And you’re great with the kids. But honestly? I find you kinda limiting.”

*puts up hand to cut off First’s indignant protest*

“Look, I’m writing a fantasy story here, First. I mean, you totally work in more intimate settings, but over the course of this series, I’m gonna have armies clashing and factions fighting and imperiums being played for and lost. Lots of different agendas and interests at play, lots of characters colliding and plotting and fighting. You’re just not going to work.

“Can you imagine the Lord of the Rings told only from Frodo’s perspective? Would it have the same feel? Would it be as big?

“If I use you, First, the only way for my readers to know what other characters are thinking or why they behaved the way they did is to have those characters tell my protagonist. If I use you, really important scenes that happen ‘off-screen’ have to be imparted verbally to my hero later on.

“Can you imagine Aragorn sitting down and telling Frodo about the Seige of Gondor after the fact? Would you have cried when Boromir died if Merry and Pippin told Frodo about it at the end of the story?

“Besides, I’m a 30-something year old man, First.

“My protagonist is a sixteen-year-old girl. I mean, it’s always a challenge for authors to create convincing characters. Writing a convincing sixteen-year-old girl in theory isn’t any harder than writing a convincing 500-year-old vampire, or a robot monkey ninja who hunts pirates in space.

Samwise AKA the muse

“Nobody wants to read a book about me sitting on the couch playing Guitar Hero, so in theory, I’m always going to be writing a character who’s different to me. But a thirty-something dude actually writing inside the head of a sixteen year old girl?

“That takes more courage than I’m currently in possession of, First. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m just saying my wheelbarrow isn’t that big yet.

“Besides, you’re a totally popular point of view. In fact, it seems like most books on the shelves these days, particularly in the YA section, are written in you. I want to be different. Lots of steampunk written in Victorian England. Lots of love triangles and flawless heroines. Lots of pretty skinny white girls on the cover. I don’t want any of that. It’s been done and done well. Time to roll on.

“It’s not you, First, it’s me. You deserve someone better. Someone who will love you for who you are. Now, you go out and find that special someone and hold onto them with all you’ve got.

“Hey, you don’t happen to have Third’s phone number, do you?”

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

World building is ultra-important in fantasy for me. In a good fantasy, the world should feel like an actual character. It’s just as important as your protagonist, and it should live and breathe and grow just like they do.

There should be rules laid down for the reader to follow – you need to strike a super happy fun time balance between giving the reader enough information to understand how everything works and killing them stone dead with five-page descriptions of every meal. But better too much than too little – you can always cut it later.

The most important part of any world, of course, are the people living in it. You need to question them constantly. Sit them down in your head for an interview. How does your society work? Who runs it? Who makes the rules? Who enforces those rules? Are people happy with the status quo? What is the glue that holds society together – grand notions like faith and honor, or big guys with bigger guns?

What do people believe? What do they do in their free time? Do they even have any? What does the average person in the street aspire to? What stops them just sitting down in the dust and dying?

How does the society feed itself? How do their transportation systems work? Do people own their own land? Are there slaves? Are there castes? Do people draw lines of division in terms of race? Faith? Blood/birth? Ancestry? Power? Who is the “other”? (Every society has one).

Is it peace time? Has it always been? How did the current people running the show get into power? Who wants to knock them off?

There are thousands of these questions, and a good fantasy writer will know the answer to them all.

A good place to start when building a fantasy world is an existing system. I based the world in Stormdancer on the Samurai age in Japan, then added a combustion-based technology and rolled on from there. George R.R. Martin used medieval England during the time of the War of the Roses, added some subtle magic and some dragons. Hey, presto.

Of course, if you base your world on an existing system (or one that used to exist), you don’t have to use everything. Use history like a salad bar: take what you want and leave the rest. And of course you don’t need to write down every little detail – you’ll probably make your reader envy the dead if you do. But you, the author, need to know how this stuff works, even if you don’t tell anyone else.

Knowing how things work will keep your world and characters consistent. This knowledge is the concrete upon which every additional structure you build in your novel will stand. If the structure is thin or unfinished or put together with no real plan, sooner or later the things you build on top of it are going to fall over. And everyone will die.

Guest Post: Leda Schubert on Monsieur Marceau: Artist Without Words

Copyright Gerard DuBois, Roaring Brook Press.

By Leda Schubert
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

“Look at this man.
“He climbs invisible stairs—”

A very long time ago—so, so long—I took a class from a Swiss mime, Jan Kessler. This was my senior year in college, when I decided to loosen the yoke of my heavily academic load with a couple of courses that had amazing reputations. (The other was a class in Persian art. Fabulous.) Sadly, I remember very little about either class, but both were gifts of different kinds, opening worlds.

Of course I knew of the great Marcel Marceau, and the mime class only intensified my appreciation of his work. After Marceau died, my agent, Steven Chudney, asked if I had ever entertained the idea of writing about him. No. I knew very little about his life.

It’s almost impossible to take a suggestion from another person about what to write. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those ideas belong to that person. But the thought wormed its way into my brain cells. I started looking stuff up and began learning surprising information M. Marceau. Example: I had no idea he was Jewish.

Ah, research. A lot of writers love research.

Why? Because it postpones the act of writing. So I amassed interviews, videos, books about mime and its history, necessary information about World War II (e.g. the evacuation of Strasbourg), programs from world tours, newspaper articles about his performances, and books by M. Marceau himself. I thought about him all the time. If I don’t have that passion, I can’t put words on paper.

Finally, I wrote, and as the story took shape, I wondered—was I nuts? How would a picture book about this particular mime even be possible? There were no actual lions, no stairs, no other people on that stage. Just one very recognizable man in a spotlight.

How could such imagination be represented on the page?

Copyright Gerard DuBois, Roaring Brook Press.

Answer: if Neal Porter is your editor, he will find Gerard DuBois, and you will be extraordinarily lucky. Your jaw will drop in amazement when you see proofs. You will run around showing them to everyone you know—even your dogs.

And now, almost four and a half years since Neal bought the manuscript, I am dancing about.


After the book was done, I called someone I had met but didn’t know: Rob Mermin, founder of Circus Smirkus, a home-grown traveling extravaganza that “gives kids a chance to run away and join the circus–with their parents’ blessings.”

Rob actually studied with Marceau, and I wanted to see what he would say. I was incredibly nervous. What if I had gotten everything wrong—not the facts, but the person himself?

When Rob liked it, I was a happy bunny. And Rob also suggested some mime exercises that readers could do, now included in the afterword.

The photo of M. Marceau at the end has particular resonance for me. But you’ll have to visit my website to find out why.

What a great artist Marceau was! I hope the book conveys a little of his magic, and I hope you like it.

Leda with Pogo and Pippa

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews cheers: “Don’t turn the pages too quickly; rather stop and feel the joie de vivre with which the master filled people of all ages all over the world. An exceptional life; a stunning achievement.”

In a starred review, School Library Journal raves: “It is fitting that this superb picture-book biography is short on words and long on visuals. The spare text marvelously captures the essence of the artist, depicting a man whose choice to be silent was born of an awareness of the damages of war.”

Guest Post: Elizabeth O. Dulemba on Lula’s Brew: What’s Your Reading Flavor?

By Elizabeth O. Dulemba
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Hardcover, paperback, ebook, app. Today we have more ways to enjoy our books than ever. And I’ve explored them all with my picture book Lula’s Brew.

The book began its life as a picture dummy that, despite winning the Grand Prize in the SmartWriters competition way back in 2007, didn’t sell to a major publishing house. I tucked it away in a drawer until the invention of the iPhone app in 2009. Something told me they were going to be big and Lula was the perfect fit – short, funny, the sketches were finished.

I pulled her out, dusted her off, and turned her into an app – just in time for Halloween.

Back then, Lula’s Brew was one of the very first picture book apps, so she got fantastic exposure. She was featured in the iTunes store for months, as well as on the popular blog “Moms With Apps.” When the iPad came out, I adapted her for that device too and she ended up being downloaded over 10,000 times – pretty good!

I had created something new and people wanted to know about it. I sold articles to trade magazines, did some very high tech school visits, and spoke at various conferences about creating apps.

But as the app world became overrun, and iTunes’ search engine failed to improve, I began to have my doubts about apps as a viable money-making option for picture books. I turned her into an ebook for the Nook and Kindle just to be sure. But again, the chance of a reader stumbling across her online was nil.

And all the while, Lula fans were emailing me asking, “Where can I buy the book?”

Copyright Elizabeth O. Dulemba; used with permission.

In this world of reading transition, the need for picture books as physical page-turners has not diminished. My little cousins use my iPad to play games – for them, it’s not a place to read. A book is where they do that – still. And I don’t see that changing.

I considered self publishing. But I am well aware of the work involved in becoming a publisher and distributor – it is no small task. And besides the upfront cost of creating a quality print picture book, when would I ever have time to write and illustrate again?

So when I read in Shelf Awareness (July 26, 2012) that a little publisher out of California, Xist Publishing, was taking picture ebooks and turning them into apps, I got in touch immediately. They flipped over Lula’s Brew and now, finally, she is a book. ‘

She’ll be physically available in early October with pre-order sales for dedicated/signed copies open now  through my local independent children’s bookstore, Little Shop of Stories (404.373.6300).

So, what’s your flavor? ebook or app – I say Lula’s Brew – the book!

Cynsational Notes

Elizabeth O. Dulemba on Promoting a Book App from Cynsations. See more information on Lula’s Brew, including a word find puzzle, coloring pages, and computer wallpaper.

Copyright Elizabeth O. Dulemba; used with permission.

Guest Post: Cynthia Y. Levinson on Can You Really Ask That in a Children’s Book?

Cynthia at the Texas Library Association conference

By Cynthia Y. Levinson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

On September 15, 1963, 49 years ago today, three racist vigilantes—one of them nicknamed “Dynamite Bob” because of all the bombs he lobbed—blew up Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. 

For the previous six months, this church had been the headquarters for civil rights protests, which, in July, had finally forced the city to rescind its onerous Segregation Ordinances. 

The resulting blast killed four black girls and blinded another.

In my book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), I describe these events through the voices and experiences of four young activists.

In explaining how I found—and cajoled the life-stories from—the “main characters” in my debut middle-grade nonfiction book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), I’ve often said that I felt like a telephone insurance salesman or a door-to-door Ginzu knife pusher, making cold calls.

“Hello. My name is Cynthia Levinson, and have I got a deal for you! Just tell me every embarrassing detail about yourself, and, if I find a publisher, I’ll make you infamous.”

Why would any sane person, outside of reality TV, sign on to this crazy deal? Why would anyone agree to spill all to a novice writer in exchange for nothing, not even a vegetable peeler?

The four main interviewees—Audrey Faye Hendricks, Washington Booker III., Arnetta Streeter Gary, and James W. Stewart—would answer that they wanted young people today to know how they and over 3,000 other black children in Birmingham, Alabama had marched and gone to jail to desegregate what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the most racially violent city in America.

I suspect that, when they agreed to talk with me, they had no idea how many of their secrets, some held for nearly 50 years, would be revealed in the telling.

In 2004, Terry Gross, the host of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, published a collection of the interviews she conducted for the program in a book called All I Did Was Ask. Such a deceptively tongue-in-cheek title!

As Gross acknowledges in her Introduction, “I violate many rules of polite conversation in my interviews.” As an avid listener to Fresh Air, I can attest that she poses decidedly impolite inquiries but she does so deftly and effectively. As a result, her interviews often elicit, as she intends, “a revelation about my guest’s life.” Her techniques are all the more remarkable, given that her interviews last barely more than an hour.

If I replayed mine, on the other hand, end-to-end, they’d go on for days, possibly weeks. Unscrolled on pre-digital audiotape, they might stretch from Austin, where I live, to Birmingham. Unlike Terry Gross, I am an inefficient interviewer. One reason is that I wait. And, I wait. And, I wait.

During one of our early telephone conversations (I didn’t meet James until a year-and-a-half after we started talking), the volume and timbre of James’ voice suddenly dropped as he said, slowly and huskily, “The conditions in the jail were deplorable. Just. Deplorable.”

I could almost hear him shake his head as he recalled his astonishment and dismay at how he and the other teenaged prisoners were treated by the all-white Birmingham police force.

I waited for James to say more. But, my usually candid and eloquent interviewee seemed strangled. And, being a coward, as Gross admits she is, I choked up, too.

I couldn’t cough out the next obvious question and waited almost six months before I was ready to wind back to, “In what ways was the jail deplorable?” His responses were shocking.

But, like my eventual question, they were necessary to tell his story. “Deplorable” is an apt description but it is not a telling detail.

James’ explaining to me that his cell, which was built to accommodate 75 prisoners, was packed so tight with 300 to 400 young males that “we had to sleep in shifts [while] the rest stood around the walls” hits the reader between the eyes.

In researching and writing We’ve Got a Job, I knew that assertions require evidence, and statements beg for examples. The only way to uncover them, I learned, is to dig deep.

Cynthia and Wash

What, I wondered, for instance, did Wash Booker mean when he mentioned, over brunch at a pancake house, that he was a bad boy?

It meant, he told me when I finally asked, that “while everybody else was peacefully marching…we were more interested in hitting the policemen in the head with a rock.”

It meant, “burn anything the white folks owned.”

It meant, “Anything we could get our hands on owned by white folks, we destroyed it.”

All of which meant that, as a white writer, I also had to ask this man who was sharing so much with me that I had come to think of him as a friend, “Do you still hate white people?”

I flung many other tough questions from my arsenal. I had to ask Arnetta, a very decorous retired mathematics teacher, if she had lied to her parents about her activities in the civil rights movement. I had to ask Charles, a white interviewee, if his father ever stopped being a racist.

Above all, I had to ask myself: Why, as a teenager, like Arnetta, Wash, and James in 1963, did I timidly read articles in the newspapers about their courageous actions but never once considered joining them to protest segregation? Had I been prejudiced, too? Or, was I merely passive?

Does the difference between attitude and action (or, more accurately, inaction) matter? And, what residue of either of these remains within me? To what extent have I exorcised prejudice and inertia by writing We’ve Got a Job, thus fulfilling my new friends’ desire to share their stories with young people today?

Tough questions, apparently, begin at home. And, I often wondered, during the more than three years I obsessed about the book, about my own motivations and persistence.

In the end, I think it was not so much exorcism as trying to make amends.

Although my questions to others were, not infrequently, impertinent, they paid off in ways I didn’t anticipate not only for my readers but for me as well.

Gross observes that “When an interviewee clams up, it’s sometimes out of fear that the journalist he’s speaking with won’t fully comprehend what he’s saying or simply won’t care…[A] guest is more likely to share his innermost thoughts with someone he senses has a good grasp of what he’s all about.”

While several people got angry with me during our conversations, only a few people clammed up—because, they said, they plan to write books of their own. Certainly, Audrey, Arnetta, James, and Wash did not go silent. And, I would like to think that that’s in part because they know I comprehend, and I care.

As a result of what they shared with me, I learned much about their innermost thoughts—about the paramount place of God in their lives, for instance, about the spiritual basis of the Civil Rights Movement, about the values in their lives both before and after the desegregation that they brought about. James, in particular, patiently explained to me the nuances of racism that he still perceives today through careful listening and observation.

In a turn-about-is-fair-play move, I’ve also been interviewed since the book was published. Two radio program hosts, one black and the other white, in Grand Rapids, Michigan; asked me what I learned during this journey. In addition to the lessons I just mentioned, I also confessed that, thanks to the four, I now recognize that I have been in denial about the extent to which racism persists.

In my efforts to make amends, I’ve tried to remain not only attuned but also active in confronting prejudice and discrimination. It is in this way that my investigations have paid off in unanticipated ways—by changing me.

Fellow EMLA clients Jenny Ziegler, Chris Barton

I opened by raising the question of why anyone would want to be interviewed, especially when the interviews are probing, and the “victim” receives nothing in return.

Happily, Arnetta, Wash, and James have told me that, in fact, their innocently signing on to this project has benefited them, too. (Audrey died in 2009.)

Arnetta has had many conversations with her grandson about her involvement in the movement and encourages him to be an activist. (She also warns him not to lie to her the way she lied to his great-grandparents!) Wash is becoming a motivational presenter and public speaker about civil rights. And, James, who cried while talking about the jail at a presentation we made together to sixth-graders, is finding solace through sharing his stories.

I console myself with these outcomes not only for the time and anguish I extracted from the four of them but also because I’m doing it again. Stay tuned for news of my work in progress, for which I’m relentlessly interviewing young circus performers.

I wonder what they and I will learn about ourselves and how we will change from the process.

Cynsational Notes

New Voice: Cynthia Y. Levinson on We’ve Got a Job from Cynsations. Note: Cynthia talks about a transformative writing workshop and how she framed her research.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Michelle Knudsen on the elease of Big Mean Mike, illustrated by Scott Magoon (Candlewick, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Mean Mike is the biggest, toughest dog in the whole neighborhood. He
has a big, mean car that he likes to drive around the big, mean streets.
Everyone knows that Mike is big and mean, and that’s just the way he
likes it.

But one day a tiny, fuzzy bunny shows up in his
car. Mike can’t believe it! Before anyone can see, he puts the bunny
down on the sidewalk and drives away.

When the tiny,
fuzzy bunny shows up again — and this time brings a friend — Mike tells
them both to get lost. Big mean dogs do not hang out with tiny, fuzzy

But gosh, those bunnies sure are cute. . . .  A
comical lesson about how keeping up your image is not nearly as fun as
being your own quirky self.

Join Michelle at the launch party at 4 p.m. Sept. 15 at WORD in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

More News & Giveaways

Do You Have a Writerly Support System? How Important Is It to Your Process? from Wastepaper Prose. Note: several YA authors chime in.

Romance by Jennifer R. Hubbard from writerjenn. Peek: “We human beings are famously afraid of our own vulnerabilities, and we often get squicked out by our own desire to have someone hold us or show us we are cherished or tell us we are loved.”

The Door to Acceptance by Kimberly Sabatini from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing. Peek: “The passage of moving from a writer to an author is never completely in your control. Do your best to grow your craft and always value your journey as much, if not more than, the prize of publication.”

Character as Plot by Brian Yansky from Brian’s Blog. Peek: “The way to a character’s heart (and isn’t that where we, as writers, are trying to get?) is through the things he or she wants/needs/desires and the things he or she fears.”

Impartial Observers by Mary Kole from Peek: “That’s what writers and shy kids do, they observe. While this is perfect in real life, it doesn’t work well for fiction.”

Separate, Not Equal by Coe Booth from CBC Diversity. Peek: “I can’t tell you how many libraries I’ve been to where my books are not even shelved in the mainstream YA section. They are relegated to the shelf labeled ‘Street Lit’ where the books about black people live.”

Andrew Karre on Editing in the YA Boom Era by Mitali Perkins from Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “I believe the teenage population of the US crested at an all-time high
sometime around 2007. I have no idea where I saw that number, but I know I saw it.”

Process Talk: Kate Hosford’s Fictional Uma and Infinity by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: “Yes, children will be confounded by infinity, but no more so than the
rest of us. Rather than ignore a topic like this for children, isn’t it better to simply explore it?”

MFA Programs: The Golden Ticket? by Mary Ann Rodman from Teaching Authors. Peek: “…my rejection letters all said the same thing…’you write really well but…’ But what?  Nobody would tell me. My MFA program did.”

Possibilities by Ginger Johnson from Quirk and Quill. Peek: “Once upon a time, you stood on an empty stage. Space surrounded you:
stage left, stage right, upstage, downstage. Just you and the space and the lights and possibility.”

The Biggest Mistake Writers Make and How to Avoid It by Lisa Cron from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “…writers tend to believe that the more lyrical the language, the more
compelling the novel. Not so. In fact, lovely words that do not in some
way move the story forward, stop it cold.”

The Stephen King Guide to Marketing by Jason Kong from Jane Friedman. Peek: “…you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time.”

Using Personal Issues to Enhance Fiction by Carolyn Kaufman from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “From a psychological standpoint, there is often something healing in writing, and if you are continually finding the same theme on your page,
that repetition compulsion (i.e. a repetitive re-enactment of a particular set of circumstances) may indicate something you (and your characters) need to work through before you’re going to be able to move on to something new.”

Do You Have a Novel to Finish by Dec. 1? Sign up for JoNoWriMo+1.5 from Jo Knowles.

The Definition of Action by Mary Kole from Peek: “Action means something that has story consequences.”

18 Questions to Ask Yourself about Gender Relations in Your Novel from Mette Ivie Harrison. Peek: “Who has the most power?”

Editor Interview: Heather Alexander, Dial Books/Penguin by L.B. Schulman from Emu’s Debuts. Peek: “There isn’t a ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting (to Publish)’
guide—although maybe there should be—so there is a lot of managing
expectations, and explaining the process.”

New Study: 55% of YA Books Bought by Adults from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Accounting for 28% of sales, these adults aren’t just purchasing for
others — when asked about the intended recipient, they report that 78%
of the time they are purchasing books for their own reading.”

Beware What Your Say by Stina Lindenblatt from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “…while you’re finding fault with his successes, you can guarantee his other friends aren’t. They’re happy for him and being supportive.”

Cynsational Giveaways

Breaking News! Debbie Ridpath Ohi has added a hand-drawn doodle to the I’m Bored giveaway!

The winner of Beauty Shop for Rent by Laura Bowers was Susan in Virginia, and the winners of Just Flirt by Laura Bowers were Tal in Jerusalem, Jamie in Oregon and Melodie in Calgary.

The winner of three picture books (and one F&G) by Pat Mora has still not responded with an address; check your email!

This Week at Cynsations 

Cynsational Screening Room

Trent Reedy debuts a new author video program; read a Cynsations interview with Trent.

1000 Books for Hope: “…a book drive to collect 1000 good books for…five new libraries in Kenya, serving a dozen schools and thousands of readers eager for a few of your favorite books.”

More Personally

Exciting news! Advanced reader copies of Feral Nights are in the house! I can’t wait to show y’all the gorgeous cover art–the rockin’ design team at Candlewick has really outdone itself!

Here’s a shout out to Ramsey and all the students in Mrs. Steinberg’s class at Seaford Middle School in Seaford, New York! I understand y’all are reading my debut novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001). Don’t miss the behind-the-scenes chapter insights in the sidebar here. Hope you enjoy Rain’s story–holler if you have any questions!

Congratulations to Greg Leitich Smith and the rest of the authors (including Austin’s own Shana Burg, Nikki Loftin, Jacqueline Kelly, Cynthia Levinson, Liz Garton Scanlon, Don Tate, and Philip Yates) to appear at the Texas Book Festival Oct. 27 and Oct. 28 in Austin!

Thanks to Zest Books for the Book Blogger Appreciation Week shout out! I think you’re awesome, too!

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Cynthia Leitich Smith will be part of the mass reading of “Buried Treasure” at 2 p.m. at the O. Henry 150th Birthday Crawl Sept. 15 at the O. Henry Museum in Austin, Texas.

Join Newbery Honor author Marion Dane Bauer
for a free live teleconference at 7 p.m. EST Sept. 19. She will also be
offering a free live webinar on “Point of View in Fiction” at 7 p.m.
EST Sept. 26. See more information.

Visit the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels

New Voice: E. M. Kokie on Personal Effects

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

E. M. Kokie is the first-time author of Personal Effects (Candlewick, 2012)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

One letter: 876 miles.

Five days to find his brother’s past and his own future.

Ever since his brother, T.J., was killed in Iraq, seventeen-year-old Matt Foster feels like he’s been sleepwalking through life — failing classes, getting into fights, and avoiding his dad’s lectures about following in his brother’s footsteps. 

T.J.’s gone, and the worst part is, there’s nothing left of him to hold on to. 

Matt can’t shake the feeling that if only he could get his hands on T.J.’s stuff from Iraq, he’d be able to make sense of his death. He wasn’t expecting T.J.’s personal effects to raise even more questions about his life.

Now, even if it means pushing his dad over the edge…

even if it means losing his best friend…

even if it means getting expelled from school…

Matt will do whatever it takes to find out the truth about his brother’s past.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Research became extremely important for Personal Effects. I have no personal or familial experience with the military or with what it is like to have a loved one serving overseas, and especially not what happens after one of our service members is killed while serving. I had to research every aspect of enlistment, tours of duty, procedures after a service member is killed, etc.

I’m sort of an obsessive researcher, so I researched each aspect from several angles and avenues, using online and print resources, and even some personal accounts.

But there were two areas that were especially difficult to research: the details of notifying the family and assisting them post notification; and, the handling and delivery of the deceased service member’s personal effects.

Once I started combing through research materials from the perspective of both surviving family members and the notification officers, I was able to feel fairly comfortable with the details I included about the first part. But I really struggled with feeling like there were many
details I couldn’t know about the delivery and handling of the personal effects. And I really wanted to get those details right.

I wanted to know that if someone who has been through the experience read my book, they would feel like I at least got the essence of the experience right and treated it with respect. And because so much of
my writing really does come down to tactile details, there were all these small bits of the feel and appearance of the effects that I desperately wanted to know.

I got lucky early on, before I even signed with my agent, in that I connected online with someone who had worked at the personal effects depot who could help fill in some of my gaps. I was able to ask questions about how the effects would be processed, how they would be packed, what I should expect would definitely be included, and what
would not.

But I still had huge holes in my understanding about what happened after they were processed – how did they get secured for shipment, how were they shipped and delivered, and when, and by whom, etc.

E.K. often writes at her dining room table.

My questions felt simultaneously too trivial to risk contacting those with firsthand experience (it’s not the kind of thing you throw out on social media or hop into a forum and ask people to tell you
about the tactile details of such a personal and emotional event), and yet these details also felt too important to ignore. I put out some feelers, asking if anyone knew anyone who might talk to me, but I struck out. But I wasn’t ready to give up.

So, I researched as best I could, while I revised. Every few months I would run through my by-then-standard online searches, seeing if anything new would turn up. But I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Then, in a moment of inspiration, I realized I might have been asking the wrong questions. I had been searching online using fairly
sanitized search terms – deceased service member’s personal effects, deceased soldier’s personal effects, delivery of personal effects, etc. And I realized that anyone writing online about the subject would likely be doing so in a personal way – they would refer to the person specifically.

Once that inspiration struck, I found exactly what I was looking for after only a few search strings. I was able to connect with someone who had been present when a friend received his son’s personal effects. “Son’s personal effects” was the search string that lead to this amazingly generous person, who, with her friend’s permission, shared with me some of the sensory details about the delivery and appearance of the personal effects, and even shared insights I didn’t know to ask for.

It was an amazing, generous, affirming experience, which helped me get some key details right that I would have otherwise missed or had inaccurate. And it taught me a strong lesson in thinking about the point of view and motivations of potential sources of information when I am struggling to find tricky
bits. I had to remember that the information is gathered, organized and expressed by people, with emotions and relationships that impact how they will gather, organize and express what they are seeing, thinking and feeling.

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

As a teen in Band.

I feel like Matt came to me fully formed but I had to revise to draw him out and get him organically on the page.

After years of being too afraid to try to write something original, or more accurately, finish something original, I made a pact with myself to write a novel. It didn’t have to be good, and I didn’t have to do anything with it, but
I had to finish it.

I was doing free-writing exercises – sitting down and writing whatever came to mind – trying to decide what to write.

In one of those sessions I wrote parts of what is now chapter two of Personal Effects. It was the first bit I wrote of Personal Effects, and for a long time it was the first chapter of the story.

I had this scene with this amazingly angry kid, sitting in an office, waiting for his father and reliving and almost relishing the fight he had a few
hours earlier. He was visceral, and vulnerable, and he seemed so real. And I wanted to know why he was so angry. I wrote a good chunk of the first draft to find out.

Once I knew why Matt was so angry, I had to ask questions and make decisions about plot and pacing, etc. Matt came into sharper focus and became more confident in that anger in every draft. But he was there in that first exercise scene, hiding in plain sight.

Most of the secondary characters, including Shauna, took more deliberate choices, more questions about what would be reasonable for that character in that moment to feel and how he or she would react. And even though they started out as more deliberate characters, they also grew and changed through revision, sometimes in significant ways.
Harley went through many versions of herself, for example, as the story required.

Matt is at times his own antagonist, but to the extent his father is his external antagonist, he may be the character I had to think about the most as the story came into focus through revision.

For so much of the writing of this book I was so sunk into Matt’s point of view and perspective that I think at times even I didn’t see things clearly, didn’t see his father clearly. But in revision I would look at some of his father’s actions, and reactions, and I could see that he wasn’t quite the monster Matt believed him to be.

Don’t get me wrong: he’s not an ideal father by any stretch of the imagination, and Matt deserved better and more. But sometimes, in some moments, I realized Matt had no idea who his father was.

I looked for moments within Matt’s limited and narrow point of view to (hopefully) show the reader some small insights into his father’s character and perspective beyond Matt’s fears and frustrations and pain.

How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level? What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal? What techniques have worked best and why?


I love to revise. That’s where I feel the most joy in the process. But I hate first drafting. Hate. Despise. It’s torture at times.

I try to motivate myself to draft through concentrating on getting to the revision stage. I also have found that having a regular critique group is a great motivator.

Knowing I have a crit group meeting coming up, and that I want to have something to submit, is just the right amount of pressure to get me out of my head enough to just write experimentally. To let the writing flow more freely. And that critique as I write helps me start making choices as the draft is forming, which is great for my confidence as I write, and often saves me time later on in the process by helping me identify missteps during the drafting.

Since selling Personal Effects, the added pressure of knowing someone else will read my work, and exactly who in my editor and agent, made drafting all the harder – it was nearly paralyzing for more than a year. I pushed along, writing when I could, backing out when a draft wasn’t working and trying a different angle in, waiting for it all to
feel loose and experimental again.

Once I had the start of a draft I felt was working, I started submitting to my critique group more regularly, and it quickly started to feel experimental again. That give and take of critique, knowing it’s just a draft that I expect to revise, was what I needed to relax and draft more freely again.

writers don’t feel comfortable showing a work in progress draft to anyone, but for me, an intimate and trusted critique group really helps me stay motivated and helps me focus as I write.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Chewbacca dressed as an Ewok, costume by E.K.

I think the key is figuring out how you write best. I tried sticking to a set schedule — ie, two pages, or one hour, or 1,000 words, etc. every day, week, whatever. But I have found that for me, when the words are flowing I have to let myself sink in deep, and write whenever I can.

Before work, after work, after dinner, late into the evening if it’s really going well. And I always end a section by writing myself some notes of what comes next so that when I sit down to write, I’m not coming to it cold.

When the words aren’t flowing, I take breaks, read, research, play, revise a little…whatever I can do to stay limber while the story marinates, waiting for the next burst of words to come.

Knowing that inspiration can be unpredictable, I have tried to schedule work so I do have opportunities to write most days. I also don’t over-schedule my weekends, knowing that if I am in a good writing head space, I might want to write for hours on end both weekend days.

Luckily, I have a partner who understands and supports my sunk-in times when I am glued to the computer and pretty much oblivious to the world around me.

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?

Okay, remember I said I’m pretty much an obsessive researcher?

What’s this in Chewbacca’s bed?

I applied that obsessive research to figuring out how to find an agent, too. I researched every aspect of the process while I was revising Personal Effects and working on my query. I created spreadsheets and charts and lists of agents, and found out everything I could about those at the top of my ever-changing list.

Then once I had a fairly solid list to start querying, I stayed up to date by doing a little research every week to stay current, watch trends, see who was asking for what, and signing who, and with what results, meaning that I re-prioritized my query list based on what I was seeing.

And when I actually started querying, I queried slow, a few queries at a time over about ten months, until I was sure my query letter and partial were working well enough to get requests. Then I decided to query all out.

I updated and re-prioritized my list of agents in July/August 2009 with plans to start sending queries in batches of five-to-seven a week until I ran out of viable candidates.

In that first batch in August/September 2009, I decided on a whim to add a newer agent to my list. I was interested because while he was new, he seemed to be building his client list slowly and he had a really good ratio of sales to clients, for books I thought sounded interesting. He also had a great bio that talked about books the way I talk about books. Something in that bio just felt right.

His name is Chris Richman and he’s with Upstart Crow Literary. When Chris offered me representation I was thrilled. I went through the process of notifying the other agents reading the manuscript, but I felt from our telephone call that Chris and I would be a good fit. We saw the book in similar ways, his ideas for revisions felt right, we had similar views for the
agent-client relationship and my long term writing plans, etc.

I couldn’t have asked for a better fit, and I often tell people that revising with Chris was like taking a course on pacing. His insights not only helped me strengthen Personal Effects, but they helped me better understand how to revise to improve pacing for future writing. So, I researched and queried for about a year, but all in all, I sent under 20 queries, signing with Chris in October 2009.

Learn about more debut authors!

As for advice for other writers, I also suggest they do their research. And that they do it themselves, instead of asking someone else to do it for them.

There is no magic in the process, but if you really put in the time to get to think about what you want and research potential agents, some bit of an interview or blog post or bio or even tweet might speak to you, might help you feel that this agent is the one for you. And you’ll have a better shot of making an informed decisions if you can remember that it is a business relationship, and look for the quantitative data, too, like how many clients they have, how often they request manuscripts, what sales have they made in your market and genre, etc.

I also advise writers to eradicate the term “dream agent” from their vocabulary. People are always asking who are the “dream agents.” Your dream agent will be different than someone else’s dream agent. Do your research, and you improve your chances of making that connection.

Guest Post: & Giveaway Gigi Amateau on How Fire Changes Everything

By Gigi Amateau
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

While writing my first historical novel, Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows and The Black General Gabriel (Candlewick, 2012), I scoured primary and secondary sources for a self-guided crash-course on eighteenth-century blacksmithing.

Court documents at the Library of Virginia describe how my main character, Gabriel, used his blacksmith forge to ready the countryside for a slave insurrection. Testimony told how Gabriel and his brother, Solomon, turned scythes for cutting hay into double-edged swords for slitting men’s necks. In this way, the forge at Brookfield Plantation became the command center for Gabriel’s Rebellion during the summer of 1800.

In my research, old books and instructional videos brought the workings of the blacksmith forge to life. The hiss of the bellows keeping the fire hot. The clear strike of the anvil – an annunciation to the village that the smithy was open. The atmosphere of darkness-in-daytime to show the intensity of the fire and the true color of the ore. Stacks of old horse shoes and scrap iron piled up outside the forge for later repurposing.

Eighteenth and nineteenth-century blacksmith logs showed the comings and goings of the men of Richmond. The forge was crucial to every business and domicile in the city.

An aide bringing in his Excellency’s horse for two new shoes. Doctor William Foushee – a member of the courts of oyer and terminer that tried Gabriel for hogstealing [sic] in 1799 and insurrection in 1800 – bringing his horse to be shod. And thousands and thousands of nails for the growing city.

Ball peen hammers

As much as these amazing sources taught me, understanding Gabriel’s
trade seemed crucial to understanding Gabriel himself. What did it feel
like to fire and bend iron? How did fire change this man in body, mind,
and spirit?

In blacksmithing and metalwork classes, I used fire, clamps, an anvil, pliers, and a ball peen hammer to bend, twist, draw, upset, taper, and smooth iron and copper. I used water to set the changes.

Copper bangle bracelet

In the course of just twenty or so hours of classes at The Visual Arts Center
here in Richmond, I burned myself a few times, misjudged my strike
often, grew a big blister on my thumb, and watched callouses start to
emerge on the pad of both palms. For most of those hours, I was slow and
awkward with my hammer. Too tentative, then too hard.

The best job I finished was a bangle bracelet for my husband. Eventually, I found a steady rhythm; the metal accepted my strikes, sometimes with resistance and sometimes with surrender. I love how it feels to press a pencil against my middle finger, never releasing until the scene, the page, the story is done. I kept hammering, too, and watched how the fire changed what I thought could not change. How the water sealed the deal.

This idea that fledged out of hours forging – that fire and water transform together – became an anvil of sorts for drafting the story. My finished product from metalwork class – a strange-looking copper bracelet – mattered little because I learned something Gabriel knew well: Fire changes everything.

Cynsational Notes

Visit Gigi Amateau

Gigi Amateau is the author of Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows and The Black General Gabriel, a work of historical fiction for young adults (Candlewick, 2012), selected by SIBA as a Fall 2012 Okra Pick.

She also wrote the young adult novel, A Certain Strain of Peculiar (2009), a 2010 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year and Chancey of the Maury River (2008), a William Allen White Masters List title for grades 3-5. Her debut novel, Claiming Georgia Tate (2005) was selected as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. All three of these novels were published by Candlewick.

She was born in northeastern Mississippi and raised in Mechanicsville, Virginia, just outside of Richmond. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in Urban Studies and Planning, she worked for nearly twenty years in Richmond’s non-profit community.

Gigi lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and daughter.

See also Author Interview: 20 Questions with Gigi Amateau from There’s a Book.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three copies of Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows and The Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau (Candlewick, 2012). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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New Voice: Anne Marie Pace on Vampirina Ballerina

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Anne Marie Pace is the author of
Vampirina Ballerina, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Disney-Hyperion, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Oh, to be a ballerina! It’s a challenge for any little girl, but even more soif one happens to be a vampire like Vampirina.

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

I’ve been writing–sometimes intently, sometimes merely piddling–all my life, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my writing became more directed and more serious after I started connecting regularly with other writers, both online and in-person, about ten years ago.

As far as the online world goes, it’s been a great gift to writers in recent years–at least from my perspective–that the internet has allowed us to associate in ways we could not have done in the past.

Among non-writers, I’m fairly shy, but as writers go, I’m pretty much an extrovert; and I know I’d be miserable working alone at home without being able to reach out to writer friends during the day.

As far back as the mid-’90s, my husband and I belonged to a now-defunct online-service called GEnie, which had writers’ round tables. After GEnie went out of business, the children’s writers formed a new listserv called WRT4KDZ. Throughout the years when my kids were young, I clung to WRT4KDZ as if it were a life raft; even though I was hardly writing at all, even when I didn’t read the posts for weeks or even months, belonging to that group symbolized the knowledge that real people make a go of this writing gig.

Books don’t just appear; people have to write them–and maybe I could write one, too.

As my children grew older, I was able to write more; simultaneously, social media was evolving, and my online community grew. I’ve been part of the Yellow Board, various genre-based listservs, and LiveJournal; and I’ve been a member of the Blueboards since the very first day; in fact, I spent about six years as one of the Blueboard administrators.

I also have a wonderful writers group online, the core of which are writers who met on the Blueboards. And of course, now we have Facebook and Twitter. The format may be different, but the intent is the same: forging connection, support and friendship.

Back row, left to right, Cassandra Whetstone, Sara Lewis Holmes, Anne Marie Pace, Alma Fullerton, DeAnn O’Toole, Loree Griffin Burns, Katy S. Duffield, Kristy Dempsey, Linda Urban, and in front Kathryn Erskine and Tanya Seale. From a Highlights Foundation/Boyds Mills retreat.

In person, I have to credit almost all my connections to SCBWI and the Highlights Foundation’s Workshop at Chautauqua. Some of the members of the WRT4KDZ group I mentioned above encouraged me to join SCBWI.

As soon as I received the red roster (a book SCBWI used to send out with names and addresses of members), I started poring through it for local members to have coffee with (the introverts reading this are cringing, I know, but I needed writer friends).

My first regional conference, in 2002, I knew no one. The next year, I volunteered and began organizing local SCBWI events; and from there it snowballed. Now, ten years later, when I walk in the door at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference, it’s like coming home.

As a picture book writer, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

Harry and Honey, Anne Marie’s helpers

My early picture book manuscripts, like those by other beginning writers, were full of description, leaving little room for the illustrator’s imagination.

In fact, one called “The Tutu Store” was all description; there was no character, no plot–just paragraph after paragraph of setting.

I was convinced it was brilliant; after all, it was poetic, with alliteration (“spangly sparkly sequined skirts”) and onomatopoeia (“tappety-tap clicky-thump-clacky-thump tap shoes”) and I could visualize the illustrations in my head. That was enough, right?

Of course I was completely off-base.

Then one night, I was working on one of those manuscripts before bed. While I slept, I guess my subconscious went to work, because in the morning, in that gray haze between sleeping and waking, an entirely new opening popped into my brain, one that was shorter, snappier, and full of repetition. It was a huge moment of change for me as I realized I was doing picture books all wrong.

At that point, I headed to the library to find books–not just to read to my kids, but to study. I think my former-English-major self kicked in here, because I started analyzing texts in terms of the functions of different elements. Okay, yes, picture book texts can be poetic, but what does that alliteration accomplish in a read-aloud? Why does onomatopoeia appeal to young children? And of course, how do you fully develop a character and tell her story in 500 words?

Vampirina launch party!

Five years ago, I began working with my agent Linda Pratt. Linda took me on for a novel we didn’t sell, but she was interested in working with me on my picture books as well, and we’ve worked together over the years on a number of picture book manuscripts.

Linda represents many illustrators and author-illustrators and is tremendously keen at knowing what can and should be left out of picture-book text. I’ve been blessed to have her editorial tutelage over the years in that regard.

I also learned a lot from reading author-illustrators like Holly Keller, Pat Hutchins, and Kevin Henkes.

Picture book writers are sometimes given the advice not to study author-illustrators because a manuscript alone can’t convey to a potential editor what the dummy of an author-illustrator will convey.

I think that’s silly–be aware of that, yes, but don’t shut out an entire category of wonderful books just because you yourself can’t draw.

I know I’m a little biased, but I think you can tell from a book like Vampirina Ballerina, with LeUyen Pham‘s amazingly detailed, story-telling illustrations, what a talented illustrator can accomplish with a spare text.

Cynsational Notes

See the teachers’ guide for Vampirina Ballerina.