New Voice: Katherine Catmull on Summer and Bird

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Katherine Catmull is the first-time author of Summer and Bird (Dutton, 2012).

When their parents vanish overnight, pragmatic Summer and her stormy, light-boned sister Bird follow a meager clue–well, it might be a clue–into the forest. 

There the sad, electric song of a patchwork bird draws them Down, where they must fight—against a ravenous, bird-swallowing Puppeteer; against each other; and against their own fears, ambitions, and griefs—first to find the truth about their parents, and then to help the birds find their way back to the Green Home, the birds’ true home, lost to them since the bird queen vanished years ago.

But at the border of the Green Home, earth and sky crash together like jaws, demanding a sacrifice.

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

My initial revision process was to write the first chapter, complete another chapter or two, then come back a month later to find that the first chapters were hideously bad.

The narrative voice, in particular, was just dreadful in the earliest version of the first pages—it had a weird, cloying quality that probably came from certain turn of the century children’s books I loved as a child. An excellent voice for, say, The Five Little Peppers And How They Grew, but ghastly for me.

But even though every time I’d go back to my first pages, my eyes would pop out and my hair would stand up a’ la any given horror-struck cartoon character, what astonishes me in retrospect is that I didn’t give up. Not giving up turns out to be rather crucial to the process.

Narrative voice is critical to me as a reader, so all my early revisions were about coming to a voice I liked. Once I had a full draft, my later revisions were about adding texture, planting seeds, that kind of thing.

Katherine’s work room

My agent, David Dunton, helped me a lot in making the manuscript more child-friendly (which I had given surprisingly little thought to—I was writing a children’s book that I would like), as well as tighter and generally spiffier.

Then my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, taught me what major structural revisions look like — I really had no idea how to do that, or even how to think that way. She’s a brilliant editor, and I feel very lucky to work with her.

Among the many things I’ve learned that I try to bear in mind now, as I write my second book: the bits I love rereading are usually working. The bits I avoid rereading: not so much. Also, it helps to figure out what your characters most desire, and how those desires are in conflict.

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

I was a great fantasy reader as a child—the Alice books were huge favorites of mine, At the Back of the North Wind, all the Edward Eager books, and of course A Wrinkle in Time.

I read some of the Narnia books, too, and the Lord of the Rings. But I’ve never been as drawn to high fantasy like Tolkien’s; and something about Aslan made me nervous. I was always sure he’d find me disappointing.

I also read a lot of Ray Bradbury as a child. When he died recently, I reread a few of his pieces for the first time since I was maybe 12 or13, and realized that he had a big influence on me, even just those distinct rhythms of his prose. It’s funny how what you read in childhood can go straight into your DNA.

Katherine’s desk

As an adult, I have not read as much straight-up fantasy, but for a while I was obsessed with magic realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude in my teens, I felt a tremendous shock—you can do that? You can just have whatever you want to happen, happen, and in an adult book? Things can roll along quite normally except for ghosts, and a teenage girl who floats up to heaven, and a thousand yellow butterflies that mark a lover’s death? I felt a similar rush when I first read Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino.

If there are contemporary books that inspire me, it would probably be the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (Ballantine, 1995-2000), a children’s series that brilliantly and fearlessly delves into profound, complex subjects. I love those books.

Also, I was actually inspired to begin Summer and Bird when I read Coraline by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins, 2002). That book scared me down to the bone—though I’ve since read Gaiman saying it seems to be scarier for adults than for children.

As I set Coraline down—I still remember where I was sitting—I thought: This is a children’s book for adults. I did not know that was a thing, but it is a thing I want to do. I’d been casting around for a major writing project, and I decided that would be it.

By the way, I have no idea what I meant by “a children’s book for adults”—I mean, Summer and Bird is definitely a children’s book (as is Coraline, for that matter). But it’s what I had in mind as I wrote. Perhaps I just meant that I was writing for myself, writing the children’s book I wanted to read—which is what all writers do, or ought to, I think.

Career Builder & Giveaway: Lisa Wheeler

Lisa at the release party for Boogie Knights

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lisa Wheeler is passionate about children’s books. “I love everything about them, including the smell.”

To date, Lisa has thirty titles on library shelves, with more to follow. She’s written picture books in prose and rhyme, an easy reader series, three books of poems, and creative nonfiction for the very young.

Awards include the 2004 Mitten Award for Old Cricket, given by the Michigan Library Association, the 2005-2006 Great Lakes, Great Books Award and 2005 Missouri Building Blocks Award for Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum, the 2006 Bluebonnet Award for Seadogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta, the 2006/07 South Carolina Picture Book Award for Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum and most recently, the 2008 The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for Jazz Baby given by the American Library Association.

Her newest titles include Dino-Football, illustrated by Barry Gott (CarolRhoda), Spinster Goose: Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Simon & Schuster) and coming in February 2013, Pet Project: Cute and Cuddly Vicious Verses, illustrated by Zachariah Ohora (Simon & Schuster).

Lisa shares her Michigan home with one husband, two dogs, and an assortment of anthropomorphic characters.

What memories of your debut author experience stand out? If you could offer advice to the new voice you once were, what would you say?

I began writing seriously in 1995. I set a goal to sell a magazine story in eight months and a picture book in one year. Well, nearly eight months later I sold my first magazine story, so I felt I was on track.

Alas, it took nearly four years and all of my patience before finally selling my first picture book, One Dark Night.

Like most writers, I had dreamed of what that moment might be like. I envisioned a call from an editor during dinner, when all of the family was home. I would be shocked! Elated! Terrified! Excited!

But when the real first sale happened, it didn’t go according to any script in my head.

By that time, I had acquired an agent. He’d accepted me on the basis of a chapter book I wrote. But five months later, when he wasn’t able to sell it, I was convinced he was going to drop me.

When I submitted One Dark Night to him, he called me immediately. He loved the manuscript and was certain it would be my first sale.

Then, he simultaneously submitted it to six houses. Four of them wanted it!

An auction for the book began and I was left shocked, elated, terrified and excited.

When the dust settled, Harcourt became my first publishing house.

After over two hundred rejections in four years, I had publishers begging me to sell them my story. It was awesome!

This just goes to show that anything can happen on this bumpy road to publication. Don’t give up! The difference between an unpublished author and a published author is one day.

How have you built an audience over time?

Years ago my agent said that he felt I would be one of those authors who slowly built her reputation one book at a time. He was right!

I really think it comes down to craft. I’ve had books get starred reviews, appear on state lists, and win awards. Those things are out of my control. What is in my control is my manuscript while it is still in my hot little hands. It is up to me to make sure I am sending out my best.

If you build it, they will come.

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

Lisa with Flat Stanley.

Yes–many times. Those four years in the trenches were not fun. And I know many writers who have waited much longer for their first book contract.

I recall days when I would come home from work to find three or more of my rejected manuscripts waiting in my mailbox. (Insert funeral dirge here.) I’d whine. I’d cry. I’d get discouraged.

There were even times when I would ask myself if it was all worth it. Could I chase this brass ring forever?

But then, the next day I would get a new idea and the process would begin again.




We writers are a crazy lot.

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

I would tell them to enjoy each moment. You only get one first book.

Looking back, I realize that I never gave myself enough credit for my accomplishments (probably still don’t). When my first book came out, I was so busy working on new books, trying to sell books, and trying to come up with ideas for more books that I never stopped and smelled the roses.

On the flip side, I would also tell them that this is just the first book. You want it to be the first of many. Don’t stop working, don’t stop submitting and don’t stop brainstorming new ideas.

If this is what you love doing, keep doing it. It is that simple.

Madcap Monster Ball

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.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Dino-Football by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Barry Gott (CarolRhoda, 2012). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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Guest Post & Giveaway: Tammi Sauer on “And This One Time…at a Book Signing…”

By Tammi Sauer
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Doing a book signing can be a little intimidating—especially if you arrive at the store and see something like this:

Suddenly, all you feel like doing is running home and hanging out with your dog.


But you can’t. You must act like a professional. Even if you are dying on the inside.

Then you remember you are a professional. You’ve planned for this. You’ve read “The Tips Tammi Wished She Had Known About Before She Did Her First Book Signing.”

While these suggestions are primarily geared toward picture book writers, many of them can be applied to novelists as well.

  • Arrange for the signing to coincide with the store’s regularly scheduled
    story time. That way you can share your book with a built in audience.
  • Tell your family and friends about the signing and ask them to spread the word. Moral support is a very good thing.
  • Have something attention-getting at your signing table—it makes a great conversation piece. When I did signings for Bawk & Roll (Sterling, 2012), for example, I had a stuffed chicken that squawked anytime someone picked it up by the neck.
  • Come up with a craft that ties in with your book. Make sure it’s fairly easy, not too messy, and fun. If it involves copious amounts of glitter and glue, find a different craft.
  • Have something inexpensive to offer the people who are kind enough to stop by your table. Examples include candy, tattoos, and bookmarks.
  • Smile. Look like you want to be there and not like you are mentally prepping for a root canal.
  • Consider having a sign-up opportunity. In exchange for a name and email address, you can offer to send out behind-the-scenes information, book news, and activities that tie in with the book such as word searches or readers’ theater scripts.
  • Don’t anchor yourself to your chair. Stand up. Walk around a little bit. Be visible.
  • If you unexpectedly hear over the intercom system that you are going to be doing a reading at the back of the store, resist the urge to hide under your table. Give the crowd your best. Not only read your book, but perform it a little bit. Consider building some audience participation into your bookstore readings. Be engaging. If possible, be funny. (I somehow pulled this off the day after I recovered from the Swine Flu. I consider this one of my life’s biggest achievements.)
  • Be ready to answer the pressing question: “Where’s the bathroom?”
  • When you’re signing a book for someone, engage in some conversation. If you have a brain freeze, you can always go with the simple, “Who is this book for? How old is he/she?” Then talk about the awesomeness of that recipient.
  • Be prepared to have your picture taken.
  • Remember to send a thank you card to the person who made it possible for you to do a signing at the store. My dad always told me, “You can never say thank you enough.” He was right.
  • Sometimes you will be signing next to Someone Very Famous. Avoid looking at that person’s line.
  • Realize that sometimes bookstore signings don’t result in many—if any—sales. Be okay with that. If nothing else, at least you will come away from the experience with a story to tell. “And this one time, at a book signing…”

Cynsational Giveaway

This fall Tammi has three very good reasons for getting into the book signing groove: Oh, Nuts!, illustrated by Dan Krall (Bloomsbury), Princess in Training, illustrated by Joe Berger (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and The Twelve Days of Christmas in Oklahoma, illustrated by Victoria Hutto (Sterling). Enter to win author-signed copies of each of these books. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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Cynsational Screening Room

Career Builder & Giveaway: Anna Myers

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Anna Myers says: The sixth child in a family of seven, I was born in west Texas. My oldest brother told me I was found in a tumbleweed. I knew he was teasing, but part of me wanted to believe the story.

“Our family moved back to Oklahoma when I was only six months old, and I grew up in central Oklahoma where I have lived all my life except for two years in New York State when I was a young woman.

“The summer before first grade, I dictated my first novel manuscript, ‘The Long Bearded Man,’ to one of my older sister. It was a commercial success because I charged each of my older siblings, including the one who wrote it down for me, a quarter each to read it.

“In school my favorites were history and English, and after college, I became a teacher of English. Even though I loved teaching, I could never give up that early desire to be a writer. My husband and I had three children during a span of four years. The prospect of sending them to college one after the other inspired me to get busy with writing. The first book did sell just in time for college.

“Cancer took my first husband in 1999. I am now married to a man with whom I went to high school. We live in an old house, filled with character and warm spirits, in the small town of Chandler, Oklahoma. I have seven grandchildren who bring me a great joy, and I am grateful to have work I love.”

How do you define success?

Red-Dirt Jessie with a jar of red dirt.

Success is telling the story that needs to be told and, oh, yes, I almost forgot, money.

I wouldn’t object to having money for lots of travel. I have not achieved the later, but I am still trying. Who knows, maybe this will be the year of the movie or the bestseller list.

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

I thought of giving up many times. During the seven years it took to sell my first novel, I gave up often, but only for about fifteen minutes.

I would start to cry.

My kids would say, “Oh, Mom, don’t give up. Someday you will sell a book.”

Then they would look at each other and roll their eyes as if to say, “Why doesn’t she just get real and clean up this house?”

My despair never lasted long. I wanted to write, and I knew I had to make enough money to educate the three children my late husband and I had very close together in age.

When I first began to write, I had two friends who also wrote novels. They never published anything. I did, simply because I wanted it more.

“In my first book, Red-Dirt Jessie, a character says about the dirt in central Oklahoma, ‘it is sure enough red here. Stubborn too. Won’t come out of nothing on wash day….I figure it makes us strong, seeps under our skin and makes us too blamed stubborn to give up when things turn rough.'”

Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you should have done differently? What and why?

I wish I had paid more attention to promotion. I found promotion difficult and foreign to my nature, so I ignored it. I wish I hadn’t.

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

A stained glass lamp made by Anna’s husband.

Right now I am writing my first adult novel, a project I have wanted to work on for a long time. I will always think writing for kids is more important and in some ways harder than writing for adults.

However, my book for adults is a story that pushes up from inside me and demands to be told. It is about three women teachers who form a garbage company to supplement their income. I need to write about the camaraderie of the teachers with whom I taught and about the death of a husband from a wife’s point of view. I will be finished with the manuscript in November.

In December I will begin the young adult ghost story that is now growing in my mind. Also, my agent is now marketing my first picture book.

My strategy is simple, sit in my chair and write.

Cynsational Notes

Anna Myers is the author of 19 novels, all published by Walker. Her debut was Red-Dirt Jessie (1992), and her latest release is The Grave Robber’s Secret (2011).

Her other books are: Time of the Witches (2009); Spy! (2008); Wart (2007); Confessions from the Principal’s Chair (2006); Assassin (2005); Hoggee (2004); Flying Blind (2003); Tulsa Burning (2002); Stolen by the Sea (2001); When the Bough Breaks (2000); Captain’s Command (1999); Ethan Between Us (1998); The Keeping Room (1997); Spotting the Leopard (1996); Fire in the Hills (1996); Graveyard Girl (1995); and Rosie’s Tiger (1994). See teacher resources.

The Career Builders series offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published books for about 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.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two signed middle grade books by Anna Myers. Three total copies available. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

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Enter to win one of four signed YA books by Anna Myers. Nine total copies available. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

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Author Video: Lois Lowry on Son

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out this author video on Son by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Told in three separate story lines, Lois Lowry‘s Son combines elements from the first three novels in her Giver Quartet—The Giver (1994 Newbery Medal winner), Gathering Blue, and Messenger—into a breathtaking, thought-provoking narrative that wrestles with ideas of human freedom. 

Thrust again into the dark, claustrophobic world of The Giver, readers will meet an intriguing new heroine, fourteen-year-old Claire. Jonas from The Giver is here too, and Kira, the heroine of Gathering Blue. In a final clash between good and evil, a new hero emerges.

Cynsational Notes

Attention Central Texans! Lois will speak about Son and sign at 6 p.m. Oct. 15 at BookPeople in Austin. Peek: “Tickets are required for the signing portion of this event and are available only with the purchase of a copy of Son from BookPeople. Books and tickets are now available. You can purchase a book and receive a ticket in-store or online.” See more information.

Guest Post: Lisa Bullard and Laura Purdie Salas on How to Query an Agent or Editor: Do Your Detective Work

By Lisa Bullard and Laura Purdie Salas
(a.k.a. Mentors for Rent)
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

One of the things that will truly make your submission stand out amongst the thousands of other submissions is to show that you’ve done your detective work and established that your manuscript is a good match for that agent or editor in particular.

Some agents say that the first thing they want to see in a query letter is a statement saying something like, “I know that you already represent [these authors], which makes me think you will like my manuscript.”

So you need to follow up on all the clues you can discover about the tastes of your target editors or agents. Part of this is looking up the individual submission guidelines for the publisher or literary agency to whom you are submitting, to see its specific instructions for your submission package.

But we are encouraging you to take your research well beyond that.

You should also be researching each individual editor or agent to see what her book preferences are. How will your title fit alongside other books the editor has worked on? How does it compare to the kinds of books written by authors the agent represents?

Let the agent or editor know you’ve done this background check by mentioning it in your cover letter.

When you do this, there is a small difference between editors and agents.

Editors have a “list” of books that they work on for a publisher; you will want to research until you have a sense of what that list entails. Ask yourself, what kinds of books does this editor edit, for what ages?

Agents have a roster of authors whom they represent; so ask yourself, what kinds of authors does this agent work with?

Your letter for an editor might include something like, “I’m a big fan of [title here], and I think fans of it will also connect with my high-action mystery.”

This accomplishes three things:

  1. it praises the taste of that editor (and who doesn’t love praise?); 
  2. it shows you’ve done your research and are targeting him because he’s a great fit for your work and not just a random choice; and 
  3. it reinforces your target audience.

Or you might say to an agent, “I love the snarky humor found in books by [writer] and [writer], whom you represent, and I’m hoping you will find my work has the same kind of edgy appeal.”

We’re not saying that you should make grandiose claims such as “my book is bound to be the next Harry Potter.” That’s taking this way too far! But you can make yourself stand out by pointing to a book or books an agent or editor has worked on (or authors she has worked with) for which you can offer an honest compliment.

How do you know what books or authors an editor or agent has represented?

One way is to start with the recent books that you’ve loved reading from the category you hope to publish in (and yes, if you want to write young adult novels, you should be reading dozens if not hundreds of recent young adult novels!).

Many writers (particularly in longer works where there is more space) include an acknowledgments page where they thank their editor and agent. Or maybe they talk about their editor and agent on their webpage and blog.

Keep a record of these names when you run across them connected to books you’ve enjoyed, and when it’s time for you to start submitting your work, you’ve already got a starter list of possible targets.

It never hurts to try a Google search as well. For instance, type in, “[target editor name] interview”. A variety of hits could come up: interviews, mentions in blogs, conference notes (editors often announce their current wish lists and recent books they’ve edited when they speak at a conference). Several editors and agents also have blogs. You can use the information you find there to say something like, “I’m submitting to you because your wish list on your blog mentions middle grade mysteries.”

You put your research skills to good practice when you wrote your book. Now use them again for another critical purpose: to find the agents or editors who are the best matches for your work!

Cynsational Notes


This post was a slightly revised version of “Chapter 5: Show You’re a Pro,” from the new e-book How to Query an Editor or Agent: A Children’s Writer Insider Guide from Mentors for Rent.

One reviewer calls it “a must have for any children’s book writer. The authors have compiled a user friendly, step-by-step guide which helps take the mystery and worry out of both cover and query letters.”

See more information.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
and Canada Reporter Lena Coakley
for Cynsations

The nominees for Canada’s highest literary award, the Governor General’s Award (fondly called “the GGs”), were announced on Tuesday. Each GG winner receives $25,000 and a specially-bound copy of their book. Winners will be announced Nov. 13 and will be presented their awards on Nov. 28 by His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, at Rideau Hall, in Ottawa.

The full list (including the French language children’s literature text and illustration nominees) can be found on the Canada Council website.

Children’s Literature – Text

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (Doubleday Canada)

Under the Moon by Deborah Kerbel (Dancing Cat)

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen (Tundra)

The Umbrella by Judd Palmer (Bayeux Arts)

The Grave Robber’s Apprentice by Allan Stratton (HarperCollins)

Children’s Literature – Illustration

Virginia Wolf, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault (text by Kyo Maclear)(Kids Can)

Big City Bees, illustrated by Renné Benoit (text by Maggie de Vries)(Greystone )

House Held Up by Trees, illustrated by Jon Klassen (text by Ted Kooser)(Candlewick)

In the Bag! Margaret Knight Wraps it Up, illustrated by David Parkins (text by Monica Kulling)(Tundra)

Picture a Tree, illustrated by Barbara Reid (text by Barbara Reid)(North Winds)

Source: Cynsations Canada Reporter Lena Coakley

More News & Giveaways

So You’ve Got an Agent. Now What? A Short Checklist by Candy Gourlay from Notes from the Slushpile. Peek: “Be discreet. It’s not just you against the world now.” Note: better to be discreet all along.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Launching a Book by Dianne K. Salerni from Crowe’s Nest. Peek: “…connections you make talking to people (readers, store owners, other authors) are often more important than the signed books that walk out the door.”

To Change or Not to Change: That Is the Question by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “What I found most interesting were the writers’ responses to the news that their manuscripts had flaws that needed work.”

Exploring the World of Children’s Writing: an eight-week online class, taught by Debby Dahl Edwardson from Peek: “For those who have always dreamed of writing and publishing books for young people but have never tried, as well as for those who have already gotten a start and are ready to take the next step.” Start date:
Oct. 8.

28 Days Later Campaign Call For Submissions from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: “Help us identify under-the-radar and vanguard African-American children’s book authors and illustrators we should consider profiling. Let us know who we should check out so we can give them the praise they’ve earned.”

10 Things Not to Do to Get a Book Deal and Beyond from Kim Curran. Peek: “Don’t waste time waiting. Get writing!” Source: Gwenda Bond.

Zest Books Launches Line of Memoirs for Teens by Wendy Werris from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “The origins of Dear Teen Me, whose 70 entries are all by middle-grade and YA authors and include letters written by Ellen Hopkins, Tom Angleberger, and Lauren Oliver, lie – rather unexpectedly
– in the two editors’ mutual love of late ’90s pop sensation Hanson.”

What’s Your Story, Joan Bauer? by Debbie Gonzales from ReaderKidZ. Peek: “The hardest part about writing a book, I think, is pushing through the first draft (especially the middle) and not giving up until it’s done. I have a sign in my office: NEVER, NEVER, NEVER give up.”

The Physical Attribute Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “…will look at the bodies of our characters, part by part, and provide micro details that will help writers brainstorm ways to create memorable imagery for the reader to connect with.”

Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of a signed copy of Lupe Ruiz-Flores’ bilingual picture
book, Alicia’s Fruity Drinks/Las aguas frescas de Alicia; a small “Hope”
note pad; a Charlotte Bronte journal; and a business card holder
was Julie in Texas, and the additional winners of the winners of Come August, Come Freedom by Gigi Amateau were David in Tennessee and Katharine in Virginia.

Check out new releases at eight YA novel giveaways at Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Last week, Greg Leitich Smith moderated a panel at the Austin Teen Book Festival, and so I was invited to the after party at Serrano’s

Keynoter Libba Bray with agent Barry Goldblatt.
Authors Guadalupe Garcia McCall & E.M. Kokie
Big-picture view of the party, which featured a Mexican food buffet.

Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith from Little Miss Train Wreck. Chatting childhood aspirations, writing humor, the Tantalize series, and future books. Peek: “If I could say one thing to writers, it would be: put down your phone and plug into your surroundings.” See also Author Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Favorite Halloween Film.

Personal Links

Greg Leitich Smith

Cynsational Events

Digital Symposium II: The Nuts and Bolts of Success will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 6 at St. Edward’s University, sponsored by Austin SCBWI. Peek: “…a hands-on technology workshop for illustrators and authors of all techie levels.”

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith at 3 p.m. Oct. 6 at Freeport Library, a branch of the Brazoria County Library System.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will speak about author PR on a panel at the monthly meeting of the Writers’ League of Texas at 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at BookPeople in Austin.

Greg Leitich Smith will be a featured author at Tweens Read Oct. 20 at Bobby Shaw Middle School, 1201 Houston Avenue, Pasadena, Texas and at the Texas Book Festival Oct. 27 and Oct. 28 at the state capitol building in Austin. See also Texas Book Festival 2012 Youth Literature Programming.

New Voice: Laura Ellen on Blind Spot

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Laura Ellen is the first-time author of Blind Spot
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
Oct. 23, 2012)(reading guide). From the promotional copy:

Winter stops hiding Tricia Farni on Good Friday.

When a truck plunges through the thinning ice of Alaska’s Birch River, Tricia’s body floats to the surface–dead since the night she disappeared six months earlier.

The night Roswell Hart fought with her.

The night Roz can’t remember.

Missing things is nothing new to sixteen-year-old Roz. She has macular degeneration, an eye disease that robs her central vision. She’s constantly piecing together what she sees–or thinks she sees–but this time her memory needs piecing together. How can Roz be sure of the truth if her own memory has betrayed her? Can she clear her name of a murder that she believes she didn’t commit?

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?

This is such a good question. I actually had to rewrite Blind Spot twice, switching point of view to get it right. I used a lot of my own experiences developing my main character Roz.

Growing up with macular degeneration was hard and very emotional for me and I wanted to put that into my novel. But after I finished my novel in first person, a very insightful editor during a critique told me that Roz was too whiny and that her story was stifling the thriller part of the plot.

Laura’s writing space

I knew he was right. I’d spent so much time dumping my own emotions into the story, and, though very therapeutic, I’d lost sight of what I was writing. A thriller.

So, I rewrote the entire novel in third person.

It was freeing for me to do this. Suddenly I saw Roz as a character rather than an extension of me. I was able to take ‘me’ out of it and stick Roz into situations I’d never thought about putting her into. It helped push my plot further and make the thriller part of the plot tighter. but

In switching to third person, I’d totally lost the raw emotion that made Roz real, made her appealing, and made her, well, ‘Roz’..,

So, yep, I rewrote it again going back to first person. This time both storiesRoz’s struggle with her visual impairment and the murder mysterywere balanced. Though doing so was time-consuming, I learned sometimes you have to tell the story from many different angles before you get it right.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

When I was taking my first creative writing workshop in college, there was a girl in my class who would accuse me of writing ‘children stories’ every time a piece I’d written would be work-shopped.

I would get so angry and defensive. I was not writing for children; there were no fluffy bunnies or talking animals in what I was writing! Yes, my characters were teens, so what? Stephen King had written many stories with teen characters and no one accused him of writing for children!

It took me years to understand what she not-so-eloquently was trying to say.

My voice is teen.

That’s just what it is.

Once I embraced that, I realized that the reason my voice was ‘teen’ was because my teen years are still vivid and fresh to me. I can remember things like they were yesterday. My teen years were full of emotional ups and downs and it is that place where my author inkwell exists.

Even if their own teen memories are not so vivid, I think authors can tap into their teen voices by finding triggers that can transport them back. Music, videos, TV shows, Herbal Essence shampoo, Love’s Baby Soft perfume, Brut, Lip Smackers lip gloss, A-Smile painter pantsanything and everything that was part of your routine in high school can be a trigger. Once you find these things let them transport you back and then ask yourself:

How did you interact with your friends, your enemies, your parents?

How did you reason with yourself when you knew it was a bad idea to climb out the window to attend that party at 2 a.m.?

How did you got up the next morning after you’d had your heart broken the night before?
Ask yourself, and your teen voice will answer.

Laura’s son James Handy, age 14, and the legendary Muruga Booker. James and Muruga are jammed a bit before James recorded the music for the Blind Spot trailer at Muruga’s Sage Court Studios.

Cynsational Notes

In Blind Spot, Roz is obsessed with proving she is ‘normal’ despite her visual impairment. As a result, she loses sight of everything elseincluding clues to a classmate’s death. What’s your blind spot? Beating your arch rival at the state swim meet? Being valedictorian? Losing weight?

Share your story with Laura Ellen and you could win a signed copy and the chance to have it posted along with stories of authors you love! Find details on Laura Ellen’s website. Hurry! Contest ends Oct. 16 at midnight.

Career Builder & Giveaway: Barbara O’Connor

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Barbara O’Connor grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. After graduating from the University of South Carolina with a degree in English, she headed to Southern California. An interest in writing for children led her to take classes at UCLA to learn the basics.

Since publication of her first children’s biography in 1993, Barbara has gone on to publish fifteen more books, including middle grade novels.

Drawing on her South Carolina roots, Barbara’s novels are known for their strong Southern settings and quirky characters. In addition to five Parents Choice Awards, Barbara’s distinctions include School Library Journal Best Books, Kirkus Best Books, Bank Street College Best Books, and ALA Notables. Her books have been nominated for children’s choice awards in thirty-five states.

Barbara is a popular visiting author at schools and a frequent speaker at conferences around the country.

How do you define success?

I’ve been writing for publication for 22 years. Those years have showed me two areas of success for a children’s writer: critical success (e.g., awards, recognitions by organizations, peer recognition, etc.) and child-pleasing success (i.e, children love your work).

For some authors, these are intertwined. But often, authors find themselves enjoying one and not necessarily the other. We’ve all heard discussions about Newbery winners that children don’t like and vice versa, the beloved and popular books that children clamor for that are not recognized by awards and such.

Barbara in the Smoky Mountains — setting that often appears in her books.

I’d be lying if I said that writing books that children love is enough for me. I am honored to have received quite a few awards and recognitions from well-respected children’s book organizations (e.g., Parents Choice, ALA, etc.).

But since I’m in schools a lot, I will say that there is nothing more satisfying than seeing children reading and enjoying my books. And when the mail carrier brings me a letter from a gushing fan, well, that feels like success.

Barbara connects with young readers.

How have you grown as a writer? What skills have you seen improve over time? What did you do to reach new levels? What are areas that still flummox you at times?

With each book, I’m reminded that less is more. I try to say a lot with as few words as possible. That’s my style. I work hard on showing and not telling and that’s improved over time. I’ve learned, also, to listen to my writing voice and to follow my instincts when I hear it getting off track. That’s a skill that is vital but, I think, comes with experience.

To reach new levels, I see that my later work has become more upbeat and humorous than earlier works. I enjoy writing humor and try to keep my storylines lighter than they used to be. 

What still flummoxes me at times?

Plot, plot, plot. I hate plot. I love character and setting. But, alas, a book needs a plot. So I plow through.

My plots are usually quite simple, but they work.

How have you built an audience over time?

The best way to build an audience is to keep writing. I’ve been fortunate to have published one book that is particularly popular (How to Steal a Dog (FSG, 2007)), which has kept children on the lookout for more. Also, I maintain a specific style and voice that readers have come to expect and look for (e.g., small Southern town settings).

How have your marketing strategies changed over the years? Could you tell us about one strategy that worked and why you think it was a boon to you?

By Barbara at age 12

The internet has been my marketing salvation. I’m an introvert. Book tours and travel for marketing and even some conferences are sometimes outside my comfort zone. So being able to sit home in my jammies and market my book has been a godsend.

My blog was the first internet marketing I did, and it really helped me get the word out about book news. Students and teachers use it as preparation or followup to visits. I’m able to link to items on my website, post news and pictures about conferences I attend, etc.

I’ve also been trying to be more active on Twitter (@barbaraoconnor). That’s a great venue to get news out quickly to a lot of people.

Cynsational Notes

Barbara’s books include: Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia (2003); How to Steal a Dog (2007); Greetings from Nowhere (2008); The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis (2009); The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester (2010); and On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s (2012), all published by FSG.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two signed copies of Barbara’s latest release, On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s (FSG, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Summer days drift by slowly in Meadville, South Carolina–that is, until Sherman the one-legged pigeon flies into town and causes a ruckus.

First Stella, who’s been begging for a dog, spots him on top of a garage roof and decides she wants him for a pet. Then there’s Ethel and Amos, an old couple who sees the pigeon in their barn keeping company with a little brown dog that barks all night. The pigeon lands smack in the middle of Mutt Raynard’s head, but he’s the town liar, so no one believes him. And when Stella’s brother Levi and his scabby-kneed, germ-infested friends notice the pigeon, they join the chase, too.

Meanwhile, across town, Mr. Mineo has one less homing pigeon than he used to…

Barbara O’Connor has delivered another ingeniously crafted story full of southern charm, kid-sized adventures, and quirky, unforgettable characters.

Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

New Voice: Janci Patterson on Chasing the Skip

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Janci Patterson is the first-time author of Chasing the Skip (Henry Holt, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Ricki’s dad has never been there for her. He’s a bounty hunter who spends his time chasing parole evaders—also known as “skips”—all over the country. Ever since Ricki’s mom ran off, Ricki finds herself an unwilling passenger in a front-row seat to her father’s dangerous lifestyle. 

Ricki’s feelings get even more confused when her dad starts tracking seventeen-year-old Ian Burnham. She finds herself unavoidably attracted to the dark-eyed felon who seems eager to get acquainted. Ricki thinks she’s ever in control—the perfect accomplice, the Bonnie to his Clyde. 

Little does she know that Ian isn’t playing the game by her rules.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I write on my laptop, which travels with me whenever I go somewhere I might write.

I wrote Chasing the Skip mostly in the seating areas of the Humanities building where I earned my master’s degree. I wrote it as a for-fun project between finishing my thesis and graduation, so the writing had to fit in the spaces between final papers, thesis revisions, thesis defense, and my last classes.

These days, I write mostly at home, so the laptop travels with a smaller radius. I do a lot of work at the kitchen table–my husband runs his painting business from his work table there, so I have good company. Other times I stretch out on my bed, or lounge on the couch with the computer on my lap.

Desperate times find me other places though; I had a deadline last Thanksgiving, so I wrote in my in-laws’ basement. I’ve written in the car on road trips, and at parks, and at the library. I’ve found that where there’s a will to fit in some writing, a space can be discovered in which to do it.

I tend to work better in small snatches than in marathons, so I do my best to wrap a little writing into every day.

I do try to write during the day, though, because after eight o’clock my brain gets a little too fuzzy for intense work. I know writers who get up super-early to write, and I can’t do that either. My writer brain doesn’t turn on until about 10 a.m. But since both my husband and I are self-employed, I have the luxury of lots of hours stretched across the middle of the day that are perfect for writing. It’s just a matter of sitting down (wherever I am!) and doing it.

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?

My main character Ricki loves to read the news, which brought up some technology issues right away. Ricki gets her news online, which means I had to bring in internet terms. I steered away from anything brand-specific–who knows which companies will be in control of our web-browsing in five years. Anyone else remember when AOL was popular–and to describe mostly by function. The internet is sure to change, but likely we’ll still be clicking to open and typing for text input for the foreseeable future.

As for the news Ricki reads, I had her encounter news about war in the Middle East–I can’t think of anything I’d rather have date my book than a prolonged period of peace in that area, but alas, it seems doubtful.

Even though all the action of my book takes place on a road trip, technology still follows my characters everywhere. Ricki’s Dad loves to listen to audio books. While the method of audio consumption is likely to change (and has, from record to tape to MP3), the act of listening to a previously recorded reading of a book is probably not going out any time soon. So I tried my best to be vague about the delivery system, and focus on the act of listening instead. Dad has a “player” I believe, which could be anything from a tape deck to an iPod to whatever will come next (I hope!) which will hopefully help keep the book from dating quickly.

Cell phones are always tricky–much of the time, I needed Ricki to feel isolated. She’s on a road trip away from her mom and her friends and her boyfriend–if she can just call or text them all on a whim, I lose some of the pressure of an isolated road trip with her dead-beat dad. So I decided that Ricki’s mom hadn’t paid the phone bill, and Dad doesn’t want her using his cell phone–it’s for work. The word cell phone is pretty entrenched–odds are we’ll have them for the foreseeable future, so I wasn’t too worried about dating the book over that.

If the book does become dated, it will probably be over some issue that I didn’t think of–some little detail of our lives that will change drastically over the next few years.

You can’t plan for everything, especially in a rapidly changing area like technology. The best you can do is tell a compelling story, and trust that the heart of that story will carry readers past the details.