Guest Post: Karen Rock on Joss Whedon & His Storytelling Slayers

Photo of Joss Whedon by Gage Skidmore

By Karen Rock
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

What makes groundbreaking film and television writer-producer Joss Whedon, the visionary behind such hits as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Avengers,” and “Angel,” so special?

His ability to mix satirical pop culture humor with life or death situations? Perhaps.

His take-no-prisoners heroines? Maybe.

His plot curve balls that leave viewers reeling?

No, wait. Make that: all of the above?


Like millions of other Whedonites, I’ve been a devoted fan since Buffy Summers took up residence in the ‘one-Starbucks-town’ of Sunnydale, California, (AKA Hellmouth).

Stakes were high and rattling around Buffy’s purse. With a supernatural apocalypse imminent, Joss gave us an unlikely savior…or slayer…in Buffy. Who knew a petite, teenage girl could be so adept at handling evil incarnate…including the Mean Girls at school?

Such innovative writing has inspired a generation of bestselling authors such as Carrie Jones, Jennifer Armentrout, Jennifer Reese, Nancy Holder, Micol Ostow, and Marlene Perez who shared their thoughts about Joss’ influence on their bestselling works.

For Jenn Reese, author of science fantasy middle grade series Above World (Candlewick) and kung fu action-adventure romance Jade Tiger, both her writing and life have been impacted by Joss’ works. “It’s safe to say that ‘Buffy: The Vampire Slayer’ has influenced not just my writing, but my life as a whole. From 1997 to 2003, while Buffy and the Scooby Gang were going through their journey, I was going through my own.

“During that time, I began writing, quit my job, got a divorce, moved to California, got a new job, had my car stolen, got laid off, wrote a novel, and started studying martial arts. Through it all, Buffy was my favorite show.

“It was one of the only real constants in a life full of new experiences and an evolving sense of self. If our lives have soundtracks, then Buffy was mine. When I made life-changing decisions or accepted new challenges, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was in the background, singing about courage and heroes, about failure and loss and the power of friends.

“In short, Buffy is a foundational part of my writing career. I believe I’ve gone off in my own direction to tell stories that are truly mine, but I do so with gratitude for a show that inspired me both as a writer and as a person.”

A particular episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” ‘The Body’ was especially important and personal to Jenn. “Back in 2003, my (now ex-)husband’s brother shot himself. We got the call early in the morning after we’d spent the entire day before moving into a new apartment. Everything was in mislabeled boxes. We drifted through the unfamiliar space in a daze, trying to find clothes, brush our teeth, get directions to the hospital.

“In the middle of the chaos, there was also a memory. Willow trying to find her purple sweater, Anya blunt and clueless, Xander angry at the world, at the wall, at death itself. ‘The Body’ (season 5) makes me sob. I cried the first time I watched it, from the very beginning when Buffy shakes her mother’s body, calls her name, and can’t wake her.

Jenn Reese

“If I happen upon the episode while channel surfing, even for just a second, I become transfixed all over again, thumb poised on the remote but incapable of changing the channel.

“On that morning, I was so grateful for ‘The Body.’ I was grateful for the assurance that, no matter how I was reacting to the suicide, it was okay. It was normal. It was well within the acceptable parameters of grief and shock and awkwardness.

“In the midst of everything, I wasted no emotional energy on self recrimination. People are messy. Believing that was an incredible gift Joss Whedon and Buffy gave me on such a terrible day.”

Marlene Perez, author of the YA paranormal series Dead Is… (Graphia) and Strange Fates (Orbit, 2013), also connects personally to particular episodes such as “Once More with Feeling” and “Hush”.

According to Marlene, “…he sends the message ‘Don’t be afraid of your own creativity. Don’t be afraid to go into the dark, but also, don’t be afraid of the light. Don’t be afraid to break the rules.’”


To Marlene, “His characters are often broken people who find a makeshift family and he always makes us question who the true monster really is. The idea of a broken main character appealed to me.

“Nyx Fortuna, the main character in my Strange Fates trilogy was greatly influenced by Whedon’s ability to create broken, but relatable characters… …I love the idea that doing the right thing sometimes sucks almost as much as doing the wrong thing would have.”

Whedon did all the right things when he met Marlene several years ago at the San Diego Comic Con. “I spotted Joss Whedon right in front of me on the exhibit floor…I approached him and said, ‘I know you hear this all the time, but I love Buffy.’ His reply was ‘I never get tired of hearing it.’

“If I hadn’t been a fan before, that would have cinched it for me. It also taught me two things. Love your characters because you’ll be spending a lot of time with them and be nice to your fans.”

Joss’ empathy for others was also evidenced by essayist and novelist, Nancy Holder, author of Buffy: The Making of a Slayer (47 North). “I had been on set for days and I was working off fumes. I wanted to get as much done as I could in the time I had–researching, interviews–so I hardly ever slept. (Not my best strategy!) Whenever he saw me, he would give me a nod to let me know that he knew I was waiting to interview him and we had a number of moments where we’d sit down and get started, and then he would be called away. He was always good-humored and patient despite the dozens of questions and interruptions that bombarded him every day.

“We finally sat on top of Spike’s tomb in pitch dark. I was really ragged by then (to my intense frustration), and he had so many things to say that I was enraptured and tried to make myself take notes as my two tape recorders recorded him. But it was difficult to do anything but listen. Then he was called to the set, and we went outside in the bright daylight. I saw that my primary tape recorder had malfunctioned and the first thing out of my mouth was an F-bomb.

“He simply smiled, took the recorder from me, and wound up my tape. I restarted my backup recorder (which wasn’t as good as the primary one) and asked him to repeat what he said. He pretty much did. But the kindness he showed when I flipped out in such an unprofessional manner has stayed with me all these years.”

Joss’ ability to plot an epic story equally impresses Holder. “Two of the structural elements of storytelling that Joss does so amazingly well are the buildup and the reversal. He very deliberately leads you to a hope or expectation (that two characters will get back together, that X is the bad guy) and then he pulls a reversal on you, where the opposite happens…

Nancy Holder

“Joss has often emphasized that structure lies at the basis of good storytelling. No amount of hand-waving and saying ‘just because’ can take the place of an organic trajectory in a story–this happens because this happens because this happens.

“When I was working on Buffy: The Making of a Slayer, I re-watched the entire series and really got a sense of the entire narrative sweep of the Buffy story. It’s a monumental achievement.

“For me to get this kind of cohesion when I’m working, I have to read and reread my work to make sure I hit all the beats. That takes discipline. But you don’t wind up with four (soon to be five!) TV shows, awards, and huge films like ‘The Avengers’ on your resume without discipline.”

Carrie Jones, author of the YA paranormal series Need (Bloomsbury), admires Joss’ softer side and his tenacity. “I am a sucker for the Whedon romance. His romances are tragic. That’s what makes them great. And it’s even more than that! Buffy, the movie version, flopped. But Whedon didn’t give up. He believed in his characters. He believed in his writing. And look what happened. Buffy became an icon. His character became someone who insinuated herself into people’s psyches. As a writer, I need that. I need the example of Buffy and of her creator, to help me believe in myself.”

Another important Whedon legacy, Carrie said, is that he…“made it okay to be a kick-(butt) girl who saved people, who could be the hero, who could quip, who could angst. But I think what he also did was show the humanity in female heroes and how sometimes saving the world requires a momentary loss of that same humanity. He also made it cool to be a girl that wanted to save people not just be saved by people.

“Still, it is more than that. His heroes depended on themselves, but they often depended on their friends. On their epic quests, they often showed how community mattered, how relationships and friendships made us stronger, braver, tougher, and gave us females more motivation to be kick (butt)….

“Buffy and her friends often made names into verbs and created an entire language of quirkiness. That quirkiness combined with the heroic flair of Whedon’s characters truly creates a safe place for teen girls to embrace their own quirky nature, their own inner (and external) hero selves, allows them to value their own friendships, and gives them a role model to emulate when they need to be brave and face their own demons.”

A young Carrie Jones, thinking she’d rather be watching “Buffy”

YA novelist Micol Ostow, whose novel Family (Egmont) features a strong female character, wrote an essay on the “Buffy” series finale. “I focused on the horror movie trope of the final girl: the (typically blond, conventionally attractive, and young) girl who survives all of her friends and defeats the monster. The final girl avails herself to a feminist reading, but nonetheless, she’s a throwback to an earlier era. Buffy is the quintessential modern incarnation of that archetype. She doesn’t conquer the demons by accident or even by stubbornness, but rather by birthright, bravery, and innate skill.

“I’d like to think that female heroines would have become more proactive as pop culture evolved, but I don’t think it can be argued that Buffy herself got us there much more quickly.”

Micol and pup

Micol also admires Whedon’s blend of commercial and literary qualities in his work. “…There need not be distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Joss may be best-known for commercial powerhouses, but his knowledge of the literary and film canon is exhaustive, which is evident in all of his work: Giles saying, ‘Thank you, Cyrano,’ when Buffy tries to give him dating advice. The entire structure and (original!) score of the musical episode. The noir filter that colors the ‘Angel’ spinoff. It’s all much more sophisticated than packaging might suggest.

“Critics of the show/s often write them off as campy and insubstantial, when the fact is that they’re very intelligently, deliberately crafted.

“As a writer who frequently tries to bridge the gap between commercial and literary sensibilities, I appreciate so much an artist who can’t be bothered with those distinctions, and who blends both completely seamlessly.”

Jennifer L. Armentrout, exhausted from writing

Jennifer L. Armentrout, author of The Lux (Entangled) and Covenant series, finds Whedon’s quote, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke” inspiring.

She says, “When you’re dealing with a world were powerful supernatural creatures are gunning for your rosy red behind, things are going to be dark, things are going to be grim and gritty. Life will be tough for our characters. That (Happily-Ever-After) will be earned and not handed over.

“But humor–oh, humor–is the great equalizer. A well placed one liner changes the dynamics of the story and the characters, makes them more real and richer.

“Joss Whedon was a miracle worker with this. None of his characters were truly safe and that made you love his characters even more. It made the story real, because life is unpredictable.”

Jennifer subjects her characters to dangerous and deadly situations as well. “None of my characters are safe and all my characters sometimes make the wrong choices and they must face those consequences. But I love the humor and the snark. Even in the most dire and terrible circumstances, someone is always saying something.”

Thanks to Joss Whedon, we will always have something to say about his work and the lessons they teach. YA authors continue his legacy, paving the way for the next generation. They will continue to innovate in ways we can’t yet imagine. As Joss said, “Writers are completely out of touch with reality.” And that’s a good thing in the best, Whedon-way.

Check out why Cyn and I love Joss below, and, at the end of the post, please add your own tributes in the comments for a chance to win Buffy: The Making of a Slayer by Nancy Holder (47 North).

Cynsational Notes

More on Karen Rock

In a quest to provide her eighth grade students with quality reading material,
English teacher Karen Rock read everything out there and couldn’t wait to add her voice to the conversation of books.

Now a debut YA series author, Karen is thrilled to pen stories that
teens can relate to. When she’s not busy reading and writing, Karen is
downloading live versions of favorite songs, watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” marathons, obsessing over reality TV contestants (Adam Lambert
you were robbed!), cooking her family’s delizioso Italian recipes, and
occasionally rescuing local wildlife from neighborhood cats.

She lives in the Adirondack Mountain region with her husband, her very
appreciated beta-reader daughter and two King Charles Cavalier Cocker
Spaniels who have yet to understand the concept of “fetch,” though
they’ve managed to teach her the trick!

Karen says: “Joss taught me not to worry about writing what’s expected… what
works…what’s safe. He’s a rule breaker and that’s what I love most
about his movies and shows. Joss makes me laugh during the most
terrifying moments, root for an unlikely character, and jump out of my
seat when I’m ready for the end credits. It’s the courage to write
fearlessly, to be true to my own vision, that is Joss’ legacy to me.”

Check out her website, her co-author website, her Facebook page, and follow her on twitter @karenrock5. Then check out Camp Boyfriend.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author the the Tantalize series, which includes Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, Diabolical,
all YA Gothic fantasies originally published by Candlewick Press in the
U.S., Walker Books in the U.K., and additional publishers around the

Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, a graphic novel illustrated by Ming Doyle, is also available and Eternal: Zachary’s Story will be released in February 2013. Cynthia also looks forward to the release of Feral Nights, book one in the Feral series (Candlewick, Jan. 2013).

She says: “I so admire all of his work, but for me, Joss Whedon’s
‘Buffy’ was life changing — a major reason why I write strong girls
(and guys) for YAs.

“I remember watching the series finale as the screen
flashed from one girl to another, all potential slayers becoming
slayers, and, especially as a writing teacher, it left me teary with a greater appreciation of the potential in us all.

Stephenie Meyer‘s work is often cited by the mainstream media as fueling the paranormal boom in YA literature, and she has indeed been tremendously influential. Without in any way minimizing that, as a core member of the creative community, and having spent years talking to my colleagues about their artistic touchstones, I must stress that Joss Whedon’s role cannot be overstated.

“Many of us are informally his students and among his most enthusiastic fans. Consider the YA books where humor cuts horror, reversals pivot tight, and girls stand tall. Most of the authors who created them are fiercely proud Whedonites.”

Cynthia’s home base on the Web is She lives in Austin, Texas; with with four writer cats and her very cute husband, author Greg Leitich Smith.

Check out her Facebook page and follow her on Twitter @CynLeitichSmith.

Don’t miss Joss Whedon’s Top 10 Writing Tips from Once Upon a Sketch, with thanks to Sean Petrie.

Book Trailer: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth (Balzer + Bray, 2012). From the promotional copy: 

When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well
enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship–one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. 

But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the
cost of denying her true self–even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.

New Voice & Giveaway: Melissa Guion on Baby Penguins Everywhere!

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melissa Guion is the first-time author-illustrator of Baby Penguins Everywhere! (Philomel, 2012)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Can there be such a thing as too many adorable penguins?

One day a penguin sees a most unusual sight: a hat floating in the icy water. Even more unusual? Out of the hat pops a baby penguin. But not just one baby penguin . . . or even two. But a third, and a fourth, and on and on!

At first the mama penguin is happy for the company. Until she realizes that taking care of a family is very hard, very tiring work, and what she could really use is just a moment alone. Yet as newcomer Melissa Guion reminds us in her adorable debut picture book, alone time is all well and good, but, it’s together time that’s best of all.

Perfect for any mama penguin with a family, or classroom, full of mischievous little ones.

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

Cynthia, I landed my first illustration gig in the 80’s:

My mom gave me limited phone privileges, so I don’t know if it was ringing with offers after that.

Seriously, I’ve always written and drawn, but I only decided I wanted to
make children’s books about eight years ago. The first thing I did was
register for the New York SCBWI conference

It was incredibly inspiring and demystifying. David Macaulay presented a slide show highlighting all the mistakes he made on his first book, Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction (Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

I left full of ideas and optimism. I figured, with a little luck, I could be working on a book very soon! The following day I sat down to draw. I drew for about half an hour, and then remembered I had to figure out what happened to the bathroom fixtures I’d ordered. I got an email that the rare funk record I’d listed on eBay had sold to someone in Brazil. Then I had a baby. A year passed.

It was not until late 2006 that I gave myself a real kick in the pants. I remember talking to my friend, the musician Jonathan Coulton, about a project he’d just finished called “Thing A Week.” He wrote a song a week, for a year, and posted all the songs on his website. He eventually made them into a set of albums. It had obviously been a great project for him.

I decided I would do the same thing with illustrations, in hopes of making some kind of progress. When I think back, I can’t believe how arbitrary the decision felt, because it ended up being one of the most important choices I’ve ever made.

In January 2007, I launched a blog called 52 Pictures, and committed to posting a new image there every Friday. The pictures themselves were important but so was everything around them. In addition to experimenting with drawing and painting styles, I learned to use Photoshop and HTML. I took part in collaborative projects. I began showing my work locally. I went to another SCBWI conference and displayed a painting in the show there, and SCBWI President Steve Mooser bought it.

The following year, I applied for and was awarded my first artist’s grant. These were major confidence builders. I used the grant toward renting my first studio, which didn’t pay for itself but gave me real space to work.

At that point I’d been talking for several years to a Writers House agent named Steven Malk. Steve saw my artwork in 2006 through a mutual friend. He really encouraged me to pursue writing and illustrating kids books. He would check in with me periodically, and his persistent confidence in me, right from the start, was very meaningful. I frankly didn’t know where it was coming from but I figured he had good reason for it.

In 2009, Steve and I decided to send around a little postcard announcing that he’d be representing me. I made very simple sequential drawings for the front and back. Steve’s response to the artwork was positive, though not effusive. A designer friend who helped me get the artwork ready for the printer was pretty unenthusiastic. I got very nervous for about 24 hours, wondering if I was about to make my professional debut with something people would ignore, or hate.

I sat in my studio that I couldn’t afford, and looked at the postcard for a long time. I concluded that I really liked it. We went with it and it was a big success. I got my editor and my first book contract directly from that card. To me, it represents the moment when I finally hopped out of the nest.

As an author-illustrator, you come to children’s books with a double barrel of talent. Could you describe your apprenticeship in each area, and how well (or not) your inner writer and artist play together? What advice do you have for others interested in succeeding on this front?

I like working with both words and pictures, but my apprenticeship as a writer has been longer and more complete. You might not guess that from my first book, with its grand total of 115 words, most of which are “the” and “penguin.” I wrote a lot when I was young. I liked it, I had a knack for it, and I was encouraged. I became an English major at Yale, which was initially frustrating for my scientist parents, but it was really what I loved, and they were ultimately very supportive.

After college I took a very business-y job, for financial reasons, but I always wrote for myself. Then a weird thing happened. In my early thirties I got really disgusted with my writing voice and stopped writing completely. I had no idea how long it would last and I didn’t care. If I bothered to pick up a pen, I would draw, often in an abstract way.

After about six months of that, I found myself starting to draw letters and words, drawing them as if they were line art, not thinking much about what I meant by them. I thought about how they looked. Sometimes a drawing would turn into words, or words would trail off into a drawing, and that’s basically how I got back to writing. My inner artist really bailed my inner writer out of a jam.

My apprenticeship as an illustrator was very different. I studied art a bit, at different times, and I wasn’t bad, but there were always people who could draw and paint circles around me.

When I decided to illustrate books as well as write them I signed up for studio art classes in anatomical drawing and figurative painting, and they made me totally insane. My goal was to make books, not to become Leonardo da Vinci. I stopped after a few classes (and yes, of course, they were helpful in the end). I focus on having an expressive line and I keep things simple. I love the looseness of watercolor, so I use that. I leave detailed rendering and sophisticated color palettes to the illustrators who are wonderful at those things.

I don’t have a lot of special advice for illustrators who want to become writers. Wait, there’s one thing: don’t read the chapter in Becoming A Writer (Tarcher, 1934) where Dorothea Brande insists you write every day at the same time, and says if you fail to write on schedule you should give up. If you’ve worked hard enough to become an illustrator, you’ve earned a free pass.) If you’re a writer who wants to illustrate, I say find out what you do well and develop it. If you’re not sure what that is, share your artwork with an artist friend and let them tell you what seems strong. Try not to be self-conscious. My drawing table is in my apartment and I used to keep it totally off limits. Now I let people in, casually or during open studio events. I share work in progress; I let people watch me draw. It’s not for me to say when a person is ready to bare their mess, but it’s true that once you do, things really start to move.

If you want to make picture books and haven’t been to an SCBWI conference, go.

Two great teachers whose classes did not make me crazy were Roger Winter and Sergio Ruzzier.

Hear Jonathan Coulton’s “Thing A Week” songs here.

See my 52 Pictures artwork in my 2007 blog archive, starting here.

Melissa saves her pencils after their too small to draw with — she has quite a collection.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of Baby Penguins Everywhere! by Melissa Guion (Philomel, 2012). Eligibility: U.S. Publisher sponsored.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Book Trailer: Because Amelia Smiled by David Ezra Stein

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Because Amelia Smiled by David Ezra Stein (Candlewick, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Because Amelia smiles as she skips down the street, her neighbor Mrs. Higgins smiles too, and decides to send a care package of cookies to her grandson Lionel in Mexico. 

The cookies give Lionel an idea, and his idea inspires a student, who in turn inspires a ballet troupe in England!

And so the good feelings that started with Amelia’s smile make their way around the world, from a goodwill recital in Israel, to an impromptu rumba concert in Paris, to a long-awaited marriage proposal in Italy, to a knitted scarf for a beloved niece back in New York.

Putting a unique spin on “what goes around comes around,” David Ezra Stein’s charmingly illustrated story reminds us that adding even a small dose of kindness into the world is sure to spur more and more kindness, which could eventually make its way back to you!

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

C.K. Kelly Martin on Reconnecting with Your Lost Love of Writing from Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing. Peek: “…no matter how much we love to write, rejection can take a heavy toll, riddling us with doubt and draining our creative energy.”

Just Begin It by Brian Yansky by Brian’s Blog: Diary of a Writer. Peek: “You have to start a manuscript to finish one.”

Post NaNo Revisions: The Agents’ Perspective by Kristin Halbrook from YA Highway. Peek: “Here to give you more insight, encouragement and advice as you dive into
the next phase of crafting your fabulous new novel are six fantastic
agents, each well-versed in the after-effects of Nano.”

Taking on Procrastination by Gail Gauthier from Original Content. Peek: “Real procrastination, the hardcore stuff, involves individuals choosing to do something that will, essentially, harm them, meaning not doing the work toward a goal that would benefit them.” See also the Dynamics of Change by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid.

The Caldecott Medal Infographic from School Library Journal.

Visual Editing: Color Coding Your Way to a Clearer Manuscript by Danyelle Leafty from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “Going through your manuscript and color coding it can be time intensive, but has proven, for me, to be one of the most thorough ways of pushing small cracks and flaws out into the surface and highlighting the bigger problems with neon lights.”

Picture Book Biographies with First-Person Point of View from Donna Bowman Bratton. Peek: “…welcome to the world of picture books where good storytelling often trumps general rules of nonfiction literature. These are all well researched, compelling, lovely books worth paying attention to.”

A Few Handy (Writing) Rules of Thumb and Why You Might Not Use Them by Mette Ivie Harrison. Peek: “Make sure that there is some conflict in the first chapter, even if it isn’t the major conflict of the book.”

Author Insights: Reading Turn-ons and Turn-offs from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: “What always compels you to pick up a book? Do you have a reading turn-off that guarantees you’ll put one down?”

So You Have 50,000 Words, Now What? by Lee Bross from YA Highway. Peek: “You’re not going to climb Everest in your underwear with no supplies to speak of, so why would you send out a jumble of words to an agent or an editor without making sure they are the best they can be?” See also My Three-Point Revision Checklist from Anna Staniszewski.

Guest Editor Stacy Innerst: The Risk of Illustration Notes in Picture Book Manuscripts from Peek: “I prefer to have the opportunity to have an unencumbered first impression of the story, no matter how spare the text might be.”

Hunger Mountain – Science Fiction/Fantasy Issue: featuring articles by Nikki Loftin, K.A. Holt, Greg Leitich Smith, and Meredith Davis. Peek: “Our goal for this issue is to bring some of that literary science fiction and fantasy to our readers.”

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the trailer for Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words by Leda Schubert,
illustrated by Gerard DuBois (Roaring Brook, 2012).

Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of Rootless T-shirt and a signed, personalized copy of Rootless by Chris Howard (Scholastic, 2012), and bookmarks was Heather in Ontario.

See also New YA Lit in Stores & Two-book Giveaway from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing.

This Week at Cynsations

A Dino a Day: A Chronal Engine Celebration

Amy’s Ice Creams

Greg Leitich Smith continues his celebration of the holiday season by modeling his 2012 release, Chronal Engine (Clarion) and his wardrobe of dinosaur T-shirts at Austin landmarks.

Remember? Every day a different rockin’ dinosaur T-shirt at a different super-fantastic Austin locale.

Please brighten his week (and mine, too) by clicking through, leaving a comment, and/or passing on the link(s). Please also feel free to compliment the photographer (cough) — ha!

More Personally

New hair cut — long layers
With my stylist Barbara Morin at Sirens Salon in Austin
Research for the novel on deadline!

Introductory Chapter Books to Match Diverse Young Readers (including Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2002)) from The New York Times. See also Young Latino Students Don’t See Themselves in Books by Motoko Rich from The New York Times.

Mission Dancers Awe Frenchtown Students
by Daniel Martynowicz from Valley Journal. Peek: “So what do Native
American dancers and more than 100 Frenchtown second-graders have in
common? Jingle Dancer, a children’s book by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ying-Hwa Hu, and Cornelius Van Wright.”

The first review of Feral Nights (Candlewick, 2013) is in! Kirkus Reviews cheers, “…dialogue that sparkles with wit, filled with both literary and pop-culture references. (‘You’re saying that you and my sister perform exorcisms on vomiting children with rotating heads?’)…playful, smart tone.”

Congratulations to Varsha Bajaj! From Publishers Marketplace: “Varsha Bajaj‘s debut novel Passage to Bollywoood, in which an American thirteen year old discovers the father she never knew is a famous Bollywood movie star yet when she travels to India to meet him she must hide her identity from the press for one slip-up could jeopardize his career and their new-found relationship in this Princess Diaries meets Flipped Bollywood-Style, to Kelly Barrales-Saylor at Albert Whitman, by Jill Corcoran at The Herman Agency.”

Happy 90th birthday to children’s author Barbara Brooks Wallace!

Personal Links

Cynsational Events 

Advanced Writing Workshops — Simon & Schuster Editor Alexandra
Penfolds, Deconstructing Children’s Literature Characters
Jan. 18 to Jan. 20 at The Writing Barn in Austin. Application deadline: Dec. 1.

Austin SCBWI Regional Conference Early-Bird Registration Deadline: Dec. 19. After that, the price goes up $25.

2013 Novel Writing Retreat for Middle Grade and Young Adult Writers will be March 15 to March 17 at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Study with Cynthia Leitich Smith, Lauren Myracle and Candlewick editor Andrea Tompa.

Extended Three-Session Intensive Workshop: Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson will be running a three-part revision intensive in Westport, Connecticut, over three Saturdays in
January, February, and March. Peek: “Bring your picture book, nonfiction, or novel manuscript and get multiple rounds of feedback as well as revision techniques.”

Sneak Peek at New Year’s Workshops from the Highlights Foundation. Peek: “‘Whole Novel Workshop: Young Adult’ with Cynthia Leitich Smith, Greg Leitich Smith, Nancy Werlin. Founded in 2006, the Whole Novel Workshop is specifically designed for writers of young-adult novels. This unique program offers the one-on-one attention found in degree programs, but without additional academic requirements, lengthy time commitments, or prohibitive financial investments. Our aim is to focus on a specific work in progress, moving a
novel to the next level in preparation for submission to agents or publishers. Focused attention in an intimate setting makes this mentorship program one that guarantees significant progress.”

New Voice: Hillary Hall De Baun on Starring Arabelle

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Hillary Hall De Baun is the first-time author of Starring Arabelle (Eerdmans, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Impulsive, romantic Arabelle Archer is determined to make the most of her freshman year. She’ll audition for the school play and soon be on her way to the stardom she knows is her destiny.

Arabelle’s year gets off to a unexpectedly rocky start, however, when all the roles in the play go to upperclassmen and she has to settle for prompting. 

And to make matters worse, her guidance counselor insists that she fulfill her community service requirement by volunteering at the Heavenly Rest Nursing Home — the last place she wants to be.

But when a crisis puts the school play at risk, Arabelle realizes the true value of the friendships she’s made at Heavenly Rest, and discovers that making a lasting impression isn’t always about being a star.

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft? What happened, and how did it help you?

Several years ago, when I had struggled through endless drafts of Starring Arabelle and was not happy, I took myself to a week-long whole-novel workshop offered by the Highlights Foundation. Phyllis Root and Jane Resh Thomas, both well-published authors, led the small group.

One of the first comments from Phyllis Root after she read my manuscript was, “Why are you solving Arabelle’s problems so quickly? Where’s the thread of tension that makes readers want to turn the pages to the very end?”

Wow, was she ever spot on! I had become a helicopter parent to my heroine. Instead of letting Arabelle’s problems in the school play get worse and worse until all hope of achieving her dream to be a great actress seemed doomed, I had fixed the problems, one by one, with great dispatch. I did the same thing at the nursing home, where Arabelle volunteered. Her failures there quickly turned to triumphs. Needless to say, my story arcs were small and episodic. No wonder I was unhappy!

Another “ah-ha!” moment at this same workshop happened when I realized that as a comedic writer, I was downplaying serious issues and Arabelle’s heart’s desire—what Jane Resh Thomas calls “the thing your heroine is dying for want of.” By concentrating on the humor part of the story, I had given short shrift to Arabelle’s deepest longings and fears and forgotten that humor is just another side of tragedy.

Alas, the fixing wasn’t over. Not by a long shot. The draft I took to the workshop was in first person, present tense. To apply the “ah-ha!s” I was encouraged to shift to third person, past tense.

Not only was I dubious, I was horrified. A huge revision loomed. But after rewriting several chapters (believe me, many things change when you shift from first person to third—many!) I was convinced that this was the best voice and tense to tell my story, which ultimately made for a still humorous but far deeper, more satisfying novel.

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

It’s a funny thing about writing a funny story; it can become “unfunny” very quickly. In my first attempt to write a comedy piece, I used caricature and over-the top humor to carry the load. Improbable situations abounded. But no one except me was amused.

So what road map do you follow to create a funny, memorable stand-alone novel or a series that isn’t hyperbole?

  • Put Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn at the top of your reading list.
    Avoid cream pie projectiles, pants falling down, and exploding cigars. Those stopped being funny years ago.
  • Create a character that readers can identify with. This doesn’t mean the character has to be like you but that you care about him and understand his travails, though they may be outside your experience. Tom and Huck, again.
  • Find your inner funny bone. Even serious subjects can have a humorous edge.
  • Voice is key to humor. In large part, this is finding your own voice.
  • Show your character’s humor through dialogue.
  • Find a good match between your hero and the plot your novel turns on.

In writing Starring Arabelle, I did not have a funny book in mind. That happened along the way as I discovered Arabelle’s voice: dramatic, impulsive, romantic, and determined in a ninth-grade way.

Why ninth grade? Quite simply, Arabelle’s was a ninth-grade voice. That was the beginning.

What would she say and how would she say it was a recurring question. In the end, Arabelle was the prime mover of the book’s humor.

Hillary as Angelique in “The Imaginary Invalid”

The nursing home plot came out of the blue. Was it because I had
visited several nursing homes and been entertained by some of the
comical goings-on? 

The school play, “You Can’t Take It With You” (Farrar & Rinehart, 1936), came next, but only after I had sifted through a bunch of plays, searching for the perfect one. The eccentricities of the cast of characters in “You Can’t Take It With You” had to match the antics of the nursing home residents. 

The mishaps and disasters of rehearsals and opening night I borrowed from my own acting experience in amateur theater.

Then came narrative scenes, in no particular order.

The linear events of the story came much later and led eventually to all the pieces fitting together snugly.

But throughout the lengthy writing process, Arabelle’s voice was the glue that held this comedy of errors together.

Career Builder & Giveaway: Linda Joy Singleton

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Linda Joy Singleton on Linda Joy Singleton: “As a kid, I was always writing. During a two-week school vacation, when I was 14, I challenged myself to write a chapter a day, completing a 200 page manuscript. I kept many of my stories and show them to kids I speak to at school.

“After high school, life detoured me away from writing, until one day I heard a radio announcement about a college writing workshop which led to my joining a writing group in Sacramento.

“Two years later, I sold my first book, Almost Twins, to a small publisher.

“I was thrilled when my dream of being a series author came true when Avon published my first two series: My Sister the Ghost and Cheer Squad. More series followed: Regeneration (Berkley 2000), Strange Encounters (Llewellyn 2004), The Seer (Flux 2004), Dead Girl trilogy (Flux 2008), and my latest book Buried: A Goth Girl Mystery by Linda Joy Singleton (Flux 2012).”

What lessons have you learned from your years as a professional writer?

Linda Joy researches Sword Play
  • Writers never stop learning. “Research” is another word for embracing new adventures.
  • Another writer will understand you better than your most supportive friends/family. Who else can understand that joy in a “good” rejection?
  • Take notes. Once I asked a very wise friend why she was handwriting notes at a conference that was being taped. She said it wasn’t because she needed the notes, but that the act of writing words on paper helps focus the connection between listening and learning. Writing down information creates a learning path from ears, eyes, heart to hand. Grasping information in a way you can remember later.
  • Read books better than you think you can write. Then you’ll learn to write better.
  • Craft in writing is a concept wrapped in layers of details, rhythm, awareness and study; a fine wine of words that ripens with experience.
  • When rejection flames into anger, never reply to an editor or agent unprofessionally. Wait until the heat of hurt simmers down. Vent to a trusted friend or write down your feelings then destroy the paper. Anger never heals; it’s only another rip in a heart.
  • Always say thank you. Gratitude, like a smile, is a gift that keeps on giving. There are no rules. Rules are the figment of someone else’s imagination. But there is value in advice, learning and practice. Learn from the wisdom and experiences of others; live by the wisdom and experiences you’ll gain along your own journey.
  • There are always exceptions. Like the writer who self-publishes a book that editors assured her no one wants to read—then the book goes on to be a bestseller. Or the writer who gets an agent with his first book who enthusiastically predicts a bestseller, and instead receives poor sales or rejection. Throw the dice and roll with your own career, listening and learning and working hard.
  • Writing is not an easy job–it’s satisfying, grueling, fun, amazing, heart-breaking, heart-warming, the worst job ever and the best job ever.
  • Enjoy your writing journey. 

What advice do you have for authors experiencing a career stall?

Linda Joy, age 7, with Sandy
  • Keep on writing.
  • Be willing to put a manuscripts aside when you love it but the market doesn’t. (I have retired about seven manuscripts.)
  • Listen to advice from your writing friends. Doing this has led to new opportunities for me.
  • When rejections hurt, vent in private to your friends, never post it publicly.
  • Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. I’ve been doing a lot of that this year, and my books have improved.
  • Be flexible and ready to shift your focus and reinvent yourself when an opportunity arises.
    Change is scary, but often it’s just one door closing so you open a door leading to new exciting places.
  • Be grateful for friends, books you love, and for each “Yay!” moment of your career.
  • Pay good fortune forward with critiques, encouragement, mentoring or the gift of a book.

Cynsational Notes

Linda Joy Singleton looks forward to the release of Snow Dog/Sand Dog (Albert Whitman).

Find her on facebook and twitter and see her official author site for a link to a free short story.

Attention, teachers & librarians! Linda Joy Singleton will send you free bookmarks if you email her at with “Bookmark Request”
in the subject line. She’ll also offer a free Skype visit to the first teacher
(elementary to high school) who emails me.

Enter to win a one-page synopsis consult, plus a copy of Linda Joy Singleton‘s synopsis template (usually only available at conferences).

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Enter to win a copy of Buried: A Goth Girl Mystery by Linda Joy Singleton (Flux). Author sponsored. U.S. only.

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Book Trailer: The Templeton Twins Have an Idea

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for The Templeton Twins Have an Idea by Ellis Weiner, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes (Chronicle, 2012). From the promotional copy:

The Templeton Twins Have an Idea is a hilarious middle-grade novel about
12-year-old John and Abigail, their inventor father, a ridiculous dog,
and the sarcastic Narrator who tells their story. 

In this first book in
the series, The Templeton Twins have to escape the dastardly Dean twins,
who have kidnapped them in order to steal their father’s inventions!

Career Builder & Giveaway: Caroline B. Cooney

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What memories of your debut author experience stand out?

In my twenties, I wrote eight full-length adult historical novels set in ancient Rome, none of which were ever published. You’d think I would have noticed prior to writing eight of them that nobody wanted them.

I started writing short stories instead; one was accepted in Seventeen Magazine, and out of that, eventually, came the invitation from a YA editor to write teen paperback romances.

I had found my voice. I loved writing for teens. As to the unsuccessful books,I learned so much writing them. I learned not to give up and I learned to tell a good story fast.

If you could offer advice to the new voice you once were, what would you say?

If you want to write, don’t follow my footsteps! That’s a lot of failure. The best thing for a new writer is practice. Practice writing the way you’d practice the piano or basketball.

Fifteen minutes a day is fine. You don’t have to finish anything. You’re trying to become fluid at this difficult skill.

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

I did not ever consider giving up. For reasons I can’t identify, the rejections toughened me rather than weakened me. It became a battle: me versus publishing. Now publishing is my ally.

Although the years of failure were hard, my path since then has been a delightful upward route. There haven’t been valleys and there haven’t been rapids. I was blessed with brilliant editors and good publishers. YA readers embrace every kind of book – mystery, romance, suspense, time travel, family saga, historical fiction – and my editors have allowed me to try all those.

What can your readers expect next?

I’m working on my third historical novel – out of 91 books!

I’ve put a full year into research and travel so that I can tell the story of the English children who will eventually sail on the Mayflower.

I am riveted by their lives – such drama and tragedy. It’s a privilege to write about their courage and determination. I am so excited that my readers will soon see who these amazing children are.

I’m not sure what I’ll write then. Will I return to suspense novels? Experiment with something entirely different? A different age reader or a different kind of story?

There’s still so much out there. And it’s exciting suddenly to be in a new publishing age: digital books and e-short stories.

Cynsational Screening Room

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of Janie Face to Face by Caroline B. Cooney (Delacorte/Random House). Publisher sponsored. U.S. only.

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