New Voice: Liesl Shurtliff on Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Liesl Shurtliff is the first-time author of Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin (Knopf, 2013). From the promotional copy:

In a magical kingdom where your name is your destiny, 12-year-old Rump is the butt of everyone’s joke.

Rump has never known his full name—his mother died before she could tell him. So all his life he’s been teased and bullied for his half-a-name. But when he finds an old spinning wheel, his luck seems to change. For Rump discovers he can spin straw into gold. Magical gold.

His best friend Red Riding Hood warns him that magic is dangerous—and she’s right! That gold is worth its weight in trouble. And with each thread he spins, Rump weaves himself deeper into a curse.

There’s only one way to break the spell: Rump must go on a quest to find his true name, along the way defending himself against pixies, trolls, poison apples, and one beautiful but vile-mannered queen. The odds are against him, but with courage and friendship—and a cheeky sense of humor—Rump just might triumph in the end.

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?

Pre-Contract Revisions

I loved the concept for my book, but it became apparent early in the process that I could not rely on the inherent interestingness of my concept to carry the story, and that while my writing was lively and my characters fun, I had some real work do to when it came to plot, especially the ending.

This was slapped into my brain when I attended a local conference and had an editor critique the first ten pages of an early draft of my novel. She was very complimentary. Loved the idea, the writing, but then asked where I intended to take the story and how I was going to resolve it all. Admittedly, I was still working through some of those things, but I had to tell her something. Unfortunately what I told her was just a notch above lame. She sort of sucked in her breath and said, “Hmm. Be careful with that. I’m not saying it can’t work, but it has the potential to be disappointing to your reader.”

After that fateful meeting with the editor, I spent a weekend totally depressed and drowned myself in chocolate. After I gained five pounds and cried chocolate tears, I picked myself up and decided that I wanted to do this right and to do that, I had to do the dirty work.

I brainstormed like crazy over my plot, agonizing over character motivations, and small details. I used my husband as a sounding board. I rewrote 50% of what I had and within just a few months of that editor’s critique, I had a much stronger novel. I landed an agent in a month and got a contract just two months after that. Sometimes we have to get beaten down to get strong, I guess.


My editor said from the beginning that she felt my book was strong, so we didn’t make any huge excavations of my story, but I’ve learned that the small, gritty details are sometimes the most difficult parts of revision. Because you’re so close to the manuscript, it’s hard to see how changing small things might affect the big picture. And small thing can change the big picture. Little cogs can power big things.

I also worried about being a “Yes” Girl, and letting my story get away from me. I’ve always been open to suggestions and criticism, but I’ve also never had a problem disregarding advice that simply did not resonate with me.

Somehow it felt different working with an editor. I really wanted to please her, so everything she said seemed to come with a little extra weight. Still, I agonizing over little things my editor asked me to cut or tone down. I worried that I might be watering down the voice, oversimplifying the story, or even sacrificing creative expression for the sake of pleasing librarians and parents, which at the time felt like a betrayal of my creative integrity and my intended audience.

In the end, I found my editor to be right on just about everything. Still, I think it’s right to agonize over these things. I’m glad I did, because now I have complete confidence that the revisions and changes I made in my story were mine. I listened to suggestions and reason, as any writer should, but I never made changes without first reasoning it out in my own mind and deciding that this really would make the story stronger.

Advice for Other Writers

There are a lot of good writers out there. I mean people who can string words together in beautiful ways and write a stunning paragraph, and have lots of awesome ideas that make for a killer opening that probably gets lots of requests from agents and editors, but that doesn’t always translate into an amazing story. This is where revising comes into play, and it’s just as much of a skill as the writing itself. You have to become a kind of book surgeon. Revision is all about proper diagnosis and treatment. Cut out the bad, develop the good, murder the extraneous darlings.

The best writers I know are great revisers, and this takes practice. So practice.

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 have always adored fantasy, as a child and an adult. I think the idea of different worlds is what first attracted me to the genre, and of course the magic. I remember reading C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and I kept wishing Narnia would appear in my closet.

I still get a little nostalgic as an adult, and when my nine-year-old daughter admitted that she wished she would get a letter from Hogwarts, I had to admit that I would really like one, too. I really would.

But at the end of the day, I think what I really love about fantasy is the connections between the fantasy and the real world. It isn’t really the strange and different things that make fantasy so wonderful. It’s the way those strange and different things are similar to the ordinary. They give a lens for us to view our everyday lives in a different way, and hopefully come away transformed.

Here’s something I don’t tell people very often: I stayed away from fantasy as a writer because I didn’t think I was creative enough. It’s easy to read other fantasy novels and get intimidated by the brilliance of the world, the unique concepts, the intricate magic systems, etc. I thought it would be much easier to write realistic fiction (that is not true, by the way) but my imagination always gravitated toward fantasy.

Eventually I got over my inferiority complex enough to give it a go. I’m so glad I did!

For Rump, I think I have been most inspired and influenced by Gail Carson Levine, particularly Ella Enchanted, and Roald Dahl. Matilda was always my favorite, though James and the Giant Peach is a close second.

Event Report: Texas Library Association

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Thanks to Candlewick Press, TLA’s YART librarians, Mackin, the Book Festivals of Texas booth, my fellow authors, the other exhibitors, the other attending children’s-YA librarians (and teens!), and everyone else who pitched in to make this year’s TLA convention in Fort Worth such a success!

Spirit of Texas YA author panel with librarian Natasha Benway, Rosemary Clement-Moore, Gail Giles, Jennifer Ziegler & C.C. Hunter
With fellow SPOT author C.C.
Austin public librarians Michelle Beebower & Nichole Chagnon
Candlewick “family” dinner with Deborah Noyes, Sharon Hancock, Tanya Lee Stone, Hilary Van Dusen, Jon Klassen, Jenny Choy & Greg Leitich Smith at Ellerbe Fine Foods in Fort Worth
The next day, I signed in the author area and at the Mackin booth
Greg, E. Kristin Anderson & Rachel Caine signing at the Book Festivals of Texas booth
With librarians Natasha Benway & Tabatha Perry in the Book Festivals of Texas booth
Greg’s Chronal Engine editor Daniel Nayeri (also a YA author & HMH publishing pro)
Greg with librarian Naomi Bates
Kathi Appelt signing ARCs of The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
Jane Yolen
Kelly Bennett shows of Vampire Baby at the Candlewick booth
Highlights of the convention included meeting Jon Klassen — very personable, nice guy!
Chris Rylander
With Victoria Scott, modeling The Collector
Mari Mancusi models Scorched
Rosemary & Greg model Spirit and Dust
Tim Tingle has his own booth
With Mary E. Pearson in the green room before the Texas Tea
My table with Deb & Round Rock librarians at the Texas Tea (authors rotated from one table to the next)
With Jenni Holm at the Omni
Okay, I’m not a librarian, but I couldn’t resist!

Cynsational Notes

See also TLA Convention Photo Reports from P.J. Hoover and Greg Leitich Smith.

Cynsational News, Giveaways & Events

Discover Victoria’s oddest recap.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Author Insight: Peculiar Recaps from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: “What is the weirdest way someone (possibly you) has recapped your book?”

Spring Cleaning Your Manuscript by P.J. Hoover from Roots in Myth. Peek: “As with a title change, sometimes characters need a fresh, new start. When you started your story, you probably named your characters for really deep meanings. Do these meanings still matter?”

Two Strategic Reasons to Keep Blogging & When to Kill a Blog by Dan Blank from Jane Friedman. Peek: “While social media delivers a potentially more immediate reaction from others, I am still a big believer in blogging. There are many reasons for this, but let’s just focus on two specific reasons. Then we’ll discuss how to deal with blogging exhaustion—or when to kill a blog entirely.”

It’s Okay to Slow Down by Lee Bross from YA Highway. Peek: “I was one of those people who had to be working on something, anything, every minute of the day. After five straight years of this, I was a mess.”

Writers, How Healthy Are Your Boundaries? by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “You believe what you’ve been told—that you’re not smart enough or creative enough. As a result, rejection from editors or negative critiques from a writing partner can set you back for a week.”

Attention Teachers! Debbie’s Doodle Outreach from Debbie Ridpath Ohi. Peek: “If your class sends me a snail mail about I’m Bored, I will write back with doodles.”

Know Your Best Alternative by Jane Lebak from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “You’re querying a manuscript and an Agent, Annie Awesome, calls to offer representation. You hit it off on the phone, and she sends you her agency contract. But in that contract, you find something you don’t feel comfortable with. What do you do?”

Danger! Dialogue Ahead by Marc Tyler Nobleman from The Horn Book. Peek: “When writing nonfiction, including dialogue can be a dangerous proposition.”

1968 Newbery Award Acceptance Speech by Elaine L. Konigsburg from The Horn Book. Peek: ” have this foolish faith in words. Because I want to show it happening. Because for some atavistic, artistic, inexplicable reason, I believe that the writing of it makes normal of it.” See also Roger Sutton on Remembering Elaine Konigsburg from The Horn Book and E.L. Konigsburg, Author, Is Dead at 83 from The New York Times.

Cynsational Screening Room

Book Trailer Interview with Meredith Zeitlin by Rachel Wilson from Quirk and Quill. Peek: “We definitely didn’t want to do something linear, like a movie trailer, or anything where you’d see a ‘Kelsey’ – one of the reasons I don’t really describe her, or any of the characters in the book, physically is because I want readers to picture her any way they want. So that’s why only her hands are visible in the trailer.”

Check out the book trailer for Octopus Alone by Divya Srinivasan (Viking, 2013) and plan to celebrate the release in Austin, Texas; Naperville, Illinois; Brooklyn, New York; Washington, D.C.; Corte Madero, California; or Los Angeles.


Cynsational Giveaways

This Week at Cynsations

Celebrating Bridget Zinn’s Poison

Austin writers & readers gathered Friday night to celebrate Poison by Bridget Zinn (Hyperion, 2013) at BookPeople. Several local authors signed and a few read from the book.

Modeling Poison
Signing with Lindsey Lane, P.J. Hoover, Susie Kralovansky & Nikki Loftin
Nikki & Cory Putnam Oakes
Liz Garton Scanlon, Greg Leitich Smith, Cynthia Levinson
Feral Nights & Poison
See also E.M. Kokie on Bridget Zinn & Poison

BookPeople has leftover signed stock from this event! Please either swing by the store to pick up your copy or buy it online.

More Personally

New graphic novel at TLA!

Cynsations readers will note that this week’s roundup is posted earlier than usual due to my participation in this week’s Texas Library Association conference (photos to come!).

I had a great time yesterday participating in YART’s YA Spirit of Texas panel. I’ll be signing Feral Nights, Eternal: Zachary’s Story and more in the author area at 1 p.m. and the Mackin booth (2125) at 2 p.m. today (Thursday) and will appear at the Texas Tea on Friday.

(By the way, Greg Leitich Smith will be signing Chronal Engine (Clarion) and doing a giveaway of Tofu and T. Rex (Little, Brown) at the Book Festivals of Texas (2145) booth at 3 p.m. today (Thursday)).

If you’re at TLA, come find me, say “howdy,” and check out my latest books at the Candlewick Press booth! Next week I’ll be back to the regular blogging schedule.

What else? Last weekend, I popped by a reception in honor of Sara Zarr, who was teaching a workshop on Emotional Pacing, at The Writing Barn in Austin.

Sara with Joy Preble
Sara Kocek & Katie Bayerl
Salima Alikhan
Sara & Bethany Hegedus welcome participants and guests
Writers introduce themselves & talk about their work.
With Varsha Bajaj

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

By Tom Shefelman from I, Vivali 

Authors/Speakers at TLA 2013 from April 24 to April 27 in Fort Worth from the Texas Library Association. Look for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s signings on Thursday and the Spirit of Texas High School author panel on Wednesday. Check out my latest books at the Candlewick Press booth. See also the Itsy Bitsy Gallery to “take a chance on art at the TLA 2013 raffle” to benefit the Texas Library Disaster Relief Fund. Note: featuring an original illustration by Tom Shefelman from I, Vivali by Janice Shefelman (Eerdman’s).

YA lit readers! Join Cynthia Leitich Smith at 6:30 p.m. May 25 at Round Rock Public Library.

Join Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith at 11 a.m. June 11 at Lampasas (TX) Public Library.

Join authors Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, Nancy Werlin and ICM Partners literary agent Tina Wexler at a Whole Novel Workshop from Aug. 4 to Aug. 10, sponsored by the Highlights Foundation. Peek: “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.” Special guests: Curtis Brown agent Sarah LaPolla, authors Bethany Hegedus and Amy Rose Capetta.

Find out what’s new with the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels!

New Voice: Claire M. Caterer on The Key & The Flame

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Claire M. Caterer

is the first-time author of The Key & The Flame (Margaret K. McElderry/Simon & Schuster, 2013)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

“A wand such as yours can only belong to an Adept—one of great magical power.”

Eleven-year-old Holly Shepard is hardly one of great magical power. She’s just an ordinary girl living in an even more ordinary American suburb. Her brother Ben excels in the advanced-math class while Holly pulls a C for daydreaming and doodling on her test papers. But her greatest wish—to escape her humdrum existence and experience true adventure—has just been waiting for the right moment to come true.

When the family travels to England for the summer, Holly finds more adventure than even she bargained for—an ancient iron key that unlocks visions, portals, and even the magic long slumbering in Holly herself. With Ben and his friend Everett, Holly travels to Anglielle, a medieval kingdom where magic is outlawed and those with magical powers are hunted by a ruthless king. Holly soon discovers that her magic is the most sought-after of all.

Packed with magic and adventure, The Key & The Flame is only the beginning of a five-part series that chronicles how Holly, Ben, and Everett strive to restore magic to Anglielle and defeat the evil forces that hold the kingdom in its grip.

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?

Before I ever thought about getting an agent, I followed my standard five-step writing/revision strategy:

Research books

Draft 1: No Holds Barred. 

I like to write a first draft straight through, no revisions.

This works best if I write every day, but The Key & the Flame was interrupted by research, plotting out the rest of the series, world building, and oh yes, occasionally paying work. So the first draft was even messier than usual, and I did do some revising as I went along.

Draft 2: The Hacksaw Method.

Typically, I write scared. I get so nervous that I stretch out a scene to avoid moving on to the next one. That first draft of The Key & The Flame ran 138,000 words, or around 670 book pages! I started chopping paragraphs like a butcher.

Draft 3: The Big Picture.

After letting the manuscript rest awhile, I read it all the way through, making notes as I went. This draft dealt with character motivation, inconsistencies, the arc of the plot, etc.

Draft 4: The Little Picture.

After another hiatus, I read the manuscript again with a critical eye to the prose. I looked for clichés, writing tics, weak verbs, and passive voice.

Draft 5: The Final Round.

Another read-through focused on whatever I’ve missed the first four times.

I thought the manuscript was in pretty good shape after all that, but after my first round of submissions got no nibbles, I realized that the book was still too long (127,000 words). So I revised again, cutting another 40,000 words.

On my second round of submissions, score! Chris Richman of Upstart Crow Literary Agency signed me with the caveat that the manuscript needed a few—yes—revisions.

Chris was very clear that he would represent the book no matter what, but he thought it would sell easier with the changes he suggested. He wanted me to go deeper, show more of my main character’s emotions and reactions to what’s happening around her. Extend the timeline. In other words, add to the manuscript.

It was hard to believe that I’d actually cut too much from my book. But if Chris was happy to bring the manuscript up to 95,000 words, then so was I. And apparently the book was stronger for it, because a couple of months after we’d revised it, he sold it to Simon & Schuster.

I’d love to say the revising days were done, that editor Ruta Rimas said, “Ha! Apart from a spell-check, this baby’s ready to roll!”

But I’m so glad she didn’t. Ruta wanted the book to succeed—not just from a commercial point of view but from a fictional, literary point of view. She wanted more details about some characters, and more mystery about others. She wanted to know how magic worked in Anglielle, and what were Holly’s doubts about her role there.

Answering these questions took another six weeks. Then we did another read-through before the manuscript finally went to the copy editor. She looked at consistency, grammar, style, and asked some very good questions.

So…how many drafts?

Mine alone: at least five

Mine with agent: two

Mine with editor & copy editor: three

That’s ten drafts. Ten!

Did all this nitpicking bug me?

Actually, I was okay with it. I’ve been writing for a long time and have been critiqued many times over the years. I’ve developed a thick skin, and that’s essential.

No matter how brilliant you are, your manuscript will be critiqued by someone, usually lots of someones, and many times. No one suggested I drop a favorite character or throw out a plotline. Some suggestions I vetoed.

In the end, the story, the writing, and the voice were still mine. With those things intact, I felt good about the revisions.

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’ve been a fantasy reader as long as I’ve been any kind of reader. I’ve always loved stories about the possible and the impossible. I think these stories resonate with kids because the whole world already seems like an impossibly weird place. All sorts of things are a mystery. How do people drive cars? Why do giraffes have such long necks? What is the moon made of?

The other part of it is that as a kid, I wanted some control. When you’re ten, you make very few of the decisions about your life—where you live, who you live with, what school you go to, which kids you sit by. In fantasy, you can be in charge.

The books I loved often involved ordinary kids who encountered the extraordinary.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (Puffin, 2005/1945).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Road Dahl (Puffin, 2005/1964).

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White (HarperCollins, 2001/1952).

 Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers (Harcourt, 2006/1934).

 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (Penguin, 2000/1865)

But of all of them, the books that resonated the most with me were The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis (HarperCollins, 1950-1956).

I remember when I first discovered them. It was the summer after third grade. My very best friend in the world was getting ready to move across the country (another thing I couldn’t control). The last afternoon we spent together, instead of running around outside, we decided to just stay in and read. She handed me a book from her shelf. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I only managed to read a chapter or two before I had to go home and say goodbye to her forever. But I remembered the book. It took me another year or so to locate a copy, and once I found it, I read it over and over again. And then I moved on to the rest of the series. Lewis had a way of writing for kids as if he were one too, entering Narnia right alongside us.

The most delicious parts of the story were the moments of discovery—pushing open the wardrobe door and feeling the scratch of pine branches on your face; ducking inside Mr. Tumnu’s cottage; tasting the White Witch’s Turkish Delight; and of course, catching that first glimpse of Aslan the lion.

Claire’s desk

In my novel The Key & The Flame, the main character, Holly, is eleven years old. It’s a crucial age. You start to question everything. You don’t want to be hoodwinked. It’s almost—but not quite—too late for magic. That’s why it’s critical for Holly to enter the world of Anglielle now, before she’s lost to adulthood forever.

Claire’s file cabinet

It’s telling that this world of magic and danger is one where the authority figures despise magic and try to stamp it out. Isn’t that what adults always do, try to steer kids towards reality, insisting they grow up and take responsibility?

Everyone wants to rule their own destiny—in effect, to be grown up—but we want it on our own terms. The idea that magic is still a part of the world, something to be preserved, is what fueled my story.

I love fantasy because to me, magic is the heart of childhood. It’s what separates the kids from the grownups. It’s what makes children wiser than adults, the idea that anything can happen, and some things you just have to take on faith.

It’s sad that we lose that feeling. It’s obvious that people yearn for its return, or adults would never read science fiction or The Lord of the Rings.

We are people tied to our myths and our folklore for good reason. These stories of heroes and quests and extraordinary powers are found in every culture and every tradition. It’s what we aspire to be, whether we’re nine years old or ninety.

Cynsational Notes

Check out the teachers’ guide for The Key & The Flame (PDF).

Claire’s dogs

In Memory: E.L. Konigsburg

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was the story that taught me, as a child, that books could so convincingly take you to other places that you felt like you’d been there and that you’d been fundamentally changed by those experiences.

I met Elaine Konigsburg only once. It was at an SCBWI National Conference when she signed my copy of the novel.

I was a beginning children’s writer in my late 20s, and it was the first conference I’d attended. I felt overwhelmed and starstruck. I went mute and teared up when I reached the front of the line. It surprised me, the strength of my reaction, and I felt like an idiot standing in front of someone I so admired and who’d never be such a dork. But she was gracious and answered my babble-fest of a question about why she went with her initials on her byline rather than her full name (so as not to alienate boy readers, she said).

In my newly purchased copy of Mixed-up Files (not the only one I own), she wrote: “Thank you for loving this book so much for so many years.”

I’m the one who’s grateful. I can only imagine how many times she scribbled that sentiment, or one very much like it, for readers who were starstruck, too.

From Publishers Weekly: “Esteemed children’s author E.L. Konigsburg, a two-time winner of the Newbery Medal (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in 1968; The View from Saturday, in 1997) and the only writer to have received both the Newbery Medal and a Newbery Honor in the same year, died on Friday, April 19 at age 83.”

From The Washington Post: “Her son Paul Konigsburg says the longtime Florida resident died Friday at a hospital in Falls Church, Va., where she’d been living for the past few years with another son. She had suffered a stroke a week before she died.”

From The Huffington Post:
“Her first book, Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, was also a Newbery honor book in 1968, making her the only
author to be a winner and runner-up in the same year.” 

From Houghton Mifflin Reading, her writing advice:

Finish. The difference between being a writer and being a person of talent is the discipline it takes to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and finish. Don’t talk about doing it.
Do it. Finish.

From Children’s Literature Network: “Reading A View from Saturday touched my heart. I had grown up with kids like this. The notion of an Academic Bowl was so appealing that I wanted to slip back to my childhood, go to that school, and be on the team. Elaine Lobl Konigsburg told stories about real children, kids that many of us could side with, laugh with, cry with, and not feel alone.”

From NPR: “Konigsburg won two Newbery Medals, and actresses Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall both played Mrs. Frankweiler — Bergman in a film called ‘The Hideaways,’ and Bacall in a TV movie.”

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Martine on My Book of Life By Angel

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The Canadian Library Association/Association canadienne des bibliothèques has announced its winning title for the 2013 CLA Book of the Year for Children Award: The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, by Susin Nielsen (Tundra Books). My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt (Groundwood, House of Anansi Press), is the winner of the 2013 CLA Book of the Year for Young Adults. The 2013 Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator’s Award Winner is You are Stardust, illustrated by Soyeon Kimand and written by Elin Kelsey (Owlkids). Note: see links for honor books and more. Source: Cynsations Canada reporter Lena Coakley.

Drop Everything and Read Month by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: “…begun in honor of Beverly Cleary. Dropping everything to read seems like a call to action that anyone who cares about literacy and kids ought to get behind.” Learn more about Drop Everything and Read Month.

“You Should Do a Book Trailer” by Keith Cronin from Sarah Pinneo at Query Tracker Blog. Peek: “Inspired, she wrote the words and melody in a single day, and I have to say, the song sounded great. And her inspiration was contagious: suddenly I had a rush of ideas for how the video could flow.”

and children’s author share Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence: Lorna Crozier and Sarah Ellis named at BC Book Prizes Soiree
by Mike Hager from Vancouver Sun. Peek: “Each will receive a $5,000 award from B.C. Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon at Victoria’s Government House on May 4, at an event hosted by CBC broadcaster Grant Lawrence.”

Interview with Independent Editor Harold Underdown by Jennifer Swanson from The Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors. Peek: “Amazon seems to be growing in influence. The major trade publishers are discussing a merger. Some small presses are closing while others are opening. Editors who’ve worked for years developing wonderful children’s books are leaving or being downsized.”

Three Ways to Improve Your Author Website Today from Jane Friedman. Peek: “…your homepage may represent only 25-30% of new visits. The long tail of visits may be spread over dozens or hundreds of pages, especially if you have a blog.” 

More on The Nightmare Affair

Skip the Boring by Mindee Arnett from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing. Peek: “If the scene doesn’t aid in the development of two or more aspects of the story (e.g. character development, main plot development, subplot, development, etc.) then something is wrong.”

2013 E.B. White Read-Aloud Awards from Waking Brain Cells. Note: from independent booksellers.

Author Insight: Personal-Professional Separation from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: “Do you feel a need to divorce your personal life from your writing career on social media, etc. or are they too difficult to separate?”

Cobbling Together an Income from Marion Dane Bauer. Peek: “Deciding to write a long novel when I can sell shorter, younger work is hardly practical. It may not even be wise. Longer means, inevitably, more time committed, and more time committed doesn’t mean more income when the book is published.”

Six Reasons to Attend a National Conference by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “This past weekend, I attended the National Science Teachers Association conference and it was a great way to meet my audience. Here are some specific things that I thought were a benefit of attending.”

Infographic: How to Create a Book Trailer by Naomi Bates from YA Books & More.

Building Autism-Friendly Collections by Kiera Parrott from ALSC Blog. Peek: “Displaying books specific to identifying and characterizing autism is a great start. But to build truly autism-friendly collections that will be used and appreciated all year long, it is important to look for subjects that go beyond the basics and help support the physical, social, and emotional development of children with autism.”

Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies

Should a Cliffhanger’s Synopsis Hang, Too? by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “You’ll have already pitched your full trilogy or series in your query letter; adding the hook here gives context for the thread you’ve left dangling in this synopsis.”

Why Writers Need Boundaries by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “When you begin to set boundaries of any kind—and start defining who you are and what you stand for—there will be opposition from certain people. Not from everyone, but some.” See also Kristi on Four Essential Types of Personal Boundaries for Writers.

Working on Multiple Projects by Elizabeth S. Craig from Mystery Writing Is Murder. Peek: “I know which question I’ll be getting. “Do you work on all three series at once?'”

Five Dialogue Dilemmas to Avoid by Stina Lindenblatt from QueryTrackerBlog. Peek: “…scour your manuscript to ensure they don’t exist.”

Author Twitter Etiquette by Yahong Chi from Project Mayhem. Peek: “Don’t clog up people’s feeds. An overwhelming social media presence might just be worse than no social media presence.”

Cynsational Giveaways

The winners of The Reluctant Journey of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen are Joy, Sandra, Andrea, Carl and Kristen.

Elsewhere on the Web, enter to win Mermaid Tales: The Lost Princess by Debbie Dadey (Simon & Schuster) from Noodling with Words. See also New Releases & Five Giveaways from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing.

Congratulations to Teaching Authors on their fourth blogoversary! They’re giving away four $25 gift certificates to Anderson’s Bookshops, and Anderson’s is offering the winners a 20 percent discount (“which will help defray the shipping costs if you’re unable to redeem your gift certificate in person”).

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Here comes the judge(s)! Guess who’s on this list? Announcing Judges for the May Pitch +250 Contest from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing. See also Contest Details.

Last Thursday, I had the honor of appearing with fellow Texas authors Chris Barton and Tim Tingle at a Reading Is Fundamental event at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin.

I love RIF!
With Tim & Chris on the sofa
Kathi Appelt, Curious George & Greg Leitich Smith
Tim models Saltypie (Cinco Puntos) & I model Jingle Dancer (Morrow/HarperCollins) from RIF’s multicultural list.
Signing with Chris, author of likewise RIF-listed, The Day-Glo Brothers (Charlesbridge)
With Austin YA author Jennifer Ziegler & Chris at El Chile Cafe y Cantina
Illustrator Joy Fisher Hein with Tim at El Chile (Joy & Kathi, creators of Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America (HarperCollins), were honored earlier that day at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.)

More Personally

I’m honored to say that Greg Leitich Smith and I hosted Jenny and Chris’s wedding at our home last Saturday.

Greg and Chris before the guests arrive
Here I am at the buffet table!
Many blessings to you both, Jenny & Chris!

Reflecting on Tragedy

YA author Carrie Jones is brilliant and gentle and funny and formidable. She not only cares deeply about individuals and the world as a whole but also takes steps big and small to make it better. Really, she’s adorable.

Carrie was at the Boston Marathon and witnessed much of what happened that day. She shares her experience in this post, Boston Marathon. Peek: “Their ultimate goal was suddenly gone, devastated by two bombs. Those of us who were there to watch, gave them our cell phones so they could call family members who were waiting for them. They were waiting for them right by the bombs. We gave the runners money so they could get on the T when it worked again. We gave them our coats.”

To help the victims of the Boston Marathon tragedy, Jean Reidy, Tammi Sauer and Tara Lazar are auctioning off picture book manuscript critiques. Bid from now until 4/30/13. Proceeds will benefit One Fund Boston.

Personal Links

From Greg Leitich Smith

Cynsational Events

Celebration of Poison & Author Bridget Zinn: “Come to a celebration of Bridget Zinn’s Poison at 7:30 p.m. April 19 at BookPeople in Austin. We’re honored to be part of a nationwide series of events remembering
Bridget and celebrating her book and thrilled to welcome the following
local Austin authors to celebrate with us: Lindsey Lane; P.J. Hoover; Cory Putnam Oakes; Nikki Loftin; Susan Kralovansky; Greg Leitich Smith; Cynthia Leitich Smith. P.J. Hoover, Cory Putnam Oaks and Nikki Loftin will read an excerpt from Poison. Everyone will be available to sign copies of the book!”

By Tom Shefelman from I, Vivali 

Authors/Speakers at TLA 2013 from April 24 to April 27 in Fort Worth from the Texas Library Association. Look for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s signing and Spirit of Texas High School author panel. See also the Itsy Bitsy Gallery to “take a chance on art at the TLA 2013 raffle” to benefit the Texas Library Disaster Relief Fund. Note: featuring an original illustration by Tom Shefelman from I, Vivali by Janice Shefelman (Eerdman’s).

YA lit readers! Join Cynthia Leitich Smith at 6:30 p.m. May 25 at Round Rock Public Library.

Join Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith at 11 a.m. June 11 at Lampasas (TX) Public Library.

Join authors Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, Nancy Werlin and ICM Partners literary agent Tina Wexler at a Whole Novel Workshop from Aug. 4 to Aug. 10, sponsored by the Highlights Foundation. Peek: “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.” Special guests: Curtis Brown agent Sarah LaPolla, authors Bethany Hegedus and Amy Rose Capetta.

New Voice & Giveaway: Scott Blagden on Dear Life, You Suck

By Karen Rock
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Scott Blagden is the debut YA author of Dear Life, You Suck (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The novel has received a starred review from School Library Journal as well as a rave in The Wall Street Journal.

It’s a humorous, raw, coming-of-age novel in which an orphan who faces graduation, expulsion from the orphanage he’s called home, and a questionable future must face his past in order envision his future. From the promotional copy:

Cricket Cherpin’s life sucks. He’s stuck in a group home in the-middle-of-nowhere Maine. His past is ugly, his future is bleak, and with less than a year until his eighteenth birthday, he needs to figure things out fast. 

With prospects that range from professional fighter to professional drug dealer, Cricket’s beginning to think that his best option is one final cliff dive into the great unknown. But then Wynona Bidaban steps into his world, showing him that maybe, just maybe, life doesn’t totally suck.

Part comedy, part tragedy, Dear Life, You Suck is at once angry and funny, heartbreaking and profane, illuminated by moments of tenderness and hope.

Since selling your novel, how has your life changed with regard to writing and your career? How has the transition to becoming a published author been?

Now that I’ve published one book, I’m obscenely wealthy and have moved into an oceanfront mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. I’m having trouble focusing on my next novel because Hollywood supermodels won’t leave me alone.

Well, things haven’t changed quite that much. In fact, they haven’t changed at all. I work full-time in real estate and write whenever I can. I’ve written another novel that’s being considered by my publisher. My job has flexible hours so I can usually find time to write every day.

The only additional responsibility has been book promotion, which I’ve been doing the last few months to get the word out.

Tell us about your inspiration for Dear Life, You Suck and its journey to publication. 

With “booze and profanity”?

Dear Life, You Suck was inspired by anger and frustration. I’d written
three previous novels, all very character-driven, and all very
enthusiastically rejected by the English-speaking publishing world.

I decided to write something I thought I’d have better luck selling – a teen mystery full of action and suspense. The original story was about a sixteen-year-old orphan who notices suspicious activity on an island across the bay from the orphanage he lives in. Kind of a Hardy Boys mystery, except with booze and profanity.

As the main character developed, his true voice bubbled to the surface. It was offensive, irreverent, and hilarious. I was having fun writing him, but didn’t think I’d actually include him in a novel I sent out for publication.

About the same time, I received my millionth rejection letter on my third novel and something inside me snapped. I decided I wasn’t going to write my next novel for anyone but me.

I continued writing Cricket’s story in his outrageously profane voice and the more I developed his backstory, the more I realized the story was really about him, not some island adventure.

By the time I was done, barely a hint of the original plot remained. I reference the original title, Orphan Island, in the book during one of Cricket’s story time hours with the Little Ones.

In the novel’s opening you use the Wikipedia quote, “Crickets, like all other insects, are cold-blooded. They take on the temperature of their surroundings.” How would you connect this quote to your main character, Cricket Cherpin?

It’s a reference to who Cricket is and why. “Cold-blooded” in some respects, such as his angry irreverence for anything he perceives as hypocritical; his distrust of adults; his sense of aloneness, of not being able to rely on anyone but himself; his sense of the world as cruel and hopeless.

“They take on the temperature of their surroundings” relates to his upbringing and how his past molded him into the person he is today.

The story begins with an English assignment in which Cricket is asked to write a letter to someone with whom he’s angry. For a boy abandoned by drug-dealing parents to an orphanage, that’s life. If you were assigned that letter, to whom would it be addressed, and what would be your concerns?

Visit Scott Blagden

My letter would probably be to God. I share a lot of Cricket’s anger, confusion, and curiosity about God: who He is, what He is, why He is. And, if He is, why He created the world the way He did.

Like how can such horrible things happen to people, children especially, if there really is a God out there who loves us?

I share Cricket’s frustration with organized religion as well. The simplistic, help-mankind-cope answers it dishes out are infuriating. I have the feeling mankind’s sum of knowledge about God is the equivalent of one grain of sand in the Sahara Desert.

The setting of your novel, Naskeag, north Maine, is unique and richly imagined. At one point you describe “Mainers” as “being wicked particular about geographic origins.” Why is Naskeag the ideal setting for this novel?

It’s an appropriate setting for a story about a character like Cricket. The landscape is complex and paradoxical. Harsh, magnificent, awe-inspiring, unforgiving. Boulders perched precariously on ancient cliffs overlooking a cruel, beautiful ocean. Very Cricketatious.

You’ve included edgy, realistic language, characters and events. What are some elements that might, on the surface, seem offensive? Why did you include them? 

Hmmmm, elements of Dear Life, You Suck that might seem offensive? How much time you got? Profanity, fighting, alcohol, drugs, disrespect toward adults, religious irreverence – it’s a pretty long list. Most of these things are realities of modern teenage life. Perhaps not taken to Cricket’s extreme, but his life’s been extreme.

What authors have influenced you as a writer? What have you taken away from their work and their advice?

There are too many awesome authors to list. For edgy fiction, I will say that Adam Rapp’s been an influence/inspiration.

The common factor that’s influenced me the most is voice. Authentic voice gets me every time. I love reading books where the voice is so captivating I don’t care what happens, plot-wise. I respect authors who dig deep into their character’s heart and mind and write honestly about what they find. Authors who aren’t afraid to write life as it really is.

Like many teens, Cricket examines religion in terms of his life. He’s been raised in an orphanage, attends mass, prays, and reads the Bible. Yet he says, “I don’t believe some white-haired old dude is sitting in a Barcalounger on a cloud, doling out good and bad and happy and sad with an almighty Xbox controller.” What does Cricket believe in, spiritually?

Cricket’s not sure what he believes. He’s trying to figure it out. He doesn’t believe in an all-knowing, all-loving God because the reality of his past seems to negate that possibility. What he’s been taught about God by the nuns and priests doesn’t jibe with his real-world experience.

But he’s not an atheist either. In the presence of God’s “worthy” creation, he “can’t deny a connection. An intermingling. A gravity. A pull. I mean, it sucks at my soul.”

He compares his father’s treatment of him with God’s treatment of Jesus and observes, “this dude was the son of God, which means He had a dad. Now, I can see a human dad standing on the sidelines while his kid sizzles in the hot sun ‘cause I know how evil human dads can be. But a God Dad doing that?”

What’s funny is that, on the surface, Cricket’s irreverence and intolerance of religion appears anti-Christian, but I’d argue that he’s actually more Christ-like than the typical go-to-mass-once-a-week masses who blindly follow their religion’s rules without ever thinking about them.

Jesus was a radical. He challenged the status quo. He said things that were so radical and offensive that he was put to death. Jesus was awesome, but I don’t think he’s portrayed realistically in the Bible. He was a bad-ass.

Cricket describes himself as a “hooded, fisticuffin’, prison-dwelling, scar-faced beast” and questions whether anyone will care for him. How has his troubled life impacted the way in which he views himself and adult authority? How does it trigger his rants?

Scott with his actress/singer niece, JoJo

Cricket’s upbringing by his dirtbag parents and floozy foster mom made him distrustful of adults. And rightfully so. In some instances, his mistrust is misdirected, but he has reason to be skeptical. His religiously-irreverent rant against Mother Mary is one that some readers may be offended by.

But, as a boy who had to fight on the streets to survive, he doesn’t understand why Jesus didn’t fight back to protect himself and his friends.

Like he says, “I ain’t gonna turn the other cheek if a dude attacks me… I’d rather go to prison than be a coward.” He also doesn’t understand why Jesus’ all-powerful dad didn’t step in to protect him.

His seemingly “gay-bashing” rant against his school principal is another. The ugliness beneath this rant is a little deeper. His male role model for the first eight years of his life was his drug-addicted, drug-dealing, push-him-into-fights father. Now, ten years later, the main male authority figure in his life is his school principal, Randall LaChance, a physically formidable man who Cricket perceives as “cowardly,” “weak,” and “girly.”

Cricket’s rant has nothing to do with sexual preference. It has to do with his warped perception of what it means to be a man. Hints at this issue are sprinkled throughout the story. One example is the scene where he meets Wynona’s father: “Seeing this big-ass dude smile and hum in a girly apron as he stirs his stew makes me feel less fruity about the cooking I do at the Prison.”

Some readers have been quick to slap simplistic labels on Cricket because of his rants, but readers who give the book a deep, open-minded read will discover the true roots of the ugliness.

Cricket bonds with Wynona because, like him, she prefers “God Art to Man Art.” How do you distinguish between the two and how does this tie into one of the themes in Dear Life, You Suck?

Cricket thinks about higher meaning stuff like God, art, and life. He perceives the natural world as a work of art by God. “Like a baby’s been finger-painting on God’s blank canvas.” To Cricket, Man Art is “The copycat $#@% hanging in big city museums and rich folk’s foyers.”

The God Art/Man Art comparison correlates to his comparison of life at the Prison to the lives of the “outside kids” who have “real” homes and “real” families. “Poor-ass schleps like me get to view God Art every day, while rich-ass hoity-toits dangle million dollar replicas over their bidets. A Girl with a Watering Can.”

FYI – “A Girl with a Watering Can” is an actual painting by Renoir.

As an author of realistic YA fiction, what advice would you give to writers who might hesitate to include realistic language or edgy topics present in today’s teenagers’ lives? Why was it important to you, your characters, and your novel to depict include these situations and, at times, edgy dialogue?

With regard to voice, I think it’s important to focus on your character,
not on what some readers might think about your character. Sometimes
profanity is warranted and sometimes it’s not.

Scott picking out a Christmas tree with Connor and Madison

If it’s integral and authentic to the character, and it advances the reader’s understanding of who he is, then include it. But if it’s in there simply to try and make the character sound modern, tough and cool, leave it out.

The argument “but that’s how teens talk” doesn’t fly because all teens don’t talk like that. Profanity is powerful. It can add realism and emotional color to your character. But if it’s overused, it loses its power.

With regard to edgy topics, nothing’s off-limits in teens’ lives, so why should it be off-limits in their literature? But writing about edgy content adds an element of responsibility. Actions have consequences in the real world and they should be shown realistically. Stories need to be written in a realistic, big-picture way. Main characters must be well-developed so the reader understands the “why” of his words and actions.

The struggle that comes with making a difficult decision must be shown. And when it comes to decisions, it’s not about right and wrong – it’s about what’s true to the character.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two autographed copies of Dear Life, You Suck by Scott Blagden (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), each with a Dear Life, You Suck T-shirt. Author sponsored; eligibility: U.S.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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!

Check out her website, her co-author website, her Facebook page, and follow her on twitter @karenrock5. Then learn all about Camp Boyfriend (Spencer Hill).

Celebration of Poison & Author Bridget Zinn

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Attention Central Texans! Come to a celebration of Bridget Zinn’s Poison at 7:30 p.m. April 19 at BookPeople in Austin.

From BookPeople:

Join us tonight for a very special celebration of late author Bridget Zinn and her debut novel, Poison (Hyperion, 2013).

A librarian and active member of the children’s and YA communities in Madison, Wisconsin and Portland, Oregon, Bridget was a true book person who brought her love to bear on the page.

The result is Poison, her new YA fantasy novel.

We’re honored to be part of a nationwide series of events remembering Bridget and celebrating her book and thrilled to welcome the following local Austin authors to celebrate with us: Lindsey Lane; P.J. Hoover; Cory Putnam Oakes; Nikki Loftin; Susan Kralovansky; Greg Leitich Smith; Cynthia Leitich Smith.

P.J. Hoover, Cory Putnam Oaks and Nikki Loftin will read an excerpt from Poison. Everyone will be available to sign copies of the book!

About Poison

Sixteen-year-old Kyra, a highly-skilled potions master, is the only one who knows her kingdom is on the verge of destruction—which means she’s the only one who can save it. Faced with no other choice, Kyra
decides to do what she does best: poison the kingdom’s future ruler, who also happens to be her former best friend.

But, for the first time ever, her poisoned dart…misses.

Now a fugitive instead of a hero, Kyra is caught in a game of hide-and-seek with the king’s army and her potioner ex-boyfriend, Hal. At least she’s not alone. She’s armed with her vital potions, a
too-cute pig, and Fred, the charming adventurer she can’t stop thinking about. Kyra is determined to get herself a second chance (at murder), but will she be able to find and defeat the princess before Hal and the army find her?

Kyra is not your typical murderer, and she’s certainly no damsel-in-distress—she’s the lovable and quick-witted hero of this romantic novel that has all the right ingredients to make teen girls swoon.

Book Trailer: The Sasquatch Escape (The Imaginary Veterinary: Book 1) by Suzanne Selfors, illustrated by Dan Santat

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for The Sasquatch Escape (The Imaginary Veterinary: Book 1) by Suzanne Selfors, illustrated by Dan Santat (Little Brown, 2013. From the promotional copy:

When Ben Silverstein is sent to the rundown town of Buttonville to spend the summer with his grandfather, he’s certain it will be the most boring vacation ever. That is, until his grandfather’s cat brings home what looks like . . . a baby dragon?

Amazed, Ben enlists the help of Pearl Petal, a local girl with an eye for adventure. They take the wounded dragon to the only veterinarian’s office in town — Dr. Woo’s Worm Hospital. But as Ben and Pearl discover once they are inside, Dr. Woo’s isn’t a worm hospital at all — it’s actually a secret hospital for imaginary creatures.

After Ben accidentally leaves the hospital’s front door unlocked, a rather large, rather stinky, and very hairy beast escapes into Buttonville. Ben and Pearl are tasked with retrieving the runaway creature, and what started out as an ordinary summer becomes the story of a lifetime.

Suzanne Selfors delivers a wild journey filled with mythical creatures and zany adventures that are anything but imaginary.