Guest Post & Giveaway: Lisa Jahn-Clough on The Writing Process & Nothing But Blue

Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt

By Lisa Jahn-Clough
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

All dead. No one survived. All dead.


This morbid chant haunts seventeen-year-old Blue as she trudges through the countryside with just the clothes on her back, heading to her childhood home on the ocean.

Something absolutely awful has happened, she knows it, but she doesn’t know what. She can’t even remember her name, so she calls herself Blue.


This gripping survival story—peppered with flashbacks to bittersweet times with her boyfriend Jake—strips life down to its bare bones.

Blue learns, with the help of a seemingly magical stray dog and kind people along the road, that the important thing is to live.

Perhaps the biggest impetus for this book occurred twelve years ago when a friend of mine lost her house and everything in it in a sudden gas explosion. Luckily my friend was out at the time, but when she got back, her home was crumbled to rubble and ash.

The idea of losing everything so suddenly was something that has haunted me ever since. Then, like many writers, I raised the stakes by asking, “what if?” What if this happened to a teenager? What if her home and her family had “blown-up?” How would she possibly go on?

Lisa’s storyboard

Such a tragedy would likely cause panic and short-term memory loss. This happens to Blue (the main character) as she flees, and for is compelled to walk 500 miles east with no money, food, cell phone, etc…to hide in the shadows and until she can no longer refuse help.

There were other things I wanted to explore–such as the surreal bond between a dog and human (I am a big fan of dogs), and people who live “off the grid” and don’t fit into the norms of society. I’d met someone who used to train hop and that lifestyle fascinated me.

I wanted to explore surviving tragedy when you think you cannot. In other words, I wanted to write about the journey of life, both figurative and literal. And the possibility of hope.

All these things were milling in my brain for years while I went about writing other books, teaching, and doing whatever it is I do.

Then finally, three years ago, I was really stuck and had no idea what I was going to write next. I’d published two novels and a bunch of picture books.

I wanted to challenge myself in a new way and to write in a voice that
is not at all like mine, from the point of view of a character that is
not at all like me. It seemed the right time to take a risk and finally
weave together all these things I’d been contemplating into a story. Why
not? 

I knew where I wanted Blue in the beginning and where I wanted her in the end. The journey would be all that happened in between, her quest, both internal and external, to get where she needs to be.

I went to a cafe and began writing by hand in a notebook as if I were Blue and this was her private journal, as if my house had just blown up and I couldn’t remember a thing except that I had to get home. I kept writing day after day, one scene at a time, eventually filling three journals.

Then I transcribed and edited into the computer, organized scenes, wove in flashbacks, made storyboards, started over, wrote more, and revised like hell for about two years until I had a decent draft and out came Nothing But Blue.

Lisa’s Journal
Lisa’s Manuscript

Cynsational Notes

The dog in the trailer is one of Lisa’s dogs, Rico.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win signed hardcover copies of Nothing But Blue (Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt, 2013), Me, Penelope (Walter Lorraine Books, 2007), and Country Girl, City Girl (Walter Lorraine Books, 2004) all by Lisa Jahn-Clough. Author sponsored. Eligibility: international.

From the promotional copy of  Me, Penelope:

Penelope Yeager is like a lot of sixteen-year-olds—she wants more independence from her crazy mother; she wants to get her driver’s license; and she wants to get out of high school, away from her town. 

More than anything, Lopi wants to find someone to really connect with, someone to love, and she wants to forget all about the accident that happened six years ago. She’s already figured out how to graduate a year early, but the rest isn’t so easy. 

Lopi tries to navigate the murky waters of sex and love and growing up, but she can’t fool herself—Lopi has a secret that sets her apart: the accident was her fault, she is evil . . .

From the promotional copy of Country Girl, City Girl:

Phoebe Sharp lives on a small farm in Maine, where she reads fairy tales to her goats and snaps pictures with her Instamatic camera. Phoebe doesn’t have a single friend, never mind a boyfriend. 

Then she meets Melita. With her caramel-colored skin, stylish clothes, and urban attitude, Melita seems as different from Phoebe as two teenage girls could be.


But over the summer, the girls grow to know each other. As their friendship develops, so do other, more confusing feelings. Could their friendship be deepening into something more? 

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New Voice: Lindsey Scheibe on Riptide

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lindsey Scheibe is the first-time author of Riptide (Flux, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Grace has one summer to prove she’s good enough.


For Grace Parker, surfing is all about the ride and the moment. Everything else disappears. She can forget that her best friend, Ford Watson, has a crush on her that she can’t reciprocate. She can forget how badly she wants to get a surf scholarship to U.C. San Diego. She can forget the pressure of her parents’ impossibly high expectations.


When Ford enters Grace into a surf competition— the only way she can impress the UCSD surfing scouts—she has one summer to train and prepare. Will she gain everything she’s ever wanted or lose the only things that ever mattered?

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

I am blessed to be part of an awesome and very active writing community – Austin SCBWI. It is through that chapter that I met critique partners, made writing friends, and life friends.

Cynthia – you are a strong presence and leader in our chapter and I have definitely been blessed by mentor moments with you regarding milestones on my path to publication. The example you have set has been an excellent one.

Cynthia Leitich Smith & Lindsey Scheibe celebrate Liz Garton Scanlon‘s Happy Birthday Bunny!

Nikki Loftin has been an immense blessing in the form of critique partner, in paving the way for debut author info, and an awesome source of emotional support.

Lindsey and Nikki Loftin

Sam Bond and Raynbow Gignilliat (online crit partners) read so many early drafts of this manuscript, they deserve a medal.

Samantha Bond with former Austin SCBWI RA Tim Crow & Nikki

Local published authors have been a huge source of inspiration, encouragement, and know how for not only the publishing process but for writing from your heart. That is priceless.

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

In the very beginning, a fabulous resource for me was The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (Fireside, 2000) because it really showed me where I was messing up on the mechanics of things, on the nitty gritty of editing. If a writer is interested in the basics on dialogue tags and general cleaning up of their sentences, then I would say this was a great accessible starter book.

While I didn’t use this book on my current novel, Save The Cat by Blake Snyder (Michael Wiese Productions, 2005) has become a recent favorite for plotting. If someone is looking for a book to help them with structure and plot points, then I would praise Save The Cat for not only breaking things down in very accessible ways, but also as an immensely enjoyable read. I love his examples!

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

Originally this story was told solely in first person point of view from one character – Grace. I wanted to create the cloud of confusion Grace lived in, but it resulted in an inability for the reader to connect with Grace’s situation.

I realized that when the story was told only from her point of view, the reader didn’t get quite how easy it was for other people to miss the enormity of what she was dealing with or to understand her and how her situation of domestic abuse played into her choices and affected her relationships.

Readers really liked the story but there was a mixed bag regarding their reactions towards Grace and her parents, which I found to be very interesting.

What I found early on in drafts is that my readers typically grudgingly or not-so-grudgingly liked the dad, couldn’t stand the mom, and loved Grace or got frustrated with her. They wanted her to behave in healthy ways even though she was surrounded and raised in an unhealthy environment.

I believe the reader put much of the onus on Grace because there was not a voice of reason they could identify with.

Readers loved the story, but they really needed a voice of reason. A way to say, hey what’s wrong with this picture – things don’t add up. A way to call Grace out on choices she made or accepted. That is where Ford’s point of view came in.

Ford provided the opportunity for the reader to see into Grace’s world from an outside perspective. Ford is not always the voice of reason, but he shows how easy it is to be deceived or confused by Grace’s situation and family, which in the end makes it easier for the reader to understand some of the deeper complexities of Grace’s situation. Without Ford’s POV, the reader is left in a confused state trying to understand Grace’s decisions and family life. Ford’s POV helps clear up the confusion and gives the reader an anchor.

I switched to alternating POVs because I felt it would give a wider and truer picture of how Grace’s story was playing out in everyday life. It ended up adding in subplots, texture and characters, which I have come to love and couldn’t imagine Riptide without.

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

Visit Lindsey online!

Absolutely. I was most concerned about the use of language and domestic violence. I didn’t want it to be gratuitous; it needed to be organic to the story.

It was important to portray the manipulative psychological component of the violence and to portray that in a realistic way, melded with the black and white of physical violence.

 I tried to create that psychological component in a way that was true to the characters and the story.

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 my contract, this manuscript went through several drafts and I’m guesstimating at least five major iterations. I’m one of those strange writers who loves critiques and revisions. The prospect of making my manuscript better is always shiny!

I went through one major round of revisions with my editor and fortunately he was pleased with them. I really appreciated his insights into how to make Riptide a stronger novel. For anyone going through an editorial process whether it’s with a critique partner, an agent, or an editor, I think it’s really important to remember that the goal of the critique is to make the manuscript stronger.

If something doesn’t resonate with you or a suggestion doesn’t jive, I think it really needs to be thought through well. Whether one agrees or not, there is a reason for that person’s reaction to the manuscript. It could be they didn’t get a scene, but the follow up question would be why? And how could you fine-tune that so it comes across stronger/clearer to the reader.

Whether I agree with a comment or not, I always feel there is a validity to it and I need to work through that and figure out a way to address the underlying concern or start a dialogue to explain myself further and open the conversation up to figure out the disconnect.

My philosophy on revision that I share with others is: Hold your words loosely and hold the heart of your story tightly.

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

Lindsey gives Shutta Crum info at the Austin SCBWI con.

For me writing is an outlet, emotional and creative. It fuels me and brings me balance in my everyday life. It’s a little corner I can occupy and just be and create.

When I first started writing, I started with the goal of being published. So once I discovered author, agent, and editor blogs, I knew that was going to be my informal education. At one point, I read about 15-20 blogs a day during naptimes. That was my fuel and my crash course. My other fuel was SCBWI.

These days my primary job is mom and as we have some special needs in our family; that is quite a full time job. So, I don’t have the luxury of time I had when I first started writing 4.5 years ago.

My main constraint these days is just finding an hour here or there. I don’t have the luxury of warm ups or getting in the mood to write. But I need to write like I need air to breathe. So when I get a treasured bit of time to create, I take advantage of it and hit the ground running. For me failure is not an option and time is a luxury. I think a powerful motivator is to want something badly enough and that it’s important to believe in yourself.

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

In general, the best place for me to write is a coffee shop or quiet café. I have littles running around at home and in order to get uninterrupted writing time; I usually head out to a local spot.

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

The voice came by magic. As a landlocked person who hadn’t surfed on a regular basis in a couple of years when I started this manuscript, I just spent a few moments relishing the beauty of the ocean and the sexiness of surfing. I thought about how to make it come alive and then the first scene practically wrote itself.

I think tapping into emotional truths and memories, and just meditating on those will really help relay various emotions needed for different characters and scenes. It’s a bit like method acting, perhaps. You don’t have to have been in the same exact situation as your character, but you draw from similar emotions you might have felt in various circumstances and then translate them into your work.

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

YA authors April Lurie & Lindsey

I didn’t want technology to terribly date my story, so I tried to keep my terms/tech slang to a minimum. I do have some texting in the manuscript and phone calls. I mention internet videos but none of that plays a huge factor in Riptide. I would say it’s more of a background factor that nods to current technology trends.


As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

You grab snippets. If your kiddos nap, that’s the golden time. If your kiddo goes to therapy or participates in sports or extracurriculars, then you might be able to write while you wait.

Something’s gotta give and in our house that has translated to laundry piles and stacks of dishes. When my husband’s work schedule allows it, he’ll watch the kids for me a couple of hours a week so I can write. When it doesn’t allow for it, then we try to get a babysitter a couple of hours a week so I can write.

Cynsational Notes

Attention Central Texans! Lindsey will launch Riptide at 2 p.m. May 19 at BookPeople in Austin.

In Memory: Fredrick McKissack

Fredrick with his wife and writing partner, Patricia

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Award-winning Author Fredrick McKissack Dies at 73 from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: “Beloved children’s author Fredrick L. McKissack died on Sunday, April 28, at the age of 73. With his wife and longtime writing partner Patricia, McKissack was the author of more than 100 books for children…”

Fredrick McKissack, Half of Award-Winning Writing Team, Dies at 73 by Rocco Staino from School Library Journal. Peek: “The McKissacks’ collaboration led to numerous awards, including the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Award and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award.”

“We received a call on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday holiday from a member of the Coretta Scott King Award Committee and she informed us that our book was an honor book. 

“We were sooooooooo happy, but we were also moved by the idea that it had happened on Dr. King’s Day. We said a prayer of thanks. Then we shouted for joy. We called our family and good friends to share the good news. 

“Then we went out for a breakfast celebration at I-HOP and continued to celebrate our good fortune combined with the King holiday of peace, love, forgiveness, and joy — with friends and family. It was a good day.” 

Fredrick McKissack Interview Transcript from Scholastic 

Fredrick L. McKissack: Civil Engineer Became Renown Children’s Book Author by Gloria S. Ross from The St. Louis Beacon. Peek: “Mr. McKissack worked as a civil engineer for St. Louis and the U.S. Army. He later owned his own general contracting company. She taught English and edited children’s books until they embarked on a joint literary career.”

Fredrick L. McKissack, 1939-2013 by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “As a writing team they adopted a strong focus on African-American themes for young readers, largely inspired by a shortage of such books in the marketplace. Their early 1990s biography series, Great African Americans (Enslow), included volumes on Frederick Douglass, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and many others…. Donations in memory of McKissack can be made to the National Kidney Foundation and/or the United Negro College Fund.”

We Will Miss Our Dear Friend Fredrick McKissack from The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. Peek: “Fred McKissack was a man of honor and duty; a man of compassion and kindness; a man who brought light, joy, love, and wisdom into the lives of his beautiful family and many friends. We are so grateful, and honored, to have had Fred in our lives.”

Cynsational Notes

In this video Fredrick quotes Albert Einstein on the importance of reading to children. It also includes a reading by Patricia of Goin’ Someplace Special, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Atheneum).

Giveaway & Event Report: Ball by Mary Sullivan

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win a signed copy of Ball by Mary Sullivan (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). From the promotional copy:

A dog with a ball is one of the most relentlessly hopeful creatures on Earth.


After his best little-girl pal leaves for school, this dog hits up yoga mom, baby, and even the angry cat for a quick throw. No luck.


Forced to go solo, the dog begins a hilarious one-sided game of fetch until naptime’s wild, ball-centric dream sequence. The pictures speak a thousand words in this comic book-style ode to canine monomania.


Ball? Ball.

Author-illustrator sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Scroll for form to enter.

Readers gathered to celebrate Ball by Mary Sullivan on May 4 at The Writing Barn in Austin.

Mary models Ball.
Book sale by Mandy of BookPeople; venue by Bethany Hegedus of The Writing Barn.
Juggler adds to the fun!
Illustrators Erik Kuntz, Amy Farrier & author-illustrator Don Tate
Authors & illustrators at The Writing Barn sign the walls.
Author-illustrators Shelley Ann Jackson and Jeff Crosby buy copies of Ball (note the giveaway balls in the bowl).
Erik and author Greg Leitich Smith
Authors Varian Johnson and Anne Bustard
Me (in my new sunglasses) with Mary

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SCBWI Crystal Kite Members Choice Awards

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations via SCBWI

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has announced the winners of the 2013 Crystal Kite Member Choice Awards for its fifteen regional divisions:

Africa

Neil MalherbeThe Magyar Conspiracy (Tafelberg Publishers)

Australia

Meg McKinlayTen Tiny Things (illustrated by Kyle Hughes-Odgers) (Fremantle Press)

California/Hawaii

Katherine ApplegateThe One and Only Ivan (HarperCollins Children’s Books)

Southeast (Florida/Georgia/South Carolina/North Carolina/Alabama/Mississippi)

Augusta ScattergoodGlory Be (Scholastic)

Mid-South (Kansas/Louisiana/Arkansas/Tennessee/Kentucky/Missouri)

Sharon CameronThe Dark Unwinding (Scholastic)

Middle East/India/Asia

Benjamin MartinSamurai Awakening (Tuttle Publishing)

Midwest (Minnesota/Iowa/Nebraska/Wisconsin/Illinois/Michigan/Indiana/Ohio)

Aaron ReynoldsCreepy Carrots (illustrated by Peter Brown) (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

Southwest (Nevada/Arizona/Utah/Colorado/Wyoming/New Mexico)

Jean ReaganHow to Baby Sit A Grandpa (Alfred A. Knopf/Random House Children’s Books)

New England (Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island)

Jo KnowlesSee You At Harry’s (Candlewick Press)

New York

Kate MessnerCapture the Flag (Scholastic)

Atlantic (Pennsylvania/Delaware/New Jersey/Wash DC/Virginia/West Virginia/Maryland)

Ame DyckmanBOY + BOT (illustrated by Dan Yaccarino) (Alfred A. Knopf (Random House Children’s Books)

Texas/Oklahoma

Lynne KellyChained (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.)

The Americas (Canada/Mexico/Central & South America)

Jennifer LanthierThe Stamp Collector (Fitzhenry and Whiteside)

U.K./Europe

Dave CousinsFifteen Days without a Head (Oxford University Press)

West (Washington/Oregon/Alaska/Idaho/Montana/North Dakota/South Dakota)

Kim BakerPickle (illustrated by Tim Probert) (Roaring Brook Press (Macmillan Publishers)

About the Crystal Kite Awards

The Crystal Kite Awards are given by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators to recognize great books from the seventy SCBWI regions around the world. Along with the SCBWI Golden Kite Awards, the Crystal Kite Awards are chosen by other children’s book writers and illustrators, making them the only peer-given awards in publishing for young readers.

About SCBWI

Founded in 1971, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is one of the largest existing writers’ and illustrators’ organizations, with over 22,000 members worldwide. It is the only organization specifically for those working in the fields of children’s literature, magazines, film, television, and multimedia. The organization was founded by Stephen Mooser (President) and Lin Oliver (Executive Director), both of whom are well-published children’s book authors and leaders in the world of children’s literature. For more information about the Crystal Kite Award, please visit www.scbwi.org, and click “Awards & Grants.”

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Ask a Million Questions: Worldbuilding by Kristin Bailey from Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing. Peek: “I started out writing science fiction and fantasy because there is nothing more challenging and fun that creating an entire world from scratch. I found the key to good world building is to ask a million questions. When starting from scratch, you have to question everything.”

What’s the Right Tone for Your Query Letter? by Deborah Halverson from DearEditor.com. Peek: “Aim for a ‘relaxed professional’ tone for your fiction query, which is more like flap copy than a letter to your banker.”

The Only Book in the House by Joseph Bruchac from Lee & Low. Peek: “It’s been my good fortune to be able to frequently visit schools on Indian reservations and in inner cities. There, rather than having a home full of books, children’s own first book may be the only one in the house.”

The 11th annual Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Workshop: a whole-novel seminar from Oct. 4 to Oct. 6 near Santa Cruz, California, for 16 advanced/published writers. Offering partial or full novel critique(s), in written and open-clinic format by Regina Griffin (executive editor, Egmont USA) and Fiona Kenshole (agent, Transatlantic Agency; former executive editor). Plus, one more agent TBA. Workshop alum, Annemarie O’’Brien (author of Lara’’s Gift (2013), will do additional critiques and speak on working with an editor and/or agent. Other faculty topics include revision techniques, inline editing, and adapting cinematic techniques to your fiction. See also information on the concurrent TeenSpeak Novel Workshop. The adults’ early-bird fee: $769 through May 20. (Teens: $499 through late June.) Includes three nights’ beachfront townhouse lodging and most meals; critiques additional. Application deadline: June 20, but inquire ahead to complete materials. Final manuscript submissions due: June 28, with possible extensions throughout summer. Open until filled. Apply early to hold your space.

Recipients of the 2013 Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards have been announced by the Jane Addams Peace Association. Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Nancy Paulsen) is the winner in the Books for Younger Children Category and We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson (Peachtree) is the winner in the Books for Older Children category.

Play Ball! A Look at Recent Baseball Books from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: “Given the release of ’42,’ the story of how Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, we feature a couple of books about the legendary star and others.”

From Blogging to Books: A Tour of Children’s-YA Lit Book Bloggers Who Went Onto Publish Books by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal. Peek: “I got to thinking about others in my field who have followed similar paths from blogging to book publication. The successes, if you will. With that in mind, here are some names that come immediately to mind…”

Some Facebook Hints for Authors by Janet S. Fox from Through the Wardrobe. Peek: “…step one: create an Author Page. Go to Account Settings (upper right corner, the flywheel) and at the bottom of the page that opens next is a link to ‘Create Page.’ That will get you started.”

Author Insight: Creating Characters from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: “When you conceptualize a character does personality or physicality come first or does a complete person instantly form?”

Editorial: Everybody Wants to Be a Teenager by Roger Sutton from The Horn Book. Peek: “While I’m firmly in favor of the right of people of any age to read up, down, or sideways as they choose, here at the Horn Book we like to think there is a bright line between publishing for adults and publishing for kids, defined as people of an age between birth and high school graduation.”

Degrees of Boundary Busters by Kristi Holl from Writers’ First Aid. Peek: “To be honest, the major boundary busters–often dubbed ‘abusers’–are the easiest to spot (especially in someone else’s life.) Harder to detect are those ‘minor’ boundary invaders who look quite normal.”

Good Morning World by Paul Windsor: a recommendation by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature. Peek: “Teachers and librarians will get a lot of mileage out of this book!” See also Navajo Nation’s First Poet Laureate: Luci Tapahonso, also from AICL.

Uncertainty: The Normal Writing Process by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “It’s helpful to embrace uncertainty in the writing process, to just write and see what happens.”

Picking the Right Time by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: “Whenever you interrupt the flow of dialogue, you best have a good reason.”

Historical Fiction for Girls by Katrina Hedeen from The Horn Book. Peek: “Strong-willed, memorable female protagonists are the stars of these historical novels for middle-grade and middle-school readers. A small gold-mining town in Alaska; early-twentieth-century San Francisco; 1870s rural Wisconsin; and Reconstruction Louisiana provide the backdrops for their entertaining adventures.”

National Picture Book Writing Week from Paula Yoo at Write Like You Mean It. Guest bloggers include: Varsha Bajaj, Katie Davis, and Lauri Meyers.

SingTel Asian Picture Book Award: “The National Book Development Council of Singapore is delighted to announce the inaugural SingTel Asian Picture Book Award. Beginning in 2013, the award will be presented annually for an outstanding unpublished picture book with a distinctly Asian theme.” See link for short lists. See also the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. Source: Cynsations Asia & Aus-NZ reporter Christopher Cheng.

The Edgar Award Winners from The Mystery Writers of America. Juvenile: The Quick Fix by Jack D. Ferraiolo (Abrams/Amulet Books); Young Adult: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion). See honor books.

Cynsational Giveaways

The winners of Dear Life, You Suck by Scott Blagden and tie-in T-shirts were Jenn in Wyoming and Christine in Ontario.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Great news! My 2013 YA releases, Feral Nights (Book 1 in the Feral series) and Eternal: Zachary’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle (a graphic novel from the Tantalize series), are now available from Walker Books Australia and New Zealand. See more information!

Congratulations to my pal Varsha Bajaj of Houston on the sale of Our Baby, a celebration of an elephant’s birth, to Nancy Paulsen at Nancy Paulsen Books, in a two-book deal, by Jill Corcoran at The Herman Agency.

Personal Links

Cynsational Events 

Central Texans! Come celebrate the release of Mary Sullivan’s new picture book, Ball (Houghton Mifflin), from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. May 4 at The Writing Barn in Austin. With a book sale by BookPeople, donations for Austin Pet’s Alive, and music by Mr. Mark of Rockapoodle, it’ll be a great event for adults and kids alike.

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.

Style & Story: How “What Not to Wear” Teaches About Writing

Advice for ladies and gentlemen.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations


“What Not to Wear,” starring Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, is a reality TV show in its tenth and final season on TLC.

The focus of the makeovers is as much about celebrating the contributors as it is helping them to evaluate, reconfigure and embrace their best-fit personal style.

Stacy and Clinton offer insights that apply not only to why a pencil skirt might work on your body but also why you deserve to look and feel your best.

The hosts are witty, adorable, thoughtful and upbeat.

Yes, they have a serious hate on for “mom jeans,” but they love what they do, they’re great at it, and their enthusiasm is infectious. What’s more, hairstylist Ted Gibson and makeup artist Carmindy are likewise spot-on terrific — sharing insights, encouragement and helpful tips.

For my pals the U.K., I’ve never seen that version of the show, but I’m under the impression that the U.S. version is less caustic. Likewise, when I talk to friends here about WNTW, many are under the impression (from the title, I think), that the ambush and (literal) trashing of the “before” wardrobe are the whole point. They’re not. Among other things, contributors are given $5000 to purchase a replacement wardrobe (and wouldn’t most people living on a writer’s income love that?).

Clinton and Stacy keep their critiques about the clothes, not the contributor, and they make an effort to help select new outfits that make sense for the individual’s personality, goals, shape and lifestyle. What’s more, they teach her how to do the same on her own.

Even better, their definitions of “beauty” and style are inclusive. Nobody’s asked to go on a diet, embark on an exercise regime or have their body parts surgically rearranged.

Instead, it’s about each contributor embracing her unique awesomeness (taking into account larger societal expectations). The featured individuals span body type, orientation, gender identification, income, race, region, culture, etc.

As a fan of the show, it’s occurred to me that much of Stacy and Clinton’s advice could–with a tweak or two–apply just as well to a career in book writing as it does to creating a wardrobe.

It’s all about what you’re trying to say.

With that in mind:

Assess & Strategize

100+ degrees? Rock those arms.

Everyone’s body is different. I’m curvy with short arms and therefore often shop in the petite section, even though my height is average at 5’5”. As a brown-eyed brunette with light olive skin, I tend to look best in brights and jewel tones. I’m tall enough for a ¾ jacket but short enough (and mature enough) that I should probably keep skirts around the knee.

Everyone’s writing is different. I’m a fantasist and realistic fiction writer. I enjoy world building, write across age markets, lean toward multicultural casts, experiment with literary devices and often employ elements of suspense, mystery, humor and romance. In deciding where to go after the Feral series, I’ll weigh all this before making my next move.

Got it?

Okay, now consider your own writing, your predispositions and skills, what you might want to try—or try on—next.

Express Yourself

Stand out. What do you want to say and how?

Sure, you have to consider what’s appropriate to the situation. But no matter what, you’re communicating, people are paying attention, and you’ll be more effective if you own that responsibility. Dressing in over-sized clothes with holes in them says something. Pairing a colorful pattern with a more subtle one and a completer piece says something else.

Writers, what do you want to say and how? What’s the story you’re eager to share? The approach you want to take? How do you want the reader to feel as s/he turns the pages? What choices do you need to make to communicate that?

Color, Pattern, Texture & Shine

I organize tops by color, then prints by color family, then arm length.

Speaking of choices, there’s an art to style. Create interest by juxtaposing color, pattern, texture and shine against neutrals. It’s the bland elements that make the flashier ones pop (without overwhelming).

There’s an art to writing. Create interest by juxtaposing poetic language, punctual language, description, action, dialogue, interior monologue, quasi-epistolary elements and/or literary devices against white space. Yes, what you don’t say speaks volumes, too.

(Feature) Focus

You toss a shiny, colorful, print-and-ruffled blouse against a rattlesnake-textured crop pant and cover it up with a full-length, fur-trimmed corduroy jacket and you’ve got a scary mess.

You’d be better off with a button-up white cotton blouse and dark-wash jeans. Better still if you added a woven medium brown leather belt and some silver jewelry, plus a bright red bag and studded heels (that don’t have to match, but should go). Ask yourself what serves the outfit.

And ask yourself what serves the manuscript. You’re studying novels in verse and cooing over witty footnotes and enamored with graphic elements and thrilled that you can finally frame a voice well enough to succeed with alternating point of view. Nobody wants to wade through all of that at once. Choose for effect.

Try Stuff On

“Jeans go with everything.” –Stacy

You’re intrigued by the dress, but you think it’ll hang on you like a potato sack. Try it on anyway. Maybe the color will make your eyes pop. Maybe a belt will create shape. You’ll never know until you try.

For me, the short story has been a tremendous venue for experimentation. It’s my literary dressing room.

Don’t get me wrong. Shorts (in fiction and fashion) are a wonderful end unto themselves. But there’s less at stake—in terms of time and money—with short fiction or nonfiction than with a book.

I tried writing upper YA, boy voice and humor first through the short story, and now all three are hallmarks of my work.

It’s Not a One-Size-Fits-All World

You know something about one-size-fits-all clothes?

They’re shapeless. You’re not. You deserve better.

You’re not a lesser person because you’re not size 2 or 20 or because you are a size 2 or 20. Own those curves and/or plains, baby, and find the fit that’s right for you!

YA fiction may be hot, but your passion and skill set are a better fit for nonfiction picture books. Or you’re writing YA fiction, but you’re skewing edgier or more literary or more humorous than the presumed ideal book of the moment. Don’t jam yourself into a one-size-fits-all story just to sell. Write the book that’s right for your future fans.


Be Educable

If you’re falling out of that top, you’re probably not going to be taken seriously at work. If you’re not getting dates, your off-duty nun apparel might have something to do with it. Don’t cling to what’s never going to work. Be open to improvement and a brighter future.

If you’re getting the same feedback from your critique group and in editor-agent conference consultations, it’s possible they’re all onto something. Listen. Consider. Revise.


Think About Use Value

“Every Texas woman should have a boot.” — Clinton

Are you ever going to wear that?

I bought some fully lined black leather pants (Nordstrom’s leather, not biker-chick leather), and they looked elegant. But I live in a city that boasts over three hundred days of sunshine and the heat that comes with it. I wore them once and now they’re in the donation pile.

How charming that you’re inspired to write a novel about the inner musings of a mollusk. You’ve done your mollusk research, channeled your inner phylum.

If you’re writing for writing’s sake, rock on with it. I believe in art for the joy of art. But if you want a career in children’s publishing….

Sorry, kitten. Nobody else (outside of perhaps your family) is going to read that.


Trust Your Gut

This will sound contradictory, but hey, it’s a balancing act. Yes, you need to make thoughtful decisions but don’t think yourself into paralysis. Maybe you don’t have an occasion for that dress, but wearing it makes you feel like you’re twirling on air. Buy it and throw a party.

Unless you’re deep in mollusk brain, write the book you have to write and let the market worry about itself. It might even surprise and reward you.

Be Your Own Boss

So far, my favorite “What Not to Wear” contributor is Emi from season 9.

She’s an effervescent science teacher, age 25, who loves her momma and grandmomma. But because of their fashion advice, she was dressing like she was 65 (and a frumpy 65 at that).

You have to wear what’s right for you, even if it doesn’t please everyone and/or challenges their comfort zones.

Writing children’s-YA literature? News flash: you’re not a teenager anymore, and you don’t need your mother’s or grandmother’s permission or approval. Ditto your minister, your husband, your children and the ex-best-friend you see at the occasional soccer game.

In style, you need to be true to yourself, and in story, you need to be true to your characters. Put them center stage and let the chips tumble.

Structure Is Your Friend

The cut of clothing can accentuate/de-emphasize your shoulders, curves and legs. It can take what you’re trying to say about yourself, your purpose and the occasion and make it more polished.

Story structure or a poetic form can help you organize your thoughts and make them more accessible to young readers.

It’s Not You, It’s the Clothes

You’ve tried on twenty pairs of jeans and none of them work. Keep trying. You may need to get alternations, but nobody said this wouldn’t take effort. Put in the time, and don’t make each attempt a reflection of who you are as a person.

So those aren’t the right jeans for you. So what. Keep the faith, and eventually, you’ll find a pair that make your booty look fantabulous.

You’ve sent twenty queries to twenty agents, and so far nothing’s panned out. Keep trying. You may need to revise or tweak your letter, but nobody said this wouldn’t take effort. Put in the time, and don’t make each attempt a reflection of who you are as a person.

So those aren’t the right agents for you. So what. Keep the faith, and eventually, you’ll find your manuscript’s champion.

You Deserve to Feel Great Now 

Raise your hand if you like my new gold shoes!

Don’t wait until you finish that MFA program or sign with an agent or sell that book or win an award or make the bestseller list to begin celebrating the awesomeness that is you. Celebrate now!

Oh, wait. That one works for style and story without tweaking.

Go figure. And go ahead, celebrate!

More Personally

I watch re-runs of “What Not to Wear” while weight lifting. It makes me happy and offers enough to think about to distract me from the pain. It’s the only reality television show I’ve ever watched.

In the past month, I’ve built a new wardrobe, and Clinton and Stacy’s “essentials” list from Dress Your Best: The Complete Guide to Finding the Style That’s Right for Your Body was the perfect place to start. Consider it highly recommended.

About Cyn

Enter to win
Enter to win

Cynthia Leitich Smith (that’s me!) is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of the Tantalize series, the Feral series, numerous essays and short stories as well as several books for younger readers.

Cynthia’s home base on the Web is www.cynthialeitichsmith.com. Check out her Facebook page and follow her on Twitter @CynLeitichSmith.

Thanks to P.J. Hoover for wowing us with her amazing new cowboy boots.

International Giveaway: Feral Nights & Eternal: Zachary’s Story Are Now Available from Walker Books Australia & New Zealand

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Celebrate the Australia-New Zealand release of Feral Nights (Book 1 in the Feral series) and Eternal: Zachary’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle (a graphic novel from the Tantalize series) by entering to win copies of your very own! Eligibility is international; anyone can win!

Feral Curse (Book 2) is off to copy editing. It’s set in a fictional small town, based on Bastrop, Texas; and will be released in early 2014.

Feral Nights (Book 1 in the Feral series) is now available from Walker Books Australia and New Zealand. It was released in North America from Candlewick Press earlier this year. From the promotional copy:

Fans of the Tantalize quartet will thrill to see werepossum Clyde and other favorite secondary characters — plus all-new ones — take to the fore in book one of an all-new series.


When sexy, free-spirited werecat Yoshi tracks his sister, Ruby, to Austin, he discovers that she is not only MIA, but also the key suspect in a murder investigation.


Meanwhile, werepossum Clyde and human Aimee have set out to do a little detective work of their own, sworn to avenge the brutal killing of werearmadillo pal Travis.


When all three seekers are snared in an underground kidnapping ring, they end up on a remote island inhabited by an unusual (even by shifter standards) species.
The island harbors a grim secret and were-predator and were-prey must join forces in a fight to escape alive.


Fans of best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Tantalize quartet will thrill to see favorite sidekick characters–together with all-new ones–take to the fore in this wry, high-action entry in an exciting new series.

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Eternal: Zachary’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Walker/Candlewick, 2013), a Tantalize series graphic novel:

View interior spread

Reckless guardian angel Zachary has an unusual assignment. He’s meant to save the soul of Miranda, high-school theater wannabe turned glamorous royal vampire. Completely devoted to Miranda, Zachary takes his demotion to human form in stride, taking a job as the princess’s personal assistant.


Of course, this means he has to balance his soul-saving efforts with planning the Master’s fast-approaching Deathday gala.


Vivid illustrations by Ming Doyle elevate this darkly funny love story to a new dramatic level with bold black-and-white panels.


Cynthia Leitich Smith’s New York Times bestseller is reimagined as a graphic novel seen through the eyes of Zachary, guardian angel.

Eternal: Zachary’s Story is told from Zachary’s point of view and includes new scenes not seen in the preceding prose novel Eternal (Walker/Candlewick, 2009, 2010) as well as scenes previously told from Miranda’s point of view.

Cynsational Notes

Cynthia Leitich Smith & Feral Nights: an interview from Joy Preble. More
thoughts on the new novel and its main characters, balance (or lack thereof) and the writing life, best Austin dining and other destinations, and much more. For more on the story behind the story, see Follow the (YA) Reader and Secret Asian Man: Yoshi Kitahara and Feral Nights.

Eternal: Zachary’s Story artist Ming Doyle

The Horn Book says of Feral Nights: “Smith’s blend of supernatural suspense, campy humor, and romantic tension is addictive; allusions to both pop culture (‘Thriller,’ Monty Python) and literature (The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Most Dangerous Game) add to the fun. Most satisfying of all, Aimee and especially unassuming, injured Clyde leave their sidekick roles behind to come into their own.”

Publishers Weekly chimes in: “Smith’s fantasy smoothly switches between the three protagonists’ perspectives, while expertly blending the mythical and the modern. The story’s sharp banter and edgy plot make for an entertaining and clever story about loyalty and reconciling differences.”

Booklist calls it “sexy, fast-paced” and cheers the “ending that satisfies and should win her many new fans.”

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.”

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