New Voice: Kristen Kittscher on The Wig in the Window

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kristen Kittscher is the first-time author of The Wig in the Window (HarperChildren’s, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Best friends and seventh graders Sophie Young and Grace Yang have made a game of spying on their neighbors. But on one of their late-night pretend stake-outs, the girls stumble across a terrifying, bloody scene at the home of their bizarre middle school counselor, Dr. Charlotte Agford (a.k.a. Dr. Awkward). 

At least they think they do…the truth is that Dr. Agford was just making her famous (and messy) pickled beets!

But when Dr. Agford begins acting even weirder than usual, Sophie and Grace become convinced that she’s hiding something–and they’re determined to find out what it is. 

Soon the girls are cracking codes, being followed by a strange blue car, and tailing strangers with unibrows and Texas accents. 

As their investigation heats up, the girls start to crack under the pressure. Even if Sophie and Grace uncover the truth about Agford in time, will their friendship survive?

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

I’ve been lucky enough to have more than one mentor, and without them, I’d still be spinning my wheels, dreaming of telling stories instead of actually telling them. It’s hard to say one is more influential than other.

My first mentors were Sean Murphy, who writes literary fiction for adults (The Hope Valley Hubcap King and The Time of New Weather) and his wife, Tania Casselle, a travel writer who also writes fiction. They run a yearly online class called “Write to the Finish.”

I’d first met Sean in a writing conference in Taos in 2005 I had attended to inform my teaching. I had a notion I wanted to write a novel but had no idea what said novel would be about. I’ll never forget him saying, “Well, you better decide by tomorrow.”

And that’s how Sean was; he had taught for years with Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones). His approach was simple: if you want to write, you’re meant to. Prioritize, set goals, and believe in yourself. His and Tania’s mentoring broke a seemingly insurmountable task into easy chunks.

My other mentor – whose voice echoes in my head as I write the sequel to The Wig in the Window – is Kara LaReau. Kara was an editor at Scholastic and Candlewick for over a decade and was best known for plucking Kate DiCamilo’s Because of Winn-Dixie out of the slush pile.

Kara briefly ran an editing consultancy, and I was lucky enough to work with her during the year she was in business. She taught me everything, essentially: how to keep scenes moving, how to stay loyal to characters, how to create a rhythm for scenes.

Of course, I’m still learning all of that – but she gave me a start! I came in with a very strange manuscript that wasn’t at all ready, and she taught me how to give the story an arc. I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have worked with her. Working with her also gave me great practice revising and incorporating notes before I went through the process with my editor at Harper.

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

Follow Kristen on Twitter @KKittscher

Great question. I think funny isn’t so much about decisions as a feeling. It’s not an analytical process for me. If I had to pin it down, I’d say that ingredients for comedic writing are honesty, specificity, timing, surprise and exaggeration.

People laugh at things that feel true — but that they might not say aloud. They also laugh at the unexpected, so it’s all about finding the right moment to make an ironic twist. That’s where the timing comes in.

My approach is to drop down into my main character’s head and observe the world from her point of view — to see all the absurdities through her eyes. Then I exaggerate those observations.

Whether that would work for others or not, I’m not sure!

How Authors Can Connect with Readers Via a Google+ Hangout

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

I’m fresh off of my first experience with Google+ Hangouts and sharing lessons learned in hopes they’ll help you connect authors to readers!

Google+ offers its own video with instructions for the basics, so I’m going to focus on insights with regard to navigating a G+ Hangout to best effect.

Bookmark this post–what I’m saying will make more sense once you’ve checked out the system.

Tips to Keep in Mind:

  • Invite participants early — you’ll want to schedule not only the G+ Hangout but at least two practice sessions.
  • Take practices seriously and brace for changes/improvements in the system between each.
  • Write a script in advance, complete with a welcome, speaker introductions, questions, response order and closing remarks. 
  • You don’t have to follow the script word-per-word, but it should work for prompts.
  • In our G+ Hangout, each author-speaker had the opportunity to submit the question of her choice.
  • The speaker I.D. bar option–complete with image–is helpful, polished-looking, and a way to feature current cover art.
  • The speaker I.D. bar option could be more user friendly. Once you’ve created an I.D. bar that you like, try to save it. But don’t count on it being saved. You may have to recreate it for the final G+ Hangout. Leave time to do so.
  • Don’t get impatient. We’re all expected to field a number of social networks, and many of them vary just enough to throw someone off or work in a way that’s counter-intuitive. Note: Last minute conflicts and tech snags do happen.
  • Check out these additional tips for looking your best (or at least human) on-screen.
  • Use a real computer (not just anything that will access the Web). 
  • Log on an hour in advance to work out any last minute glitches. Yes, an hour.
  • The screen-share option is great for highlighting a website, but it can be tricky to use. The G+ Hangout screen momentarily shuffles away and you’ll have to uncover and click it again. Note: rather than showing your website (or book covers posted online), you could hold up a copy of your book(s) and other show-and-tell items.
  • Use the “mute” option on the microphone while other speakers are talking.
  • Caution: Any talking over one another (or miscellaneous other noise–doorbells, ringing phones, barking dogs) will jumble the audio.
  • Stay as still as possible. Any unnecessary movement can freeze up the screen.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity to share the G+ Hangout afterward via video. Not everyone who’s interested may be able to make the live chat.
  • Promote the video through your blog, website, other social networks and list servs.

The multi-author panel format is be a first-rate (and budget-friendly) option for schools and public libraries as a way to provide insights and inspiration to teen readers. Our G+ Hangout clocked in at a little over half an hour, which is longer than most online videos, but fits nicely into a YA program.

I also can readily imagine a scenario in which one author is featured at a G+ Hangout with up to four participating school audiences.

Comparing to Skype, the main benefit of G+ Hangouts is that they seem less likely to time out. G+ Hangouts are dependent on your Internet connection (and that of all other participants), but less vulnerable to connection issues coming from the system itself.

Looking for an example?

The video below, “Other Times, Other Worlds in YA Lit, features authors Cynthia Leitich Smith (Feral Nights)(AKA me), P. J. Hoover (Solstice), Janet Fox (Sirens), Joy Preble (The Sweet Dead Life), and Candlewick Press editor and fellow YA author Deborah Noyes (Plague in the Mirror).

It’s derived from a Google+ Hangout On Air that took place last Thursday. We engaged in a dynamic discussion, exploring the challenges and joys of world-building, in creating romantic elements, in writing gender roles and the parallel between fantasy and historical writing.

You’ll see the video isn’t perfect. G+ Hangouts don’t (yet) allow for an organic flow of conversation. We struggled a bit with the system, using the microphone and transitions.

But the flow improved over time, the content is excellent and the video offers a realistic look at the opportunities in play. So check it out to learn more about these topics and to view an example of how Google+ Hangouts can connect authors to readers.

Guest Author Interview: Colleen Houck on the Editorial Process, Romance & Adult vs. YA Writing

By Laini Bostian
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Librarian Laini Bostian blogs at The Made Up Librarian. Today she talks to Colleen Houck about Tiger’s Curse (Splinter, 2011). Learn more about Colleen from Publishers Weekly.

Laini: In a prior exchange, you stated that Tiger’s Curse (The Tiger Saga, Book 1) was intended to be a “clean” romance for adult women.

Colleen: There is much more to Tiger’s Curse than romance. It has a folklore element to it and a whole storyline related to breaking the ancient curse that keeps the prince, Ren, enslaved by living all but 24 minutes a day in the body of a tiger.

Laini: What inspired you to write this story?

Colleen: Basically, I wanted to write the kind of a book that I wanted to read. I love romance, but I want more in a book than just a romantic story. I want some action in there too. This is what prompted me to start writing.

I’m the type of person who watches a television show and thinks, “I love it, but if this was tweaked or that was changed, it would be even better.”

Laini: Editors can play a large role in the evolution of a novel. Were there major changes to your original story that you had to make? If so, can you give us an example? And how did it feel to have to make those changes?

Colleen: There are multiple ways to tell a story. For me, the story exists in my head in its entirety and an editor may want me to twist it and tell it in a slightly different way but I can usually incorporate those changes into the whole.

Does that make sense? I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t compromise the story, I just slightly alter the wording or leave out some parts.

Having said that, I am a big believer in my fans getting everything, which is why I post deleted chapters or alternate endings. An example would be that I have three endings to Tiger’s Destiny. They are all valid and good in their own ways.

We went with the one my editor liked but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the others or that they didn’t fit. Fans will get to read those at some point.

Laini: Can you define “romance” for us? The term is used to describe such a wide variety of literature. What does romance mean to you? And why did you feel the need to write a “clean” romance? Can you talk some more about that?

Colleen: In books the part of a romance I enjoy the most is the beginning, when a couple falls in love. For most of us who are happily married, those tingly first romantic feelings fade into a sweet enduring love that blossoms into so much more, an enduring friendship, a contented companionship, but, by that time, the excitement of discovery, the wonder of finding out someone loves us back, is long gone, which is a good thing.

I can’t imagine living every day with that swoony-sleepless-wonder-what-he’s-doing-at-this-very-minute feeling. How would we function on a daily basis?

That doesn’t mean that happily married women can’t enjoy a good romantic story though. Regarding the clean romance, some of my fans have asked why I never showed my characters sleeping together. This was a conscious decision on my part. I wanted to bring something different to the table, to show that a chivalrous man can be sexy too.

My hope is that I’ve created something that everyone can like–a book a mom would feel comfortable passing to her daughter or even to her husband.

Laini: I have read interviews with or spoken to a couple of authors who intended their stories to have an adult readership and then were told that their books were “young adult.” Some  authors did not like this. How did you feel about it? And now that you are considered a young adult author, which I believe is quite prestigious, are you writing with a teen audience in mind?

Colleen: I think my natural tendency is to write stories about characters in their late teens, early twenties. The reason is that this is the age of discovery, of adventure, of risk taking, and of falling in love. Those are the themes I like to explore.

When I started out, my intended readers were women my age who would appreciate my type of story but when you get down to it, my heroine was seventeen turning eighteen which falls into the category of YA.

I like YA a lot. I didn’t even know YA existed for many years but now I read it almost exclusively. The coolest thing about this genre is that it’s wide open to many different types of stories.

Romance, paranormal, contemporary, sci-fi, they all have a place in YA which makes it exciting for me since I like to dabble in various genres and themes.

I think the most exciting, unique material is being published in YA so it’s a great place to hang my hat. When I write I don’t think about my teen audience at all. It’s a strange thing to say but to me I try to tell a story that has universal appeal. One that teens, kids, and parents would all enjoy.

Laini: Finally, I have to ask, because I have been talking so much on my blog about this, why is your narrator a female? If you did not have a specific audience in mind—womenmight you have had a male narrator?

Colleen: I have written in both a male and a female perspective. There are benefits to writing in a female point of view, the biggest one being that I know what it feels like to be in a woman’s head. I like both, but writing anything romantic from a male point of view can be challenging.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Now available!

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Deborah Noyes on the release of her first YA novel, Plague in the Mirror (Candlewick, 2013)! From the promotional copy:

was meant to be a diversion — a summer in Florence with her best
friend, Liam, and his travel-writer mom, doing historical research
between breaks for gelato. A chance to forget that back in Vermont,
May’s parents, and all semblance of safety, were breaking up.

when May wakes one night sensing someone in her room, only to find her
ghostly twin staring back at her, normalcy becomes a distant memory. And
when later she follows the menacing Cristofana through a portale to
fourteenth-century Florence, May never expects to find safety in the
eyes of Marco, a soulful painter who awakens in her a burning desire and
makes her feel truly seen.

The wily Cristofana wants nothing less of May than to inhabit each others’ lives,
but with the Black Death ravaging Old Florence, can May’s longing for
Marco’s touch be anything but madness?


More News

Download a free chapter to Kindle

Only Two Spots Left! 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: agent Sarah LaPolla as well as authors Bethany Hegedus and Amy Rose Capetta.  

Why Editors Focus on Page One by Darcy Pattison from Jane Friedman. Peek: “An editor can tell within a couple pages if a manuscript will be acceptable to them. How? What makes this decision so clear to an editor and so muddy to an author?” See also Breaking the Rules in Your Novel Opening by Liz Coley from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing.

Radical Empathy: Creating a Compelling Flawed Character by Emilia Plater from YA Highway. Peek: “When someone’s behaviors are explained to you in an in-depth, nuanced way, it becomes easy to understand that person and empathize with them – even if you don’t personally like them or agree with them.”

Setting, Reaction, Interaction by Jane Lebak from QueryTracker Blog. Peek: “Setting matters, but you can make it matter double if it gives a boost to character.”

Physical Attribute Entry: Hips by Angela Ackerman from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “A cocked hip is often a sign of confidence or dominance.”

By the U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate

Kenn Nesbitt is Named New U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate from Poetry at Play. Check out Ken’s site,

Tips to Make Sure You Look Amazing on Skype or Google+ Hangout by Miral Sattar from BiblioCrunch. Peek: “Elevate the laptop on a book (or books) so the video camera you have is slightly above your forehead.”

Cynsational YA Author Tip: Looking for a way to make your summer teen event more special? Consider doing a giveaway of Poison by the late Bridget Zinn (Hyperion, 2013). You can get multi-author-signed copies at BookPeople in Austin and add your signature.

What’s Up with the Super Short Picture Book Texts? by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “Sales are strong for shorter, character-driven picture books, as opposed to stories with longer, more detailed narratives and plots.”

Twitter Bio Tips from Aspiring and Published Authors by Victoria Scott from Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing. Peek: “Don’t post buy links. Instead, post a link to your website where readers can learn more about you and your book.”

Interview: YA Author Sarah Dessen & Editor Regina Hayes of Viking from The Slate. Peek: “The day I get your editorial letter is always both exciting and terrifying. On the one hand, I’m glad to not be all alone battling the revision process anymore. On the other, I’m always sure you’re going to suggest something that I won’t be able to fix or do.”

Cynsational Author Tip: Don’t upload placeholder/not-final versions of the covers to your books. They’ll linger on the Internet and may be mistaken and used for the final cover when the book is being discussed online.

A dystopian summer read!

New Dystopian Worlds to Explore by Katie Bircher from The Horn Book. Peek: “What makes for better summer reading than a page-turning thriller? Four recent titles introduce young adult readers to brand-new dystopian societies and their courageous teen rebels.”

Writing and the Psychology of Happiness by Ginger Johnson from Quirk and Quill. Peek: “What if, instead of focusing on making depression go away, we sidestep it, and consider what will bring us happiness? I’d like to spend some time looking at some different research — research that connects creativity and happiness rather than depression.”

How to Fix a Writer’s Fragmented Life by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “I can’t remember when my lists didn’t look overwhelming. Yours look overwhelming too. That doesn’t mean we need to be overwhelmed.”

Summer Survival Tips for Writers with Kids by P.J. Hoover from Roots in Myth. Peek: “During the school year my kids are in school which is all great and provides me some semblance of a normal schedule. But when summer starts, everything changes.”

Five Ways to Make the Ordinary Menacing in Your Suspense Novel by Brian Klems from Writer’s Digest. Peek: “The writer’s tools for achieving this are sensory detail and the slowing down of time.”

How Do I Get Useful Feedback from My Beta Readers? by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “Ask your readers open-ended questions or follow-up with questions like ‘Why?’ or ‘When?’ to encourage them to expand.” See also Is Your Work Ready for an Agent? by Carolyn Kaufman from QueryTrackerBlog.

See also Diversity in the News from CBC Diversity.

This Week at Cynsations

More on Jingle Dancer

The winner of Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl is Manju in Indiana. The winners of Bewitching by Alex Flinn are Anne in New York, Hania in Texas and Xaveria in New Mexico. The winners of Towering by Alex Flinn are Sara in Florida and Lauren in North Carolina. The winners of Diva by Alex Flinn are Savannah in Kentucky, Alicia Marie in Alabama and Taylor in Colorado.

More Personally

What an exciting and busy week it’s been! Lunch with a visiting children’s author, a librarian workshop in Oklahoma, and a public library visit in Lampasas, Texas! Plus, Jingle Dancer was chosen as the One Book, One San Diego book for kids!

Lunch with children’s author Peter Marino at ZTejas in Austin.
With Dr. Barbara J. Ray of Northeastern State University in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
Signing for library students and community members at NSU
With the Colombian Mammoth at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas
A Sanguini’s-inspired delight at Lampasas (Texas) Public Library
More Sanguini’s fare at Lampasas
With YA librarian Shanda Subia
With Lampasas book lovers

Personal Links

New Vision: Suzanne Del Rizzo on Skink on the Brink

By Lena Coakley
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations 

Suzanne Del Rizzo is the first-time illustrator of Skink on the Brink, written by Lisa Dalrymple (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Stewie is a very special skink — he has a beautiful blue tail which gives him a superpower against his enemies. Stewie loves singing his songs and rhymes as he dashes around his home. 

But as he grows up his beautiful blue tail starts to turn grey — he can’t call himself Stewie the Blue anymore! He just doesn’t feel quite so special anymore! And without his rhymes his home by the pond doesn’t feel as special anymore. 

But when he meets his new friend the woodpecker, Stewie comes to understand that changing is all a part of growing up and that there are still many things that make him a very special skink!

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2013, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

I am still pinching myself to be totally honest, that my first picture book, as an illustrator, debuted in May. Although my road to publication was initially quite circuitous, I feel like the last few years of focused effort helped me grow into my own as an illustrator.

But honestly nothing compares to the feeling of giddiness I felt when I got that magical call from Christie Harkin, children’s editor at Fitzhenry and Whiteside. My very first promo package just happened to cross her desk at just the right time. I was thrilled and eager and maybe a little terrified, all rolled up into one.

But like I said, I followed an unconventional path; I had always been artistic growing up, yet I decided to follow science in university and graduated with a BSc.H in Life Science. I worked in a medical research laboratory and created art as a hobby when time permitted.

But then I had a baby…and my perspective changed. Raising four kiddos as a stay-at-home mom was hectic yet fulfilling, but I realized that the fun I had creating art with kids, seeing the world through their eyes, was something I wanted to continue to explore, maybe in new profession like children’s book illustration.

I was especially drawn to books featuring dimensional illustrators, such as Jeanette Canyon, Kim Fernandes, Barbara Reid, and Susan Eaddy. I had worked with polymer clay and Plasticine for years in sculpture, but I was super excited to see this as a medium in picture book illustrations.

I worked on my portfolio for about two years and, in between naps and school pick-ups, found my own illustration style. During this time I also joined SCBWI and CANSCAIP, and set up a social media presence, joining LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, to get to know other illustrators and industry professionals.

I was very excited to make industry friends that were like me in so many ways–creative mommies following their passion. I also found this amazing website called zero2illo. Its creator, Jonathan Woodward, an illustrator himself, noticed a gap in the resources available to aspiring illustrators and set out to fill it. This website features fantastic resources, tutorials and next step guidance tips for aspiring illustrators. It provided the tools I needed to get my career plan in order and how to make it all happen.

I had quite a bit of self-doubt at the beginning with not having an art degree, so I also joined a critique group for illustrators. If there is one bit of advice I could give to aspiring illustrators it would be to join a critique group! I recently joined an author-illustrator critique group as I’d also love to write and illustrate picture books.

Once I felt my illustration samples were ready, I printed postcards, and created bookmarks, to include as a little take-away. I sent them out to the publishing houses that I felt were a good fit for my illustration style. And the stars aligned.

I got a call from Christie Harkin, children’s publisher at Fitzhenry and Whiteside after my very first massive postcard mailing. She liked my postcard but my little bookmarks caught her eye because she collects them–yay! My bookmarks made a difference.

She had a manuscript about a little skink that she felt would be a potential fit. I felt like I had won the lotto. I happy-danced around the house for days.

This year has been amazing. I have learned so much about the creation of picture books, and Christie has been so wonderful to answer my many questions. And because this book has curriculum tie-ins, Christie encouraged the author, Lisa Dalrymple, and myself to work together. I feel very blessed to have worked with an author on my debut picture book that was such a perfect fit.

So as I eagerly anticipated the launch of Skink on the Brink, I was also busily dreaming up ideas for promotional materials like bookplates, colouring pages… and for sure some little bookmarks.

I have learned that much of the children’s book industry comes down to timing, and dedication.

There are many very talented illustrators and writers out there. Put in the time to stay on the pulse of the industry, stay current, attend SCBWI and CANSCAIP talks/conferences, and create, create, create. Don’t be afraid to experiment to grow as an artist, to further develop your individual style, and hone your craft.

Send out only your very best work, because it just might cross the desk of that dream editor or publishing house at the right moment when they just happen to have a manuscript that is the perfect fit- and the stars align.

As an illustrator, how do you go about interpreting someone else’s work?

When I received that wonderful call from Christie Harkin, saying she’d like to work with me to illustrate Skink on the Brink, I was over the moon! My first picture book!

When I first heard the title, I have to admit, I hadn’t ever heard of a skink. But after discussing Stewie the skink’s storyline with Christie, I was very eager to read Lisa’s manuscript. Lisa’s story really resonated with me from the beginning. I was immediately smitten with Stewie, and had many great ideas popping into my head even as I read through it for the first time.

I let the story “bake in my noggin” for a few days, to give myself time to brainstorm in a stream of consciousness sort of way. I often find the best ideas come to you when you are just letting your thoughts flow, and not forcing it.

As a mom to four little ones, there are many times during the day that I can do this, whether it’s while I fold the laundry, make dinner, run errands or work-out, this thinking time is golden. I find it helpful to make lists of personality traits, like and dislikes, and quirks that would be fitting of the characters, based on the manuscript.

Once I had a few ideas I began character sketches. Personally, I like to use a lot of reference photos for my illustrations. I get my reference photos from a variety of sources; internet, nature magazines, and for Skink on the Brink I also took a ton of photos from my cottage, since it happens to be within one of the habitats for the five-lined skink.

Lisa also provided me with photos from her trips to Pinery Park where she actually got up close to a five-lined skink. Maybe it is the science/research side of me showing, but I am a stickler for accuracy in my details. To capture and portray them in Plasticine is a challenge I greatly enjoy.

Skink on the Brink also had a cross-curricular component in the back matter. I tried my best to ensure that everything—from habitat, vegetation, and even background animals—was all accurate and easily recognizable. Kids are smart and ask tons of great questions, and I knew this book would serve as a jumping off point for many new questions. This research really helped me get to know Stewie—to understand his habitat, challenges with predators, adaptations etc. I was then able to come up with creative ways of showing these struggles and adaptations in an interesting visual way.

I loved the challenge of showing Stewie’s growth, both in size (by depicting him in relation to better-known animals like a hummingbird) as well as in coloration, which changes during maturation.

Early on, I also had an idea to create a secondary visual storyline involving a variety of secondary animal characters who join Stewie on his self-discovery journey. When I discussed this with my editor Christie, and Lisa, the author, I was thrilled that they were both open to it.

The brainstorming sessions with Christie and Lisa were so helpful because we all had a similar vision. The synergistic result, I feel, helped bring additional layers to the book which I hope will enrich the readers’ experience.

Cynsational Notes

Lena Coakley was born in Milford, Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

She became interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto.

Witchlanders, her debut novel, was called “a stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews. It is a Junior Library Guild selection and an ABC new voices selection.

See also New Voice: Lena Coakley on Witchlanders and Author Lena Coakley Interviews Editor Hadley Dyer of HarperCollins Canada, both from Cynsations.

Metaphoric Matrix: Sara Zarr

By Elizabeth White
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

What is a metaphoric matrix? 

A metaphoric matrix is a newly-coined term used to describe a
novel-length metaphor that supports and catalyzes a character’s growth. 

In this series, we will be exploring how authors discover and craft metaphoric matrices in their novels.

Examples of metaphoric matrices include the tree that Melinda draws and visits in Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak and the tiger that Rob frees in Kate DiCamillo‘s The Tiger Rising

Below, I interview Sara Zarr about how she discovered and developed the metaphoric matrix in Story of a Girl (Little Brown, 2007). From the promotional copy:

When she is caught in the backseat of a car with her older brother’s best friend–Deanna Lambert’s teenage life is changed forever. Struggling to overcome the lasting repercussions and the stifling role of “school slut,” she longs to escape a life defined by her past. With subtle grace, complicated wisdom and striking emotion, Story of a Girl reminds us of our human capacity for resilience, epiphany and redemption.

Spoiler Alert: this interview references some character and plot points.

In Story of a Girl, Deanna’s journey is paralleled by the story of a
surfer girl who paddled too far out that Deanna writes in her journal.
At what point in your writing process did this side story occur to you?

It’s a bit difficult to recall now, but I remember that somewhere along the line a reader (it may have been someone in my writing group, or an agent that read and ultimately rejected) saying that she wished Deanna had something of her own in the midst of all of the problems in her family and with friends that she was having to react to.

I’d already finished a couple of drafts of the book that didn’t have Deanna’s journal in it, so it was a matter of weaving that into the next rewrite.

Were you aware, when it occurred to you, how important it would be to Deanna’s journey, or did its importance come as a surprise to you?

The process of writing a book is such a long and mysterious thing.

When it’s done and published, all of its past iterations seems like a dream, and everything has a sense of “importance,” I guess, or at least inevitability. It feels nearly impossible at this point to remember the story without her journals, but I also don’t remember being surprised (or not surprised) by their importance. They just are.

Do you feel like writing these journal entries helped you better understand Deanna and her journey, or did they seem more like ways to express what you already knew about her?

I think it was a convergence of a lot of things. One was just trying other ways to get into Deanna’s head and into her vulnerability. She’s so tough toward everyone and even to herself in a lot of ways, though in fact she cares deeply. Her toughness is a survival skill, and trust is hard for her.

The journal entries were a way to show her tenderness and vulnerability and longing in a way she doesn’t feel safe doing with others. She hardly feels safe doing it for herself in the journal form – there’s that moment where reading the journal is too painful and causes her to berate herself for caring, trying, expressing. All of this was a way to deepen her character.

“In my head I wrote the story of a girl who surfed the cold green ocean . . .” (Story of a Girl, p. 1).

Another thing was the Philip Booth poem, “First Lesson”, that appears in the front of the book. A friend had given that to me during the time I was revising the book. I was personally moved by the idea of survival through surrender–“lie gently and wide to the light-year stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.” That resonated with something my therapist was trying to get me to understand for myself around this same time period.

And at some point I wanted the girl in the story Deanna was writing to discover this, and in that process help Deanna discover it: that usually we can’t extract total justice or reconciliation from the painful situations we’re in, but people reach out and do their best and it is up to you to say, okay, this isn’t perfect and it doesn’t undo the pain, but I’m going to stop thrashing around and accept this friendship, this forgiveness, this apology, this family, this current version of myself, and trust that if I just relax and have some faith I’ll eventually be picked up by a passing boat or wash up onto the shore!

Once I understood it as Deanna telling a story about herself to herself, the purpose of the entries became more and more clear. We all do that–we’re crafting narratives about our various issues and experiences and trying to make sense of them in the context of the overall story of our lives.

I knew as I wrote that the journal would parallel Deanna’s inner goings-on but I didn’t want to hammer it. My editor helped me simplify and cut down on the entries so that it was enough without being too much.

When you titled Story of a Girl, did you have in mind that the girl is Deanna or that the girl is both Deanna and the surfer girl she writes about, or did you have in mind something else altogether?

The working title had been something different, and when I wrote the prologue and saw that sentence, “…and in my head I wrote the story of a girl who…”, I thought, oh that’s a better title, and with the journal entries it worked well, that there are actually all these stories about Deanna going on in the book. There’s Deanna’s story about herself, her story about the surfer girl, there’s Tommy’s story about her, there are the stories her peers tell about her, the story her father thinks about her, etc.

“I didn’t want to write about the girl on the waves anymore. I was scared to write about anything else.” (p. 98)

What was one of the most satisfying or surprising moments you encountered in writing Story of a Girl?

I think the interactions between Tommy and Deanna later in the book were really satisfying to write. You don’t often get a chance to re-encounter your nemesis and get something like closure, but, of course, not closure, and I liked how Tommy became a real human and not just a bad guy.

I was surprised by this.

In your own life, have you ever connected so deeply with an object, an animal, or an activity (other than writing) that it provided you transformative experiences, such as those Deanna has?

Well, I’m not sure about that, but I do see metaphors in everything. I’m diabetic, and see a lot of metaphors in my rituals of insulin injection and record-keeping. I see metaphors in nature, and when I’m watching children interact, and of course in poetry and music and reality TV!

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who are trying to learn to craft novel-length metaphors?

I don’t know if it’s something you should try to learn to do or be conscious of doing. I think it will come naturally if it’s right for the book, and the most important thing is probably cultivating a habit of attention so that you’re seeing these things in your own daily life and relationships, and just kind of viewing the world with the assumption that there is meaning to be found nearly everywhere.

“The girl thought of the sea, flat and steely.
Dead.” (p. 21)

Cynsational Notes

Elizabeth White is currently at work on a young adult novel about a teen
artist who discovers her own voice. She is a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts and has an M.F.A. in Poetry from Texas State University.

Her poems have been published online and in small journals, as well as
in two handmade poetry collections illustrated with her woodblock print

Jingle Dancer Chosen as the One Book, One San Diego Book for Kids

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins) has been chosen as the One Book, One San Diego Book for Kids!

According to KPBS San Diego: “Special family-friendly events with the author will take place this fall alongside regular One Book activities!” I look forward to traveling to San Diego in October to participate in the celebration.

More details to come!

Live Google+ Hangout: Other Times, Other Worlds in YA Lit

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Join me, Janet S. Fox (Sirens), Deborah Noyes (Plague in the Mirror), P.J. Hoover (Solstice), and Joy Preble (The Sweet Dead Life) live online at 1 p.m. central/2 p.m. Eastern June 13 for a Google+ Hangout on the Candlewick Press Google+ page.

We’ll be talking about our latest releases and writing both realistic and fantastical fiction for young adult readers. Peek:

“The authors will take part in a dynamic discussion, exploring the challenges and joys of world-building, creating romantic elements, writing gender roles, and the parallel between fantasy and historical writing.”

Follow Candlewick at Google+ and learn about how to join a Hangout.

New Voice: Corina Vacco on My Chemical Mountain

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Corina Vacco is the first-time author of My Chemical Mountain (Delacorte, 2013)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Rocked by his father’s recent death and his mother’s sudden compulsion to overeat, Jason lashes out by breaking into the abandoned mills and factories that plague his run-down town. 

Always by his side are his two best friends, Charlie, a fearless thrill junkie, and Cornpup, a geek inventor whose back is covered with cysts. The boys rage against the noxious pollution that suffocates their town and despise those responsible for it; at the same time, they embrace the danger of their industrial wasteland and boast about living on the edge.

Then one night the boys vandalize one of the mills. Jason makes a costly mistake—and unwittingly becomes a catalyst for change. In a town like his, change should be a good thing. There’s one problem: change is what Jason fears most of all.

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?

My three main characters engage in a form of self-injury, like cutting, but not as universal. They’ve spent their entire lives in a dangerously-polluted town, and with no hope of relocating, they cope in extreme ways—swimming in (and sometimes swallowing) contaminated creek water, partying in the industrial yards, breaking into condemned factories, and digging for Freak Museum relics at the base of a radioactive landfill.

They’re not really trying to harm themselves; instead, they’re trying to infuse their lives with adrenaline rushes that sometimes feel like hope. And they’re raging against the pollution and those responsible.

When researching the real-life toxic neighborhood that inspired the setting for My Chemical Mountain, I interviewed people who’d grown up near the landfills. They told stories about playing in the toxic waste, how the soles of their shoes would melt, how they knew it was dangerous in some nebulous way (but mostly felt invincible), and how the consequences seemed to linger in the far off future.

I worried for these people, respected them. And I understood the complexities of their defense-mechanisms.

By embracing the pollution, by choosing it, they weren’t victims. By purposely cutting their hands open on sharp rocks, and by purposely climbing a decrepit grain elevator that might collapse, they were in control of what harm would befall them.

The challenge was writing about their edgy behavior in a way that truly represented the complexity of their motivations. I didn’t want the boys to be dismissed as thoughtless thrill-seekers. I wanted to be sure their secret fears, their underlying sadness, and a sense of unhinged anger came through.

When one of the boys takes his vigilante sense of justice too far, I wanted readers to understand that his actions were violent and generous. He, more than any of the others, boasted about living on the edge…and later we find out, he was terrified.

Corina’s work space

My characters make some very bad decisions, but they are not fools. They are deeply human.

It seems when authors write about edgy language and behavior, naysayers come out of the woodwork to warn us—if your characters swear, you’ll be banned from school libraries! If your characters set bad examples, you won’t win any awards! If you depict serious violence, it’s going to look like you condone it!—but I don’t think we should write to please the naysayers.

I think we should write only for young adults, a readership that doesn’t cower from the edgy.

Still, there are challenges. An edgy setting can be difficult. I wondered how to write about toxicity and danger in a way that wasn’t just ugly.

One of my favorite authors, Laurie Halse Anderson, is a master of this. Learning from her work, I decided to temper the disturbing images with lyrical language, which makes for an interesting contrast.

I used a similar technique with my characters. Yes, they do things that are shocking and terrifying and dark and inexplicable, but at the same time, they are strong and vulnerable and brave and loyal. I really had no choice but to let them tell their stories with raw honesty, and I’m so glad I did. I think we, as writers, owe this to our characters and our readers.

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?

Originally, I’d planned to tell this story in third person. I was finishing up the tail end of my landfill research, organizing all the interviews and newspaper clippings, but my intuition told me to hold off on writing the actual story.

Research — contaminated landfill near school

I was still living in Western New York, and had just heard that local officials were hosting a town meeting to discuss one of the controversial (and contaminated) landfills at the edge of a residential neighborhood. I had something to say on the matter, so I attended the meeting with a friend of mine who lived so close to the landfill she’d actually received an official letter advising her not to eat vegetables out of her garden or dig holes below a certain depth.

The meeting floored me. I’ll never forget the concerns voiced that night—I was especially moved by a teacher who worked at an elementary school adjacent to the landfill, how concerned she was for her students—and I’ll never forget how it didn’t matter.

The landfill was declared safe. No remediation would be done. Ever. It was over.

At that moment, I realized, even though I would be moving back to Florida soon, Western New York would always be a part of me. I cared deeply about its well-being. The pollution felt personal.

A few days later I was walking my dog through Buffalo’s Elmwood Art District when my main character’s voice, Jason’s voice, spoke up in my head. He just ambushed me. I’d heard other writers talk about this happening, so I knew what to do: I started asking him questions.

  • How do you feel about living so close to that landfill? 
  •  What do you miss most about your dad? 
  • Your anger is enormous, what do you do with it all? 
  • If you agree the industrial yards are dangerous, why do you and your friends hang out there all the time? 
  • How do you feel, walking in Charlie’s shadow? 
  • If you could take back only one mistake in your whole life, would it be that night at the grain mill? 
Morpheus aka Morph Man

After that initial Q&A, I couldn’t shut him up. His anger sometimes woke me in the middle of the night. He was intrusive. Writing in third person suddenly seemed highly inappropriate, like I would’ve been needlessly filtering him. So I sat down to write in first person, and Jason told his story.

I guess it was a sort of magic spell. The moment the story wasn’t just something I wanted to write, but something I needed to write, the moment I ached for Jason’s future and the future of his hometown, that’s when he appeared.

I think a great way to tap into that magic is to worry about your character, and I mean really worry. From there, put your pen to paper and listen quietly.

Miles and Santa

Guest Interview: Philip Reeve on Gender and Romance in Fantasy

By Laini Bostian
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Librarian Laini Bostian blogs at The Made Up Librarian. Today she talks to Philip Reeve about gender and romance in fantastical fiction.  

Laini: I’m curious about is the choice to have a male or female narrator for a book and if authors writing for a high school audience (as opposed to fifth-to-eighth grade) feel that romance is essential to making a book for that age group marketable.

Philip: I’ll start with the question of male or female narrators (or main characters, I guess, since most of my books are written in third person).

To be honest, it’s not one to which I give a lot of conscious thought. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything with the intention of making a book more marketable, apart from maybe speeding up the pace a bit in some of them. I tend to just write the ideas that come to me, in the vague hope that somebody else might be interested in them.

But I think a good book needs a romance in it; I’m never completely satisfied by stories with an all-male cast, of which of course there used to be many when I was younger – war and adventure stories where women never got a look-in. And I used to read a lot of my sister’s books; Anne of Green Gables and things like that, so as a child I was perfectly happy reading about girls.

 So I’ve always tended to try and have a strong female and male character, who sort of balance each other, and then it kind of makes sense to have them fall in love. The Mortal Engines books had some quite strong girls in them, so when I did Larklight:A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space  I thought I’d turn the tables a bit.

The narrator is a young boy and he’s always complaining about his sister Myrtle, who is older, and very prim and prudish and snobby.

But to my surprise there came a point when Myrtle seized control of the narration – they get split up, so I had to put some pages from her diary in to carry her side of the story – and although she’s still prim and prudish she does have a certain ridiculous strength.

In Here Lies Arthur, I made the narrator a girl because books set in that kind of Dark Ages setting are generally about boys – there’s a British author called Rosemary Sutcliff whose work I’ve always loved, and her books are always about boys in Roman and early medieval times growing up, becoming warriors or whatever: I just thought I might be able to step out of her shadow a bit if I made my main character a girl.

But then my whole view of the Dark Ages was that this was a society
where girls weren’t really allowed to do anything, which would have been
a dull story, so she ends up being disguised as a boy, which allowed me
to play about with all sorts of gender stuff.

And of course she meets a
boy whose mother keeps him disguised as a girl to save him from being
called up to fight in the endless wars, and a strange sort of romance
springs up there!

In Scrivener’s Moon, the most recent of the Fever Crumb books, I tried something a bit different, because it seemed to me that I was always writing about teenagers falling in love and having these satisfying relationships, and that’s not something that really happens to many teenagers.

When I was a teenager I was always falling in love with some girl or other, but I never had the nerve to ask any of them out!

So I wanted to write about that sort of teenage crush, instead, which goes nowhere and is never even spoken of, but can still feel profoundly important – I still think back to my teenage years in terms of whichever unattainable girl I was in love with at the time – 1980-82 was Helen T., 1983-4 Louise C., etc.

So I wanted Fever to have a crush on someone, but since she’s rather a rational, straightforward person I couldn’t picture her being too shy to tell a boy she fancied him, so I had her fall in love with a girl instead. Which is still a taboo, even in the far future, sadly, so she keeps it entirely to herself, and my plan was that she would never speak of it, that it should just be her secret, which she carries right through the book. But I found that made the book feel kind of unfinished, in some way; it was as if there was a loose connection in there that stopped the story from lighting up.

So when I was going through the proofs for the final time I added this little moment right at the end where she does explain how she feels, or at least the other girl starts to understand – we don’t know how she feels about it, whether Fever’s feelings will be returned, it just kind of hangs there – but it seemed to finish the story. Unlike real life, stories have to have some kind of closure, I think; feelings need to lead somewhere, where in reality they often just fade away.

I generally don’t have a target age group in mind when I write. I don’t think my tastes have developed very far since I was about 13, and I just try to entertain myself.

My new book, Goblins, was aimed slightly younger, because I wanted something I could read to my son. He was only 9 when I wrote it, and I did leave out romance, because I’d noticed how much it embarrasses him if we’re watching a film or something and a love scene comes on.

I let him watch “Avatar,” despite being a bit worried that all the monsters and violence would frighten him.

He didn’t mind them at all – he loved all that stuff! – but when the hero and heroine had their very brief, chaste little kiss he hid his face and went, “Euuuurrgh!’ and I remember thinking, right, no lovey-dovey stuff in books for that age group.

So there’s a friendship at the heart of Goblins instead; a friendship between a human boy and a goblin, and it takes the place that a boy/girl romance might have had if I’d been writing for older readers.

As for the book I most felt I needed to write, I suppose that would the Mortal Engines quartet, and Here Lies Arthur.

Laini: Romance is not the only major experience teenagers have; so
why does it have to be included in books for older readers? Friendship
is a much stronger and prevalent issue I think. 

Philip: That’s true, but of course most authors are working in a tradition which tends to demand that there’s some sort of love interest in a story.

And I think most people like to get a male and a female character in, so that readers of both sexes will have someone to identify with, and perhaps that pushes us to write more about romance than friendship. Though a non-romantic friendship between a boy and girl might be interesting in a book.

I think books about friendship are more common in the children’s field, which is really where a lot of my stuff fits – there was really no such thing as YA when I started.