Cynsations Holiday Hiatus

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Many blessings over the winter holidays! I’ll see you again early in the New Year!

Happy (Almost) 2014!

In the meantime, follow me at my facebook author page and/or twitter @CynLeitichSmith, where I’ll be highlighting the same kind of children’s-YA writing and publishing news you expect from my weekly roundup. You can also enter to win one of four copies of Feral Curse from Candlewick at Goodreads. Deadline: Jan. 2, 2014!

In Seussville at Universal’s Islands of Adventure
With Greg Leitich Smith at Gingerbread Who-ville at the Four Seasons Austin
Gingerbread Who-ville at the Four Seasons Austin
LEGO Store at Downtown Disney Marketplace

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Esther Hershenhorn Recommends Snowflakes Fall by Patricia Maclachlan, illustrated Steven Kellogg (Random House, 2013) from Teaching Authors. Peek: “In a Feb. 25 Publishers Weekly interview, Patricia MacLachlan shared that the snowflake motif used to underscore each individual’s uniqueness and the power of nature and time to help heal was inspired by the Connecticut Parent Teachers Association’s efforts to encourage people to create paper snowflakes to decorate the new school Sandy Hook
students would be attending.” See also Diverse & Impressive Picture Books of 2013 from the International Reading Association.

Online Author Visits’ Holiday Offer from readergirlz. Peek: “We are a group of children’s authors that do Skype and Google visits with classrooms and book clubs across the country (we donate 25% percent of our fee to a chosen charity). To celebrate such a successful year, we are hosting a contest where two winners will get to each choose two books from among our talented author pool…winners will also get to choose a school library of their choice to receive a collection of five books valued at over $150!”

Creating an Ironic Tone in Your Fiction by Jack Smith from Elizabeth Spann Craig. Peek: “To create the right tone, you need to think about character actions, dialogue, and setting. All of these will affect the tone of your story or novel. But you also need to attend to matters of style. Being something of an iconoclast, I tend to go for irony. An ironic tone is, of course, the right tone for satire—which is my usual medium.”

The winner of SCBWI’s 2013 Jane Yolen Mid-List Author Award is Eve Feldman, author of such works as Billy and Milly Short and Silly (Putnam) and Dog Crazy (Tambourine). Eve has been a children’s book author and SCBWI member for over twenty years. Honor grants also were awarded to authors Verla Kay and Deborah Lynn Jacobs. Verla Kay is the author of Civil War Drummer Boy (Putnam) and Hornbooks and Inkwells (Putnam) among others. Deborah Lynn Jacobs is the author of the young adult novels Choices (Roaring Brook Press) and Powers (Square Fish). See also Gifts by Brian Yansky from Brian’s Blog: Diary of a Writer.

BookPeople, Random House Partner on Pen-Pal Literacy Initiative by Paige Crutcher from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Inspired by Shana Burg’s middle grade novel Laugh with the Moon, BookPeople and Random House Children’s Books have teamed up with the Austin Independent School District to launch Words Across the World, a pen-pal program connecting Austin, Tex., students with students from Malawi, Africa.” See also Words Across the World from BookPeople.

Middle Grade Novels and Relationships by Dianne K. Salerni from Project Mayhem. Peek: “Chances are they will never tame a gryphon, battle a Cyclops, or find a lost treasure, but they will experience broken promises, unexpected friendships, betrayal, and random acts of kindness.” See also Things Left Unspoken by Robin LaFevers from Writer Unboxed.

Where’s the Diversity? The New York Times Top 10 Bestseller List & Interview with Author Charles Yu from Lee and Low. Peek: “Only three out of the 124 authors who appeared on the list during 2012 are people of color.” See Audrey’s Top Eight Multicultural Titles for 2013 from Rich in Color.

Character Descriptions: Learn from the Pros by Jodie Renner from Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “…my clients often tend to over-describe characters, with too much emphasis on specific visual details. Readers…enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of piecing things together and drawing their own conclusions about characters.”

Lasso A Daydream by Nikki Grimes from Teaching Books. Peek: “By the time I was ten, I could lasso a daydream and ride the wind.”

Multicultural Holiday Books: a bibliography by Nicole Lee Martin from ALSC Blog. Peek: “The Public Awareness Committee makes a special effort to promote programs and books that celebrate multiculturalism through promotion of El día de los niños/ El día de los libros, commonly known as Día, and…you will find some of my favorite multicultural holiday picture books.”

More Awards

Cynsational Screening Room


Cynsational Giveaways

The winners of sets of Mitchell Goes Driving and Mitchell Goes Bowling by Hallie Durand (Candlewick) are Jeri and Anastasia.

See also a giveaway of a paperback copy of The Diviners by Libba Bray and tie-in tote from Jen Bigheart at I Read Banned Books and a five-book giveaway of World After by Susan Ee from Adventures in YA Publishing.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Seussville at Universal’s Islands of Adventure
It’s almost time for Cynsations holiday hiatus. I’m still writing, still on deadline, but the great news is that I think I’ve figured out a more exciting, satisfying and costly ending to my work in progress. 

First review! Kirkus Reviews says of Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014): “Campy humor is paired with themes of social justice in this fast-paced, clever second volume in the Feral series….A neat, smart middle novel that clearly sets the stage for an epic showdown between those who champion the rights of shifters and those blind to their humanity.”

Congratulations to Cory Putnam Oaks on the sale of “Dinosaur Boy” to Aubrey Poole at Sourcebooks, in a two-book deal!

Congratulations to the Spirit of Texas Reading Program 2014 Middle School Authors, including Cynthia Levinson, Katherine Catmull and Kelly Milner Halls!

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Writing for Children & Young Adults at 10 a.m. PST Dec. 18 from WritersWebTV. Peek: “…if you want to write for children, you need more than just a good story – what age group are you writing for, what are the demands of that market? How long should your book be? We’ll answer all these questions and give you essential tips and techniques to capture a young reader.” Featuring picture book creators Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick and Michael Emberley; Norton Virgien, Emmy award winning director of ‘Henry Hugglemonster’ and ‘Doc McStuffins’; literary agent Polly Nolan, (previously editorial director of Macmillan Children’s Books); and award-winning novelist Meg Rosoff. Note: Enroll to watch live for free or purchase for €49.

Guest Interview: Kathi Appelt & N. Griffin on The Whole Stupid Way We Are

Author photo by Leigh Elise

By Kathi Appelt
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

N. Griffin is the first-time author of The Whole Stupid Way We Are (Atheneum, 2013). From the promotional copy:

It’s Maine. It’s winter. And it’s freezing stinkin’ cold! 

Dinah is wildly worried about her best friend, Skint. He won’t wear a coat. Refuses to wear a coat. It’s twelve degrees out, and he won’t wear a coat. 

So Dinah’s going to figure out how to help. That’s what Dinah does—she helps. But she’s too busy trying to help to notice that sometimes, she’s doing more harm than good. Seeing the trees instead of the forest? That’s Dinah.

And Skint isn’t going to be the one to tell her. He’s got his own problems. He’s worried about a little boy whose dad won’t let him visit his mom. He’s worried about an elderly couple in a too-cold house down the street.

But the wedge between what drives Dinah and what concerns Skint is wide enough for a big old slab of ice. Because Skint’s own father is in trouble. Because Skint’s mother refuses to ask for help even though she’s at her breaking point. And because Dinah might just decide to…help. She thinks she’s cracking through a sheet of ice, but what’s actually there is an entire iceberg.

KA: First of all congratulations on being recognized as a “Flying Start” by Publishers Weekly! That’s a sweet recognition for you and your first book, The Whole Stupid Way We Are. In addition, the story of Dinah and Skint is getting quite a bit of critical acclaim.

NG: Thank you so much, Kathi! I was really grateful for this—it was so surprising and lovely to see that other people liked Dinah and Skint, too.

KA: Would you first of all, tell us where Dinah and Skint came from? Who are they and what would you like us to know most about both of them?

NG: What a neat question! Both Dinah and Skint came from all over the place even as both of them also came from parts of me. Dinah is a kind of willfully childlike teenager, which I know can be either super irritating or super appealing to people without many reactions in between. I’ve known a lot of teens (heck, even a lot of adults) like this.

I tend to love that kind of person, because in so many instances, there is so much awareness behind that retreat into childhood—a sense of keenly experienced or understood pain. And I think that is exactly true of Dinah. She knows just how hard life can be, for herself but almost more especially for other people, and she’s having none of it, on everyone’s behalf.

Skint is a bleaker, sadder kid. Retreat to childhood isn’t an option, because in many ways, he’s the most adult person in his own life and has to be. I’ve known tons of kids like this and was a kid like this, too, actually—even though I have a good dose of childlikeness in me as well. Likely because of the adultness, come to think of it.

But another big part of the creation of Skint was my belief that we sell our teens short. We are so quick to paint them as selfish and dippy that we disregard the truth that many kids and teens do feel the weight of the world and human suffering very keenly. The problem is our culture neither expects teens’ care nor offers them many clear paths to take action on that care, when action is, I think, the only antidote to the anger and powerlessness that we feel in the face of injustice.

So Skint is sort of an amalgam of these aspects of lots of kids I’ve known (and also parts of teen-me, but he is smarter and funnier than I ever was) as well as being possessed of a fully invented personality of his own.

KA: The weather in this book stands almost as a metaphor for the way that the characters and the readers too have to chip through the ice to get to a warm place. The freezing cold makes an appearance on almost every page, and in fact, while I read it, I felt shivery. And yet, Skint refuses to wear a coat. I kept wanting to throw a blanket over him, so I understand Dinah’s urge to protect him. What was going on there? Why the exposure to the elements?

NG: I think that sometimes, when something is unbearable, we do things to obliterate everything as a way of shutting out the unbearable as well as the feelings that come along with that.

In The Whole Stupid Way We Are, Skint is terrified, rage-filled and full of despair because of his home situation—a situation that is so overwhelming and so large a secret that is it more than anyone could bear alone. And Skint can’t. So, for me, his non-coat-wearing creates a physical discomfort so great it blasts away all those feelings and replaces them with the pure, physical misery of freezing.

I think there’s also a large dose of self-punishment in there, too. Other people might use drugs, not eat, cut, listen to loud music or play video games to do the same thing, but Skint freezes.

It kills me, too.

KA: The local church plays a large role here as well. And in fact, Dinah’s father is the Choir Director. Nevertheless, you skillfully kept religion out of the story for the most part. Still, the church serves as the “village” for this story. Can you talk about that?

Photo by Tobin Anderson

NG: I love churches, temples, any place of worship (except crazy persecuting ones, of course). I love belief and I love the hope of people coming together to bring out the best of what we can be on this earth.

At the same time, I think that it can be impossibly hard to reconcile the idea of love with the truth of suffering. And this is, I think, one of the central ideas of the book. So it made sense to me that a church would be front and center and the backdrop of everything, and that different characters would respond in vastly different ways to awfulness of that contradiction.

Also I am a fool for a potluck.

KA: One of the most riveting scenes is the one with the dancing donkey. Where did that come from?

NG: Oh, I love Walter the donkey! I still think about him all the time. He came to me in a flash—I always knew just the type of sad/not sad activities Dinah and Skint would love—what I wound up calling “Fantastic or Excruciating?” adventures, or FoE’s, in the book. These are performances, usually, that are so on the border between phenomenal and cringe-worthy that’s it’s tough to sit through them because you feel the passion and need of the performers so keenly and you want things to go well for them.

So one morning I was thinking about this when Walter stepped politely into my mind and I got all weepy because I loved him so much. Which is kind of obnoxious, when you think about it.

I moved my own self! Come on, Griffin.

KA: Each of your characters is so carefully drawn, so alive. One of my favorites is Dinah’s baby brother, Beagie. Through him, you gave us the wonderful phrase, “boss of light.” In fact, the story is shot through with the struggle between light and dark. Can you talk about that? And why Beagie? Why is he the fulcrum for the opposing sides?

NG: Thank you for loving Beagie! I still love him, too. Heck, I guess I still love all of those characters.

Good old Beagie was in the book from the start and I didn’t really think much about why until a lot later. He’s thirteen months old, which is an age I love and am fascinated by—a time when a lot of babies are furious because they want so badly to talk but can’t yet. Their frustration at their powerlessness makes them roar around, acting like the boss of things, which reaction makes perfect sense to me.

And so, in retrospect, I can see how my subconscious plucked a Beagie forth as another way to think about the tension between wanting power and the hideousness of not having it. But who’s to say?

Beagie is Beagie and he wants his sippy cup right now, please.

KA: This book is a testament to the very real ramifications of mental illness and the way it impacts families, friends, villages. You shone a light on the struggle that especially the caregivers have to face, including shame, which seems to underlie much of what Skint and his mother are coping with. But it’s Dinah’s reaction that is so telling. Would you talk about that?

NG: Sure. Dinah is a girl who has experienced death through the loss of an elderly relative, and that grief is keen and unyielding for her. So, I think in large part, she can’t bear for Skint to feel any pain even remotely akin to that, and she makes it her impossible business to save him from it.

But I also think, in her secret heart, she doesn’t want her own pain to be triggered in any way, and that makes her avoid, at least in part, the magnitude of Skint’s true pain as well.

I think this is such a familiar predicament to a lot of people, especially teenagers. I know I was very much this way as a younger girl. Poor Dinah. It’s an awful setup to want to save someone so badly.

KA: What do you hope your young readers will find here? What do you want to give them in return for reading this story?

NG: I hope that they experience the book as a true reflection of what it can be like to struggle with the hard things I’ve been talking about in these responses, whether they’ve had those kinds of struggles or not.

But I also hope they find a lot of light and humor in the book, and that their reading gives them the option of thinking about Dinah and Skint as friends they’d want to hang out with.

I did try to put in a lot of funny bits, y’all.

KA: On a more personal note, can you tell us a wee bit about your writing life?

NG: Oh, my writing life is a vile thing, people. I have a lot of anxiety around writing and every word is a battle. I have no tips for this. We terrified types must just bash through and salute our brethren and sistren who struggle along like this, too.

But here is an underdeveloped picture of the comfy chaise in which I do a lot of the struggling.

KA: And finally, what is next? And when will we see it?

NG: Next up is an untrammeledly fun book—a cheerful middle grade mystery with a pair of best friend detectives. It’s untitled as yet because I am so vastly bad at thinking of titles. But the detective children are named Smashie and Dontel and I love them. That book is scheduled for fall 2014 from Candlewick.

And right now, I am working on a new YA and I will be done with that in about 2079, probably. Maybe 2078 if I really get on the stick. Yargh.

Thank you so much for having me, Cyn and Kathi! You all are superheroine tangerine pies.

KA: I can’t wait. 

About Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt’s books have won numerous national and state awards.

Her first novel, The Underneath,
was a National Book Award Finalist and a Newbery Honor Book. It also
received the Pen USA Award, and was a finalist for the Heart of Hawick
Children’s Book Award. Her most recent novel, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, was also a National Book Award Finalist. Kathi serves as a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts in their MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.

Her cats are named Jazz, Hoss, D’jango, Peach, Mingus and Chica.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Becca Puglisi on Where Do Character Strengths Come From?

By Becca Puglisi
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Quick, name a favorite literary or movie character. Now, what is it about him/her that’s so appealing?

In all likelihood, the reason you love that character is because he or she embodies a trait that you value: Atticus Finch’s bravery, George Bailey’s selflessness, James Bond’s charisma.

It’s not surprising that these icons landed in the top ten of AFI’s Top 100 Heroes and Villains list. While flaws play a part in eliciting reader empathy, it is a character’s ability to overcome his weakness that inspires the audience.

And what enables the hero to win the day? Usually, it’s his positive attributes—his persistence, confidence, responsibility, or ambition—that allow him to succeed. This is why it’s crucial that we pick the right attributes for our characters.

But how do you know which ones are a good fit for your hero? Fully-realized characters, like real people, aren’t formed out of the air. They’re a result of many different elements that come together to make the character who he is in the current story.

When determining which attributes your character will embrace, consider the following influencers:

Past Factors

Genetics: Since this one is simple, we’ll get it out of the way first. Some traits, like intelligence, talent, and creativity, are simply handed-down through DNA. Having a character share a trait with his mother, grandfather, or even a distant uncle can add believability to his embodiment of that trait.

Upbringing and Caregivers: Everything about your character’s first role models will influence him, from their personal values to the way they spoke to him to the amount and quality of time they spent with him.

If his relationship with his caregivers was positive, he may adopt their attributes as his own as a way of showing respect. If the relationship wasn’t great, he may shun the qualities that they espoused so as to create distance. Family dynamics play a huge role in forming personality; this should definitely be taken into consideration when choosing positive attributes for your hero.

Negative Experiences: While these wounding events from the past are most often associated with the formation of flaws, positive attributes can develop from them, too. The victim of a vicious attack may become cautious and alert because of it. The boy whose father never kept his word may grow up to value honesty. The oldest child of a neglectful parent may learn, by necessity, to embrace maturity and resourcefulness.

Without a doubt, flaws do tend to form when we experience these traumatizing events, but positives can come out of them, too. Keep that in mind when mining your character’s backstory for potential strengths.

Present Factors

Physical Environment: A character who grew up in the mountains is going to have a different perspective than someone who was raised in the big city. Americans tend to value things that Parisians or Brazilians or even Canadians don’t. Physical environments are formative—the ones from the past, and even the place where your character lives now. A southern belle who moves to downtown Chicago is likely going to experience some personality shifts during her transition.

Your character’s environment will subtly influence the kind of person that she becomes; choose her living places deliberately so her attributes will make sense to readers.

Peers: At certain points in life, your character’s peers will become her biggest influencers. Through her desire to please them and be accepted, she may adopt some of their values for her own. Sometimes, she may become like them out of a genuine respect for their beliefs and a desire to embrace them for herself.

Like caregivers, past and present peers can greatly impact who your character becomes, so take them into consideration.

Values and Ethics: This one is a biggie, because, in my opinion, it overrides all of the other factors.

The bottom line: your character will adopt or reject attributes based on what he or she believes. Does she place a high value on her reputation and what others think? Then she will likely espouse propriety and discretion while rejecting uninhibitedness. Your character’s morals and personal beliefs will play a powerful role in the formation of her strengths. If you want her to make sense to readers, make sure that her values, ethics, and positive attributes line up.

In Summary

Every character needs some strong positive qualities so she’ll be capable of reaching her goals and drawing in readers. While the easiest method would be to pick and choose random attributes, doing so will result in a character that lacks authenticity.

To avoid this, explore your hero’s backstory. Dig into these developmental factors to learn as much about them and their effect on your hero as possible. With this kind of information, you’ll be able to create a realistic and well-rounded protagonist armed with the qualities she needs to succeed.

And who knows? Maybe she’ll end up on somebody’s Top 10 List someday.

About Becca Puglisi 

Becca Puglisi is the co-creator of The Bookshelf Muse, an award winning online resource for writers. She has also authored a number of nonfiction resource books for writers, including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Emotion; The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes; and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws.

A member of SCBWI, she leads workshops at regional conferences, teaches webinars through WANA International, and can be found online at her Writers Helping Writers website.

Cynsations Giveaway

Enter to win a PDF copy of The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes. Eligibility: international. Author sponsored.

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Guest Post: Greg Pincus on Writing & Marketing with Serious Lead Time

By Greg Pincus
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Greg Pincus is the first-time author of The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Gregory K. comes from a family of mathematical geniuses. But if he claimed to love math he’d be fibbing. 

What he really wants most is to go to Author Camp. But to get his parents’ permission he’s going to have to pass his math class, which has a probability of 0. 

Hilariously it’s the “Fibonacci Sequence,” a famous mathematical formula, that comes to the rescue.

I can safely say I never expected to be making my authorial debut in 2013…or at least I didn’t when I agreed to the deal for The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. back in April of 2006. Admittedly, there was no manuscript at the time, so I didn’t think I’d be debuting in 2006… but if you’d said 2013, I’d’ve laughed politely and said “I sure hope not.”

The journey, I will freely admit, has not always been entirely pleasant. One low point for me was the decision to jettison the entire first draft of my book and start over.

Okay, not totally over – the basic family structure and bones of the plot remained intact, as did a joke about fish sticks. Still, I think there are fewer than five sentences in the final book that are recognizable from the first draft, it went from first to third person, the structure changed, and the style/tone changed.

Even at the time I knew that my editor, Arthur Levine, was right in his suggestion to rethink…but that first draft was a labor of love and was fueled by passion and excitement.

So…no, that was not pleasant. Necessary for sure, but not pleasant.

I’ve learned plenty of lessons along the way, too, some of which are not necessarily applicable to other people or situations. For instance, if you happen to finish a draft of your novel when your editor is working 168 hours a week on the final Harry Potter book, you will not hear back with notes as quickly as you would under normal circumstances. Go figure.

Other lessons, though, strike me as more universal. In no particular order, here are things I learned or was reminded of during the 14 Fibs trip from brainstorm to final book:

  • writing is hard; 
  • rewriting is hard; 
  • listening deeply to intelligent notes will make your work better; 
  • focusing on the story you want to tell and not treating others’ ideas as prescriptions will also make your writing better; 
  • patience might or might not be a virtue but it is definitely necessary; 
  • be kind to yourself as you struggle to find the right word or phrase or storyline;
  •  and remember that everyone who gives you notes or hears you talk about your process wants you to write the best possible book and is offering their thoughts to help get you there.

It’s been quite a journey from inspiration until publication, and when all’s said and done, I’m thrilled to be making my debut in 2013 – the perfect time, because that’s simply how long it took to be ready.

Dog in a desk!

It also turns out that there are advantages to a longer road to first publication. After all, author/marketer Seth Godin has said that the best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out.

Heck, I had seven years lead time!

It does seem to me, though, that I hear more about marketing and promotion being an author’s job now than I did back in 2006.

Another advantage of my long journey, then, is that I’ve had lots of time to observe what others have done in terms of promotion. As a result, I’ve been able to pick a few ideas to focus on that I think will work for me and which make me feel comfortable – I know why I’m doing what I’m doing, so it feels good to me. Plus, I’ve found that most of my PR/marketing “ideas” are opportunities that spring up organically or are simply things I think would be fun.

The organic is easier to describe: because I’ve spent a lot of time over these years being active offline and online – blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, and the like – I’ve developed amazing relationships with wonderful people, and it turns out that these relationships have ended up creating lots of opportunities for me and The 14 Fibs.

For example, I have Skype visits set up with teachers who I’ve known and often blogged alongside for years and with others who I’ve only recently come to know. I’ve had bloggers and Twitter/Facebook friends help spread the word about my book trailer, cover reveal and other news. I’ve found myself in newsletters, been given names of people to talk to, and had wonderful interactions with folks all around the world.

Launch Pie!

Of course, I would pursue a brilliant PR idea if I had one, or hire someone to help me, as needed. But so far, my “big ideas” have all be things I think would be fun for me and others.

Along those lines, I streamed my book launch live on the web so my friends and family could be part of the celebration with me. Sure, that gave me another chance to remind everyone that my book was out (it is, by the way. You should all go buy it, of course, as I hear it makes a great gift!) and could lead to interesting PR opportunities, too, as it was “new”… but, for me, it was simply a blast to connect with others in a fun, different way.

What I’m doing may not be considered traditional PR or marketing paths, of course, but it’s all about the ideas that work for me. Nothing feels like a chore or a task, so I never resent it. I have fun, still have time to work, and also know I’m doing what I can to support my book.

And after the long journey I took to publication, I can’t imagine doing anything less than giving The 14 Fibs the love it deserves.

Guest Post: e.E. Charlton-Trujillo on Your Book, Your Niche from the Trench

By e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve spent several months on an unconventional book tour for my latest YA, Fat Angie (Candlewick, 2013)–workshopping with at-risk youth who have affectionately tagged me as the tattooed, rockstar, Wexican (whitest Mexican American) YA author/filmmaker.

This whirlwind tour, where I stuffed my belongings into storage and traveled by rental car, bus, train, and plane across America to empower at-risk youth through writing all at no cost to the youth programs I’ve visited, has been featured on MTV, in Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.

Unfortunately, I’m not independently wealthy. Had it not been for a tiny Kickstarter and the generosity of friends and strangers, the tour would never have come into fruition. So why do it?

Frustrated with the teen suicides and rise of kids on the fringe cutting on their skin instead of picking up a pen, I decided to embrace the niche audience for Fat Angie. I took this book, seam-busting with issues (bullying, self-harm, family, self-loathing, war, sexuality) and made it a platform for activism.

Armed with a few starred reviews, a high-quality book trailer, and a dream to inspire those who are often counted out, I changed the trajectory of Fat Angie and honestly, my own life.

Of course, not everyone can trade in life’s luxuries to live out of a carry-on and a backpack while criss-crossing the country in a rental car. I just got lucky that way.

But now that I’m three books and seven thousand miles in, I’ll share a few of the promotional secrets I’ve picked up along the way. Let my crazy Wexican book-tour experience help rock the promotion of your book.

1. What Do You Want Your Book To Do? 

The obvious answer is sell. But what do you really want the book to do? Spark conversation? Change lives? Win awards? I realized Fat Angie was an opportunity to talk tough issues and impact at-risk youth through outreach.

Whatever you decide, this is something to consider months before the release of your book.

When you know what you want your book to do, it will be easier to figure out how to maximize things like social media presence, signings, kinds of school visits, and other appearances.

2. Promotional Materials

Your cover art is great for stick-on tattoos and post cards, but you’ll also need an electronic PR Kit with: Synopsis, Bio, Review Sound Bites, Photos, and your School Visit Package. If you are not savvy on the art of design, find a talented graphic design student who is building their portfolio. Also, bookmarks are out. Book trailers and author interviews are in!

Important: Thirty seconds of quality sound and image have much more value than a minute and a half of crackling sound and Ken Burns effects. See the Fat Angie book trailer for an example of how you can make a $60,000 trailer for just a few hundred dollars.

3. No Fear, Please

Be comfortable talking about your book in public.
This doesn’t mean bend every ear at your partner’s/husband’s/wife’s
Christmas party about your book. The idea is to get people interested,
not annoyed, to create a dialogue about what inspired you to write the
novel — what excites you about it. You never know where that
conversation can lead.

While on my tour this summer, waiting at Boston’s
Logan Airport, bookseller Ellen Garfield asked about a book storeT -shirt I was wearing, which led to a conversation about Fat Angie.

the end of the day, Ellen ordered copies of the book for her airport
store. Since then, it has been faced-out and sold out three times over.
My interaction with this bookseller reminded me not to be afraid of
talking about my book. It’s sharing
something you love.

4. Who You Should Know

Independent booksellers and librarians can extend the lifespan of your book. These literacy titans know their community and educators.

Again, through social media, I connected with Ugly Dog Books and The Odyssey Bookshop in Massachusetts. We strategized on how to maximize my signing/discussion with the at-risk work I was doing. Both stores connected me with at-risk youth in their community to engage in creative workshop, which was the focal point of my tour. Later, they held book signings in their stores, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t approached them about help with community-building.

My suggestion: months before your book releases, find the independent booksellers you want to approach. Have your PR materials ready and reach out to them. Anytime you can generate a bigger event other than a signing, you are embracing the community and getting people excited about your book.

5. Keep Writing

Your agent, your best friend, your whoever-is-important is going to ask you, “When is your next book?” You gotta get that noise out of your head on the quick. Nothing destroys a stellar story quicker than the expectations of others.

While promoting your new book, continue listening to the world around you. Take time to connect with your creativity by jotting down ideas in a notebook, iPad or voice recorder. Promoting your book is necessary but so is your craft. So rock the word!

Cynsational Notes

e.E. Charlton-Trujillo won the prestigious Delacorte Dell Yearling Award and Parents’ Choice Silver Honor for Prizefighter en Mi Casa. Feels Like Home received critical praise, but it was Fat Angie that generated early buzz from Wicked author Gregory Maguire who compared it to Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. The book tour inspired Charlton-Trujillo to launch the organization Never Counted Out, which bridges the gap between artists and at-risk youth in their community. The feature documentary about the tour titled “At-Risk Summer” is slated for a May 2014 release.

Guest Post: Carla Killough McClafferty on Revealing Your Heart in Nonfiction

By Carla Killough McClafferty
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There is a little piece of me in every nonfiction book I’ve written. Maybe no one else can tell, but I know it is there. Sometimes I see it in the text of the words I’ve written. Sometimes I see it in the white space –the words I didn’t write.

Of all my books for young readers, the one that reveals the most of my own heart is my newest book, Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment (Carolrhoda, 2013).

As I began the research for the book, I recognized that I have a deep emotional connection to head injuries. My youngest son, Corey, died from a head injury after falling from a swing at the age of fourteen months. But I had no idea how personal it would get.


I began my research with the science part of the book—the easiest part for me. I managed to get a telephone interview with Dr. Ann McKee, a neurologist and neuropathologist who is an internationally renowned expert on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Dr. McKee is frequently in the news because she has studied the brains of deceased NFL players found to have the disease. She graciously answered my questions and gave me permission to use her brain images in my book.

I also interviewed Dr. Robert Cantu, probably America’s leading authority on the treatment of concussions. Then I talked at length with the researchers from Purdue and the University of Michigan who study the effects of repetitive head injuries on High School football teams.

Next my goal was to understand the love of football. I interviewed football coaches, athletic directors, athletic trainers, and retired NFL players.

Kevin Turner

One game changer for me was my interview with Kevin Turner, a former pro who played for the Patriots and the Eagles. I asked Kevin, “What does it feel like to play in the High School State Championship game in Alabama?” and “What does it feel like to play in an NFL game in front of 70,000 screaming fans?”

And boy did he ever tell me! When I couldn’t get his stories out of my mind, I knew they had to be in the book. Talking to Kevin allowed me to see football through the eyes of a man who loves the game.

Then I came to the hardest part of my research. I interviewed the
families of Nathan Stiles and Eric Pelly. Nathan and Eric were both
teenagers who died as a result of concussions—and both of their brains
already had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Eric at Homecoming

By this point in my research I understood that even though the cause of the injury was different, my son Corey died in the same way as Nathan and Eric.

The writer in me asked these families the hard questions. At the same time the woman in me — who knows the devastation of losing a child — grieved for their sons and for mine.

 I promised these families that I would write about the life and death of their sons with the same love and respect that I do when I write about my own child.

I am humbled that they trusted me.

When promoting my book, I say that Forth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment deals with the reality of concussions balanced with the love of the game. And it is. But between the text and the white space, the book is a whole lot more.

New Voice: Sam Bond on Operation Golden Llama (Cousins in Action) & Self-Publishing

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sam Bond is the first-time author of Operation Golden Llama (Cousins in Action)(Volume 1)(Bound, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Dumped at their eccentric Grandma’s, Cagney, Olivia, Aidan, Lissy and Tess are convinced they’re in for a boring summer. But when Grandma gets a series of mysterious phone calls and a highly unlikely pet sitter arrives, the cousins find themselves jetting off to Peru, where, much to their surprise, they find the adventures have only just begun.

Why did you decide to self- publish independently rather than with a trade press?

Traveling the self-publishing route was not an easy decision. However, my reasons for self-publishing were very specific.

When I decided to write a children’s adventure book featuring my two girls and their three cousins, it didn’t occur to me there would be any issues. However, when submitting to agents and publishing houses I encountered the same complaint. Too many main characters.

Now, I’m English, and grew up reading one of England’s most prolific children’s writers, Enid Blyton. Her books are filled with adventure and mystery, with rarely a grown-up in sight. However, the one constant throughout her work is large groups of protagonists. The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, The Five Find-Outers and Six Cousins need no explanation as to the abundance of characters contained within.

Seeing I wrote my books as a gift to my children and their cousins, being told to remove two of the main characters was a deal breaker. After two or three agents reading fulls gave the same reason for rejection, I came to the hard decision that I needed to be true to my vision, and to do that, I would have to take a less traditional publishing route.

Believe me, I thought about making the changes requested. I knew writers who’d altered major portions of their book on the advice of an agent and gone on to be successfully published. However, in the end, I knew I would rather the book contain all five cousins and have a limited readership, than remove two of the cousins on the chance this would lead to the book reaching a wider audience.

What were the challenges?

Sam’s desk

I would say the biggest challenge to self-publishing is taking yourself seriously and truly believing you can do it. You must be aware there are no deadlines, other than ones you set yourself and nobody cares about this book, other than you, your critique partners and, if you’re lucky, your mother!

My biggest fear was that I would forget something. When I started a photography business ten years ago, I researched a photographer I admired, and purchased her three-part course on how to start a business. I took a year to create a website, build a portfolio and design a logo. I also formed a company, opened bank accounts and filed tax documents.

These things all took away from what I loved to do most – take photos, but I felt they were needed for me to proceed in an orderly manner and knew they would enhance my success down the line.

It has been the same with self-publishing, except instead of buying a tried and tested course I relied on the knowledge of several indie authors in the Austin area that I’d sought out ahead of time. In fact, finding mentors to answer questions and guide me through this process was fundamental to my success.

One provided an amazing six month countdown to launch. Another explained how KDP works to boost sales. A third was kind enough to share the more hum drum actions required – setting up bank accounts, LLCs and EINs. With these three authors to guide me, I at last felt confident to proceed.

What recommendations do you have for other writers considering this route?

Spend the time you would have dedicated to querying, checking out indie boards, becoming intimate with different companies that offer services and set yourself a budget.

At this point, I suggest being truly realistic about your strengths. Although I knew I could do a lot of the work, I am not technically minded and needed abundant help formatting and uploading my manuscript. I was not expecting to need help and it was almost my undoing.

I also recommend giving yourself plenty of time. Just because you have the power to set a launch date, it should not be something you rush into. Once committed to a launch date it marks you as amateur if you have to back out because you underestimate the hours it takes to go from prototype to finished product – and believe me, it will take longer than you think. In fact, I would suggest having your book in hand before you even think of launching it into the world.

Finally, just because you’ve decided to travel the self-publishing route, does not mean you should do it alone. If anything it’s even more important to make contacts, join local societies, attend conferences and get to know your writing community.

In fact, I believe the encouragement and support I received from fellow writers, plus the accountability I had to my peers, was the piece of the puzzle that made all the difference.

Sausage on the coach

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?

Operation Golden Llama has five main protagonists and is written in omniscient pov; this gave me a lot of heads to be inside. However, it was a POV I was familiar with from books I read as a child, and although I toyed with limiting the POV to just one character and rotating through the protagonists one chapter at a time, I decided my characters were too feisty to have their thoughts limited.

The youngest of the main protagonists is six, the oldest twelve. Luckily, I started writing Operation Golden Llama when my children were in first and second grade, so I had a lot of material to work with. Also, my characters are based on children I know, which made the writing easier.

I wanted the children to be realistic, but they obviously had to be somewhat smarter and more prepossessing than your average child in order to make them interesting. If you listen to conversations between typical elementary aged children and wrote it down verbatim, it might be realistic, but it would not be fascinating.

Striking that balance was the challenge, all the time making sure Tess used words appropriate to a six-year-old, and Cagney possessed the sass and confidence of a pre-teen.

Olivia, Tess and Sam

I found one of the ways to make Tess believable was to have her ask questions. Not only was it a great way of explaining a word or situation the reader might not understand themselves, but it also reminded us of the age gap between her and her four cousins.

Plus, I kept check of words each cousin would use regularly. For Cagney it was “good grief”. Lissy would often address an adult using the words “ma’am” or “sir” and Tess often ends her sentences asking for clarification.

As often as possible, I wanted readers to be able to identify which cousin was speaking from the dialogue alone without having to rely on identification tags.

It is also useful to have a word in your head that sums up your characters. To me, Olivia is fearless, Cagney exasperated. Lissy is smart, Aidan kind and Tess exuberant. Often, I would just write what I wanted the cousins to say with no tag lines, then return later and add tags appropriately. This often worked better than deciding at the time and helped with flow.

Often however, the characters seemed to claim their own lines, and if it was essential that one character said a line for the plot and it didn’t seem true, I would re-write the line in their voice. It was interesting how, when reading the book aloud, it was obvious to me if I had the tag lines wrong. Olivia would never be in awe of dramatic scenery, but Aidan would. In the same way, a character inquiring how someone was feeling would always be Lissy, never Cagney. That just left Tess and anything crazy fell in the “Tess” category.

Five cousins at the Golden Llama launch; photo courtesy of Dave Wilson Photography

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Learn more about this book!

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Revelry! Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac from Steam Punk Romance | Coffee Time Romance. Peek: “Not too many books I know contain a pedantic Sasquatch with ESP. But he and his people are in the traditions of every Native American nation and it was not hard at all for me to imagine them surviving into the tenuous future of my story.” See also Nine Post-Apocalyptic Books Starring People of Color by Audrey from Rich in Color.

Birthdayographies from Donna Bowman Bratton. Peek: “Where did the biography birthday idea originate? I’m glad you asked. My friend, the talented author Anne Bustard, launched the idea in 2008 with her own blog, Anneographies. And she totally rocked at it. Though Anne still loves picture book biographies, she’s more focused on fiction now. I’m honored that she has passed the birthday torch to me.”

What to Do Before Revising a NaNoWriMo Novel by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “One great thing about Nano is that we’ve written it so fast, the character’s journey is fresh in our mind from first page to last. Take this opportunity to make some notes to yourself and ask these three questions…” See also The Seven-Step Business Plan for Writers by Angela from Jane Friedman.

The Color of Imagination: Interview with a Cover Artist by Therese Walsh from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “The sales reps have a lot of sway, as do the booksellers (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc…). If a book is slated for a large retail order (such as Anthropologie or Urban Outfitters), the retailers can also have the final word.”

Character Building: Using Quirks to Reveal Personality by Becca Puglisi from Jody Hedlund. Peek: “As with any other gesture or habit, quirks that are used too often become distracting. Choose fitting times for your character to show his personality so each instance has meaning and serves a purpose.” See also Becca on the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Character Traits and How to Use Them from Susan Quinn.

Villains are People, Too by Bobbi Miller
from Children’s Literature Network. Peek: “I asked many of my favorite
writers and illustrators to name their favorite villains, what they
found memorable about these characters, and how this character
influenced their writing?”

The Creator’s Game: A Story of Baaga’adowe/Lacrosse by Art Coulson (Minnesota Historical Society Press): recommendation from Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature. Peek: “Coulson’s storytelling delivers nuggets of info about the ways that Ojibwe people play lacrosse, and, the way that Cherokees play it.” 

Should You Revise and Resubmit? by Suzanne van Rooyen from QueryTrackerBlog. Peek: “Before committing to an overhaul, you need to ask yourself if the person requesting the R&R is someone you really want to work with, do you trust their opinion and will their suggestions improve your manuscript.”

Barbara Park Remembered from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Barbara Park, author of many books for children – including the bestselling Junie B. Jones series – died on Nov. 15 at age 66, after a long battle with ovarian cancer. Here, some of those with whom she enjoyed lengthy professional and personal relationships pay tribute.” See more information.

Plotting Along: A Diagram of Key Plot Points by Janet S. Fox from Through the Wardrobe. Peek: “Today I’m posting the latest in my personal collection of plot diagrams, something I’ve put together based on the best plot diagrams I’ve found and used.”

Dumpster Diving: An Observation on Socio-Economic Class in Children’s Literature by Charlesbridge editor Yolanda Scott from CBC Diversity. Peek: “I’ll take with me into my editorial work is to look more carefully and deliberately for class markers and where they appear or don’t appear in text and art. Indeed, the latter is an intriguing issue to explore in any book: who is not in a given story, and why?”

Mentoring: Two-Way Learning by Juliet Marillier from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Be prepared to make major changes, including cuts, to render your manuscript more readable / more publishable. Yes, even if it’s an aspect of the story that you are deeply fond of.”

The Gingerbread Man’s Top Five Writing Tips by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “Based on the folktale about this popular Christmas pastry that comes to life, the Gingerbread Man gives his writing tips.” See also Frosty The Snowman’s Top Five Writing Tips from Darcy and Take a Different Approach to Writing: Eat Dessert First by Amy Rose Capetta from Adventures in YA Writing.

Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of a signed copy of Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst is Alicia in Alabama.

See also the 12 Days of Christmas Giveaway from Latin@as in Kid Lit: Exploring the World of Latino/a YA, MG, and Children’s Literature. Peek: “From Christmas Day through Three Kings Day (Jan. 6), one lucky winner will win one of these (12) awesome books.”

See also Giveaway of One or Two Things I Learned about Love by Dylan Sheldon (Candlewick), plus new YA releases from Adventures in YA Writing.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Gingerbread Who-ville at the Four Seasons Austin

Guess what. I’m home in Austin for the rest of the year. You know what that means?

Deadline time! I’m pushing hard to finish my draft of the manuscript titled Feral Pride, which will be book 3 in the Feral series.

That said, I stole a little play time and consequently highly recommend “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Frozen,” both of which feature strong girl protagonists (Frozen has two of them!).

In other news…

Congratulations to Debbie Reese, recipient of the 2013 Virginia Mathews Scholarship! Peek: “The purpose of the Virginia Mathews Memorial Scholarship is to provide tuition to an American Indian individual who lives and works in an American Indian community, and who is enrolled, or has been accepted and will enroll, in a master’s degree program at a university with a library and/or information sciences program accredited by the American Library Association for the 2013-2014 academic school year.”

Find out the one thing I wouldn’t change about the Feral series no matter what from YA Series Insiders.

Converting Prose to Graphic Novels with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Annemarie O’Brien from Quirk and Quill. Peek: “Think about offering new content or perspective with the goal of adding value for your readers. Perhaps tell the ‘same’ story from a secondary character’s point of view, for example.”

YA Lit Boy Characters that Inspire Crushes from A Simple Love of Reading. Note: fun to see Kieren from the Tantalize series on this list.

A Celebration of Native American and Aboriginal Girls from A Mighty Girl. Note: pleased to see Jingle Dancer featured among recomendations.

Personal Links

Guest Post & Giveaway: Ellen Jensen Abbott on Verisimilitude

By Ellen Jensen Abbott
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I was 50 pages into my first writing project, a YA fantasy novel, when I picked up a book about writing for children.

In the first chapter, the author explained that a new writer should never start with a novel instead of a short story or write fantasy instead of realistic fiction.


But my story had a hold on me and I was not about to stop. Three books and over a thousand pages later, I’ve realized what that author meant. For a beginning writer, it’s hard enough to struggle with character, plot and setting. But fantasy and science fiction require something more—world building.

World-building is a labor of love for any writer, but a novel set in present day Boston begins with a geography, climate, social structure, and government. A fantasy or science fiction writer can set her story anywhere in the universe.

Freeing and exciting, but where do you begin? It’s a rush at times to play the role of god, but the stakes are high. Like characters, worlds need to be three dimensional and ooze verisimilitude.

When I started my current series, The Watersmeet Trilogy, I saved myself some of the angst of world building by setting it in some version of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Once I knew I was in the rocky soil of a New Hampshire-like place, I knew my characters were doing subsistence farming or hunting and gathering. Small farms led naturally to villages and towns rather than cities.

With towns came artisans: blacksmiths, wood cutters, tanners, and shepherds. From the first decision about geography and climate, I gained an economy and social structure. My world was fleshing out.

The New Hampshire setting also dictated the flora of my world. My main character, Abisina, is a healer and needed plants for tinctures, teas, and infusions. I picked up Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, which covers more than 500 plants. Overwhelming—but I was only interested in plants that grew in a northern climate. Plenty of invention was still necessary.

I found what sounded like a delectable root for my dwarves to roast—Solomon’s Seal. But the name “Solomon” threatened to pull the reader out of a world where the Green Man is a central deity. So I renamed the root “Blister root.” No reader will recognize my blister roots as Solomon’s Seals, but basing them on a real plant gave them a reality my imagination couldn’t.

My reliance on Peterson’s Field Guides is only one tool in my world-building kit. I have maps of the land, villages, and my main character’s house scribbled on scraps of paper. I have a calendar with moon phases marked lest all my scenes take place during a full or new moon.

Sometimes that moon has to be gibbous!

I’ve worked hard and had a lot of fun making my world 3D, but I wasn’t prepared for the sense of loss I feel now that the trilogy is complete. Finishing the series means leaving behind my own private Genesis—the Obrun Mountains, the River Couldin, and Giant’s Cairn.

This may be why, in a recent conversation with my editor, I pitched two Watersmeet companions. I don’t want to work on them yet—there’s a cranky fairy demanding to have his story told first—but a time may come in the not too distant future when I’ll want to go home.

Cynsational Notes

Ellen Jensen Abbott thinks that life would be perfect if she could move her home, her job, her friends and her family to the White Mountains of New Hampshire where she grew up.

Until she can convince everyone to join her, she’s content to be writing, teaching English at the Westtown School, and living with her husband and two children in West Chester, PA.

In the Watersmeet Trilogy, readers follow the outcast Abisina as she leaves her village to search for her father and for acceptance.

On her journey, she discovers the whole land of Seldara: the dwarves of the Obrun Mountains; the fauns of the western forests; the centaurs of Giant’s Cairn—some friends, some foes. When she reaches Watersmeet, she thinks she’s found the home of her dreams where all of Seldara’s folk are welcome, but soon Watersmeet’s existence is at risk and Abisina finds herself outcast again.

Can she save the home she loves? Can she unite the land against a gathering evil? Can she embrace her destiny and become the Keeper of Watersmeet?

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win the Watersmeet trilogy–Watersmeet (Skyscape, 2009), The Centaur’s Daughter (Skyscape, 2011) and The Keeper (Skyscape, 2013) and a Kindle Paperwhite. Publisher sponsored. U.S. only.

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