Guest Post: Ann Angel on The Sandbox & The Suck Pond

By Ann Angel
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Little, Brown, 2006), perceives drafting as something far more glamorous than me, and so I’m inspired by his words:

“Writing rules. Everything else sucks. Writing is a big sandbox and it’s full of Tonka Trucks and plastic Godzillas.”

Have you experienced that creative space? It’s when your writing feels most fluid and free.

You become so emotionally attached to the imaginative world that, at the end of the day, you struggle to return to reality. You might look up and realize starving people are in your kitchen. And you might think, who are these hungry people?

They’re not the characters you’ve played with all day.

I’ve been there with my four kids and husband who have all wondered, more than once, how writing can be so engrossing that I melted a pan of food to the burner of my stove.

But there are other times when writing is a total suck pond. You’ve probably experienced that too. It’s when you can’t decide if you want to slap the smile off a smarmy character or toss her from a moving car – I chose a moving truck myself. From there, you admit it isn’t just the characters. The plot is unwieldy. The rising action lacks motivation and falls flat. The tone is all wrong. You stop writing.

I’ve been there, too. About a year ago, I was so mired in muck that I feared I’d never finish another novel. The first draft can be, as Cynthia Leitich Smith reminds me, “Drafty.”

Those drafty drafts bring out the worst fear in all of us. Although I made myself sit down to write, it was a tortuous experience. Then I realized this is not writing fear I suffer, it’s the fear that I’ve lost it; I’m no longer good enough.

This is thick as mud fear arrives every time I start something new or go back to revise a work that’s in that drafty stage.

The only cure is to sit down to write every day—or almost every day. But I’m here to tell you that, after spending too much time in the suck pond, the creative sandbox doesn’t always fill easily.

The sandbox is especially evasive when I’m writing about oppression and other soul-wrenching issues which are typical of YA literature. Rising out of the suck pond becomes a serious struggle.

That’s when we need consciously seek inspiration.

I’ve been working on a novel about suffocating hate and xenophobia, and so I can speak from the bottom of the suck pond. Writing comes so slowly because I really don’t like what some of my characters are doing. It’s seriously depressing being inside some of their heads.

Every day that I work on this novel I have to trick myself into beginning. I have gathered an arsenal to make this happen.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the newly christened guru of creativity, is no slouch with ideas for creative life in her book Big Magic (Riverhead, 2015). She cautions, “Don’t abandon your creativity the moment things stop being easy or rewarding—because that’s the moment when interesting begins.”

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (Tarcherperigee, 2002) has always been a mainstay. I recently picked up It’s Never too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond  (Tarcherperigee, 2016).

As always, Julia recommends long walks and writers’ dates—both good reminders that we can’t find creative inspiration if we’re always staring at a blank screen.

These are good ways to clear my head before and after a day of writing about the wicked side of the world. I’ve been rewarding myself for writing with artist dates.

Julia’s artist dates are permission to visit museums, beaches, art galleries, the zoo—where I recently witnessed giraffes wrapping their necks around one another to flirt.

Julia also advises, “Keep writing. If you keep writing, you will have a breakthrough.”

Through Julia’s suggestions, writers are more likely to create details that come from the observed world. In turn, the details layer and enrich characters, making it possible to write of human goodness even in the lowest moments.

Mary Karr’s, The Art of Memoir (Harper, 2015), helps writers look back into the history of our own crazy lives which are a great source of specific detail. In my life, parents warned the girls I attended Catholic school with not to hang with those wild Bonness girls (my maiden name), said as one word by mothers who must have believed the very mention of our names would taint their daughters. Karr gets that our lives are the stuff that makes stories come alive. I’ve developed some greatly cool friendship scenes around the close wildness of growing up one of seven sisters.

My cache of magic writing has been pulled together from my experience of consistently sinking into the suck pond. I had an editor once tell me my writing had serious potential.

So I made a poster that says, “Serious potential happening here.” Of course I colored outside the lines when I filled in the letters to hang it above my computer.

Sometimes I play with poetry while I write. Different forms help resolve a variety of issues. A sestina is a great tool to learn more about developing characters, often providing an “a-ha!” moment in which a character takes charge of a sudden turn. Sonnets help me figure out what my character loves and hates. Found poetry and erasure poetry help uncover the details of a character’s private world. So I play with poetry a lot when I’m writing. It can trick me into that place of fluid writing.

A good resource to begin practicing poetry is The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms by Ron Padgett (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2002).

No matter where we turn for creative inspiration, it’s good to remember that serious potential is happening every time we excavate the world of our craft. So dig into that suck pond. If you stay at it long enough, you’ll find that sandbox overflowing with imagination.

New Voice: Katie Kennedy on Learning to Swear in America

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Katie Kennedy is the first-time author of Learning to Swear in America (Bloomsbury, 2016). From the promotional copy:

An asteroid is hurtling toward Earth. A big, bad one. 

Maybe not kill-all-the-dinosaurs bad, but at least kill-everyone-in-California-and-wipe-out-Japan-with-a-tsunami bad. Yuri, a physicist prodigy from Russia, has been recruited to aid NASA as they calculate a plan to avoid disaster.


The good news is Yuri knows how to stop the asteroid–his research in antimatter will probably win him a Nobel prize if there’s ever another Nobel prize awarded. 

But the trouble is, even though NASA asked for his help, no one there will listen to him. He’s seventeen, and they’ve been studying physics longer than he’s been alive.


Then he meets (pretty, wild, unpredictable) Dovie, who lives like a normal teenager, oblivious to the impending doom. Being with her, on the adventures she plans when he’s not at NASA, Yuri catches a glimpse of what it means to save the world and live a life worth saving.


Prepare to laugh, cry, cringe, and have your mind burst open with the questions of the universe.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Research was a huge part of writing Learning to Swear in America. The book is about an incoming asteroid, and the main character, Yuri, is a physics genius. I’m not.

I knew I didn’t want the book to be science-free. I mean, how could it be? It would be like a biography of a poet that doesn’t talk about the poetry—it would be missing a crucial element.

A physician friend told me about a Morbidity & Mortality meeting he attended as a young doctor. The physician in charge strode out onto the stage and wrote on the marker board:

  1. I didn’t know enough.
  2. Bad stuff happens.
  3. I was lazy. 

The man turned to the assembled doctors and said, “The first two will happen. You will have patients die for both those reasons.”

Then he slammed the side of his fist against the board and roared, “But by God it better never be because you were too lazy to Do. Your. Job.”

That’s how I felt about approaching research for Learning to Swear. I didn’t know enough. I would make mistakes. But it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

I read Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, and articles written by astrophysicists—for astrophysicists. You can find science simplified for the average educated reader—the basics on asteroids, for example. But if you want simplified information on spectral analysis? Forget it.

NASA’s website has all sorts of tables about asteroids, and it was a go-to source—until I discovered that the government shutdown also shuttered NASA. It was inconvenient not to be able to access information on which I was used to relying. It was chilling to realize that the people who usually stand sentry for Earth had been pulled in.

I should mention that a physicist who’s involved in security issues read for me—this is Dr. Robert August—and did me a world of good. Not only did he help me get the equipment right, but he corrected me on little cultural things. For example, he said that the computer programmers would have the name of their favorite pizza place written on their marker board. I included that.

Almost everything in the scenes with the programmers came from information Bob shared. He’s been in these kind of meetings, so that was incredibly helpful.

My biggest problem—outside of lack of background knowledge—was that I had envisioned exacerbating the problem mid-book by having the asteroid’s speed increase, so that it would arrive sooner than they expected.

Then I discovered this would violate the laws of nature.  

Stupid laws of nature.
By this point I had half the book written, and knew I had to find another way to make it harder for Yuri to stop the asteroid.

So I ate a lot of mint chocolate chip ice cream and did more reading—and somewhere in the tiny print I found my answer.

I did a little happy dance, and my husband asked why. “I found a way for an asteroid to smash the Earth, and we couldn’t do anything to stop it!”

He gave me a very strange look.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

Learning to Swear in America is based on an Immanuel Kant quote:

“Do what is right, though the world should perish.”

I teach college history, and we talk about Kant as part of the Enlightenment. That quote is one that hooked my imagination—I remember walking across the college parking lot thinking, Yeah, but what if the world really would perish? What then?

This book is the outgrowth of my conversation with Kant about that.

So I think being an instructor is helpful in several ways. First, history is narrative–essentially I tell stories to my students. Some of them are pretty good!

Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I.

I look at the names in my lectures—the Gracchi, Charlemagne, George Washington—and I’m so grateful that I get to share their stories with my students. What a privilege!

Also—what good practice in storytelling. I get to see immediately when the students’ attention flags.

Second, I come in contact with interesting material all the time, through reading in support of my day job, and even through my own lectures—like the Kant quote.

In fact, the main character of my next book was inspired by an historical figure—but I’m not saying who it is.

Author Interview: Debbie Levy on I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Happy Election Day! Go vote!

We welcome author Debbie Levy to talk about her new picture book biography. 

From the promotional copy of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster, 2016):

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has spent her lifetime disagreeing . . . with creaky old ideas. With unfairness. With inequality. She has disagreed. She has disapproved. She has objected and resisted. 

She has dissented!



Disagreeable? No. Determined? Yes! 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has changed her life, and ours, by voicing her disagreements and standing up for what’s right. This picture book about the first female Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme Court shows that disagreeing does not make you disagreeable and that important change can happen one disagreement at a time.

See also the Glorious RBG Blog (click to view 11 entries).

Welcome to Cynsations, Debbie! We’re both graduates of The University of Michigan Law School. Did you practice law or go straight to writing for young readers like I did (or rather like I did after clerking)?

I did practice law for several years after law school. But writing books for children is the only job I’ve held for more than six years. Lawyer at a big Washington, D.C. law firm: six years. Newspaper editor: six years. Then I took a class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, with the excellent Mary Quattlebaum. (Check out her books, and her reviewing work!)

Writing for children: This was a vocation with long-term potential.

Michigan Law School Reading Room

Hey, I have a newspaper background, too–so much in common! You write fiction and nonfiction across formats and age levels. Often I hear from new writers that they feel pressured to pick one focus. What has your range of pursuits done for you in terms of craft and career?

I think the writers you’re hearing from are telling a truth: There can be pressure to pick one focus or, to put it otherwise, to establish a “brand.”

I think I must have subconsciously scoffed at the notion that I could ever be a brand—ha, a Debbie Levy brand!—so, for better or worse, I’ve mostly followed my interests and allowed serendipity a role in choosing projects.

Also, one solution for writers who do want to be multi-focal is to have more than publisher. I realize that doesn’t solve a beginning writer’s problem, who may be looking for Publisher #1. But it is an option once you start getting published.

Congratulations on the release of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster, 2016)! What about Ruth Bader Ginsburg called to you as a writer?

Thank you! Like many people, I knew that the Glorious RBG was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States and the first Jewish woman on the Court.

I knew that, before that, she was a federal appeals court judge in Washington, D.C., and, before that, one of leading lawyers in the field of equal rights for women and girls.

What I didn’t know, until I started researching more deeply about her, is that she has been disagreeing with unfairness and with things that are just plain wrong from the time she was a little girl.

I mean, she objected to being excluded from shop class in grade school, and being required to take cooking and sewing instead! When on a car trip with her parents, she disagreed with she saw a sign outside a hotel that read “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.” Later, of course, she went on to disagree, resist, object, and dissent her way into big things.

And she’s been doing this for years with a voice that is not loud (people lean in to hear her words), in a manner that is not obnoxious (more benefit of the doubt than bashing, more insight than invective), and in service of justice.

So, I realized, the story of her life offers this inspiring lesson: Disagreeing does not make you disagreeable, and important change happens one disagreement at a time. Is it any wonder, then, that I thought she was a great person to introduce to young people in a picture book?

Agreed! Many of my favorite people disagree strongly with injustice. What were the challenges (research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the story to life?

I feel lucky to live in the Washington, D.C. area, because although Justice Ginsburg didnot find time for an interview with me last summer when I was working on this book, she did grant me access to her papers on deposit in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress (practically next door to the Supreme Court!).

I’ve gone through at least one Manuscript Division collection before, but none like this. So tidy! Meticulous! Her speeches typed on 4 x 6 cards: impeccable! Her handwritten notes on yellow legal sheets discussing and advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment that never got adopted!

Although I didn’t absolutely need to read piles of drafts of legal briefs and memoranda, I dived into this stuff with gusto; you do get a sense of a person from their papers.

Oh, wait. You asked for challenges. It is a challenge to write about someone, a living, active person, without having an interview. But there were many, many print and video interviews of RBG for me to consult. Many scholarly articles, by and about her.

And she did review the manuscript last October. She sent a nice little note, and wrote in some handwritten notes in the margins of my typescript. I took all her edits!

Since you’ve specifically mentioned “psychological challenges”—I lost my mother three years ago.

Debbie’s mother kayaking on the Wye River

She was a vibrant, ever-curious, outgoing woman, someone always interested in another person’s story, someone who as a girl dreamed of being a journalist (she ended up in the wholesale costume jewelry business instead), and she would have been over the moon to know that I was writing a book about RBG, to know that I was elbow-deep in RBG materials at the Library of Congress, to know that RBG looked over my manuscript pre-publication.

I’m answering your questions, Cyn, the morning after the book launch for I Disssent, which we held at D.C.’s great Politics & Prose Bookstore. Many friends who had known my mother attended.

I said there, “I cannot help but think that had my mother still been alive, she would have figured out a way to get me into RBG’s chambers for an interview—and she along with me!”

The room was filled with knowing smiles and laughter. Someone even called out my mother’s signature phrase: “Let me ask you a question”—her way of getting people to open up to her.

That helped with the pain of not having Mom there. (And, really, she would have snagged me an interview.)

Talk to us about disagreeing. It sounds like a negative focus for a children’s book. Is it? In either case, why do you think it’s important in the conversation of youth literature?

Yes, let’s talk about disagreeing! The theme of disagreeing is really what sold my editor at Simon & Schuster on this book.

From the very beginning, we were really excited about creating a book that said to all kids, and to girls in particular, that disagreeing does not make a person disagreeable, and that you can accomplish big things for yourself and for the world through dissent and by finding another way when the world says “no” to you.

It’s a positive message, but it’s also a message that says you don’t have to be positive—that is, you don’t have to sound or look positive, you don’t have to just say yes and smile and go along with things that you believe are wrong—to be a good person.

At the same time, simply disagreeing without more isn’t really enough if you want to change your life or anyone else’s. On the back of the book, we’ve put this RBG quote: “Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Seems simple, right? But it’s that second sentence that is so hard to pull off.

Many authors discover reoccurring themes in their work? Is this true of you? If so, could you tell us about it and how I Dissent fits in?

I seem to return to the theme of Outsiderness. My mother, protagonist of the nonfiction-in-verse The Year of Goodbyes (Hyperion, 2010), being an outsider as a girl in Nazi Germany in 1938. Danielle, protagonist of my young adult novel Imperfect Spiral (Bloomsbury, 2013), who finds an unexpected antidote to her feelings of being the outsider in an unlikely friendship with the six-year-old boy she babysits one summer.

The African American individuals and communities, outsiders in their own country, in my nonfiction picture book We Shall Overcome: The Story of A Song (Disney-Jump at the Sun, 2013).

Today we may look at RBG and see the ultimate insider—she’s a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, for heaven’s sake! But she overcame the outsiderness of being a Jew in a sometimes hostile Gentile world, of being a young woman in the (then) overwhelmingly male-dominated world of law school, of being a female lawyer in a (then) man’s profession, and of being an advocate for legal and social changes that went against the grain of society’s traditional norms. There’s my theme.

What do you love about your writing life?

Other writers. What good communities and friendships I’ve found!

What do you do when you’re not writing or out-and-about in your author hat?

Walk in the woods or along the nearby Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Kayak in the Chesapeake Bay area. Fish in the Chesapeake Bay area. Read.

Think about whoever my next dog will be.

Apologize to my cat for thinking about my next dog.

You know, the usual.

What can your readers look forward to next?

In February 2017, Soldier Song, A True Story of the Civil War (Disney-Hyperon). An 80-page picture book for older children about a remarkable event that occurred after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Illustrated by the excellent, creative Gilbert Ford, with lots of room for excerpts from soldier’s letters and diaries. I’m excited about this!

Don’t miss The Glorious RBG Blog!

Guest Post: Mary Atkinson Asks “Am I A Radical?”

Author Visit with Mary Atkinson

By Mary Atkinson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Recently, I received an email from Abby, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was working on a research project about Lollipop Power, a small press established in Chapel Hill in 1970.

She wanted to know if I was the author of one of their books, María Teresa. She’d found correspondence between the author and the press archived in the university library.

“Looking at your website,” she wrote, “I see you are a great educator! I am teaching in Texas after I graduate so I always love stumbling upon other teachers and seeing their wisdom.”

Of course I got right back to her! Now in my 60s, I am full of wisdom and I’m always happy to share!

I had written María Teresa when I was living in Cincinnati, Ohio in the late 1970s. I taught Spanish then to first and second graders at Silverton Elementary School in a magnet program to attract white students to the predominantly black school. Because I only had high school certification, I needed to get my elementary certificate to keep my job. I enrolled in the necessary courses at Xavier University.

I signed up for History of Children’s Literature, a course that ultimately guided me to my life’s passion—writing for children. One day, we had a guest speaker: Lucille Clifton.

What she said had a profound impact on me. She said that all children deserve to see themselves in children’s books. In 1977!

As a teacher in a school where most of my students were black, Clifton’s comment resonated with me. I’d already looked in my local library for picture books where both the students I taught and the children who spoke the language I taught were represented. I’d found very few.

One assignment in the children’s literature course was to write and illustrate a children’s book. Another life defining moment!

Thus, María Teresa was born. María Teresa tells the story of a young Mexican American girl who finds her voice in her Anglo classroom through her puppet, Monteja la Oveja.

I decided to try to get María Teresa published. I combed through the thick volume of the Writer’s Market at the Cincinnati Public Library. Why did I pick Lollipop Power Press among all the others listed?

Because I loved the Lollipop mission.

The Lollipop Power Press was a non-sexist and non-racist children’s book publishing collective, a feminist press concerned with issues of class, race, and gender equality.

It published books such as Martin’s Father by Margrit Eichler about a boy and his black single-parent father; Jesse’s Dream Skirt by Bruce Mack about a boy who sews his own skirt and wears it to school;
and In Christina’s Toolbox by Dianne Homan about a girl who loves to build things just like her mom.

I was thrilled when Lollipop accepted my manuscript for publication. That was easy, I thought! I’m going to be a children’s author! I’ll write stories, send them to publishers and they’ll become books. (Little did I know…)

Abby, the college student, and I spoke on the phone. Her curiosity about and enthusiasm for María Teresa touched me deeply. It took me back to a time when a book about a girl and her toolbox, a boy who wears a skirt, and a boy with a single black dad were unusual, and in many places, controversial.

“Were you a radical?” she asked me when I told her about how Lollipop Power’s vision back then was so new.

Well, I joked, if believing in equality and access to children’s literature for all children was radical, I guess I was.

And still am.
It all goes back to my ah-ha moment when listening to Lucille Clifton. Every child deserves to see themselves in the books they read.

As I think back on it, two things are notable. One, that as a WASP New Englander, it had never occurred to me back then to even think about how there were children who couldn’t find themselves in books. And two, that as soon as she said it, it touched a deep well inside me.

I understood what she was saying. I understood how important it was. And I wanted to be a children’s author who wrote stories for and about all kinds of children.

Forty years later, the vision of We Need Diverse Books is “A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.”

Am I a radical to ask, “Why is this taking so long?”

Cynsational Notes

Mary Atkinson has taught Spanish to students of all ages, been a third grade teacher, and hosted a Spanish radio show. Her poetry for children has appeared in magazines and anthologies, and her fiction and non-fiction have been published widely in educational markets. She is the author of Owl Girl (Maine Authors Publishing, 2015).

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

John Herrington’s Mission to Space (Chickasaw Press): a recommendation by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature. Peek: “Herrington is an astronaut. He was on space shuttle Endeavor, in 2002. Mission to Space begins with his childhood, playing with rockets, and ends with Endeavor’s safe return to Earth.”

Power Your Fiction: Using Weather to Create Mood, Not Cliches by Angela Ackerman from Writers in the Storm. Peek: “…weather is important to us as people. We interact with it each day. It affects us in many subtle ways.”

Getting Around First-Person Point of View Limitations by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: “The biggest plot-related problem with first person POV is that your protagonist has to be around for everything. Dagnabit!” Note: Use eavesdropping with caution as it’s an easy way to earn information and, thus, diminishes its value.

Understanding Inner Conflict by Michael Hauge from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “… you give them compelling desires that will force them to let go of their protective identities. Then, as they pursue those goals, they will come to realize the truth of who they are underneath their masks.”

A New Direction for BookExpo America by Jim Milliot from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “…the focus will be on drawing more book buyers, including booksellers, librarians, and buyers from a range of specialty retailers. Through a more rigorous application process, Reed will limit the numbers of bloggers, independent authors, and consultants.”

Once Upon a Time With Liz Garton Scanlon from American Lifestyle. Peek: “…her inspiration for writing children’s books, the process for creating her award-winning book All the World, and why gratitude and hope are central themes for her.”

We Need Diverse Books Announces Partnership with Madcap Retreats to Run Diversity-Themed Author Retreats from WNDB. Peek: “The partnership will present two affordable, workshop-based retreats for 2017. Writing Cross-Culturally will focus on how one can diversify their writing and learn to write cross-culturally responsibly, while the Diverse Aspiring Authors retreat will give authors from marginalized backgrounds craft workshops, industry 101 information, and ways to navigate the roadblocks of the current publishing climate.” See also On “Who Can Tell My Story” by Martha Parravano from The Horn Book.

When Your Agent Says “No” by Hilary Wagnor from Project Mayhem. Peek: “…a great agent is going to tell you when your work isn’t up to par and should not be sent off to editors. If your agent truly respects you, they’re going to tell you the truth no matter what.”

For Whom The Book Is Written: Addressing Intended Audience in YA Novels about Mental Illness by Katherine Locke from School Library Journal. Peek: “Weight and numbers are a way for outsiders/non-sufferers to understand the severity of the disease and they’re more tangible than the incongruous and seemingly irrational thoughts of an anorexic person.”

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Great news! Author Marth Brockenbrough joins the VCFA WCYA faculty at this upcoming winter residency in Montpelier. Huzzah! In more terrific news, faculty chair Alan Cumyn has won the the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People. Peek: “In awarding the prize, the jury said Cumyn’s work “brilliantly exceeding the standards of fiction for the young, Cumyn’s novels for teenagers and children alike show a sure-handed mix of humour, poetry and melancholy, and an abiding commitment to a young person’s viewpoint.”

Austin SCBWI & Writers’ League of Texas Diversity Book Event at Texas Book Festival

Moderating & Signing Nov. 5

 
It’s Texas Book Festival week! Please join me (the moderator) and “Supernatural Storytellers” Robert Beatty, Janet Fox & D.J. MacHale 12:30 11/5 E1.026 Capitol Extension in Austin.

See that nifty “Hey Texans” banner? I’ll be part of the Texas author diversity signing event with Chris Barton and Natalie Sylvester, sponsored by The Writers’ League of Texas and Austin SCBWI, at the Writers’ League Booth. Note: Book giveaway while supplies last! See an interview with all three of us. Peek from me:


“I love that when it came to connecting books to readers through community, the Texas Book Festival was the ground breaker. The leader. I feel about it the way a lot of Texans felt when—in a journey spanning from the dawn of time to humanity’s trek in the stars—the first word spoken from outer space was ‘Houston’.”

Tweeps! Join me Thurs., from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. central Nov. 17 for “Indigenous Voices in Middle Grade Novels,” a #mglitchat on Twitter, featuring Lee Francis, Debbie Reese, Traci Sorell, and Tim Tingle.

Check out the We Need Diverse Books Auction!

Personal Links

Join me Saturday, Nov. 12
Honored to join the SCBWI winter conference faculty!
Honored to join the SCBWI winter conference faculty!

New Voice: Tracy Edward Wymer on Soar

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Tracy Edward Wymer on Soar (Aladdin, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Seventh grader Eddie is determined to honor his father’s legacy and win the school science fair in this fun and quirky debut novel.



Eddie learned everything there is to know about birding from his dad, including the legend of the Golden Eagle, which Dad claimed he saw once down near Miss Dorothy’s pond. 

According to his dad, the Golden Eagle had wings wider than a creek and talons the size of bulldozer claws. But when Eddie was in sixth grade, Dad “flew away” for good, leaving Eddie on his own to await the return of the elusive raptor.



Now Eddie is starting seventh grade and trying to impress Gabriella, the new girl in town. The annual seventh grade Science Symposium (which Dad famously won) is looming, and Eddie is determined to claim the blue ribbon for himself. 

With Mr. Dover, the science teacher who was Dad’s birding rival, seemingly against him, and with Mouton, the class bully, making his life miserable on all fronts, Eddie is determined to overcome everything and live up to Dad’s memory. Can Eddie soar and make his dream take flight?

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

Linda Sue Park

Three words. Linda. Sue. Park. I took her writing workshop at the SCBWI-Los Angeles Summer Conference two years in a row. Back then, the workshop was embedded in the other four conference days. The workshop was one hour a day for four days.

Linda taught us how to focus on scenes instead of chapters or plot points. She told us about the “magic camera” that follows the main character everywhere in the story. If that camera stops, then your reader “stops” too. She talked about narration versus dialogue, and how to measure those in your manuscript, while finding the proper balance.

I think you get the picture here. Linda Sue Park is a master storyteller. I learned a lot of deeper level writing techniques from her.

I’d say to anyone looking for a community of writers, SCBWI provides a wealth of opportunity. Not only do the conferences offer sound advice and suggestions to writers and illustrators about the craft and business of publishing, but there is also great potential to meet writers who will become your friends, mentors, and critique partners.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

Tracy Edward Wymer

I have been an educator for 15 years, at the same school. I have experience teaching elementary and middle school students. Now I’m an assistant principal.

I love my job. I love being around young people who are learning at breakneck speeds. I especially love being surrounded with their enthusiasm for reading.

Ages 8-12 are the golden years of reading, and it’s no coincidence that I ended up writing stories for that age group.

I began reading a lot around the same age, and authors like Roald Dahl have a special place in my heart, and I’m sure many other adult readers feel the same way. The best part of being an educator is being at the center of book-loving teachers, librarians, and students all the time.

My years of teaching led me to read all kinds of authors. I quickly fell in love with authors like Jerry Spinelli, Lois Lowry, and Gary Schmidt. My literary tastes have always sided with realistic fiction, and I’m lucky to have found these authors early on in my writing journey. I still prefer realistic fiction, and there are always new voices hitting the scene.

This year, I’m lucky to be one of those voices.

Guest Post: Becca Puglisi on Setting as a Characterization Tool

By Becca Puglisi
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In storytelling, our number one job is to make readers care. We want to ensure that our fiction captivates them on many levels and that our characters seem like living, breathing people who continue to exist in readers’ minds long after the book closes.

So how do we do this?

Well, it may not seem like the obvious choice, but the setting can be one of the best tools through which to organically reveal truths about your characters.

Here are two quick tips on how to use the setting to characterize your cast for readers:

Choose Emotionally Relevant Locations

As the gods of our own little universes, we have the power to choose literally everything. But when it comes to the setting, the decision is often a halfhearted one—since the setting is just a backdrop, right? Wrong.

Ordering Information

Every character has a history of blissful interludes, toxic run-ins, embarrassing moments, and traumatic episodes. And long after these formative events have been forgotten or buried, their settings will continue to hold significance for the characters involved.

For instance, let’s say that after being out of the romance game for a while, your heroine has agreed to go on a first date, and you need to decide on a setting.

Instead of falling back on a generic location for this scene, brainstorm some possibilities that hold significance for the character. Maybe her date has asked to meet at the same café where her fiancé once dumped her. Or in the park where she was mugged. Or at the bar where the guy she’s been in love with since tenth grade works as a bouncer.

Any of these settings can work because they’re already emotionally charged for the protagonist.

A first date can be difficult in and of itself; experiencing it in one of these places is going to heighten the character’s emotions and bring back old memories when she’d rather avoid them, ensuring that she won’t be at her best. When it comes to the important scenes in your story, complicate matters for your protagonist and tap into his or her emotions by choosing settings with personal significance.

Get Personal with the Details

Showing rather than telling is the most powerful means of providing insight into the personality of your protagonist and other cast members. Rather than explaining your characters through boring chunks of narrative, hone in on the personal details within a given setting that will tell readers about the people inhabiting it:

I surveyed Rossa’s spotless kitchen. Dishes in their racks—sparkling. Wooden counters—scrubbed to a stone-like smoothness. Rossa herself—hair perfectly arranged, clothes crisp even at this hour, the frivolous fall of lace at her throat. I crossed my arms and couldn’t help wondering, again, how she and Dad could be meant for each other.

Ordering Information

Here we have a scene that says loads about its owner. Rossa is meticulous when it comes to tidiness—both for her home and herself. You get the feeling that she values propriety and appearances. And we learn something about the narrator, too: she isn’t so concerned with all of that. She disdains it, in fact, and doesn’t seem to like her Dad’s love interest very much. All of this we’re able to infer from the simple description of a kitchen.

Personal spaces can be quite telling. Make them do more than simply set the scene by zooming in on those details that reveal something about your characters. And for those vital scenes in your story, put your cast members on edge by thoughtfully choosing the settings—ones that add an emotional component or will up the stakes. Resist the temptation to settle for a generic setting and start putting your locations to work for you and your characters.

Cynsational Notes

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her latest publications are all about settings: The Rural and Urban Setting Thesauruses showcase over 200 different possible story locations, highlighting their associated sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells so authors can effectively describe them for readers.

Becca is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find her online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

In Memory: Natalie Babbitt

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

“Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don’t have to live forever, you just have to live.”

Tuck Everlasting

‘Tuck Everlasting’ Author Natalie Babbitt, Of Hamden, Dies At Age 84 by the Associated Press from The Hartford Courant. Peek: “Babbitt’s literary career started in 1966, when she illustrated a children’s book written by her husband and was encouraged by its editor to continue writing and illustrating children’s books herself.”

Obituary: Natalie Babbitt by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “The subject matter—is living forever a good thing? —was somewhat controversial when the book [Tuck Everlasting] was published in 1975, especially in schools, but strong word-of-mouth and support from educators and librarians helped it grow into an enduring favorite.”

Natalie Babbitt, 1932-2016 from the Horn Book. Peek: “Natalie Babbitt was also a great friend of the Horn Book; see below just a sampling of her contributions to the magazine over the years, plus a few reviews and appreciations.”

Tuck Everlasting author Natalie Babbitt dies at 84 from The Guardian. Peek: “The 1975 novel, which has sold over 3.5m copies…has been adapted into two movies and a Broadway play..she was a National Book Award finalist for The Devil’s Storybook in 1975.”

Cynsational Notes

She received many honored including a Newbery Honor for Knee-Knock Rise (FSG, 1971) and the inaugural E.B. White Award in 2013.

New Voice: Jenn Bishop on The Distance to Home

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jenn Bishop is the first-time author of The Distance To Home (Knopf, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Last summer, Quinnen was the star pitcher of her baseball team, the Panthers. They were headed for the championship, and her loudest supporter at every game was her best friend and older sister, Haley.



This summer, everything is different. Haley’s death, at the end of last summer, has left Quinnen and her parents reeling. Without Haley in the stands, Quinnen doesn’t want to play baseball. It seems like nothing can fill the Haley-sized hole in her world. 

The one glimmer of happiness comes from the Bandits, the local minor-league baseball team. For the first time, Quinnen and her family are hosting one of the players for the season. Without Haley, Quinnen’s not sure it will be any fun, but soon she befriends a few players. 

With their help, can she make peace with the past and return to the pitcher’s mound?


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

After querying two projects and having plenty of full requests but no offers, I felt stuck in that place I’m sure many other writers have found themselves in. You’re so close, but still not there yet.

There’s something holding you back, but no one has been able to articulate it. And since you’re the writer, you don’t have the capacity to objectively evaluate your own finished product. Of course the story works for you; you wrote it!

It was at this point in my writer’s journey—after feeling frustrated with being so close and still not there yet, that I applied to Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

The ah-ha moment for me came during the first residency, and was followed by many ah-ha moments in the subsequent ones.

Coming in 2017

In workshop, each time we met, two writers had their work critiqued by the group. You might think my ah-ha moment came during my own critique, but as I remember, it came from looking closely at the work of my peers.

Suddenly, it started to click—what all those agents had been trying to tell me, but which I had failed to see. I wasn’t letting the reader along on the journey with the character, not entirely.

You see, on the surface there was nothing wrong with my writing. Like so many English lit majors, I knew how to write at the sentence level. But what I didn’t know—what I was only just beginning to learn—was how to tell a story. Maybe still that language is not perfectly precise.

What I was failing to do was let the reader in on the journey of the story. I was trapping the reader outside of it; it wasn’t a lived, breathed experience for them.

I could see this difference as I read my peers’ work. Some of us were still in the same stage as me; perfectly suitable writing, but not a lived experience. And others, with interiority and voice, had allowed the reader to become an active participant in the story.

Later in the program, Rebecca Stead came as a visiting writer and lectured on this participant quality. She spoke of how writing is providing the 2+2 of the equation, and letting the reader put that together to make four.

Like so many beginning writers, I was always writing out the full equation. Not letting the reader to inhabit the story and do the work.

This revelation was one that shook the big picture. It didn’t allow for an easy or quick fix. What it meant was that I had to start all over in my thinking of how to tell a story, what to share with the reader and how.

Like so many things in writing, it was just the beginning.

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

Coming from a librarian background, I tend to have the long haul in mind. The truth is most books will have longer shelf lives in libraries than they ever will in a bookstore. Who wouldn’t want their book to be serendipitously discovered by a teen three, five, ten years after it was published?

As a teen librarian, I assessed the teen fiction collection annually, having to—gulp—discard the books that were no longer circulating to make room for new books.

In truth, some books don’t have a long shelf life because they are so technology-obsessed that they date themselves within a few years.

As a middle grade writer, I have it a little easier than YA authors, with technology being not quite as big a part of a ten-year-old’s life. That said, there are certain technologies that don’t seem to be going away, and it’s not in my interest to avoid anything my characters would be using in real life.

In The Distance To Home, text messaging plays a key role in the plot. While I’m a little wary of using branded applications, like Facebook and Twitter, whose purposes and uses have evolved quite a bit in the past five years, it’s important at the end of the day to be true to your reader’s world.

Anytime you avoid their reality, you risk the chance of a reader feeling jolted out of the story by something that feels inaccurate or false.

This revision kitty always rests on freshly printed manuscripts.