Guest Post: N.H. Senzai on Writing About War for Middle Grade & Escape From Aleppo

By N.H. Senzai
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The reason I love writing for the middle grade audience is because at this age kids can still suspend belief and journey with you through a story as long as you create believable plots, authentic characters and dialogue that rings true.

However, you need to hook them in quickly, so my first goal is to create a story that “reels them in.”

Once they’ve signed on to follow your protagonist, you can present heavy topics, such as war and conflict, as long as it’s age appropriate and presented in a nuanced manner.

At its heart, my new novel, Escape From Aleppo (Paula Wiseman Books, 2018), is an adventure story about a girl, Nadia, who becomes separated from her family as they flee war in their home city.

Stranded alone, Nadia has to overcome her fears, make alliances with strangers and come up with creative solutions to solve the challenges she faces so that she can reach the Turkish border and find her family.

I chose to write about the Syrian war after much deliberation as it was a tremendous responsibility to accurately portray the horrors of war while also sharing the country’s rich culture and history.

But as a writer I feel that we have a moral obligation to tell our readers the truth, no matter how difficult.

With the advent of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, kids are exposed to current events and have probably heard about the Arab Spring and the conflict in the Middle East.

However, they probably don’t know much about its root causes, such as colonialism, religious sectarianism etc., that led to this terrible point in history.

But, if given the facts in the right context, they have the ability to weigh and analyze serious topics and can come up with their own conclusions.

Frankly, we shouldn’t be afraid of shocking them about how terrible humans can be to one another, whether around the globe, or in own back yards. Without sharing harsh realities, in a way digestible format for that age group, you cannot hope to dissuade a future generation from committing the same crimes over and over again.

Aleppo before and after the battle, from BBC News

When writing Nadia’s story, I didn’t want my reader’s only frame of reference of Syria to be of war and of refugees fleeing death and destruction.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, predating the Pharaohs, occupied by Alexander the Great, the Romans, Ottomans and the French. It’s a truly unique city whose destruction over the course of the war has been heartbreaking.

Through flashbacks and Nadia’s reflections as she makes her way through city, I wanted to showcase Aleppo’s beauty, architecture, culture, history and food through her eyes.

I also wanted to show how normal Nadia’s life was before the war and how she was like any other teen around the world; she had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, a cat named Mishmish (which means apricot in Arabic) a sweet tooth, a passion for Arab Idol and a dislike of Algebra.

Carmen, Nadia’s favorite Arab Idol Contestant

In showing the two sides of the coin, life during peace and conflict, I wanted to illustrate how anyone’s normal, everyday life can be turn upside down in a matter of moments.

As Americans, whether we consciously realize it or not, we have a particular connection with refugees; at one point of time, most of our families sought refuge in this country. They arrived from all around the world, fleeing war, persecution, famine or just hoping to find a better life for themselves and their children.

If we pause to reflect on that connection I hope that we can share in a common humanity. So, even though Nadia is from a “faraway place,” my hope is that no matter how different the characters in Escape From Aleppo may appear, readers can walk in their shoes and realize that people, no matter where the live, are intrinsically the same. They have similar hopes, dreams and desire to live a peaceful, meaningful life.

Nadia is more like us than we think – at the end of the day my greatest wish is that my readers build bridges of understanding with others, rather than walls.

Cynsational Notes

See the reading group guide for Escape from Aleppo from the publisher.

Booklist gave Escape From Aleppo a starred review. Peek: “Filled with kindness and hope, but also with the harsh realities of the horrors of war, this heartbreaking book is a necessary reminder of what many people live through every day.”

N.H. Senzai‘s previous books include the award-winning Shooting Kabul (Paula Wiseman Books, 2011), Saving Kabul Corner (Paula Wiseman Books, 2015) and Ticket to India (Paula Wiseman Books, 2016).

She grew up in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and attended boarding school in London, England, where she was voted “most likely to lead a literary revolution” due to her ability to get away with reading comic books in class.

She has hiked across the Alps, road-tripped through Mexico, swum with barracudas in the Red Sea, taken a train across the Soviet Union, floated down the Nile, eaten gumbo in New Orleans and sat in contemplation at the Taj Mahal.

She also attended U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, while pursuing her passion for writing. She once again lives in San Francisco with her husband, a professor of political science, her son, and a cat who owns them.

Gayleen says: Other titles focusing on Syria include:

  • Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017) The story of three refugees: a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany, a Cuban girl on a raft bound for America in the 1990s and a Syrian boy journeying to Europe in 2015 (middle grade).

For more titles related to war and peace in children’s and young adult books, check the resources on Cynthia’s author site.

Guest Post: Kim Purcell on The Alternate Epistolary Novel


By Kim Purcell
from Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There are so many types of epistolary novels, and I love the ones that play with the form. In my second novel, I tried to shift the traditional epistolary novel format.

In This Is Not A Love Letter (Hyperion, 2018), Jessie writes her missing boyfriend an account of what they’re doing to find him, entirely in her head. The reason I chose to do it this way is rooted in what happened to me when my friend went missing in high school.

My friend Al stopped by a barbecue in the middle of a run and I talked to him, said he should stay, and he said he’d be back. He never made it home.

I searched through the woods, in the pouring rain, thinking of what I’d tell him when we found him.

In real life, we feared a hate crime, since he was one of the only African-Canadians in our small mill town in Northern British Columbia. Finally, the search was called off, and I returned to school to do finals, talking to him in my head, worrying he was missing them.

For that whole summer, I ran every day, and every time I ran, I imagined him running beside me, grinning at me, making wry comments, or just listening to me talk.

Those runs taught me how to tell this story.

Apparently, talking to people in your head isn’t strange. A lot of people experience this when someone drops out of their life all of a sudden due to a disappearance, death, or a sudden break-up.

It’s jarring. The brain just can’t adjust. For sure, my brain couldn’t adjust. I couldn’t believe that I’d never see him again.

At first, I wrote this story as a traditional epistolary novel, one long letter that started with Dear Chris. It was written in the past. No dialogue. But this version had one major drawback of a traditional epistolary novel that I wanted to avoid: a lack of immediacy and tension.

So, I rewrote the book in several short letters, which Jessie wrote at the end of each day as she searched for Chris. The struggle in this rewrite was in figuring out when she’d write the letters.

Then, I thought it could be in journal form, written at various points throughout the day with time stamps, but who’s going to pull out a journal in the middle of a search for her boyfriend?

Finally, I swung back to the way I wrote to my friend, in the moment, in my head. This was the only true way I could tell this story. I rewrote this book from scratch, again, in the present tense. I could interweave Jessie’s moment-to-moment story, and keep the reader in her body, and in her emotional journey. Also, the reader could stay in her thought process when a song or an object would throw her into a memory of Chris or into an ESP communication with him.

I could also incorporate other alternate epistolary forms within the narrative, such as text messages from the friends to one another, old texts from him, an old voicemail message, and one love letter from him that Jessie finds after he’s missing. In this way, the reader gets to peruse the pieces of evidence that give clues to what happened.

Kim’s writing companions

In shifting to an alternate epistolary model, my hope was to provide a challenge to the reader and increase the suspense. Because Jessie writes the love letter in her head, the reader is essentially living in her brain, seeing what she hopes to share with Chris when he returns.

The reader very likely sees the answer before Jessie sees it, and this also increases the tension, because the reader is calling to Jessie through the pages, interpreting the evidence.

It turned out this was the only way for me to write this story, and I think that’s when epistolary novels work best, when there’s some underlying emotional reason to write the story in that format.

In the end, you have to write a book for your own heart, and hope it connects to others.

For me, it was a love story to my friend. And I like to think he’s looking down at me, and saying, “Hey, I love you back.”



Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave This is Not a Love Letter a starred review and wrote, “Purcell handles the nuances of interracial relationships with a remarkably sensitive and observant eye and challenges readers to view racism under a broader category of generalizations.”

Kim Purcell grew up in British Columbia, Canada, and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two kids, two dogs, and three cats.

She has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She loves loud laughter, random elevator dancing, cold bodies of water and hot chocolate with extra whipped cream.

Guest Post: Helena Echlin on How to Write (& Rewrite) a Tale of Suspense

By Helena Echlin
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynsations Note: 


Happy Halloween! 


Yesterday we heard from Gillian French about techniques for building suspense. 


Today Helena Echlin shares her take on giving your readers goosebumps. 


And if you looking for even more ways to scare your readers, check out this post from April Henry, one of the post popular Cynsations posts ever.


And now, Helena.


One rainy Friday the 13th a few years ago, I met up for a drink with fellow novelist Malena Watrous, and complained about how hard it was to get any writing done, since we both had jobs and young children.

We recalled how we’d devoured books as kids and teens, and we wanted to write as a suspenseful story that would captivate readers in the same way. If I worked on a story like that, I was sure I’d find the time and energy to write it, whatever it took.

Malena confided her idea: a girl wakes up and finds her older sister missing from their shared bedroom. The only people who can help the girl save her sister are the mean girls at school. I was hooked. Fueled by more cocktails, we plotted out the entire story that night.

We’d both published novels already and we both taught fiction-writing.

So, we naively figured, how hard could it be to dash off a suspenseful YA thriller in a few months?

After the angst-filled life of the solo writer, it was enormously fun to get together in a café every week and rough out the next few scenes. We’d each draft a scene on our own, squeezing in a writing session while watching the kids in swim class or at the end of a long day, and then we’d bat the scenes back and forth until we were happy.

We dashed off that first draft in a mere five months, convinced we had a bestseller on our hands. Then trusted readers looked over that draft and told us that our careers writing sensitive, nuanced, literary novels hadn’t prepared us to be thriller writers well as we thought.

Yes, the novel was gripping in places, but in parts it fell flat.

So we hunkered down and rewrote our book more times than I will ever admit.

When it comes to writing a thriller, it’s essential to start with a gripping concept, but you can do much to amp up the suspense in successive drafts.

Here’s what we learned about how to captivate your reader:

Keep raising the stakes. The protagonist’s desire is what drives the plot in any novel, but in a suspense novel, it’s not enough if all the protagonist wants is to renovate his house in Nova Scotia or breathe new life into a middle-aged marriage.

If you are writing a thriller, raise the stakes higher, and keep raising them. At first, our heroine Laurel wants to find her sister Ivy. Then she realizes she has to rescue Ivy from a kidnapper and she only has a week to do so.

Then she realizes that Ivy’s kidnapper is an ancient demon. Side benefit: if you’re a busy mom who worries about things like what will your kids take for lunch other than cream cheese sandwiches, it is incredibly relaxing to write about a girl who has much bigger problems.

Hide the truth in plain sight. Readers don’t like guessing the truth too soon. They want you to mislead them along with the protagonist. But they also like to feel that in retrospect there was a trail of clues.

Your job is to plant these clues without drawing attention to them. In one of our early drafts, our villain kept offering the girls fleur-de-sel-topped caramels. Their taste was “a dreamy combination of butterscotch pudding and salted popcorn and as soon as you had finished one, you wanted just one more.”

In successive drafts, it became clear that these caramels just screamed “demonic magic,” so we had to kill that darling.

Avoid “zombie character syndrome.”
My writing students are often so focused on what happens in a story that they forget to have their characters react to it. I call this “zombie character syndrome.”

In fact, interiority—what a character is thinking and feeling—is an important way to increase suspense. It draws the reader’s attention to an approaching threat and makes it sharp and specific.

If your character isn’t scared, then your reader won’t be either. In our first draft, Laurel always “gulped” or “swallowed” when she was terrified (or sometimes had a “lump” in her chest or throat).
What a cliché. In successive drafts, we found more complex and vivid ways to show her reactions.

Book trailer for Sparked (Geek & Sundry, October 2017)



Slow down when it matters. It may seem that writing a fast-paced story means that things have to happen in quick succession, but don’t rush through climactic moments.

The reader is desperate to know what happens next and at the same time, their pleasure lies in the anticipation rather than in finding out. So slow way down.

It’s more psychologically realistic too: if a character’s adrenaline is peaking, their attention is hyper-focused and he or she will notice every detail.

At one point, a psychopath with a hunting rifle threatens Laurel and her friends while she cowers behind a log. In revision, we added in the song of a particular bird, “like the snip of scissor blades,” and have her numbly notice a pill bug on a blade of grass.

Surprise yourself. If you’re writing a tightly constructed novel with lots of twists and turns, you’re probably going to need an outline, unless you’re Stephen King. But don’t stick to it.

Often, the best ideas come from your subconscious, when you are least expecting it. Be open to those ideas and be prepared to change your story or rewrite it entirely if necessary. Remember: if you know what’s going to happen when you are writing it, so will the reader.

When we thought we were finally done, Malena had a plot epiphany at the DMV that meant we had to embark on yet one more draft. But now, when readers say they had “no idea what was coming next” or comment on the “hairpin twists and turns,” it was totally worth it.


Cynsations Notes

Malena and Helena

Helena Echlin, a native of the U.K., is the author of the novel Gone (Random House UK, 2002) and for five years wrote “Table Manners,” an etiquette advice column for Chow, the online food and drink magazine.

She has also written for the Guardian, The Times, and The Sunday Telegraph in the U.K., and Yoga Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle in the U.S.. She lives in Berkeley and teaches fiction-writing online for Stanford.

Malena Watrous co-authored Sparked. Malena also wrote the novel If You Follow Me (Harper Perennial, 2010).

She was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and helped to found the Online Writers’ Certificate, Stanford’s two-year online novel-writing program.

She teaches fiction-writing for Stanford as well as working on her own fiction, and has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times. She lives in San Francisco.

Guest Post: Gillian French on Hooking Readers: How to Build Suspense

By Gillian French
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynsations Note: 


What scares you? Snakes? Spiders? Bigfoot? It’s different for everyone. Likewise, authors use different approaches for building suspense. 


Our Halloween treat for you is a glimpse at techniques from two YA authors for upping the stakes. 


We suspect this is a topic you want to know more about, because the most popular Cynsations posts of all time is April Henry’s guest post on adding tension.

So,without further ado, Gillian French offers a plan to give your readers chills.


And tomorrow Helena Eichlin will present a different route.

Readers want to be hooked.

We’re addicted to the rush of finding a story we want to live in, characters we want to bring along everywhere—the laundromat, the commute, lunchbreaks. Broken down to its basic components, any un-put-downable story has suspense at its core. Not just footsteps-coming-up-the-stairs goosebumps, but a genuine investment in how things are going to turn out for our protagonist, and, ideally, the more peripheral characters in the book as well.

You recognize compelling suspense when you read it—but as a writer, how do you craft this vital element and keep your audience turning pages until the wee hours?

Read on for three methods I swear by:

Strong Character Motivation: This is your most important job as a storyteller: making readers care about your characters. The swiftest way to do that is to figure out what each character wants, an easily relatable standpoint. We all have something we’re working toward, something that matters to us, whether it’s being a loving mom or a world-class bungee jumper.

See also April Henry on Just Add Tension.

In my YA paranormal thriller, The Door to January (Islandport Press, 2017), protagonist Natalie wants to find out why she’s experiencing a reoccurring nightmare about an abandoned farmhouse in her former hometown. The stakes are high right out of the gate—her peace of mind and sanity are in jeopardy—making it easy for readers to invest in her pursuit of the truth. As the action unfolds and more danger is revealed, Natalie’s journey grows more perilous, and, with some luck, a page-turner is born.

Even antagonistic characters need motivation. No matter how loathsome you want readers to find your villain, he or she needs to exist in your book as more than an awfulness-producing machine.

As uncomfortable as it may be, cast yourself in that role; we’ve all had our unlovely moments, times when we’ve done things we regret. The difference is, when this character does something awful, they rarely regret it. You may be surprised by how freeing that is, and how much fun you can have playing devil’s advocate.

Timing Is Everything: Knowing when to ratchet up the suspense in your book can be tricky. Randomly dropping in action-packed or frightening scenes just because you’re worried that you’ll lose your reader can be indicative of larger structural problems or issues with character development, and probably won’t be effective.

Have faith that your audience will hang in there during the quieter sections of the book; that said, every scene must have a purpose, even if it’s a conversation between two characters over coffee. A plot needs to work as a machine with multiple moving parts, churning towards one conclusion. Easy to say, not so easy to do.

Simply put, the “big” scenes should feel natural because the pages that came before built the foundation to support them.

  • If you find that your plot sags in places, try charting out a simple chapter outline, highlighting gripping, standout scenes. If you see uneven gaps between them, you may want to consider restructuring to make the action feel more measured.
Franklin Treat House, a reportedly haunted mansion in Frankfort, Maine
near Gillian’s hometown. “I’ve heard stories about it since I was a kid.”

Tap into Your Senses: We’ve all felt anticipation and fear; the key is, remembering the finer details of those experiences and breaking it down on the page to get the strongest reaction from your reader.

  • Think of a time when you were genuinely afraid—what effect did it have on your body, how you perceived your surroundings? Was any one sense heightened, a normally mundane smell like stale coffee, or a background noise like passing traffic or a ticking clock? 
  • If it was a person you were afraid of, what was it about their body language or attitude that lingers in your memory? This is your chance to dig into an uncomfortable memory and make it work for you. Brainstorm everything about that moment, then see which details really stand out.

Also, contrasts in sensory perception can go a long way toward disquieting your readers. In The Door to January, during the first confrontation between Natalie and Jason, a boy who bullied and terrorized her when they were younger, I drew the focus in tight, contrasting the brightness of Jason’s words—“Hey, there, sunshine”—with the flat, cold expression in his eyes, trying to put both Natalie and the reader off-balance, not sure what he might do next.

We’re all engineered to seek level ground, to find certainty, and readers will fly through pages to find out when or if the characters achieve that.

Reading and writing suspense are the perfect way to experience nail-biting moments from the safety of your favorite chair. The more you finetune your craft, the stronger your grip on your audience will be—and you may be surprised when they thank you for the ride of their life.

Cynsational Notes


Kirkus Reviews called The Door to January (Islandport Press, 2017), “Chilling and suspenseful, this paranormal thriller with a touch of romance will keep readers on the edges of their seats.”

Growing up in rural Maine led Gillian French to believe that the mystery of the past is all around. She uses her surroundings as a setting for the dark stories that often have a creepy twist.

While she’s never seen a ghost, she’s pretty sure she’s heard ghostly footsteps in the night.

Gillian’s short fiction has appeared in various publications and anthologies. Her first YA novel, Grit (HarperCollins, 2017) received starred reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and Booklist.

Her next novel,  The Lies They Tell (HarperCollins) is scheduled for publication in May 2018.

She holds a degree in English from the University of Maine and is perpetually at work on her next novel.

Guest Post: Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick on Co-Writing Picture Books

By Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick

Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

“Writing is a solitary occupation and one of its hazards is loneliness.” – Joyce Carol Oates

“The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement.” – Will Self

“Writing is an antisocial act.” – Martha Grimes

Writing.

Solitary, lonely, antisocial – except for when it’s not.

Erin, Audrey and Liz at the Writing Barn

Most of us choose to write partly because we don’t mind (read: are desperate for) some alone time. But even antisocial writers wearing sweats and old socks know that sometimes, two heads are better than one.

A few years ago, we were agent-mates with a mutually gushy appreciation for each other. Before long, we became accountability and commiseration partners. Then one day, our agent (Erin Murphy) said something about the two of us having a book baby together, and we were off to the races.

A lot of collaborators are married folks who write together over the kitchen table. Our method is more platonic and long distance. Wondering how that works?

Well… here are a few FAQs!

Do we use Google Docs? We do not.
Do we use the edit mode in Word? We do not.
Do we hash out each and every change over the phone? Nope. We don’t do that either.

This is what we do do:

We know for sure Matt did all the illustrations

One of us gets a brilliant idea and tosses it out to the other over email. It’s generally received with great enthusiasm because we’re game like that. Next comes maybe a title and a few lines in a Word doc – a beginning. And from then on, we’ve both got full-on freedom to make of the manuscript what we will. We take turns adding, omitting, and rearranging lines and phrases – without permission, explanation or conversation.

It’s kind of mad-cap. It’s kind of brutal. It’s kind of fun and insanely liberating.

Several days or weeks later, twelve or twenty-two drafts later, we have this shiny new thing that is neither hers nor mine, but ours.

And here’s one of the great and unexpected results of this practice: Somehow, we both find it easier to love that final product – maybe because we’re a little less hard on each other than we are on our own solo selves, maybe because someone else did half the work, or maybe just because we had such a good time all the way along.

Even still, lots of our originally brilliant ideas end up on the cutting room floor. Which is why we’re particularly tickled to be celebrating the debut of Bob, Not Bob (Disney-Hyperion, 2017), illustrated by Matthew Cordell today. (Dear Substitute, illustrated by Chris Raschka, follows next year, also from Disney-Hyperion).

Now, who wrote what bits of those books – or what bits of this post? We wish we could stay to reveal that but we’ve got to back to our solitary, antisocial efforts now.

Thanks for having us!

Cynsational Notes


Bob, Not Bob received a starred review from Publishers’ Weekly. Peek: “Scanlon and Vernick
understand the way that being sick makes kids need comfort that they don’t usually need, how it makes them unrecognizable even to themselves, and the comfort a mother’s presence brings. Every page offers a giggle.”

Liz Garton Scanlon is the author of numerous beloved books for young people, including the highly-acclaimed, Caldecott-honored picture book All the World (Simon & Schuster, 2009), illustrated by Marla Frazee, and her debut novel for middle grade readers, The Great Good Summer (Simon & Schuster, 2015). She is a poet, teacher, and presenter at schools, libraries and conferences and a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Colorado and Wisconsin, and now lives with her husband and two daughters in Austin, Texas.

Audrey Vernick is the author of books for young readers, including the award-winning Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team (Clarion, 2012), illustrated by Steven Salerno and the acclaimed novels Two Naomis (Balzer + Bray, 2016), co-authored by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Screaming at the Ump (Clarion, 2014) and Water Balloon (Clarion, 2011). She has also published more than a dozen picture books and speaks at conferences and elementary schools around the country. She lives near the ocean in New Jersey with her family.


New Voices: Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer on The Season

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer are the first-time authors of The Season (Viking, 2016). From the promotional copy:


She can score a goal, do sixty box jumps in a row, bench press a hundred and fifty pounds…but can she learn to curtsy?



Megan McKnight is a soccer star with Olympic dreams, a history major, an expert at the three Rs of Texas (readin’, ridin’, and ropin’), but she’s not a girly girl. 

So when her Southern belle mother secretly enters her as a debutante for the 2016 deb season in their hometown of Dallas, she’s furious—and has no idea what she’s in for. 

When Megan’s attitude gets her on probation with the mother hen of the debs, she’s got a month to prove she can ballroom dance, display impeccable manners, and curtsey like a proper Texas lady or she’ll get the boot and disgrace her family. 

The perk of being a debutante, of course, is going to parties, and it’s at one of these lavish affairs where Megan gets swept off her feet by the debonair and down-to-earth Hank Waterhouse. 

If only she didn’t have to contend with a backstabbing blonde and her handsome but surly billionaire boyfriend, Megan thinks, being a deb might not be so bad after all. But that’s before she humiliates herself in front of a room full of ten-year-olds, becomes embroiled in a media-frenzy scandal, and gets punched in the face by another girl.


The season has officially begun…but the drama is just getting started.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

The Season is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen set in Texas in 2016 so our main character, Megan McKnight, is based on Elizabeth Bennet.

 We really examined that classic, well-loved character and asked ourselves: What traits make her who she is? What makes her the woman Mr. Darcy falls in love with? The woman we all fall in love with?

We literally made a list of important traits: Brash, forms strong opinions, speaks her mind, loves to read, more physically active than other women, witty, fiercely loyal, loves the outdoors, isn’t as interested in men as other young women her age, her singularity. Things like that. Then we tried to imagine what a modern young woman, who embodied all those traits, would be like.

We decided she’d be a history major and an athlete and we chose soccer as her sport. She’d be the kind of girl dedicated to practicing and playing even if it meant she was a little intimidating to guys and didn’t have much time for dating. She’d be more interested in fueling her body for athletics than in fitting into a size two. She’d throw her hair in a ponytail, put on some Chapstick and pull on track shorts rather than care about makeup and fashion. She’d be funny and snarky, but so much so that it would get her into trouble sometimes. She’d be more loyal to her sister and her teammates than to any guy.

And also, like Elizabeth Bennet, she’d have no idea how to be coy. While other girls (like her sister) might hide their feelings, she just wouldn’t be capable of keeping her opinions to herself.

As you can see, we had a really strong blueprint to build our main character from, which is a wonderful. But the kinds of questions we were focused on are no different when you’re creating a character from scratch.

I think the most helpful thing with any character is to know where you want them to end up. What lesson must they learn by the end? If the lesson, as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet and our Megan McKnight, is to not form knee-jerk opinions about things, then you better start that character as far away from that point as realistically possible. You have to allow every character, not just your protagonist, room to grow, and change.

A book is not a journey for the reader if it’s not a journey for the characters.

And so, the same method applies to all our secondary characters as well. We found modern ways for them to embody the traditional Austen characters’ traits. Our Mrs. Bennet is a social climber trying to set he daughters up for success, our Jane Bennet is the embodiment of the perfect young woman, albeit a contemporary one, and our Mr. Darcy is proud and aloof.

Real people always play a role in characterizations, too. Sometimes we think of certain real people that we know or even famous people to help us envision a certain character. I’ve always found it easier to describe a setting if I’ve seen it, and the same holds true for people.

 Of course, you always add and take away from reality when you’re creating fiction, but you often end up with characters who are an amalgamation of people who really exist.

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

Writing comedy is so hard. Humor is in the eye of the beholder and because of this, and perhaps more all other types of writing, it cannot be done in a vacuum.

Like most things having to do with writing, it starts with observation. You know what you think is funny to you and your friends. Start there. Make notes. Have little booklets full of funny conversations you’d had and witty things you’ve said. Research isn’t just dry reading about some place you’ve never been or some historical period. Research is about watching human behavior, listening to speech patterns, and being tuned in to what makes people laugh.

Stephen and I have the benefit of having each other. But we had already been together for seven years when we accidentally discovered that we were good writing partners.

I was an actress and was starting to do stand-up comedy in New York City. I was writing my stand-up material and would try things out on him at home in the evenings. He was my sounding board and was almost always able to build on what I had, and make it better.

We started working on all my material together, cracking each other up in the process. It’s a really good example of how having a someone to be your sounding board is so important with comedy.

Maybe that’s why sitcoms and “Saturday Night Live” fill hire six-to-fifteen writers who work together or why so many of the old screwball comedies were penned by a two-person writing team.

But even if you don’t use a partner to write comedy, you got to find that person or people to give you a gut-check.

To answer the most important question: Is this funny to anyone besides me?

So whether it’s your best friend, or an online writing group, or just one other writer who understands your genre, find those Beta Readers.

And if they are good, be good to them. If you can’t offer a quid pro quo of also reading their work, then small gifts are a really nice way of saying thank you and keeping them in your corner.

The other important factor in writing comedy is just to do it, and do it often. Your funny bone isn’t a bone at all, its a muscle!

Okay, it’s really a nerve but that doesn’t fit into my metaphor so just go with me. The point is, if you want it to be strong, you have to exercise it! The funnier you are, the funnier you will be. I have never been funnier than when I was doing stand-up because I was doing it every day. My mind was just set to that channel!

If you are writing a comedic piece, you need to immerse yourself in comedy. Hang out with your funny friends! Watch funny shows and movies. Go to a comedy club.

Basically, put yourself in a funny world so you have something to play/write off of.

New Voice: Sonya Mukherjee on Gemini

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sonya Mukherjee
is the first-time author of Gemini (Simon & Schuster, 2016). From the promotional copy:

In a powerful and daring debut novel, Sonya Mukherjee shares the story of sisters Clara and Hailey, conjoined twins who are learning what it means to be truly extraordinary.

Seventeen-year-old conjoined twins, Clara and Hailey, have lived in the same small town their entire lives—no one stares at them anymore. But there are cracks in their quiet existence and they’re slowing becoming more apparent. 

Clara and Hailey are at a crossroads. Clara wants to stay close to home, avoid all attention, and study the night sky. Hailey wants to travel the world, learn from great artists, and dance with mysterious boys. 

As high school graduation approaches, each twin must untangle her dreams from her sister’s, and figure out what it means to be her own person.

Told in alternating perspectives, this unconventional coming-of-age tale shows how dreams can break your heart—but the love between sisters can mend it.

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

This is cheating a bit, but my answer has to be Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (Random House, 2006). This is a book that I studied and contemplated until its ideas sank in, and it helped my writing more than anything else that I’ve read.

The basic idea is one that’s seeped into the culture in the last few years, but as far as I know, it all stems from Dweck’s work: Some people have a fixed mindset, in which they assume that their intelligence, talent, and personal qualities are mostly immutable, while others have a growth mindset—an assumption that all these qualities can be changed and meaningfully improved with effort. With the fixed mindset, you hear feedback as a reflection on your immutable qualities. With the growth mindset, you hear feedback simply as useful information. And the growth mindset is the one you want.

When I read this book, I realized that I’d always had a fixed mindset about writing. Whenever I received criticism or rejections, I worried that I wasn’t a good writer and never would be—which made it harder to get back to my writing, and harder to learn from the criticism. Whenever I received praise or other kudos, I became hopeful that maybe I had talent after all.

It was a roller coaster, and just like a real-life roller coaster, it made my stomach hurt and got me nowhere.

But Dweck makes it clear that just as you can grow your intelligence, grow your talent, and grow your compassion, you can also grow yourself a growth mindset. That’s the whole point: Believe you can change, and you really can.

Still, change wasn’t easy. For me, the hardest part, but also the most important, was when I realized that in order to be less hurt by criticism, I would also need to be less delighted by praise.

They were two sides of the same coin, and there was just no way to have one without the other. I needed to hear both positive and negative feedback as potentially helpful input that I could use to improve my work, and nothing more.

In short, I had to give up caring about whether I had talent.

This change in mindset allowed me to take in tougher feedback with much less discouragement, and it allowed me to become much more merciless in cutting and overhauling my manuscripts. It also meant less time wasted on feeling bad about criticism and rejections, so I could get back to work sooner.

I’m not claiming to be fully reformed, but I think I’ve come a long way, and I think it’s made a huge difference to the quality of my writing.

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

The truth is, although I haven’t been a teenager for quite a while, I never really changed the way I talk.

When I’m at my most relaxed, I still use pretty much the same speech patterns, the same sarcasm, and the same words I used then. I was never one for the most faddish slang, so I didn’t say “rad” as a teen, and I don’t say “bae” now, but I’ve been overusing “awesome” and “cool” the entire time.

Gemini was originally all in Clara’s point of view, and her voice was the first thing that came to me and drove the book forward, so it wasn’t something I struggled to find. But it was basically just a relaxed, uncensored version of my own voice, mingling with some of the thoughts and perspectives and worries that I had as a teen.

Hailey’s voice was added much later in the process, and hers was a bit more challenging, because I wanted her to feel distinct from Clara. They have two different personalities, but because they’re twin sisters who have never been apart, they also have a lot of similarities.

Since Hailey has a harder, tougher edge than Clara, I decided that she would tend to speak in somewhat shorter sentences, with shorter words, and with some mild swearing that we don’t get from Clara. I made her less inclined toward metaphors and other writerly ways of saying things; she’s more direct and literal.

With both of them, though, there was an element that I think must resemble what Method actors do, in imagining themselves into a character. I just tried to be this person and see things through her eyes, and let the voice flow from there.

For writers whose natural voices are more formal or mature than mine, I would suggest that you still just lean into whatever voice comes naturally to you, and allow it to be what it is.

I doubt that trying to consciously imitate younger people’s speech patterns would ever work very well, and I don’t think it’s necessary. There are plenty of great books for young readers that don’t have an obviously teen or kid-sounding voice.

Read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (Hyperion, 2009) or The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (Little, Brown, 2008). These books have pretty formal-sounding narrative voices, and they’re fantastic, and young readers love them.

Granted, they’re in third person, but who says you have to write in first person?

And then again, if you want to write in first person and still give your narrator a more formal style, who says you can’t do that?

Kids and teens have all kinds of voices, and their slang doesn’t necessarily need to be on fleek. (Which MTV tells me is out anyway. “On fleek” was so 2015, apparently.)

Guest Post: Mary E. Cronin on Writing Children & Teens with LGBTQ Parents

Mary E. Cronin and Bonnie Jackman

By Mary E. Cronin
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Life is just different for kids of LGBTQ parents.

They navigate awkward questions, tricky social situations, and hetero-normative language on a daily basis.

My wife Bonnie Jackman and I shared sparks for inspiration as well as seeds of conflict for writers in “Re-imagining Families: Writing about Characters with LGBTQ Parents” at the New England SCBWI Conference on May 1.

Here are a few points from our presentation:

  1. Kids of LGBTQ parents have to explain their existence all the time. Who’s your real mom? Where’s your dad? What do you mean your dad’s a she? There are many dissonant moments our kids deal with as a matter of course in their daily lives. How does this affect their character, their quest, their relationships, their resilience? This is rich material for character development.
  2. In a diverse country such as ours, with LGBTQ rights and protections shifting in real time, geographical setting is critical to any story with LGBTQ characters. Setting can be an antagonist, a support, a mix of the two. Think about where your character/family lives and consider the political/social climate for LGBTQ people there. There are wide variations, and it will have an impact on the landscape of your character and his/her family.
  3. How “out” is the family? Are the parents activists, or do they tend to be more low-key? Where are their children on this spectrum? Age is critical here. A kindergartner may delight in having her two moms come into the classroom for a celebration; an older kid might ask to be dropped off two blocks from school.
  4. Writing about LGBTQ-parented families gives us the opportunity to portray socio-economic diversity. Not all “gay families” have furniture from Pottery Barn and lots of disposable income, as often portrayed in mass media. Consider widely-known statistics about women’s earning power in the U.S. in relation to men’s, and then think about the impact of that on families parented by two moms. Trans adults are at a greater risk of discrimination at the workplace; this may impact a family greatly.
  5. School is a place where kids of LGBTQ parents may experience all kinds of dissonance. Mother-daughter book clubs, father-daughter dances, forms with mother/father blanks on them, questions and misunderstandings from teachers, administrators, the school nurse… this is rich territory to explore in character development. How does your character respond to these “micro-aggressions,” when the world around them seems to constantly make hetero-normative assumptions?
  6. Statistics have shown that same-sex couples (with or without children) are much more likely to be interracial or inter-ethnic. This presents writers/illustrators with the opportunity to portray very diverse families and to consider the concept of intersectionality.  

Our New England SCBWI session was dynamic, punctuated by great questions, comments, and resource sharing.

Bonnie is a seasoned therapist and school counselor with lots of anecdotes, developmental info, and insights to share. I brought the craft perspective to the conversation.

It was a fun and lively session, and I’m happy to share the high points with Cynsations readers.

Cynsational Notes

For more insights, Mary recommends:

See also Mary’s blog.

Guest Post: Lara Herrington Watson on Analyze This: A Grammatical Breakdown of Favorite First Chapters

click to enlarge

By Lara Herrington Watson
@lashwatson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

As I finished writing my second YA novel, I worried that my writing was getting stagnant.

What if I was learning bad habits that I would repeat through all of my future novels?

In order to glean some knowledge about my writing, I completed grammatical analyses on the first chapters of works by some of my favorite authors (Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Barbara Kingsolver, David Levithan, Rainbow Rowell, and J.K. Rowling), and on my own novel.

I calculated percentages of sentences that begin with a subject, adverb, etc. I also looked at percentages of sentence type used: fragments, complex sentences, etc.

Here’s what I learned:



When reading your manuscript straight through for errors, highlighting different parts of speech individually (nouns, verbs, adverbs…) is an excellent editing method. This is how I started the project, and while it didn’t teach me much about my writing, scanning it piecemeal made the text pop in a different way. I discovered a dozen small errors and typos that I and my writing group had not yet found (in the first 50 pages alone).

Simplicity is okay. Forty-five percent of all my sentences are simple. I start 63 percent of my sentences with subjects. At first I was sure this was too high. But these numbers are actually pretty average compared to my favorite authors.

Levithan had the highest percentages of simple sentences and of sentences beginning with subjects (65%), but his writing is still some of the most poetic, jazzy, and prismatic writing I’ve read. Maybe this is because of the many gorgeous participial phrases in the middle or at the end of his sentences.

Similarly, Rowell’s writing gets more interesting (lots of fragments composed of participial phrases) whenever the protagonist waxes nostalgic about his girlfriend. Much like Levithan, her fragments make seemingly small, subtle emotional steps that work.

click to enlarge

Austen had the second highest percentage of fragments (Blame Mrs. Bennet’s blathering about Bingley.). Austen also uses the smallest range of tools for sentence starters, yet she scores fairly high in her use of complex sentences.

Complexity is also okay. One myth among young writers is that long sentences are always run-on sentences. This is untrue.

Take Hemingway, who is surprisingly complex. Because of his reputation as a straightforward, clear writer, I expected him to score high in fragments, but he had the least of anyone: only 2.2%.

His complex sentences were also the most complex of any I analyzed. Compared to writers like Levithan and Rowell, Hemingway often covers more ground (years, literally) with longer, more complex, and exceptionally clear sentences.

Use a range of tools. As far as sentence starters, Rowling definitely uses the widest range of tools. It’s probably not a coincidence that her varied writing has captivated children and adults alike.

Don’t focus too much on statistics. Initially, I thought that the best writing would have the greatest variation. But some sentence starters and structures work better depending on the author’s voice and the novel’s contents; Hemingway and Kingsolver, for example, punctuate their long, complex sentences with short, punchy ones. This may not make the most interesting graph, but it sets their voices apart and makes for great fiction.

My sample size is admittedly small. I’m only looking at first chapters, and there’s plenty more to learn. But my brain hurts from too much data entry, and the boarding school from my third novel beckons.

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

New Voice: Shari Schwarz on Treasure at Lure Lake

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Shari Schwarz is the first-time author of Treasure at Lure Lake
(Cedar Fort, 2016). From the promotional copy:

An epic adventure—that’s all Bryce wants this summer. 

So when he stumbles upon a treasure map connected to an old family secret, Bryce is determined to follow the map, even if it means risking his life and lying to his grandpa while they’re on their wilderness backpacking trip. 

Bryce must work together with his difficult big brother, Jack, or they…and the treasure…may never see the light of day again.

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? 

How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

One of my very favorite craft resource books is Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole (Writer’s Digest Books, 2012).

I took it everywhere with me for a few months and read through it twice as I was writing Treasure at Lure Lake. One thing I struggled with in my book was giving the brothers, fourteen-year-old Jack and twelve-year-old Bryce, the right level of interiority, as Mary Kole calls it, which is access to the character’s thoughts and feelings about what is going on.

I wrote Lure Lake from the perspective of two boys, and if you’ve ever spent a lot of time around teenage boys, they aren’t always the first to share their emotions and deep thoughts. Of course, there are some that do—I do have four boys myself—but it was definitely a challenge for me to get into each of the boys’ heads and get their internal voices just right in my story.

Mary Kole’s book teaches about the importance of interiority.

She writes, “First we should see characters in action, and then we get some Interiority to really drive home the author’s intentions…With this one-two punch we can move on with a solid understanding of what we’ve just witnessed and learned.” (p. 59)

Another lesson I learned the hard way (through many revisions and trial and error) was how to make the reader care about Jack and Bryce at the beginning of the book. If the reader doesn’t care about their journeys very early in the story, then what would be the point of reading it? On p. 90 Kole writes, “…introduce not only a great character but a character with Objectives and Motivations. Then imbue the character’s life with enough conflict, both internal and external, to really get the story engine humming.” And, of course, there has to be interiority if we are to know the character’s goal, objectives and motivations.

Shari’s boys

I also listened carefully to my own boys and their friends. I listened to anything that would point to their hopes, dreams, goals and motivations. It is still a constant learning process to perfect these story elements that make or break a good book.

Another element is creating a complex, layered character. One who seems real. There are books I’ve read where I was certain that the story was biographical, in large part because the main character was so invested in the plot.

Mary Kole not only stresses interiority, objectives/motivations to create a real character, but she also helps writers by taking them through creating a character with a complex core identity full of strengths, weaknesses, virtues, roles, emotions, responses, boundaries etc… She writes on p 109, “If you can create a strong character with a strong sense of core self, then thrust him through a plot that attacks those pillars of identity, and surprise the reader with some of his choices, you will have an amazingly layered protagonist on your hands.” And she doesn’t leave it just at protagonists. She advises the same for the antagonist.

I highly recommend this book for all writers, those new to the craft and also those who are well-experienced. I can’t imagine that anyone has “arrived” when it comes to writing. I know I will be writing and revising and learning over and over again with each new book I write.

It’s a challenging but inspiring process, and I’m thankful for the inspiration found in books like Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole.

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

Cody (Corgi) and Jasper (puppy)

Before I started writing seriously, I received my elementary teaching degree with an emphasis in literacy, and then I worked as an elementary school librarian. I had the privilege to study children’s literature in-depth for my teaching degree which carried over into being a librarian where I was able to share with children my love of reading.

I didn’t begin writing Treasure at Lure Lake until a couple of years later. I think being a librarian allowed me to see and understand in general what kids love to read. There are those books and series that a lot of children gravitate towards, but they’re not for everyone. There are always at least a few outliers who don’t follow the trends and find their own niche in books they love.

There is also a difference between books that adults want children to read and books that children themselves want to read. Yes, there is a bit of a crossover, but there are many books that children love that adults roll their eyes at or worse.

As a librarian, my job was to connect readers with books. And the only way to do that is to find books they love based on their interests, reading level, prior books read and sometimes just a bit of luck. Part of connecting children to books meant that I needed to be up to date on new books coming out. How could I gush over a book to a student if I’d never read it?

American Lakes, Northern Colorado

Reading so many children’s books also helped me in writing Lure Lake. There is such a wide variety of readers which is one of the reasons why there are so many different types of books out there.

As a new author, it can strike fear in my heart to think that some people will not like my book. Some people may judge it harshly. Of course! No book is the perfect book for every reader out there. This has helped me realize that my book will not be for everyone which is a good reality check. But there are children who identify with parts of my story, whether it is the plot or the characters or the themes…and that is who I wrote my book for.

Being a librarian allowed me to have numerous conversations with students who loved reading. They would tell me about why they loved the books they did, what they wanted to read next and how the book impacted them.

I also was able to listen as students told me about what made a book hard for them to get through or why it was boring. And, best of all, I was able to work with those students who just hadn’t found a love for reading yet. They were the children who came back, week after week, still searching for a book that they might finally like.

There isn’t anything more gratifying as a librarian than to finally find that one book that makes a reader’s eyes light up for the first time. Seeing a reluctant reader finally devour a book, especially if it’s part of a series, is an amazing process to watch and the greatest blessing of all in being a librarian.

One of my own sons struggled with reading throughout elementary school. But when I placed The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (Hyperion, 2005) in his hands when he was in fifth grade, he was hooked for the first time and read straight through that series and into the next.

Helping a child find the joy of reading is why I started writing Treasure at Lure Lake in the first place. I wanted to write a fun, exciting adventure that would be easy to read and would hopefully catch the imagination and hearts of reluctant readers that resonate with its story.