Cynsations Readers Interview Cynthia Leitich Smith

By Cynsations Readers
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Over the past couple of weeks, children’s-YA author Cynthia Leitich Smith put out a call for questions from readers on Cynsations and Twitter. Here are those she elected to tackle and her responses. A few questions were condensed for space and/or clarity.

See also a previous Cynsations reader-interview post from November 2010. Cyn Note: It’s interesting how the question topics shifted, both with my career growth and changes in publishing. Back then, readers were most interested in the future of the picture book market and online author marketing.

Craft 

What’s the one piece of advice you think would most benefit children’s-YA writers?

Read model books across age levels, genres, and formats. For example, a novelist who studies picture books will benefit in terms of innovation, economy and lyricism of language.

Writing across formats has its benefits, too. No, you won’t be as narrowly branded. But you will have more options within age-defined markets that rise and fall with birth rates. You will acquire transferable skills, and, incidentally, you’ll be a more marketable public speaker and writing teacher.

Are you in a critique group? Do you think they’re important?

Not right now, but I have been in the past.

These days, I carry a full formal teaching load. Each year I also tend to lead one additional manuscript-driven workshop and offer critiques at a couple of conferences. That leaves no time for regular group meetings or the preparation that goes into them—my loss.

For me, participation offered insights (by receiving and giving feedback) as well as mutual support related both to craft and career.

From a more global perspective, considerations include: whether the group is hard-working, social or both; the range of experience and expertise; the compatibility of productivity levels; and the personality mix.

The right combination of those ingredients can enhance the writing life and fuel success. A wrong one can be a serious detriment. If you need to make a change, do it with kindness. But do it.

What can an MFA in writing for kids do for me?

First, my perspective is rooted in my experience as a faculty member in the low-residency Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

With Kathi at the Illumine Gala

You don’t need an MFA to write well or to successfully publish books for young readers.

I don’t have an MFA. My education includes a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Kansas and a J.D. from The University of Michigan Law School. I also studied law abroad one summer in Paris.

Beyond that, I improved my children’s writing at various independent workshops, most notably those led by Kathi Appelt in Texas.

That said, you will likely develop your craft more quickly and acquire a wider range of knowledge and transferable skills through formal study.

My own writing has benefited by working side-by-side with distinguished author-teachers. Only this week, I heard Tim Wynne-Jones’s voice in my mind—the echo of a lecture that lit the way.

You’ll want to research which program is best suited to your needs.

Your questions may include:

Gali-leo
  • Do you want a full- or low-residency experience? 
  • What will be the tuition and travel/lodging costs?
  • What financial aid is available?
  • Are you an author-illustrator? (If so, Hollins may be a fit.)
  • Are you looking for a well-established program or an intimate start-up?
  • What is the faculty publication history?
  • How extensive is the faculty’s teaching experience?
  • How diverse is the faculty and student body?
  • How impressive is the alumni publication record? 
  • How many alumni go on to teach? 
  • How cohesive–active and supportive–is the alumni community?

Talk to students and alumni about the school’s culture, faculty-student relationships, creature comforts and hidden expenses.

Across the board, for children’s-YA MFA programs, the most substantial negative factor is cost.


Career

In terms of marketing, what’s one thing authors could do better?

Provide the name of your publisher and, if applicable, the book’s illustrator in all of your promotional materials, online and off. If you’re published by, say, Lee & Low or FSG, that carries with it a certain reputation and credibility. Also, readers will know which publisher website to seek for more information and which marketing department to contact to request you for a sponsored event.

Granted, picture book authors usually post cover art, which includes their illustrators’ names. But we’re talking about the books’ co-creators, and they bring their own reader base with them. Include their bylines with yours and the synopsis of the book whenever possible. It’s respectful, appreciative and smart business.

What’s new with your writing?

I’ve sold two poems this year, one of which I wrote when I was 11. How cool is that?

I’m also working steadily on a massive update and relaunch of my official author site, hopefully to go live for the back-to-school season.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a contemporary realistic, upper young adult novel. It’s due out from Candlewick in fall 2017.

Like my tween debut, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), the upcoming book features a Muscogee (Creek)/Native American girl protagonist, is set in Kansas and Oklahoma, and is loosely inspired by my own adolescence.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to take a look at my recent contemporary realism, check out the chapter “All’s Well” from Violent Ends, edited by Shaun David Hutchinson (Simon Pulse, 2015).


What’s next for your Tantalize-Feral books?

For those unfamiliar with them, the Tantalize series and Feral trilogy are set in the same universe and share characters, settings and mythologies. These upper YA books are genre benders, blending adventure, fantasy, the paranormal, science fiction, mystery, suspense, romance and humor.

Feral Pride, the cap to the Feral trilogy, was released last spring. It unites characters from all nine books, including Tantalize protagonists.

A new short story set in the universe, “Cupid’s Beaux,” appears in Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves, edited by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015).

I don’t have immediate plans for more stories in the universe, but it’s vast and multi-layered. While I’m focusing on realistic fiction now, I’ll return to speculative in the future.

Diversity

How do I make sure that no one will go public with a problem about my diverse book?

First, you can’t (and neither can I).

To fully depict today’s diverse world, we all have to stretch–those who don’t with regard to
protagonists will still be writing secondary characters different from
themselves.

Writers of color, Native
writers and those who identify along economic-ability-size-health-cultural-orientation spectra are not exempt from the responsibilities that come with that.

I’m hearing a lot of anxiety from a lot folks concerned about being criticized or minimized for writing across identity elements. I’m also hearing a lot of anxiety from a lot of folks concerned with “getting it right.”

For the health of my head space, the latter is the way to go. My philosophy: Focus on doing your homework and offering your most thoughtful, respectful writing.

Focus on advocating for quality children’s-YA literature about a wide variety characters (and their metaphorical stand-ins) by a wide range of talented storytellers.

I make every effort to assume the best.

By that, I mean:

  • Assume that when people in power say that they’re committed to a more diverse industry and body of literature, they mean it and will act accordingly. 
  • Assume they’ll eventually overcome those who resist. 
  • Assume that your colleagues writing or illustrating outside their immediate familiarity connect with their character(s) on other meaningful levels.
  • Assume that you’ll have to keep stretching and connecting, too.
  • Assume that #ownvoices offer important insights inherent in their lived experiences. 
  • Assume that being exposed to identity elements and literary traditions outside your own is a opportunity for personal growth. 
  • Assume that a wider array of representations will invite in and nurture more young readers. 
  • Assume that your voice and vision can make a difference, not only as a writer but signal booster, advocate and ambassador.

If only in the short term, you risk being proven wrong. You risk being disappointed. At times, you probably will be. I’ve experienced both, but I’d rather go through all that again than to try to effect positive change in an industry I don’t believe in. I choose optimism.

I’ve been a member of the children’s-YA writing community for 18 years. Experience has taught me that I’m happier and more productive when I err on the side of hope and faith.

Do you think that agents are reluctant to sign POC writing about POC after Scholastic pulling A Birthday Cake for George Washington?

No need to panic. As the diversity conversation has gained renewed momentum, many agents have publicly invited queries from POC as well as Native, disabled, LGBTQIA writers and others from underrepresented communities. For example, Lee Wind at I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? is hosting an interview series with agents on that very theme.

I can’t promise that every children’s-YA literary agent prioritizes or, in their heart of hearts, considers themselves fully open to your query. But those who don’t aren’t a fit for you anyway.

When you’re identifying agents to query, consider whether they have indicated an openness to diverse submissions and/or take a look at who’s on their client rosters. This shouldn’t be the only factor of course, but one of many that you weigh.

On your blog, you feature a lot of trendy type books (gay) we didn’t have in the past.

Not a question, but let’s go for it. If I’m deciphering you as intended, I disagree with the premise. Books with gay characters aren’t merely a trend or, for that matter, new in YA literature.

Nancy Garden’s Annie on my Mind was published in 1982. Marion Dane Bauer’s anthology Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence was published in 1994. Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club was published in 2003. One place to find recent ALA recommendations is the 2016 ALA Rainbow Book List.

Cynsations coverage is inclusive of books with LGBTQIA characters. In addition, gay and lesbian secondary characters appear in my own writing.

The blog was launched in 2004. Over time, I’ve noticed fluctuations in social media whenever I post LGBTQIA related content. I lose some followers and gain others. Increasingly, I lose fewer and gain more. My most enthusiastic welcome to those new followers!

(Incidentally, I used to see the same thing with regard to books/posts about authors and titles featuring interracial families or multi-racial characters.)

More Personally 

You sometimes tweet about TV shows. What do you watch?

In typical geeky fashion: “Agent Carter;” “Agents of Shield,” “Arrow;” “Bones;” “Castle;” “The Flash;” “Grimm;” “iZombie;” “Legends of Tomorrow;” “The Librarians;” “Lucifer;” “Once Upon a Time;” “Supernatural.”

Created by Rob Thomas, who has also written several YA novels.

Comedy-wise: “Awkward;” “The Big Bang Theory;” “Blackish;” “Crazy Ex-girlfriend” (I’m a sucker for a musical); “Fresh off the Boat;” “The Real O’Neals;” “Superstore.”

I’m trying “Community” and still reeling from the “Sleepy Hollow” finale.

I have mixed feelings about “Scream Queens,” but I’m fan of Jamie Lee Curtis and Lea Michele, so I’ll keep watching it. Ditto “Big Bang” with regard to Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch.

“Lucifer” sneaked up on me. As someone who’s written Lucifer, I watched it out of curiosity as to the take. I keep watching it because it surprises me and because Scarlett Estevez is adorable.

Typically, I watch television while lifting weights or using my stair-climber. I love my climber. I do morning email on it, too. It’s largely replaced my treadmill desk.

While I write, I use the television to play YouTube videos, usually featuring aquariums, blooming flowers, butterflies or space nebulas, all set to soothing music.

Trivia: Probably I’ve logged the most small-screen time with David Boreanaz due to “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Bones.” I know nothing about the actor beyond his performances (I’m not a “celebrity news” person), but I like to think he appreciates my loyalty.

Guest Post: Lori Mortensen on Hooking Readers

By Lori Mortensen
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

After judging nearly a thousand entries for recent writing contests, I’m reminded once again of the importance and power of effective opening hooks.

Start out swinging, and readers can’t wait to read more. Meander around and readers will quickly lose interest.

The truth is, authors have mere seconds to capture an editor’s heart.

So what makes an effective opening hook?

Start with originality. As I read hundreds of manuscripts, I was amazed at the number of people who wrote about nature’s beauty, but barely skimmed the surface by settling on general ideas about flowers, trees, mountains, rivers, etc.

Nature can be a grand subject, but to rise above the piles of other manuscripts out there, your voice and unique point of view needs to shine from the beginning. So dig deeper and look inside. What unique conclusions have you drawn about something that could be shaped into an original theme?

If you want to capture an editor’s heart, don’t send them macaroni and cheese. Send them Banana Foster Flambé.

My upcoming picture book Chicken Lily, illustrated by Nina Victor Crittenden (Henry Holt 2016) is a good example of a story with an effective opening hook.

Instead of opening the story with any old chicken that lived on a farm, I created a unique character with distinctive characteristics.

Chicken Lily was a lot of things . . .
a careful colorer,
a patient puzzler,
and the quietest hide-and-seeker.
She never made a peep.
But Lily was also something else . . .

Because the opening is fresh, focused, and unique, readers want to keep reading to find out more.

 In this instance, Chicken Lily is . . . chicken! Raise her hand in class? Forget it! Eat something new for lunch? No way! Chicken Lily is a fun, unique character in the barnyard of children’s literature.

Next, tighten your story so it fits together like a puzzle. This is especially important for the opening hook. Authors that settle for easy, obvious rhymes, or use multiple paragraphs to say what they could have said in one paragraph, will quickly lose readers’ interest. Let your drafts run wild, but when you’re ready to submit, your opening hook should reflect a fresh and focused manuscript.

My upcoming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion, 2016) is a good example of a strong, rhyming opening hook.

Cowpoke Clyde poked at an ad.
“Looky, Dawg, at this here fad.
It says that when my chores are done,
I’m s’posed to ride a bike fer fun.”

In four short lines, the reader meets a unique character, Clyde, a cowpoke who is going to learn to ride a newfangled bicycle. Each line makes sense, each word has a reason to be there, and the rhyme reads effortlessly.

(How to create fresh, effortless rhymes is another story, but if you want a successful manuscript, don’t settle for less.)

So if you’re scratching your head over a manuscript, take a look at your opening hook. Does it make you want to keep reading or, wonder what’s in the fridge?

Hmm . . . macaroni and cheese? Or Banana Foster Flambé?

Cynsational Notes

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles.

Upcoming titles include Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Bloomsbury) and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013.

Other titles include Cindy Moo, illustrated by Jeff Mack (HarperCollins), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault, illustrated by Raúl Allén (Random House), a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children, 2010, and In the Trees Honey Bees! illustrated by Cris Arbo (Dawn), a 2010 NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Book K-12 Winner.

When she’s not removing her cat from her keyboard, she follows her literary nose wherever it leads and works on all sorts of projects that delight her writing soul. Lori lives with her family in Northern California. 

Guest Post: Janet S. Fox on Blending History With Fantasy

By Janet S. Fox
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Some of my favorite books ever are the books of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. The fantasy of leaving home and entering a land where a child can experience talking animals, mythological creatures, desperate (and deadly) battles – where a child can be perceived as making real, respected choices – where good deeds are rewarded by kindness and love and bad deeds are punished, but only by “just desserts” – I read these books (and still read them) over and over.

They articulated lessons without didacticism. Included in those lessons were reflections of the real world of the characters, World War II era England, and an interesting Arthurian tilt to the Pevensie children’s experiences of Narnia.

So for me, the young reader, reading these books in America during the post-war years, they had the taste of something “historical” and of course foreign.

And then there were the myths and fairy tales I devoured. The Red Fairy Book, the Anderson and Grimms’s tales, Greek and Roman myths and legends – I read these over and over, too. In my mind history became inextricably linked with the fantastic.

And why shouldn’t it? The truth is that we are all shaped by perception, and even history is subject to personal interpretation. (If you don’t believe me, check out the new hit musical “Hamilton”.)

My first three novels are historical YA romances. When I wrote Faithful (Speak/Penguin, 2010), set in 1904 Yellowstone, I sought to capture the natural magic inherent in that environment of spouting geysers and colorful hot springs.

In my second YA, Forgiven (Speak/Penguin, 2011), I tried to capture the dark magic of the terrible 1906 San Francisco earthquake. By the time I wrote my third YA, Sirens (Speak/Penguin, 2012), set in 1925, I added full-on fantastical elements, including a ghost, an approach I felt was consistent with the 1920s obsession with spiritualism and magic.

I realized that as a writer I was drawing closer and closer to crafting books like the ones that so captivated me as a kid. It has become my goal, now, to try and evoke the same wonder in my readers as I felt when I was young.

Yes, fantasy is my aim, but having written history, I became game to try a blend of the two genres. My newest book, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle (Viking, 2016), is that blend.

It’s set in World War II; the children are sent out of London during the Blitz; there are enigma machines and short-wave radios and even spies. But…there are also ghosts, and magicians, and a ghastly monster, and only magic can save the day (while itself being a double-edged sword.)

Whether writing historical fiction or fantasy, the objective of suspension of disbelief can only be accomplished if the world-building is sound. In historical fiction, that means lots of research to get interesting tidbits right. In fantasy, it means crafting an environment in which those interesting tidbits feel right.

I loved writing The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. I loved being able to play with a world that is both real and fantastical, where terrible and beautiful things did happen, and could happen. I can’t wait to try it again.

Guest Post: Annette Bay Pimentel on Educational vs. Trade Presses

By Annette Bay Pimentel
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lately I’ve been dancing between two publishing worlds.

I just finished the editing process on my first book with a trade publisher, Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service, illustrated by Rich Lo (Charlesbridge, Aug. 2, 2016).

I also recently finished my first books with an educational publisher, My Brain (Inside My Body) and My Stomach (Inside My Body) (both Amicus, 2015).

So how did working with a trade publisher differ from working for an educational publisher? What’s the difference between the educational press and the trade press? Educational publishers prize consistency and predictability. Trade publishers seek surprise and novelty.

The differences start at the contract level. Educational publishers generally pay a work-for-hire fee, a straightforward amount without any expectation that the writer will participate in marketing. Clarity and predictability are the hallmarks of the contract. Trade publishers offer royalties and expect the writer to be heavily involved in marketing. There’s the possibility that a book will sell very well, but there’s also a risk that it will tank. The contract leaves room for wonderful (or not-so-great) surprises to play out.

Both my educational press and my trade press publishers were thorough-going professionals who love books and language and who insisted that every word be right. Both of them demanded careful, thoroughly-documented research. But despite those similarities, their editorial priorities differed.

When I started work on My Stomach, I dreamed up a hilarious way to deliver information about the digestive system. It differed in structure from the manuscript I had just finished for My Brain, but it was so funny I was sure kids—and my editor!—would love it.

She didn’t. She decisively rejected it, explaining that I needed to stick to the structure I’d used in the other manuscript.

Now that I have the books in hand, I see her point. Part of the attraction of the Inside My Body series is that the books within it are consistent.

Any reader–including frazzled teachers looking for materials to hand to twenty-odd clamoring students—can quickly figure out exactly what kind of information she’s going to get and how it will be laid out in the book.

Practicality. Predictability. Consistency.

My trade press editor, on the other hand, told me that she was initially attracted to my manuscript because it took a familiar subject—national parks—and looked at them in a new way. I tell the story of the creation of the National Park Service through the eyes of Tie Sing, a Chinese American trail cook, whose story, up until now, has always been peripheral to the stories of the main players.

During the editing process, my editor encouraged me to consider adding a historical character who is an even smaller presence in the historical record than Tie Sing.

At first I was dubious I could find enough information to credibly write him into this nonfiction story, but I dug around and found mention of him in historical documents and saw him (literally) on the edges in some photographs. So I added him!

The story this trade editor helped me craft is one that hasn’t been told before and one that I hope astonishes and delights my readers.

Novelty! Challenge! Surprise!

There’s a place for both kinds of books. Sometimes all a frazzled second grade teacher needs to make it through the hour is a series of books she can hand out to her students, knowing she can count on the reading level to be what they can handle, and the content to be what they need for a particular assignment. Hooray for educational publishing!

But sometimes that teacher needs a book she can read to her class to carry them all to an astonishing new place. Hooray for trade publishing!

May they both thrive.

Guest Post: Cory Putnam Oakes on The Seven Deadly Sins of Sequels

By Cory Putnam Oakes
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I sold my first middle grade novel, I was super excited when my publisher asked me if I would also write a sequel.

A sequel! Squee! 

Because two books were obviously twice as awesome as one book and now I’d get to spend more time writing in the world I had painstakingly constructed for Book #1.

I was ecstatic and I floated around on a cloud of overwhelming happiness—right up until the moment I sat down to write Book #2.

Then, panic set in.

The sequel, which had sounded so good in theory, was downright terrifying in actual fact. I had no idea where to start and I was sure I was going to totally screw it up.

I had never experienced a sequel as a writer before. My writer-self had nothing but a big giant blank to draw on in that area.

I realized, however, that I had experienced quite a few sequels as a reader. And my reader-self had some very definite opinions about sequels, so I decided to let my reader-self educate my writer-self on how to proceed.

Turns out, my reader-self had some useful things to say which really helped me during the (eventual) writing process.

So in the interest of helping other writers who currently find themselves (or may one day find themselves) staring down the barrel of a sequel, here are my Seven Deadly Sins of Sequels:

Deadly Sin #1: Skipping Stuff

Perhaps one of my biggest peeves when it comes to sequels is when major changes happen between Book #1 and Book #2 and we learn about those changes in a recap at the beginning of Book #2 instead of actually seeing them happen.

If you’re going to kill off a character, end a major relationship, have somebody move away, or basically put any character in a fundamentally different position than the one they were in at the end of Book #1, don’t do it in a recap! That’s cheating.

Your reader is picking up Book #2 because they loved the story and the characters from Book #1—don’t bamboozle us by letting major things happen behind our backs! We will feel like we missed a step. (Which, in fact, we did!)

Deadly Sin #2: Jumping the Tracks

No one likes a plot they can see coming a mile away, but it’s also no fun to feel like the story-train you climbed aboard in Book #1 has literally jumped off of its tracks in Book #2 and is headed in a new direction, one for which you didn’t buy a ticket.

That doesn’t mean that the plot of Book #2 should be yawningly predictable for the sake of comfort, but there should be some hint of what is coming next built into Book #1 so your reader doesn’t feel completely blind-sided.

(Note: don’t panic if you’ve already completed Book #1 and you don’t think you did this—go back and read Book #1 again. I promise you planted more seeds than you remember.)

Deadly Sin #3: Book 1? Was There a Book #1?

You don’t want Book #2 to only make sense to people who were really, really paying attention to Book #1. But on the flip side, your sequel should not be a complete stand alone: Don’t act like Book #1 never happened. If, for example, your main character overcame a major obstacle in Book #1, it’s weird if that obstacle, and his/her struggle, is never referred to in Book #2.

You don’t have to go overboard reminiscing and info-dumping about all the stuff that happened in Book #1 (“Hey guys! Remember that time that we . . . “), but Book #1 is now part of the mythos, the shared understanding, of both books. It’s a common language between you and your reader. Use it as such. Make sure that you are building up your characters in Book #2 on top of a foundation that you constructed in Book #1.

Deadly Sin #4: When Book #2 is Basically Just Book #1 On Steroids

EXAMPLE:

In Book #1, the main character learns how to deal with a bully.

In Book #2, the main character learns how to deal with an even bigger, nastier, scarier bully.

No. Your main character has already fought this battle. They need a new battle for Book #2 or we’re just watching them go on the exact same journey they’ve already taken. Even if we really, really enjoyed the journey the first time around, we don’t want to see it again.

The question your sequel audience is asking is: Where does this character go from here? Not: Can they do it again even though it’s slightly harder this time?

Deadly Sin #5: When Book #2 Is Nothing But a Bridge to Book #3

This is a well-documented problem, specific to trilogies, when an author sacrifices Book #2 in order to set up the amazing, wonderful, mind-blowing idea they have for Book #3.

Okay, fine, I’ll use a specific example here: “The Empire Strikes Back.” I love “Star Wars,” I do. But even I’m forced to admit that Empire was really just a big set-up for “Return of the Jedi.” We can excuse this because of all the battles with Imperial Walkers and people cutting open tauntauns, being frozen in carbonite, and almost getting eaten by meteor-caves-that-are-really-giant-monsters. “Star Wars” can get away with this. But you and I can’t.

We need to move our plots along because people are not going to be as forgiving about our books as they are about “Star Wars” because, well, our books are not “Star Wars.”

Trilogies are tough because in a three book series, Book #1 is going to be the beginning, Book #2 the middle, and Book #3 the end. The tricky part is that each individual book in the series (including Book #2) also needs a beginning, middle, and an end of their very own.

How can you tell if you’re sacrificing Book #2? If the only stuff that happens in Book #2 is bad and there is no resolution to any of it, this is big, red, flashing warning sign. If Book #2 is when everything breaks, and Book #3 is where everything is fixed, this means you’re stopping your characters in mid-arc in Book #2. This is very unsatisfying.

Don’t get me wrong: You can leave your characters in dire straits at the end of Book #2. But make sure they accomplished something while getting there. There needs to be some kind of resolution to Book #2 problems—in Book #2.

Deadly Sin #6: Major Reveals That Should Have Happened Earlier

You know when you’ve been friends with somebody for years and then you learn a very important thing about them that you can’t believe you didn’t know? It feels rotten, right? Like maybe you never really knew them like you thought you did, or that maybe you’re a bad friend for not realizing this very important thing sooner?

Don’t make your reader feel like that. I’m not saying you can’t reveal new, surprising, very important things about your characters in Book #2—you can, and you should. But there needs to be a very good reason why we didn’t hear about this very important thing in Book #1. Don’t make your reader feel like a bad friend.

Deadly Sin #7: When Characters Morph Into Strangers

As readers, we fall in love with characters. Sometimes to unreasonable degrees. We will tolerate (and even encourage) them when they change and grow in reaction to things that happen to them, but we will not accept them drifting away from their core, defining characteristics.

Nobody would be okay with it if Indiana Jones suddenly decided to just “get over” his fear of snakes and adopted one as a pet. Nobody would be on board with Harry Potter dropping out of Gryffindor, joining Slytherin, and giving Ron Weasley wedgies in the hallway. It’s just not them.

Your characters need to grow and change in Book #2. But they need to stay themselves. Don’t mess with the core of who they are, or you risk the wrath of your readers who love them.

So those are the sins that I tried to avoid while writing my sequel. What did I miss? What else can we add to this list, to help guide the future sequel-writers of the world on their perilous journey?

Note: As you add to this list, please speak generally, as opposed to using specific books and authors as negative examples. Everyone who has ever tackled a sequel deserves a hug, a high-five, and at least a gallon of chocolate ice cream—not criticism. Let’s keep it positive, encouraging, and helpful!

Cynsational Notes

Cory Putnam Oakes is a writer living in Austin, Texas. Dinosaur Boy Saves Mars, the sequel that inspired this post, came out in February, 2016 from Sourcebooks.

She is also the author of Dinosaur Boy (Sourcebooks, 2015); The Veil (Octane Press, 2011); and Witchtown (coming from Houghton Mifflin, 2017).

She wishes it to be known that she feels really, really badly about disparaging “The Empire Strikes Back” in the above post. But she is certain that her overwhelming love for “Star Wars” in general will excuse this teeny, tiny bit of loving criticism.

Cynthia Leitich Smith agrees with Cory about the perils of “bridge” books in trilogies, but nevertheless believes that “The Empire Strikes Back” is the best of the “Star Wars” movies. Cynthia also selected “The Karate Kid II” to illustrate Cory’s fourth point, even though it’s her favorite of that series, too. She apparently feels conflicted about the whole dynamic.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Sarah Frances Hardy on Writing a Companion Picture Book

By Sarah Frances Hardy
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

My third picture book Dress Me! (Sky Pony, 2015) is a companion book to last year’s release Paint Me! (Sky Pony, 2014).

When I was thinking about what my next submission to Sky Pony would be, I sifted through my pile of finished, sort-of finished, and not-at-all finished manuscripts.

I had a longer manuscript for a dress up book that was giving me trouble, but I liked the concept of a girl trying on different outfits and personalities, so I talked through it with my agent.

She suggested that I keep the “me!” theme going and write a companion book to Paint Me! using some of the elements from my longer (and quite honestly, not working) dress up book.

Brilliant!

But it was tricky to do …

My first attempts too closely mirrored Paint Me!. The rhythm and structures of the stories were almost identical, and my main character, although different looking, struck many of the same poses as my main character in Dress Me!. The two stories were just too much alike. I had to figure out how to echo my original story while making a fresh and new narrative.

And that was the biggest challenge … making it the same but somehow different! It wasn’t enough to give the main character different words and a different color hair. She had to be a unique person with her own problems and interests.

And the ultimate conflict of the story had to be completely different, but structurally it I wanted it to happen at a similar place in both narratives.

In Paint Me!, a little girl begins the day painting a portrait of her dog and gets a little out of hand. As she skips through the book trying different colors, she calls out the name of each color … “Yellow me! Red me! … etc.” The conflict happens when the main character spills paint everywhere and falls down in a giant messy pile yelling “Mom–meeee!”.

As easy as it would have been to have my main character in my companion book fall down in a pile of clothes and yell “Mom-meee!”, I couldn’t do that. It would’ve been lazy and unimaginative–pretty much the exact same book done over again. And who wants to read that?

So … in Dress Me! my main character tries on lots of different outfits, careers, and (yes) a mustache …

before trying out the ultimate Diva garb complete with a pink boa and tiara.

“So NOT me!” she yells. The structure and language of both books are the same, but the conflict and character tell a different story.

Different … but the same.

Plus, I managed to get in a bit of a feminist message, making my book a little different from most of the stereotypical “girl” dress up books out there. My main character in Dress Me! explores who she can be instead of how pretty she can be.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Dress Me! by Sarah Frances Hardy (Sky Pony, 2015). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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Guest Post: Kristi Helvig on Incorporating Science Into Science Fiction

By Kristi Helvig
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

One of the great things about writing science fiction is that you get to make up a lot of stuff.

You can create new worlds, new languages, and even new life forms. From the androids in Philip K. Dick‘s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) to the self-aware computer Hal in Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), an author’s imagination can exceed the limits of what science can do in a given time period.

Yet, as authors, we can’t insert these fantastic elements willy nilly into the story without respecting the basic laws of science.

While some science fiction writers are, in fact, scientists, most of us are not. My Ph.D. in clinical psychology helps quite a bit when exploring character motivation but isn’t so useful when I need to know how a planet’s distance from the moon impacts its rotation speed.

So how does a writer incorporate scientific aspects into their fiction? A little research goes a long way. For instance, if you’re writing a time travel novel, you might want to investigate things like black holes, event horizons, or even string theory. A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle (FSG, 1963) is pure fiction, but wormholes (similar to the tesseract in her story) are real.

The key is not to bore your reader with pages and pages of theories and expositions about the science involved with your story. If it’s fiction, you just want to sprinkle in enough research that your premise is believable.

For my first book in the series, Burn Out (Egmont/Lerner), I had to find a plausible reason that our sun could burn out early. Only by contacting an astrophysicist at a respected university did I find my answer, and luckily for us, it’s unlikely to happen.

In the sequel, Strange Skies (Egmont/Lerner), the new planet of Caelia has only four hours of light (called light breaks instead of “day”) followed by four hours of dark. I had to contact an astrophysicist again for questions I had about planet size and rotations speed, along with making sure that my freshwater oceans were possible.

Oftentimes, reading scientific articles and watching documentaries is enough, but I believe that contacting experts is a necessity in many cases.

It’s always interesting to see life imitate art—I’m still waiting for the flying cars in Luc Besson‘s The Fifth Element (1997)—but I had something cool happen with my series.

In Burn Out, the bio-weapons protected by my main character, Tora, are keyed to her individual energetic vibration, meaning that no one else can fire them.

Right before the book was published, which was several years after it was written, my agent sent me an article about guns being developed that would only fire for their specific owner. It’s often a circular relationship, where the science initially serves as a basis for a more advanced idea in science fiction, and then when science advances, that idea can come to fruition years later—such as the advanced crime software in Steven Spielberg‘s “Minority Report” (2002).

The takeaway here for writers is that as long as you follow basic scientific laws in your sci-fi novel, the sky (or galaxy) is the limit!

Guest Post & Giveaway: Anne Bustard on Musicality: Composing with Repetitions

By Anne Bustard
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Every writer wants her work to sing.

Writing that sings is exquisitely crafted. It lifts its voice in praise of language. Its story is pitch perfect. It invites readers to sing along and has the power to linger in a reader’s consciousness long after the last note.

Like a composer creating a musical score, a writer must consider every note, every sound, and use repetition and even silence to bring harmony to the musical score.

Through careful crafting and attention, writers discover which notes to amplify, which sounds to hold, which refrains to reproduce, which rests to sustain and which melodies to draw all the way through.

In music, a refrain is a repeated phrase, verse or group of verses repeated at intervals. Used by authors, repetitions emphasize emotion. Repetitions say, “Pay attention, this is important.”

In The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse (Scholastic, 1996), the word “dolphin” is emblematic of Mila’s world, her life and her desire. Hesse uses it more than 140 times. At first, the abundance of “dolphin” would seem obvious given the large role of dolphins in the story. However, because the artistry of language comes in choice, Hesse has reason to flood the novel with this word.

Hesse creates a character with limited language ability. “Dolphin” is the one word that Mila knows for sure. It is the word that will not change, and the one that she holds close. “Dolphin” is the word that she relates everything else too.

Even as Mila grows her vocabulary on land, her use of “dolphin” remains prolific. Mila talks about them, sings about them, dreams about them. Hesse ensures that readers cannot escape the word and its influence.

With each use, Hesse pulls the heartstrings of the reader. “Dolphin” is Mila’s one-note song. It shows what Mila wants most of all and who she identifies with. It is also the word that brings music to her life. It is the music of dolphins that she cannot live without.

The choice to use the same word over and over, not only serves the story, but defines Mila’s character. It shows who she is on the inside.

Flurries of repetitions can also make an impact. Like trills that sustain a note, bursts of repeated words and phrases make readers notice them above all others.

Used effectively, repetitions deepen the emotional trajectory of the story by underscoring the progression of a character’s growth. Repetitions can build in power and strength as a story reaches its crescendo and then resolves. For instance, when repeated words are introduced early or midway through the novel and come full circle to repeat at the end it, that brings closure and satisfaction to readers.

The story is complete, right down to the word level.

Crafted with care, repetitions are not superfluous, excessive or monotonous. Blending seamlessly into the narrative, repetitions keep readers conscious of what is at stake, what is important, what matters. Repetitions keep the emotions flowing. They take up no extra space. Each counts.

As I wrote and revised what would become my middle-grade debut, Anywhere but Paradise, the last word of the story appeared—home. That word led me to Peggy Sue’s heart’s desire.

Used repeatedly, it led us both home.


Cynsational Notes

Anne’s assistant, Sweet Baby James

Anne Bustard is a beach girl at heart. If she could, she would walk in the sand every day, wear flip-flops, and eat nothing but fresh pineapple, macadamia nuts and chocolate.

She has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is the author of the award-winning picture book Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster).

Her debut middle grade historical novel Anywhere But Paradise (Egmont, 2015) was released on March 31.

She lives in Austin, Texas. Find Anne at Facebook.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two signed copies of Anywhere But Paradise by Anne Bustard (Egmont, 2015). From the promotional copy:

It’s 1960, and Peggy Sue’s move from Texas to Hawaii, the newest state, sounds like a dream—palm trees, blue skies, big waves.

But her cat has to be put in quarantine like he’s a criminal, and Peggy Sue is worriedly counting the days until Howdy will be released—if he can survive.

Then her first encounter with a girl at Hanu Intermediate School is shocking. Kiki, an older student, takes an instant dislike to Peggy Sue, warning her that the last day of school is “kill haole day.” Peggy Sue’s only hope of being spared is to help Kiki with her home ec sewing project.


Things get better when she meets neighbor Malina and starts hula lessons, but it takes a tsunami, a missing dog, and an intervention from the vision of Pele herself to help Peggy Sue understand that even though her new home in paradise isn’t perfect, she’d rather be in Hawaii with her family and new friends than anywhere else.


“. . . evocative descriptions highlight both the local and universal aspects of island life. 
Born in Hawaii, Bustard adeptly weaves elements of 
Hawaiian culture, lore, and history into an emotionally rich story.” 

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Guest Post: Janet Lee Carey on Tips for Writing Fantasy

Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin, 2015

By Janet Lee Carey
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

So good to be back visiting the multi-talented Cynthia Leitich Smith here on Cynsations with my third book in the Wilde Island trilogy. Cynthia hosted an interview for the first Wilde Island book, Dragon’s Keep (Harcourt, 2007) so this visit brings it full circle.

I thought it would be a good time to look back and share a few things I’ve learned on the way up the twisty fantasy writing road.

Be Flexible

This is my first published trilogy in an ongoing series, but it’s not the only series I began building toward a trilogy.

My third book set in Noor following The Beast of Noor (Atheneum, 2011) and The Dragon’s of Noor (Egmont, 2010) did not go anywhere. Neither did a draft of a book taking place in Zolya following the YA fantasy, Stealing Death (Egmont, 2010).

If you love writing fantasy as much as I do, you have to learn to be flexible. You can’t hold on too tightly. In my case, anyway, I had to learn to let go and create new worlds, places for the stories I was passionate about to unfold. Wilde Island and its sister island Dragon’s Keep has been particularly fruitful. These islands are home to Dragons, fey folk and the indigenous Euit people. There were layers of bitter history already rife in this world before book one began.

Perhaps this line from the Kirkus Reviews review for In the Time of Dragon Moon says it best:

“Humans, dragons and fey coexist on Wilde Island, but this uneasy peace masks a simmering, mutual distrust.” 

There are so many possible plots created by this “simmering mutual distrust” and given time, more stories can grow there.

Keep Your Cuts

So in the above paragraph I’m saying learn to let go.

In this paragraph I’ll say the opposite, learn to hold on.

By the time I’ve revised a book twenty or thirty times, I’ve cut out nearly as many pages as I’ve kept. Some early clippings are never retrieved, but some later cuts are often well polished scenes by the time they’re severed. What to do?

Mine the treasure there! I create a “cuts” file and keep notes on the cuts. Sometimes I use snippets from cuts, finding those little gems and placing them just so in a new scene during the final revision.

And best and most secret of all, I used an entire rescue sequence originally set in one world (Noor) in another world (Zolya). The scene worked beautifully in Stealing Death.

Of course I had to reset it changing context and characters, but the baseline scene depicting a daring rescue from a desert prison turned out to be a great fit. Voila!

Recognize Story Seeds

Finally, I’m learning not to pack books too tightly. I had what amounted to a double ending to In The Time of Dragon Moon. The last chapters felt very powerful and true, but I ended up having to cut them out of the book because they brought in some new elements when the story was essentially over.

I later realized these important scenes were actually seeds for a new book. I was being given a new theme dealing with romantic ties, mothers and children, abandonment, betrayal and renewal. The strong feelings I had for those last chapters were meant to carry me into another full length novel I’m writing now and setting in a new world.

If you write fantasy, I hope you find the pointers helpful. But if you work in other professions you can translate these practices:

  • Be Flexible –a healthy survival technique in any workplace.
  • Keep your Cuts — take a little time to honor your ideas, and store them in a place you can readily retrieve them. Those of us who think outside the box sometimes need actual storage boxes. Ideas that don’t quite fit the workplace now, might be perfect if introduced at a later time.
  • Recognize Story Seeds –keep abreast of your passions and learn to recognize the inklings of something new forming in you, something teasing you toward an entirely new adventure. 

Whatever your passion or profession, I leave you with a healer’s saying from Uma’s Euit tradition:

~ Ona Loneaih – be you well~

About the Book

Beware the dark moon time when love and murder intertwine


All Uma wants is to become a healer like her father and be accepted by her tribe. But when the mad queen abducts her and takes her north, Uma’s told she must use her healing skills to cure the infertile queen by Dragon Moon, or be burned at the stake. 

Uma soon learns the queen isn’t the only danger she’s up against. A hidden killer out for royal blood slays the royal heir. The murder is made to look like an accident, but Uma, and the king’s nephew Jackrun, sense the darker truth. 

Together, they must use their combined powers to outwit a secret plot to overthrow the Pendragon throne. But are they strong enough to overcome a murderer aided by prophecy and cloaked in magic?

About the Author

Photo of Janet by Heidi Pettit

Janet Lee Carey grew up in the bay area under towering redwoods that whispered secrets in the wind.

When she was a child she dreamed of becoming a mermaid (this never happened). She also dreamed of becoming a published writer (this did happen after many years of rejection).

She is now an award-winning author of nine novels for children and teens. Her Wilde Island Chronicles are ALA Best Books for Young Adults. She won the 2005 Mark Twain Award and was finalist for the Washington State Book Award.

Janet links each new book with a charitable organization empowering youth to read and reach out. She tours the U.S. and abroad presenting at schools, book festivals and conferences for writers, teachers, and librarians.

Janet and her family live near Seattle by a lake where rising morning mist forms into the shape of dragons.

She writes daily with her imperious cat, Uke, seated on her lap. Uke is jealous of the keyboard. If Janet truly understood her place in the world, she would reserve her fingers for the sole purpose of scratching behind Uke’s ear, but humans are very hard to train.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Jean Reagan on Writing from the Hole in Your Heart

Jean’s children, John and Jane

By Jean Reagan
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Many years ago in a writing class, Kathi Appelt said, “Write from the hole in your heart.”

At the time, I had just received sketches for my first picture book, Always My Brother, illustrated by Phyllis Pollema-Cahill (Tilbury House 2009).

This story about sibling loss is told from the perspective of the surviving sister, and it mirrors our own family tragedy.

Of course, I connected with Kathi’s wise words immediately. But she challenged us to tap this “hole in our heart” for all of our writing, not just for stories about devastating trauma.

Fast forward: Two hundred rejections later, my books, How to Babysit a Grandpa and How to Babysit a Grandma, both illustrated by Lee Wildish (Knopf, 2012, 2014 respectively), made the NYT bestseller list. And now, a third book in this How-To series, How to Surprise a Dad, is out.

Jean Reagan

A sibling pair advises, “Shhhhhh. If you want to surprise a dad, you have to be tricky.”

Then after tips on How-to-Hide-this-Book, they share everyday surprises you can “make, do, or find.”

Finally, they instruct the reader on how to pull off a big, special day surprise, including what to do if a dad gets suspicious.

I’m thrilled the publisher embraced my request for a racially-diverse family. (And, yes, once again, Lee Wildish’s illustrations steal the show.)

Race or ethnicity is not pertinent to the story, but I wanted to question the “assumption of white.”

So, how is Kathi’s advice relevant to silly, funny books like these?

I’ve come to believe her challenge is even more compelling. Humor, without heart, is empty. Shallow humor is merely a one-line joke that doesn’t beg repeating or re-reading. The characters don’t resonate on first encounter, and you don’t carry them with you after closing the book.

Jean with her sister, Katherine Paterson

The “hole in your heart” needn’t be a fresh, gaping wound.

Rather, tap childhood worries, fears, and longings that still linger. Did you feel left out? Unnoticed?

As a shy child who struggled to learn to read, I have a lifetime of material. And I was (still am) an expert worrywart to boot.

No doubt you also have plenty to mine from your childhood as a powerless, tender soul.

What about the specific hole created by the death of my son, John?

Well, I make sure every book I write has glimpses of him. Including him is a gift to myself, my family, and hopefully to my readers as it helps to deepen the humor.

When John was five he asked if jails had carpeting because he didn’t want “the bad guys to skin their knees if they fell down.” This kind of tenderness I strive to portray in my books, especially in my silly ones.

There are three more books in production in my How-to series. Hopefully they will also convey humor with heart.

Thank you, Kathi, for your sound advice so many years ago.

Cynsational Notes

Jean Reagan was born in Alabama but spent most of her childhood in Japan. She now lives in Salt Lake City with her husband. In the summers, they serve as wilderness volunteers in Grand Teton National Park, living without electricity or running water. 

At the ranger cabin

Enter to win one of five copies of How to Surprise a Dad by Jean Reagan (Knopf, 2015). From the promotional copy:

So you want to surprise your dad? 

You’re in luck! The pages of this book are full of tips on how to become a super dad surpriser, including tips for things you can make, do, or find—just for your dad.


Be sure to read up on:


  • Yummy treats and presents for a dad
  • What to do if he starts getting suspicious
  • How to prepare for the big moment (where to hide everyone, and how to practice whispering “Surprise!”)



From the author-illustrator team behind the New York Times bestsellers How to Babysit a Grandpa and How to Babysit a Grandma comes an adorable, funny, surprising celebration of dads!

Publisher sponsored. U.S. only.

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