2015 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Agent Marietta Zacker

By Elisabeth Norton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations 

Marietta Zacker is an agent at Nancy Galt Literary Agency.

Marietta has experienced children’s books from every angle – teaching, marketing, publishing and bookselling.

She thrives on working with authors who make readers feel their characters’ emotions and illustrators who add a different dimension to the story.

Some of the books she is championing in 2015 include The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt (Scholastic), Something Extraordinary by Ben Clanton (Simon & Schuster), Just a Duck? by Carin Bramsen (Random House), The Struggles of Johnny Cannon by Isaiah Campbell (Simon & Schuster), Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin (Simon & Schuster), Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes by Rick Riordan (Hyperion).

Among other things, she is a proud Latina and the Agent Liaison for the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Marietta is active on Twitter under the name @AgentZacker

She is interviewed on Cynsations today by Elisabeth Norton for SCBWI Europolitan conference

At Europolitan, you’ll be presenting “Finding Seeds of Gold” and you will present about how to determine if your work is ready to submit. From your point of view as an agent, are most of the submissions you receive “ready?” What would you say is the biggest difference between the submissions you see that are “ready” vs. those that are not?

I believe that most people truly believe that they are ready to submit when they do, but one of the questions I typically suggest writers and artists ask themselves is: “If someone were to offer to publish this text or illustration tomorrow, would I be proud of seeing it ‘as is’ on the pages of a book?”

Since essentially eradicating the need to print submissions in order to take to the post office, many send queries via e-mail to ‘test’ whether or not their work is good enough.

It’s true, the business is subjective and we have all passed on projects that went on to get published, but we read too many queries and can usually see, feel and read right through queries that, even if technically masterful, are missing the heart and the essence of the storytelling. And so we pass.

I highly recommend printing your work and holding it in your hands (whether it’s text or an illustration). It makes it more official, it’s tougher to convince yourself that it’s ready to go when it’s not, it also allows you to see the work in ways you never have before.

Hit PRINT first, review it, let it sit, review it again.

If you would be proud to see it published ‘as is’ the very next day, then go ahead and click SEND.

You’ll also be leading a session about “How and Why Characters Bloom” with a discussion of “character-driven” projects. Does “character-driven” mean “not action packed?” Would you say that “character-driven” projects are “quiet” projects? Where do “character-driven” projects fit in to today’s market landscape?

You’ll have to come to Amsterdam to get most of these answers.

In all seriousness, though, the key to remember is that there is no magic bullet. One description does not negate the other, nor should anyone feel that their work must be described in one singular way.

Ideally, there are multiple layers within each project and a variety of ways to describe any story. I firmly believe that the stories that resonate most with readers are ones that are as complex, as diverse and as multi-layered as the children and young adults who made the choice to keep the book open and continue to read and explore.

The theme of Europolitan 2015 is “Creativity in Bloom: Growing Beyond Boundaries,” and we will be exploring the topic of diversity in children’s literature. Some authors express reservations about writing diverse characters because they themselves are not a member of the same community or group that their character is. They fear backlash if, despite their best attempts at research and having proof-readers from the represented community, they get something “wrong.”


Do you have any thoughts as an agent for writers who may be anxious about getting diversity “wrong” in their project? 

You have to be humble, you have to be willing to learn, you have to be empathetic. You wouldn’t want someone writing an account of your life without getting to know you very well first, understanding the depth of the life you’ve lived, attempting to walk in your shoes and comprehending how you felt during key moments.

The same applies when writing about someone or a group of people whose life or lives you have not lived.

It’s not about getting the facts right (or certainly, what you believe to be the facts). It’s about scratching deep beneath the surface and understanding the things that links us as beings on this planet – the feelings and emotions that make us each individuals, the way we are affected by being de facto members of any one group.

Understanding that this world is diverse and believing that this makes the world a better place is simply not enough to include characters whose experiences are different from yours.

Being willing to empathize with others is the first step.

 Again, we’ll talk more in Amsterdam.

Cynsational Notes

Learn more!

Elisabeth Norton
was first published at age 16 when she had no idea what an “unsolicited
submission” was. Seeing her byline on the subsequently published
magazine article ignited her desire for a career as an author.

Once she realized she wanted to write for children, she joined SCBWI and now serves as Regional Advisor for the Swiss region.

Originally from Alaska, she now lives in Switzerland between the Alps and the Jura and writes for middle graders.

Guest Post: Cecilia Galante on Where to Start Your Story?

Cecilia Galante

By Cecilia Galante
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

One of the things I’ve noticed my graduate creative writing students struggling with is where exactly to start in a book.

I’ve had two students fill up the first 40 pages of their novels with excruciating back-story details involving family history, blood-lines, place of birth, and so on.

Another one began her book with a five-year-old protagonist relaying her ideas on life, which might have worked if any of her musings had eventually found their way into her adult life. (They did not.)

The truth is, it is a very difficult process to figure out where in your character’s life you should start telling his or her story. But it’s not impossible.

Here are a few pointers that have helped me navigate this process in my own writing:

1. Don’t ever start at the beginning. Unless you’re writing a memoir, starting out with your character as a kid and then following them up through the teen years and into adulthood is not only boring, it’s missing the point of writing good fiction.

(Random House, April 28)

Most people don’t read books to learn how other people navigate their entire lives; they read books to learn how others navigate a certain part of their lives. The hell of eighth grade perhaps, or a loveless marriage. Don’t cheat your readers by weighing down enormous life experiences such as these other unnecessary ones.

Start right at the crux of things, where the details are the ugliest. The truest. Your readers will trust you right away.

2. Back off the back-story. Even if writers don’t start at the beginning of their characters lives, a lot of them still seem to think that they have to get into all their messy histories, as if apologizing beforehand for all the coming mistakes he or she is going to make.

Don’t fall into that sandpit. Not only will your reader get bored by all the unnecessary details, your story will stop dead in its tracks, which is certain death for both the reader and the writer.

That’s not to say of course, that you don’t need some back-story. Every character needs a little fleshing out when it comes to their pasts. But insert that kind of information sporadically, here and there in little fits and starts, especially when things come up in the present that remind the character of the past.

3. Write big. Right away.

All I knew, when I sat down to write my first book, The Patron Saint of Butterflies (Bloomsbury, 2009), was that I had a scene in my head that had to be put on paper. The scene involved a little boy whose finger was accidentally amputated in a door.

I could see this scene in my head. I could feel it. Taste it. I wrote it out in two days, flush with detail, pulsing with life. And from that scene, the next one came. And then the next, until, a year or so later, the book was finished.

But the finger amputation scene did not end up being the beginning of the book. In fact, it ended up being somewhere in the middle. But because I’d pulled up the anchor and started somewhere, the ship had been allowed to set sail.

Don’t get bogged down by the details of starting. Just start. And if you’re like me, start with something big. Something exciting. Something that makes you want to get back into the chair every morning and keep writing.

And one day, maybe much sooner than you think, you might find yourself climbing up on that deck to see something that looks very much like the end in the not so distant shore.

Guest Post & Critique Giveaway: Heather Demetrios on The Hope You Hold: A Character-Centered Approach To Plotting Your Novel’s Ending

Heather Demetrios

By Heather Demetrios
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Sometimes it can be helpful to think about endings when you’re at the beginning of the process—not plotting the ending, but doing a bit of free, no-holds-barred thinking about your character’s emotional inner journey and where you hope she goes.

This is what you write towards, that hope you have for her in your heart. Your plot is moving toward something, a climax that, especially in YA, results in some sort of self-discovery on the protagonist’s part, a revelation about the world and their place in it.

In real life, we have no idea what comes next. Our journeys are fraught with the unexpected. But we often know where we want to go, don’t we? Thus, much of what we experience comes from what we put out into the world and the choices we make.

It’s not a surprise to see where we’ve ended up once we go back and connect the dots. It’s often inevitable. In fact, when we do this work, we see how much of a hand we have in our own fate regardless of who’s pulling the strings of our future.

So how can our protagonists experience this inevitability if we’ve imposed a plot on them with a preconceived notion about what exactly is going to happen?

The key is to have an idea about where you want that character to end up emotionally. Not, “she’s going to be the queen,” so much as, “she’s going to be in a place of power, secure and finally free of the demons of her past.” With the former, we’ve decided on a fixed ending, forcing the plot to get in line. With the latter, we’ve left room for our character to influence her own fate, for the dots to connect in such a way that the story arc parallels the emotional one.

Tolkien touches on plot in a way no one else does when he discusses the concept of “eucatastrophe.” It’s a fancy word for the feeling you get when you finish reading a novel and you think, Yes, this is the only way it could have happened.

Eucatastrophe is inevitable. It’s true and organic. It’s not about a happy ending, it’s about it being the only possible ending.

In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien describes eucatastrophe as a “turn”: “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by tears)…It reflects a glory backwards.”

This glory backwards means that you should be able to go from your climax all the way to the very beginning of your story and see that the protagonist was on the path to “glory” long before she ever realized it.

Try it for yourself. Close your eyes and envision your main character. Think about the possibilities of where she might end up. What do you hope for her at novel’s end?

What would be her “glory backwards”?

Got it? Good. Now this is the place you write from. Hold that hope in your heart, just like a parent would for their child, then give your protagonist room to live her life.

Lucky you, she’s letting you come along for the ride.

Cynsational Notes

When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City.

Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real (Henry Holt, 2014).

Her other novels include Exquisite Captive (Balzer + Bray, 2014), the first in the Dark Caravan Cycle fantasy series, and I’ll Meet You There
(Henry Holt, 2015). She is the founder of Live Your What, an
organization dedicated to fostering passion in people of all ages and
creating writing opportunities for underserved youth. Find her on
Twitter @HDemetrios.

Writespace Writing Center 

Heather will be teaching up to six intermediate and advanced students during six sessions from March 11 to April 15 at Writespace in Houston. Note: Writers arrange their own most convenient classroom times and meetings with instructor. About the class:

Feb. 3, 2015 release date!

Sometimes it feels like a story isn’t working. The
voice might feel off, or the plot seems contrived. Perhaps scenes are
reading dull or your main character feels paper-thin. You might have a
brand new idea that you can’t seem to get off the ground because every
plot point you think of feels like a cliché.

When a
book isn’t working or a new project feels stunted, we’ve often lost
sight of our work’s protagonist and secondary characters. Rather than
listening to what our characters want and need, we have imposed a
pre-conceived notion of what we think the book is supposed to be.

Regardless
of whether you tend to write from a plot or character standpoint, being
able to tune into your characters in order to find the truth of your
novel is a useful skill for any writer.

In this
six-week workshop, we’ll look at how to plot or revise your YA novel
through exercises that will help you get out of your head and into the
heart of your work. In addition to weekly writing exercises and
submissions of your work for critique, we’ll consider new ways to access
your character, such as through taking field trips with him or her, by
creating music playlists, and other unique methods. Along the way, we’ll
look at how this shift affects all elements of our work including
voice, dialogue, structure, theme and—of course—plot.

This
course is designed for intermediate to advanced writers working in any
genre within YA. If you’re looking for a challenging, dynamic workshop
that will take your writing to the next level, this workshop is for you.

Please
be prepared to spend at least three hours a week on short reading
assignments, your own writing, and online discussion. You will be asked
to turn in two 10-page submissions of your novel for critique and to
read two YA novels to enhance our discussion (if you’d like to get a
head-start, please read the novels The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic, 2011) and The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson (Speak, 2011).

Together,
we’ll create a supportive community through reading one another’s work,
discussing the assigned reading, and sharing insights garnered from our
exercises. Expect lively discussions and lots of fun!

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a five-to-ten page critique of your English-language young adult manuscript by Heather. Eligibility: international.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

2015 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Author-Editor Jill Santopolo

Jill Santopolo

By Dina von Lowenkraft
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jill Santopolo is the author of the Alec Flint Mysteries, the Sparkle Spa series and the Follow Your Heart books.

She holds a B.A. in English Literature from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a certificate in Intellectual Property Law from NYU.

In addition to writing, Jill is an executive editor at Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, a thesis advisor at The New School, and an adjunct professor at McDaniel College, where she helped develop the curriculum for the certificate program in Writing for Children.

 Jill has traveled all over the U.S.—and to Canada—to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in New York City. She was interviewed by Dina von Lowenkraft for the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan conference.

Greetings, Jill! Thank you so much for agreeing to stop by for this interview. I’ve always been intrigued by people, like yourself, who are both authors and industry professionals at the same time. How did you end up doing both?

I probably ended up doing both because I’m a little bit nuts…

Really, though, I wrote short stories my whole life and always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew that “writer” was a hard career to pursue right out of college.

So, while I was in school I started interning at publishing companies in New York City. I totally fell in love with the editorial side of things, so decided to put writing aside and concentrate on becoming a children’s book editor.

After I’d been working in publishing for a few years, I started writing a YA novel after work and on the weekends, just to see if I could actually do it. The answer was “sort of”. I did write the novel, but it didn’t sell. It did, however, get me an agent.

And my second novel sold—along with a third I hadn’t written yet.

I was a little uncertain about whether or not I’d be able to write that third novel, and a colleague suggested applying to the Vermont College of Fine Arts for an M.F.A. in Writing for Children & Young Adults. I did, and I got in, and it cemented the idea that I wanted to keep writing novels for kids. But at the same time I discovered how much I truly loved editing books, too, so I kept doing both. (And kept loving both.)

Do you think that being a writer affects the way you edit (and vice versa)?

I don’t think it’s changed anything on grand scale, but now that I’ve experienced the process from both sides, I definitely do small things differently.

For example, as an editor, I give myself editorial letter deadlines and share them with my authors so they know when to expect my feedback. And as a writer, I stick to all my writing deadlines and jump in to help plan launch events and promotions when that makes sense.

What I do think had a huge affect on how I edit and how I write was getting an M.F.A.. Spending two years analyzing fiction and learning about craft made me, I think, a more thoughtful, confident editor and a more thoughtful, confident writer.

I know that at the SCBWI Europolitan Conference in Amsterdam April 4 and April 5, one of your talks is on using theater games to improve your character development. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

Learn more!

Of course. When I do author visits at schools, I always talk to the students about how pretending and storytelling are very similar—in one situation you’re acting out what it’s like to, say, be a turtle, and in the other you’re telling a story about what it’s like to be a turtle.

I think the same thing applies on a deeper level with acting and writing. I acted quite a bit from middle school through college, and I loved the way getting into character meant finding out more about the character than was written on the page.

I think that the same theater games that help actors discover details about their characters that aren’t in the script, also help writers to discover things about their characters that they haven’t yet written into their manuscripts, but that might deepen a character or speak to their motivation throughout the novel.

I think that sounds like a great tool and I can’t wait to participate in your workshop! I know you’re also going to be talking about how writers can look at their work through a sales or marketing lens. Why do you think that’s important?

I don’t necessarily think that it’s important while someone is first writing a novel, but I do think that it’s helpful to be able to encapsulate your story in one sentence or one paragraph, like you’d have to do if you were submitting to agents and editors and also after a book is published, if you’re going to be doing some marketing yourself.

I also think it’s important as far as expectations are concerned. Looking at similar titles and their sales tracks can give writers an idea of what their sales might look like. And thinking about an audience—along with those comp titles—can help writers figure out how to target their outreach once a book has been published and decide how much marketing and publicity they’d like to take on themselves.

The theme of the SCBWI Europolitan is about growing beyond boundaries, can you talk a little bit about diversity in books?

Like pretty much everyone in publishing now, I think that it’s important to publish novels with diverse themes, diverse characters, and diverse life experiences—and it’s something that I pay attention to when I’m working to balance my own piece of Philomel’s list.

Because I edited Atia Abawi’s novel The Secret Sky, which is set in contemporary Afghanistan, I got to go with Atia recently to a panel at NCTE about books set outside of the U.S., which is a piece of diversity that’s not always talked about quite as much.

It got me thinking more about the kids around the globe and the ways in which experiences and feelings are universal—and the ways in which they’re not. I’m looking forward to continuing that conversation at the SCBWI Europolitan (and to having many other exciting conversations as well!).

We’re so excited that you will be one of our faculty members and are looking forward to seeing you in Amsterdam and continuing all these discussions!

I’m excited too!

Cynsational Notes

Born in the U.S., Dina von Lowenkraft has lived on four continents, worked as a graphic artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. Somewhere between New York and Paris she picked up an MBA and a black belt. Dina is currently the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium, where she lives with her husband, two children, three horses and a cat.

Her debut YA fantasy, Dragon Fire, was published by Twilight Times in August 2013. She is repped by Kaylee Davis of Dee Mura Literary.

Guest Post & Critique Giveaway: Heather Demetrios on Becoming the Designated Typist

By Heather Demetrios
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations
 
For some people, starting a new novel is like that scene in “The Sound Of Music,” where Maria’s tra-la-la-ing on a mountaintop, arms spread out, spinning in delirious joy.

If you’re like me, though, that blank white page isn’t cause for bursting into song.

Bursting into tears, yes. The endless possibilities are overwhelming, so many possible plots and characters to choose from—and what about voice, structure, tense and…and…and…

In order to banish the insanity and keep your freak-outs at bay, it can be tempting to hurry up and create a nice, tidy plot that you can stick characters into, much like those Velcro and felt landscapes in preschool classrooms. That’s certainly a way to go about it. And it just might work for some people.

However, I suspect that the difference between a great novel and a good novel may lie in how much freedom we give our characters.

All the fancy plot twists in the world won’t mean a thing if your reader doesn’t care about your protagonist. The best way to get them to care is to create a character who inhabits her world in such a way that the experiences she has (i.e. plot) are true reflections of her inner journey and her nature. This is how you avoid the pitfalls of the contrived plot, the unearned ending, the story that just won’t sing. So how do we do this?

First, we need to listen to our characters. This is impossible when we’re yammering on about what we want their story to be. Doesn’t your character have a say in what happens in her life?

Heather Demetrios

While I believe it’s necessary to have some general idea of where you’re going with a story before you begin, the key is to be willing to throw that whole plot out the window if you have to.

Focus on your character, allowing the plot to come from her.

Put her in a situation—then see what she does.

Maybe you want her to kill someone but she shows an unexpected reluctance to go through with the deed. See how that reluctance plays out. Get to know your character so that you can get in her skin.

You can do this by:

  • creating playlists,
  • interviewing her,
  • daydreaming about her life,
  • journaling in her first-person POV about other characters and events in the story,
  • writing scenes from the POV of other characters so that you can secretly watch her and see what she does.

These are just a few ways you can get out of your head and into the heart of your story. Chances are, you’ll come up with unexpected ideas that are specific to your character and her story, not the regurgitated plot lines of other YA books.

Something else might happen, too. Something magical.

You might feel as if you aren’t writing the story anymore, as if you are simply a conduit. If you’ve ever started writing and it suddenly morphed in amazing, unexpected ways, my guess is that this was a moment in which you—conscious of it or not—handed over the reigns to your character becoming, as Anne Lamott says in Bird By Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, “the designated typist.”

When we become the designated typist, we let go of our need to control our novel and create space for organic work that radiates the kind of honesty that draws readers in and makes them fall in love with the characters and plot of your story.

So put the outline away, take a breath, and see what happens.

The result may just make you break into song: the page is alive, with the sound of…

You get it.

Cynsational Notes

When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City.

Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real (Henry Holt, 2014).

Her other novels include Exquisite Captive (Balzer + Bray, 2014), the first in the Dark Caravan Cycle fantasy series, and I’ll Meet You There (Henry Holt, 2015). She is the founder of Live Your What, an organization dedicated to fostering passion in people of all ages and creating writing opportunities for underserved youth. Find her on Twitter @HDemetrios.

Writespace Writing Center 

Heather will be teaching up to six intermediate and advanced students during six sessions from March 11 to April 15 at Writespace in Houston. Note: Writers arrange their own most convenient classroom times and meetings with instructor. About the class:

Feb. 3, 2015 release date!

“Sometimes it feels like a story isn’t working. The voice might feel off, or the plot seems contrived. Perhaps scenes are reading dull or your main character feels paper-thin. You might have a brand new idea that you can’t seem to get off the ground because every plot point you think of feels like a cliché.


“When a book isn’t working or a new project feels stunted, we’ve often lost sight of our work’s protagonist and secondary characters. Rather than listening to what our characters want and need, we have imposed a pre-conceived notion of what we think the book is supposed to be.


“Regardless of whether you tend to write from a plot or character standpoint, being able to tune into your characters in order to find the truth of your novel is a useful skill for any writer.


“In this six-week workshop, we’ll look at how to plot or revise your YA novel through exercises that will help you get out of your head and into the heart of your work. In addition to weekly writing exercises and submissions of your work for critique, we’ll consider new ways to access your character, such as through taking field trips with him or her, by creating music playlists, and other unique methods. Along the way, we’ll look at how this shift affects all elements of our work including voice, dialogue, structure, theme and—of course—plot.


“This course is designed for intermediate to advanced writers working in any genre within YA. If you’re looking for a challenging, dynamic workshop that will take your writing to the next level, this workshop is for you.


“Please be prepared to spend at least three hours a week on short reading assignments, your own writing, and online discussion. You will be asked to turn in two 10-page submissions of your novel for critique and to read two YA novels to enhance our discussion (if you’d like to get a head-start, please read the novels The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic, 2011) and The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson (Speak, 2011).


“Together, we’ll create a supportive community through reading one another’s work, discussing the assigned reading, and sharing insights garnered from our exercises. Expect lively discussions and lots of fun!”

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a five-to-ten page critique of your English-language young adult manuscript by Heather. Eligibility: international.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

New Voice: Matt Phelan on Druthers

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Matt Phelan is the first-time author of Druthers (Candlewick, 2014). From the promotional copy:

With warmth and humor, award-winning author-illustrator Matt Phelan follows a child as she leads her daddy on some rainy-day flights of fancy.


It’s raining and raining and raining, and Penelope is bored. “What would you do if you had your druthers?” asks her daddy. 

Well, if Penelope had her druthers, she’d go to the zoo. Or be a cowgirl. Or a pirate captain who sails to the island of dinosaurs, or flies away on a rocket to the moon. 

If Penelope had her druthers, she’d go off on amazing adventures — but then again, being stuck inside may not be so bad if your daddy is along for the ride!

Note: Druthers is Matt’s first picture book as the author and illustrator.

As a picture book writer, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

The best thing you can do to learn the craft is to read as many picture books as you can. Try to identify what works and what doesn’t.

Read them Out Loud. If you have a kid on your lap all the better, but it isn’t necessary.

But do read them out loud anyway. It will help you understand the rhythm and page turn.

Having illustrated ten picture books before writing my own, I had a unique opportunity to study the craft of writing a picture book. I learned so much from the great writers I’ve collaborated with over the years.

My greatest strength I suppose is that, as an illustrator, I know intuitively when I can let the pictures tell the story. The great challenge is to also work in the words so they do what they need to do to make the book a success. It’s a delicate balance and I’m honestly not sure if it is easier doing both parts or not.

As an author-illustrator, you come to children’s books with a double barrel of talent. Could you describe your apprenticeship in each area, and how well (or not) your inner writer and artist play together? What advice do you have for other interested in succeeding on this front?

I think my inner artist and inner writer get along swimmingly. I tend to see my stories first as images, but I write before I really start drawing.

In the case of my graphic novels, that medium allows me to tell much of my story through the images. But before I drew those images, I had written a detailed manuscript describing everything you see. I always write first for my graphic novels. I write in images and then the illustrator side makes those images.

Although I drew my whole life, I worked professionally as a copywriter and screenwriter before my first illustration job. I then concentrated on being an illustrator for five or six years.

During that time I was also playing around with the stories that would become The Storm in the Barn (Candlewick, 2009) and Druthers, so I think I always knew I would eventually write books as well as illustrate them.

As far as advice for author/illustrators, I would say that you must always remember that a picture book (or graphic novel for that matter) is a combination of words and images. You might have a wordless book, but there will still be a Story that you can tell with words. Find the balance, pay attention to the rhythm, and throw yourself into it.

Also (and this goes for anyone), don’t chase trends. If the book you want to write is a “quiet” book, don’t be discouraged because people say the market only wants “edgy” books.

Nobody in publishing knows what they want until they see it, really. You have to write or draw the book that you feel deep in your heart, gut, and soul. It’s the only chance for it to be good.

Outside Matt’s Studio
Inside Matt’s Studio

New Voice: Miriam Busch on Lion, Lion

Miriam and Lucy

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Miriam Busch is the first-time author of
Lion, Lion, illustrated by Larry Day (Balzer & Bray, 2014). From the promotional copy:

A little boy is looking for Lion.


Lion is looking for lunch.


And so our story begins. But look closely . . . in this tale, nothing is quite as it seems!


Children will delight in this classic picture book with a mischievous twist.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

In 2008, shortly after we met, Larry Day asked me to build a story around a character he had drawn: Rusty, a rotund, red-haired boy-king kicking at a puddle.

I wasn’t sure I could do that – after all, this wasn’t my character. (And I was working on a novel. FYI, I’m always working on a novel.) But I tried.

Larry drew. I revised. Larry redrew. There were lions. And chases. The lion Larry had named Philbert was my favorite character– but I was unsure about Rusty himself.

Still, we sent it out. After a couple of rejections, I revised again. Still, something felt off. We revised over and over. Finally, we thought it was ready. Editors unanimously disagreed with us.

At this point, we had been re-re-re-revising for about four years. I did not understand Rusty’s character. I had no idea how to write a picture book. (To be fair, I didn’t know how to write that novel, either.) Rusty’s “story” was still thin — just a beautifully drawn running gag. I felt awful, I especially missed Philbert, but we scrapped it.

A couple of months later, Larry and I met for breakfast at a diner. I guess enough time had gone by, or the “giving up” had released the pressure. (Or maybe it was the coffee?)

Read sample!

I doodled on a napkin. What if: Philbert stayed? And we set it on Lake Naivasha, Kenya, where I had once heard Luo children sing in the middle of this beautiful land where rogue hippos could chase you up a tree? The kid’s from there, too, right? And what if he’s not a king, but just this clever boy who knows how to outsmart a Philbert?

In my (still-working-on-it) novel, characters speak at cross-purposes and misunderstand each other, sometimes deliberately. Characters speak at cross-purposes all the time. Why not in a picture book?

Why not have the word “lion” have two meanings?

We borrowed the first three lines from Rusty and boom: Lion, Lion rushed onto that napkin.

Within a week, Larry had a dummy ready to go. This time, it felt totally right.

We submitted it. One editor loved it, but had just purchased something similar. Another editor loved it, but Acquisitions said no.

Before Alessandra Balzer made an offer, she asked if we were willing to try an urban setting and different animals. We were four-and-a-half years in. By that time, we weren’t worried about changes. As long as the main character and the heart of the story remained, why not?

We played with what “urban” meant: Nairobi? Bilbao? Caracas? And finally settled on a Providence RI/ Brooklyn, NY/ Istanbul-behind-Topkapi-Palace feel.

Miriam and Larry at a school visit

We cycled through a whole lot of different animals, and with each change came research: fantasy or not, the animals’ foods still must be correct. And the lion still needs to be aggravated in a way that best serves the story.

The biggest change (and the one I was most resistant to) involved simplifying a particularly dear-to-me emotional throughline. I tried what Alessandra suggested through gritted teeth.

I wrote and rewrote. I was alternately angry and despairing. I wrote terrible versions. Alessandra was patient. I tried again. I honestly don’t know how many revisions we went through, but I do remember the “Yay! Done!” email.

Pretty spectacular, but unreal—I’m still half-waiting for the call to tell me to rework it. Lion, Lion, this picture book with ninety-seven words, took six years.

My advice on revision? None of this is new, and all of it’s worked for me: Listen to your little voice that says something isn’t working. When readers you respect suggest a change, try it, even if your jaw aches from gritting your teeth. Put the manuscript away for as long as you can, so you can re-see it. Take a walk. If a part or a character or a storyline isn’t serving the story, take it out, even if it’s the finest writing ever. Be willing to scrap everything but the heartbeat. Rebuild from there. Play.

As a picture book writer, you have succeeded in a particularly tough market. What advice do you have for others, hoping to do the same?

Honestly? I know it’s been said before, but read read read.

Linda Sue Park gave this lecture where she said (I’m paraphrasing): if you want to write novels, read a hundred novels before you start. If you want to write picture books, read a thousand picture books.

You read and you read and you read, and you get a sense of rhythm, of pacing. Read to absorb the craft. Notice.

Notice how the visuals tell a part of the story you cannot, how the main character manages the problem, how the author trusts the reader to fill in the blanks with imagination and inference.

The thing is, so much in this business is serendipity – and there are books I love so much which don’t get the popular attention I think they deserve – and we have no control over this.

Miriam and Larry

Jane Resh Thomas says (and again, I’m paraphrasing), “Do your work. It’s absolutely the only thing over which you have any control.”

Do your work. Quell your impatience.

Be willing to revise a million times.

Consider, really consider, every criticism. Give yourself time.

Don’t be so enamored with your own words that you lose sight of the heartbeat of the story.

Know your characters deeply and well.

Also, full disclosure: Falling in love with your illustrator isn’t the worst thing that can happen.

Larry and I married while he was finishing the final art for the book.

New Voice: Tracy Holczer on The Secret Hum of a Daisy

Teacher’s Guide & Excerpt

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Tracy Holczer is the first-time author of The Secret Hum of a Daisy (Putnam, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Grace and her mother have always been their own family, traveling from place to place like gypsies. But Grace wants to finally have a home all their own. She thinks she’s found it with Mrs. Greene and her daughter Lacey, so when her mother says it’s time to move on again, Grace summons the courage to tell her mother how she really feels. 

She’ll always regret that her last words to her were angry ones.


Now faced with making a home with a grandmother she’s never met, and according to her mother, didn’t want her in the first place, Grace is desperate to get back to Mrs. Greene and Lacey. 

A mysterious treasure hunt, just like the ones her mother used to send her on, may must be the key. It all begins with a crane. And Grace is sure it’s her mother showing her the way home.
 

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

Back in 2003, when I’d been writing for about a year, I applied for a scholarship to Chautauqua, a workshop given by the Highlights Foundation.

I tried not to giggle too hysterically as I filled out the paperwork, thinking, “Who the heck do you think you are? You can’t go anywhere for a week! Besides, scholarships are for writers. Not wannabes with three young children to care for.”

“Pfft,” said the Rational Voice, and I sent it in.

When Kent Brown called to let me know I’d have a tuition scholarship, I immediately burst into tears and accepted with no idea how I’d cover room and board. We’d just started a new business and moved into a house and every penny was allocated to something much more important than my writing hobby.

My husband was the first person to suggest that maybe it wasn’t a hobby. When my family stepped in to cover the rest of the cost, expressing the same sentiment, I burst into tears all over again.

So, in the summer of 2004, I left behind a ten, seven and two-year-old to study craft and meet the rock stars of the kid lit world. For heaven’s sake, I sat right next to Jerry Spinelli for dinner one night. And talked to him as though he were a normal person. I’m sure I didn’t drool too terribly.

But what changed everything (aside from Sharon Creech just stopping by because she was in the neighborhood) was having Patti Gauch as my manuscript advisor. I started to get the idea that I’d lucked out when I began noticing people following her around in little clumps.

When you meet her, you really want to do this, too, because all that comes out of her mouth are these snippets of brilliance you immediately want to wear on a T-shirt.

Then, it was just Patti and me for our meeting. She told me to dig deep. To take the images as far as they would go. She told me to make sure there was a surprise on every page. A unique turn a phrase, a special image, a new way of looking at something. She told me to ignore my “homogenized self” and to embrace the part of me that was different.

She made me feel as though all my weirdness, everything I’d ever tried to hide from everyone, was the very thing I needed to cherish and put down on paper.

Then she talked about character being the heart of the story. After failing miserably at any sort of plotting, this was a new and breath-taking perspective. Maybe I could write a story by following the character, rather that expecting the character to follow a story. It changed everything.

It still took me six long years to write The Secret Hum of a Daisy, but Patti Gauch, and the Highlights Foundation, helped put me on the right path.

Lisa blogs at Smack Dab in the Mid^dle: A Middle Grade Authors’ Blog.

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?

Grace came by magic. During that sleep/waking time when everything is half-real, half-imagined. She stood on the front porch of an old farmhouse wearing Mary Janes.

“They’re the only decent ones I’ve got,” she’d said, and rocked back and forth from heel to toe.

Photo of Tracy by Lisa Williams Photography

I knew her mom had just died. I knew she had to live with a grandmother she’d never met, one she was afraid of. I didn’t know what else was in store for Grace, but I knew it would be a magical experience for me. And it was.

Samantha, however, the twelve-year-old in my new book, is not coming magically. She is a tough nut to crack.

What I’m doing to coax her out is more writing exercises with her running the show. She’s writing Haiku and journal entries (even though she would never do either).

I’m asking her to tell me secrets and what she yearns for. Sometimes I put myself in the shoes of her best friend, Milo, and have him ask her questions that she might actually answer.

What I’m learning, this time around, is that I have to listen even harder to my instincts. And that some characters express themselves in different ways. Just like real people.

Interestingly, in this case, it wasn’t until I did a character biography on her dad that I saw Sam more deeply. She hasn’t been as easy as Grace, but we have come to an understanding. She’ll be in bookstores in summer, 2016.

New Voice: Christine Kohler on No Surrender Soldier

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Christine Kohler is the first-time author of No Surrender Soldier (Merit Press, 2014). From the promotional copy:

A young man, an old soldier, and a terrible injustice. Should the punishment be death?



Growing up on Guam in 1972, fifteen-year-old Kiko is beset by worries: He’s never kissed a girl, and he thinks it’s possible he never will. The popular guys get all the attention, but the worst part is that Kiko has serious problems at home. His older brother is missing in Vietnam; his grandfather is losing it to dementia; he just learned that his mother was raped in World War II by a Japanese soldier. 

It all comes together when he discovers an old man, a Japanese soldier, hiding in the jungle behind his house. It’s not the same man who raped his mother, but, in his rage, Kiko cares only about protecting his family and avenging his mom – no matter what it takes. 

And so, a shy, peaceable boy begins to plan a murder. But how far will Kiko go to prove to himself that he’s a man ? 

Based on a historical incident, No Surrender Soldier is the story of a boy grappling with ancient questions of courage and manhood before he can move on.

What inspired you to choose the particular point of view–first, second, third, omniscient (or some alternating combination) featured in your novel? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view at some point? If so, what made you change your mind?

point of view revision

Originally I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this idea; I only had a premise—a 15-year-old Chamorro boy discovers his mother was raped during WWII by a Japanese soldier; what he doesn’t know is that there is a Japanese soldier who has been hiding in the jungle behind the boy’s house for 28 years since the liberation of Guam during WWII.

So I wrote the Chamorro family’s chapters in third person omniscient. That way I could fully flesh out the characters of entire family—Kiko, tatan (grandfather), tata (father), nana (mother), and Bobo (dog).

From the very first draft, the story was in alternating point of view (POV) chapters between Kiko and the WWII Japanese soldier, Isamu Seto. But there was no prologue nor framing until much later.

From the first draft, Seto’s chapters were in third person limited omniscient with a close psychic distance. That never changed.

All that changed regarding Seto’s chapters is that they increased, and in deeper revisions, I had to keep making his routines bump up against Kiko’s so there was a constant cause and effect, action and reaction, actions and consequences. The plot and subplot run like two railroad tracks that keep intersecting until the big collision (climax).

Once I had the family fleshed out and knew where they were and what they were all doing and how they would all react to each other and situations, then I needed to peel it all apart and put the focus on only Kiko, since he is the main character and it’s his story.

point of view notes

To convert Kiko’s chapters to limited omniscient I highlighted each character and his or her actions, dialogue, internal monologue (most IM should have been Kiko’s only) with different colored highlighters.

Then anything that did not adhere to Kiko’s plot problems or was from Kiko’s POV got axed. I kept his chapters in third person.

I didn’t count how many revisions I wrote, so let’s just say that eventually I took the plunge and wrote Kiko’s chapters in first person.

This was a difficult decision, not because I didn’t know it might make the story more compelling, but because I was so afraid of not being able to write an authentic 15-year-old Chamorro boy’s voice. There is no fudging in first person. And I write narrative in a character’s voice, too, just not as heavy in dialect. (Writing pidgin English is an entirely different writing craft topic.)

I would never have attempted either of these character voices had I not lived on Pacific-Asian islands, including Japan and Guam, for a decade. But in the end, I was glad I settled on third person for the Japanese soldier and first person for the Chamorro teen because I believe it is what added to making their chapters so distinctly different.

Christine’s office

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first–character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

Christine with Abby

No Surrender Soldier is historical fiction set on Guam during the Vietnam war era, specifically 1972. It also involves a WWII topic, the occupation of Guam by the Japanese. And I needed to research my Japanese character’s pre-WWII life in Japan. So I researched three time periods and two Pacific island locations.

Although I had lived on both of these islands, I did not live in the specific locales of my characters’ settings nor during these early of dates.
What drew me first to this topic and premise was my curiosity about why the Japanese soldier hid in the jungle for 28 years, suffering such extreme deprivation. What I couldn’t shake from working and living in Asia-Pacific was the atrocities done to the occupied people during WWII. So I guess you could say it was seeing human suffering on both sides of battling nations that drew me to combine these two situations/concepts.

There was never a question in my mind as to when the story would take place—1972, the year in which the real No Surrender Soldier, Shoichi Yokoi, was captured. Of course the Vietnam War was still in action, though winding down. But it reinforced the war theme since my story deals with the after-effects of war and how it affects families for generations.

Christine’s research

At the time I started writing No Surrender Soldier I had lived on the U.S. mainland for a decade. I had recently left my job as a copy editor at the San Antonio Express-News to write full-time and specialize in children’s literature. So it was more challenging to get the research materials I wanted.

When I had lived on Guam I had the foresight to buy the Guam history book in high schools, although I didn’t know at the time I would write a novel. I read this history book cover to cover.

Then I read every book I could borrow from the library (not many) or purchase on-line. But more importantly, I wanted to read all the newspaper accounts—U.S. and Japanese—about Yokoi. I contacted my Gannett publisher, Lee Webber, and he had the archivist Carmelita Blas copy and mail me copies of Pacific Daily News articles. Dirk Ballendorf, then director of the Micronesian Area Research Center (MARC) at the University of Guam, also had an archivist Lourdes Nededog send me copies of everything in the files about Yokoi, which included foreign press clippings.

To purchase a compilation of Japanese journalists’ articles translated into English, I had to go on-line to an antique book dealer in Canada. I also read Yokoi’s autobiography, which was mostly about his life after he returned to Japan so it wasn’t as helpful.

Christine’s blog

A funny side note regarding research: I’ve never lived on a farm, so when I wanted to write a pig-slaughtering chapter I checked out from the San Antonio library a book on how to slaughter pigs.

My husband used to spend his summers as a child on a farm and he said if anyone checked my library history they would show up at my door in the city and wonder what I’m up to.

Now that No Surrender Soldier is out, it’s being sold on-line at a sited called “Home Butchering Books”. No lie! Look it up!

I also contacted via internet Raymond Baza, a musician and composer, to ask questions about Chamorro music since it is as integral to the fiesta as food.

I had no problem building my world—place, culture, customs, food, etc. What was challenging for me was to know what to cut and what to keep in revision. I had to cut a tremendous amount of background and description so it wouldn’t sacrifice the natural storytelling.

New Voice: David Zeltser on Lug, Dawn Of The Ice Age

Curriculum Resources

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

David Zeltser is the first-time author of Lug, Dawn Of The Ice Age: How One Small Boy Saved Our Big, Dumb Species (Egmont, 2014). From the promotional copy:

In Lug’s Stone Age clan, a caveboy becomes a caveman by catching a jungle llama and riding it against the rival Boar Rider clan in the Big Game. 

The thing is, Lug has a forbidden, secret art cave and would rather paint than smash skulls. Because Lug is different, his clan’s Big Man is out to get him, he’s got a pair of bullies on his case—oh, and the Ice Age is coming.


When Lug is banished from the clan for failing to catch a jungle llama, he’s forced to team up with Stony, a silent Neanderthal with a very expressive unibrow, and Echo (a Boar Rider girl!). 

In a world experiencing some serious global cooling, these misfits must protect their feuding clans from the impending freeze and a particularly unpleasant pride of migrating saber-toothed tigers. 

It’s no help that the elders are cavemen who can’t seem to get the concept of climate change through their thick skulls.


Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

On Friday, December 7, 2012, I got an international call. It was my agent, Catherine Drayton, in Sydney, Australia. She told me that Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age and a sequel was going to be published. I started sobbing–which felt strange, embarrassing, joyful and cathartic all at once.

My daughter was two at the time, so I remember feeling especially happy that she might read the books one day. After the call–thinking I was all cried out–I called my wife. I immediately started bawling. Then I called my parents . . . you get the idea.

We celebrated by going out for dinner. I have no idea where or what we ate, but I’m sure there was dessert involved and that it tasted especially sweet that night.

One of the best memories I do have–my mother-in-law emailed me to say: “Congratulations! Don’t let it go to your head.”

She’s from Scotland.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny?

I have a giant stuffed iguana named Pedro next to my computer. I’ve noticed that whenever I write something funny, Pedro winks at me and whispers “Bueno.”

What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

I wouldn’t advise setting out to write in any particular genre or style. I think the key thing is to find a story and characters you love, and then to try various approaches and see what reads best.

Deborah Halverson

Lug started out in third person but–on the advice of the wonderful Deborah Halverson–ended up in first person. It was just more fun to read that way.

More importantly, I would make sure you love the process of creating stories more than anything else. If it’s not your true calling, do the thing you love more.

Be completely honest with yourself–are you doing this more for the love of storytelling, or to ‘become an author’ one day? Are you genuinely enjoying what you’re writing? If the answer is ‘kinda,’ chances are that’s how other people will feel too.

Finally, find writer/reader friends and show them your stories. Listen, learn, and rewrite. Put your story away for a while and look at it again fresh. Then, rinse and repeat. Since you usually only have one shot with a manuscript, only go out to agents after you’ve gone through this process a few times.

Having said all that, I think the funniest books aren’t too focused on the funny. They’re compelling stories with interesting characters who happen to be in comic situations. We’re not going to laugh much if we don’t care about the characters or the story.

Personally, my favorite kind of humor is situational. I like building scenes so that the humor comes from what’s happening to the characters, rather than from the author commenting on what’s happening.

If that’s not enough unwanted advice, I recommend The Complete Guide to the Care and Training of the Writer in Your Life.

Cynsational Notes

David Zeltser emigrated from the Soviet Union as a child, graduated from Harvard, and has worked with all kinds of wild animals, including rhinos, owls, sharks, and ad executives. He has a forthcoming picture book, Ninja Baby, with Caldecott Honor illustrator Diane Goode (Chronicle Books). David lives with his wife and daughter in Santa Cruz, California. He performs improv comedy and loves meeting readers of all ages. His second book about Lug is scheduled to publish in Fall 2015. Follow David on Twitter: @davidzeltser