Guest Post: Sharon Darrow on Back-Story, Future-Story, and On-going Action: Replicating Life with Authenticity

Learn about World within Words: Writing and the Writing Life.

By Sharon Darrow
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I talk to my students about point of view and plot action and their relationship, I find myself musing about how we humans really work.

Things happen to us and around us seemingly simultaneously: we receive stimuli (things and people act in our world), and we respond, observe, talk, think, move, and emote in a blindingly fast sequence.

Not long ago, while I was speaking to a student on the phone about how to revise her long passages of back-story into ongoing action and dialogue, we got very animated about the topic.

It was an exciting conversation and we were both completely focused. Because we’d been talking for a long time while I’d been sitting at my desk, I stood and paced around the room.

I went to the door to let the dog in, along with a fresh cool breath of air, and the beauty of the world rushed into me, the rain-washed day, autumn in Vermont, all green grass and red, orange, yellow trees, black and white cows on the hillside across the valley, and the way the astonishing light traced newly sprung maroon on the heart of a green-edged leaf just outside the window.

A bright metallic blue pickup truck went by, one that I’d never seen before and I wondered about the occupants and why they’d driven down this deadend road. Something about it reminded me of my brother-in-law’s work with his son to restore an old pickup they’d painted almost the same color, the thought of which then tugged at my heart because my dad would have loved to have been a part of that work, but he’d died five or six years before.

I shut the door and felt a twinge of hunger that brought an image to mind of the cheese sandwich I planned to fix for my lunch. And you know what? My student and I were still in dialogue, still completely focused on our topic of conversation.

Sharon with Katherine Paterson at Vermont College of Fine Arts

I told her all that had been going on in and around me as we’d conversed. “That’s what I’m talking about,” I said. “The way the present and the past and the future melt into the same moment of real time.”

She completely understood. In her world the same thing had been happening, life moving around her and being reacted to by her even as we spoke so intently together.

Now, I keep reminding myself, especially in revision, that I (and my characters) live in all time at once—past, present, and future—even if our stories may proceed chronologically.

This is why the emotional journey of the character and the action of the plot are all of a piece, inseparable if what we are after is replicating life with authenticity in our stories.

We humans live only partly in the here and now; the rest of our brains are going like crazy remembering, seeing and re-experiencing snippets of visual and visceral memory, while we are processing incoming data and dreaming little daydreams of the future.

We live in the past, present, and future simultaneously and the events of our lives and our inner and outer reactions to them are intricately intertwined.

Cynsational Notes

Excerpt taken from Worlds within Words: Writing and the Writing Life (Pudding Hill Press, 2018); shared with express permission.

Author Interview: Sharon Darrow on Worlds Within Words: Writing and the Writing Life from VCFA Launchpad. Peek: “Most of these chapters began as lectures for VCFA residencies. I had written them to present in my natural voice and to an audience of students working in a rigorous academic program toward the MFA degree. The revision process was meant to change spoken lectures into written essays that would be easier to read and yet still retain something of my spoken voice.”

New Voice: Shari Schwarz on Treasure at Lure Lake

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shari’s boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cody (Corgi) and Jasper (puppy)

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

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

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

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

American Lakes, Northern Colorado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Voice: I.W. Gregorio on None of the Above

Browse-able Excerpt from Epic Reads

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

I.W. Gregorio is the first-time author of None of the Above (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2015). From the promotional copy:

What if everything you knew about yourself changed in an instant?


When Kristin Lattimer is voted homecoming queen, it seems like another piece of her ideal life has fallen into place. She’s a champion hurdler with a full scholarship to college and she’s madly in love with her boyfriend. In fact, she’s decided that she’s ready to take things to the next level with him.


But Kristin’s first time isn’t the perfect moment she’s planned—something is very wrong. A visit to the doctor reveals the truth: Kristin is intersex, which means that though she outwardly looks like a girl, she has male chromosomes, not to mention boy “parts.”


Dealing with her body is difficult enough, but when her diagnosis is leaked to the whole school, Kristin’s world completely unravels. With everything she thought she knew thrown into question, can she come to terms with her new self?


Incredibly compelling and sensitively told, None of the Above is a thought-provoking novel that explores what it means to be a boy, a girl, or something in between.


Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I never would’ve been published if it weren’t for my critique group. Writing a book, like the process of development for any craft, is such a marathon. You need people cheering you on and passing you water and nourishment in the form of thoughtful, constructive critique. You need to have people who push you to become the best writer you can be.

Most importantly, if you’re going to be publishing a book that is going to be read by the world, you need to help yourself by giving your book baby to kind readers first, because not all critics will be kind. Which is okay – literature is a highly subjective art.

That’s why my critique partners Abigail Hing Wen, Sonya Mukherjee (The View From Gemini (Simon and Schuster, 2016)) and Stacey Lee (Under a Painted Sky (Putnam, 2015)) are the first people I mention in my acknowledgements after my agent and editor.

So where does one find critique partners? Like many, I first met Abby, Sonya and Stacey through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

SCBWI was essential to me because it taught me the nuts and bolts of the publishing process, dispelling some of the mystique. There’s nothing like running into a famous editor in the restroom to help you realize that editors and agents aren’t mysterious deities.

L-R Stacey Lee, Sonya Mukherjee and Abigail Hing Wen and I.W.

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


I’m a big fan of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor, 1995) because it’s funny and honest and generally inspirational.

It’s title also sums up the one trusim of writing advice: Books only get written if you write. Even if you only take one step a day, you’ll eventually finish that marathon.

For writers who have completed their novel but want to polish it, Renni Brown and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How To Editor Yourself Into Print (William Morrow, 2004) is an excellent primer that offers really specific examples of ways to polish your writing on a sentence level.

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

Research was an enormously important part of my story because I’m not intersex myself (a biological condition in which a person’s chromosomes, internal or external sex doesn’t fit the typical definition of male or female). It was so very, very important for me to hear the voices of actual intersex people, rather than treating the topic of intersex as a writing exercise, or curiosity.

So I did a lot of reading, scouring medical libraries and the Internet for first-person accounts. Then I took a deep breath and cold-emailed some support groups. There was silence at first, but I tried different people, and followed-up, and eventually someone agreed to read my manuscript. One one person had read it and vetted it, she invited me to a conference where I met more intersex women and men who wanted to read it.

HarperCollins was gracious enough to provide over a dozen ARCs of None of the Above which I sent to members of the intersex support group. Many of them were kind enough to offer advice and edits that I implemented as late as my second-pass pages (just before the book went to printers)!

Ilene at the AIS-DSD Support Group Conference (Credit: aisdsd.org)

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

This is the question. When I wrote None of the Above I was working full time and had one child. Because the hours between when I come home and when I put my daughter to bed were sacred, I squeezed writing after we tucked her in, typically opening my computer at around 8:30 p.m. and then reluctantly going to bed myself shortly before midnight. Luckily my husband has a career in the arts too (he’s a musician) so he understood the urge to create, and didn’t feel snubbed if I wanted to write instead of hanging out with him.

The day after I sold my debut, I had my second child. Six months after that, We Need Diverse Books was born.

Both of these worthy “babies” have taken up a lot of my time in the past year! It’s been harder and harder to eke out the time to write – I’d say that my window has shrunk to a period from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.. But throughout the day during quiet times, I’m mulling over my plotline, trying to get angles on my slowly developing characters. Bird by bird, as Annie Lamott says.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

I actually met my agent, Jessica Regel at Foundry Literary + Media, at a New Jersey SCBWI conference! I was actually in the middle of revising my novel from dual narrative to single point of view, and wanted to test drive the manuscript with some critiques.

The conference also offered a pitch session with agents, so I surveyed the list of participants and was delighted to see Jessica on the list because she represents emily m. danforth, who wrote one of my favorite books, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins, 2012). The book is a thematically perfect analogue to None of the Above with its LGBTQI+ theme, so I thought Jessica and I would be a good fit.

I was lucky enough to have my first critique right before the conference, and I was so happy when the editor I was paired with loved it and wanted to see None of the Above on submission.

Of course, I had to explain to her that I wasn’t done with my revision yet, and that I would have to query, etc. I asked her what agents she would recommend. When she mentioned Jessica, I mentioned that I had a pitch session with her the next day.

“Oh, great,” she said. “Tell her that your manuscript is the one I talked to her about.”

I’m pretty sure my response was “!!!!!!!!”

The next day at the pitch session, Jessica asked for the partial manuscript, read it in her subsequent two hour break, and offered representation that afternoon. Afterward, I took some time and actually got two more offers on the partial manuscript, but had to choose Jessica because of her enthusiasm, her representation of a book I adore, and her general professionalism. She sold my book within a month to Alessandra Balzer at Balzer + Bray (who happens to also be The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s editor!) and the rest is history!

Agent Jessica Regel and I.W.

The long and the short of it is: I would recommend that you look closely at the acknowledgments section of books that you love, and try to discover who represented them. Go to conferences not because they’re the guarantee of an offer, but because they can give you a sense of who you might click with as a person. And keep trying! You only need one.

Cynsational Notes


I. W. Gregorio is a practicing surgeon by day, masked avenging YA writer by night. After getting her M.D., she did her residency at Stanford, where she met the intersex patient who inspired her debut novel, None of the Above (Balzer & Bray / HarperCollins).

She is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books™ and serves as its V.P. of Development.

A recovering ice hockey player, she lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. Find her on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram at @iwgregorio.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Deborah Halverson on Five Things YA Writers Should Know about New Adult Fiction

New Adult Covers

By Deborah Halverson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Just as the difference between a middle grade story and a young adult story is more than the characters’ ages and grades in school, the difference between a young adult story and a new adult story is more than the characters’ ages and their graduation from high school.

Young adult writers often ask me to articulate that “more than”—a task I’m happy to take on.

Some of those writers want to work out whether their stories on the upper cusp of teenhood are YA or NA, and others just want understand this new category that brushes up against their own.

Here are five key differences you need to know about YA and NA:

1.) Age: Yes, age matters. YA protagonists are usually 12 to 18 years old, still living the high school life or under some kind of adult oversight or power structure. NA protagonists are 18 to 25, often in college or taking first steps into career.

Notice the overlap at 18? Some young people are free from adult oversight at that age and are embarking on the next phase of life, so you’ll find them in NA. This is where you can get tripped up by focusing on age as the delineator: People point to stories of teen orphans or adventurers out battling the world for survival, far from their parents. Does being on your own mean you’re no longer a teen? No one would claim that about 14- and 15-year-olds, but what about 17- and 18-year-olds? At what age do you draw the line? See, problematic. That’s why numbers 2 and 3 below matter, too.

Research for Writing New Adult Fiction

2) Narrative sensibility and character mind-set: This is about how your characters process the world, which affects their priorities, goals, dreams, and fears, and it’s about about how they express themselves.

Teens are typically starting to look outward as they try to find their places in the world and realize that their actions have consequences in the grander scheme of life.

In contrast, new adults are typically picking up the self-exploration that began in adolescence, expanding their worldviews and becoming fully self-responsible after leaving some kind of adult-regulated life. They are now free to determine their own schedules and activities, are generally responsible for no one but themselves, and are increasingly making their own life plans as they gain wisdom through experience.

Overlaps remain between the two life phases, though. Friendships are intensely important to both age groups, although in new adulthood the traditional family structure gives way to a new “family” of friends. That word “new” matters, as new adulthood is a time of immense change and new stuff. Thus, new adulthood throbs with instability and the stress that goes with it.

Peer pressure is also important to both groups, as the part of the brain that helps us inhibit impulses, plan and organize our behavior to reach a goal, and manage our reward system isn’t done developing until age 25. This means teens and new adults are hyper-interested in risk-taking situations and very influenced by peer pressure; only, NAs are now totally free to indulge, so the partying and other risky behaviors can intensify.

This is why many people describe NA as seeming “bigger” or more intense than YA, even though teenhood is pretty dang intense itself.

Deborah’s “mobile office”

3) Circumstances: The storylines we create for each age group reflect their phases of life. YA fiction features teens yearning for full independence despite their lack of experience and perspective. These young people think big and take big action, struggle with over- and under-confidence, mature in their decision-making and coping skills through their adventures, and embark on their first forays into romance, with romantic attraction becoming a significant part of life.

NA stories show young people with a little more experience under their belts—often just enough to make them over-confident. We get to watch them deal with the realities of that independence they craved, have high expectations for themselves that don’t always match reality, strive to break from their teen social status and build an identity from scratch, continue to mature in their decision-making, take big risks as they experiment and explore, and delve into more intense romances, laced by self-exploration and influenced by new a freedom to explore their sexuality.

Because there’s lots of planning and replanning during new adulthood, NA fiction includes first forays into careers, allowing the characters to test their career plans before they have to settle into adult life.

4) Sexual Explicitness: Romance is a part of almost every upper YA and NA story, as well it should be—love is a main area of identity exploration starting with puberty. Teens tend to be exploring love for the first time, trying to understand what it feels like, and NAs are starting to gauge who they want to be in these relationships and what they want out of their partners.

The explicitness of the physical love scenes differs for the two categories, big time. YA has its sexual content but writers must be sure that their level of detail is organic and necessary to the story. Generally, that which doesn’t happen off-scene altogether is softened so as not to be overly graphic. Even so, those stories can face “gatekeeper” challenges because they’re clearly positioned as teen fare.

The constraints are gone for NA, which is marketed for over-18s. New adults are free to explore relationships and sexual identity, experimenting as interest, opportunity, and willing partners allow.

Pioneering NA novels often featured explicit love scenes, but now, two years into the category’s evolution, NA writers and readers are debating just how vital steamy sex scenes are for the literature.

5) Audience: The YA audience includes teens and “crossover” adult readers.

NA may get some teen readers because young people do read up, but that said, many teens aren’t interested in that time of life yet.

NA writers who craft stories about 18-year-olds are aware they may have young readers, so often they’ll opt for a “Mature YA” label, giving them the elbow room to go into more detail with the sex but still keeping it tame.

We don’t have industry studies to confirm this, but it’s believed that the biggest NA readership is that same crossover adult readership that made YA a publishing industry juggernaut.

New adults themselves are considered a large secondary readership, happy to see their experiences finally reflected in their own fiction.

I hope these five things illuminate how YA fiction and NA fiction are near neighbors yet still distinct categories.

Personally, I’m happy to see NA fiction in the mix—the category is exciting for readers who long craved stories about this time of life, and it’s exciting for writers who yearned to explore the new adulthood experience and now have the opportunity to do so.

Happy readers, happy writers … sounds darn good to me.

View from Deborah’s mobile office

Cynsational Notes 

Deborah Halverson is a veteran editor and the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies.

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Learn more

Her latest book, Writing New Adult Fiction, teaches
techniques and strategies for crafting the new adult mindset and
experience into riveting NA fiction.

Deborah was an editor at Harcourt Children’s Books for ten years and is now a freelance editor, the founder of the popular writers’ advice website DearEditor.com, and the author of numerous books for young readers, including two teen novels.

Visit DeborahHalverson.com or DearEditor.com.

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