10th Anniversary Feature: Cynthia Leitich Smith

This interview is in response to questions from Cynsations readers in celebration of the ten-year anniversary of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com.

Who or what has influenced your writing the most?

I read a novel almost every day. I read a stack of picture books at least once a week. Plus, I read nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, etc. That’s a cumulative influence.

More specifically, I can point to Linda Hogan and Joy Harjo on my Native writing, Annette Curtis Klause, Bram Stoker, and Joss Whedon on my Gothic YAs.

When I was a kid, I read most of the Newbery winners. Beyond that, memories of kitchen-table talk linger in my memory.

How do you get into the mood of writing? Like…do you just sit down and write, or do you have to do something special first?

I typically write rough drafts only between midnight and four a.m. I need to world to quiet, fade away, so that I can lose myself in the story.

Then I print, read the draft, throw it away, and delete the file. That initial plunge is just about getting to know the character, setting, story. It’s less intimidating because no one else will see it. The best parts will come back. As for the rest, I’m not interested in building on a weak foundation. I take what I’ve learned to inform the drafts that follow. Once the second or third (sometimes I have to repeat the process) “first” draft is down, though, I can work on it any time.

I tend to write in soothing rooms—the sun room, the reading room, the sleeping porch.

If I get stuck, I dance around in the dark to pop songs of the ’70s and ’80s. If nothing else, it entertains the cats.

Caveat: there’s no one right way to write.

What is the most difficult thing about the entire writing process, from initial idea to publication?

That moment when I’m printing the revised copy to send to my editor and the toner runs out. This always happens. I am a normally happy woman, but right then, I want very much to heave the printer out the window. Or at least the toner cartridge.

Beyond that, I’m not one to angst over process. Once the real “first” draft is down, I have full faith that the answers to any challenges in the novel are at least hinted at in the existing draft. A picture book is different, more like a puzzle. With those, I just keep trying. Jingle Dancer (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) went through more than 80 drafts.

How do you care for your muse?

I take extreme field trips.

For Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008), I walked the streets of Austin asking furry people if I could take their pictures as models for shape-shifter characters. Being proudly weird Austinites, they were all quite flattered.

I also went to open houses and picked up floor plans and chose where my characters would live (though I re-imagined the exterior facades and relocated the “inspiration” homes out of respect to the real-life residents). I confessed my ulterior motive to the real estate agents, who were quite gracious about the whole thing.

For Eternal (Candlewick, 2009), I went to Chicago and walked every street that my characters did and made notes of what it looked like through their eyes. The ink in my pen froze on Navy Pier.

I step into my world quite literally.

Why did you choose to write YA rather than adult, and what do you think is the main difference between the two these days?

I’d previously published books for children (another of which is in production).

Though the children’s and YA markets each have their own focus and personality, the two categories are part of the same “family” of writers, illustrators, publishers, and the folks who connect books to readers.

But even if that weren’t the case, I would elect to write for and about young adults—partly because they’re so dynamic, partly because theirs are the books I love to read, and partly because my inner teen is alive and growling. I value the audience and my colleagues.

What else? YA literature tends toward immediacy. It’s usually marked by its fine focus, quick pacing, and underlying optimism. It’s resonant without always having to take itself seriously.

All of that is works for me–a usually thinking, sensitive optimist with a sense of humor and the attention span of a gnat.

In an October 2008 interview, author Thomas Pendleton made a comment that resonated:

“The young adult audience is in this wonderful place between childhood when anything was possible and the world was full of mysteries, miracles, and monsters, and adulthood where many of the mysteries have been solved, many of the miracles have a price, and the monsters wear human faces.

“They really get the themes in fantastic fiction, even if it’s only subconsciously because they are close enough to look behind them and see the magic or look ahead and see the reality. Most adults lack that amazing perspective.”

What was your most favorite part of writing a novel with vampires and werewolves?

If only because she may devour me otherwise, I feel obligated to point out that Tantalize also features a werecat as well as a handful of shifters inspired by the Texas setting—a wereoppossum, a werearmadillo, and turkey werevultures. Eternal and the tie-in short stories expand the multi-creature verse even more with ghosts, angels, and additional shifters.

But absolutely the vamps and Wolves have a particular appeal. They’re old-school, classic monsters. They were screen stars in black-and-white movies. They both did “The Monster Mash.” You can find them in folklore and other stories from around the world. And they appear–together and separately–in a formidable list of books, recently including Superman and Batman versus Vampires and Werewolves (DC Comics).

My story came together when I had the idea of a writing murder mystery in which the central question was whether it was a werewolf or a vampire in wolf form who’s the murderer. I stumbled across it while I doing my homework. Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula held the key.

I read that you started Tantalize in 2001. What took you so long? Eternal isn’t going to take that long, is it?

Yes, I started Tantalize after I finished Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002).

I’d always wanted to write a novel that drew on the vampire mythology as well as a novel set in a restaurant, so that intersection was a place to begin.

But between 2001 and when the novel sold in 2005, I had to learn how to write a more mainstream fantasy. I’d done only realistic contemporary fiction up until that time, much of it influenced by Native literary traditions.

Meanwhile, I also was working on various short stories and a couple of picture book manuscripts—Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006) and Holler Loudly (Dutton, 2010).

Each book takes as long as it takes, but you do tend to pick up some transferable skills along the way. Hopefully, I’m getting a little faster.

Eternal will be out in February 2009.

You refer to your YA work as “Gothic fantasy.” What is that exactly?

Deborah Noyes in the forward to Gothic: Ten Original Dark Tales (Candlewick, 2004)(author interview) writes: “…think of Gothic as a room within the larger house of horror. Its decor is distinctive. It insists on the burden of the past. It also gleefully turns our ideas of good and evil on end.”

Or more personally, my YA Gothics are horror novels involving monsters, some of whom are human beings. The books may include comedic and/or romantic elements, but they’re intrinsically horrific. Magic comes at a huge price, and I’m not promising a happy or even hopeful ending. You may get one, but you can’t count on it.

As a side note, I’ve written realistic YA fiction, too.

Why are there so few American Indian authors?

I suspect there are more than you think. If you are interested in supporting Native voices, please consider featuring the Native Youth Lit widget available from JacketFlap.

Of course it would be wonderful to have more (and more tribally diverse) representation. But the more pressing need is for teachers, librarians, and booksellers of all backgrounds to champion such voices as well as for Native professionals to excel in the publishing industry across the board.

How has publishing changed since you started in the business?

Horn Book editor Roger Sutton nailed it when he said in a 2007 interview: “The biggest change has been the rise of the retail market over the school and library.”

The commercial success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (Scholastic) can’t explain all of that, but it certainly seems like an indicator.

Not long afterward, I had good friends—some of them well established mid-listers—whose publishing careers quickly evolved or slipped away.

On the upside, we now have an extraordinary number of new voices, some of them very young. In contrast, when I first began working with my Harper editor in my late twenties/early thirties, I only knew of a couple of authors near my age. The vast majority were at least 15 years older.

It’s good and bad. We have fresh energy, and reading itself has a higher, more positive profile. But many quiet books, multicultural books, historicals—the kind of books that need time to build an audience…those without a shiny new name or publisher push…those that have traditionally relied on word of mouth… Books like that face additional challenges.

Beyond that, the idea of “branding” was largely foreign (at least to me and several colleagues I’ve spoken with on the topic).

I understand that readers who love an author’s work often want more of the same. But I obviously wasn’t writing Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) with the idea that it would set up my audience for Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008), and I would’ve considered such a dynamic a creative straight jacket.

At the time, it was widely held that most authors would seek to stretch our craft with different kinds of stories, and, as a pleasant side effect, that would offer us more room to maneuver in the market.

Finally, we’re now seeing authors from historically underrepresented racial/ethnic communities in the body of literature writing about whatever we please. The fact that someone is, say, African-American doesn’t necessarily mean that, over the course of their career, all or even most of their protagonists will be.

In addition, culturally-grounded stories from such voices are increasingly appreciated not only for their teach-ability but also for their literary merit. For example, ten years ago, Christopher Paul Curtis, Linda Sue Park, and Cynthia Kadohata had not (yet) won a Newbery award. How diverse was the list of winners in 1998? Significantly less so than it is today.

How has the kidlitoshere changed specifically?

The biggest change is that there is one.

Back in the day, it wasn’t hard to have a Web page listing children’s-YA author websites, by which I mean all of them. During my apprenticeship, I was a member one of the first published-author listservs–invited by a mentor–and met my agent that way. What became Cynsations was a monthly text email newsletter.

How did you build such a powerful author platform?

I never heard the words “author platform” before this year. I was just sharing information and, hopefully, offering encouragement.

Early on, my career goal had been to be a journalist. I majored in news/editorial and public relationship at the William Allen White School at The University of Kansas. When my University of Michigan Law School classmates were in the midst of their all-important post 2L summer clerkships, I was working as a reporting intern for The Detroit Legal News and Dallas Morning News.

Cynsations and the main website allow me to feed that part of myself while focusing on positive news. When I got started, the situation in publishing was much like it is now–layoffs, buyouts, canceled contracts, low author morale.

Sometimes it’s good to light a candle. Sometimes it’s good to light a bonfire.

How have you grown as a writer?

I’ve gained more faith in my creative side and built up my analytical one.

It helps that I don’t limit myself to books that I initially thought of as “my kind of thing.” By reading broadly, my tastes and knowledge base have expanded.

Teaching has been a blessing because it’s forced me to explain what I had been doing largely by instinct. That process of articulation deepens my own understanding of the skill set.

That said, I’m very much a work in progress.

Which writers’ work do you love?

I love the writing of many, many, many authors.

Two headliners that deserve even more attention are E. Lockhart and Tracie Vaughn Zimmer.

What kinds of books do you wish there were more of?

Provided they were well written…

Comedies, especially those with diverse casts. Fantasies with diverse casts. Westerns. Stories wherein the faith of the protagonist is central to his or her world view. Stories set in the U. S. central and mountain time zones. Stories rooted in the so-called “working class” AKA “lower middle class,” socio-economically speaking.

As a reader, what are your “heart” books, the ones you need to return to again and again?

On the picture book front, Chance by Dian Curtis Regan, illustrated by Dee Huxley (Philomel, 2003) and The Moon Came Down on Milk Street by Jean Gralley (Henry Holt, 2004)(author-illustrator interview).

My novels are The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (Houghton Mifflin, 1958) and, more recently, Marley’s Ghost by David Levithan, illustrated by Brian Selznick (Dial, 2005).

What upcoming releases do you look forward to?

It probably makes the most sense to highlight…

I’ve already read and adored So Punk Rock (And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother) by Micol Ostow (Flux, 2009) and The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams (St. Martin’s Press, 2009). Both break new ground in YA literature.

Coming up, I look forward to Need by Carrie Jones (Bloomsbury, Dec. 2008) Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston (Harper, Dec. 2008), Bones of Faerie by Janni Lee Simner (Random House, Jan. 2009), Fly Girl by Sherri L. Smith (Putnam, Jan. 2009), and Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell (Delacorte, Feb. 2009), among others.

On the Austin front, I’m happy to highlight Jessica Lee Anderson‘s Border Crossing (Milkweed, fall 2009) and Chris Barton‘s debut picture book, The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors (Charlesbridge, July 2009)–wait until you see the art! In addition, P. J. Hoover‘s latest installment in The Forgotten Worlds trilogy, The Navel of the World, will be released by Blooming Tree in October.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Ah, this is one of my frequent questions turned around on me. With the caveat that giving advice is always a little perilous…

Focus on craft. Take the long view (and a class on public speaking). Contribute to the community. Give yourself some credit. Push through your fear. Resist the temptation to compare. Stay out of flame wars. Forgive each other and yourselves. Celebrate each step, no matter how small. Stay positive but real. Encourage your peers, respect your audience, and honor the champions who connect books to young readers. Write. Read. Enjoy living your dream.

And when necessary, step away from the Internet.

What advice do you have for writing teachers?

Keep in mind that beginning writers are beginning writers. Yes, core talent is a factor, but so is determination, a positive attitude, environment, resources, and practice. Odds are, your student will get better–especially if both of you are doing your jobs.

I would extend the same thought to authors/editors who’re critiquing for a writers’ workshop or conference. It’s too easy to glance at either a beginning writer or a manuscript at an early stage and jump to conclusions about the potential of that writer in the whole.

Incidentally, one of the most useful things I ever did was read, back-to-back, all of Paula Danziger‘s books in the order they were published. She was always a great writer, but I could really see how her craft developed over time.

Writing for publication puts one at the mercy of many uncontrollable forces. But we can all strive to make our next manuscript better than the one that came before.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?

At the moment, I’m all about Blessed, a prose novel which will crossover the casts of Tantalize and Eternal. I’m also working on the graphic novel adaptation of Tantalize.

In addition to Eternal, my immediately forthcoming works are two short stories–“Cat Calls,” to appear in Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists, and Other Matters Odd and Magical, edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, 2009) and “The Wrath of Dawn,” co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith, to appear in Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci (Little Brown, 2009).

Is there anything you’d like to tell your website visitors?

Thank you to everyone who’s visited the site, passed on the URL www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, and shared your thoughts. Thanks for your enthusiasm and for all you do–online and off–for each other and young readers! Happy new year!

10th Anniversary Feature: P. J. Hoover

In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, I asked some first-time authors the following question:

As a debut author, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned about your craft, the writing life, and/or publishing, and why?

Here’s the latest reply, this one from author P.J. Hoover:

How fun to talk about craft, the writing life, and publishing. Three important aspects of being an author!

Regarding craft, wait as much time between revisions as possible. Just close the document. Resist that urge to open it and read your wonderful opening page just one more time. Seriously. Resist it.

Do anything else you can think of. Draft another story. Read a book. Mop the floor. Clean the toilets. (Note: a manuscript and a toilet are not the same. Do not wait as long as possible between cleaning the toilet.)

The fact is this: the longer you wait, the more fresh the manuscript will appear, the more objective you will be, and the better a writer you will become.

If you can, wait a year. If you start to wear the polyurethane off your floor, at least give it a month. Okay, maybe a couple weeks. Just get away from it for some amount of time measurable on something besides a wall clock.

As for the writing life, treat yourself as a professional. Go get those publicity photos taken. Have a website designed. Print up some real business cards. The more professionally you treat yourself, the more professionally others will treat you.

Think of your writing life as your own personal business with you in charge. How do you want people to view your business? What kind of businesses do you support? The one where the manager is rude, the fries are burned, and the counter is covered in ketchup? Or the one where you’re given a full refund, no questions asked, and told to have a nice day.

Give people a reason to support your business.

For publishing, keep in mind no one’s story will be the same. Everyone who reaches publication will have done so differently. Each writer has ups and downs, successes and failures, good days and bad days. I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone’s in the world. And as such, I wouldn’t trade my publishing career with anyone else, either. Because everything goes hand in hand. Writing and life. Life and writing.

So stop comparing yourself to others, and start creating your own future.

10th Anniversary Feature: Lindsey Lane

In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, I asked some established authors–folks I’d featured early on–the following question:

Over the past decade, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned about your craft, the writing/artistic life, and/or publishing, and why?

Here’s the latest reply, this one from Lindsey Lane:

About publishing

Try very, very, very hard not to take the rejection personally. And keep putting yourself out there. Those darn publishers still don’t make house calls.

About the writing and artistic life

More and more, with the whole world is streamed into your office and on to your lap, writing can be a no-contact pajama sport so that you never have to go out of your house. Don’t let it happen.

Drag yourself into the shower, put on some clothes and go out. Hear other authors read. Go to the library or bookstore. Touch books. No, caress them. They get lonely.

Also, not everything is on the Web. You will learn a lot just by picking up a book. And not just the original material. Go to the library and read the secondary material about the genre you are working in. It sparks ideas. Those books like to be caressed too.

About my craft

I think the most important thing I’ve learned about my craft was something I read in a blog of Jane Yolen‘s several years ago. I can’t quote it exactly but she said something like, Each manuscript has its own voice, and the writer’s job is to find the voice in each work.

This was very liberating for me because I had always thought that a writer had one voice and you went around looking for it your entire life and then somehow, you were successful once you found it.

I know that sounds incredibly naive and stupid but well, these are the misconceptions we have as writers…

Anyway, since I read that bit of wisdom, I feel so much freer as a writer to explore each manuscript and ask myself, “what am I trying to say?”–“what are the characters trying to say?”, and let the voice of the piece come out naturally.

Read a Cynsations interview with Lindsey.

10th Anniversary Feature: Zu Vincent

In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, I asked some first-time authors the following question:

As a debut author, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned about your craft, the writing life, and/or publishing, and why?

Here’s the latest reply, this one from author Zu Vincent:

A novel weaves its own brand of magic in connecting with readers. That’s what has hit home to me since The Lucky Place (Front Street, 2008) was launched.

I’ve published in other areas so I was totally surprised by this gift. Readers really do express a deeper appreciation when a writer produces a novel; at least they have to me.

I think this comes with the investment of time and emotion we put into books. I know I invest more heavily when reading a novel. It’s like taking a journey with a total stranger who, through harrowing circumstances, ends up being your close friend.

Now I’m on the other side of this process, and it’s amazing. Readers are expressing how they felt on their journey with my words. How gratifying is that?

When you’re writing a book the responsibility is to yourself. To open your soul and find whatever truth is there to tell. After it’s out in the world, you realize just how important that honesty is for readers. That’s when the consequences take hold. It’s not just about you now.

Readers will catch you out if you haven’t done your best. Not that you have to be the best in the world, just the best you can be. It makes the next book all the more exciting to write. And all the more challenging.

You have to take yourself seriously, but then again, you can’t take yourself too seriously, either.

10th Anniversary Feature: N. A. Nelson

In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, I asked some first-time authors the following question:

As a debut author, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned about your craft, the writing life, and/or publishing, and why?

Here’s the latest reply, this one from author N. A. Nelson:

The most important lesson I learned about my craft came during my revision process. I didn’t know what type of a reviser I was—meaning “Did I need specific comments or general?”

My editor at the time said something to the affect of, “It’s always interesting working with a new author because you have to figure out how to get through to them in a way they can relate to and be motivated by.”

Through trial and error (and tears), I learned I’m a: Give me the specifics type of reviser; tell me what page (and sometimes even what paragraph) I need to add something to because “develop this character more” is not something (at that point anyway) I knew what to do with.

The most important lessons I learned about the writing life were that I needed to continue to have fun—to continue to play, to continue to allow myself to make mistakes.

Just because my first book got published didn’t mean I was supposed to know everything and get it right the first time. To expect that from myself was self-imposed torture. I had to realize that there is no magic formula to writing; there’s only what works for me on this book, on this day, at this time.

The most important lessons I learned about publishing was not to compare myself and my book to others. As hard as it is in this numbers driven world—I learned not to get caught up in: the blog hits, the website hits, the Amazon ranking, the Goodreads ranking, the Barnes & Noble ranking, the Worldcat numbers, aaaaaaaah!

It was an insane roller-coaster of “Yay, I’m third in Central/South America Books on Amazon,” to “Ugh, someone just gave me three out of five stars on Goodreads.”

Get involved, be involved, but don’t let the numbers define you. I’m doing the best I can to get Bringing the Boy Home (HarperCollins, 2008) out there and the rest of it is just stuff I need to let happen and not judge myself—poorly or glorily (no, that’s not a real word)—by.

10th Anniversary Feature: Monica Roe

In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, I asked some first-time authors the following question:

As a debut author, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned about your craft, the writing life, and/or publishing, and why?

Here’s the latest reply, this one from author Monica Roe:

As I continue to grow as a writer, I have found it has become both the most rewarding–and also the most challenging and intimidating–area of my life.

This realization has been something of a surprise to me, as there are other aspects of what I do that I would have expected to hold that distinction.

Besides being a newly published author, I am a physical therapist by profession. I work primarily out of Nome, Alaska, but my responsibilities also include providing services to fifteen Native bush villages across the Seward Peninsula (as well as two islands off the eastern coast of Russia).

My job takes me on weekly flights in tiny bush planes through all types of arctic Alaskan weather. I sleep in village clinics that sometimes have no running water, clamor through snowdrifts in sub-zero temperatures to treat patients in their homes, and occasionally encounter foods ranging from raw whale blubber to dried seal meat.

In comparing the two sides of my professional life, however, I can honestly say that I find writing to be the more challenging endeavor. Perhaps it’s the unique mix of complete freedom coupled with absolute accountability. Nobody can force me to sit down and write—it’s a conscious choice that I have to make every single time I want it to happen.

Whenever I sit down in front of a blank computer screen, I feel that same strange mix of excitement and fear. Will today be the day I write something I’m truly proud of? Do I have anything worthwhile to say? Will I ever write another book worth publishing?

Unlike a structured job with specific daily expectations, writing can be far too easy to put off, especially on the days when the words and ideas just aren’t flowing the way you’d like them to. Okay, you think, maybe I’ll just wait a few days for inspiration to strike. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day to try again.

I’ve fallen into that trap before, and suddenly three months have gone by and I’ve effectively scared myself out of writing anything at all.

For me, it takes a huge amount of discipline coupled with a fair amount of courage to actually sit down and face that blank screen on a regular basis—more than it takes for me to get on a bush plane or swallow a piece of whale blubber.

I struggled with that before I was ever published, and I haven’t found it any easier now that I have been.

That said, however, writing is still the most rewarding job in the world. You are accountable for everything you do or don’t put into it, but the possibilities are truly endless.

You have the potential to say something to a significant number of people and you can effectively shape and create your own world, your own reality.

Whether or not it includes whale blubber is up to you.

Read a Cynsations interview with Monica.

10th Anniversary Feature: Jody Feldman

In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, I asked some first-time authors the following question:

As a debut author, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned about your craft, the writing life, and/or publishing, and why?

Here’s the latest reply, this one from author Jody Feldman:

When the movie, “Field of Dreams,” came out in 1989 (coincidentally, the year I started writing The Gollywhopper Games (Greenwillow, 2008)), you couldn’t get very far in any given week without hearing the refrain, “If you build it, they will come.”

Nineteen years later, When The Gollywhopper Games was released, those words wouldn’t leave my mind. I built it. Will anyone come? Anyone besides my family and friends and writing communities? Why would anyone notice a new author’s new book?

Somehow, the efforts of my publisher, the Class of 2k8 and my own attempts of promotion–plus major portions of luck and serendipity–have graced me with my share of strangers coming to my characters and my story. I built it. Readers have come.

Yet, I find it disturbing that other authors, new and experienced, who have done just as much or even more than I have to get their books noticed haven’t met with the same results. And I’m talking about some brilliant books here.

If you build it, will they come? Hard to say. I’ve learned the business part of this industry is a giant question mark. No matter how hard we promote or how fervently we beg our Amazon rankings to climb, there’s so much we can’t control in publishing.

The only thing we can control is how much we work on character, plot, setting, dialogue, and theme to make the next book even better. And we can hope that if we continue to build ourselves as authors, our readers, most often, will come.

Read a Cynsations interview with Jody.

10th Anniversary Feature: Barrie Summy

In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, I asked some
first-time authors the following question:

As a debut author, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned about your craft, the writing life, and/or publishing, and why?

Here’s the latest reply, this one from author Barrie Summy:

I learned a very, very important lesson this past year as a debut author.

I have a problem.

It’s called time management.

There it is, folks. I’ve admitted it. It’s on your screen. And zipping around cyberspace. Miss Muklowska, my first grade teacher, might even see it.

If only there were more than twenty-four hours in a day and more than seven days a week. And more weeks in a month. And more…

Where do the seconds and minutes and hours trickle away to?

Cyberspace. I spend way, way too much time online. I love the blogsphere and research and email and marketing and classes and just meandering from link to link.

Revising. I love to revise. Over and over and over. I’m never done. I could fiddle and tweak and change this word for that forever. The thesaurus is my BFF.

Outlining. I’m a huge outliner. I keep a recipe box per book. The box has dividers for the major plot points. Whenever I have an idea for a scene or a description or a little detail, I jot it on a note card (love those colored and lined note cards!) and plop it in the box according to where it would probably fit in plot-wise. Then I painstakingly type up the contents of the box.

The Rest of My Life. Because somewhere in the midst of all this is a family—a husband and four kids and a veiled chameleon and Dorothy the Dog. Not to mention scads of sports activities and music lessons, and, oh yeah, homework, and friends, and cooking and laundry and…

Yikes! I have to write another book!

Enter the Class of 2k8.

We’re an online group of 27 debut middle-grade and young-adult writers from a variety of publishing houses who banded together for marketing purposes. We’ve ended up becoming great friends. Who share the ups and downs of life as a debut author.

And guess what? I’m the baby of the class (in terms of pub date, that is!). Which means I get to watch my classmates navigate the publishing experience before me.

And see just how much there is to juggle!

And learn how they’re managing their time.

And get a sense of what’s coming at me from down the pike.

And it all helps. Tremendously.

Not saying I don’t still have time management problem.

But now it has a name.

10th Anniversary Feature: Toni Buzzeo

In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, I asked some established authors–folks I’d featured early on–a few questions about what they’ve learned over the past decade.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about your craft?

A decade ago, I had yet to land my first children’s book contract for The Sea Chest (Dial, 2002). I had put in three years of study, experimentation, and development of my knowledge, voice, and style. I’d tried my hand at picture books, easy readers, a transitional novel (“chapter book”), and an older novel. I’d worked with a variety of authors in critique group settings and with one author, in particular, in a mentor relationship.

Ten years later, I’ve just published my eighth picture book, The Library Doors, illustrated by the amazing Nadine Bernard Westcott (UpstartBooks, 2008) and have six more under contract with Upstart, Dial, and McElderry.

I believe that I am a successful picture book author because I’ve continued to study my craft. I regularly read new picture books as they are published and pay attention to what my colleagues are doing in their work—and what I might learn from their work.

As my body of work has grown, I have continued to try new things and to experiment with new types of stories which has allowed me to grow in my craft.

The Sea Chest is a quiet and lyrical story that employs a frame structure, which was difficult to accomplish so early in my development as an author. In fact, I think it would still be a challenge to me now!

— In my companion books, Dawdle Duckling (Dial, 2003) and Ready or Not, Dawdle Duckling (Dial 2005), I learned how to carry character traits forward and to consider how those traits drive plot in two different stories.

Little Loon and Papa (Dial, 2004) explores my own childhood fears, but required me to go beyond the personal to the universal as I paid careful attention to plot structure in successful “pattern of three” books.

— My character-driven Mrs. Skorupski series has allowed me to create a main character who is a thinly disguised version of myself as a school library media specialist: Our Librarian Won’t Tell Us ANYTHING! (UpstartBooks, 2006), Fire Up with Reading (UpstartBooks, 2007), and The Great Dewey Hunt (UpstartBooks, 2009) while searching for universal experiences that would appeal to all readers (and all librarians who would share the stories with children).

— My first rhymed picture book, R is for Research (UpstartBooks, 2008) was published last spring. While I’d tried my hand several times at rhyme, this is the first time that I was successful enough for publication. Rhyming is incredibly difficult and places such restrictions on the text!

— In The Library Doors (UpstartBooks, 2008), I experimented with song adaptation, also a first for me. In some ways, it was a pleasure to have the pre-established structure of the song (in this case, “Wheels on the Bus”). But in other ways, it was a huge challenge to design the text in a way that satisfied the rhyme and meter of the original while making use of the concepts I wanted to include in the new (library) setting.

Through the writing and revision of all of these books, I’ve learned so much about the range of my own voice as a picture book author. My strength continues to be in language and character development. Plot is still, and has always been, the most difficult aspect of writing for me, and so I continue to work on it, read about it, think about it, and face down my plot demons with each new manuscript.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about the writing/artistic life?

Oh, how I wish I were well endowed with an understanding of how to build an intellectually challenging, artistically and commercially successful, and peaceful writing life—which is my goal!

I do think I have the first two nailed, as my life as a full-time writer and speaker certainly excites my intellect and has proven to be successful in the terms I have set out (and each writer’s terms are different, of course, when measuring artistic and commercial success).

But the cost of the first two is a big compromise of the third aspect—a peaceful life. I have yet to come to terms with that, so I can’t say that I’ve learned the one, true lesson I am most in pursuit of.

What I have learned is that it requires most of a writer’s time to effectively write, speak, market, and promote her work. There are no forty-hour work weeks. There are no regular hours. There are few vacations and few down times (taking a half an hour for lunch most days is an undue luxury).

As a result, many authors find it necessary to have a day-job (unless, of course, they have the gift of a “day-spouse”!), but for those of us who choose to live only the writing life, the demands are enormous and balance (the key to a truly peaceful existence) is a far off glimmer.

It will be interesting to see whether I’ve resolved the dilemma when the next decade has gone by and we celebrate twenty years of Children’s and YA Literature Resources!

By the way, I invite any authors or illustrators reading this response to e-mail me with your wisdom if you’ve found the key to that final goal of mine.


What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about publishing, and why?

What I knew when I started and what I still know today is that publishing, like most other human endeavors, is about relationships.

There’s the relationship between the author and the editor, between the author and the publishing house, between the author and the illustrator, between the author and the reader, between the author and the marketplace. And each relationship is essential to the success of the author’s writing life.

I am a person who tends relationships as some of my most successful gardening friends tend their flowers and vegetables.

I believe in connections between people as the tiny inner mechanism that makes the Earth spin on its axis, the planets revolve around the sun, the galaxies mind their places in the universe.

It is all—always—about relationships for me, in life and in publishing. The children’s publishing community is a world in itself, a world I am so happy to be a part of, and I tend the relationships I have in this world with great care and concern.

Read a Cynsations interview with Toni.

10th Anniversary Feature: Jane Kurtz

In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, I asked some established authors–folks I’d featured early on–the following question:

Over the past decade, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned about your craft, the writing/artistic life, and/or publishing, and why?

Here’s the latest reply, this one from Jane Kurtz:

In the past decade, I learned that writing is frustrating and tough and hard–and exhilarating beyond belief.

It’s been an anti-book decade. The kinds of books I care about most have suffered particularly.

What that has done is send me back to the writing itself–how much I love being a student of the craft; how much I love trying different things; how much I love getting to be part of a book world, hard as it is.

Read a Cynsations interview with Jane.