10th Anniversary Feature: Ellen Booraem

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 Ellen Booraem:

My time as a published debut author has just started as I write this. But I set out on this road five years ago, and the experience has been rife with revelations.

Being a member of the Class of 2k8 has been a crash course in publishing.

As readers of Cynsations no doubt recall, this is an on-line marketing collaborative for debut authors of middle grade and young adult novels published in 2008. There are 27 of us, with diverse backgrounds and experiences that we share daily on a Yahoo email loop and a blog.

My savvier 2k8 classmates have opened my eyes to the variety, richness, and power of the Internet. I never thought I’d have a blog or a Web site, or would be so enthusiastic about both. I had no idea that resources like Cynsations even existed!

Overall, though, the most far-reaching lesson came early, years before the Class of 2k8 was a glimmer in cyberspace.

Although I’ve written for a living for thirty years—mostly as a reporter and editor for rural weeklies–I got serious about novel-writing fairly late in my career.

I’d tried twice before to quit my job and write fiction, thinking I could freelance to pay the bills. Each time I got scared or bored or both, and allowed the freelancing to take over.

This third time, starting in November 2003, I was determined that I would keep my butt on that chair until I wrote a decent novel. About a month in, though, the inevitable morning came when I sat down, looked at the screen, and went blank. The panic rose like flood waters.

Uh-oh, I thought. Here we go.

This time, though, I pushed down the panic, opened a new document, and just started typing whatever came out of my brain about my main character, regardless of whether it made sense. A half-hour later, I was back at work on the manuscript, head clear and jitters banished.

Later, I modified the technique by writing “journals” in the voices of various characters–very illuminating for the story, and a healthy break from the daily slog.

I’ve written another novel, which I’m now revising for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and I’m still managing to trick my brain into working.

For years as a reporter, I warned sources to expect a phone call with last-minute questions when I was writing whatever story involved them.

“My brain engages only when my fingers start typing,” I’d tell them.

This turns out to be just as true for fiction-writing–if I get the fingers moving on a keyboard, even if they’re typing gibberish, eventually the brain sputters and coughs, smoke puffs out of the stack, and I start to chug along, the little novelist that could.

10th Anniversary Feature: Stacy A. Nyikos

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 Stacy A. Nyikos:

I had a very forthright editor once who said, “Stories are about emotions, my dear.”

I nodded, my bottom lip trembling at the sight of the flocks of red marks soaring across my manuscript. I was having emotions. Lots of–sniff, sniff–emotions.

Of course, what she was trying to tell me was that emotions guide a story as much as–if not more than–plot, character, and sequence of events. Emotions have to be consistent. You can’t have a sad character who suddenly gets happy, which is what I’d done.

As I deleted, I promised my now very distressed character we’d get out of the mess I’d gotten her into, but we had to get through trials and tribulations first. She wasn’t happy, but she went along.

The story became all the richer both for the consistency of emotion that drove it, and the happy resolution it produced in the end. Dragon Wishes (Blooming Tree, 2008) became about redemption in the face of loss, not about running away from it.

For me, emotion is one of the core foundational blocks of a story. A story based on a driving emotion takes on a life outside of the sum of words and paragraphs that make up the narrative. It lives and breathes through the feelings evoked in my readers, lingering well after the words begin to fade.

10th Anniversary Feature: John Michael Cummings

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 John Michael Cummings:

Clearly, for me the most important lesson learned from my first novel was to advance the plot with urgency.

My background is in literary short stories, where I’ve spun more than a few nicely phrased sentences without taking the story forward. This all changed with The Night I Freed John Brown (Philomel, 2008).

Not only was my first novel with a mainstream publisher, which makes its money from good, clear, entertaining stories, but it was young adult! That made it doubly difficult—my prose had to march double-time.

“Advancing the plot” is a simple way to say it, but it’s really much more than that. It’s about having a powerful organic voice that reels the story forward, whether in action or state of being. A plot need not press forward by the measure of its hero’s footfalls. His mind can be the conflict’s fiercest battleground, doing much to make “what happens next” all the more inevitable and believable.

In The Night I Freed John Brown, young Josh Connors is a lion out of its cage as he searches for a father figure. But he also fights fiercely with himself on the inside.

In fact, for all his travels through his historic hometown—through a ghostly abandoned house, through leaky caves and up to a scenic overlook, then into museums and richly renovated houses—his biggest climb is up the endless staircase of his own heart. He rises through his feelings—why he hurts, why he is angry, why he is ashamed.

Probably the best word for the effectiveness of this mix of internal and external conflicts is execution. How a novel is executed speaks to the many varied techniques by which it develops. I was lucky to have an editor who, in the margins of my drafts, wrote notes like, “stage this,” “shine light on this,” and “hold this moment.”

She was—and don’t laugh—my Steven Spielberg. But for all our red pens and fancy talk, sometimes we threw up our hands and wondered where the organic voice comes from, then marveled at how it cannot be gypped of its richness or yanked out of its poetic groove by forcing it to a word count or chapter length.

For me it was also about making every word proof of what was yet to come. Call it seeding, or foreshadowing, but it came down to an honest, consistent design that created a sense of time and place in which every sentence, every paragraph, cast subtle reflections backwards and forwards, raising up a three-dimensional world fraught with consequences.

At times, it felt like I was arranging puzzle pieces of information just far enough apart so that only when you stepped back and looked at the novel as a whole could you see how they all fit together. Other times, it was nothing but rewards for the reader every few pages. I often thought—this is harder than ten short stories written at once!

It was journey waiting for me to make.

10th Anniversary Feature: Laurel Snyder

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 Laurel Snyder:

It’s funny, but with all I’ve learned over the past few years—through about 17 drafts, as many failed manuscripts, several amazing editors and agents…the biggest lesson I learned was not a writing lesson, but a personal lesson.

A lesson in how to be patient. How to turn off my ambition and relax. Wait for it.

A writer who wants to be published has to cultivate a kind of stubborn, constant energy flow. When I was sending out my book I was certain that the only way to make it happen was to keep at it.

And so every time a rejection came back I sent it back out. I talked to any agent who’d chat with me. I lurked on all sorts of bulletin boards and in chat rooms, read blogs, and revised and revised and revised. I never stopped thinking about how to get there

But then, gloriously, astoundingly, it all paid off! I sold two books at once (both from slush), and I found that there wasn’t anything to do anymore but write.

Suddenly, I had an agent and an editor and I didn’t have to think about getting there. And I found that was weirdly difficult. To stop the ambition wheels from spinning in my brain. To slow down my breathing and think of stories I wanted to tell, instead of thinking about how to get people to read the stories I’d already written.

I’d sit down to write, but instead I’d find myself online, surfing the blueboards for editors who might like my next picture book idea (though I already had an option to fulfill). I’d reconsider my agent choice for no good reason. I actually dreamed about becoming an agent myself.

See, while it’s frustrating to be unpublished, the constant ebb and flow of submissions is also kind of addictive. Every day there’s something to do. Every day there’s a hold-your-breath-and-open-your-mail moment. And you make it happen. You’re in charge. It’s a roller coaster, and I’m a roller coaster kind of girl.

It turns out that being a published author is the opposite. You’re not in charge anymore, and the publishing world moves at the speed of a sleeping sloth.

So you sit, and wait, and crack your knuckles, and dream about the book that is, in theory, going to come out. But you can’t make it happen. You can’t flood the world with emails and speed things up. And for me, that was hard, a lesson to learn.

It took effort. I had to learn to take a deep breath, turn off the Internet, and just start the next book…

10th Anniversary Feature: Shana Burg

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 Shana Burg:

What have I learned about craft? I’ve learned that art imitates life, but also life imitates art.

The only way I can describe it is like this. Yoga helped me stretch my first book from an idea to a finished manuscript.

In yoga, they say what you learn “on the mat” applies to life. If you learn to focus intensely on the mat, you can take that skill into your everyday life. If you develop persistence on the mat, that transfers too. I refined and strengthened these skills through yoga, plus patience, balance, and the ability to just let go.

Similarly, I can practice the same skills that I do “on the mat” when I am “on the page.”

I can practice being authentic and true to the characters in my world. I can practice approaching revisions with a daredevil attitude. I can practice believing in my story and knowing that what I’m creating has a purpose no matter what anyone else might think. All of these struggles “on the page” seep into the rest of my life and help me be the kind of person I want to be.

Sometimes my life becomes my art and my art becomes my life.

At these times, who I am as a writer with a voice is not too different from who I am as the person who makes breakfast, drives my son to school, calls friends, and folds the laundry. I’ve found when I get to that point—and I get there and lose it and get there and lose it—that things are humming, and both writing and living seem like they’re flowing as they should.

Read a Cynsations interview with Shana.

Cynsational Notes

“Told in the first person through the eyes of a perceptive African-American girl living in the deep south during a period of racial tension and social upheaval, this first novel is a gripping page-turner. Without being didactic, the author teaches what it was like to be poor and live under the injustices of segregation.” Source: Parent’s Choice.

Read chapter one of A Thousand Never Evers (Delacorte, 2008).

10th Anniversary Feature: Terri Clark

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 Terri Clark:

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is discovering what my voice sounds like and then protecting it.

When you start receiving constructive criticism as a new writer it’s very easy to edit a piece so much it completely mutes your voice.

Your voice is what makes you stand out, it’s what makes you different. Once you find it, guard it and know how to look at edits with an eye for keeping your voice in your work.

I also learned that getting published takes patience and persistence. It took me twelve years, but someone once told me “It’s not if you’ll sell, it’s when” and I clung to that.

Never give up, and you too will realize your dream.

10th Anniversary Feature: Peni R. Griffin

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 author Peni R. Griffin:

It’s been a rough ten years. Reviewing them, I find little in the way of codifiable wisdom.

I write better now, but I can no more articulate what I do better than a carpenter can articulate for the lay audience the way his hammering technique has improved. You use the muscles, they function better.

Alas, I haven’t improved my marketing skills noticeably. I never feel that I have learned enough about the business end to advise others beyond the most basic beginning principles.

Even now that I’ve quit the day job forever, I can’t see the way I live as part of a broader subculture that could be called “the writing life.” I see images of that life, but I’m not sure they’re true. Isn’t “the writing life” just life with writing? When you accept creativity as a normal part of human variability, writing life is ordinary life.

I’ve learned that I like writing for young people because their brains are still growing. I never used to know what the factor was, but reading about neuroscience I figured it out.

I’ve learned that I need a base level of emotional security in order to write.

I’ve learned that I really do need an agent, that I’m not as good at knowing when a book is ripe as I thought I was, that as skills improve the ability to create new things atrophies, but the process can be braked by a constant influx of new skills.

I’ve learned that I need to be less patient and more selfish, but implementing that learning is still underway.

My research skills have improved with practice.

I’m relearning the use of third-person omniscient now that it’s becoming more acceptable to the editors of age groups I write for, but I can’t say that I have learned it.

It’s freaking hard, after decades of complete identification with one character at a time. But hard is good. You can’t appeal to growing brains if your own brain keeps firing the same synapses over and over.

Read a Cynsations interview with Peni.

10th Anniversary Feature: Regina Scott

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 Regina Scott:

The most important lesson I’ve learned is to listen to my inner voice. We start out with stories we’re burning to tell, stories that are uniquely ours. I think of them as gifts from God.

And then we learn more about the publishing industry, what’s hot, what’s not, what’s conventional, what’s expected. We hear from other writers, agents, editors, and readers who tell us to change our characters, our plots, our writing style, and our vision.

Don’t get me wrong — everyone has more to learn and grow. But when you let those other voices into your head, you tend to lose your voice, which is what drew you to write in the first place. Only when you stay true to yourself does the story really satisfy you, your publisher, and your readers.

10th Anniversary Feature: Kristin O’Donnell Tubb

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 Kristin O’Donnell Tubb:

I’ve been surprised to find that, for me, the process for bringing each new story to life varies as the personality of the protagonist varies.

In writing Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different (Delacorte, 2008), I was dragged by my shirt collar through the story by Autumn, because she just had so darn much to say. She’s feisty and free-spirited, and I learned to follow her lead when writing her tale.

But my work-in-progress features Hope, a smart but uncertain girl who lacks confidence. I’ve had a more difficult time writing this story, because Hope is always on the defensive. With Selling Hope, I finally created a meticulous, 20-page outline because Hope stayed just beyond my reach otherwise.

And in a mystery series I’m developing, the protagonist is Eleanor, a girl who idolizes investigative reporters. She is a straight shooter, and her story is unfolding like a developing news piece.

Prior to writing Autumn, I assumed that one was either an outliner or a person who wings it. Black or white, right? I was an outliner, through and through.

But Autumn would have none of it. And Hope can’t be trusted otherwise. Eleanor could go either way, so long as the truth as I know it is told.

Outliner or winger? I’d have to say it depends on how forthcoming my protagonist is!

Why is this important? For years, I tried to write like I was “told” to write:

-“You have to write xxx number of words per day.”

-“One MUST write every day.”

-“You really should outline/wing it/interview your characters/keep a notebook of personality traits/draw a map of your setting/make a collage for your main character.”

But none of these worked for me. And parts of all of them worked for me.

So while we’re never done honing our craft, we have to allow ourselves some flexibility in how we do that. What used to work doesn’t always work. What was once foreign to us might now bring a fresh, new perspective to our work. And how fun that is!

Because honestly, if Autumn and Hope and Eleanor were too much alike, then what an uneventful career writing would be.

10th Anniversary Feature: Sarah Prineas

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 Sarah Prineas:

My book came out on June 3rd, and it’s been an odd, crazy time.

While promoting that book, I revised book two in the series and finished book three, which goes off to my editor shortly.

There isn’t a whole lot of time, I’m finding, to bask in the glow of having a book out. Publishing has a hungry maw, and we writers need to have new manuscripts ready to throw into the maw, to be chewed up and spat out as finished books.

What I’ve found, given that situation, is that there’s no waiting around for a muse to visit or for inspiration to strike. A professional writer has to work hard to have manuscripts ready for chewing, and if she doesn’t, well, then she doesn’t have a career, just a book.

I’m in this for the career.

After finishing the first book, I worried a little about choking, since I wasn’t absolutely sure what the second book was going to be about, but since then I’ve learned that I can write into the void, and that I enjoy writing as an act of discovery.

I’ve also learned to write no matter where I am. I still don’t have a home office, so I move around the house, from kitchen table when I’m home alone, to comfy chair in my bedroom when the house is full of kids.

My publisher has been sending me to lots of events, and I’m finding that I can write during the down times; in fact I get lots done in hotel rooms and airport waiting areas.

The other thing I’ve learned is that my ideas about how publishing worked were kind-of naïve. My book deal worked out, as my agent said, “the way deals are supposed to happen but never do.” No angst or heartache involved.

But I’ve learned that even though publishing is partly run on the love of books, it’s also a cut-throat business. If I don’t keep writing books, this business will leave me behind without a thought. It’s a tough lesson, but an important one, for me.

The final thing I learned is that once a book is out, the author has to let it go. You just can’t control how it’s going to do out there in the big world, so you might as well focus on the next project.

Read a Cynsations interview with Sarah.