Survivors: Daniel Kraus on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author

Learn more about Daniel Kraus.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.


Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

The the only bumps of note have revolved around me figuring out what kind of life I wanted to live inside of publishing.

It only took me one book to realize that I’m not someone who’s going to make a second career of attending conferences and schools, and doing every single blog interview on offer, and so forth.

I’ve seen friends go down that route and be swallowed by it, good writers who hammer and hammer away at so-called promotional opportunities when they could be writing a second or third book.

That’s where I’m comfortable: at the desk. You might consider me prolific, but I see myself as someone who decided where to focus his energies and has kept to that.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Learn more.

There are two minor compromises I made with my first book that still irk me. One was a structural thing and one was a single sentence that I didn’t think needed to be there. They hardly ruin the book, but to this day, they bother me. And so I don’t do that anymore.

I’m entirely open to editorial suggestion, but I’ll never agree to something I don’t believe in. It’s not worth it if it’s still going to still be depressing to me when I’m old.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

There have been the obvious demographic shifts that, while still small, have been encouraging to see. Beyond that, I don’t see a lot of change.

The best-seller list is still a mixture of great books and middling junk food. The most daring books still rarely get noticed. The pervading opinions that YA lit has to offer a positive message or avoid immorality are still boringly in place.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Learn more.

I probably did some large-group events where there were only white authors. I wouldn’t do that today.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

A lot of lip-service kudos are given to books and characters that occupy moral gray areas, but I still feel like a lot of adults who read YA (not the kids, mind you) can’t really take it when it gets hot in that particular kitchen. Their what-about-the-children alarms go off.

That’s not a great environment for innovation or expression, and certainly not transgression.

In an area of publishing that likes to think of itself as open-minded, it often feels fairly closed-minded in this regard. This kind of hesitancy, however, does present prime opportunities for small presses and self-publishing, and so I expect those two areas of the lit world to continue to thrive and become even more important.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

Now available! Learn more.

Time. I need much more of it. I have a dozen projects I want to write and the fact that I won’t get to them all before I die — yes, I’m thinking about death — has really started to hit home.

I also want to help writers who are talented but maybe not well known for a variety of reasons, maybe because of where they come from or what they choose to write about.

This kind of assistance is largely done quietly, behind the scenes, and is almost always more gratifying than publishing a book myself.

Cynsational Notes

Why Do You Write Such Dark YA Fiction? by Daniel Kraus from Cynsations. Peek: “Sure, you’ll lose readers who find your story irredeemably smutty/horrific/ludicrous, but those readers who have been searching for someone who writes as if possessed will recognize you instantly as one who fears nothing but mediocrity.” See also New Voice Daniel Kraus on The Monster Variations.

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Guest Post: Cyndy Etler on Joining the Sorority

By Cyndy Etler
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m not a fangirl. I don’t know celebrity names. I don’t ask the hairdresser to make me look Kardashian. Also I don’t diet, buy $30 lip gloss, or wear Lululemon to the organic grocery store.

I read; I write. That’s what I do; that’s what I think about. Reading and writing.

In today’s YouTube-tutorial, boutique-fitness-studio, must-have eyebrow-mascara culture, being a reader/writer can make a girl feel almost…like she’s not that much of a girl, you know? Funny, then, that I’m being embraced by a sorority.

Rush began 30 years ago, in elementary school. With Blubber. Poor girl, going to school knowing the others were laughing at her! God, could I relate. In our beach games, my sister was Bo Derek. I was Sea Cow.

And then Deenie—are you kidding me? She had to wear a brace to school and have everyone stare, same way everyone stared at me, with my step-brother in his clacking leg brace? Judy Blume was my first real sister, tapping my soul with her magic pen, letting me know that I wasn’t the only one.

Next it was Sweet Valley High, that literary candy that spilled from the pen of Francine Pascal. Peeling back the macaroon-colored cover of a SVH book, I was a new girl. A thin, blond, convertible-driving California girl. Mini-skirts and pom-poms! SVH was my first, my best drug. Francine Pascal was sister #2.

Then I found salvation: Alice Walker. Maya Angelou. Toni Morrison. Women writing characters with the honesty, humor, and heart that was missing from my life. Their worlds were my nirvana. In my reader’s mind, at least, I had a place where everything made sense. And I had people: my three newest sisters, and their heavenly cast of characters.

When I got older it was Dangerous Minds. First the movie, showing me my future: a take-no-prisoners high school teacher finding kin in her alternative-class students. Which led me to the books. And the author, the teacher, the revolutionary: LouAnne Johnson.

Then I was on to Crank: part fiction, part poetry, part muscle-car, all real. Like its author, Ellen Hopkins: badass, trailblazer, and modern day Anat, goddess of love and war.

LouAnne and Ellen were the sisters who gave me the key. They invited me into the House of YA Lady Lit; they showed me my seat at the table. Looking around and pinching myself, I noticed I’d started to glow. Like, from the inside.

And it dawned on me: it wasn’t the blubber. It wasn’t the skin color. It wasn’t the pom-poms, or the street cred, or the eyebrow mascara. It was—it is—the words.

It’s the words and the beating heart behind them.

As I settle into my purple satin seat cushion here in the House of YALL, trading books and tweets with award-winning authors, I am stunned and elated and almost unbearably grateful.

To Ellen Hopkins. To LouAnne Johnson. To Jenni Fagan and Cynthia Leitich Smith and Marieke Nijcamp.

To all of my sisters in heart and word, as we work to save kids’ souls, one book at a time.

Cynsational Notes

Cyndy Etler is the author of The Dead Inside (Sourcebooks Fire, April 2017), a YA memoir about the sixteen months she spent, as a teen, in a “tough love” facility described by the ACLU as “a concentration camp for throwaway teens.”

Book Trailer: Three Truths and a Lie by Brent Hartinger

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Three Truths and a Lie by Brent Hartinger (Simon Pulse, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A weekend retreat in the woods and an innocent game of three truths and a lie go horribly wrong in this high-octane psychological thriller filled with romantic suspense by a Lambda Award–winning author.



Deep in the forest, four friends gather for a weekend of fun.



Truth #1: Rob is thrilled about the weekend trip. It’s the perfect time for him to break out of his shell…to be the person he really, really wants to be.



Truth #2: Liam, Rob’s boyfriend, is nothing short of perfect. He’s everything Rob could have wanted. They’re perfect together. Perfect.



Truth #3: Mia has been Liam’s best friend for years…long before Rob came along. They get each other in a way Rob could never, will never, understand.



Truth #4: Galen, Mia’s boyfriend, is sweet, handsome, and incredibly charming. He’s the definition of a Golden Boy…even with the secrets up his sleeve.



One of these truths is a lie…and not everyone will live to find out which one it is.

Guest Post: David Lubar on The Name of the Prose

Tor, 2016

By David Lubar
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I love it when people ask the title of my new book. I get to say, “Character, Driven.”

Then, if they nod knowingly, I add, “Character, comma, Driven.”

If they smile at that, I add, “It’s a plot-driven novel.”

I feel it’s a clever title. But a title has to be more than clever. It also has to be a good. It has a marketing job to do.

With 35 books or so to my credit, and close to 300 published short stories, I’ve created a lot of titles. Some were good. Some weren’t.

My first novel, published back in 1999, was about kids with special powers. The working title was “Psi School.” I wanted something better.

Back then, I often watched “Double Dare” on Nickelodeon with my daughter. At the end of the show, host Mark Summers would ask if anyone in the audience had a hidden talent.

One day, as he said that, I realized Hidden Talents was a perfect title for my novel. This was back in the days when we didn’t instantly and constantly search the Internet for information.

Starscape, 2003
Starscape, 2004

It wasn’t until the book came out that I searched for it in online stores and discovered there was a Jayne Ann Krentz novel by the same name.

That’s when I learned my first rule: Try to make the title unique.

Even having a similar title can be a problem. I was aware that Wendelin von Draanen had written Flipped (Knopf, 2001) before I called a novel of mine Flip. (I couldn’t resist. The title fit the story so well.) I didn’t think it would be a problem.

I also didn’t think we’d ever be on the same panel at a conference. To this day, I still run into people who confuse the two books.

I didn’t have that problem with Dunk, which was about a boy who wants to work as a clown in a dunk tank. I checked. There wasn’t a previous book with that title. But the title presented another problem. I’ve met people who never picked up the book because they thought it was about basketball.

I guess there might have been people who picked it up for that very reason. Inevitably, some of them would be disappointed. My second rule: Avoid confusing potential readers.

Graphia, 2004
Dutton, 2005

A title has to work with a broad population. My novel, “Flux Sucks,” was renamed at the last minute, out of fear that “sucks” might keep it off the shelves in some communities. The hastily created new title seems to be a good one. Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie works well, I believe, because it is intriguing, and it can have multiple meanings.

I think the same holds true for Character, Driven. My main character, Cliff, is both driven to succeed in life and love, and driven by his friends because he lacks a car of his own.

The title also hints at the metafictional nature of the narrative.

I think my most successful title, in terms of marketability, caused a different sort of problem for me. The story collection, In the Land of the Lawn Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales (Starscape, 2003)(excerpt), inspired such brilliant cover art from illustrator Bill Mayer that I decided the next collection also needed a Weenie title story. It was a smart move.

There are now seven Weenies collections, with an eighth coming in September. But it is a mixed blessing. Some people don’t take the books seriously, for that very reason. I’ve seen them referred to as “garbage books” by one blogger, who I suspect never looked beyond the cover, and a friend told of hearing a parent tell a child who’d snatched up a copy at a book fair to “pick a real book.”

Happily, the millions of copies in print remind me that, all in all, it was a good decision to run with the Weenies. (Not to mention the endless jokes I get to make when authors gather.)

Darby Creek, 2006

I have a chapter book about a boy who is cursed to speak in puns. The title, Punished!, actually came to me first, inspiring the book. (I also wrote a sequel, Numbed!, where the same characters lose their math skills. That, too, began with the title.)

I never tire of saying to kids who select that book at a school signing, “I’m glad you got Punished!”

I feel it’s an excellent title. But I made a mistake when I went for emphasis. Some online book sellers aren’t set up to search for an exclamation point. So neither Punished! nor Punished will produce that book.

If you search for the keywords Punished and Lubar, you’ll find the book, and some alarming bondage photos (just kidding), but the truth is that people are often better at remembering titles than authors. So a title should be both memorable and searchable.

Speaking of which, I foolishly called an ebook of mine, built from stories that were deemed too problematic for the Weenies collections, Zero Tolerance Meets the Alien Death Ray and Other (Mostly) Inappropriate Stories. I suspect that many of the kids who heard me talk about it forgot the title by the time they got home. If not sooner.

I hope I chose wisely this time. As a title, Character, Driven is memorable (I hope), searchable (I tested the comma, and found no problems), and confusing only in a fun and ironic sort of way.

Is it a good title? I think so. But that’s really a question for the marketplace to decide. And that would be you. So let me know what you think. Or just smile and nod knowingly if we ever cross paths.

Guest Post & Illustration Giveaway: Julie Chibbaro on Writing in Black & White

Teen Julie

By Julie Chibbaro
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I was six years old, my big sister pulled me aside and whispered in my ear.

“I learned a bad word today.”


I asked her, “Is it terrible?”


“It’s awful, horrible.”


I smiled gleefully. She always shared the best bad words, but this one had her worried.


“What is it?” I asked.


She said, “Prejudice.”

She told me it meant to judge someone by their outside skin or where they came from. We lived in a factory neighborhood right next to the projects, where you could find every skin shade in the Crayola box.

We were misfit kids, an unwanted trio, daughters of a mentally ill mother and a violent father. Our clothes didn’t fit, what we had of them, and we ran wild in the empty lots next door. I knew, even at that young age, if I were ever to be judged by what I looked like on the outside, I’d be in serious trouble. From the moment I learned that word, I vowed to make my best attempt to understand people by their inside skin.

With JM, where they met (Prague), and daughter Samsa.

As an adult, I ended up falling in love with a black man. He walked up to me one night on a bench in a foreign country, took out his art portfolio, and showed me the inside of his mind, a gorgeous place to be.

He had pages of drawings – people he watched on the street, scarab beetles he studied in the museum – brilliant renderings that showed me a whole layer of the world I had not known existed.

Over the years, we helped each other grow as artists, trying out different paths and mediums.

Both of us struggled with the labels society put on us, “black artist” for him – he was expected to make art out of his own racial experience, and for me, “woman writer,” an assumption that my writing would somehow be more feminine than a man’s.

We thought if we could examine these labels, and what they did to people, we might come to some answers about why they existed.

I began to create the characters of Ror, a white girl artist who meets Trey, a black street artist (oh, that I have to use labels to describe them!). They both grow up in odd circumstances, making them outsiders. Their shared talent and passion lets them see beyond color, into their true inside skin, the place where they fall in love.

But society’s already gotten to Trey. In a discussion at the modern art museum, while they are looking at the 20th century female Mexican artist (wow, labels) Frida Kahlo’s paintings, Trey relates his beliefs about museums to Ror:

“[T]his place ain’t for us. Not while we alive, at least.”


“How do people get into a museum, anyway?” I wondered.


“You gotta be rich, white, friends with the right people,” he said. “Or you gotta be dead. We ain’t dead yet.”


“I’ve got one out of four,” I said.



“Yeah, but you’re a girl. You may’s well be black like me.”


“Frida Kahlo’s a girl.”



“Married to a famous dude.”



I stopped short. “So that’s what I’ve got to do to get in a museum? Marry a famous dude? I can’t do it on my own?”


“You dream ’bout bein’ in the museum till you dead, Ror. I’ll take bein’ the revolutionary. Let history worry about me,” Trey said.



I didn’t like that answer. Not one bit.

Enter to win print of this illustration below!

Ror confronts the local art supply store owner who tries to encourage her away from doing graffiti with Trey, even though that’s what she thinks is beautiful. She doesn’t believe she can even get into a gallery or museum, not till she’s dead, anyway, because she’s a girl. Jonathan refutes her fiercely:

“There’s plenty of living artists, and they’re in galleries that anybody can go into…look at Audrey Flack and think about what got her there. Go to SoHo. Go down the Village and look at young painters just coming up, like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat…those guys started on the street, but they didn’t stay there.”

His words filter down through her, and get her thinking about her own power and the extent of her talent.

Ultimately, she comes to the bottom line question, the main part of art-making that’s in her control: Is this piece of art in front of me the best I can make it?

As a black artist and a woman writer, JM and I struggle to transcend labels, but for Into the Dangerous World (Viking, 2015)(excerpt), we had to look straight at them to expand the range of the story, to actually talk about these concerns we regularly face.

Reality is tough, and prejudice is a persistent monster, but we dealt with it head-on; through Ror’s drawings and her adventures with Trey, we hoped to show our readers the value of digging into the beliefs of the people who surround us, and see what’s really true within ourselves.

 

Cynsational Giveaway 

Enter to win an 8.5 x 11 print of an illustration from the book. Author-illustrator sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

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New Voice: Stefanie Lyons on Dating Down

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Stephanie Lyons is the first-time author of Dating Down (Flux, 2015). From the promotional copy:

At Café Hex, Samantha Henderson can imagine being the person she really wants to be. 

It’s her place to daydream about going to art school and getting away from her politician father. It’s her place to imagine opening herself up to a new kind of connection, away from her family and the drama of high school.


Enter X—the boy she refuses to name. He’s older, edgy, bohemian . . . in short, everything she thinks she needs. 

Her family and friends try to warn her that there may be more to him than she sees, but still she stays with X, even as his chaos threatens to consume them both.


Told in waves of poetry—whispering, crashing—Dating Down is a portrait of exhilaration and pain and the kind of desire that drives a girl to risk everything.

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

I did struggle with how much to tell. My story is about a girl who spirals downward while in a bad relationship. It’s odd because—as far as the drugs and partying—I didn’t feel I needed to censor. But the sex, well, that was the part I wrote around for many edits until finally realizing it just wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t go there. So I did. And it hasn’t been a problem out in the real world with readers.

I guess my new mantra is anytime I take off my seventeen-year-old hat and put on my writer’s hat, I’m doing a disservice to the story.

As someone with a MFA in Writing for Children (and Young Adults), how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students/graduates in making the transition between school and publishing as a business?

My MFA made all the difference. I was a sponge while I was at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Time there is an endless source of creative inspiration and information: The lectures and discussions. Talking about books. Why you did or didn’t like a particular one. Turning something in on a monthly basis and knowing someone’s on the other side ready to read it and help you make it better.

All these things gave me “aha” moments. And the people I met were super talented and supportive. I didn’t just gain a degree, I gained lifelong writing friends.

As for advice for other MFA students making the transition, I’d definitely say, know that when you’re creating something that is the creative process. Once you create it and turn it over to an agent or editor that is the business process.

The creative process is personal. The business process isn’t. Learn to separate the two and you will have a much easier time.

Ruby is a vital part of the creative process.

Cover Reveal & Interview: Author Ashley Hope Pérez & Editor Andrew Karre on Out of Darkness

By Ashley Pérez and Andrew Karre
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From the promotional copy of Out of Darkness (Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner, Sept. 2015):

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them.


“No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs.”


They know the people who enforce them.


“They all decided they’d ride out in their sheets and pay Blue a visit.”


But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.


“More than grief, more than anger, there is a need. Someone to blame. Someone to make pay.”


Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history— as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.


The starred Kirkus review of Out of Darkness called it “a powerful, layered tale of forbidden love in times of unrelenting racism,” and Elizabeth Wein, best-selling author of Code Name Verity, had this to say: “The beauty of Pérez’s prose and her surefooted navigation through the dangerous landscape of the East Texas oil field in the late 1930s redeem the fact that anyone who dares read this agonizing, star-crossed love story will end up in about six billion numb and tiny pieces. Absolutely stunning.”

Read on for a conversation between Ashley and her editor, Andrew Karre, who is now executive editor of Dutton Books for Young Readers. 

Ashley and Andrew talk about book covers, challenging boundaries in YA, what happens in the woods of East Texas, and the author-editor collaboration that made Out of Darkness possible.

Ashley Hope Pérez: Since this is also the cover reveal for Out of Darkness, can we start there? I love that we arrived at this design. What do you think it signals to readers?

Andrew Karre: I think it does the jobs of a book cover very well: it is visually arresting from the shelf, and it rewards deeper looks after you’ve read on in the book.

The image of the braid is lovely and intriguing, but once you’ve read the book, the layers begin to emerge.

I also love the uncomfortable separation in “Darkness.” It is not a comfortable cover—and it shouldn’t be.

AHP: I love that you mention the absence of comfort—right now I’m writing an article about the role of discomfort in YA reading experiences. So let’s linger for a moment on the topic of narrative elements that don’t sit easily with readers’ expectations.

Your particular vision of YA—which I’ve always taken as being focused on engaging or deconstructing various ideas of adolescence—gave me license to write the book without worrying about fitting it to a particular YA mold. You’ve never been interested any kind of filter for writing “at” teen readers and instead have gained this incredible reputation as an editor for choosing unusual, boundary-pushing works.

Did Out of Darkness give you a chance to scratch anything off of your boundary-pushing bucket list?

AK: I definitely got to put a check in the box labeled “historical YA that portrays teenagers acting on recognizable sexual appetites.”

AHP: Glad to have helped on that front. I think I was at least a little bit influenced by the workshop on sex in writing that you and Carrie Mesrobian did with teens last year and the insights that came from that.

I took a few items your compelling piece and the list Carrie compiled, and I thought about how they intersected with the private worlds and identities of my characters.

Portraying teen sexuality as a real part of the past was one of the contributions I wanted to make in Out of Darkness.

This is in addition to my general adamancy about the fact that teens are sexual people regardless of how they act on that fact. I find it maddening when people assume that the relative silence around sex in times past somehow amounted to a magical chastity or innocence among teens. That’s an assumption that especially gets applied to women in depictions of the past, I think. I enjoyed researching sexual matters of the period from the book.

AK: I distinctly remember my own delight at discovering some vintage condom packaging.

The kind of tins that held condoms in the 1930s. Image from www.collectorsweekly.com.

AHP: As do I… I think you gleefully tweeted a link to this article full of handy details about prophylactics of the past. For me, beyond the period particulars, there was also the pleasure of thinking about logistics for my characters. The woods in East Texas are notorious for being where you go to do things you don’t want others to know about, but I loved the chance to also show it as a space where a particular kind of possibility unfolds: an interracial love with a definite sexual intensity.

Although I didn’t want to idealize the physical aspect of Wash and Naomi’s relationship, which has an intensity that can be parasitic on their emotional connection at times, there’s also a sweetness to what they give each other.

So, we did some important work around the idea of teen sexuality in days gone by. What other boundaries do you see Out of Darkness testing?

AK: Well, the book pushed a bit at my personal definition of YA, which is novels about people experiencing the various social constructs of teenageness. For example, I don’t think Wash and Naomi are teenagers in the sense of your typical YA character. Because of their races, they’re not afforded the leisure we associate with teenagers. They are adults in many significant ways, but they do overlap with modern teenage-ness (in the form of all the white high school kids) and I found this deeply fascinating and illuminating. Your execution of these characters casts a bright light on the white privilege at the heart of that teenage-ness.

I also saw that you had set yourself an enormous challenge with the character of Naomi’s stepfather Henry. The book would fail if you let him simply be a racist monster. You had to make him a deeply flawed human who behaves monstrously—a considerably taller order and one that makes the book harder for some readers, though I think ultimately more satisfying.

AHP: I remember several important conversations with you that helped me to find and capture the humanity, however distorted, in Henry. I went through a similar process to uncover the complex character of the pastor who initially encourages him to bring the kids to East Texas and then has to buoy him up repeatedly in the role of father. The evolution of characters is more memorable, maybe, but the editorial back and forth was just as critical to the development of the narrative and stylistic choices that make this book what it is.

You’ve managed to be my ideal reader three times now. Each time we’ve worked on a book, the questions or challenges you presented me with opened the right doors for me in revision so that I could help the story grow into what it was supposed to be. Dark magic aside, how do you do that?

AK: I have no idea, but it’s my only useful skill, so I’m glad it works. Good editing is about building a little space where an author’s best work can happen. (And it has to be a little space, because books don’t happen by committee.) The minimum qualifications are understanding, nurturing, and—when necessary—reminding the author of the original vision.

AHP: That little space is a gift to writers. I think you must also have a kind of special sight that allows you to see submerged possibilities, both in a manuscript and in the writer herself. I feel like this was especially true in how you responded to Out of Darkness. I mean, it was such a different case from What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012)(both Carolrhoda Lab), both of which are contemporary realistic fiction and arrived to you somewhat resembling their final form. And then there was Out of Darkness…

AK: Out of Darkness is the best of what can happen when an author and an editor have a good working relationship. Honestly, if at any point after our first two books you’d told me about the school explosion and your eagerness to use it as an entry point for a story about race and class and love and family, I would have been in. I knew we could work well together, and I wanted to do so again.

At least 294 people were killed in the New London, Texas, school
explosion. Chaos after the explosion and the destruction of all school
documents made an exact count impossible. Image from the London Museum
archives.

AHP: It’s true that you didn’t even flinch when my agent sent you a manuscript that filled a ream of paper. Or at least you didn’t let on that you flinched. I think the first complete draft weighed in at 200,000 words.

AK: I’m glad that you sent those 200,000 words. Even though I knew we were years away from a book, the scale of that draft gave me a sense of how committed you were to a project somewhat more ambitious than our first two. And I knew you would match my effort, so I didn’t worry about how much work it would be or whether you were prepared to explore some difficult places.

AHP: There was some serious cutting, reshaping, and expanding that happened over those years… and a ton of collaboration to develop the vision for what the novel would become. Did your expectations evolve over those years we went back and forth?

AK: I don’t think my expectations evolved much, given how high they were to begin with. This is a book that could obviously only exist on a fairly significant scale and scope.

As you know, I dearly love short, circumscribed stories of unusual individuals. This was never going to be such a book—or maybe better said it was several such books tightly braided together and making a still greater whole. My job was to see that from the beginning and work like hell to make sure we never compromised. (We didn’t.)

AHP: I’m grateful for that. I felt all along the way that I had just enough space to grow to be the writer who could handle whatever challenge we’d set for a round of revision.

Looking back, I realize that you probably read this manuscript at least five times as we were working through that process. Am I some kind of crazy outlier, or do you find yourself going through comparable iterations with other authors?

Ashley’s writing process. Crucial tools: writer’s
notebook, Scrivener, paper, pen, scissors, and tape.

AK: You’re not a crazy outlier, except perhaps in terms of length of first draft.

With some authors, I’ve gone through more drafts, others fewer. Ideally, they all get a similar level of attention, but sometimes that attention takes different forms.

AHP: You also do this thing where you don’t force a change but you plant a seed that makes it possible for me, on my own, to wholly embrace that change. That probably happens dozens of times in a book, but I distinctly remember at one point discussing the author’s note for Out of Darkness.

There was this line in it that more or less sounded to you like an apology for the intensity and tragedy of the novel, and you gave me the courage to cut it. I think you said something like, “you shouldn’t apologize for making your readers feel deeply.”

AK: The longer I do this, the more I’m convinced that the only reliable indicator of a book’s durability and quality is whether it elicits strong feelings in the reader. Whatever those feelings may be, if they are present, then the book is doing something right.

I get more upset by indifferent reviews than I do by strongly negative ones. A.S. King and I were talking just a couple weeks ago about a Goodreads review for her first novel, where the reviewer thinks she’s angry at the book—thinks she’s writing a bad review—but by the end of the review both of us agreed that the reviewer got exactly what we’d hoped from the book: very strong feelings. We didn’t take issue with a single point from the review.

Polite people generally apologize for causing emotional distress in others, so I’m never surprised to see a line like the one you cut. But I always try to remind the author that emotional distress is what the reader is paying for.

AHP: There’s an intensity and darkness to Out of Darkness that connects it to The Knife and the Butterfly, but I also feel like both novels leave room for hope, too. Does that resonate with you? Or do you see the works differently?

AK: I do absolutely find a hopeful quality in all your books. It’s hard earned and never more so than in this book. Brokenness and injustice are things I find in your work, but you also have a faith in human resilience that balances the brutality. That’s hope.

AHP: Hope is a thing with me. It’s literally my middle name, so how could it not be?

There are some books, like Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2014), that are so full of promise and hope that you can’t miss it. I mean, that’s a novel set in the 1980s where two gay, Mexican-American boys discover and embrace their love for each other in part because of the support they receive from their parents. Ben finds ways to tell stories that get to the heart of growth and healing without being sentimental.

In Out of Darkness, I’d say that the possibility for hope depends on a certain kind of commitment from the reader. Or maybe what the novel does is create an appetite for hope—an authentic desire for life possibilities that go beyond what the characters achieve. My characters improvise wholeness, cobble together a family, but it can’t hold.

AK: There is something so, so gorgeous in the magical little family Wash, Naomi, Cari, and Beto make for themselves. Yes, it cannot possibly survive, but the short spring of that incredible family is unbearably and eternally beautiful.

Sabine River and the East Texas woods where Wash, Naomi, and the twins improvise a family. Image by Michael Gras.

AHP: That does sound like grounds for hope. Readers might only wish for things to be different for Wash, Naomi, and the twins as they’re reading, but maybe that wish can turn into something like a broader awareness that an unconventional family can have a rightness to it that is just as fundamental as any biological family. That’s one possibility I see in the novel when I think about it as a reader or lit professor rather than a writer. I try not to do that too much because it’s not the lit professor in me who runs the show when I’m writing.

My academic work has a place in my heart and my brain, but the novels I’ve written take up a lot more space. They’re like houses I once lived in but have had to leave behind. Each one is unique, and I have a distinct sense of what it felt like to be inside them, what the building and repairs and maintenance cost me.

I have favorite spaces, too, passages that, at least in my imagination, are where I felt most at home as a writer, most myself.

Is there anything comparable for you when you think about the books you’ve edited? What’s their afterlife like?

AK: I find myself remembering the process more than the book itself. I mean, I can recall the books as needed, but the pleasant memories that come unbidden are more about the experience of working on the book—the editing on my own, the phone conversations, the emails, the lunches. It’s as close as I get to old army buddies.

AHP: I look forward to reenlisting for another tour of duty. I’ll take the pen over the sword any day.

Cynsational Notes 

Find Ashley online at www.ashleyperez.com, where her blog is full of writerly and readerly insights, or at www.latinosinkidlit.com, where she’s part of a team of bloggers working to get the word out about awesome kid lit by Latina/o authors or about Latina/o experiences.

Follow her on Twitter (@ashleyhopeperez) and on Facebook.

Also follow Carolrhoda Lab on Twitter (@CarolrhodaLab) and Facebook for news and reviews of Out of Darkness and other fantastic Carolrhoda Lab titles.

Andrew Karre keeps us all entertained and informed from Twitter via @andrewkarre.

Librarians, bloggers, booksellers, reviewers, and teacher types: don’t forget to go to netgalley.com by the end of July to request an advance read of Out of Darkness.

Giveaway & New Voice: Melody Maysonet on A Work of Art

Excerpt

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melody Maysonet
is the first time author of A Work of Art (Merit, 2015)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Tera is seventeen, shy, and artistically gifted. Her hero and mentor is her father, a famous graphic artist who also protects her from her depressed, overly critical mother. 

But Tera’s universe is turned upside down the day the police arrest her father for an unspeakable crime. 

Tera desperately wants to believe his arrest is a mistake, and since her mother is no help at all, Tera goes into action, searching for legal counsel and sacrificing her future at art school to help him. 

But under the surface of her attempts at rescue, there are rifts in Tera’s memories that make her wonder: Could he be guilty?

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how best to approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

The main character in my novel is a seventeen-year-old girl named Tera. During the course of the novel, she has sex for the first time, experiments with drugs, and nearly gets caught up in a threesome—all while dealing with stifled memories of sexual abuse by her father (who, by the way, has been arrested for a sexual crime).

For a YA book, it doesn’t get much edgier than that.

My first attempts at writing the abuse scenes only touched the surface of what Tera went through. In the back of my mind, I was constantly aware of a teenage audience. How far could I go before I crossed a line? At the same time, I had to recall my first sexual experiences and my own experiments with drugs. I couldn’t help wondering what my friends and family would think of me.

And then I took a writing workshop taught by Jamie Morris and Joyce Sweeney. I remember Jamie talking about how we had to explore the depths of our psyches and go deep within ourselves to find what’s raw. I remember Joyce saying how every one of us has a story that only we could tell—and if we say to ourselves, “I’m never going to write about that,” then maybe that’s what we need to be writing.

Writers are readers.

It was during this workshop that I wrote my first flashback chapter, where nine-year-old Tera is being photographed by her father in a way that no child should ever be photographed.

During the workshop, we all read aloud what we had written. My hands literally shook as I read my piece. I got choked up while I was reading, and when I was done, I wanted to bawl. That’s when I knew I’d nailed it.

After that, I still worried that my book would be deemed inappropriate for teens, but reading Crank by Ellen Hopkins (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010) and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 1999) helped alleviate those fears. So did finding an agent who believed in the story and an editor who wanted to publish it.

More recently, I got another form of validation when I attended a workshop led by Andrew Karre, then editorial director of Lerner Publishing Group (now at Dutton). His topic? “Don’t Overthink Audience.” According to Karre, we shouldn’t write for readers of a certain age.

Instead, we should write about characters of a certain age—because if you write a good story, the audience will sort itself out.

Melody’s assistants

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?

When I started writing A Work of Art, finding the right voice was the thing I struggled with most.

Maybe
that’s because my novel was originally intended for an adult audience.
My early drafts were in third person, and my main character was
nineteen.

Comments on voice

When my critique group convinced me that my story might be more relevant if I made the main character younger, I took their advice and changed Tera’s age to seventeen.

Pretty soon, I discovered that writing from a seventeen-year-old’s point-of view is a lot harder than it seems—at least it was for me. After all, I hadn’t been in high school for more than twenty-five years. My son was still in single digits. And no matter how many teen conversations I eavesdropped on, my character’s voice wasn’t ringing true.

I tried imitating the sarcastic teenage voice that popped up in so much YA fiction, but it came off sounding unnatural. I also tried capturing my inner teen, and although that helped, I still found myself slipping into the voice of a forty-something-year-old woman.

The whole time I was trying to pin down my character’s voice, my critique group kept telling me that my protagonist felt distant and maybe I should write the book in first person.

I resisted, mostly because I’d already written and rewritten the first hundred pages and I couldn’t stomach the thought of rewriting them yet again. (Yeah, I know.) Finally, though, I took their advice and wrote my next chapter in first person.

Wow, what a difference! So I finished the draft in first person and then went back to the first hundred pages. Converting from third person to first person was a lot harder than changing all the “she’s” to “I’s.” Suddenly phrases like: “I gazed at my father’s painting” sounded way too adult.

Melody’s office

Somehow, I needed to completely immerse myself in the head of a teenage girl.

That’s when I started reading as much young-adult fiction as I could get my hands on.

Two books that broke something open in me were Ellen’s Crank and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (Macmillan, 1986). There are others, but these two books in particular transported me into the heads of much younger people and I found myself studying how the authors did it.

As I wrote and revised A Work of Art, I never stopped studying voice, whether through reading YA fiction, taking workshops, or eavesdropping on teen conversations. I knew I’d made progress, but I still felt that voice was my weakest area.

While I was still revising, an editor from a YA publishing house critiqued my first chapter. The editor went through his checklist, commenting on dialogue, plot, point-of-view…

When he got to voice, I braced myself for the worst.

“The voice comes through strongly,” he told me.

Really? Did he just say that?

A few months later, another editor told me the voice was “great.” And while both of these editors passed on publishing my book, they gave me two things I very much needed: the confidence to keep going, and the drive to keep learning.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three copies of A Work of Art by Melody Maysonet (Merit, 2015). Author sponsored. U.S. only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

2015 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Author & Diversity Advocate Marieke Nijkamp

By Mina Witteman
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Marieke Nijkamp is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, and diversity advocate.

She holds degrees in philosophy, history, and medieval studies, and wants to grow up to be a queer time traveler.

In the midnight hours of the day, Marieke writes stories full of hope and heartbreak.

She is proud to be the founder of DiversifYA and VP for We Need Diverse Books™. (But all views are her own.)

Find her on Twitter @mariekeyn.

She was interviewed by Mina Witteman for the SCBWI Europolitan Conference.

Could you tell us a little more about We Need Diverse Books?

We Need Diverse Books is a grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature. We Need Diverse Books is committed to the ideal that embracing diversity will lead to acceptance, empathy, and ultimately equality.

We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.

Our mission is to promote or amplify diversification efforts and increase visibility for diverse books and authors, with a goal of empowering a wide range of readers in the process.

In order to accomplish our mission, we reach out to individuals and groups involved in many levels of children’s publishing—including (but not limited to) agents, publishers, authors, distributors, booksellers, librarians, educators, parents, and students.”

That is straight from our mission statement, but I feel it sums up who we are and what we do.

WNDB is an organization that works toward making children’s literature and children’s publishing more inclusive, through several programs.

We have our Walter Award, which recognizes the best diverse YA.

We have Walter Grants, to aid up-and-coming diverse writers.

We are creating a program to support publishing interns from marginalized backgrounds.

We also have our WNDB in the Classroom project, which brings diverse books and diverse authors to disadvantaged schools.

And honestly, I could go on.

We have many projects in the works and we are continuously looking for ways to promote and amplify diversity. And that’s what WNDB is too: a team of very, very passionate people, working hard to make change happen.

How has your experience and background prepared you to be effective with this diversity initiative?

As a queer, disabled person, diversity has always been foremost on my mind.

I have used a wheelchair and have been completely ignored. I have used a cane and have been stared at, laughed at, shouted at. I have been told that my love is a sin. I have been excluded. I have felt invisible. I have worked with LGBTQ teens who felt alone and scared and as if the world wasn’t for them. And far, far too often the rest of the world only reinforced that image.

So I know firsthand what discrimination and marginalization feels like. I know all about that anger and frustration and heartbreak and fear. And it’s those experiences that fuel me when working toward better representation, because I know we can do better and should do better. We owe it to ourselves and to each other, because when we work with each other instead of against each other, we can move mountains.

What do you see as the most challenging aspect of bringing diversity into children’s literature?

Aside from institutionalized (and often internalized!) -isms, one of the most challenging aspects is the other side of that feeling that the world isn’t for us: the mindset that books (or any form of stories or art) about marginalized people are only for marginalized people.

Not just for wizards!
Not just for Hobbits!

It stems from the believe that white, straight, non-disabled, middle class is somehow the neutral and relatable to all, whereas “other” characters are only relatable to those readers who share their experiences.

This, of course, means Harry Potter is only of interest to wizards and witches, and The Lord of the Rings finds its audience among the vast populations of Hobbits.

I guess you can see how blatantly absurd it is.

The white, straight, non-disabled, middle class character is no more a neutral character than any. But unlike other characters, the difference is that this particular character has been normalized to the point of becoming the standard. And all of us who do not fit that standard do feel excluded, but are told that feeling is invalid. After all, it’s a neutral.

Or, we are taught that this neutral is somehow the character we ought to aspire to (relate to), which often includes the implicit or explicit belief that being other than is somehow lesser than.

It’s a highly problematic narrative. It’s why for so many disabled characters, the happily ever after involves being healed and becoming “normal” (or why their stories are being told through the point of view of non-disabled characters altogether). It’s why so many queer romances end in tragedy, while the straight romances don’t. It’s why too often, non-white characters are sidekicks (or villains!) not heroes.

Before becoming involved in We Need Diverse Books, you created the website DiversifYA. What prompted you and how can writers and illustrators use DiversifYA?

I created DiversifYA as a way to showcase the many different experiences around us, inside and outside our own communities. I wanted the interviews to show just how rich and varied our experiences are, but also how many of the struggles we face are inherently the same. I wanted to focus on those countless combinations of sameness and difference.

As a result, I think DiversifYA has turned into a great database of experiences. It is by no means a substitute for good research, but it is a starting point for anyone who would like to know more about the world around them.

You write for young adults and middle grade readers, both dark contemporary and epic fantasy. In what specific way has diversity shaped your writing?

In every way, and then some. Growing up, I read many hundreds of books per year, but I rarely saw myself represented in the stories I read. And in those few instances when I did, those reflections were anything but good. The “me”s I read about were only ever lessons for the main characters.

Marginalized characters were stereotypes, caricatures, or comic relief.

It left me a very lonely reader and a very determined writer.

From the very first story I wrote, writing has always been a way for me to explore the world and to create all those stories I couldn’t find. So my stories are populated with characters who were other than the neutral norm but still very much my normal.

Among the four point-of-view characters of my upcoming debut This Is Where It Ends (Sourcebooks Fire, 2016), there are two queer girls, one of them Latina (and her brother is one of the other main characters).

The story I am working on next has genderqueer characters, disabled characters, all as a matter of course–because they reflect the world I live in.

What can we, writers and illustrators of children’s books, do to foster diversity in our work?

  • Think about the world you want in your stories. Who do you want to reflect? How inclusive do you want to be? What assumptions lie at the basis of your story, your world, your characters? What do the choices you make tell your intended audience?
  • Research, research, research. Whether you are part of the marginalized group you write about, but especially when you’re not, research, research, research. Be aware of the tropes. Be aware of the triggers. Talk to people with the same experience, don’t just talk about the experiences.
  • Listen and learn. I don’t believe the books we write exist in a vacuum. We can’t represent marginalized experiences without being aware of a long history of privilege and oppression, and we all have our internalized prejudices. 
  • We are probably going to screw up. I know I have in the past. I know I will in the future. If you end up making mistakes, make them gracefully. Listen to the people who point out what you did wrong and learn from that. It’s the only way we can improve, after all.

Cynsational Notes

This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp is told from the perspective of four teens in a
high school held hostage who all have their own reasons to fear the boy
with the gun. It’s forthcoming from Sourcebooks.

Mina Witteman
is a published author, writing in Dutch and English. She has three
adventurous middle grade novels, over 40 short stories, and a Little
Golden Book out in The Netherlands.

The first volume of
a three-book middle grade series, Boreas and the Seven Seas, is
scheduled to come out in April 2015. She is the Regional Advisor for The
Netherlands and Chairman of the Working Group Children’s Books of the
Dutch Authors Guild.

In addition to writing, Mina teaches creative writing. She is a freelance editor and a mentor to budding writers. She is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Follow her on Twitter @MinaWitteman.

Guest Post: Lindsey Lane on How a Picture Book Author-Playwright-Journalist Became a YA Author

By Lindsey Lane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

It’s opening night. I am sitting in the audience at the debut of a play I had written.

I remember thinking as I watched, “This is as much as I know right now.” It wasn’t a negative thought. I simply knew that this play was the culmination of everything I knew up to that moment.

The next play I wrote would be the sum of more knowledge. I knew that I would learn from each attempt. I knew I would grow every time I came to the page.

And I did.

The thing is, in my career so far as a writer, I have come to a lot of different pages: plays, newspaper and magazine stories, a screenplay, a picture book. I used to look at that pathway and say stuff like, ‘Well, you’ve certainly wandered all over the place.’

Now I look back and I can see that it all made sense. That each page in each genre taught me a bit more. I can see it because in my YA novel–all of those teachers showed up.

My first playwriting professor Len Berkman used to say you need something new to happen every three inches on the page. This doesn’t mean that a bomb drops at the top of the page, a bigger bomb drops half way down the page and then the annihilating bomb drops at the bottom of the page.

No, Len was talking about pacing, about dropping breadcrumbs so that the audience is learning and going deeper into the world of the play with you. His measurement was three inches.

It’s not a bad pace, but I’ve learned to play with it.

Theater also helped hear the voice of a character. It helped me with dialogue and intention. I love revealing character through what they say. How little. How much. I love hearing their secret desires in their words and silences. Dialogue also moves the pace of your writing along.

Journalism helped me probe for truth. I loved interviewing people. I loved watching how they would open up. I would watch how they would avoid certain topics.

From those interviews, I became aware of the lies that certain characters told. We are all tell ourselves lies, some greater than others.

But when I’m developing a story and a character, I always ask them, “What do you not want people to know? What are you hiding? What are you lying to everyone about?”

Answering those questions will often lead me to the emotional arc of the book.

Though I have only had one picture book published, I wrote many more and every time I did, I remember thinking, How can a story with 300-700 words be told so many ways?

That’s the magic of picture books. You have to pare down your storytelling to the bare minimum and then spill it on to the page in such a way that it is light and fresh and surprising.

In my mind, picture books are masterworks. Every time I come to the page now I bring a spareness to my storytelling. And a massive respect for verbs. If you get the right verb in a sentence, it tells a story all on its own.

All of these pages led me to my debut young adult novel Evidence of Things Not Seen (FSG, 2014).

I hope you can hear the theatre in my first person sections.

I hope the pacing makes you turn the page and draws you deeper into the story.

I hope you can see the characters struggle with the truth of their lives in the third person sections.

And I hope you appreciate the spare quality of the writing and all the spaces that allow the reader to enter in.

What’s next? Something, for sure. Because no matter what, I am a writer. And the next page will logically turn after this one.

As always, I’m excited to see what it will be.

Cynsational Screening Room