Guest Post: Deborah Halverson on Viewing Narrative Beats as “Revelatory” Beats in MG/YA Fiction

Deborah Halverson

By Deborah Halverson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

We work hard to get to know our characters.

Creating bios, interviewing them, giving them personality tests. One discovery tool often overlooked in this great pursuit are the small actions tucked into the narrative beats.

Narrative beats are those little breathers in dialogue, sometimes filled simply with speaking tags like he said, she said. They’re rhythmic beats in conversations.

The actions that fill those beats can be priceless character revelations anytime, but especially in our first chapters, during our first drafting.

Alas, often writers fill those breaths with generic filler action. I see this at play when full manuscripts land on my editing desk.

Perhaps we writers drop in those generic actions because we’re so focused on getting the first scenes in place; perhaps we’re just not seeing those beats for the opportunities they are.

Oh, what treasure troves those little actions can be!

Regardless of why we do it, when we plug in filler action, we miss out on revelatory moments—“revelatory beats,” I call them—that can help us get to know our characters sooner and with delicious richness.

Our first step in mining these moments is spotting the filler. The filler in this example is looked:

Beth looked at him. “No. I want to go, too.” 

“Looked” doesn’t reveal anything about Beth. First pages full of similarly bland actions won’t help us get to know who she is. Other fillers include stare, glance, gaze, turn (to), smile, frown, and laugh. Synonyms for these actions creep in, too, like grin, snicker, giggle. The word eyes also appears in a lot of narrative beats, and those eyes are usually staring, looking, glancing….

We can turn these precious moments into opportunities to learn about our characters in our early drafting by pledging not to fill the breathers with generic actions, even when we’re speed-drafting to get the story tacked into place.

When we hold ourselves back like that, when we leave a beat demanding to be filled, our characters will step in to fill it.

Our characters will step up; they will do something that reflects who they are and how they’re feeling at that moment. What they decide to do is our revelatory gem.

What might they do? Click-click-click their pens, perhaps, to reveal they’re jumpy. Maybe they’ll pace, revealing they are particularly physical. Maybe they’ll rewash the same mug over and over and over, showing fastidiousness or revealing a tendency to avoid big things that demand their attention. Maybe they’ll pull out a tissue so they can open a doorknob without touching their flesh to the germy knob.

My pal Beth in the above example might do something to indicate how capable or strongly she feels about going, which in turn might prompt me to rework what I thought she’d say after the beat:

“No.” Beth darted ahead of him and blocked the doorway. “You’re not leaving without me.” 

Little actions, happening in the middle of an exchange with another character, reveal things about characters’ personalities, comfort zones, relationships, mood, and more.

Filling your first draftings with this kind of content instead of looking, or glancing, or brushing the hair out of his eye, helps you get to know your character early.

Revelatory beats may even cause us to alter the dialogue we were about to lay down. I didn’t know Beth was so forceful until I saw what she did in the narrative beat.

Are you wondering if you’re denying yourself those early revelations? Check. In your work-in-progress, do a find-and-replace search for each of the words above, no matter how much you’ve written. Tally up all their synonyms, too, to see how many times you choose the same general filler action. How does that number compare to your page count?

Then add all the filler uses together. How does that number compare to your page count? A manuscript I worked on recently used eye 150 times, look 301 times, and glance 16 times. 467 uses of the same general action, although some surely weren’t in the narrative beats. This wasn’t an unusual discovery, and the manuscript was a good one.

As an editor, I perform this search and tally often. I even have a name for it: The Stop Looking Test.

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For me, the test is an assessment tool to be applied to a finished manuscript. For you, it’s a tool to help you identify if you should make the first-drafting pledge.

Eventually, revelatory beats will become a subconscious part of your drafting style, so you won’t worry about bogging down your quick-drafting.

Not every narrative beat contains an action, of course. Sometimes that breather contains setting details or exposition. But when it’s time for action, we can make the action something revealing about our character so that we—and readers—will get a feel for the characters’ personalities from the very first pages in the book.

They are small moments, but they can add up to a big overall impression. And we all know how important first impressions can be.

Cynsational Notes

Deborah Halverson is the founder of the popular writers’ advice site DearEditor.com and the award-winning author of  Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies (Wiley Publishing, 2011) and Writing New Adult Fiction (Writer’s Digest, 2014), the teen novels Big Mouth (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2008) and Honk If You Hate Me (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2009), the picture book Letters to Santa (illustrated by Pauline Siewert, Becker & Mayer, 2012), and three books in the Remix series for struggling readers (Pearson Canada).

She was an editor at Harcourt Children’s Books and is now a freelance editor specializing in young adult/middle grade fiction, new adult fiction, and picture books.

Deborah has worked with authors—bestsellers, veterans, debut, and aspiring—for twenty years. She also serves on the advisory board for the U.C. San Diego Extension “Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating” certificate program.

Guest Post: Harold Underdown on Line Editing

Harold Underdown

By Harold Underdown
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Eileen Robinson and I have been teaching about revision for several years now through our partnership, Kid’s Book Revisions.

Until recently, we hadn’t taught about line-editing–it seemed too complicated, too messy, for a workshop approach–but we thinking we’ve figured out how to do it. I’d like to tell you why you should learn about line-editing, show what line-editing is and how to do it, give you a couple of exercises to do, and point you to some places where you can learn more about it.

Line-editing is an in-between stage of editing, with developmental editing coming before it and copy-editing after. It’s often done by an in-house editor.

Why should you take the time to learn about it?

I can give you three reasons.

Though there are limits to how objective anyone can be with their own writing, you can use line-editing to make your manuscripts better. You can also trade line-edits with writer friends, as you might do with beta reads, which could help with the objectivity problem.

And as author Jo Knowles pointed out, learning line-editing skills could lead to “freelance editorial opportunities.”

To understand what line-editing is, it helps to know what comes before and after.

Developmental editing comes before–that’s the stage when an editor works with a writer on the big issues, such as plot, characterization, voice, and so on.

After line-editing comes copy-editing, when an editor typically lets go of what’s seen as a finished manuscript, so that it can be prepared for publication by the copy-editor, who typically works on grammar, punctuation, spelling, and the like.

What’s left between those stages?

Editing at the sentence and paragraph level, done line by line (hence the name), covering problems in description, dialogue, pacing, and sentence structure, requiring the line-editor not only to spot specific writing problems but to bring their editorial judgment to bear and ask questions and make comments about focus, clarity, or what’s left in or left out.

The boundaries between these three stages are blurred, of course, but overall, that’s what you can expect as a manuscript moves through them.

Line-editing can be done in one of two ways–on paper or on screen. Line-editing was always done on paper until the arrival of personal computers and electronic workflows, and that approach is still used by some editors today.

Here’s an example courtesy of Emma Dryden, done on a picture book manuscript we provided to her and some other editors as a sample. As you can see, she wants to trim a lot of the text. She has comments, and she has a few suggestions. If she had even more comments, she might have added them on Post-it notes.

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More and more these days, editors like to do their line-editing on screen, using the Track Changes and Comments features in Word.

Just as with line-editing by hand, heavy editing can lead to a confusing visual display, and writers often have to pick carefully through the manuscript to make sense of them. Here’s an example of work that editor Karen Boss did on that same passage, this time on screen.

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As you can see from these two short examples, there’s a lot going on in line-editing, which is why it’s typically learned by young editors in house, in an apprenticeship kind of process, watching more senior editors do it, and then doing it themselves with supervision.

How can you learn to do it on your own?

We think it’s possible to learn via a two-part process, first practicing identifying and fixing specific issues in isolation, and then doing actual line-editing with the help of “mentor examples.”

We are planning to do this in a seven-plus hour workshop this fall, but to give you a feel for it, we’ve got a couple of examples here.

This first example is set up as a puzzle.

We’ve taken a passage from Gail Carson Levine‘s Dave at Night (HarperCollins, 1999) and scrambled it. Your task is to put it back in the correct order. This requires you to think about what sentence makes the most sense as the opening sentence, what would best follow after it, and so on.

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Though this is an artificial exercise, a writer has to make decisions like this in action sequences, so we think it’s a good way to sharpen your thinking around this area.

Once you’ve done your best with the passage, scroll down to see how the passage was actually published. We would agree that other sequences are possible, but see if you can figure out the logic of that sequence.

Why does the first sentence make sense as the first? Why are the second, third, and fourth sentences together, and why in that order?

Continue asking yourself questions like these through to the end.

To line-edit well, of course, editors must do much more than put sentences in the best possible order, fix run-on sentences, eliminate clumsy phrasing, and the like, though doing those things is a required part of line-editing.

Correct sequence for Dave at Night excerpt (click image to enlarge)

Editors must also bring their editorial judgment to bear on a line-by-line basis, and ask questions and make comments to help the writer see where they need to make improvements.

To learn how to do that aspect of line-editing, we believe it’s essential to see actual examples of line-editing being done. As I mentioned previously, as we worked on our course, we asked some editors to provide sample line-edits, and in the course itself we show how multiple editors responded to the same passage.

I will share one example here. Take a look at this sample, which is the opening paragraph for a middle-grade novel with a setting on a planet other than our own–it’s a sort of vacation planet, visited by many different kinds of beings. Shelpa is the main character.

If you encountered this passage, what comments and questions would you have about this as a line-editor?

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Now compare your notes to what editor Marlo Garnsworthy had to say.

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She had a suggestion about the first sentence (as a side note, almost all of the editors we shared the passage with had a comment here–but all of their comments were different!), followed by a clarifying question, a comment phrased as a question, and then a comment on something she liked.

These are good examples of the kinds of things editors do when they line-edit.

As Emma Dryden did by hand in the passage I showed earlier, they may also suggest deletions, re-orderings, and even additions, but engaging with the writer via questions and comments is a large part of the process.

So, where can you go to learn more? There’s no one book that I know of that is “about” line-editing, but I do want to recommend a few for reference:

  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (HarperCollins, 2004): this is aimed at adult writers, but much of the editing it covers is line-editing. 
  • The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 2017): this is more of a reference book, but does have some guidance regarding types of sentences and correct syntax. 
  • The Magic Words by Cheryl Klein (W.W. Norton, 2016): chapter 16 offers an extended and annotated line-editing sample. 
  • A Dash of Style by Noah Lukeman (W.W. Norton, 2016): this crosses over into copy-editing issues but provides help with punctuation, for those who need it.

But if you really want to learn how to line-edit, I hope you will join our class, “An Introduction to the Practical Side and the Mysteries of Line-Editing.” Our first session will be at 8:30 p.m. Eastern  Sept. 26. Registration is still open.

Cynsational Notes

Harold Underdown is an independent editor and publishing consultant; he does critiques, helps to develop manuscripts, does strategic consulting, and provides other services for individuals and publishers.

Harold enjoys teaching, and in that role wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Children’s Book Publishing (Penguin Random House, 2008), now in its third edition. He founded and runs “The Purple Crayon,” a respected website with information about the children’s publishing world.

He speaks and gives workshops through the Highlights Foundation, SCBWI‘s national and regional conferences, and Kid’s Book Revisions (offering online and on-site tutorials, webinars, retreats, and workshops in partnership with Eileen Robinson).

As an in-house editor, he worked at Macmillan, Orchard, and Charlesbridge, and has experience in trade and educational publishing.

Cynsations Return & Author Update: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing, New Releases, Native Voices & Allies

Learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

As an New York Times bestselling author and the creator of Cynsations blog, Cynthia is well known to many. But after reading her upcoming YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9), this summer, I believe readers gain more insight into her earlier years.

The novel draws in part on her experience as a Muscogee (Creek) teen growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City and as a reporter and, later, editor-in-chief on her high school newspaper.

The fictional, contemporary story follows Louise, a senior forced to reconcile how bigotry and racism are coming to a head in her community through her various roles as a tribal citizen, sister, student, reporter, friend and, most definitely, girlfriend.

Cynthia, I welcome you to Cynsations, your own wonderful creation!

From the promotional copy:

When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off immediately and dumps him. It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time on her family and friends and working on the school newspaper.


The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting “The Wizard of Oz” has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town.



From the newly formed “Parents Against Revisionist Theater” to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students—especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man.



As tensions heighten at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey—but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?



Pre-order a signed copy from BookPeople or order at your local store & request a signed bookplate & goodies!

Let’s start with the genre – you’ve crafted a contemporary, realistic young adult novel whereas your more recent novels have been YA fantasy. What prompted the return to a novel with a contemporary Native American teen and her family as the focus? 

I have this theory that where there are secrets, lies or regrets, there are stories. Think about it, in each case, there are stakes, there is nuance and competing interests. Conflict and reversals.

Hearts Unbroken began with a regret, as a novel-length apology to a high school boyfriend. I was an awkward teen (hey, I’m an awkward adult!). When I’m nervous or exhausted, I still babble a bit even though I can absolutely rock a podium with proper preparation.

Bottom line, I said the wrong thing, and I was sorry for decades. There’s a story in that and it’s not all in the book, which is only loosely inspired by what really happened.

How would you describe the story?

It’s a love story wrapped around a school-journalism story, written in an Indigenous style and sensibility. Or at least a hybrid style with strong Indigenous elements.

Enter to win 1 of 10 hardcovers!

The novel is thematically about speech, nodding to journalistic speech, religious speech, political speech, interpersonal speech, hate speech and microaggressions.

Or, put another way, it’s about speech, its blessings and its costs.

Early Native readers have mentioned to me that they see it as about empowering cultural voice, especially given the inclusion of Indigenous language in a daily-life reclamation context.

Big picture, the plot is infuriating and funny and representative and romantic. It’s also a little geeky. All of my stories are at least a little geeky. There’s also terrific kissing.

The narrative goes all in, fully submerging the reader in a Native teen perspective and suburban experience. The depiction of the family relationships is central. Meanwhile, the subplot, centered on the protagonist’s brother, (hopefully) offers more mainstream appeal.

Why did you decide to focus your protagonist on high-school journalism?

Again, personal experience. I was the editor of my high school newspaper and went on to major in news/editorial at the White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. As a student at The University of Michigan Law School, the First Amendment was a major focus of my studies. In my third and final year, I did an independent study on the right to speak (and the right not to) with Professor Lee C. Bollinger, who’s now the president of Columbia University in New York.

No, I didn’t set out to write Hearts Unbroken because news journalists are unfairly under attack right now, but I’m glad it’ll be out there for teens today. I hope it encourages at least a few readers to consider a career in reporting, editing, photo and/or videography.

You are always encouraging Native writers entering the industry. What craft and career advice do you have for those just starting out on this journey?

Get in touch with Native children’s-YA authors who’re agented and/or actively publishing. Read what’s already out there by members of our intertribal community. You’ll be able to gain an up-to-date, in-depth overview at Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Native authors at Kweli, 2016

Visit your local SCBWI regional chapter – attend a conference or workshop or both. They vary from place to place. Hopefully, it’ll be a fit. If not, look for another one that’s driveable.

Make an effort to attend Kweli: The Color of Children’s Literature Conference.

Embrace the study of craft. Seriously, commit. Enroll in workshops – there are a variety on and offline at various price points. Find a solid critique group or partner.

If you want to get an MFA in writing for young readers, write me and we’ll discuss whether it’s the right choice for you. See also my writer resources.

For those who’re allies, how can they support Native voices?

Foremost, be respectful of Native people and cultures in working with young readers. Assume that there are Native kids in your classrooms and communities. They’re everywhere, and so are their peers, who interact with them based on what they learn from the larger society, from you.

Set aside everything you picked up from Hollywood. Treat the political noise out of Washington, D.C. with a hefty amount of suspicion. Forget those construction-paper headdresses you made in first grade for Thanksgiving.

Chris Evans, Hemsworth & Pratt 

Are you used to thinking of yourself as the hero of the story? We routinely see the underrepresentation of some folks but also the overrepresentation of others.

Three of the Marvel superheroes in the last Avengers movie were played by white dudes named Chris. Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Chris Evans as Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor.* And, hey, I enjoyed all of their performances. But no way around it, that’s seriously hefty representation.

Meanwhile, can you name any three on-screen Native girl or women characters from your entire history as a moviegoer? (Bonus points if they’re not animated.)

All of which is to say, when it comes to Native people, you may need to gut check your instinct to cast yourself as the savior.

Understand that you don’t know the history and are probably underestimating the complexity, not only regarding Native cultures but also Indigenous governmental structures and literary forms. The oral tradition is vital, but we have our own relationship to the written word, too.

What else? We’re a growing but small creative community with precious few gatekeepers of our own. Give us a chance to speak and not only about Native and diverse literature, though when we do talk about all that, listen carefully and reflect deeply.

Signal boost our new and existing releases. Advocate for our inclusion throughout the curriculum and book-events circuit, and integrate our titles not only in your Native Heritage Month celebrations but all year long.

Have you ever read a YA novel by a Native woman? Check out Apple in the Middle by debut author Dawn Quigley (North Dakota State University Press, 2018). In no particular order, also be sure to read books by Joseph Bruchac, Tim Tingle, Traci Sorell, Carole Lindstrom, Art Coulson, David A. Robertson, Cheryl Savageau, Lisa Charleyboy, Lee FrancisMonique Gray Smith, Erika T. Wurth, Jenny Kay Dupuis, Richard Van Camp, Arigon StarrKate Hart, Eric Gansworth, Louise ErdrichCherie Dimaline, Daniel Vandever…. I could go on and on, and there are more writers and illustrators on the horizon. See my teacher and librarian resources.

* Just to geek out: Chris Evans also played The Human Torch. Additional white guys named Chris who played superheroes include: Christopher Reeve as Superman; Christian Bale as Batman; Chris O’Donnell as Robin; and I’m giving partial credit to Chris Pine, as Captain Kirk because he also played Steve Trevor in “Wonder Woman” and appeared in “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Is there anything you’d like to say more broadly to writers from any underrepresented group?

In Memory: Nancy Garden

Offer private and public support to one another, especially those of you who’re bigger, more established names or members of groups with a stronger presence.

Years ago, I wrote a Horn Book article about Native humor and storytelling, and Nancy Garden sent in a letter to the editor in support. She was a very early, important voice in the LGBTQ writimg community and understood what it’s like when your numbers are small.

The fact that she took the time and made the effort? It meant the world to me. Still does.

You’ve been a leader in the conversation around diversity during both its ebbs and flows. What aren’t we talking about that we should be? 

From a writing craft perspective, we should focus more on secondary characters and intersecting subject matter. Every single writer must write across identity elements in those contexts. It’s not all about protagonists and the nonfiction focal topics.

More broadly, those of us in children’s-YA writing need to wrap our minds around the fact that we’ve been defaulting to the same white and male storytelling constructs for generations. More than that, those of us who’re writing teachers have been largely insisting upon them. Meanwhile, content-wise, let’s not settle for bite-sized nuggets of representation, tailored to mainstream comfort and expectations. Let’s embrace diversity for real.

This fall marks the paperback release of Feral Pride (Candlewick, 2015, 2018). Could you tell us a little about that story?

Sure! It’s the cap to the Feral trilogy and crosses over its heroes with those from the Tantalize series, which is set in the same universe.

The governor of Texas has been kidnapped by demon snakes and furry hominids (kind of like Bigfoot) and the scoundrels have blamed our heroes, who’re shapeshifters, for the crime.

This is a fantastical construct in which shapeshifters battle bigotry and oppression parallel to what marginalized groups experience in our real world. So, yes, it’s funny and romantic and action-packed and super geeky, but it also speaks through metaphor to ongoing real-world dynamics.

Why did you first launch Cynsations, and how has it evolved over the years?


As I mentioned above, I’m a recovering journalist, and I always wanted to cover good news.

Pre-order Feral Pride in paperback.

(When writers are thinking about where their voice fits into the conversation of books, it’s worthwhile to consider what they enjoy doing and where their strengths lie.)

I entered the field at a time of low morale in the creative community. Publishers weren’t taking many chances on new voices. Celebrity books were all the rage. Madonna said on late-night television that she wrote a children’s book because there weren’t any good ones.

Meanwhile, I was trying to raise awareness of contemporary Native children’s books in a society that had decided Native people were all extinct. (I’m told that’s the answer Texas school children are supposed to provide on standardized tests to any questions asked about Native people: Extinct.)

So, I figured I’d get really 21rst century with it. Show by example that Native people have a present and future.

So, I fired up Cynsations to illuminate new voices, mid-career authors, living legends. Writing by authors and illustrators from underrepresented communities. The business of publishing. The writing life. Craft. The idea was to reach out to writers in a more-than-a-guidebook kind of way, in an encouraging and ongoing conversation.

What do you have coming up next?

My immediate focus is on middle grade projects. I’m especially excited about an anthology of stories by new and established Native voices, set around a contemporary powwow. As for my current novel writing, we’re talking middle grade speculative fiction. I also have another middle-grade realistic short story coming out in another anthology and a couple of poems that will be featured in picture books. Meanwhile, I’m putting thought into what my next project for teens might be.

Beyond that, I’m committed to supporting and signal boosting other voices – underrepresented and/or new and/or reinventing and/or long-established voices, too.

So, write on, Cynsational readers! I believe in you.

Cynsational Notes


Look for Cynthia’s upcoming YA release, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9). If you’d like a signed copy, you can pre-order it from her local independent bookstore, BookPeople, of Austin, Texas. Or, if you’ve already pre-ordered, request a signed bookplate and goodies. The paperback of Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral trilogy)(Candlewick, Oct. 2) is available for pre-order, too.

Giveaways! Are you a high school teacher, YA librarian or Native teen group leader? Check out this classroom-set ARC giveaway of Hearts Unbroken on Twitter! Are you a YA reader? Enter to win one of 10 hardcover copies of Hearts Unbroken from YA and Kids! Book Central.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge Sept. 4, 2018) is her first nonfiction picture book and a 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection. The story, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

See also an interview with Traci from Picture Book Builders. Peek: “First, it needed to be colorful because it’s a four seasons book—so bright and not muted was what I pictured in mind. Second, the illustrations must be culturally accurate. I got my two criteria met and so much more!”

Cynsational Return

From Cynthia Leitich Smith

Sunset at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Welcome back to Cynsations! We hope you had a wonderful summer. My highlights included teaching at the residency of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier and speaking at the annual convention of the American Library Association in New Orleans. Right now, I’m at LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat in Cook, Minnesota.

Here on the blog, we’ll once again be hosting insights from writers at every stage of their creative journey. We’ll look at books that cross borders, publishing as an industry and new releases. We’ll consider various aspects of a writing life.

This semester, we’re moving to more flexibility between four- and five-day posting weeks. But we’re sure you’ll still find plenty to read and reflect on.

Thank you to Cynterns Gayleen Rabakukk and Robin Galbraith for their ongoing efforts.

Thanks to all for returning to Cynsations. We hope you’ll find fruitful inspiration and information in the posts to come.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Emma Dryden on Putting the Internal Editor in a Time-Out

By Emma Dryden
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

An Editor Tries on Her Writer Hat

I’ve been a children’s book editor for over thirty years. Editing’s in my blood. Little else brings me as much joy or satisfaction as coaxing, guiding, and encouraging authors and illustrators to dig deeply and express their truest passions and richest stories.

Over the course of my career, I’ve edited well over 1,000 books, which means I’ve played some small or large part in the creative process for well over 1,000 people.

Throughout the journey, I’ve been asked many times if I ever wanted to write. The long and short answer to that question is “Yes.” But that’s easier said than done.

Being a life-long editor for others comes with a significant downside: I have an aggressive, impatient editor living inside me. She’s tough.

So much so that when serendipitous events occurred and stars aligned for me to co-write a picture book last year, I had to have it out with my internal editor and it wasn’t pretty. I started out nicely, pleadingly, but soon began to rant and swear, begging her to shut up and leave me alone so I could just put down on the page whatever I wanted, without limitation, without question, without suggestion. It’s an understatement to say my internal editor had a hard time turning off. But finally, finally she did shut up and I could start to write.

Maybe it was the looming deadline and my co-author expecting to hear from me that boosted the confidence in the writer part of me to strap my internal editor into the time-out chair. Or maybe it was exhaustion and the writer part of me just didn’t care anymore what those first sentences looked or felt like, as long as there was something on the page. Or maybe it was my trust in the writing process (goodness knows I’ve told hundreds of writers over the years to trust the process!) that eventually forced my internal editor to just darn well wait her turn.

I suspect it was all of these combined that finally allowed me to write with creative adrenaline the words and phrases that would eventually become the score for What Does It Mean to Be An Entrepreneur? (Little Pickle, 2016).

Most artists are not professional editors, but artists are always contending with some sort of internal editor—that nagging, probing questioner; that voice saying something isn’t good enough; that self-doubter.

Writing is a courageous, delicate, and precious act. Creating art of any kind is a courageous, delicate, and precious act.

Editing, eventually, is critical to the process, but not during those early moments of creativity, when the words and the sketches are barely formed and just emerging from the craftsperson’s imagination.

Through the experience of quieting down my internal editor to write What Does It Mean to Be An Entrepreneur?, I received two great gifts. One was that I was reminded of the obligation I have as an editor: To be patient, supportive, and empathetic to the myriad of feelings (euphoria and despair and everything in between!) an author or illustrator is going to be feeling during their creative process.

And the second gift I received is seeing my name in the byline of a book that springs from my own experiences starting a company and of which I couldn’t be more proud. I was in a position not only to co-write the book, but to edit it and assist in design and art direction—it was the best of all possible worlds for me creatively and professionally.

And now I know, when it comes time for me to write some more, exactly where my internal editor’s time-out chair is waiting!

Cynsational Notes

Emma D. Dryden is the founder of drydenbks, a premier children’s editorial and publishing consultancy firm which she established after twenty-five years as a highly regarded children’s book editor and publisher. She works with authors, illustrators, start-ups, publishers, and app developers.

Emma has edited over a thousand books for children and young readers and during her tenure with Atheneum and McElderry Books, many of her titles hit bestseller lists in USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and other national publications, and have received numerous awards and medals, including the Newbery Medal, Newbery Honor, and Caldecott Honor. Emma’s on the Advisory Board of SCBWI and speaks around the world on craft, the digital landscape, and reinvention.

Her blog “Our Stories, Ourselves” explores the intertwined themes of life and writing. She can be followed online at Twitter @drydenbks, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three signed copies of What Does It Mean to Be An Entrepreneur? by Rana DiOrio and Emma D. Dryden, and illustrated by Ken Min (Little Pickle, 2016). Author sponsored. U.S. only.

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Guest Post: Linda Covella on Going Indie: Tips & Advice on Self-Publishing in the YA Book Market

By Linda Covella
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Thinking of going indie?

Self-publishing can be a fun, exciting, and rewarding endeavor. But get ready for an eclectic collection of hats, because you’ll be wearing many. It’s important to realize you’re selling a product that should be of the highest quality.

Here are some tips and resources to help you through the process.

Editing

By the time you’re ready to publish, you should have already gone through developmental editing of concept, character, and plot issues. Now, you need a proofreader/copy editor.

Don’t rely on a random friend or relative. Keep self-published books a strong and respected force in the market by having your manuscripts edited professionally or by a trusted, experienced critique partner. (Whenever you hire an outside service, be sure to have a contract.) See my list of editors from author recommendations.

Tip: Other indie authors can be a great resource for any self-publishing questions.

Cover Design

Your cover should be unique while blending with other books in your genre (a fine line to walk).

There are three cover options:

DIY: Royalty-free images are available online, such as this site, which you can use to design your cover.

Pre-made covers. Google “pre-made book covers,” and you’ll find quite a few.

Custom cover design. I’ve compiled a list of recommended cover designers. Bibliocrunch and Girl Friday Productions offer editing, cover design, and other help for indies on a budget.

ISBN

Do you need an ISBN (International Standard Book Number)?

Not necessarily, but most retailers and publishers require one. (Amazon.com does not.)

With an ISBN, your book will be more discover-able by readers, bookstores, and libraries.

Currently the price for an ISBN (purchased through Bowker) is $125—not cheap. And you need one for the ebook and paperback of each title. If you plan to publish several books, you can buy them in bulk at greatly reduced prices; they never expire. Some businesses buy ISBNs in large quantities so they can then sell them at reduced cost.

There’s some controversy about the validity of these or “free” ISBNs, so obtain one from a reputable source. See Joel Friedlander’s article on ISBNs and the ISBN website.

Formatting and Publishing

Depending on where you decide to publish your book, you may need help formatting your manuscript. It’s free and easy to publish ebooks through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), and they accept Word docs. Amazon’s print service, Createspace, is free and requires only a PDF. They also offer professional publishing services.

Smashwords is an ebook publisher, accepts Word docs, but has a style guide that must be followed.

Smashwords has distribution agreements with all major online retailers and with Baker&Taylor, which libraries use to purchase books.

Draft2Digital publishes ebook and print books. They accept simple Word docs with no style guide to follow. They offer editing and cover design as well, and distribution agreements.

Smashwords or Draft2Digital? Here’s one blogger’s analysis.

IngramSpark is a print and ebook publisher with distribution agreements. They have a style guide to follow, and you may need a professional formatter. See blogger Linda Austin on IngramSpark vs. Createspace (book doctor Stacey Aaronson says it’s beneficial to use both)!

Pricing

To price your book, check other books in your genre. A common price for ebooks is $3.99.

The freebie can be a good marketing tool when you have a series: offer the first book for free in the hope that the reader will buy the other books in the series.

Experiment with pricing; see where that “sweet point” is. Just remember, you’ve worked hard and deserve to be paid a reasonable price.

Marketing and Promotion

Once you’ve published your book, the real work begins. As an indie book publisher, marketing and promoting is a never-ending job! Here are some tips and resources:

Local schools, libraries, and bookstores. Ask if libraries and bookstores will carry your book. Contact schools to do author visits. Author Alexis O’Neill’s blog is a great resource on school visits.

Subscribe to newsletters for publishing news, tips, classes, freebies, and generally “knowing your industry.” Some good ones are:

Follow blogs, including those of your favorite YA authors. If you use WordPress, you can follow tags in your reader to find others with similar interests. Good blogs for self-publishing include:

  • Chris McMullen. Lots of info on Amazon, other self-publishing tips.
  • Bookbaby (another ebook and print book publisher). They had a recent Twitter chat with YA author Lauren Lynne.
  • IngramSpark has a blog on their website with self-publishing information.
  • Of course, Cynthia’s blog, Cynsations!

Guest blog on YA authors’ blogs. Most bloggers love having guest posts. Come up with an interesting topic and ask!

Join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), check the website for resources, sign up for their newsletter, and get involved in your local chapter (you can join forces with other authors for book signings, etc.).

Use Social Media

  • Get your books noticed through accounts on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, and other social media sites.
  • Join some young adult author and reader groups on Facebook and Goodreads to meet and learn from other YA authors, and to expose your books to readers.
  • Create a website. Pay someone or DIY with sites such as WordPress.com and Wix. This article showcases some “stellar” author websites.

Reviews

It’s tough for indie authors to get reviews. Ask for reviews on your website and social media. Put a request at the end of your books. Here’s one list of bloggers who review books. Though the title says middle grade literature, most will also review YA books.

Ginger

Do a blog tour (usually done when your book is newly published), and many of the bloggers will review your book. These businesses, among others, handle blog tours. Some specifically target YA audiences, but be sure to pick a blog tour company that lines your book up with YA bloggers.

Enter contests. Prizes can add credibility to and exposure for your books. There are many free contests and others, such as RONE, Chanticleer, and Literary Classics, have entrance fees. These three all have YA categories. And, of course, there are the biggies from ALA. See which awards accept indie books.

Advertise. Occasionally having a sale on your book and advertising can help boost visibility. Advertising prices and results vary. Most, if not all, of these promotional sites have YA categories. Missing from the list, but popular with authors, are The Fussy Librarian and Bookbub (expensive, but results can be worth it).

Self-publishing has lost its earlier stigma of “vanity publishing,” and readers are embracing indie authors and their books. Indies have discovered the advantages of self-publishing: control over content and cover design, higher royalties, and quicker time to market.

Do the research, put out a quality product, work on marketing, and you can find success and satisfaction as an indie author.

Cynsational Notes

Linda Covella’s varied background and education (an AA degrees in art, an AS degree in mechanical drafting & design, and a BS degree in Manufacturing Management) have led her down many paths and enriched her life experiences. But one thing she never strayed from is her love of writing.

Her first official publication was a restaurant review column for a local newspaper. But when she published articles for various children’s magazines, she realized she’d found her niche: writing for children. She hopes to bring to kids and teens the feelings books gave her when she was a child: the worlds they opened, the things they taught, the feelings they expressed.

She is a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She lives in Santa Cruz with her husband, Charlie, and dog, Ginger.

No matter what new paths Linda may travel down, she sees her writing as a lifelong joy and commitment.
Find Linda at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Goodreads, Pinterest and YouTube.

Guest Interview: Kate Hosford & Cynthia Levinson: Children’s Authors & Circus Fans (Part I)

By Cynthia Levinson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Kate Hosford’s book, Feeding the Flying Fanellis and Other Poems from a Circus Chef, illustrated by Cosei Kawa (Carolrhoda, 2015), is a complete delight.

The concept of combining cooking with circus is genius. Both activities are popular with and appealing to kids, and food brings circus, which can feel exotic and other-worldly, down to earth for children.

On top of that, the rhymes are varied, and the poetry is both fun and informative. The ringmaster’s meals are in his top hat! The juggler is growing thin because he juggles his food rather than eating it! Readers will empathize with a homesick strongman.

And, perhaps best of all, Kate conveys the true message of circus: “Everyone’s invited.”

Keep flying, Kate!

Why did you choose to write about a circus chef?

As a former dancer and gymnast, I’ve always been intrigued by circus, but when I was growing up in Vermont there were not yet opportunities for teenagers to participate in circus arts.

This changed while I was in college; in 1987, the Vermont-based Circus Smirkus, was founded, and in 1989, my father’s non-profit Project Harmony organized a youth exchange between Circus Smirkus and a circus from Tbilisi, Georgia.

I later went on to see many more amazing performances by Circus Smirkus, as well as shows by the Big Apple Circus, and Cirque de Soleil. I am also a fan of contemporary circus productions such as those from the Montreal troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main (the 7 Fingers of the Hand.) I saw their show Traces ten times in 2012!

My interest in chefs probably resulted from the fact that I developed food intolerances in my thirties and had to live on a restricted diet. Food suddenly became a complicated part of my life, and I fantasized about having a personal chef who could cook for me, leaving me to free to focus on other things.

When I was about thirty-five, I began to write picture books. My first attempt was a story about a chef with a morbid fear of onions, and my second was story about a rooftop circus. However, it took another eight years until I decided to combine these interests and write about a circus chef.

Andrew Levy, Circus Smirkus chef

Once I started researching actual circus chefs, I was hooked. There were stories about stilt walkers from Trinidad who covered all their food in ketchup, Russian performers who put mayonnaise on every dish, and if the shipments of animal food didn’t arrive, the chef would have to bake bread for elephants, and feed the tigers meat from their freezers.

At first I thought maybe I should write a nonfiction book about circus chefs, but the desire to make up my own circus won out.

I loved the idea of a chef who would have to cater to different kinds of performers with a variety of dietary and emotional needs.

After trying to write about a circus chef in a picture book format, I eventually switched to poetry, and decided to write from the chef’s point of view. After that, the initial poems came quite quickly, but it took another four years to revise them.

As part of my Fanellis book promotion, I interviewed Andrew Levy, the wonderful Circus Smirkus chef. (That interview will be on my website soon!)

Can you talk about the editing process of the book?

I first presented these poems as a workshop piece at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I received my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. The feedback was positive, so I continued to work on the poems in my fourth semester with poet Julie Larios. I will always be grateful to Julie for holding me to a high standard, while also helping me tap in to my whimsical side.

After Carolrhoda Books acquired the manuscript, I wanted to explore various poetic forms such as the triolet, pantoum and double dactyl. Editor Anna Cavallo was helpful and patient as I tried out countless versions of each poem. While these particular forms did not make it into the book, I did make sure that I had a collection with varied rhyme schemes and rhythmic patterns. It was also important to me that the poems were interwoven, so that a character introduced in one poem might make a cameo appearance in another poem. I guess this was my form of world-building.

I also showed an earlier draft of the poems to Circus Smirkus founder Rob Mermin. At that time, the collection contained a poem about a clown who was a bad-mannered buffoon. Rob encouraged me to create a poem about a refined clown, who more accurately reflected the ethos of circus clowning. I threw out my original clown poem and wrote a new poem about a sophisticated and well-mannered clown who is conflicted about having to throw pies.

Aside from that change, the cast of characters mostly remained the same throughout the editing process. The only character who didn’t make the cut was a unicyclist who couldn’t stop long enough to eat.

What do you love about Cosei Kawa’s illustrations?

I love the fact that the pictures are complex and completely original. I haven’t come across another illustrator who has a style even remotely similar to Cosei’s. His take on the circus is surreal, and I think there is a lot there for children to discover upon repeated readings of the poems.

I also love the fact that many of the images have depth to them, and his use of wacky perspectives complements the eccentric personalities of the performers.

What are some of your upcoming projects?

I am working on a couple more poetry collections, which also have interrelated poems. I have five or six picture books in process, and am beginning middle grade novel about ballet. I have now started ballet lessons, and have to stand in the middle of the class so that I always have someone to follow!

Guest Post & Giveaway: Ann Angel on The Power of Secrets in Things I’ll Never Say

Ann Angel

By Ann Angel
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Right about the time I pitched my first anthology, a writer friend said she’d hate that sort of work.

“It would be so time-consuming to read all those stories,” she said. “I can’t imagine having to edit all that content and you’ll have to write all that front and back matter and it will take away from your own writing.”

Even though everything she said is true, I love editing anthologies. The reading can sometimes feel overwhelming and selecting stories is time consuming; editing requires right-brained analytic work and lots and lots of analyzing and thinking and rethinking.

While editing anthologies takes huge chunks of time away from personal writing time, there are so many good reasons to take them on.

Anthologies provide diverse viewpoints on a single topic, and they provide broad and unexpected stories in a single volume.

The best reason I choose to edit an anthology is that I get to take a topic that has far reaching consequences and bring varied perspectives into the world of young adults. This varied perspective provides young adults the benefit of observing a variety of responses to a single concept while also helping them figure out how they might think about and respond to the concept themselves.

That wider view is what motivated me to take on media’s perspective of beauty with my first anthology, Such a Pretty Face, Short Stories About Beauty (Abrams, 2007).

More recently, after volunteering at a writing workshop for survivors of domestic violence and trafficking, I was motivated to take on the idea that secrets shape who we are and who we will become in the anthology Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves (Candlewick, 2015).

The best part of reading stories for this project was to realize the many layers of secrets. It appears some secrets can be innocent while others hold us hostage to the person whose secret we share. Secrets can be playful and funny or dark and dangerous.

I had expected some of the stories of secrets to show that keeping secrets can shame us into permanent silence.

But I was delighted to receive funny and sweet stories. Cynthia Leitich Smith wrote about an angel falling in love with her tale of Josh in “Cupid’s Beaux.” Although the humor was a bit darker, Ron Koertge’s “Call Me” developed the California voice of a wild teen girl who hides a slew of secret boyfriends from one another.

In contrast, I was heartbroken by the story of a girl who hides her mother’s hording in “The We-Are-Like-Everybody-Else Game” by Ellen Wittlinger. Other heartbreaks portraying the power of our secrets can be found in Louise Hawes’ “When We Were Wild” and Kerry Cohen’s “Partial Reinforcement.”

I learned the power of reporting a secret to protect a friend in “A Thousand Words,” from Varian Johnson. Chris Lynch’s “Lucky Buoy” showed that the darkest secret’s power is diminished if you reveal it to just one person who cares, while Mary Ann Rodman’s “Easter” was a sensitive portrayal of a teen choosing to keep the secret of adoption for his baby boy.

Ann with fellow author P.J. Hoover at Texas Book Festival

Another reason I like editing anthologies is that each call for stories allows me to glimpse inside each writer’s diverse creative process around a singular topic or similar concept.

While writers might all begin heading toward a similar plot problem, I’ve observed that the most cliché idea takes on a new un-clichéd life through distinct characters or in the way the story is set and carried out.

For instance, two writers might take on a secret surrounding sexuality, but the story takes on new life if it’s set in a fantastical world which occurs in Katie Moran’s “Little Wolf and the Iron Pin” as well as in Zoe Marriott’s “Storm Clouds Fleeing from the Wind.”

Other times writers push the envelope on a story so that readers get a glimpse inside the most dysfunctional—and well hidden–moments in a family which is what E.M. Kokie did with her story “Quick Change,” Kekla Magoon accomplished in “For a Moment Underground,” and J.L. Powers did in “A Crossroads.”

In observing how different writers’ work their minds around a problem, and in closely observing how they craft action and scene around the concept, it shouldn’t be a surprise that each writer brings his or her own sensibility to a story, almost always turning it into an intensely personal experience that resonates with readers.

With fellow alumnae Sarah Aronson at VCFA

One of the most pleasant surprised about this anthology was seeing the cover for the first time. Created by collage artist Wayne Brezinka, this cover made me tear up over the rich and layered depiction of our secret stories.

This anthology also demonstrated the power of sharing our gifts and secrets. The teaching authors included were asked to invite one past student to submit a story for possible selection.

In the end, the selected story is the heartbreaking tale of a girl who parents her own mother and protects her little sister from a family secret. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to erase the image of a teenager dancing a slow waltz to Meatloaf songs with her drunken mother. While erica l. kaufman’s “Three-Four Time” may be one of her first publications, watch for this talented writer’s future work, as it won’t be her last.

Finally, I wrote a story based upon an idea that came out of the workshop that spawned this anthology. “We Were Together” looks at what happens when a boy loves girls too much. I have to admit I was seriously pleased when one of Candlewick’s editors responded that it’s refreshing to read something from the jerk’s perspective.

I hope you find each story refreshing, emotionally resonant and a great joy to read.

Cynsational Notes

Ann Angel loves the world of young adults and writes both fiction and nonfiction for this group. She is the author of the 2011 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award winner Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing (Abrams, 2010) among many other biographies.

Her most recent biography, for younger audiences, is Adopted Like Me, My Book of Adopted Heroes (Kingsley, 2013). Previously, she served as contributing editor for the anthology Such a Pretty Face, Short Stories About Beauty (Abrams, 2007).

A graduate of Vermont College’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Ann directs the English Graduate Program and teaches writing at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee where she lives with her family. She was drawn to this idea of Things I’ll Never Say because she believes that the secret self is often the true self.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of  Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015). Publisher sponsored. U.S. only. From the promotional copy:

Fifteen top young-adult authors let us in on provocative secrets in a fascinating collection that will have readers talking.


A baby no one knows about. A dangerous hidden identity. Off-limits hookups. A parent whose problems your friends won’t understand. 

Everyone keeps secrets—from themselves, from their families, from their friends—and secrets have a habit of shaping the lives around them. 

Acclaimed author Ann Angel brings together some of today’s most gifted YA authors to explore, in a variety of genres, the nature of secrets: Do they make you stronger or weaker? Do they alter your world when revealed? Do they divide your life into what you’ll tell and what you won’t? 

The one thing these diverse stories share is a glimpse into the secret self we all keep hidden.

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