Intern Insights: Kate Pentecost on Four Writing Tips from My Boy Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro
(image from The Shape of Water media kit)

by Kate Pentecost 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro has been My Boy for a long time, way before his monster romance The Shape of Water took home Best Picture and Best Director at the 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony and was nominated for scores of others.

He’s My Boy in that way that some musicians are Your Boy (or Girl, or otherwise.)

I vibe with what he makes, for the most part, and immediately buy and love pretty much anything he puts out.

I love Guillermo del Toro.

My husband and I even cosplayed as characters from his recent kaiju movie, Pacific Rim.

Kate and husband cosplay Pacific Rim characters.

But Guillermo del Toro is a lot of people’s Boy. His films are beloved worldwide. They resonate with people all over the world, and as he has risen in prestige, he has proven, time and again, that “genre” films can be just as emotionally resonant and human as the most heart-tugging realistic biopic. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from him, no matter whether we write “genre” or realism.

1. Know your roots (to break with tradition in a meaningful way)

If Guillermo del Toro is one thing, it is well read in his field. Famously so.

He has spent a long time reading and appreciating important pieces of literature and watching important films in the genres in which he creates.
Because of his extensive study (notice I said “study” not “reading”) in fairy tales and fantasy, he was able to create his groundbreaking film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a fairy tale interconnected with the Spanish Civil War.

He created a story which follows the structure of a Grimm or Perrault-style fairy tale flawlessly. But because of his study and expertise, he also successfully broke with tradition and created something really unique.

This comes with the other half of the film, which centers on the protagonist’s struggles in real-world Spanish Civil War era Spain. The story in the real world runs parallel to the story in the fairy tale world that Ofelia, the protagonist, wishes she could escape to. This blend of the classic and the new lends several more layers of meaning and a beautiful raw ambiguity to the ending.

Moral of the story: know the roots of your genre. Become an expert on the rules of whatever genre you’re working in, so you can understand when and how to break or amend them.

2. Craft monsters carefully, even human ones.

Guillermo del Toro is extremely well-known for his creature design. Just look at any of his designs from “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Pacific Rim,” or “The Shape of Water.” But his designs aren’t just pretty. They mean something.

For example, in “Pan’s Labyrinth” (yes, I’m coming back to that for a moment) one of the most terrifying creatures is the Pale Man. Would you believe that this monster is meant to portray something larger than itself?

These are del Toro’s own words on the matter:

 “The Pale Man represents all institutional evil feeding on the helpless.
It’s not accidental that he is A) pale B) a man. He is thriving now.”
– Guillermo del Toro via Twitter. @realGDT

The Pale Man
(image from Pan’s Labyrinth media kit)

And it makes sense. He is a pale, vicious, mute creature who refuses to let anything be taken from a table heaping with more food than he could possibly enjoy.

He is a character who attacks and consumes those weaker than him whom he believes pose a threat to his table of plenty. And is that not the story of Western imperialism?

But it’s not only del Toro’s villainous monsters that we can take notes on.

“The Shape of Water” is a passion project of Guillermo del Toro’s, stemming from a love for the titular creature from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

In his creation of Amphibian Man, del Toro was able to successfully turn expectations on their heads, taking this character from monster to hero and romantic interest.
And design (or for us, description) is how he pulled it off.

Though the character is inhuman, the design focuses on expression and humanity. The character has vibrant colors and pleasing lines rather than murky, gross colors and intimidating angles. He has an expressive face and large, inquisitive eyes. (He also has a scaly six-pack, but, hey, it’s a romance.)

We are easily able to see the humanity within this creature, especially when he’s contrasted with the villain, Richard Strickland.

Strickland’s design is all hard lines and angles, all black and white (mirroring his mentality.) He is toxic masculinity personified. And what better to make that understood than to present him as a tall, classically attractive man in a suit?

This design paired with his actions (cruelty, savagery, being so afraid being seen as weak that he tries to force his severed fingers back onto his body even as they decay) helps us understand the meaning of this monster: that he is afraid of disability, afraid of change, afraid of the world being anything other than how he, a white man in a suit, demands of it.

Michael Shannon as Strickland
(image from The Shape of Water media kit)

All monsters mean something. Be sure you understand what you’re really saying with monsters and villains, and that their description and actions enhance their meaning.

3. Environment Details that Enhance the Story 

Another of the things that Guillermo del Toro is known for is really beautiful, intriguing sets—sets that often have as much of a story to tell as his characters.

In his Gothic, “Crimson Peak,” the heroine is whisked away to a mansion far away to marry a mysterious lord. But when she arrives, she sees that the mansion itself is in quite a state of advanced decay, but the lord and ladies of the house (the lord’s sister lives in the house as well) live around the decay as well as they can.

This house is really something.
Leaves and snow fall through the ceiling into the foyer (which I can’t find a good picture of!) The machinery from the lord’s inventions carve deep into the blood red clay that gives the mansion its name and the movie its title.

These details give new dimension to the “haunted house,” taking it from just a backdrop to a unique character in and of itself: a house that is also a corpse. A house whose decay (in the Gothic tradition) mirrors the protagonist’s own mental or emotional decay. The result is a set that is not just important but vital to the message of the film.

Think about your own settings. Does the baseball field in your realistic young adult novel feel sad, with its sagging, rusted chain link fence and grass so dry it’s gone almost gray? Does the home of an angry step-parent in your middle grade novel feel sharp, full of things like kettles about to boil and couches that seem ready to give way under one’s weight at any moment? Is your setting a character too? Or just a backdrop?

But the last and most important lesson we can learn from Guillermo del Toro is this:

4. Pay attention to your ending. 

Living in the world we’re in right now takes its toll on us every day. The news seems to be growing increasingly bad.

Talks of nuclear war, of shootings, of seemingly unstoppable climate change dominate the airwaves. We are the closest we’ve been to midnight on the Doomsday Clock in half a century. Fear is all but inescapable, and it is tempting to let this fear creep into our writing.

Though Guillermo del Toro is a master of horror, and someone who has seen more than his share of actual dead bodies in Jalisco, his endings are never hopeless. He never goes for the easy, nihilistic, hopelessness that I’ve seen in so many other horror films.

Instead, when asked about his endings, he had this to say:

“I think when we wake up in the morning, we can choose between fear and love.
Every morning. And every morning, if you choose one, that doesn’t define you
until the end… The way you end your story is important. It’s important that we
choose love over fear, because love is the answer.” 

Ivana Baquero as Ofelia
(image from Pan’s Labyrinth media kit)

This quote reminded me of why I write for kids in the first place: to create stories that restore faith in humanity rather than break it.

Am I saying that every ending you ever write has to be happy?

No. Guillermo del Toro’s certainly aren’t all what you’d call “happy.”

All I’m saying is that, in writing for kids in times when everything seems hopeless, it is more vital than ever that the opportunity for happiness, peace and love is present in our endings.

Because it is our responsibility to create worlds that are not hopeless. It is our responsibility to create worlds in which kids can change the world for the better, and we have to understand that above all else.

From monster-punching robots to sexy fish men, to haunted houses to labyrinthine passages into fantasy, My Boy Guillermo del Toro is out there making his mark on the world. And hopefully with these lessons, you can too.

So get out there and write what you love!

Kate Pentecost holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She is obsessed with the Romantic Poets and can be identified by the enormous tattoo of Percy Bysshe Shelley on her arm.

She lives in Houston with her husband.

Kate is the YA author of Elysium Girls (Hyperion, winter 2020).

She is represented by Sara Crowe of Pippin Properties.

New Voice: Hannah West on Kingdom of Ash and Briars

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Hannah West is the first-time author of Kingdom of Ash and Briars (Holiday House, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Building on homages to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jane Austen’s Emma and the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, Hannah West makes a spectacular and wholly original debut.


Bristal, a sixteen-year-old kitchen maid, lands in a fairy tale gone wrong when she discovers she has elicromancer magic in her blood. Elicromancers are an ancient breed of immortal people, but only two remain in Nissera after a bloody civil war. 

Bristal joins the ranks of Brack and Tamarice without knowing that one of them has a dark secret . . . Tamarice is plotting a quest to overthrow the realm’s nobility and take charge herself. 

Together, Bristal and Brack must guard the three kingdoms of Nissera against Tamarice’s black elicromancy. There are cursed princesses to protect, royal alliances to forge and fierce monsters to battle—all with the hope of preserving peace.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

Boy, am I the right person to ask about revisions. When I started querying, I was fresh out of college with no industry knowledge (I studied French) and had a manuscript so thick it could have knocked someone out, no hard cover needed.

Hannah West

After my not-yet agent, Sarah Burnes, initially showed interest, she gave me some revision advice and passed on the manuscript. I made the cuts that she suggested, and continued querying and receiving requests from other agents.

It didn’t occur to me until a few months later that Sarah might actually be open to seeing the revision even though she didn’t explicitly request an R&R.

I’m so glad I thought of that! We ended up signing with a plan to continue revising it pretty heavily (read: cut left and right). We did three rounds, I believe, and then I did a few more with my lovely editor after signing with Holiday House.

I think a huge amount of cutting can be a dangerous thing, as it can really throw off the pace – such a delicate thing to begin with. But I am so so pleased with the result of talented professionals putting me through the ringer. It’s so worth it. The story itself is essentially the same, which goes to show you how many unnecessary words were lurking in that initial submission.

For debut authors, I would say never be too protective of the draft that you submit. It’s actually really freeing to put yourself in the hands of professionals, and if you’re a gifted writer, you can work in their suggestions while still retaining your voice and the aspects you love about the story.

Never react to a hard critique on the spot. Take time to think about it, and you’ll usually find that you agree, or can at least envision a compromise that will improve your work.

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

This brings me to the other Sarah in my life – the one who lives in rural Arkansas with nary a strong internet connection, eating ‘coons for supper (okay, maybe the last one only applies to her church potlucks).

Having a critique partner is a wonderful thing, but having a CP-best-friend is even better. Querying and revising and waiting was a hard phase for me.

I was fresh out of college with only a part-time job, living with my parents, so I had a lot riding on getting an agent and pressing onward (who doesn’t?).

In the hardest moments, Sarah was there, reading my revisions and offering encouragement even though we live in different states. (I hadn’t met her yet when I submitted my abominably large manuscript, so she’s off the hook).

Cynsational Notes

Hannah “lives in the Dallas area with her husband, Vince, and their rambunctious blue heeler, Robb. She proudly writes articles about sustainable living and home renovation for Modernize.com.”

Guest Post: Amy Bearce on World-Building Woes (& Wows)

By Amy Bearce
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Confession: I have a terrible time with world-building. So, naturally, I consistently write fantasy, where world-building is critical.

You gotta be kidding me! Credit: Pixabay, mintchipdesigns, CC0

In real life, I’m not very observant about the space around me. I notice people’s emotions, but not what they are eating or what they are wearing. But in writing, all those little details make a place come alive. And in a fantasy story, they are even more important because readers must trust you to be their guide through an unknown world.

Right this way, please. Credit: Pixabay, InspiredImages, CC0

My first book, Fairy Keeper (Curiosity Quills, 2016), and the sequels are set in the world of Aluvia, full of magical creatures and beasts. Through writing these books, I’ve learned a lot about how world-building works best for me.
When writing about a fantastical world, the phrase, “Write what you know” now has yet another meaning. One way to create new magical creatures is to extrapolate what you know from the real world and tweak it.

My fairies were inspired by bees and have a lot in common with them. My merfolk are bioluminescent like deep sea squid and jellyfish, and in book 3, dragons are awakening from a long hibernation like giant wild bears with wings (and flames.)

As a girl of the plains, I had to watch a lot of documentaries to get a better idea of what was in the deep ocean. As it turns out…pretty amazing stuff! Credit: Pixabay, emdash, CC0

Originally, I had only considered fairies. But as I wrote about my fairy keeper character, soon I had merfolk and dragons and fauns…and had to decide details about each of them. It became apparent that while my world had magic, it was pretty broken. My magical creatures were less magical than many of their traditional representations. But I didn’t start off knowing that.
Essentially, world-building sneaked up on me.

This stealthy kitty is hunting dragons, mermaids, and fairies. Credit:
Pixabay, rihaij, CC0

Others writers build an encyclopedia of knowledge first. Google
“World-Building Tips” and you will receive an avalanche of questions to
answer.

How do people live here? What foods do they eat? What is their religion? Have there been wars? What economic system is used?

Here’s my secret: I hate those questions worse than a pop quiz in math. They almost hurt to ponder.

My expression when trying to answer “world-building questions.” Credit: Gratisography, CC0

I don’t know most of the answers until they suddenly appear in my story. I’m not saying it’s the best way to do it. I do it because creating details about a new world does not come naturally to me. But when my character is walking from point A to B, as I’m writing, my mind fills things in, and it mostly works. Mostly.

There always comes the moment my husband reads it and says, “Hey, these parts don’t make sense.” And he’ll be right. So I change things.

The cost of this build-as-you-go approach means that I often end up with a draft full of contradictory information. There’s a lot of clean up involved. I’m sure it would be easier to build the world before writing anything. But for me, it’s exactly that little stuff that trips me up. Every. Single. Time.

World-building: My own personal banana peel. Credit: Pixabay, stevepb, CC0

The good news is that if I can create an imaginary world with consistent magic rules and an actual map inside the book, you can, too. Don’t let overwhelming questions stop you. Try writing some scenes and see where they take you.

 Be patient, keep writing, and don’t be afraid to change things if you need to. Turn your woes to wow! After all, you are the master of your universe! Own it! Write it! And have fun with it!

Sing it with me: “I’ve got the power!” Credit: Pixabay, Skitterphoto, CC0

Cynsational Notes

Amy Bearce writes stories for tweens and teens. She is a former reading teacher with a Masters in Library Science.

As an Army kid, she moved eight times before she was eighteen, so she feels especially fortunate to be married to her high school sweetheart. Together they’re raising two daughters and are currently living in Germany, though they still call Texas home.

A perfect day for Amy involves rain pattering on the windows, popcorn, and every member of her family curled up in one cozy room reading a good book. Her latest release is Mer-Charmer (Curiosity Quills, 2016).

From the promotional copy:

Fourteen-year-old Phoebe Quinn is surrounded by magic, but she can’t muster any of her own. Her sister is a fairy keeper. Her best friends are merfolk. And all she does is dishes and housework.

When Phoebe finds out a terrible sea creature is awakening that preys upon the gentle merfolk, she resolves to help them, even though it means risking her life deep in the ocean.

Beneath the waves, Phoebe learns she’s more like her sister than she realized. The merfolk are drawn to her, and she can sense the magic of the sea all around her. Magic is finally at her fingertips, but that’s precisely why the stirring dark power under the waters decides it wants her most of all.

Now she must not only help the peaceful merfolk escape this ancient enemy, she must master her out-of-control powers. If she fails, she will die, and darkness will rise to enslave the merfolk once more. But embracing her full power could cost her the very people she loves the most.

New Voice: Kathryn Tanquary on The Night Parade

Discussion Guide & Common Core Teacher Guide

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kathryn Tanquary is the first-time author of The Night Parade (Sourcebooks Fire, 2016). From the promotional copy:

“I thought you might sleep through it.” The creature smiled.


Saki’s voice was little more than a whisper. “Sleep through what?”


It leaned over. She stared into its will-o’-the-wisp eyes.


“The Night Parade, of course.”



The last thing Saki Yamamoto wants to do for her summer vacation is trade in exciting Tokyo for the antiquated rituals and bad cell reception of her grandmother’s village. Preparing for the Obon ceremony is boring. Then the local kids take interest in Saki and she sees an opportunity for some fun, even if it means disrespecting her family’s ancestral shrine on a malicious dare.


But as Saki rings the sacred bell, the darkness shifts. A death curse has been invoked…and Saki has three nights to undo it. With the help of three spirit guides and some unexpected friends, Saki must prove her worth-or say goodbye to the world of the living forever…

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?

Though my protagonist certainly isn’t the most “edgy” in terms of behavior, she does start the story with a pretty big chip on her shoulder.

Saki’s act of rebellion is the catalyst that sets off the main events of the plot, so it had to be significant enough to provoke consequences without losing too much sympathy for her character.

To find this balance, her motivation was the key. From the beginning, Saki is a flawed hero with a lot of internal conflict; she’s trying to manage a toxic adolescent social life and her own need for acceptance from her peers, so it’s understandable when she caves to some of that pressure and makes a few bad decisions.

Making a big mistake may seem like the end of the world to a lot of people—and Saki certainly thinks so in the story—but I decided right from the concept stage that I wanted to deconstruct that idea.
A lot of the books I read growing up had a protagonist with a very strong sense of self, but Saki doesn’t have that yet. Her weaknesses are very human, and sometimes even a little petty. She’s still getting to know the person she’s becoming and that’s okay. Another key theme of the story is forgiveness, and Saki’s journey is all about second chances.

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

Writing longhand in Osaka

The theme certainly evolved as the characters found their voices, but a sense of duality was there from the very beginning: city and country, young and old, modern and traditional, humans and spirits.

Anytime these things are put side-by-side there’s a tendency to pit them against one another. Go one step further and people start to separate themselves based on these perceived qualities.

One of the major themes of Saki’s story is finding the balance. Part of her journey towards self-discovery is recognizing that she can be dynamic and adaptable, and that she can inhabit more than one world at a time. In a world that seems increasingly divided in its thinking, I believe that’s a quality we should all aspire toward.

On a more concrete level, the story speaks to the issues of age, multi-generational families and tradition. Saki understands on some level why some of the rituals her family performs during the Obon holidays are important, but until she has an experience of her own she doesn’t feel as connected to the tradition.

Younger generations worldwide are facing similar experience gaps. The world we live in now is simply not the same as the world our parents and grandparents grew up in, so unless we invest some of our time in communication there is a lot we risk losing. Fittingly, this was one of the themes that took the longest to mature.

In both fantasy and reality, understanding the past is usually the surest way to help prepare for a brighter future.

Guest Post: Alan Cumyn on Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend

Find Alan on Facebook and @acumyn

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Welcome, Alan Cumyn! What was your initial inspiration for Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend (Atheneum, 2016)?

There’s a short answer and a long one. The short: in January 2012, popular YA author Libba Bray gave a speech to over a hundred writers at Vermont College of Fine Arts in which she brought us through the ups and downs of her writing career.

Three times in the course of an hour she said, “Don’t go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel.” She meant that we shouldn’t slavishly follow the trends. But I was struck by the phrase.

When I approached her afterwards and said that I was getting an idea, she encouraged me to follow up, and a little later the whole first chapter, in which the pterodactyl, Pyke, arrives at Vista View High in a calamitous fashion – by landing unceremoniously on the cross-country running champion, Jocelyne Legault – more or less fell out on the page for me.

The longer answer takes me back more than ten years when I was riding a train from Toronto to Ottawa. I had been at some publishing event or other, and was full of the possibility of new stories.

The train rounded a bend and Lake Ontario came into sight. On a rock by the shore a great blue heron, which looked like an ancient creature, pierced me with his gaze. It was the oddest feeling – I felt locked in direct communication with an intelligence not only from another species, but from a vastly different time.

Seconds later the landscape changed, the heron was gone, but I pulled out my pad and scribbled furiously for several pages about a heron who is able to change into a man at will, and who wanders into the big city from time to time almost as a vacation from his usual existence.

After a time I stopped writing because I realized I didn’t know enough about herons to proceed. Over the years, I worked on several versions of this story, and got sidetracked with an interest in Kafka, whose “The Metamorphosis” (1915) famously envisioned a man who wakes up one morning transformed into a bug. I was drawn to the idea of introducing something startlingly unreal and fantastical, but continuing the rest of the story in as realistic a fashion as possible. I was also, like so many others, attracted by the dreamlike nature of Kafka’s writing.

The story morphed and became at least two entirely different novel-length manuscripts that sputtered for various reasons and never quite worked. And then: “Don’t go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel.” I was seized with yet another possibility to work with some of the same ideas and influences, and perhaps not take it so seriously this time.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

U.S. cover art

That first chapter poured out of me within a day or two of hearing Libba Bray speak in January 2012. I sent a full draft to my agent, Ellen Levine, in late December 2013, so it took me about two years to write much of the manuscript.

During most of that time I told nobody what I was working on. I like the freedom to go wherever I want on the page and to fail privately in ridiculous ways if need be.

After that strong opening chapter fell out, I slowly went over that material again and again for clues about how the story must proceed with these characters in the situation they find themselves in.

Before showing the draft to Ellen, of course, I got feedback from my wife Suzanne, and from friends and family, and made it as strong as I could.

Ellen contacted me enthusiastically in February 2014 and I worked on some more revisions for her. She sent it out to publishers in March and, although a lot of editors passed on it, we did get offers in April, with Caitlyn Dlouhy at Atheneum winning out.

I was way up north in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada at the time as writer-in-residence at Berton House when the phone line to New York started to burn up. It was exciting and strange, to be so far away and yet to have such interest suddenly welling up about my unusual pterodactyl novel. (Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, it turns out, is the first novel of mine to be published simultaneously in Canada, the United States, the U.K. and elsewhere.)

U.K. cover art

I got a chance to meet Caitlyn in New York in July 2014, and U.K. editors in September. When I was in New York I also spent time at the Museum of Natural History which just happened to be showing a major exhibit on pterodactyls!

Some of the latest research changed the way I thought about the physicality of Pyke, and made it into the book. A lot of the revisions for Caitlyn involved strengthening middle parts of the story and ending it in a way that stayed true to the characters, and to the strangeness of the whole telling.

Again – I kept going back to the beginning for inspiration. The manuscript was pretty well finalized by April 2015, and I was reviewing galleys in October.

There wasn’t a major crisis or anything, no pitched battles, but Caitlyn and I did have strong discussions about all the characters and themes.

I take it for granted that my creations will feel real to me, but it’s lovely when an editor so fully immerses herself as well.

What were the challenges (literary, research, emotional, logistical) in bringing the story to life?

Nothing about this story was straightforward. On the opening page, Pyke appears as a speck in the sky, and by the end of that chapter he is the first inter-species transfer student in the history of Vista View High.

The initial challenge – how do the students accept him as anything but a monster come to eat the school? – I skirted in my first draft by summarizing the changes in a paragraph or two. It was only fairly late in revision that I realized I needed to show in scene those crucial minutes after Pyke has landed on Jocelyne and then carried her to the school nurse for attention.

Pyke is not the main character, of course – the story actually belongs to the student body chair, Shiels Krane, an A-type leader whose well-ordered plans for her graduation year have nothing to do with dealing with a pterodactyl who steals everyone’s heart, including her own.

In that way I was able to shift the question about believability – if Shiels buys into it, then it’s easier for the reader to believe, too. I did do a lot of background reading on pterodactyls, but in my mind I was treating Pyke as the ultimate bad-boy boyfriend, and that’s part of the fun of the story, watching characters adapt to a ridiculous situation that turns normal and then actually seems familiar.

We do it all the time in real life, just not with pterodactyls! So often writing fiction convincingly is a matter of taking care of the tiny details, making those seem lifelike, so that the huge lies one tells hardly stand out at all.

What made you commit to the writing life? What did you sacrifice for it?

I was very lucky to attend a graduate writing program when I was young, only 24, at the University of Windsor, where my mentor, Alistair MacLeod, happened to be a brilliant writer and terrific teacher. Without that early formation, I’m not sure I would’ve stuck with it, given all the difficulties I had initially in publishing anything at all.

It took me seven years of strong effort after graduation to get a single short story accepted in a literary journal (for which I was paid $50). My first three novel manuscripts were rejected before the fourth was accepted, and even that one sat in the publisher’s office for over a year before I got a yes.

Along the way I decided I was not going to be the sort of writer who lives in a tiny room in the YMCA, turning his back on life so that he might have time to write. I have worked at a number of full-time jobs that, fortunately, also fed my sense of life and society, and so nurtured my writing as well.

But if I hadn’t married and had children, I doubt I would have written for younger audiences. I faced a really tough decision at around age 40 when the excellent government job I had (as a writer and researcher on international human rights for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada) seemed to be too much to handle on top of novel writing as well.

Some of my adult novels were suddenly doing well, and I had to make a choice. It was a big gulp – our children were young, Suzanne had just started a doctorate program, and there was no extra money in case things went badly. So with family support I sacrificed the security of a regular paycheck, but was fortunate enough to have waited until my art was strong enough to withstand the pressures of such a decision.

It was the right thing to do, and I haven’t really looked back, especially since part-time teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts allows me to use my skills, and helps keep the wolf from the door during the inevitable down times in a writing and publishing life.

What about the business of publishing do you wish you could change?

I would love it if editors were not so extraordinarily busy, if they could somehow always keep a sense of the leisure of reading while opening up a new manuscript.

Editors often have crushing workloads and it means “quiet” stories often don’t have a chance to get their attention, they’ve got too many submissions to wade through before going back to their email backlog etc.

I know, it’ll never happen, and the really good editors do find ways to let themselves fall into a story when they read, no matter what their to-do list looks like. But I do think a lot of fine writing is overlooked because of the craziness of today’s schedules.

Cynsational Notes

Alan is the faculty chair of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. See also Video Interview with Alan Cumyn from Indigo Teeen.

Guest Post: Janet S. Fox on Blending History With Fantasy

By Janet S. Fox
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Some of my favorite books ever are the books of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. The fantasy of leaving home and entering a land where a child can experience talking animals, mythological creatures, desperate (and deadly) battles – where a child can be perceived as making real, respected choices – where good deeds are rewarded by kindness and love and bad deeds are punished, but only by “just desserts” – I read these books (and still read them) over and over.

They articulated lessons without didacticism. Included in those lessons were reflections of the real world of the characters, World War II era England, and an interesting Arthurian tilt to the Pevensie children’s experiences of Narnia.

So for me, the young reader, reading these books in America during the post-war years, they had the taste of something “historical” and of course foreign.

And then there were the myths and fairy tales I devoured. The Red Fairy Book, the Anderson and Grimms’s tales, Greek and Roman myths and legends – I read these over and over, too. In my mind history became inextricably linked with the fantastic.

And why shouldn’t it? The truth is that we are all shaped by perception, and even history is subject to personal interpretation. (If you don’t believe me, check out the new hit musical “Hamilton”.)

My first three novels are historical YA romances. When I wrote Faithful (Speak/Penguin, 2010), set in 1904 Yellowstone, I sought to capture the natural magic inherent in that environment of spouting geysers and colorful hot springs.

In my second YA, Forgiven (Speak/Penguin, 2011), I tried to capture the dark magic of the terrible 1906 San Francisco earthquake. By the time I wrote my third YA, Sirens (Speak/Penguin, 2012), set in 1925, I added full-on fantastical elements, including a ghost, an approach I felt was consistent with the 1920s obsession with spiritualism and magic.

I realized that as a writer I was drawing closer and closer to crafting books like the ones that so captivated me as a kid. It has become my goal, now, to try and evoke the same wonder in my readers as I felt when I was young.

Yes, fantasy is my aim, but having written history, I became game to try a blend of the two genres. My newest book, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle (Viking, 2016), is that blend.

It’s set in World War II; the children are sent out of London during the Blitz; there are enigma machines and short-wave radios and even spies. But…there are also ghosts, and magicians, and a ghastly monster, and only magic can save the day (while itself being a double-edged sword.)

Whether writing historical fiction or fantasy, the objective of suspension of disbelief can only be accomplished if the world-building is sound. In historical fiction, that means lots of research to get interesting tidbits right. In fantasy, it means crafting an environment in which those interesting tidbits feel right.

I loved writing The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. I loved being able to play with a world that is both real and fantastical, where terrible and beautiful things did happen, and could happen. I can’t wait to try it again.

New Voice & Giveaway: Paige Britt on The Lost Track of Time

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Paige Britt
is the first-time author of The Lost Track of Time, illustrated by Lee White
(Scholastic, 2015). From the promotional copy:


A magical fantasy, an allegorical cautionary tale, a feast of language, a celebration of creativity–this dazzling debut novel is poised to become a story for the ages.


Penelope is running out of time.


She dreams of being a writer, but how can she pursue her passion when her mother schedules every minute of her life? And how will she ever prove that writing is worthwhile if her mother keeps telling her to “get busy ” and “be more productive”?


Then one day, Penelope discovers a hole in her schedule–an entire day completely unplanned –and she mysteriously falls into it. 

What follows is a mesmerizing journey through the Realm of Possibility where Penelope sets out to find and free the Great Moodler, the one person who may have the answers she seeks. Along the way, she must face an army of Clockworkers, battle the evil Chronos, take a daring Flight of Fancy, and save herself from the grip of time.


Brimming with clever language and masterful wordplay, The Lost Track of Time is a high-stakes adventure that will take you to a place where nothing is impossible and every minute doesn’t count–people do.

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft? What happened, and how did it help you?

Jill Santopolo

I absolutely do have a most memorable workshop! It was actually one you gave in 2008 with Jill Santopolo, author and editor at Philomel Books. Even though it was over seven years ago, I’ve never forgotten it.

The workshop was organized by the Austin SCBWI and hosted by Debbie Gonzales, who was regional advisor at the time.

To register, you had to submit three pages of a work-in-progress. A few weeks before the event, everyone received a packet with copies of all the three-page submissions. Then during the workshop, you and Jill went through each submission and discussed it with the entire group.

You were both kind and encouraging, but also very honest. Jill told us that editors were looking for a reason to say “no” when they read a manuscript. Together you discussed each submission and pointed out the potential “no’s.” Meandering openings, overly long backstory, and hazy plot lines were the most common mistakes.

Even though what you had to say was tough, it was clear you were invested in everyone’s success. You wanted to turn those no’s into yes’s.

Here’s the funny thing. I didn’t even submit my three pages. I registered too late to be a part of the critique, but I went to the workshop anyway. And I’m so glad I did! After the workshop I went home, re-read my three pages, and guess what? They were meandering, “explain-y,” and vague. But because of your input, I could see it. And if I could see it, I could fix it.

Cynthia Leitich Smith & Debbie Gonzales

The Lost Track of Time opens with an alarm clock going off, “Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.” It’s 6 a.m. and even though it’s summer vacation, the main character, Penelope, has to get up and get busy. Right from the start, you know that the central conflict in the story is time.

I did that because of what I learned from you and Jill.

After I fixed my first chapter, I submitted it to two conferences and had sit-down conversations with agents at both. The first agent asked for thirty more pages and the second one, Marietta B. Zacker, signed me. There is absolutely no way that would have happened if I hadn’t gone to that workshop. I’ve always wanted to tell you and Jill how much you helped me!

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

From the beginning, I knew The Lost Track of Time was intimately connected to real-world issues. When I started writing it, I was working for an internet startup. I was constantly on the clock, from morning until night and over the weekends, trying to make the company a success. Everyone was fighting for more time—but no matter what we did, there was never enough. And what time we did have, had to be spent Constantly! Achieving! Results!

Not surprisingly, The Lost Track of Time is about a girl who likes to do nothing. Doing nothing seemed to me like a radical and counter-cultural act. I’m not talking about the nothing where you lie around flipping through TV channels because you’re too exhausted to engage in life.

I’m talking about moodling.

I learned about moodling from Brenda Ueland in her book, If You Want to Write. She writes:

“The imagination needs moodling–long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” 

I agree. When you moodle, you’re quiet, still, and (horrors!) unproductive. You let your mind wander until it becomes calm and curious and open. It’s a space of quiet contemplation and intense creativity.

During this busy time in my life, I had no time for quiet contemplation. But when I discovered Brenda Ueland’s words, I suddenly felt I had permission to sit, stare out the window, and moodle. Not only did I have permission, it was imperative that I do so if I wanted to let my own ideas and stories to “develop and gently shine.”

Ueland’s encouragement that everyone moodle touched me so deeply that she inspired a character in my book. She’s the Great Moodler and Penelope fights the tyranny of Chronos and his Clockworkers to save her from banishment in the Realm of Possibility.

As Penelope faces each trial with both imagination and courage, she moves from being an insecure, apologetic daydreamer to a great moodler in her own right.

Paige Britt

Research shows a marked decline in U.S. children’s creativity, due to a lack of unstructured free time to play and, I would say, to moodle.

This is terrible news! Not just because creativity is wonderful and life-giving, but because it’s the best predictor we have of a child’s future success, not just in the realms of art and literature, but in the world of business, science, and technology, too.

I’m not sure if you can teach creativity, but I do think you can encourage it. And that’s what I wanted to do in The Lost Track of Time.

I wanted to hold up moodlers as heroes.

Not because they can wield a sword, but because they dare, like Penelope, to enter the Realm of Possibility—to live in the present, to be creative and contemplative, and to believe anything is possible.

Paige’s desk

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two signed copies of The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt, illustrated by Lee White
(Scholastic, 2015). Author sponsored. Eligible territory: U.S. 

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Cover Reveal & Author Snapshot: The Changelings by Christina Soontornvat

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover of The Changelings by Christina Soontornvat (Jabberwocky/Sourcebooks, 2016). From the promotional copy:

All Izzy wants is for something interesting to happen in her sleepy little town. But her wish becomes all too real when an enchanting song floats through the woods and lures her little sister Hen into the forest…where she vanishes. 

A frantic search leads to a strange hole in the ground that Izzy enters. But on the other side she discovers that the hole was not a hole, this place is not Earth, and Hen is not lost. She’s been stolen away to the land of Faerie, and it’s up to Izzy to bring her home.


But inside Faerie, trouble is brewing-and Izzy is in way over her head. A ragtag group of outlaw Changelings offers to help, and she must decide whether a boulder that comes to life, a girl that’s not quite solid, and a boy who is also a stag can help her save Hen before it’s too late.

Tell us more about your cover. How did it feel to see it for the first time?

It was a total thrill! When I opened the box of galleys that my publisher sent me, it seemed like the books were absolutely glowing. The cover art makes me want to dive in and see what is behind that door. I hope kids will feel the same way.

The girl on the cover is the main character, Izzy, who journeys into Faerie to find her little sister and bring her home. The three animals are the Changeling children who help her.

The Changelings are shape shifters who can make themselves look like almost anything for a short while. But they can only truly “Change” into a handful of forms – like the stoat, butterfly, and badger on the cover.

The little flying fairies are Pollenings. They play a very tiny, but important, part in the story. (And they make honey that goes great with pancakes!)

What was it like to see your characters depicted on the cover?

I actually didn’t think the cover would feature the characters at all, so it was such a wonderful surprise to see them in the first draft! When I got my first look at Izzy, I thought the artist captured her perfectly. She looks curious and thoughtful, and is having a very human reaction to all the magic around her – a mix of awe and nervousness! I’m sure most of us would feel the same way if we stumbled into Faerie.

I think it was a very wise decision on Sourcebooks’ part to have Izzy be the only human face we see on the cover. The artist could have drawn all the Changelings in their child forms, but I think that would have taken some of the fun away from readers being able to imagine them for themselves.

Tell us more about the cover design process. Where you involved?

The artwork and design were done completely without me – thank goodness! But my editor and art director did ask me for input on the characters, and we went back and forth several times to make sure the details were right and the cover was being true to them.

I am really lucky to have been involved as much as I was. I know that’s not always the case for authors!

I learned so much about covers during this process and the heavy lifting they have to do. The cover has to draw a reader in, give them a feeling for the writing and the story, but without giving too much away. Everything, from the font to the color palette, to the way the art wraps around to the back, contributes to that sense of wonder you want readers to have – before they even start reading.

The cover for The Changelings doesn’t depict an exact scene in the book, but I think it does everything you want a cover to do!

Oh, and there is a secret hidden in the cover as well. But you will have to read the book to figure it out!

Cynsational Notes

Christina Soontornvat spent her childhood in small Texas towns, eagerly waiting for the fairies to come and kidnap her. They never came, but she still believes magic things can happen to ordinary people. When not writing, Christina hangs out in science museums and takes care of her own little goblins-ahem- children. She lives in Austin, Texas. The Changelings is her first novel.

Telling Better Stories: Writing Diverse YA Fantasy

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Of late I had the honor of joining Daniel José Older and Sabaa Tahir in answering questions on Diversity in YA Fantasy from Maggie Reagan from Booklist. My thoughts included:

I’ve had students ask me, “How do I write this without freaking out the white folks?” And yet authors hold back at the peril of young readers. Those who share our perspectives go invalidated, and those who don’t are never exposed and enlightened.

I also noticed a Freudian slip in my comments, and I’m inclined to leave it be. I refer to some allied librarians, insistent on telling (rather than sharing) stories of Native people as two-dimensional, (regretfully) defeated characters uniformly suffering from alcoholism on reservations. But telling is what I really did mean. There aren’t Native children’s-YA writers crafting fiction along those lines, but they’ve taken hold among common misconceptions.

Yet I’m told, time and again, that this stereotype is the single story that resonates. It’s come to stand alongside the “romantic, New-Age-y” stereotype and “historical savage” stereotype. Together and separately, these persistent tropes negate respect, nuance, complexity, humanity, and back to the focus of article, the potential for Native-inclusive children’s-YA fantasy done right.

It’s disheartening to refute, coming from allies. So, if you count yourself among them, please know that you are appreciated. But also be careful of assumptions, however benevolently intended.

See Telling Better Stories: Writing Diverse YA Fantasy.

Giveaway: Author-Signed Poster & The Caretaker’s Guide to Fablehaven by Brandon Mull, illustrated by Brandon Dorman

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win one of two copies of The Caretaker’s Guide to Fablehaven by Brandon Mull (Shadow Mountain, 2015) and an author-signed Fablehaven poster.

Caretakers of magical preserves need to visually identify dozens of mythical and magical creatures. This book will open your eyes to a secret world most humans know nothing about. Study these pages and learn about the many magical artifacts, potions, and weapons that could potentially save your life.


Furthermore, a smart caretaker will need to know how to recognize (and stay away from) the more nefarious creatures found in this book. Most importantly, The Caretaker’s Guide to Fablehaven will give you the inside scoop about other magical preserves around the world, including the most magical and powerful creatures known to ever exist—dragons!


Scattered throughout the book are tidbits of wisdom and counsel from previous caretakers. For example, “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real smart ones learn from the mistakes of others.”


Immerse yourself in the secret knowledge that has been handed down through the generations by reading the handwritten updates and notes scribed in the margins by the former (and current) caretakers of Fablehaven, including Patton Burgess, Grandpa Sorenson, Kendra, and Seth. Fully-illustrated, this unique encyclopedia has gathered the world of Fablehaven into one volume.

Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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