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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Guest Post & Giveaway: Lisa Papademetriou on Finding the Right Perspective: A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic

By Lisa Papademetriou
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

One day, I was at the grocery store with my daughter when I spotted a crazy man in the car beside ours.

Zara was very small, perhaps three years old, she watched while he sat in his car, talking to himself, as I unpacked the groceries.

When I finally sat behind the wheel, I tried to ignore the man, fearing that she would be frightened or concerned.

Instead, she looked at me and explained, “He’s praying.”

When I looked again, I realized that she was right. The man had on a skullcap—he was in his car, praying to Allah. When your religion calls on you to pray five times a day, sometimes the best, most private place is in the car.

My daughter knows that because her grandmother is an observant Muslim, and has prayed in our car on numerous occasions. To Zara, this is perfectly normal. This is the essence of point of view.

Three years ago, I began work on A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic (HarperCollins, 2015). The story is about two girls—one in Texas, one in Pakistan—who each find a copy of a magic book.

Thematically, I was writing about the way in which stories unite us, so the dual setting and protagonists were very important to me. My husband is from Pakistan, and we travel there fairly often. I had been hoping to write the story from the point of view of someone like my daughter, who is very familiar with the culture.

But an
early reader felt that, despite the compelling Pakistani setting, Leila’s point of view simply didn’t feel convincing. This reader told me that I needed to discover the story that was in my own heart. Put another way, I had to find the common ground between Leila’s perspective and my own.

I am a Greek American, but I am far more American than Greek. When I traveled to Greece as an adult, people could tell right away that I was Greek. But when they discovered that I didn’t speak Greek, they were disappointed.

“That is a shame,” a cabdriver in Thessaloniki told me, frowning.

Yet, in the iconography of the Greek churches I visited, I would see faces that looked like mine. In many ways, Greece felt like home to me, but it also felt intensely foreign.

This is also how I exist among my in-laws when I visit Pakistan—they accept me as family. In fact, they sometimes accept me so thoroughly that they forget that I don’t speak Urdu, or know what holiday we are celebrating, or even have any idea what clothes are appropriate for different occasions. To them, these things are all second nature, while for me, they are constant sources of confusion and gaffes. I belong, and yet I don’t.

These were the experiences I drew on when I created Leila’s character in A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic. She is a Pakistani-American girl, but she is far more American than Pakistani. She is trying to navigate the space in which the culture is her heritage, but it is not familiar. Like me, she is an insider-outsider.

Acknowledging my own perspective helped guide me toward the story I could most authentically tell. Happily, a number of reviewers who are also Americans with family outside of the United States have noted that Leila’s story arc feels relatable and familiar.

I started by writing about the ways in which stories can connect us to one another. In writing the story of my heart, I learned how true that is.

Cynsational Screening Room


The Story Behind the Story: A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic from PixelEdge on Vimeo.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two signed copies of A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic by Lisa Papademetriou (HarperCollins, 2015), plus a special handwritten letter from a character in the book. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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Giveaway: The Radiant Road by Katherine Catmull

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win a signed, (optionally) personalized copy of The Radiant Road by Katherine Catmull (Dutton, 2016). Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America only.

From the promotional copy:

And sometimes the Strange came to visit Clare, and dreams walked through her waking life.

Clare Macleod and her father are returning to Ireland to the house where she was born: a house under a green hill, with a tree inside it.


Inside the tree, she finds long-forgotten companions of her childhood: a world made of living lights, and a boy named Finn.


But unless Clare and Finn can defeat an ancient, furious foe, their two worlds will be ripped apart, severing the human world from art and dreams forever.


An adventure story about finding the courage to make—to write, draw, invent, dream–and the courage to throw yourself on what you fear and let it bear you up, the way the wind bears up the birds.


There is no safety, and so we must touch and be touched, and we must fall and fly.

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Guest Post & Giveaway: Greg Leitich Smith on Time Travel & Tracking Dinosaurs

Borrowed Time launch party at BookPeople in Austin

By Greg Leitich Smith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There’s a line from the first “Jurassic Park” movie to the effect that the place has all the problems of a major theme park and a major zoo.

I sort of feel the same way about writing time travel fiction: You have all the major problems of historical fiction and all the major problems of science fiction/fantasy.

And in writing a dinosaur time travel novel, I found, to my surprise, that of the two, the more problematic one has been the historical – dinosaur — aspect.

We are seeing new discoveries and new interpretations of dinosaur behavior and evolution almost weekly. In publishing, of course, there can be up to a two-year lead time from a sale of a manuscript to its publication. A lot can happen in that time.

For example, there is a dinosaur called Tsintaosaurus – long thought to have had a single horn coming out of its head like a unicorn. In 2013, however, a study was published that concluded that the “horn” was placed in the wrong position and Tsintaosaurus didn’t resemble a unicorn at all. Any manuscript set for publication that featured the unicorn became instantly outdated.

Sometimes, though, the science is less settled, as in the case of Nanotyrannus. Nanotyrannus is a name that was assigned to a specimen of a dinosaur that resembles Tyrannosaurus rex but is somewhat smaller (Hence “nano”). Although some of the evidence is ambiguous, some recent analyses suggest that Nanotyrannus was just a juvenile T.rex.

(That said, there are new specimens that some paleontologists believe may prove the existence of Nanotyrannus that have yet to be fully examined).

So, what’s an author to do?

Do your research until it hurts. For me, this involves getting as many primary sources as possible. In the case of paleontology, this means journals such as PloS One, Cretaceous Research, and the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

I tend not to trust media reports of new discoveries but sometimes they link to or you can infer a link to the original article. Most articles on the new discoveries will have a recap of past thinking on an issue.

Know your point of view. Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012) and Borrowed Time (Clarion 2015) both feature a small tyrannosaur the point-of-view protagonist Max calls Nanotyrannus. Max does mention the ambiguity in the naming (because he’s slightly pedantic), but nevertheless continues to call it Nanotyrannus throughout.

Why? Well, first, “Nanotyrannus” is kind of a cool name and continually referring to the animal as “the juvenile T.rex” would’ve been clunky. Also, he didn’t have the wherewithal to perform an analysis of the creature to determine what species it actually was…

Don’t be afraid to make an informed judgment call – in fiction, at least, there’s room for poetic license. And, besides, the science might catch up to you. Both Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time feature a variety of dinosaurs of differing sizes in the dromaeosaur family (These are the “raptor” dinosaurs made familiar by “Jurassic Park”).

In the location and era the book is set, however, the bones of only small raptors have been recovered, although there are some ambiguous teeth believed to be from larger raptors. Consequently, in the books, I feature different-sized species of raptor. And recently, paleontologists announced the discovery of Dakotaraptor, a giant-sized “raptor” dinosaur – somewhat larger than the raptors from “Jurassic Park” — from the same era in which my books are set.

What’s a reader to do?

I tend to be the type of reader who gets annoyed by factual errors. They trip me up and make me less trusting of the author and less willing to suspend disbelief. So here’s my strategy:

Whenever I pick up a book for the first time, I always look at the first publication date (often the copyright date). I had assumed that everyone did this or learned to do this, and was surprised when I was informed this was not so.

But the original date of publication will give you a heads up on the mindset of the author, the era in which he is writing, and what facts are known (or should have been known) to him or her at the time.

For example, Arthur Conan Doyle’s portrayal of sluggish and scaly dinosaurs in The Lost World (published 1912) is very different from the active and intelligent predators in Michael Crichton’s Lost World (1995). But I’m willing to accept Conan Doyle’s portrayal because of the era in which he was writing. (I’m also willing to accept Crichton’s featherless raptors because his book was published prior to the discovery that raptors had feathers).

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win signed copies of Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time by Greg Leitich Smith (both Clarion). Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

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Author Interview & Giveaway: Angela Cerrito on The Safest Lie

“The Power of Poetry,” an award-winning play!

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Welcome back, Cynsations reporter Angela Cerrito, and congratulations on the release of The Safest Lie (Holiday House, 2015). Could you tell us a little about the novel and what inspired you to write it? 

The Safest Lie follows the fictional Anna Bauman attempting to hide her Jewish identity and pass herself off as Anna Karwolska in Warsaw Poland during WWII. She confronts many of the same hardships and horrors children actually faced during the war. 

I was inspired to write about Anna when I learned of Irena Sendler’s covert operations to rescue children from the Warsaw ghetto.

How did you approach the research?

First, I read everything I could get my hands on in English. Next, I relied on translators to help me translate documents from Polish and German.

I applied for and was awarded an SCBWI grant that allowed me to travel to Poland for research. In Warsaw, I was able to study primary sources including testimonies of children recorded when they were staying at a home for Jewish children immediately after the war. Those first-hand accounts, documented so close to the actual events, were extremely valuable to me as a writer.

I was also able to meet and interview Irena Sendler and her biographer Anna Mjeszkowska. Reading extensively prior to the interviews was a great help because it allowed me to go deeper into the subject matter and clear up inconsistencies in my research. Also, like most biographers, Ms. Mieszkowska was very passionate about her work and eager to share research that wasn’t included in the published biography.

What were your biggest challenges in terms of craft and framing the story for young readers?

Excerpt & Educator’s Guide

You’ve asked the question I repeatedly asked myself while writing this novel. How can I possibly write this story for such young readers?

I was determined to be honest, completely honest, yet it was important that I use language and experiences appropriate for young readers. This was a difficult balance. 

Some of the early versions were too bleak. Yet, there were some things I couldn’t change and still portray what children actually faced.

Over time I was able to have Anna learn about things that happened to other children rather than experience them herself. Also, as the many revisions turned into an actual novel, there was more of Anna’s past, before the war.

The turning point for me was when one of my versions introduced Jacob as a more significant character. This prompted me to explore more of Anna’s past and helped give the book the balance of honest yet hopeful.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?

Advice for historical fiction writers would be the same as advice for any writer: write what you want to write in your very own way. No one else can feel your stories, no one else can imagine your words. Write.

How was writing your sophomore novel different from writing your debut, The End of the Line (Holiday House, 2011)?

I actually wrote the first draft of The Safest Lie before I finished The End of the Line. The writing process wasn’t significantly different, although The Safest Lie required many more drafts. And obviously from the long time from start to finish I took many breaks from the novel along the way.

Though the two novels are very different: The End of the Line is contemporary and features a boy protagonist at a school for troubled youth while The Safest Lie is historical and follows a girl protagonist hiding in plain sight.

They have much in common. Both characters long for their family and are struggling with identity. Robbie and Anna are both trying to find a way to be the person they were before. In Robbie’s case, he can’t forgive himself for Ryan’s death and wants to be, in his words, normal again. Anna, wishes she could be her true self though her very life depends on hiding her identity. I enjoy exploring the internal emotional conflicts of characters and their struggles with identity.

You’re involved in SCBWI International and the Bologna Book Fair! Can you tell us more about your related efforts? 

The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is very special to me. It was the very first SCBWI event that I ever attended. The SCBWI presence in Bologna has grown and we now have an exhibitor’s booth where SCBWI members, from anywhere in the world, can display their recently published PAL books. There is also an SCBWI Bologna Illustrators’ Gallery.

In 2016, we will display the top illustrations and for the first time ever we will have a People’s Choice Award where visitors to the SCBWI exhibit at the fair will vote on their favorite illustrations.

Cynsational Notes

Angela Cerrito (@angelacerrito) is an author and playwright. Her newly released novel, The Safest Lie (Holiday House, Fall 2015) is based on research in Warsaw, Poland including interviewing Irena Sendler, a mastermind spy in the Polish Resistance who rescued 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto. 

Her debut novel, The End of the Line (Holiday House 2011), about a boy coming to terms with his role in the death of a friend, received many awards including VOYA’s Top of the Top Shelf, a YALSA Quick Pick and a Westchester Fiction Honor Award. Her play, “The Power of Poetry,” was awarded the Best Play Audience Choice award at the 2015 IMCOM Europe new play festival. Angela is a Cynsations reporter, covering Europe & beyond.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a bookplate-signed copy of The Safest Lie by Angela Cerrito (Holiday House, 2015). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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Guest Post & Giveaway: Lyn Miller-Lachmann on Presenting Contested Histories in Fiction

Dana on Writing from the Marrow

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Last spring I interviewed Dana Walrath about her debut YA novel Like Water on Stone (Delacorte, 2014), a story of the Armenian genocide told from the perspective of three child survivors and an eagle that observes all.

The comments that I received on my review of this novel revealed that this is still a contested history, especially among some Turkish Muslims who continue to deny the genocide.

My own novel Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015) addresses a contested history as well, that of the Pinochet regime in Chile. By the time the Chilean people voted General Pinochet out in a 1988 plebiscite, he’d been favored to win, his name had become synonymous worldwide with assassination, torture, and censorship.

Yet nearly ten years after his death, many Chileans continue to see the seventeen years of his rule as a time of stability and prosperity. They see the human rights violations as a necessary cost of a radical economic restructuring that has made Chile a prosperous nation. My husband’s uncle in Santiago happens to be one of those people.

Tina’s family has a different point of view. Pinochet’s forces imprisoned and tortured her father, a human rights activist and socialist, and left him disabled. But I could not write this novel without thoroughly researching and taking into account the other side.

Just as Like Water on Stone shows through the father’s musical trio that not all Turkish Muslims supported the genocide, Surviving Santiago offers a character, Tina’s aunt, who appreciates the country’s economic growth under the dictatorship while condemning oppression in all its forms.

Cynsational Giveaway

Moonbeam Award Gold Medalist

Enter to win one of two signed copies of Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015). From the promotional copy: 

To sixteen-year-old Tina Aguilar, love is the center of her world with its warmth and ability to make a place into a home. Thus, Tina is less than thrilled to return to her birthplace of Santiago, Chile, for the first time in eight years to visit her father, the man who betrayed her and her mother’s love through his political obsession and alcoholism. 

Tina is not surprised to find Papá physically disabled from his time as a political prisoner, but she is disappointed and confused by his constant avoidance of her company. So when Frankie, a mysterious, crush-worthy boy, shows interest in her, Tina does not hesitate to embrace his affection.


However, Frankie’s reason for being in Tina’s neighborhood is far from incidental or innocent, and the web of deception surrounding Tina begins to spin out of control. Tina’s heart is already in turmoil, but adding her and her family’s survival into the mix brings her to the edge of truth and discovery.


Romance and intrigue intertwine in Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s coming-of-age story set amidst the tense anticipation at the end of the Pinochet regime in 1989. Fans of Gringolandia will recognize the Aguilar family as they continue their story of survival and redemption.

Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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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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Guest Post & Giveaway: Beth Revis on: Paper Hearts: Some Writing Advice

 By Beth Revis
 for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Beth Note: Don’t miss out on the giveaway at the end of this post. And remember all orders of Paper Hearts made before Nov. 15 from Malaprops will come with a special gift–see details below! 

 

You can win a journal with this cover!

I wrote Paper Hearts: Some Writing Advice for the writer I used to be. The questions I used to have plagued me when I was starting this career path.  

How do I get to the end? What’s the proper way to structure a novel–is there even a proper way? How do I make my book stand out from all the other ones on submission?

Now, fifteen years, eleven unpublished books, three New York Times bestsellers, one self published book, and countless hours working on craft and working with other professionals, I think I finally have the answers that I needed way back then.

Unfortunately, I can’t travel back in time.

But what I can do is try to help others. I’ve been compiling articles on the things I’ve learned about writing, publishing, and marketing for years, first informally on blog posts, then collectively on Wattpad.

After hitting 100,000 reads, I realized that I should take Paper Hearts more seriously…and that I had not one book, but three.

Fully revised and expanded, the Paper Hearts series will feature three volumes, one each on writing, publishing, and marketing. Paper Hearts, Volume 1: Some Writing Advice will be out on November 1, with the other two following in December and January.

Pre-order it now from: Independent Bookstore ~ Amazon ~ BN ~  Kobo ~ Smashwords

About the Book

Your enemy is the blank page.

When it comes to writing, there’s no wrong way to get words on paper.
But it’s not always easy to make the ink flow. Paper Hearts: Some
Writing Advice won’t make writing any simpler, but it may help spark
your imagination and get your hands back on the keyboard.


Practical Advice Meets Real Experience
With information that takes you from common mistakes in grammar to detailed charts on story structure, Paper Hearts describes:
  • How to Develop Character, Plot, and World
  • What Common Advice You Should Ignore
  • What Advice Actually Helps
  • How to Develop a Novel
  • The Basics of Grammar, Style, and Tone 
  • Four Practical Methods of Charting Story Structure
  • How to Get Critiques and Revise Your Novel
  • How to Deal with Failure
  • And much more!
Plus, more than 25 “What to do if” scenarios to help writers navigate problems in writing from a New York Times Bestselling author who’s written more than 2 million words of fiction.

Beth Note:
if you pre-order the print copy from my local indie bookstore,
Malaprops, you’ll also get a chapbook of the best writing advice from 12
beloved and bestselling YA authors included for free!


Paper Hearts Excerpt

Write What You Know

Probably the most clichéd and oft-used phrase for any writer is the old adage, “write what you know.”

So how did I end up writing a novel that takes place hundreds of years in the future, on a spaceship populated by genetically modified people heading to a planet that might not really exist? It’s definitely not something I “know.”

Typically, we don’t really “know” our stories. Or, at least, I don’t. I’ve never been the youngest person on a spaceship, but I do know what it’s like to not fit in. I’ve never had my parents cryogenically frozen, but I still remember that moment when I realized that I’d grown up and was no longer under their safe protection.

Many times it seems that people who aspire to write teen fiction are more focused on writing teenagers than on writing characters who behave realistically. They will often do research on the outward appearances: clothing, slang, mannerisms. Very often, this is where they trip up, because that’s not the important stuff.

Focus on the stuff you know—the stuff everyone knows. We have all experienced the same things most teens have experienced: first love, first heartbreak, betrayal and fear, joy, sorrow.

This is what the writer must know—and if the writer knows this, then everything else—the characters, the plot, the world—will fall in place.

Find the beating heart of the story. Invention is a wonderful thing—a necessary thing when it comes to writing. You need to have invention, but, somewhere beneath everything that you create, you also have to write what you know. Not literally. Emotionally.

Cynsational Notes 
Beth Revis is the New York Times bestselling author of the Across the Universe trilogy, as well as The Body Electric, Paper Hearts, and the forthcoming A World Without You.

She lives in the Appalachian mountains with her boys: one husband, one son, and two very large dogs.

Find out more on Facebook, Twitter, or online.

Sign up for her newsletter.

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Giveaway: Mysteries of Cove, Vol. 1: Fires of Invention by J. Scott Savage

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win one of two copies of Mysteries of Cove, Vol. 1: Fires of Invention by J. Scott Savage (Shadow Mountain, 2015). From the promotional copy:

Trenton Colman is exceptionally creative with a knack for all things mechanical. But his talents are viewed with suspicion in Cove, a steam-powered city built inside a mountain. In Cove, creativity is a crime and “invention” is a curse word.


Kallista Babbage is a repair technician and daughter of the notorious Leo Babbage, who died in an explosion—an event the leaders of Cove point to as an example of the danger of creativity.


Working together, Trenton and Kallista learn that Leo Babbage was developing a secret project before he perished. Following clues he left behind, they begin to assemble a strange machine that is unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. They soon discover that what they are building may threaten every truth their city is founded on—and quite possibly their very lives.

Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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

Teen Julie

By Julie Chibbaro
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

“I learned a bad word today.”


I asked her, “Is it terrible?”


“It’s awful, horrible.”


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


“What is it?” I asked.


She said, “Prejudice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


“I’ve got one out of four,” I said.



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


“Frida Kahlo’s a girl.”



“Married to a famous dude.”



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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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