Guest Post: Carmen Oliver: Cover Reveal & How to Create An Author Program That Schools Will Want

Carmen signing her first book contract

By Carmen Oliver
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

You’ve inked your first book sale. Congratulations!

Now, you’re busy getting ready for your big launch date, and you’re beginning to think about doing school visits.

But before you can connect with your student audience, you first have to create a presentation.

If you’re like most authors, this is where you begin to listen to your IE (internal editor), who is nattering incessantly in your ear.

  • You have nothing to say. Zilch. 
  • Everything has already been said. 
  • Why would they want you? You are a nobody. 

And because your IE is great at intimidating you – you begin to believe it and think that maybe they have a point.

Wrong. This couldn’t be further from the truth. You’ve got this. You’re in control.

And the reason why is this….

The key to creating an author program that schools will want is all about tapping into your authenticity. Let me say that again. Authenticity.

So what do I mean by that?

“What Are You Passionate About?” 



Carmen speaking at Sommer Elementary

I’m passionate about making a difference in the world…one word at a time. Serving is one of my gifts.

One of the reasons I joined the Canadian police force known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), at the age of nineteen was that I wanted to contribute to the world in a way that would have a positive impact.

My passion was there, but my focus was misguided.

After I did a lot of soul searching, I remembered how much I loved to tell stories when I was young. And write poetry. And share other people’s stories.

When I realized that I knew I could pour myself into writing books for kids. If I could write stories and create books, then they could, too. I believe that you can follow your dreams no matter how old or young you are. Age is not a factor. It’s not a condition I ever consider. And I also believe in never giving up. That if you set your mind on something, you can accomplish anything.

I think I can, I think I can, I know I can.

Those elements make up my core beliefs. They’re in everything I do. So shouldn’t some of those things be included in my presentations for students? They should, right?

Carmen writing at author Donna Janell Bowman‘s Lake House

What are you passionate about? What matters to you?

Just like our stories – what you have to say matters. So spend some time thinking about this and journaling. Tap into your authentic self and then massage this into your presentations. Your heart. Your soul. Your passions. And you will always stand out from the crowd.

Because no one has your voice.

Because you have something important to say.

Because there’s no one else like you.

With my next book A Voice For The Spirit Bears: How One Boy Inspired Millions To Save A Rare Animal, illustrated by Katy Dockrill (Kids Can Press, May 7, 2019), I’ve already begun to think about new presentations based on that book and how my own personal journey can be shared in authentic ways with my audiences.

How has my own struggles mirrored those of the protagonist D. Simon Jackson? How can I share my passions with readers in a way that will make a difference with them and resonate? What are the takeaways?

With every book you write, there’s a new piece of yourself for readers to discover. Each book reveals another one of your passions.

You need to incorporate this into your presentations. And if you do, I’m positive that schools will want to book you.

Passion is contagious and courageous. So turn off your IE and get to work. I, along with your readers, want to hear about what you’re passionate about. We want to be inspired.

Cynsational Notes

The faculty from Crafting Successful Author Visits in 2018 at the Highlights Foundation

Carmen will co-teach a related workshop, Crafting Successful Author Visits, from April 28 to May 3 at the Highlights Foundation in Milanville, Pennsylvania.

Guest Post: Lee Wind: From Kickstarter to Book – The Wild Roller Coaster of Publishing My Debut YA Novel

Learn more about Lee Wind

By Lee Wind
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There’s a saying that a work of art isn’t complete until it has been witnessed.

So the book I wrote that would have completely changed my life if I’d read it as a fifteen-year-old wasn’t complete. Not until it had readers.

Over six years, the manuscript for Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill had been written and re-written, eight full revisions in all, with the final polish under the brilliant editorial direction of National Book Award-winner M.T. Anderson at a Highlights Foundation workshop. It was ready, but with no readers, it wasn’t complete.

My agent at the time told me it had been submitted, over a period of two years, to more than twenty editors. In all that time, it had only received five rejections, with the rest not even bothering to respond. No book deal meant no readers.

I didn’t doubt the merit of my story. I didn’t doubt that I’m a good writer. I did doubt the courage of traditional publishing to put out a story that would be controversial, as the novel’s hook is a closeted teen boy discovering a secret from history—that Abraham Lincoln wrote Joshua Fry Speed letters that could prove the two men were in love. Romantic love.

This doubt was strengthened by what happened to the nonfiction book for young readers that I had sold to an imprint of Simon & Schuster in 2015. The Queer History Project: No Way, They Were Gay? included five chapters on men who loved men in history, and Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Fry Speed were one of those chapters. Everything was going great until two weeks after Trump’s election, I got a phone call. Suddenly, they absolutely couldn’t publish my book.

I got the rights back in January of 2016, and my agent at the time told me it was so strong she’d sell it in three weeks… It was sent, I was told, to eight editors. Nine months passed, and no responses. Not even a “no, thank you.”

I was sure I was being preemptively banned by a traditional publishing industry too afraid to rock the cultural boat that was suddenly, with the election of our 45th President, in stormy seas.

Now I’ve been blogging about books, politics, and culture for LGBTQ kids and teens since 2007. I’m Here. I’m Queer. What The Hell Do I Read? has done well, gaining an audience across the world that’s built over time—The blog passed 2.5 million page loads in July 2018. So I thought, maybe one way to reach readers would be to post chapters on my blog.

Starting in September of 2017, over 32 weeks, I serialized the entire novel. I knew people were reading it, and I liked the idea of it being available for free, forever.

But the experience of reading the manuscript, clicking for each chapter, felt different than reading a polished, published book with copyedited text, interior design, an author’s note, discussion questions, and all the other great stuff that makes a book in your hands such a transformative experience. How could I create that? How could I reach more readers?

Lee visited with the Pasadena City College Queer Alliance in May 2018.

Publishing a book professionally is expensive. Copyediting, design, cover art, setting up printing and wholesale fulfillment—it’s thousands of dollars if you’re doing it right. $5,600 was what I needed to cover those expenses. And wouldn’t it be amazing if in addition to having the money to do that, I could have the money to donate copies of the book to LGBTQ teens, as my book is a story that could empower them?

That’s where the idea of crowdfunding came in. A friend argued with me that it sounded like a lot of work for what wasn’t in the big scheme of things that much money. Couldn’t I take a loan, or ask two or three wealthy friends?

But I loved the idea of crowdfunding being a barn-raising. Of the community coming together to not just help me professional publish Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill but to also raise enough money to donate some dramatic number (I settled on 400 copies) of the book to LGBTQ and Allied teens.

In January 2018 I launched the Kickstarter project, and we fully funded in six days! The campaign went on for a full thirty days, and by the end 182 people had donated enough money to give away 810 copies of the novel to LGBTQ and Allied teens!

Now with the funding secured, the publish date was set, and I put on my publisher hat and got to work. I sent the manuscript out asking for blurbs. I held a cover design contest. I hired a book designer. I tested out copy editors, found a great one, and had them do their thing. I printed ARCs. I submitted the book for reviews. I printed up bookmarks, and started using them instead of business cards. I signed up for marketing programs, to let librarians and the rest of the trade know about my book.

And I gave away the first 260 copies of the ARCs to LGBTQ teens at four summer sessions of Camp Brave Trails.

Lee speaking to teens at Camp Brave Trails

I got a curve ball thrown at me when on July 25, 2018 it was revealed that my agent at the time had lied about submissions, and rejections, and two book offers that were ‘pending.’ She lied to about 60 other clients as well.

The book I’d decided to crowdfund and author publish may never even have been seen by any editor! I hadn’t been preemptively banned by a publishing industry in need of courage, I’d just been preemptively screwed over by a criminally manipulative agent! (Needless to say, Danielle Smith is no longer an agent, and I’m now represented by the ethical and wonderful Marietta Zacker.)

But the train had left the station: 182 people were waiting for their copies of Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill. I’d committed to give away 810 copies to LGBTQ teens. And I was already getting strong trade reviews! Librarians were interested! I’d started booking some events! And I’d told the world that I was publishing this book. That couldn’t change now.

So Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill publishes on Tuesday October 2, 2018 (BookBaby).

It’s the story of Wyatt, who is fifteen, and nobody in his homophobic small town of Lincolnville, Oregon, knows that he’s Gay. Not even his best friend (and accidental girlfriend) Mackenzie.

Then he discovers a secret from actual history: Abraham Lincoln was in love with another guy!

Since everyone loves Lincoln, Wyatt’s sure that if the world knew about it, they would treat Gay people differently and it would solve everything about his life.

So Wyatt outs Lincoln online, triggering a media firestorm that threatens to destroy everything he cares about—and he has to pretend more than ever that he’s straight. . . . Only then he meets Martin, who is openly Gay and who just might be the guy Wyatt’s been hoping to find.

And here’s hoping it reaches readers.

Lee signing ARCs of Queer As a Five Dollar Bill
for librarians at the ALA Conference in June 2018.

New Voice: Laney Nielson on Peppermint Cocoa Crushes

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Laney Nielson is the debut author of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes (Skypony, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Sasha is so excited for her school’s Winter Variety Show! She and her best friends, twins Karly and Kevin, have been working on a song and dance routine for it, with super cute candy cane costumes. 


Sasha is sure they’ll be the best. And she’s even more confident that her secret plan — to tell Kevin about her crush on him — will go off without a hitch.

But Sasha is starting to realize that she’s overcommitted herself, between rehearsing for the show, regular dance class, after-school clubs and committees, and ever-increasing amounts of homework. 


When nothing ends up going as planned, can Sasha still step up and make the most of her moment in the spotlight?

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

When I began writing seriously (with the goal of publishing), I thought I knew more than I did. I loved children’s literature. I’d been a classroom teacher of the age group I wanted to write for. I’d taken creative writing courses and I’d participated in poetry workshops. Plus, I had a bunch of half-baked stories already on my computer. How hard could it be? Uh…I didn’t know what I didn’t know!

Joining SCBWI was a great first step. That year, I also went to my first Austin SCBWI conference.

I signed up for an intensive Lisa Yee’s taught on villains. (Side note: Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Scholastic, 2003) is one of my all time favorite middle grade novels.) By the end of the weekend, I realized this was going to be a lot harder than I’d thought. So I then moved into the phase where I will probably live forever: I know what I don’t know.

When I felt like I’d reached a plateau in my learning (and in an early manuscript), I attended the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop. There my fabulous faculty advisor, Tami Lewis Brown taught me how a character’s yearning can drive a story and how to raise questions for your reader.

Alan Gratz who was also on the faculty taught a session on structure and the hero’s journey that fundamentally changed the way I think about story. I buried (figuratively) a manuscript there but those days in Honesdale, PA were invaluable. I dream of returning!

Cynthia and the 2014 Writing Mentorship finalists. Laney is on far right.
Photo by Sam Bond.

In 2014, I again attended the Austin SCBWI conference, and that year I was awarded the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentorship.

It was a remarkable opportunity to learn from a writer I deeply admire.

On every level, Cynthia helped me grow—from rethinking word choice to turning a stereotype on its head to slimming down an overwritten first draft. She was thoughtful and generous, and I will be forever grateful for the wisdom she shared.


Along the way, I’ve read numerous craft books and shared countless first drafts with my smart and supportive critique group. The learning never ends. 
My current work in progress is very different in tone from Peppermint Cocoa Crushes and right now I’m studying Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). It’s a remarkable book and the perfect one to teach me how syntax and word choice create tone and build voice.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

There are so many wonderful firsts: holding an ARC, walking into a book store and spotting your book face out on the shelf, having a reader say your story resonates with them. 

Scenes from Laney’s book party

I’ve loved seeing the photos people have posted of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes on social media. Like all the Swirl novels, the cover is very photogenic especially with a cup of cocoa nearby!

But getting to those firsts was definitely filled with highs and lows. When I signed with a wonderful agent in 2015, I thought I’d made it. I assumed my manuscript would sell within a matter of months. 

It did not. But as hard as being on submission and collecting passes from editors was, I had an agent, a business partner.

If this one didn’t sell, the next story would. But then my agent moved back to the publishing side of the business and that meant I no longer had an agent. My partner was gone. I had a manuscript that had never sold and a second one that needed a lot of work. It felt like I was back at square one!

It was a great lesson. Okay, it did not feel like a great lesson at the time! But it taught me to focus on what I can control (my ideas, the quality of my writing) because the rest of it? I can’t control.

Fast forward a year (or so) and my former agent turned editor, approached me about writing a novel for Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers. Yay! And that was the start of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes. 


What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

  • Immerse yourself in stories. 
Read! Find mentor texts for your current project. Think about what the writer does well and how they are doing it? Study the story on every level from word choice and syntax to the character arc and theme. If something doesn’t work for you as reader, figure out why not and think about what might’ve been more satisfying. 
When you watch a movie or a favorite show on Netflix, ask yourself why does a scene work? Where is the tension? How does it raise questions that keep you engaged? 
You may want to look at stories through the lens of the hero’s journey or plots points (Larry BrooksStory Engineering, Writer’s Digest, 2011) or beats (Blake Synder’s Save the Cat, Michael Wiese, 2005). Analyze. Discuss. Or write reviews. 
Stories in all mediums are of value, but at the end of the day, a writing life is a reading life. Oh, and read poetry! Nothing teaches you the importance of word choice or truth telling like poetry.
  • Spend time developing your ideas. 
Push and pull at the premise of your stories. Ask what if and who cares and so what. Imagine and re-imagine. Before you begin a project write one-paragraph pitch for your story. Would you buy that book? Be honest. Would a stranger?
  • Write! Write! Write!
And finish that first draft. The act of making your way through the beginning, middle and end of your first story is a huge milestone. Be proud. Give it a rest. And then when you’ve had some time apart, roll up your sleeves and see what you have to work with. Let the fun begin!
  • Be open to feedback. 
Find a critique group or a critique partner. Your local SCBWI is a great place to start. When you share your writing, remember you’re not looking for someone to tell you how good it is. You want to know what’s working and what’s not. Feedback is such a gift!

If you are able to go to a conference, sign up for a critique session with an agent, editor or published writer. Listen and learn. These are industry professionals who know what works and what sells. And along the way, your skin will grow thicker. I promise.

When I received the editorial letter for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, I felt like I’d made it onto the playing field. This was what I’d been training for!

  • Remember the why
For writers seeking a traditional publication path, you can’t control when you’ll be published or what that will look like or how it will all unfold. So remember why you are writing. As with the characters in our stories, the why is always the most important part! 
Cynsational Notes

See the discussion guide for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, and the other Swirl novels from Sky Pony Press.

A Booklist review called Peppermint Cocoa Crushes “full of humor and silly mishaps…A good choice for libraries looking to add some gentle romance to their middle-grade collection.”

Laney Nielson is a former classroom teacher with a master’s degree in education. 

She is a past recipient of the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her novel, Peppermint Cocoa Crushes is part of the Swirl series, Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers.

Registration is currently open for the 2018 Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference, set for April 28 and April 29.


Author Interview: Deborah Hopkinson on Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What was your initial inspiration for writing Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig, illustrated by Charlotte Voake (Schwartz & Wade, 2016)?

Actually, several years ago my agent, Steven Malk, mentioned that it might be fun to do a book about Beatrix Potter. After reading about her life (and enjoying the film “Miss Potter”), I became fascinated by her story, accomplishments, and legacy.

My first attempts at writing a nonfiction book about her failed, however. But when I went back to try again, I hit upon focusing on one incident from her journal that illustrates her love of animals and of art.

The promotional copy describes the story as “mostly true.” So this is historical fiction, yes? Where did you honor the Potter’s actual life and where did you creatively extrapolate?

It’s absolutely historical fiction! I do author visits at schools all over the country, and one of the first things students and I discuss is the distinction between nonfiction and historical fiction. I’ve been previewing the cover of Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig, and have found that even young children recognize that it’s a made up story (and slightly silly to boot).

In fact, some details in the story are based on fact, including the part where Beatrix borrowed from her neighbor a guinea pig named “Queen Elizabeth,” which expired in the night from consuming a feast of paper, paste, and other scrumptious tidbits.

As I mention in the note, Beatrix was actually in her twenties when this occurred, but we have set the story when she was younger. The dialogue is invented also, although we do include several excerpts from her journal in the book.

I’ve included an author’s note of her life that also explains that the story is fictionalized.

What were other the challenges–research, craft, logistical and/or emotional–in bringing the story to life?

One of the aspects of Beatrix’s own creative process I wanted to emulate was the “picture letter.” She originally got the idea for The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) when writing a get well note to a young boy in the format of a letter that included spot art illustrations. I wanted to make this book a sort of picture letter itself.

Working with Charlotte Voake’s delightful illustrations, the amazing team editorial team of Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade (Schwartz & Wade) were able to capture that feeling for the book. For instance, even before you get to the title page, there is a spread that begins, “My Dear Reader…” which shows a hand penning the words. At the end, the story is signed by me and the author’s note is in the form of a postscript.

I’m always looking for ways that teachers and librarians can use books with students, and I think that, in addition to being an author and illustrator children enjoy, Beatrix Potter is a model for someone who began working on her craft as a child.

How did Charlotte Voake’s illustrations enhance your text?

Charlotte’s work is absolutely perfect for this story! I love her illustrations of Beatrix’s pets, which are filled with wry humor.

Charlotte is British, and we’re excited that her British publisher, Walker, will be publishing the book in Great Britain in July to coincide with the 150th anniversary celebration of Beatrix Potter’s birth.

(This anniversary is, as you can imagine, rather a big deal in England, and the Royal Mint is even issuing special commemorative coins.)


What other new releases should your readers be sure to check out in 2016?

As it happens, 2016 is also the 150th anniversary of the founding of the ASPCA in April 1866. And this April I’m excited that my new historical fiction middle grade novel, A Bandit’s Tale, The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket, will be out from Knopf.

It’s set in New York City, and is narrated by a young Italian immigrant brought over to be a street musician. It also features appearances by actual historical figures involved with improving the rights of children and animals, including Jacob Riis and ASPCA founder Henry Bergh.

What advice do you have for fellow writers about historical research and blending facts with fiction?

In October 2016, I’ll be teaching a Highlights Foundation workshop (with Pamela Turner) on writing nonfiction for middle grade students. I taught this class last year, and one of our main discussion points was how to know when a project can — or should be — fiction or nonfiction.

I’ve always been a huge fan of both genres, and enjoy writing about the same historical periods in different ways. My first long work of nonfiction, Shutting out the Sky, Life in the Tenements of New York (Scholastic, 2003), came about because I had written a Dear America historical fiction book (Hear My Sorrow (Scholastic, 2004)) about the Triangle Waist Company fire. In A Bandit’s Tale, I am returning to the same setting but telling the story in a picaresque style.

I think the main point whether one is writing historical fiction or nonfiction is that the piece must work as a dramatic, compelling story. This sometimes means including less research than one might like – but, then, you never know when you might use it again.

Cynsational Notes

Deborah Hopkinson lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @deborahopkinson.

New Voice & Giveaway: Sarah McGuire on Valiant

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sarah McGuire is the first-time author of Valiant (Egmont/Lerner, 2015). From the promotional copy:

Reggen still sings about the champion, the brave tailor. This is the story that is true.


Saville despises the velvets and silks that her father prizes far more than he’s ever loved her. Yet when he’s struck ill she’ll do anything to survive–even dressing as a boy and begging a commission to sew for the king.


But piecing together a fine coat is far simpler than unknotting court gossip about an army of giants, led by a man who cannot be defeated, marching toward Reggen to seize the throne. Saville knows giants are just stories, and no man is immortal.


Then she meets them, two scouts as tall as trees. After she tricks them into leaving, tales of the daring tailor’s triumph quickly spin into impossible feats of giant-slaying. And stories won’t deter the Duke and his larger-than-life army.


Now only a courageous and clever tailor girl can see beyond the rumors to save the kingdom again.


Perfect for fans of Shannon Hale and Gail Carson Levine, Valiant richly reimagines “The Brave Little Tailor,” transforming it into a story of understanding, identity, and fighting to protect those you love most.

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?

I think it came in stages for me. I was one of the lucky writers included in the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program. Harold Underdown chose me as one of his mentees, and for six months, we worked though my novel. I think my biggest takeaway was tackling the middle of the novel and keeping it from sagging.

Even though I had to slide that novel, under the metaphorical bed, I had a much better understanding of story structure. And I used it in Valiant, making sure I had a tent pole of tension to hold up the center of the story.

My next jump was in a Highlights Workshop with Patti Gauch. She taught (among other things) about going far enough emotionally, about reaching a transcendent moment of fear or hope or joy. She taught me to watch for those places in the story that already meant something to me. I learned to circle back to those places and dive into the emotion of that moment.

I think as writers, we’re afraid of our emotion in a scene seeming cheesy or overwrought. And from that place of fear, we keep our emotion on a tight rein. I would have said I was being subtle, but the truth was that I was scared– scared of purple prose and people laughing at over the top scenes. When I was afraid, and didn’t go far enough, my writing came across as insincere or insubstantial.

And … here’s the secret: it was. I was too scared to reveal the substance of that emotion. I was too afraid to be truly sincere. My fear of emotional triviality actually made my writing trivial.

But now I’m all better.

Ha.

Of course, I still work at this. And I still don’t get it right the first or second draft. Or the third. And when I do finally go far enough, I have to loop back a few days later to trim and shape and make sure there’s nothing in the writing of that moment that would keep a reader from going far enough. But I’m getting better at it. And knowing when I don’t go far enough is half the battle, right?

Right.

As a fantasy writer, how did you go about building your world?

Photo by Chris Anderson

I found that stories and math (among other things!) shaped Valiant’s world.

Let’s start with stories. When we think of world building, we often think of government, architecture, all the minute details of daily life. But we forget that we view our own world through the lens of story.

For instance, going off to pursue a dream is most mostly viewed as proper independence in America. In our stories and movies, it’s often rewarded. But in other cultures, such independence might be viewed as destructive and selfish.

Anyway, once I realized I’d be writing a story about giants, I knew wanted to work within the stories we all know about giants–even if we don’t think we know them. So I did an informal survey of Western myth, folk and fairy tales. Whether it was a titan of Greek mythology or the giant who ground bones to bake bread, giants were brutes who could only be overcome by some form of trickery.

(I found one story of a smart giantess: Oona, the wife of Finn MacCoul. But she defeats another giant through (you guessed it!) trickery. The only story I could find in which someone beat a giant through a straightforward attack was David and Goliath.)

So I had stories where giants were 1) the enemy, 2) stupid, and 3) sometimes ate humans. It seemed only right that the humans in my novel would have similar stories (and thus views) of giants.

David and Goliath, by Osmar Schindler (c. 1888)

But things got interesting when I looked back through that same story-lens. Given those stories, how would giants view humans? As unreliable tricksters who used their wits to overcome and kill giants.

So within the giantish world, the most powerful giant might not always be the strongest, but the one who couldn’t be fooled.

For me, that was when things got interesting. So I wrote Valiant with the idea that I had two cultures with the same set of stories, but who viewed those stories from two very different perspectives.

I also used math to build my world. (Such a whiplash-inducing change from stories, isn’t it? But bear with me.) I was thinking about volume.

Let’s say you have a cube that measures one inch on every side. It’s volume is length x width x height, or 1 x 1 x 1, which equals 1 cubic inch. If I had a cube that was six times the size of the first cube, 6 x 6 x 6, its volume would be 216 cubic inches.

So–and this is an oversimplification– if a giant was six times as big as a human, he could weigh roughly 200 times more. And he’d need a lot more food than six humans.

Where might giants living in the stony Belmor Moutains find food? And how could they travel the great distance they did in Valiant? I discovered some of my favorite details about the world of the uten by exploring that. What started as mathematical ended with one of my favorite scenes.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Valiant by Sarah McGuire (Egmont USA/Lerner, 2015). Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

New Voice: Tracy Holczer on The Secret Hum of a Daisy

Teacher’s Guide & Excerpt

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Tracy Holczer is the first-time author of The Secret Hum of a Daisy (Putnam, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Grace and her mother have always been their own family, traveling from place to place like gypsies. But Grace wants to finally have a home all their own. She thinks she’s found it with Mrs. Greene and her daughter Lacey, so when her mother says it’s time to move on again, Grace summons the courage to tell her mother how she really feels. 

She’ll always regret that her last words to her were angry ones.


Now faced with making a home with a grandmother she’s never met, and according to her mother, didn’t want her in the first place, Grace is desperate to get back to Mrs. Greene and Lacey. 

A mysterious treasure hunt, just like the ones her mother used to send her on, may must be the key. It all begins with a crane. And Grace is sure it’s her mother showing her the way home.
 

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?

Back in 2003, when I’d been writing for about a year, I applied for a scholarship to Chautauqua, a workshop given by the Highlights Foundation.

I tried not to giggle too hysterically as I filled out the paperwork, thinking, “Who the heck do you think you are? You can’t go anywhere for a week! Besides, scholarships are for writers. Not wannabes with three young children to care for.”

“Pfft,” said the Rational Voice, and I sent it in.

When Kent Brown called to let me know I’d have a tuition scholarship, I immediately burst into tears and accepted with no idea how I’d cover room and board. We’d just started a new business and moved into a house and every penny was allocated to something much more important than my writing hobby.

My husband was the first person to suggest that maybe it wasn’t a hobby. When my family stepped in to cover the rest of the cost, expressing the same sentiment, I burst into tears all over again.

So, in the summer of 2004, I left behind a ten, seven and two-year-old to study craft and meet the rock stars of the kid lit world. For heaven’s sake, I sat right next to Jerry Spinelli for dinner one night. And talked to him as though he were a normal person. I’m sure I didn’t drool too terribly.

But what changed everything (aside from Sharon Creech just stopping by because she was in the neighborhood) was having Patti Gauch as my manuscript advisor. I started to get the idea that I’d lucked out when I began noticing people following her around in little clumps.

When you meet her, you really want to do this, too, because all that comes out of her mouth are these snippets of brilliance you immediately want to wear on a T-shirt.

Then, it was just Patti and me for our meeting. She told me to dig deep. To take the images as far as they would go. She told me to make sure there was a surprise on every page. A unique turn a phrase, a special image, a new way of looking at something. She told me to ignore my “homogenized self” and to embrace the part of me that was different.

She made me feel as though all my weirdness, everything I’d ever tried to hide from everyone, was the very thing I needed to cherish and put down on paper.

Then she talked about character being the heart of the story. After failing miserably at any sort of plotting, this was a new and breath-taking perspective. Maybe I could write a story by following the character, rather that expecting the character to follow a story. It changed everything.

It still took me six long years to write The Secret Hum of a Daisy, but Patti Gauch, and the Highlights Foundation, helped put me on the right path.

Lisa blogs at Smack Dab in the Mid^dle: A Middle Grade Authors’ Blog.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

Grace came by magic. During that sleep/waking time when everything is half-real, half-imagined. She stood on the front porch of an old farmhouse wearing Mary Janes.

“They’re the only decent ones I’ve got,” she’d said, and rocked back and forth from heel to toe.

Photo of Tracy by Lisa Williams Photography

I knew her mom had just died. I knew she had to live with a grandmother she’d never met, one she was afraid of. I didn’t know what else was in store for Grace, but I knew it would be a magical experience for me. And it was.

Samantha, however, the twelve-year-old in my new book, is not coming magically. She is a tough nut to crack.

What I’m doing to coax her out is more writing exercises with her running the show. She’s writing Haiku and journal entries (even though she would never do either).

I’m asking her to tell me secrets and what she yearns for. Sometimes I put myself in the shoes of her best friend, Milo, and have him ask her questions that she might actually answer.

What I’m learning, this time around, is that I have to listen even harder to my instincts. And that some characters express themselves in different ways. Just like real people.

Interestingly, in this case, it wasn’t until I did a character biography on her dad that I saw Sam more deeply. She hasn’t been as easy as Grace, but we have come to an understanding. She’ll be in bookstores in summer, 2016.