Guest Post: Jaclyn Dolamore on Writing Beloved Books

By Jaclyn Dolamore
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve moved into indie publishing lately, where it is entirely my choice which books I release into the world. So, I’ve been thinking about branding.

One thing it has taken me a while to realize is that just because you don’t write the most popular thing and you get some bad reviews because of it, doesn’t mean you need to change anything.

My second novel, Between the Sea and Sky (Bloomsbury, 2001), is my favorite of my published books. Its review average on Amazon and Goodreads was never great, which initially made me feel like there was no place in the world for what I most love to write.

However, as the years have gone by, I’ve gotten many fan letters for that book from both kids and adult women who tell me it’s one of their favorite books and they’ve read it many times. It took me all those years for the fan mail to trickle in before it finally dawned on me that it is the most beloved of all my books, as far as I can tell.

My brand is: cozy romantic fantasy about a couple in healthy relationship with lots of details about food, clothes, and domestic life, and bits of humor. The fantasy backdrop is more in the “courtly politics” vein rather than physical action, although there is a little of that.

The characters are always somewhat on the fringe of society, your lovable outcasts and weirdos, and if I’ve done my job, you keep reading because you find the characters delightful and you want to know what happens to them and see them find a place in the world.

Betsy the Cat

They are the kind of books you might read when you’re sick or having a bad day; where the characters are friends, the world is home, and you can trust that your heart won’t get ripped out of your chest.

A lot of readers like having their heart ripped out of their chest. They give me reviews that say they wanted more action, more magic, more highs and lows. It’s always tempting to listen to the bad reviews instead of the good.

And sometimes I love reading stuff that is epic, sweeping, dark. But when I try to write it feels like when I wear my disco dress with the fluttery sleeves. I love that dress but it just isn’t me the way my plain 1960s navy blue librarian dress is.

Other people might even like the disco dress better, but it doesn’t matter, I still would be happier living in the librarian dress.

As a reader, too, the cozy reads are the ones that fall apart on my shelf, because I pick them up again and again. So I realize now that it is more important to keep writing books that are the most me, and retain those readers who appreciate them too, than it is to try and chase the next big fantasy bestseller.

Cynsational Notes

Jaclyn’s books include:

  • Magic Under Glass (Bloomsbury, 2009); 
  • Between the Sea and Sky (Bloomsbury, 2011); 
  • Magic Under Stone (Bloomsbury, 2012); 
  • Dark Metropolis (Hyperion, 2014); 
  • Glittering Shadows (Hyperion, 2015); 
  • The Vengeful Half (Self-published, 2016); and 
  • The Stolen Heart (Self-published, 2016).

Guest Post: Linda Boyden on How Do I Write?

Linda reflecting on her writing life.

By Linda Boyden
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

How do I write?

With deepest apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Dr. Seuss, let me count the ways:

with pencil, pen or quill,
from a picture, if you will,
on a napkin, in the dark,
 at the ocean, on a walk,

at a desk, from my dreams,
at a keyboard, near a stream:
the Muse attacks and I succumb, writing words one by one.

It may start anywhere, anytime without invitation. A spark leaps across one brain cell to another and I must write. I must capture the word/phrase/sentence on paper or in a text file so I can hold it hostage before this elusive gift evaporates.

During school visits, I tell my student audiences; this idea-generating stage of writing comes from something I refer to as the
Cosmic Goo, a Nether-World place where ideas wait to be used.

Cosmic Goo (it’s a technical term)

Once an idea has introduced itself, I enter the pre-writing phase, where I begin to translate images into slightly more tangible things, words. I want to see, touch, taste them; more importantly, I want to hear them.

I read all my work aloud, from rough draft to finished products, particularly important for picture book or poems. By doing this, I can test their word rhythms. I want to pair every idea with its perfect word mate; doubly important if the draft insists upon being rhymed.

Rhymed or in prose, rhythm is key. If I can’t hear the intrinsic word melodies that rhythm produces then neither will my readers.

A stop in word rhythm will slow or stop the reader’s flow, and potentially keep them from reading more.

For revising and editing most of my manuscripts, I proceed in two ways: I work a piece to the ground or I abandon it…for a night, a week, a year, or even completely. Separation has definite advantages.

Often, I will go to sleep ruminating on an irksome line, paragraph or scene and awake with its solution, or at least with the way to proceed. In contrast, a longer incubation period allows me to discover that not all pieces deserve to survive. I have learned to use the delete key.

Grandchildren (at a younger age) featured with blessings.

However, if a piece does deserve serious revision, then it deserves the best I can provide.

Good revision is much like good parenting: it starts from your heart.

You invest time in the improvement of your words or art; you encourage and nudge them to shine to become their best; last, you send them on their way and step back.

Will the words and illustrations you love ring true in the Big World?

Will your hard work pay off?

Like adult kids on their own, books mutate from your plans. A few make the New York Times Best Sellers List. Many speak to the hearts of librarians and teachers.

If you are lucky, truly lucky, your book will touch the one child it needed to help, the one who will fall asleep with your work tucked in her or his arms.

That’s the beauty and importance of writing and illustrating books for children.

Cynsational Notes

“I write. I teach. I color in or outside the lines. I spoil kids and
grandkids….

“Poetry gives
voice to our silent songs.”

Author/illustrator/storyteller/recovering-teacher/poet, Linda Boyden has written six and illustrated five picture books:

Election Reflections & Caring for Your Creative Heart

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

This week I’ve caught myself for two minutes here, five minutes there, reading a scene from my manuscript in progress.

Not to edit it. Not because I’m nervous about what my new editor will say (that won’t kick in for another couple of weeks).

Not because I don’t have other things to do. I’m busy teaching and writing speeches.

This week I’m reaching for my work in progress because it comforts me. It’s tangible proof that I’m working steadily to the best of my ability to offer something positive to this world, to its future.

I feel a need for tangible proof right now. I’m holding myself accountable and weighing my efforts.

Of late, several writers and illustrators have thoughtfully spoken with me about navigating the dialogue around the current U.S. presidential election.

Here are my thoughts:

First, engage in nurturing self-care. As creative people, we must be courageous and empathetic. That makes us vulnerable. As a creative community, we must take emotional and mental health seriously.

Especially for diverse writers–more so for those who’re also women, the landscape is precarious and allies too often undependable.

So, again, please take care of yourself and each other.

That said, no, you don’t have to surrender your freedom of political speech for your career. If you believe that your democracy is at stake, your community is at stake, know that publishing as an industry is not going to punish you for saying so.

As for the gatekeepers and the general public, yes, it’s possible that you may not sell a copy or, for that matter, two hundred copies of your book, if you speak out. It’s possible you may not be invited to a particular event or win a particular award because a given individual disagrees with you.

In a traditional partisan contest, with its typical rhetoric, it may be worth weighing whether to raise your voice or let your books do the talking, especially in cases where those particular books could save kids’ lives.

But, my friends, I seriously doubt any of that’s in play this time.

We’re talking about a national dialogue in which Tic Tac felt the need to issue a statement: “Tic Tac respects all women.”

You know, in case you were worried about the position of a mint company on gender.

We are neck deep in the surreal.

So, don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re triggered or baffled or or disheartened or outraged. Everyone I talk to keeps apologizing for having feelings. Of course you have feelings!

My suggestion: Participate in a way that preserves, reflects and/or affirms your creative life. If what’s best for you is to be quiet and go vote, okay. That’s fine. If you want to engage on Twitter and then go vote, that’s an option, too. But regardless, focus on your own work.

Continue to craft great books for children and teenagers. Maybe not this minute or this week, if you’re not up to it. But when you’re ready.

This is the world we’re giving to future generations, and those of you who create (produce, champion and connect) literature for young readers are among my heroes. Hang in there.

I believe in you.

Cynsational Notes 

Switch to Indigenous People’s Day by Yvonne Wakim Dennis from The Buffalo News. Peek: “While not a perfect panacea, a nationwide Indigenous People’s Day could be a powerful ‘first step’ to righting some of the wrongs indigenous peoples have suffered.”

See also Italian Americans Who Fought for Justice from Teaching a People’s History.

Indigenous People’s Day YA Collection from Lee & Low. Peek: “This Young Adult collection highlights indigenous cultures and the issues they face. These paperback and hardcover books for both on-grade level and struggling readers are sure to engage and offer a range of complexity to meet all students’ needs.” See also Interview: Shana Mlawski on the History Surrounding Christopher Columbus.

Best Books About Native Americans/First Nations by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Flaws: Fatal – Or Not

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Has the wisdom of time and life positively affected my ability to write flawed characters? Or is it the other way around?

I muse about this during an early summer morning’s coffee and writing time.

In much younger days, a painful flaw in a friend’s makeup would end the friendship. I could not tolerate – or truthfully, did not know how to negotiate the waters of – imperfection.

I don’t mean to imply that some relationships, whether romantic or friendship, never change beyond repair, or don’t have some Shakespearean-level fatal flaws. Some people come and go in our lives, as we come and go in theirs.

In retrospect, I believe flaws frightened me. You can guess at the multiple reasons, but there it was: a problem, a serious bump, a major difference in opinion or belief used to pose a threat to the relationship itself. I did not have the courage to stay for discussion, argument, confrontation. I did not believe in my own value in such a confrontation.

I did not know the inherent beauty of flaws.

I could spend time regretting the relationships that I left behind – the ones, that is, that could have benefited from conversation that pushed each of us to accommodate the other’s differences and flaws. But instead I devoted effort to accepting my own and others’ flaws, and developing the capacity to, more times than not, gently nudge myself past the historically embedded impulse to head the other direction. In life, I’ve learned that flaws, disappointments, failures are part of the tapestry.

Appreciating, although not always loving, has made for a better life story.

So as a writer, you’d think that I’d “get” the need to make my characters imperfect, create their flaws with a more complete understanding that this is part of what makes them human, engaging, and even universal.

But it’s always a struggle. I want to idealize them. In first drafts, or even in the daydreams that happen before the first drafts, deeper imperfections, the roiling internal conflicts that make us human, are absent.

I steer myself deliberately into the “deep” later on. And more often than not, it will take repeated efforts to comb away my idealizing vision of a girl, her family, her friends, until they all become flawed.

Not fatally, but naturally. Like most of us.

Decades ago, when I read and fell in love with so many magnificent middle grade novels, I participated in an online “chat” (no visuals in those days, just typed questions and responses) with Katherine Paterson. As a new-ish writer for children, I typed in a question:

How did you create a character with so many flaws that we still fall in love with by the end of the first page?

 Ms. Paterson’s answer was simply stated, but profound. The typed words appeared on my screen:

Because I love her.

I knew how important these words were, and also knew that it might take me years of practice to fully understand.

In fact, as I’ve worked on multiple revisions of my middle grade novel in verse, it has seemed that I created the love by creating flaws. As I made everything and everyone less perfect, I grew fonder and fonder of them, and of the story.

We know the flaws of being human make for better characters, and a deeper story. They also probably make for a better life.

Or the other way around.

Cynsational Notes

More on Carol Coven Grannick

Carol Coven Grannick
has been a writer since before her fourth grade teacher told her she was
one. Her poetry, essays, and articles have appeared in numerous print
and online venues.

She began writing for children in 1999, and her poetry and fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, Cricket
and Hunger Mountain. Her picture book manuscripts have won several
awards, and her middle grade novel in verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,”
was named a finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children’s Writing at Hunger Mountain.

Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and
consultant/educator, Carol also writes extensively about the
psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the
essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience. Her
column, “The Flourishing Writer,” is archived in the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

Carol lives with her husband in Chicagoland and treasures her family,
friends, and work at an extraordinary early childhood center.

Guest Post: Skila Brown on Having Fun With Writing

By Skila Brown
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Skila Brown is the author of verse novels Caminar and To Stay Alive, as well as the picture book Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks, all with Candlewick Press. 

She received an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee and now lives in Indiana where she writes books for readers of all ages.

We all reach a point when writing doesn’t feel very fun. Maybe because we’ve read too many rejection letters. Or maybe because we’ve revised so much we can’t recognize our story. Or maybe because we’re under a deadline and the pressure to finish takes away all the enjoyment.

October, 2016

But remember why we started doing this? It wasn’t because we wanted to get rich quick. (Ha!) Or because it was the only job we could do. Or because anyone was making us write. It was because it was fun.

The art of creating story was fun. We became writers because we like telling stories—we like making up details, researching history and narrating events. All of that was fun.

Six years ago, I got serious about becoming a writer and applied to an MFA program. When I got a call from the admissions office saying, “Hey – we’re doing this intensive picture book semester and we have room for one more student. Would you like to try it?”

I thought, That could be fun. And I soon found myself immersed.

Six months of reading almost nothing but picture books. Dozens of picture books. Hundreds of picture books. Rhyming ones, silly ones, concept books, fairy tales. Biographies, bedtime stories, wordless books and—poetry.

The thing about sitting down at the library and reading through a knee-high stack of poetry books is that after reading a dozen, two dozen, I started to see really fast what makes a certain one good. I really liked the ones that were centered around a theme, with varied types of poetry and bonus little nonfiction facts sprinkled on top.

 I should try to do that, I thought. Being enrolled in a class that expected me to produce many picture book drafts in a short period of time didn’t let me dwell on whether it was a good idea or not. It just demanded that I try it out. That I play with it.

And I did. It was fun to research shark breeds and learn about sharks I’d never heard of before. (Hello, cookie-cutter shark!)

I spent a lot of time on YouTube watching sharks swim and thinking about their rhythm and shape and how that would feed into a poem. It was fun to learn new stuff. And it was really fun to try my hand at writing all different types of poems.

To challenge myself to make sure the next one didn’t rhyme or the next one was a concrete poem or the next one was a haiku. Not all of the experimenting worked. But every bit of it was fun.

As writers we need to remember what drew us to this field to begin with and do whatever we can to find the fun again. Here are 4 quick ways you can find the fun in writing this week:

  1. Be a spy. Go outside and find an animal or a plant and just sit and watch it for 10 minutes, writing down whatever comes to mind. See if you can take that and shape it into a poem when the time is up. 
  2. Play a game. Find a Mad Libs. Caption a funny photo.  
  3. Have fun with first lines. Opening sentences can be really fun to make up. Write a list of ten of them and then send the list out to your critique group. Let them vote on one that you’ll turn into a short story. 
  4. Write something that is completely out of your comfort zone. If you normally write YA contemporary, try writing a scene of a middle grade historical novel. Write the end of a story. Write in second person. Do something new and fresh that shakes it up a little in your routine.

It’s worth it to take a break from the WIP and play a little. Remembering what’s fun about writing will improve your energy level on your current project.

But that’s not why you should do it. You should do it because it’s fun.

Cynsational Notes

Educator’s Guide

Skila’s new book, Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks, was illustrated by Bob Kolar (Candlewick, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Fourteen shark species, from the utterly terrifying to the surprisingly docile, glide through the pages of this vibrantly illustrated, poetic picture book.

These concrete poems about a selection of sharks will tickle the fins of many an aspiring marine biologist. —Booklist
All in all, it’s a book that ought to leave many readers fascinated—and perhaps a little unsettled—by the diversity of sharks that exist beneath the waves. —Publishers Weekly
An inviting format to spark shark discussions. —Kirkus Reviews

Guest Post: J. Albert Mann on Writer Resilience

By J. Albert Mann
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Rejection, reviews, competition, disappointment, deadlines, and doubt. There is no shortage of adversity in the writing life, making the ability to bounce back one of the greatest skills a writer can foster. And it can be fostered.

Because resilience is not a genetic or personality trait, but a process which can be learned and practiced. Overcoming the challenges that exist in our writing lives often feels difficult because it is difficult.

Really.

Really.

Difficult.

But not impossible.

And if you don’t believe me—Jennifer Mann—perhaps you’d believe another Jennifer?

Have patience.

“There are those writing days where I feel more alive than I can almost handle. And then there are the days of all out despair where I worry I’ll never have success again. If I have patience with myself, I get that exhilarating feeling all over again, and it keeps me going.”

Jennifer P. Goldfinger, author-illustrator

Care for yourself.

Resilient Jennifers

“A big part of surviving in this business is managing my own negative emotions. That means I protect my mind and my heart fiercely. I do whatever I need to do to stay in a healthy place, because I’ve realized that I’m no good to anyone when I’ve let a bad review or my own natural writing insecurities get the better of me.”

Jenny Lundquist,
middle grade & YA author 

Don’t neglect the rest of your life.

“Not only do real-life experiences and relationships inform and inspire your art, these will be there for you on days when the writing world is difficult or frustrating or just plain hurts your feelings.”

Jenny Manzer, debut YA author

Grow from it.

“We can’t get better or grow if there is no reason to. Obstacles, like critique, rejection, time constraints, tech failures, family obligations, power outages, chocolate shortages, give us a reason to change how we do things, and every time we do something differently, we grow.”

Jennifer K. Mann, picture book author

Stay connected.

“It is crucial to have people around you who understand the process and the industry.”

Jenn Bailey, picture books & middle grade writer,
VCFA Candlewick Scholarship winner

Keep perspective.

Resilient Jennifers

“I remind myself that it is just a book. Sure, authors can impact, and maybe even save, lives when their stories reach the right person at the right time, but possibly not as many lives as, say, heart surgeons or the inventors of airbags… and I sometimes need the reminder to just get over myself and put things in perspective!”

Jen Malone, YA author 

 Shut it out.

“I sit at my computer and imagine myself with those blinders you see on horses.

“This helps me shut out the world and disconnect from negative distractions. It refocuses me on what matters most, the writing, and reminds me this is what deserves my time and energy.”

Jenny Torres Sanchez, YA author

Always…

“Write the next thing. And the next thing after that.”
Jenn Bishop, debut middle grade author

“Have two or three projects going at once.”
Jennifer Vogel Bass, children’s nonfiction author

“Believe in yourself and your work, no matter what.”

Jennifer Niven, bestselling author

And…

“Remember that you love the process.”

Jenn Baker, acclaimed short story writer
& creator-host, Minorities in Publishing podcast

“You will get through this,” says a card pinned over Jennifer Whistler’s desk from a writing buddy.

Jennifer Whistler, technical writer, college
writing instructor, VCFA student

You will get through this. Allow yourself to really take that sentence in and know it…and you will, get through this.

Although if all else fails, follow Jen Doktorski’s lead.

“I call a Jen. I’ve never met one I didn’t like and my best Jens have pulled me through everything from self-doubt to full-out funk.”

So, we’re here for you, guys.

Because aren’t we all just a Jennifer or two away from bouncing back?