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

Deborah Halverson

By Deborah Halverson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

We work hard to get to know our characters.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, what treasure troves those little actions can be!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click image to enlarge

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes

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

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

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

Guest Interview: Lawrence Schimel on The Treasure of Barracuda & The Wild Book for #WorldKidLit Month

Lawrence Schimel, photo by Nieves Guerra

By Avery Fischer Udagawa
for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

September is #WorldKidLit Month, a time to notice if world literature is reaching kids in the form of translations. 

Read a Cynsations interview with co-organizer Marcia Lynx Qualey.

Lawrence Schimel wears many hats: translator, writer, founder of SCBWI Spain, publisher at A Midsummer Night’s Press.

I talked with him about his translations of two middle grade adventure novels: The Treasure of Barracuda by Llanos Campos of Spain, and The Wild Book by Juan Villoro of Mexico. Both tie the joys of reading to wide experience, romance, daring and even ruckus!

Let’s get right into these rip-roaring reads, Lawrence. The Treasure of Barracuda features an 11-year-old boy named Sparks who serves on a pirate crew, which combs Europe and the Caribbean for a sought-after coffer from Asia. The place names alone are legion: Antigua, Barbados, Corsica, Dominica, Española, Formosa, Guadeloupe—and that’s just A through G. How did you keep track of the geography? 

I imagine it was much trickier for the author to keep track of the geography than for me as translator.

By the time I get a text, it has usually been seen by so many eyes at the original-language publisher: author, editor, copyeditor, proofreader. But mistakes do sometimes slip through, and as translators we often wind up stumbling on those because everything must make sense in order for us to translate it. 

Had you spent time before with the nautical and pirate vocabulary? Also weapons, from arquebus to mauser . . . did you have to immerse yourself in other lore of the high seas?

That’s one of the interesting things about life as a translator: we’re always learning new things, and new terms, in both source and target language. Even with fiction. In terms of the weapons, they were new to me in both languages!

I did also try and refresh my “pirate speech” to make the dialogues and descriptions read well in English.

Little Pickle Press mounted a great social media campaign using terminology from the book, to get people ready for Talk Like a Pirate Day!

The pirates in The Treasure of Barracuda teach each other to read, in a process likened to “trying to teach a flock of ducks to sew.” The book offers remarkably apt descriptions of reading challenges, such as distinguishing b from d, paid from said. I presume that these examples differ in the original Spanish. How did you bring them into English?

Yes, this was one of the trickiest challenges in the book for me! Because the original samples weren’t plays on words in English, and it was important to recreate the experience of confusing letters and words in a way that would work for English readers. I’m glad that my solutions seem to have worked!

Here is one example, which in the original Spanish used the similarity of the letters U and V to confuse vida (“life”) and uida (“flight”) which should be spelled with a silent H at the beginning:

Muchas veces confundía letras, sobre todo la U y la V, con lo que en vez de «vida» leíamos «uida» (y encima así, sin H; ahora lo sé). 

In the translation, I had to take liberties, to use words that could be confused in English, and wound up playing with how the lowercase letters b and d are mirror images of one another. I used:

Often he got letters all mixed up, especially the lower case “b” and “d” which looked so similar, so that instead of saying “drown” he read “brown”. 

I love how the pirates experience their world anew once they can read. What are some of your favorite examples of this? 

Well, it may be giving away spoilers to give specific examples. But, once they can read, the pirates wind up saving themselves from danger, disaster, and confrontation, time after time, because of something they’re able to read (in the moment) or something they have read in the past. Whether this is because their adversary assumes that they are ignorant and can’t read, or because something they read bears an uncanny relation to their current predicament, reading offers them knowledge or information that winds up saving the day.

How did you find it translating the comedy, from short phrases (“his underpopulated mouth”) to whole sections, such as one in which a feud over paella leaves two brothers estranged? 

Author Llanos Campos has a background in theater, and I think the pacing of the novel shows her understanding, and it works well in both languages. Llanos manages to have both humor that is language-based, and humor that is more situational or slapstick.

I did worry that the argument about the paella might not be culturally relevant, but since it was playing up the stereotypes of Spaniards, written by a Spanish author, we thought we should leave it in as-is.

Llanos Campos

I found it quite effective! On another topic, the narrator Sparks occasionally addresses readers in the second person. Is this common in Spanish-language novels? 

I think this is actually a much more common convention in English-language novels, especially those from a certain period—“Reader, I married him,” from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), etc. Although it’s true that in Don Quixote (1605, 1615), arguably the first modern novel, Cervantes does in fact address the reader.

I understand that The Treasure of Barracuda won the El Barco De Vapor Award in Spain. 

Yes, this was Llanos Campos’ first novel, which was published after it won the award in Spain—an award given out by Her Majesty the Queen in a gala celebration each year in Madrid. The book has been tremendously successful in Spanish (over 50 printings in just a few years), and there are two more volumes of Sparks’ further adventures.

Unfortunately, there aren’t yet plans for these to be published in English. Little Pickle, the publisher who brought out The Treasure of Barracuda, was bought by Sourcebooks a few months after publication, and their focus is on other areas for now.

Moving on to The Wild Book, please tell me about author Juan Villoro. I understand that he is extremely well-known in Mexico. 

Juan is a justly-beloved figure in Mexico, who is an author for both adults and kids. He is a polymath, writing fiction, essays, newspaper columns on politics and sports, children’s books, theater—all at a really high level of quality.

And The Wild Book has been a tremendous success, selling over a million copies in Spanish. I hope that as many English-language readers fall in love with this great story!

(And I know that, thanks to being able to read the English translation, editors in a few other countries have fallen in love with the book, and have bought the rights to publish it in their languages. It will be translated directly from the Spanish, but the editors were only able to read and evaluate it once the English translation was published.)

Juan Villoro

That’s great that the English translation of The Wild Book is having a ripple effect!

Let’s talk about this novel. In some ways it shows the adventure of becoming a passionate reader. It is far from didactic, however: 13-year-old Juan, whose parents are divorcing, endures domestic trauma before undertaking a quest in his eccentric uncle Tito’s library. Juan also experiences his first romance. Did you find it tough to translate the delicate mingling of hard reality, comedy and joy in this book? 

I love Villoro’s voice, which I think translates well into English—Juan is very well-read, as this novel proves, and also speaks English very well, which I think made the translation easier.

I also love how he doesn’t write down to kids, but still writes from a young person’s perspective even when tackling difficult issues. He presents life, which is often messy and complicated, and full of both sorrow and joy, often at the same time—to the confusion of those who have to live through it.

I would also say that the book is about coming to appreciate the power and beauty of reading, not necessarily becoming an avid reader or a bibliophile. I think something really important in the book is how many of the characters, even the ones who start off as the most fervent readers, go through “dry spells” or moments when they’re not reading as much or it just doesn’t grab them, for various reasons having to do with other events in their lives.

The book really shows in a lovely way both how reading can exert an influence on our lives, and how our lives can exert an influence on our reading.

I enjoyed the many truisms about reading in The Wild Book: certain details make stories true; books seem to seek their readers. Censorship even comes up: “Trees are like books; if you dare try to burn one, you run the risk of burning them all.” Did you consider the act of reading in new ways as you translated? Did you want to run out and reread the authors mentioned in the book (Dante, Kafka, Melville…) as I did? 

I am an omnivorous reader, so so much in this book resonated for me. It is one reason I really wanted to have a chance to translate it.

I had originally written a reader’s report on the book for Arts Council England for a project being run by Danny Hahn, a precursor to the current In Other Words program that provides support for sample translations of children’s books to reach U.K. publishers. My report was so glowing that Arts Council England chose The Wild Book as one of the titles they commissioned samples for.

And there was interest from some U.K. publishers, but in the end none of them bought the rights, so after a year, I asked if I could show the sample to publishers in the United States.

Restless Books had just published Villoro’s collection of essays on football, God Is Round, when former publisher Joshua Ellison told me at the Frankfurt Book Fair that they were planning a children’s imprint, Yonder. I sent the sample to him, he shared it with the team, and they all fell in love with the book too.

Blind readers are depicted with much affection in The Wild Book. Readers absorb that some of the world’s great bibliophiles have been blind, making Wild a “window” read for children with no experience of visual impairment. Are there plans to publish a Braille edition as well, which could be a “mirror” read for blind children? 

I really admired how the issue of reading in Braille versus in “ink” is both an integral plot element but also a non-event in The Wild Book: the important part is reading and sharing stories.

I don’t know if there is yet a Braille edition in the works in English, but it would be a lovely idea. I myself was recently in Colombia for FILBo, the International Book Fair of Bogotá, where I launched a new picture book of my own, ¡Qué Suerte Tengo! illustrated by Juan Camilo Mayorga and published by Rey Naranjo. This title includes a spread in Braille to offer a “window” into that experience. 

Which passages in The Wild Book did you most enjoy that describe first love? 

I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but I love the moment when Juan (who isn’t much of a reader, really) realizes how sharing a book with someone changes the experience of the book. So much of Juan and Catalina’s relationship is reflected in the series of adventure books they both read. 

Something else I love about The Wild Book is that it offers a contrast to the stereotypical portrayals of Mexicans in recent United States political discourse. 

Not sharing that stereotypical view of Mexico, I wasn’t expecting such portrayals. But what I am very pleased about is that this is a Mexican novel that is not about Mexican-ness.

Very often, there are good books that wind up not getting translated because what publishers seem to look for in foreign fiction is either armchair tourism, or books that are only/mostly about identity, about being from those countries.

The Wild Book is a title that can be enjoyed by anyone who reads. It seduces you into looking at reading anew, and also gives nods to lots of classic stories (like Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)). Villoro gives enough clues that even if you haven’t yet read those stories, which you’ve likely heard of, however, you can still understand all the references.

At the same time, it is a Latin American book, and I was excited that he includes Latin American writers like Jorge Luis Borges among those universal stories. That was, I felt, something important—more so in the English translation than the original.

Have you ever heard or seen The Wild Book compared to the Harry Potter series? A boy who has experienced domestic hardship, finds himself in a welcoming magical world? 

I think it would be a stretch, actually. Because the magic in The Wild Book comes not from the world inhabited by the hero, but from reading. And from sharing reading. So it is really a very different approach.

Also, it is the opposite of the school story: The Wild Book is about how Juan, instead of getting to spend the summer holiday with his friend, winds up going to live with his eccentric uncle because of the unexpected separation of his parents. So instead of being surrounded by peers, he is isolated and surrounded by books. And that winds up changing everything.

Are there any other translations of Juan Villoro in the offing? 

Villoro does have more middle grade and young adult fiction, and I’d love to translate more by him.

Some of his adult fiction has recently been published, and I know at least one more title is being translated by Yvette Siegert.

I’m thrilled with how well Yonder/Restless Books credits you for translating The Wild Book. Why is translation a creative endeavor that, while different from authorship, must be recognized and credited? 

I live in Spain where the Intellectual Property Law considers translators as co-authors, who are required by law to share in the benefits of the book (and also things like payments when books get checked out from libraries).

People can get confused by how translation is a subsidiary copyright: I can translate anything I want to, just because I want to, but I can’t publish my translations without the consent of the copyright holder (the author, their agent or the publisher, usually—sometimes the heirs).

At the same time, the author (or their agent, publisher, heirs, etc.) can’t publish my translation of the work without my consent.

As you mention, a lot of publishers don’t recognize still how a literary translation is a co-authorship; my translation of a work will be very different from a different translator’s.

But Restless Books was a joy to work with in that regard.

Are you working on any new translations of children’s literature? 

I’m currently working with the Latvian poet and translator Arvis Viguls to co-translate a book of rhyming poetry for kids about being sick, Līze Analīze by Latvian poet Inese Zandere, illustrated by Reinis Pētersons, into Spanish for the Spanish publisher Esdrújula in Granada. It will be titled Anita está malita in Spanish.

Original Latvian edition, published by Liels un Mazs, 2012

The most recent book I’ve translated into English, La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono (Feminist Press), was published as an adult novel, but features a 16-year-old girl in Equatorial Guinea.

It is a coming-of-age story about her search for her father—the mother died in childbirth, and because the father never paid the pride price to the mother’s family, Okomo belongs to her grandparents’ tribe. She struggles, as do other people she meets along the way, to challenge the patriarchal, polygamous Fang culture. This is the first novel by a woman writer from Equatorial Guinea to be published in English.

I do hope to have the chance to translate more middle grade or young adult fiction from Spanish.

There’s lots of great writing out there, it’s just a matter of finding editors who are open to works in translation. . . I think a lot of American editors tend to want books in translation to be about the culture they’re from—as a guide to life and issues in Honduras or Argentina, say—as opposed to just good stories that kids will love reading. But that’s changing, as The Treasure of Barracuda and The Wild Book show.

Hear, hear! 

Cynsational Notes 

Lawrence Schimel tweets in English as @lawrenceschimel. An author as well as a translator, he recently won a 2018 Crystal Kite Award for his picture book Will You Read My Book with Me? illustrated by Thiago Lopes (Epigram Books, 2017).

Avery Fischer Udagawa contributes to the SCBWI Japan Translation Group blog and is SCBWI International Translator Coordinator.

She translated Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, a middle grade novel forthcoming from Chin Music Press. Find her on Twitter @AveryUdagawa.

Guest Post: Karen Kane on Analyzing Feedback

By Karen Kane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

How you use feedback can make or break your story.

Which feedback do you follow?

Which feedback do you ignore?

Most importantly, how can you make sure the feedback you do use deepens your writing, and not derails it?

Here’s what I know about feedback: you are in charge.

You are the gatekeeper for your stories. But to be a discerning gatekeeper—to know what feedback to use and what feedback to discard—you need to know yourself.

For me, knowing myself meant recognizing I didn’t yet have what researchers Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett call a “mastery-oriented mindset.”

Dweck and Leggett studied how children handled putting together a difficult puzzle. Some children had a fixed mindset in regard to their abilities. Those children had pre-determined their skill level, and decided they were helpless to change that skill level and improve. But other children, also not good at solving the puzzle, were determined to become good at it.

Difficulties for mastery-oriented children were simply challenges to surmount; where as children with a fixed mindset “viewed their difficulties as failures, as indicative of low ability, and as insurmountable.”

I realized I had a fixed mindset about my writing skills.

When I received critical feedback, I often felt frustrated and helpless.

What was I supposed to do with feedback that wasn’t prescriptive? How was I supposed to make my story better with feedback if my writing skills were immutable?

Learn more about Charlie & Frog
(Hyperion, April 2018)

Learning about Dweck and Ellen’s research was a paradigm shift for me. I decided I could and would learn the craft skills needed to become a better writer. I would figure out what was working and what wasn’t working in my stories. I would have a mastery-oriented mindset.

Here’s something else I recognized in myself: I tended to abdicate my power to other people.

I wanted others to find what was wrong in my writing, and (most importantly) tell me how to fix it.

How you do anything is how you do everything—and I began to notice how this trait showed up in other areas of my life. It manifested in how I looked to other people to tell me the right way to parent or eat or decorate my home.

I didn’t believe I could make the right choices for myself. I didn’t trust myself to live my own life. Once I started thinking in terms of “mastery-oriented mindset” rather than a “fixed-mindset,” I began to feel empowered.

I saw that other people don’t have the “right” way—just their own way. And I, too, could figure out my own way, in my life and in my stories.

What do you need to know about yourself to figure out your own feedback process?

Start looking within yourself. You are the window into your writing.

Still, maybe you receive feedback and you aren’t sure if it’s right or wrong for your story. Or you don’t know (yet) how to change what’s not working.

Take that feedback you are not sure about and change it into questions about your writing. Similarly, if something isn’t working in your story, ask yourself why it isn’t working.

Write those questions on sticky notes. Keep them with you during the day as you do laundry, commute to work, eat lunch. Tell the universe you are listening. You are open for answers.

Sometimes I write down a plea—“Help me! I don’t know what to do about X.”

Then I wait. It’s hard to stay with the questions and not force answers. We are so programmed to know and to know Now.

But expectant waiting is part of the journey. Not knowing can be a good thing.

Listen to what poet Wislawa Szymborska says about people following their passion:

“Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’”

Sometimes the best stuff emerges when we say, “I don’t know,” and face this not knowing with an open and curious mind. What are we not seeing? What can help us see?

When needed, it’s imperative you are gentle with your writing and with yourself. Let your writing and yourself get stronger before you allow critical minds to delve in. Remind yourself that you have to write badly first into order to write well.

Telling myself that is the only way I can write. Otherwise I would be paralyzed.

Part of your job of gatekeeper is to only let in feedback that your story (and you) can handle at each stage.

Jane Kurtz,
photo by Jen Candor

Writer Jane Kurtz, when working on a new story, will sometimes say to a reader, “I only need to hear what’s working at this stage,” and “which parts would make you keep reading?”

Eventually, of course, the time must come for a writer to open herself up to what Peter Elbow calls that “cold critical eye . . . ruthlessly discarding or changing anything that is not right.”

But that’s when you will use your mastery-oriented mindset as you sift through this critical feedback: figuring out what to keep, what to discard, and changing comments into questions.

Now you are using feedback to find the true essence of your writing, the true essence of what you are trying to say.

Lev Vygotsky said, “Through others, we become ourselves.”

Through others, our stories can also become themselves—as long as we are attentive gatekeepers, allowing our stories to be deepened, and not derailed, by feedback.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews described Charlie & Frog (Hyperion, 2018)  as, “An enjoyable read that artfully mixes adventure, heart, and cultural competence.”

Karen Kane’s path to Charlie & Frog led her from a small village near Rochester, New York, to the bustle of Washington, D.C. The people she met along the way inspired her writing with their warmth and humor, especially those in the Deaf community.

Karen graduated from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

When she’s not writing, Karen spends her days as a sign language interpreter at Gallaudet University or lost in the stacks of her local library.

Charlie & Frog is her first novel.

Author Interview: Tim Tingle, Choctaw Storyteller & Author

Tim Tingle (right) with his son, Dr. Jacob Tingle,
photo courtesy Oklahoma Center for the Book.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

On April 7, 2018, author Tim Tingle received the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Named in honor of an author who served as Oklahoma Center for the Book‘s first president, the award is presented annually  for a body of work contributing to Oklahoma’s literary heritage.

Congratulations, Tim! What a wonderful honor. Tell me what it was like getting that news. 

I have attended several Oklahoma Center for the Book Award ceremonies, as Crossing Bok Chitto (Cinco Puntos, 2006) won Best Children’s Book, and Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Punto, 2005) and House of Purple Cedar (Cinco Punto, 2014) were finalists in their categories.

I was there when a dear and admired friend of mine, Rilla Askew, received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

When I received the phone call letting me know I was selected as the 2018 recipient, my first response was disbelief. I had studied most of the previous American Indian recipients in lit courses
at grad school at the University of Oklahoma (OU). “I am so far from that level,” I thought to myself.

When I hung up the phone I decided that I still have maybe 15 years of writing ahead of me (I’ll be 70 years old in November), and I will dedicate the remainder of my life to earning this award—the award now hanging next to my fireplace in Canyon Lake, Texas.

I called my son first, Dr. Jacob Tingle of Trinity University. I had been asked to select someone to introduce me at the awards ceremony, and Jacob agreed.

Roadrunner Press, my publisher of the How I Became A Ghost series (2015-), purchased a table of eight for my family and friends. I invited Dr. Geary Hobson, a Cherokee poet and my lead professor during my OU days, and his wife, Dr. Barbara Hobson, former Chair of Native American Studies there.

My son told of riding with me one summer in the Maxwell House Coffee truck, as I repaired coffee machines at small town restaurants in the Texas Hill Country. He shared anecdotes I would never have remembered, and how my work ethic and respect for working people was evident in all that I did.

During my acceptance speech, I told of Dr. Hobson, and how without his encouragement I would never have written a single book. His wife later told me he sat at the table and cried.

The circle of friends that evening will always remain very special to me, and among them was Gene Burks of Dallas. He spotted Doc Moore and I telling stories at Six Flags Over Texas in 1994 and invited me to share Choctaw stories in the Garland school district, where he was on the school board. That was the beginning of my full-time storytelling career, and eventually lead to the publication of Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Puntos, 2005).

I closed my speech by singing “Shilombish Holitopama, Amazing Grace” in Choctaw, and George Nigh, a former governor of Oklahoma and the evening’s emcee, sang in English from his chair on the stage behind me.

Governor George Nigh with Tim at Oklahoma Book Awards,
photo courtesy Oklahoma Center for the Book.

Which came first? Your work as a storyteller or as a writer? What have you done to hone both crafts? 

I began writing when I was in the second grade at South Houston Elementary School. I had read several Hardy Boys books (1927-2005) and listened to my Uncle Kenneth tell backyard stories about my Choctaw Mawmaw’s tough life growing up in the racial quandary of 1890s Oklahoma.

My teacher, Mrs. Palmer, tapped her knuckles on the desk and said, “Everyone listen. Free time, so pull out your Big Chief tablets, your crayolas, and draw. I will be grading tests.”

Photo by Lisa Reed

I decided to go with “free time” rather than crayolas, and I began a screenplay for “Zorro” (1957-1959), my favorite television show. Mrs. Palmer spotted me, snatched the unfinished first page, and tossed it in the trash. “Never do that again, not in my class,” she said. So I didn’t.

For forty years, I kept my writing to myself and told oral stories. But before that, in my mid-twenties, I went from college basketball player to modern dance soloist with the Michael Sokoloff Ensemble, a touring group back when the National Endowment for the Arts was well-funded.

As I moved with the rhythm when I danced, I now write with my headset and music. For the past decade my soundtrack has been The Chieftains, an Irish folkish group.

Doc Moore and I co-wrote three Texas ghost story books, published by Texas Tech University Press, before I decided to focus on Choctaw history and stories, with fictional twists and turns.

Most of the stories in my first book, Walking the Choctaw Road, were originally oral stories, performed at festivals and schools throughout the United States, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and Mexico.

At the age of 50, I realized my oral stories would be buried with me someday, so I took a hiatus from performing and attended graduate school in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where I earned an M.A. degree and completed Walking The Choctaw Road.

I feel that the spoken word experience gives strength to the first person narrative, and use it often in my writing.

Tim at Sequoyah’s Cabin with Fort Smith high school teachers
who were teaching House of Purple Cedar in their classrooms. 

You have two more books out this year in the No Name young adult series, No More No Name (2017), A Name Earned (2018) and Trust Your Name (2018)(7th Generation). What gave rise to the character of Bobby Byington, a Choctaw basketball player? 

See Kirkus Reviews

When my editor called and said she very much enjoyed the premise to “No Name,” the original book in the series, but “the idea of a boy digging a hole in his backyard and living in it when his alcoholic father was home—that’s so unrealistic.”

I took a deep breath before answering.

“If my big brother were still alive, he could tell you. That’s how we survived. We dug a hole in the field behind our house and dragged an old junkyard door over it. My dad never found our hiding place.”

My brother played basketball for the University of Houston Cougars, along with Elvin Hayes and Clyde Drexler, and I played junior college basketball on a scholarship.

We were also warned by my grandmother never to tell any of our friends we were Choctaw, for fear of what might someday happen.

The racism and bullying in the No Name series were always just around the corner of my youth.

The long-awaited sequel to your award-winning middle grade novel, How I Became A Ghost, is finally here. Any pressure in writing When A Ghost Talks, Listen (Roadrunner, Aug. 7, 2018), knowing how well the first one was received? What challenged you the most in writing this second book? Will there be more books in this series? 

I so love the characters of this series that popping on my headset, flipping the music button, and entering the world of shape-shifting panthers, rattlesnakes and soaring ghosts was and is a joy.

Pre-order When a Ghost Talks, Listen 

I know rattlesnake Stella. She is based on an elderly Choctaw friend of mine, Stella Long, who gave me permission to use her name. I later told her she was on the cover of the book, and imagine her surprise when she saw her “rattlesnake-self” grinning back at her.

I have maybe eight shelves of Choctaw and Southeastern Indian books surrounding my writing desk, fiction and nonfiction both.

I spent a few years researching the facts behind book two, including two trips to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The questionable death of Chief and United States Army General Pushmataha was a strong inspiration in the writing process. I still feel him standing over me, watching, nodding, and wiping away a few tears.

I do plan on continuing the How I Became A Ghost series, with a World War I Choctaw Codetalker book (in book two, we learn that Choctaw ghosts can time-travel) and a book moving back and forth from the Trail of Tears to the Irish Famine in the future.

As I learned during a trip to Ireland a few years ago, “historical” accounts of the causes and death tolls related to the Famine are as false as most popular Trail of Tears narratives.

I hope to keep Isaac alive (as alive as a ghost can be) for at least another decade, accompanied by his bilingual dog, Jumper.

Tim speaking at the Smithsonian

Any writing for children and teens that we’ll see from you in 2019 or beyond that you’d like to share?

Yes, I’ll have two new book releases in 2019.

From Lee & Low comes Stone River Crossing, a 250-page middle grade novel based on my picture book, Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom (Cinco Puntos, 2008). The narrative follows the family of escapees from a pre-Civil War plantation. As they are rescued by nearby Choctaws, the battle ensues over “ownership.”

What the western world labels as magic realism, but what we Choctaws recognize as everyday life abounds.

Also, the first book in a series from Scholastic Press arrives in 2019, Timmy the Choctaw Detective and the Graveyard Treasure, a middle grade novel of a twelve-year-old youngster, our narrator, who sees himself as the best detective in town.

The lead detective of the local police force gives Timmy his first cell phone for his birthday, and they become partners in crime solving.

Timmy’s neighbor is Doc, an elderly man living by himself with advancing dementia, accompanied by acute observational skills.

Timmy discovers that Doc’s maid is also an aide at a nearby nursing home, and part of a gang that steals only from the elderly. And where does the gang bury their ill-begotten loot? In the centuries-old mausoleum of the town cemetery. And when does he make this discovery? After midnight, of course, with a gang member looking over his shoulder.

Wow, Tim, you’ve already got me looking forward to 2019 and these great books you’ve written. We appreciate the preview.

Cynsational Notes

Tim Tingle is an award-winning author, much sought-after storyteller, and an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

His great-great grandfather, John Carnes, walked the Trail of Tears in 1835 and passed-down memories of this family epic that fueled Tim’s early interest in writing and storytelling.

He has twice been honored with the American Indian Youth Literature Award, for How I Became a Ghost in 2014, and again in 2016 for House of Purple Cedar (Cinco Puntos, 2013).

He is represented by Andrea Cascardi of the Transatlantic Agency.

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

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

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

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

New Voices: Inside Scoop on Debut Author Groups with J.H. Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Jonathan Roth & Deborah Schaumberg

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

After years of writing you finally have your very first book deal! Now what? How do you promote your debut novel? I talked to four Maryland debut authors from the Electric Eighteens to get the inside scoop on how debut groups for young adult and middle grade authors work.

Deborah Schaumberg, J.H. Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Jonathan Roth
Let’s start with some basic introductions. Tells us about your book and your publishing journey.

J.H. Diehl: Tiny Infinities (Chronicle, 2018) is a contemporary novel for ages 10 and up. It’s about a competitive swimmer whose dedication to her sport, unlikely new friendships, and science experiments with fireflies all combine to help her navigate the tough summer she turns thirteen, when her parents split up and her mom suffers from depression.

I’ve published picture books, leveled readers and short fiction in literary journals. Tiny Infinities is the first novel for young readers. After many revisions, I’m grateful it found a perfect home with Chronicle Books.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: The Battle of Junk Mountain (Running Press, 2018) is a middle grade contemporary novel that tells the story of a friendship in peril, a grandmother who’s a hoarder, and the danger of trying to hold on too hard to one’s past.

I was a documentary scriptwriter for about ten years before trying my hand at novel writing, and from there, it took another ten years before I got a book deal.

Jonathan Roth: I write and illustrate a humorous chapter book series, set in space school, called Beep and Bob (Aladdin, 2018). Books one and two released (Beep and Bob: Too Much Space! and Beep and Bob: Party Crashers) March 13, book three (Beep and Bob: Take Us To Your Sugar) releases in September.

I wrote many picture books and middle grade novels before discovering that the sweet spot for me seems to be the six-to-nine-year-olds right in the center.

Deborah Schaumberg: The Tombs (Harper Teen, 2018) is a young adult historical fantasy set in 1882 New York. It is about a young aura seer who must free her mother from the Tombs asylum where seers are being experimented on and used against their will.

My publishing journey began many years ago with a middle grade novel. After tons of rejections I started over, writing for young adults, and finally found an agent through a SCBWI conference.

Who are the Electric Eighteens?

Jonathan Roth: The Electric Eighteens are a merry band of international debut middle grade and YA (and some chapter book, like me) authors who support each other online and in person through the highs and lows of the publishing process, through networking, reading advance copies of each other’s books, attending launch events, and dozens of other large and small ways.

Unlike earlier debut groups, we do not have any specific marketing requirements. It is more about helping each other as we are each able.

Deborah Schaumberg: [It] is essentially a support group. It’s like holding hands to jump in the pool!

J.H. Diehl: The group is run by volunteers, who put up and maintain a website, a closed Facebook group, a complicated set of ARC tour spreadsheets and a wonderful series of weekly member interviews.

Smaller sub-groups have organized ‘pods’ on Instagram and meetups at conferences, festivals and launch events.

How did you find out about the Electric Eighteens?

Deborah Schaumberg: Word of mouth. I found out about the Electric Eighteens from someone in a new critique group that participated in the Sweet Sixteens when her book was published.

J.H. Diehl: In August 2017, when my book’s final edits were nearly done, and I allowed myself to think ‘this is really happening’, I did an online search for a 2018 YA/middle grade debut group. I’d seen prior year debut groups and thought it would be great to join one. I didn’t know just how great until I became part of the EEs.

Jonathan Roth: I was a member of the Swanky 17s (rebranded as the 2017 Debut Group) and like many from that group, had my release date bumped to 2018. So I promptly applied and jumped over.

Though having to wait six months longer for what already felt like an eternity was initially a bit of a downer, I find having two groups of new friends has turned out to be a real blessing. Don’t fear the bumper!

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: Jonathan set up a monthly local SCBWI get-together, and it was there where I met him and Deborah and learned about the group.

Deborah invited me in and introduced me and instantly I had tons of people welcoming me, complimenting my book cover – it was an amazing feeling.

How have the Electric Eighteens helped you in promoting your book and how has it help you build a local community?

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: We follow and support each other, not only on Facebook, but on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.

The ARC tour is extremely effective because often an EE member will post a picture of your cover with either a shout-out or a full review and you can share that across all your social media platforms for maximum exposure.

I do feel a kinship between us four local authors, all from the same county, and I enjoy seeing them face-to-face once a month.

Jonathan Roth: Beyond the typical online sharing, I have attended many ’17 and ’18 debut book events in the D.C. area, and was thrilled to have a number of debuts attend my launch.

Though I greatly appreciate being able to connect online with other 18s around the country and world, being able to sit around a table or chat at conferences with people is my preferred method of networking.

Also, I suspect most promotion is actually invisible (when I talk up books to fellow teachers and media specialists at the school where I teach, for example).

J.H. Diehl: Some EE members who are bloggers or librarians (or both!) have reached out to the group to offer opportunities to circulate advanced reader copies to teen reading groups or to participate in blog interviews. Likewise, some established book bloggers have reached out to the group to offer guest blog opportunities.

There have been some helpful threads in the Facebook group about book swag.

Thanks to the EEs I found a terrific designer for bookmarks and other items, YA author Kristen Rae, a member of a previous YA-middle grade debut group.

What have you learned about book promotion from being in the Electric Eighteens?

Jonathan Roth: Though we share all sorts of helpful tips with each other, my main take away about promotion is that no one actually knows the proven path, but we’re all stumbling down it together.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: I’ve learned about a whole community of librarians and teachers that are active on social media and willing to review and share ARCs. They are an awesome resource, especially for middle grade authors, because if they like your book they will shout it from the rooftops!

Deborah Schaumberg: I’ve learned so much from my fellow Electric Eighteens!

As someone that is not particularly tech-savvy, I can watch to see what other people do. As a result, I have created a book trailer, learned what a GIF is, and learned how to post on Instagram. We discuss what is working and what isn’t.

What surprised you about being in the Electric Eighteen group?

Deborah Schaumberg: How close I feel to many of the Electric Eighteens members.

Writing is such a solitary endeavor; we usually don’t have people around us when we write.

And as an introvert, I’ve been to events where I was too shy to talk to people I didn’t know.

At a recent conference I met another EE for the first time. I immediately hugged her hello because I felt like I knew her already from all the online sharing.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: The flood of information surprised me. Your Facebook newsfeed becomes inundated with advice, questions, musings, good and bad news.

At first, it was overwhelming. I had to remind myself that I didn’t have to like or comment on every single post.

There’s also a tendency to fall into the comparison game. Why didn’t my book didn’t get a starred review? Why am I not booking as many events as so-and-so?

You have to pull back sometimes and remind yourself that each publishing journey is unique.

What advice would you pass on to future groups like the 2019s, 2020s, etc? 

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: Embrace this opportunity. Learn from each other. Share. Support. Cheerlead. It’s a special club, and I’m proud to be a member.

J.H. Diehl: Go into to it knowing you can participate as much or as little as you feel comfortable with, and get ready to be surprised and humbled by the support you’ll experience from the other debut authors in the group.

Go into it knowing it’s a great opportunity to give support to your fellow writers and also to experience tremendous gratitude.

Deborah Schaumberg: Also, the way the administrators of the Electric Eighteens structured the group works really well. I think past groups had lots of rules about how many advanced reader copies each member had to read and so on.

We are a support system only, all promotion is voluntary, and we are respectful and inclusive. I never feel pressured to do more than I can handle and I participate as much as I want.

Jonathan Roth: The groups grow to up to 200, so it’s pretty impossible (at least for me) to bond with everyone and/or read all their books. Like so much in life, you get out what you put in, but be selective and realistic. And most of all, be excellent to each other (and party on, debuts)!

New Voice: Kim Ventrella on Improving Your Writing Skills & Skeleton Tree

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Kim Ventrella is the debut author of Skeleton Tree (Scholastic, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Stanly knows the bone growing in his yard is a little weird, but that’s okay, because now he’ll have the perfect photo to submit to the Young Discoverer’s Competition. 

With such a unique find, he’s sure to win the grand prize. But, oddly, the bone doesn’t appear in any photos. Even stranger, it seems to be growing into a full skeleton . . . one that only children can see. 

There’s just one person who doesn’t find any of this weird — Stanly’s little sister. Mischievous Miren, adopts the skeleton as a friend, and soon, the two become inseparable playmates. 

When Miren starts to grow sick, Stanly suspects that the skeleton is responsible and does everything in his power to drive the creature away. 

However, Miren is desperate not to lose her friend, forcing Stanly to question everything he’s ever believed about life, love, and the mysterious forces that connect us.

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

I wrote a lot of manuscripts, and I kept writing. This one summer in particular—I had reluctantly returned to my hometown because of money—I was in a job I didn’t love and I was desperate to do something more meaningful with my life. 

I wrote four novels in a row that summer and fall. They were all completed manuscripts, but nothing that I could honestly say constituted a good story. 
Then, early the following year, I wrote this weird, creepy middle grade manuscript called “Quimby,” and that was the first time I’d ever written something that felt to me like a ‘good’ book. I submitted it to agents, but I didn’t stop writing. 
I ended up getting a request to revise and resubmit “Quimby” from one of my top agents, and she also said she’d be happy to read anything else I’d written. I sent her Skeleton Tree, which I’d started writing as soon as I’d finished “Quimby,” and she signed me on that story.

Halloween in Naryn City, Kyrgyzstan, hometown of Kim’s favorite character in Skeleton Tree, Ms. Francine.
Kim served in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan from 2010 to 2012. (She’s the one holding a cleaver.)

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

I planned a launch party for Skeleton Tree at a local bookstore, but when I arrived nothing was set up like it was supposed to be. 

The staff members were rushing around to help me get everything ready on time, and they broke this huge wooden table. And that wasn’t even the funniest part. The table was covered in those hardcover special editions of classic books, the really heavy ones.

It was basically a book avalanche, but thankfully my friends and family pitched in and we got everything set up on time, though just barely.

Kim with her critique group: Gwendolyn Hooks, Pati Hailey, Todd Hardin and Regina Garvie

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

  • Understand and embrace the failure-success cycle. 
In order to master a skill, you have to try, fail, learn from your failure and repeat. If you’re not failing sometimes, then you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to improve.
  • Make sure that you’re continuously learning and evolving as a writer. 
Learning expert Eduardo Briceño has this awesome TED Talk where he says that the way to get better at the things you love is to spend time in the learning zone in addition to the performance zone.

The performance zone is where writers live when we’re actively crafting stories in order to meet deadlines. There’s high pressure, high stakes and a looming deadline. 
It’s important to operate well in this zone for sure, but that’s not how we grow as writers.

We also need to make time for the learning zone, where we break writing down into its component parts and work on improving our ability in each of these areas. That might involve analyzing the work of other authors, doing focused writing exercises, reading for enjoyment, practicing our observational skills, etc.

  • Emphasize the process rather than the outcome. 
Kim’s dog and co-writer, Hera

You write because you love it (maybe even more than you love yourself), and chances are that the part you love most is creating something new and magical that has never existed in the world before. 

Focus on those exhilarating moments of creation when it feels like the Muse has slipped into your body and taken control of your fingers.

That’s the joy of writing and the part that you can control. The outcome (whether it sells, fails or totally tanks) is completely out of your hands, and it won’t make you happy anyway. 

Author Elizabeth Gilbert‘s amazing TED Talk, Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating, elaborates on this very topic.

Basically, write because you love it, and if you do that, then you’ll never be shut down by outside forces.

Cynsational Notes

See the discussion guide for Skeleton Tree.

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “(An) emotional roller coaster tempered by a touch of magic and a resilient, likable protagonist.”

Kim Ventrella is the author of the middle grade novels Skeleton Tree (Fall 2017) and Bone Hollow (Spring 2019), both with Scholastic.

She loves sharing weird, whimsical stories with readers of all ages.

Find her on Twitter @KimVentrella.

See the book trailer for Skeleton Tree, created by SCBWI Oklahoma Illustrator Coordinator Jerry Bennett and Zac Davis.

New Voice: Jen Petro-Roy on Epistolary Novels & P.S. I Miss You

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jen Petro-Roy is the debut author of P.S. I Miss You (Feiwel & Friends, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Evie is heartbroken when her strict Catholic parents send her pregnant sister, Cilla, away to stay with a distant great aunt. All Evie wants is for her older sister to come back. Forbidden from speaking to Cilla, Evie secretly sends her letters. 

Evie writes about her family, torn apart and hurting. She writes about her life, empty without Cilla. And she writes about the new girl in school, June, who becomes her friend, and then maybe more than a friend. 

Evie could really use some advice from Cilla. But Cilla isn’t writing back, and it’s time for Evie to take matters into her own hands.

I’m always fascinated by epistolary novels and was very eager to talk with Jen about her process.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life? 

One of the most interesting parts of revising P.S. I Miss You was how complicated the calendar year would prove to be!

Because all of Evie’s letters are dated, I had to make sure that the contents of her letters aligned with the dates given on the top of every letter. If Evie mentioned that she would be doing something on a Friday, then that later letter and its events had to align with the appropriate day of the week.

Since Evie comes from a very Catholic family, I also had to make sure that the religious holidays fell on the correct day of the specific calendar year I used to crosscheck.

Then I had to make sure that I gave enough time for her older sister Cilla to write back, and that Cilla’s letters weren’t commenting on something from a letter that wouldn’t have been received yet. It made my head spin after a while!

Another challenge was the unique nature of writing a novel in letters.

I concentrated on making sure that while most of the letters were written in a genuine “letter writing” way, with Evie talking about her feelings and what happened on a certain day, that I also balanced those musings with dialogue in appropriate places—and especially dialogue that didn’t feel forced in letter format. 

Young Jen reading at the beach.

What model books were most useful to you and how? 

While writing and revising P.S. I Miss You, I was initially inspired by Beverly Cleary’s classic, Dear Mr. Henshaw, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (HarperCollins, 1983). Re-reading that book gave me the idea to write my debut novel in letters.

I loved the concept of two loved ones being separated for some reason (I just had to figure out the reason!) and using letters as a device to express that longing and sense of disconnection.

The amazing Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons (HarperCollins, 1994) also showed me that middle grade readers can handle serious issues, and that these issues can be incorporated into stories in a way that is honest and true.

One of my author inspirations is Kate Messner, who throughout her career, especially in the realm of middle grade fiction, has demonstrated how to infuse stories with gravitas while also balancing that “realness” with warmth, humor, and hope.

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community? 

My relationship to the children’s-YA writing community first started when I was a librarian.

Before I decided to concentrate on making my dream of publication a reality, I was a children’s/teen librarian for about five years. I selected the YA books for my library, I booked author visits, and I interacted a lot with people in the library world on Twitter and social media.

As I started to think more seriously about actually revising some of my messy first drafts or finishing my many half-drafts, I began following more authors on Twitter. Agents and publishers were soon added to my list, and I started interacting with them all, learning about the business of publishing and gathering helpful writing tips through blog posts and comment threads.

I think this sense of community is so crucial to our profession since it can be so solitary. Yes, we do research and talk to people, and yes, we go to conferences and schmooze (or do as much as we can, as so many of us are introverts!), but most of my time is spent at the keyboard, either writing or staring into space.

It’s so nice to be able to reach out to my peers and learn from our community when I’m online. Cultivating those relationships helped make my publication process a lot less stressful.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art? 

Honestly, this transition has been more difficult than I expected.

Like many, I always had this pie-in-the-sky belief that once I was published, everything would be perfect. I think it’s that belief that gets so many struggling writers through the stressful process of querying, revising, submitting, and more.

You believe that you will make it.

Jen with first finished copy of P.S. I Miss You.

You believe that things will someday be wonderful. And, yes, publication is wonderful. It’s thrilling to see P.S. I Miss You on bookshelves and to know that my peers and (more importantly!) actual kids are reading my words. But I didn’t realize how much I would still question myself.

I have a history of getting anxious about certain things, and I tend to compare myself to others a lot, even though I know it’s not helpful or even merited.

I don’t begrudge anyone their success, and it’s not even about what I “don’t have.” It’s that insistent voice inside my head that has haunted me for so long (and which I’m incorporating into my 2019 fiction and nonfiction books, Good Enough and You are Enough, both Feiwel & Friends) that sometimes tells me (if now only in a whisper rather than a yell) that I’m not performing to the best of my ability.

Launch party cake

That’s when I need to stop and remind myself that I wrote a book. That I published a book. That I’m proud of it and that I’m continuing to write. That I love what I’m doing. I love the art of it. I love constructing sentences and creating stories and characters.

That that is good enough, whatever my official “job title” is now.

Cynsational Notes

Jen Petro-Roy was born, raised, and still lives in Massachusetts, even though she rejects the idea that snow and cold are ever a good thing.

She started writing in third grade, when her classroom performed a play she had written. It was about a witch and a kidnapped girl and a brave crew of adventurers who set out to save the day. As a kid, numerous pictures of Jen often featured Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins books clutched in her hand, so it was just a matter of time until she started writing her own books for children.

In the past, Jen has worked as a teacher and a teen and children’s librarian. She loves running, board games, trivia, and swimming, and has a mild obsession with the television show Jeopardy!

New Voice: Jessie Janowitz on Finding a Literary Agent & The Doughnut Fix

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jessie Janowitz is the debut author of The Doughnut Fix (Sourcebooks, April 2018). From the promotional copy:

Tristan isn’t Gifted or Talented like his sister Jeanine, and he’s always been okay with that because he can make a perfect chocolate chip cookie and he lives in the greatest city in the world. 

But his life takes a turn for the worse when his parents decide to move to middle-of-nowhere Petersville–a town with one street and no restaurants. It’s like suddenly they’re supposed to be this other family, one that can survive without bagels and movie theaters. 

His suspicions about his new town are confirmed when he’s tricked into believing the local general store has life-changing, chocolate cream doughnuts, when in fact the owner hasn’t made them in years. 

And so begins the only thing that could make life in Petersville worth living: getting the recipe, making the doughnuts, and bringing them back to the town through his very own doughnut stand. 

But Tristan will soon discover that when starting a business, it helps to be both Gifted and Talented, and it’s possible he’s bitten off more than he can chew… 

As an admitted doughnut lover, I was very excited to interview Jessie about her writing journey and this delicious middle grade novel.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book? 

The Doughnut Fix was inspired by a sign. It’s in the window of a small market in a very small town I drive through all the time.

It always made me laugh and wonder what the story behind it might be. There was something about the store, one that had seen better days, that made me suspect that it didn’t actually have chocolate cream doughnuts, which made the sign so much better, not as a potential doughnut source, of course, but as story material.

A lying sign really got my imagination going. What kind of character would advertize selling something he or she didn’t have and why? What kind of character would would go gaga over chocolate cream doughnuts, and what would he or she do if it turned out there were none to be had?

I was off and running…

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher? 

I joined SCBWI! I went to two winter and two summer conferences and participated in the Round Tables where I received feedback on first pages. I did manuscript and query critiques.

And finally, when I felt I had a fully revised, finished manuscript, I participated in the amazing Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (“RUCCL”) One-on-One Conference which pairs you with an agent, editor, or author for feedback on first pages, synopsis, and query letter.

Unlike SCBWI conferences, the sole purpose of the RUCCL conference is to help aspiring authors get published.

As a result, the application is fairly extensive (cover letter, excerpt, synopsis), and only ninety applicants are selected.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted on my first try and was paired with a junior agent from New Leaf Literary. The conference does not guarantee that your mentor will be looking for the kind of project you’ve submitted, and in my case, my mentor did not represent middle grade.

However, she did pass my query along to another agent at New Leaf who did, and she requested a full manuscript.
In November of 2015, after incorporating the feedback from the RUCCL conference, I began querying in earnest.

I’d send out five queries at a time and kept a spreadsheet cataloguing when the email was sent, the specific agent’s response policy, and the response I received. After receiving similar feedback from multiple agents, I revised both the manuscript and my query letter.

Two valuable tools in my search for an agent were Publishers Marketplace (“PM”) and the #MSWishlist.

#MSWishlist allowed me to identify agents who were looking for the kind of story I was writing. Ultimately, the agent who offered me representation was one I identified through PM.

Though you must pay to use PM, I would argue that it’s worth the subscription fee because you can see all the books than an agent has sold, so you really get a sense for the kinds of books and writers that interest him or her. You also have access to data on how actively an agent is selling, for example, how many books he or she has sold in the past twelve months, in what categories and genres, and to which editors.

In total, I sent queries to thirteen agents. I sent my initial query to my agent, Carrie Hannigan at Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency, in December of 2015 and received a reply with a request for a full manuscript on April 29, 2016!

I am not, by nature, a patient person. Querying taught me patience. Carrie offered me representation a week after I sent her the manuscript. We submitted it to editors in June and had an offer for The Doughnut Fix and a sequel in October.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

As a parent and aspiring middle grade writer, I was blown away by the timeless appeal of Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Dutton, 1972). I observed my kids and others read this book again and again, more than any other with the exception of Harry Potter. What is it about Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing?

To answer that, I read the book myself and listened to the audiobook along with my kids more times than I can count. There are so many marvelous things about the book, but for me, the element that really draws kids in is the voice.

The narrator Peter has a great sense of humor, but it’s not just that, it’s his humor combined with something else, something unexpected: vulnerability.

In only the second paragraph, Peter admits to the reader that he “felt bad” that he didn’t get a goldfish like the other kids at the party. It is this honest, confessional quality that makes kids feel like a friend is telling them deep, dark secrets. It’s the combination of humor and vulnerability that is the voice’s secret sauce.

In experimenting with humorous voices, I had learned that they can sometimes veer into sarcasm or snark, thereby alienating readers, but what I learned from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing was that endowing a humorous voice with vulnerability allows the character to be more relatable.

I realized that if you could get that balance just right, the middle grade reader would follow your narrator anywhere.

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

I wrote an “apprentice novel.” It is very long and deeply flawed. It isn’t sure what genre it is, and not in an intentional how-cool-is-that, genre-bending way. It is simply confused, because I was.

There is magic in the story, but the rules of that magic are unclear. My characters are in their heads too much. The plot is predictable. The personal stakes feel manufactured.

One might argue that this project was an expensive “mistake,” writing multiple drafts of a three-hundred-page novel that simply sits on my hard drive. Couldn’t I have just read a craft book? Couldn’t I have taken classes and solicited feedback?

I did, and I do, but I could have read every craft book there is and had Pulitzer Prize-winning mentors, I was never going to learn to write a novel without just doing it. I cherish that unpublished book and all the mistakes in it for all they taught me.

What would you have done differently?

I think I could have improved (and could continue to improve!) my writing faster by doing less wordsmithing and more writing. Polishing is what I do when I’m chickening out on the hard stuff.

As an MFA in Writing student, how did that experience impact your literary journey? 

As a current MFA student in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I am grateful for a space that encourages me to take risks and try new things. I have found incredible mentors and peers who have pushed my writing to the next level and have offered invaluable guidance on both craft and career.

In addition, the program provides structure and community in a profession where those can be hard to come by. Writing can feel incredibly isolating, and when that writing is not going well, that isolation can be hard to bear.

VCFA is, and will remain long after I graduate, my antidote both to that isolation and to figuring out how to push through the rough patches.

Cynsational Notes

Photo of Jessie by Amanda Chung

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Tristan is a charmer; he’s earnest, loving, wistful, and practical, and he narrates his own tale without guile.”

Jessie Janowitz fell in love with the French language (and French pastry) in high school. When she went to Princeton, she majored in comparative literature because it allowed her to study French and all the other things she was interested in, including creative writing.

She has taught in a French public high school for cooking and restaurant service, worked with translations rights for a publishing house and studied law.

She is currently a student in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

New Voice: Lindsey Stoddard on Just Like Jackie

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lindsey Stoddard is a Vermont College of Fine Arts alum and our time there overlapped, so I jumped at the chance to interview her about her debut middle grade novel, Just Like Jackie (HarperCollins, 2018). From the promotional copy:

For as long as Robinson Hart can remember, it’s just been her and Grandpa. He taught her about cars, baseball, and everything else worth knowing. But Grandpa’s memory has been getting bad—so bad that he sometimes can’t even remember Robbie’s name.

She’s sure that she’s making things worse by getting in trouble at school, but she can’t resist using her fists when bullies like Alex Carter make fun of her for not having a mom.

Now she’s stuck in group guidance—and to make things even worse, Alex Carter is there too. There’s no way Robbie’s going to open up about her life to some therapy group, especially not with Alex in the room. 

Besides, if she told anyone how forgetful Grandpa’s been getting lately, they’d take her away from him. He’s the only family she has—and it’s up to her to keep them together, no matter what.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I grew up loving reading, and from a very young age it was my dream to be a teacher and to write books. I used to line up my stuffed animals and read out loud, and then I’d write my own stories and try them out on my animal class.

Little Lindsey with baseball glove

I majored in English at Carleton College and took every creative writing class I could, and continued to be involved in workshops in New York City when I moved to Washington Heights to be that middle school English teacher I dreamed of being when I was reading to my animals.

It wasn’t until I met my first class of students that I knew I wanted to write for kids. I love that middle school age. They are really starting to figure out who they are, and their sense of justice is high— “That’s not fair! That’s messed up! That’s not right!”

They can be moody and defiant and emotional, but all of this makes for excellent questions and discussions and points of view.

I spent 10 years teaching English in that middle school in Washington Heights, and in the middle of those years, I pursued my writing career more purposefully, and received my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts

Being on that campus, surrounded by such incredible mentors and inspirations, confirmed for me what my students in New York City taught me. I wanted to be a part of this community who writes for kids.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I spent much of my time at VCFA working on my creative thesis, a novel that was inspired by a student of mine. 

In fact, most of my writing for kids had been stories I wrote for my students. I wrote a story for Malcolm, and Franmy, and Anthony, and José, and Ilcy. 
During my second semester, my advisor, Tim Wynne-Jones, told me that I couldn’t just write for my students and that I’d benefit from tapping into my own stories. That I should try writing for my own ten-year-old self.

Just Like Jackie came from taking the time to reflect on the things that made me feel big emotions when I was young. 

First was the time I spent with my own grandpa, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

I remembered feeling uncomfortable and sad when he couldn’t finish his own sentences. I didn’t know if I should guess at its end, and finish it for him, pat his hand as if to say it’s okay, or just change the subject. I wondered what it might be like if he had been the person taking care of me, how scary it would be, and how protective I might become.

Lindsey spent a lot of time with her grandpa in his sugarhouse in the Vermont woods.

The second was a time when I felt such rage that, like Robbie, I balled my own fists in anger.

A neighborhood boy swung his whiffle ball bat at my backyard tree and knocked from its branches a perfect robins nest, full of eggs I was watching and waiting to hatch. I remember the eggs splattering on my lawn, and before I knew it my fist connected with his face.

These emotions and memories from my own ten-year-old self, as Tim advised, led to Robbie’s story.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

The first manuscript I submitted to agents was my creative thesis from VCFA. I made a list of middle grade books I loved and admired and thought had a similar writing style to my own. 
Lindsey writing at her favorite cafe. She was
working on revisions when her son was born.

Then I found the agents of those authors, and, in each query letter, wrote a couple lines about that one special book and how I thought my manuscript might reach the same type of readers.

Though most wanted to read the full manuscript, I was very kindly rejected by every single agent. The comments were similar: my writing was strong, and full of voice, but the story wasn’t for them.

This was when I returned to Tim’s comment about writing for my own ten-year-old self. It was so hard to put that first manuscript in a drawer, and to refer to it as my practice book, but that’s what I had to do to make way for Just Like Jackie.

People say that a writer has been writing her first book her whole life, and that is definitely true of Just Like Jackie. When I finally put the pen to the page, Robbie’s story came easily. It felt honest and right and the whole time I felt like I was writing my way home.

I submitted Just Like Jackie to mostly the same list of agents who had previously rejected my work, and this time I heard many yesses. 

My agent, Stephen Barbara’s yes, was the most confident I-love-this-just-as-it-is yes. I met a couple agents face to face and my time with Stephen confirmed what I thought— that his confidence in my book was exactly what I needed going forward. He compiled a list of editors he thought would love Robbie the same way he did, and submitted my manuscript. 
Lindsey at the launch party for Just Like Jackie.

There were many yesses, but my editor at HarperCollins, Erica Sussman’s yes, was the most enthusiastic I-cried-on-my-couch-the-whole-way-through-and-have-to-have-this-book yes that I received.

I met several editors face to face and some on the phone and I just loved the way Erica spoke about Just Like Jackie and I immediately felt comfortable with her.

I’m so thankful for Tim’s comment all those years ago at VCFA. He helped me find an authenticity in my writing that I think will connect with readers, and it helped me learn the hard lesson that sometimes a whole book, that took years and years to write and revise, was just practice. Excellent practice.

Cynsations Notes

Just Like Jackie received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

“Stoddard debuts with a quiet but powerful narrative that gently unpacks Alzheimer’s, centers mental health, and moves through the intimate and intense emotional landscape of family—what seems to break one and what can remake it. Validating, heart-rending, and a deft blend of suffering and inspiration,” wrote Kirkus Reviews.

Lindsey Stoddard was born and raised in Vermont, where she loved to play in the snow and ski, learned to boil sap in her grandpa’s surgarhouse, and began her lifelong love of reading.

She always wanted books to be a big part of her life, so when she graduated college she moved to New York City, where she taught middle school English for 10 years.

She loves reading and writing with middle schoolers, hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

She received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  

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.