New Voice: Catherine Stier on The Terrible Secrets of the Tell-All Club

Catherine Stier is the first-time author of The Terrible Secrets of the Tell-All Club (Albert Whitman, 2009). From the promotional copy:

No one at school had ever thought up a club like this. All you had to do to be in it was answer some questions and share them with the rest of the club.

Questions like: What is your favorite salad dressing? Who is your BFF? What was your most embarrassing moment?

There were plenty of reasons to be in the Tell-All Club. Kiley, T.J., Josh, and Anne each had a different motivation: One of them wanted to fit in, one wanted revenge, one had something to hide, and one of them was dying to find out another’s secret.

Told in four different viewpoints, this funny, touching novel explores friendship, social pressures, bullying, and other anxieties of ‘tween girls and boys alike.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

As a young reader in the 1970s [pictured], I was intrigued by fantasy, historical fiction, the post-apocalyptic novel The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson (1975) and the gritty realism of The Outsiders (1967) and other novels by S.E. Hinton.

But I also found myself turning to older books still available in the library, the lighter teen stories my mom read in the 1950s such as Going on Sixteen by Betty Cavanna (1946) and Double Date by Rosamond du Jardin (1951).

While these books did feature some out-of-date fashion references (I was probably not going to slip on a taffeta housecoat anytime soon), I could relate to issues of sibling rivalry, forming and maintaining friendships, contemplating the possibility of college and a career and experiencing the excitement of a first significant romantic relationship.

In creating my first novel, The Terrible Secrets of the Tell-All Club, I remembered the importance of books that touched on the things I dealt with or anticipated in the future of my own life. Yet I hoped to address the concerns of younger readers, and I didn’t want to create a novel aimed specifically for girls. As the mother of both a son and a daughter, I felt it important to explore issues boys as well as girls face with friendships, families and trying to make sense of the world.

In my novel, four fifth-grade characters — two girls and two boys — begin to leave behind that little kid part of their lives. They start to structure their own identities, apart from their families. They sort out what is important to them, what they themselves believe in and stand for in their own developing value systems. They also, maybe for the first time, notice and form judgments on the flaws of family and friends. And one character, very tentatively, considers what it might be like to have a first crush, as modeled by the budding romance of an older sibling.

The book shares the viewpoints of four characters, Josh, Anne, Kiley and T.J., who try to figure out each other based on the behaviors they observe. But while the reader gets a peek at what motivates each character, the characters themselves sometimes find each other’s behavior inexplicable. That, of course, truly happens in real life, and I hope it is part of the fun of the book.

One last note: while writing the novel, I worked as a part-time substitute teacher and classroom aide. I saw how students enjoyed when teachers read aloud, yet how challenging it could be for a teacher to find a book that appealed to an entire classroom of students.

My secret daydream — and this was before the book had been accepted for publication — was that someday, The Terrible Secrets of the Tell-All Club might be read aloud by a teacher to the class. Following the book’s release, I began to hear that this is exactly what happened. And, most gratifying, I was told boys sometimes ranked as the book’s biggest fans.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book?

Let me start by explaining the differences in the way I promoted my first book — a picture book released in 1999 — and the ideas I have for this book, a debut novel for ‘tweens, introduced some ten years later.

My 1999 title was the presidential-themed, nonfiction picture book If I Were President (Albert Whitman) that teachers still use with their classroom lesson plans.

Back then, of course, I took a very different approach to promotion for several reason. The technology wasn’t where it is today. Also, this was a picture book with a subject matter that worked well for some very specific markets.

One of my first moves was to call the White House Historical Association and ask if they might consider If I Were President as merchandise for their White House gift shop. The book had to pass a review committee, but in fact was chosen for their children’s book section. To my delight, they subsequently ordered hundreds of copies to fill their shelves.

The same thing happened with the Mount Rushmore History Association. Then the Smithsonian National Museum of American History picked up the title on their own.

Throughout the years, I’ve had the cheering experience of receiving phone calls from vacationing family and friends, who excitedly tell me they’ve found my book in local attractions’ gift shops during their travels. And one year, I was even invited to conduct a book signing at Mount Rushmore during their Independence Day celebration, when an estimated 30,000 visited the park in one day.

Now, years later, I have a website and a blog …and a ’tween novel. And I realize this kind of book requires a very different approach to publicize. My SCBWI chapter has been most helpful, hosting events that explore new media and technology for authors and illustrators. And I have learned from the example of other novelists that one way to promote a book is to have fun with some element of the title or plot.

In my debut novel, four fifth-graders each have to answer a tell-all survey of 50 questions to be part of the latest club. While I did create all 50 questions, only some were revealed in the book, both in story and in the chapter headings. The questions range from “What is in your locker right now?” to “What one thing about you would surprise people if they found out about it?”

I can see that these 50 questions may offer some unique opportunities for promotion. For example, I could tweet one question a week and invite responses from the Twitterverse. Or, perhaps, post one question a week on a blog and invite a guest children’s author to answer that question as he or she would have in fifth-grade, and as they would now. Hmmm…

My advice for other debut authors?

For picture books or novels, consider how your book might fit in the gift shops of museums, national parks, monuments, zoos, botanical gardens or other tourist attractions.

Also think about what unique elements of your book — such as the 50 questions — you might play up and celebrate on your website, blog, in press releases and at book signing events. Contact your local newspapers and alumni magazine.

Finally, author school visits offer a wonderful way to share your books. Research how your book might tie in with the curriculum, or relate to issues of concern to schools such as bullying. Emphasize those subjects, concepts or issues in your school programs as well as your promotional materials.

New Voice: Michael Northrop on Gentlemen

Michael Northrop is the first-time author of Gentlemen (Scholastic, 2009, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Micheal, Tommy, Mixer, and Bones aren’t just from the wrong side of the tracks—they’re from the wrong side of everything.

Except for Mr. Haberman, their remedial English teacher, no one at their high school takes them seriously. Haberman calls them “gentlemen,” but everyone else ignores them—or, in Bones’s case, is dead afraid of them.

When one of their close-knit group goes missing, the clues all seem to point in one direction: to Mr. Haberman.

Gritty, fast-paced, and brutally real, this debut takes an unflinching look at what binds friends together—and what can tear them apart.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

As a young reader, I was not a young reader, which is to say, I am dyslexic and didn’t start reading for myself until fairly late. The first things I read for fun were Dungeons & Dragons books, which I read a few pages at a time, figuring out how to create a half-elf magic user or browsing The Monster Manual (Wizards of the Coast, 1977).

The first novel I remember reading for fun wasn’t too far afield from D&D: The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (Henry Holt, 1999). That was probably around fifth grade.

At about that time, I was assigned Watership Down by Richard Adams (Scribner, 1996) in school, and that just blew me away. I was basically sold on reading at that point, but it was still hard work for me and I still stuck mostly to what was assigned.

Around seventh grade, people began passing around Robert Cormier and S.E. Hinton books. It was sort of done “under the desk,” as if the books were somehow forbidden. (I don’t think they were anything more than lightly frowned upon, but we preferred to think of them as contraband.) That made a very strong impression on me: Not just the books, which were amazing, but also the idea that reading could be dark and cool.

Sophomore year of high school, our teacher read us the poem “Hawk Roosting” by Ted Hughes. It is written from the perspective of a hawk (“my manners are tearing off heads”), and it basically confirmed all of those earlier suspicions: Reading could be dark and cool and
exciting. It also helped me realize that interesting stories could come from extremely unlikely places.

Those elements continued to be important to me all through high school. It’s an intense time, and I gravitated toward intense writing, becoming a more avid reader each year.

When I decided to write my first young adult novel, it was important to me to write something in that vein: intense, dark, and honest about what that age can be like.

I’d love to think that a reader might pass Gentlemen to a friend under the desk, even if it would probably be just fine above it.

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

I went to a small elementary school in a very small town, but the teachers were excellent. I was diagnosed as dyslexic in second grade, which is impressive (especially back then). I spent a year in special ed, and it made an enormous difference. In a larger school, I could easily have been tracked as a remedial student and just pushed along.

The narrator of Gentlemen isn’t me, but in a way, he’s the sort of teen I could have been. He’s fairly bright, but he’s been stuffed into remedial classes. No one expects much of him, and he has stopped expecting much of himself.

I’ve always been fascinated by that idea: that expectations can be self-fulfilling, whether they’re high or low, that the breaks you get early can snowball for the rest of your life. In my case, a good break in second grade helped me land in honors classes a few years later.

But it wasn’t inevitable: A few bad breaks could have had just as big an impact and led to a very different life. In that sense, writing Gentlemen felt very personal. It was a way of exploring lives like that, of portraying kids doing their best but still dragged along by those forces.

As for tapping into the teen mindset, I think it helped to set the book in a town and high school much like my own. My memories of being that age in that place are vivid and interconnected.

I was also an editor at Sports Illustrated Kids for over a decade and am very comfortable writing for specific reading levels. I think the real key is just being honest with yourself about what that age is like.

Yes, it’s intense, but it can also be awkward, ridiculous, and a dozen other things. You may not, just saying, have your act entirely together.

As a writer, you need to resist the temptation to idealize it on the one hand or to lecture or superimpose an adult sensibility on the other. [See Michael as a teen below.]

New Voice: Jaclyn Dolamore on Magic Under Glass

Jaclyn Dolamore is the first-time author of Magic Under Glass (Bloomsbury, 2009)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Nimira is a music-hall girl used to dancing for pennies. So when wealthy sorcerer Hollin Parry hires her to sing accompaniment to a mysterious piano-playing automaton, Nimira believes it will be the start of a better life.

In Parry’s world, long-buried secrets are about to stir. Unsettling rumors begin to swirl about ghosts, a madwoman roaming the halls, and Parry’s involvement in a group of corrupt sorcerers for whom the rules of the living and dead are meant to be broken for greater power.

When Nimira discovers the spirit of a dashing fairy gentleman is trapped within the automaton, she is determined to break the curse. But even as the two fall into a love that seems hopeless, breaking the curse becomes a perilous race against time. Because it’s not just the future of these star-crossed lovers that’s at stake, but the fate of the entire magical world.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters?

I’d always thought of characterization as one of my writing strengths—I have some characters I’ve been writing about for 15 years, and at point they feel almost like family—but the first version of Magic Under Glass was planned, written, and revised in less than three months. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written, and sent it out to a number of agents, and got a lot of requests, but no sale. Many of the rejections cited lack of character development as a reason.

“How could this be?” I thought. “Characterization is my strength!”

Well, so, I learned an important lesson that you can’t take your strengths for granted. Just because I had characters that seemed fully fleshed in other stories, that didn’t automatically rub off onto everything I would ever write. Seems obvious now, but at the time it was an embarrassing revelation.

I knew what a good character was supposed to look like. Their world feels real, like you could open their closet and there would actually be stuff in there, not a movie set where it’s all façade. I care about them off-screen. But I didn’t have 15 years to figure it out.

I’m not a professional artist (and would never have the patience to be one), but one of the first ways I develop any character is to draw them. I’d done a few sketches of the main characters, but they didn’t look consistent—maybe a clue that they weren’t consistent in the manuscript either. I started to reconsider the look of the characters—looking through 19th century portrait photography for inspiration—and sketched them in different poses and expression, working out their clothes and moods. This helped give them some bones, but they still needed meat.

I turned to what felt a bit like a quick and dirty trick—filling out some of those Internet surveys that ask things like “do you have any pets?” and “what are you most afraid of?”–answering some questions for all the main characters. Usually when I try this, their answers are all over the place at first, and I’m wracking my brain to figure out what to say, but somewhere along the line I start to get a feel for what the basics of their personality are.

This is not a favorite tactic of mine—in the future, I learned to start thinking of the characters in my next project before I have time to write it so they can develop more organically—but it works in a pinch.

Perhaps most important of all was making sure all the characters played the proper role within the story. I had received comments that Nimira, the protagonist, wasn’t stepping up and taking charge of the scenes and driving events.

At first I didn’t really get it. Nimira wasn’t a sorceress or a kick-butt type, she was an ordinary girl in a bad situation, and I couldn’t imagine her taking charge, but that was what everyone seemed to want. It was only when I began to develop her character that I realized it wasn’t so much that she needed to blow into scenes with a machine gun, but that I needed more moments when she decided to make a hard decision, and I needed her to grow and change as a result of these decisions.

Nimira wasn’t the only one to receive this treatment—I had to go back and reconsider all the roles of the main characters in the story and give them all a growth arc. It took time and thought. There were some frustrated moments where I wondered how I’d managed to write this book at all—I hardly seemed to know these people! And I felt like I never would. But in the end, the work was certainly worth it when I got an agent and she sold the book in quick succession with the final, sweated-over draft.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

I first started querying in 2005 with my first novel manuscript, a contemporary fantasy called “Selkie Rock.” A friend of mine had urged me into querying and provided me with her research list, which was several dozen agents, their addresses, and some notes about what they liked or were looking for she’d dug up through interviews, etc.

Things were pretty different even just five years ago. Fewer agents took e-queries, and information was harder to find.

At first I was super-nervous. My boyfriend practically had to shove me and my envelopes out the door. I worried about things like whether the agent would think I was unhinged if my stamp wasn’t straight.

But within a few days, I got a request for a partial, which led to a very nice personal rejection. (The universe must have been smiling on me with that one—I didn’t get another personal rejection for a while, but at least it was a good way to kick things off.)

I actually came to enjoy querying. I’d been writing all my life, but querying made me think in a new, career-minded way. Once I started querying, I also started writing every day, setting goals, finishing projects, and planning ahead—the skills I would need as a professional.

I made some mistakes with the agent search process. I queried very widely. I did have a few rules—obviously they had to be a legit agent that didn’t charge fees, but they also had to have at least one YA sale. Sometimes I couldn’t find much information on an agent, so I assumed if they offered I’d just ask questions and figure it out then. I also sometimes queried agents even if I’d heard hints of a red flag about them. Some of the agents I heard bad things about also made a lot of sales. I figured they must be working for someone.

That’s probably true, but in hindsight, I should have been more cautious. I hate rejecting people and confronting them, and I was–like most unpublished authors–so hungry for the legitimacy of having an agent and the sale. If I had ended up with an offer from an agent that I wasn’t sure about, I’m afraid I probably would have said yes, and dithered around forever in ending the relationship even if it wasn’t working.

Luckily, I never had to find out. I sent out queries steadily for three years, with three different books—not even including three different versions of Magic Under Glass.

Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Agency was a new agent that had started taking clients while I was revising Magic Under Glass, and I had her in mind immediately as I was working on it. Her taste in books was really compatible with mine, and although she was new, a lot of my friends were with agents at Andrea Brown and I had heard nothing but good.

I thought a new agent at an established agency seemed an ideal combination—I knew Jenn had a lot of enthusiasm. Plus, she’d been a bookseller for a long time, and it was plain that she really, really loved children’s books the same way I really, really love children’s books. (Or more!)

So she was actually my top choice when I sent Magic Under Glass back out. When she offered, I was shocked and thrilled, but it also felt…kind of right. She was my top choice not because she had all the hot deals on Publishers Marketplace that year, but based on sound reasons why she was right for me. I did get two other offers, but my gut said Jenn from the start.

So if I had to do it all over again, I would focus on a smaller group of agents, and not query anyone I had reservations about. I didn’t realize until after I had an agent just how important it is to have one that you can trust with a wide range of questions and problems, not just someone who gets your work on an editor’s desk.

New Voice: Daniel & Dina Nayeri on Another Pan & Another Faust

Daniel and Dina Nayeri are the debut co-authors of the Another series (Candlewick, 2009-2010). From the promotional copy of Another Pan (2010):

An ancient Egyptian spell is turning the tony Marlowe School into a sinister underworld. Will all hell break loose?

A darkness continues to haunt the Marlowe School, and this time, someone is plotting payback.

Wendy Darling, a headstrong junior, and her brother, John, a thirteen-year-old genius with a chip on his shoulder, struggle with being from the poorest family at the posh New York academy, where their father is a professor of ancient civilizations.

Wendy’s new boyfriend, socialite golden-boy Connor Wirth, offers a solid step up in popularity, yet ambitious Wendy and John still find themselves longing for something more.

When the Book of Gates, a mysterious tome of fabled origins, appears at Marlowe along with Peter, a dashing new resident adviser with a murky past, the Darlings are swept into a captivating world of “Lost Boys,” old-world secrets, and forbidden places.

The book opens the door to a hidden labyrinthine underworld where Egyptian myths long thought impossible become frighteningly real. Suddenly, Peter, Wendy, and John find themselves captive in the lair of an age-old darkness, trying to escape the clutches of an ancient and beautiful child-thief who refuses to let go.

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

Dina: I’ve only been writing professionally for a few years, but during that time I’ve worked on novels both alone and with my brother. In both contexts, I had to learn how very important it is not to be attached to any of your writing. The number of times we have edited our own work, or each other’s–both before and after the contract–has been staggering.

At first, of course, I was daunted by the sheer volume of edits from so many different sources (my co-author, readers, editors, my agent). But now it’s reassuring to know how many chances you get to make your novel better.

With each novel, the revision process has been different. With Another Faust (Candlewick, 2009), we sold the novel after a certain number of private revisions (just between Daniel and I) and then our editor gave us a list of very high-level changes, followed by two-three rounds of smaller changes.

But the editing process for Another Pan was completely different. Because we had sold the novel to Candlewick before a word of it was written, our editor didn’t really know that she would like it at all before we submitted something to her. With Another Faust, at least she had read it before deciding to become involved. Not so with our second book, which was contracted in advance.

I’m sure this was even more nerve-wracking for our editor given that our series is not one ongoing story consisting of several sequels. So each story can be completely different!

Candlewick showed a lot of faith in signing us in advance to do a series of retellings, each of which might be in a completely different voice and structure, and might center on a whole slew of new characters.

Naturally, editing Another Pan took a few more rounds for this very reason. In the first draft, it was a lot more action-adventure oriented, with huge Anubite warriors attacking the school and little scorpions pouring out of the underworld into the classrooms. It was darn cool stuff, but we cut it because we wanted more of the mystery and suspense of a villain that was harder to see or identify. Our editor suggested that for older audiences, this is more sophisticated and fun! We agreed, so we rewrote a big portion of the novel. Then, after that first round, the editing process progressed pretty much the same as before.

Since there are two of us, it’s also often a struggle to figure out how to divide edits. Dividing up the writing (as opposed to editing) is easier, because we can just make a detailed outline over several weeks and then assign chapters, then edit each other’s to smooth the voice.

But at some point we need to go through the entire book with a fine-toothed comb and make it really cohesive. That means we need to take turns with the manuscript, which can be touchy because it means one of us has full control over it for several weeks while the other is completely out of the loop. For me, this is a good way to deal with my control issues and a good excuse to get on with the rest of my life!

The best piece of advice I’d give to other writers about revisions actually comes from my own individual writing. Before selling a book, you should give it to at least ten readers across two-to-three rounds. You should make sure the readers are in your target audience, but vary within that demographic (e.g., both male and female).

In the first round, they will all likely respond with the same questions and complaints so that you know exactly what edits need to be done. By the third round, there might be less overlap.

When you get to a round of edits when all your readers are nitpicking about small stuff, disagreeing with each other, and discussing themes instead of giving you edits, you know you’re done and ready to submit (to your editor, who will then edit it again)!

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Dina: I came to writing from the business world, so I know a bit about marketing, but I have to say that I was still shocked by how much of an online presence some authors have these days. Some authors are just so good at this aspect of a writer’s life, keeping up amazing blogs, tweeting every day and keeping in touch with fans online. But I’m just not that good at all that. I left the business world because I wanted to avoid the business stuff.

One day, I was talking to an amazing fellow YA author who keeps a really excellent blog, and she started complaining that “I became a writer so that I could write novels, not tweet about them!” And I finally understood that every author has complaints about being pulled away from their main work.

Yes, Daniel and I found ourselves having a lot of fun on Facebook, Twitter and all the usual online places where we could chat with our audience and joke around with them (that was the best: talking to individual readers). But after some time, we had to get back to our lives offline. We both had our own novels in progress, plus the series, and at some point you have to shut off the Internet and work!

So in the end, we did a lot of things online (we have a kick-butt website, where we hosted a very successful writing contest last year!), but my advice to a new author would be not to beat yourself up trying to do everything! Everyone has a different style in that regard.

I think my favorite part of the Another Faust promotion process was the book tour. Daniel and I did a monumental tour: a full 30 days, four-to-five events a day, sometimes including two packed auditoriums a day!

In total, we spoke to 4,000 students across seven states that month, which was amazing (we have a blog post on our site about it).

We met students from so many different backgrounds, different types of schools, interests, future plans. It was enormous fun.

And we got to do a crazy road trip together, which led to a lot of sibling spats, but was fun and something I had always wanted to do with my brother.

Let me tell you, Daniel is one larger than life personality, so when you’re on a road trip, sometimes you find yourself having the funniest day of your life, laughing uncontrollably from the pit of your gut for hours, and sometimes, you find yourself pulling the emergency breaks in the middle of I-95, hoping to get out of the car!

Respect to Daniel for putting up with me, too, by the way. But I loved the moments when, after bickering for a while, something would happen that would demonstrate all the DNA we share.

My favorite “we are so related” story was a conversation we had at 6 a.m. one morning before a long drive to a school visit. Daniel had just knocked on the door of my room to pick me up for the day’s trip. He was groggy and sleepy and a little grumpy.

I was holding a cup of coffee I had just bought from the café around the corner, so I offered him some.

He said, “No thanks.”

So I said, “Why not? You need coffee.”

Daniel: “I won’t like it.”

Dina: “How do you know?”

Daniel: “I just know, okay? Leave me alone!”

Dina (now becoming stubborn): “You’re just going to say no without trying it? Just try it!”

Daniel: “Dina. I promise you that I will not like your coffee. Geez!”

Dina: “Why not?”

Daniel (irate now): “Because I like my coffee sickening sweet. So sweet, any normal person will want to spit it out. So sweet it will taste like a cup full of liquid aspartame. So sweet you’ll want to puke. Okay? Got it?”

Dina (crosses arms and smiles knowingly): “Taste it.”

Daniel (sighs): “Fine.” and he takes the cup.

He tastes the coffee, looks up with a giant smile and says, “Okay…. That’s pretty sweet.”

This year, we decided to do a shorter tour to save our sanity (and because we actually both got ill after the last one). It will be two weeks across three states (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut), and we will be visiting mostly schools.

After the large variety of events we did last year, we discovered that we absolutely love offering free talks to schools. Sometimes we visit schools that have never been able to afford an author visit before, and it’s so gratifying to be a first for them.

We’re both psyched about getting back on the road this year, meeting our readers, and telling them a bit about the life of an author: which at least for me, includes a lot less Twitter this year.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

Daniel: Well, my typical day has writing happening at various times. I work full time, so my own writing happens around that.

I usually wake up at 7 a.m. and stumble to the coffee machine. I highly recommend a coffee machine that you can program like an alarm clock. Once I’ve poured tons of white sugar, some flavored syrup, a little cocoa mix and cream, I’m good to go.

I live in Astoria, so my apartment could fit in most people’s entryway. I walk the fifteen feet to my “office,” and plop down. I write for two hours at my desk.

There are framed comic books on the walls, tons of books threatening to topple on my head, and our cat, Kitten-Bear, sleeping in my In box. She helps manage my work.

That’s pretty much it. I work to music, but I have one song play on repeat. So over the course of a project, I’ll hear the same song hundreds of times (novels usually get three songs). For me, it helps get to the same place tonally. I stop hearing it after a while. And I’m terrible at finding good music, so it could just be laziness.

For Another Pan, I think I was listening to “That’s What You Get,” by Paramore.

When I’m done writing, I have 12 minutes to get ready and jump on the subway to get to work. As you can tell, my grooming situation is minimalist (to be generous). It helps that I have short hair and zero sense of shame.

On Saturdays, I have the full day dedicated to writing in a café. I usually work around for five-to-six hours, then adjourn to my place for burritos and video gaming. Sunday afternoons, I put in another three hours of writing.

That’s the ideal week for me. In reality, I miss some mornings (for example, this morning), when I have a late night.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Daniel: Well, I think for someone with a full-time gig, writing and building a career in publishing has to become even more of a focus. The simple truth is that no one is going to help you carve out the time. If you don’t prioritize it, then it won’t work.

Nobody is saying that you can write “on the side.” It’s a full-time job. If you have a different job, then consider yourself one of those lucky individuals holding down two jobs, and make sacrifices accordingly. I don’t do cocaine or Redbull, so I end up sending out my laundry, order out more than I’d like to, and cutting back on activities (like exercise or shaving).

For the Another series, of course, it’s not just me. Sometimes, I’ll miss a deadline because things are crazy, and Dina will send a nice email: “Helloooo? Bueller? Bueller?”

I know I’m in trouble when the Buellers come out. Obviously, I try to get my butt in gear. It’s great to have those internal deadlines, and if you’re lucky, someone to enforce them.

My full-time job is as an editor for Clarion Books an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I acquire picture books, middle grade fiction, and YA novels as well as graphic novels.

Some people say they prefer not to have creative jobs, because they’ll sit down to write and they’ll be mentally drained. I can understand that. I wouldn’t get a single page written if I tried to do it after work. But then, I’ve also worked construction and in restaurants…being exhausted physically is just as prohibitive to writing. So, it was about the same for me.

My evenings are usually reserved for grabbing drinks with colleagues, and most often, nachos and Netflix night.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of Another Pan by Daniel and Dina Nayeri (Candlewick, 2010)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type “Another Pan” in the subject line. LiveJournal, Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the title in the header/post. Twitter readers may also RT the announcement tweet for this interview. I’ll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: Oct. 31. Sponsored by Candlewick Press; U.S. entries only.

Cynsational Screening Room

“Another Faust” Writing Session (Dina and Daniel Nayeri):

Another Faust book trailer from Candlewick Press:

New Voice: Bethany Hegedus on Between Us Baxters and Truth with a Capital T

Bethany Hegedus is the author of Between Us Baxters (WestSide, 2009) and Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010). From the promotional copy of Truth with a Capital T:

Lots of families have secrets. Little-Known Fact: My family has an antebellum house with a locked wing—and I’ve got a secret of my own.

I thought getting kicked out of the Gifted & Talented program—or not being “pegged,” as Mama said—­was the worst thing that could happen to me. W-r-o-n-g, wrong.

I arrived in Tweedle, Georgia, to spend the summer with Granny and Gramps, only to find no sign of them. When they finally showed up, Cousin Isaac was there too, with his trumpet in hand, and I found myself having to pretend to be thrilled about watching my musical family rehearse for the town’s Anniversary Spectacular. It was h-a-r-d, hard. Meanwhile, I, Maebelle T.-for-No-Talent Earl, set out to win a blue ribbon with an old family recipe.

But what was harder and even more wrong than any of that was breaking into the locked wing of my grandparents’ house, trying to learn the Truth with a capital T about Josiah T. Eberlee, my long-gone-but-not-forgotten relation.

To succeed, I couldn’t be a solo act. I’d need my new friends, a basset hound named Cotton, the strength of my entire family, and a little help from a secret code.

With grace and humor and a heaping helping of little-known facts, Bethany Hegedus incorporates the passions of the North and the South and bridges the past and the present in this story about one summer in the life of a sassy Southern girl and her trumpet-playing adopted Northern cousin.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

Like in life, I am a plunger. I sometimes wish this were not true, that I was methodical, precise, but I tend to go with my gut and my gut doesn’t speak to me in logical, precise terms.

My gut speaks to me in bold moves: like moving from New York City to Austin (and moving to NYC in the first place from Augusta, Georgia), like working two years on a novel and then ditching every word except the character names.

I write to discover. I write to explore. I write to tell myself the truth, and sometimes that truth takes quite awhile to figure out. Other times, the truth rises to the surface quicker.

With Between Us Baxters, which I first began when I knew nothing about story or craft, I spent a year connecting with Polly. I met her, lived with her, fought with her and got to know the racial climate of the late 1950s in her rural Southern town.

I knew there would be racial violence and intolerance. I knew I wanted to explore the “exception” and not the rule of black and white relationships during this time, but my first draft was too black and white. I had villains and victims, but for me, there wasn’t truth there, not enough at least. My gut told me that.

My gut also told me to take the plunge and apply to Vermont College of Fine Arts, after only hearing one person mention it, knowing no one who was a graduate or a current student. I went to learn structure and structure I did learn.

Along with my plunging nature, I learned to be methodical and precise in my word choice, when to depict action and when to use exposition. I learned to trust my gut and to work my mind. (Thanks to my mentors Norma Fox Mazer, Marion Dane Bauer, Sharon Darrow, and Tim Wynne-Jones.)

I came out of the program with a newer, truer story for Polly and her best friend Timbre Anne. It was a cross of my original gut instincts and my questioning and analytical thoughts. I developed my own process: part plunge, part analysis, part patient, part impatient, and a mix of many shades of grey.

I took what I learned through my time at VCFA and my work on Between Us Baxters and put it to work when plunging in to transform a picture book manuscript, once entitled “The Honky Tonk Blues,” into a middle grade novel.

Again, it took time for me to figure out the real story, but right away again I had my characters: Maebelle T. Earl, Granny, Gramps (Gramps I brought back from the dead, as I had a mystery around his death in an earlier version), and a dog named Cotton.

The Truth with a Capital T again was a mix of forging ahead; seeing a plot choice to the end of a draft and then scrapping the whole thing. But this time I had help.

My agent had sent the manuscript to Michelle Poploff at Random House. Michelle had been interested in Between Us Baxters but turned it down because she already had an exceptional civil rights era novel about to hit the shelves. (That book was A Thousand Never Evers (Delacorte, 2008) by the incredible Shana Burg. And as fate would have it, my move to Austin landed me in a critique group with Shana. How lucky am I?)

I was thrilled to hear Michelle again liked my work and saw the potential in it, but she wanted more focus on the kid characters and a bit less on the adult figures. This is something I had heard before, and it was something I wanted to explore. She asked for a revision letter on how I would handle the refocusing of the story more so on Maebelle and her adopted cousin Issac and if she liked my ideas and her assistant, Rebecca Short did, too, a contract offer might be forthcoming.

We passed a few letters back and forth, and in the end, a book contract came. I was thrilled (and still am!) Michelle truly is one of the best editors around. She works her authors hard, expects a lot, and has such insight into character and story movement.

My advice to new writers and yet-to-be-published folks is to find what works for you: plotter, plunger or a combination thereof. Process is personally specific. It is about embracing your strengths and strengthening your weaknesses.

I expect mine to continue to morph and change, but now that I have added the analytical skills to my personal desire to plunge, to sweep, to make big moves I am more comfortable in tackling changes in my work and changes in my life, knowing my gut has a good friend and companion with my mind.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

I don’t primarily see myself as a comedic writer, but humor and humorous moments are an important part of my work.

In Between Us Baxters, there needed to be some levity amid the tension. I didn’t intend to have readers crying one moment and smiling the next and don’t believe there are any scenes that combine those two aspects of catharsis (laughter and tears are both a release, aren’t they?) back to back, but I do have humorous scenes.

Early on in the book, when Polly is getting tormented by a girl her age for wearing Timbre Ann’s “colored castoffs,” Polly wishes she could hit Sallie Jean, and just as she winds up to “give her the biggest fat lip in the history of Holcolm County,” one of the birds chittering above lets loose on Sallie Jean.

The humor here adds to my ability to characterize both girls. Polly sees it as justice being enacted by the heavens, and Sallie Jean tries to blame the incident on Polly.

When I meet with young readers, I lead them in a characterization exercise, getting them to pull from real-life moments they have lived. I read this scene and ask the audience if they think I ever got hit with bird doo. They debate it. Some think, yes—some think, no—and it is with a combination of embarrassment and pride that I admit that I did have a bird doo number two in my hair at the age of thirteen. I turned a cringe-moment from my own teen years and used it to my advantage.

That’s a place humor can spring from: an all-too-human moment.

In Truth with a Capital T, the tone is lighter and the novel is contemporary (though it does have a historical fiction angle as Maebelle investigates whether her family owned slaves or were a part of the abolitionist movement).

Humor is more infused amid all the scenes than in mere moments. This is, in part, because I love southern Gothic literature—the characters of Flannery O’Connor still stand out in my mind.

I love exploring these kinds of folks, and in the town of Tweedle, Georgia; the setting for Truth, odd balls abound. Maebelle’s grandparents are larger than life Honky Tonk legends, whose Winnebago horn blares their top hit. Her parents are self-help relationship gurus who mortify Maebelle with their televised “breathing and being” exercises, and Maebelle’s new friend Ruth is obsessed with TV talk shows and receiving her first kiss.

In Truth, and in my new WIP, humor is found in the hard moments. In self-discovery, in making wrong choices, in attempting to find what one is good at, and in the mistakes made when trying to bond with others.

Humor, to me, is necessary and essential, and it doesn’t have to be over the top to be funny. Humor can pull at the heartstrings—seeing the dichotomy between hopes and reality—can be humbling and painful while at the same time glorious and joyful. I want my humor to embody a range of feelings.

For any writer wanting to showcase human emotion, much can be discovered by investigating and incorporating humor. I say start with a combination of your own funny and humbling experiences and add that to who you know your main character to be and see where it leads. Humor is spontaneous, and magic may happen.

If not, keep at it. Humor, like everything, is a muscle that can be developed.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

I was referred to my agent, Regina Brooks, President and Founder of Serendipity Literary Agency, by my first agent.

This first agent relationship, I believe, didn’t work out as I signed too early in my development as a writer, without knowing who I was or what my true voice was.

At the time, I was more of a picture book writer and had several manuscripts that got as far as acquisitions meetings but came out without any offers. I then enrolled at VCFA and worked on perfecting my development as a novelist (which also made me a stronger picture book writer), and when my novel was ready to shop, together my agent and I discovered we weren’t a fit. While we respected one another and liked one another as friends, we were ready to do the hard work of letting go.

During this decision making process, I began doing research, seeing who I may be a better fit for and who might be a better fit for me. My first agent graciously offered to refer me to other agents as she saw my potential. (A classy move and something I am forever grateful for.)

So I began to ask around. There was one agent I had my eye on as I liked the work she represented, and that was, indeed, Regina.

With authors on her list like Marilyn Nelson (a genius of a poet and author) and Tonya Cherie Hegamin, I had a feeling Regina would “get” my civil rights era novel, the importance of racial friendships in all my work—not just in Between Us Baxters—and in general me.

A friend of mine, Sundee T. Frazier, author of Brendan Buckley’s Universe (Delacorte, 2008) and The Other Half of My Heart (Delacorte, 2010), had signed with Regina a year or so earlier. I emailed Sundee, and she answered my questions and gave Regina a total thumbs up as an author advocate and agent.

Once Regina read my work and liked it, we had a lengthy phone discussion. I was worried that my having been represented prior to being with her would stamp me as a “reject,” but that was never the case. We discussed Between Us Baxters, which hadn’t yet been shopped and decided to move forward.

I am so glad we did. I adore Regina. She has such energy and vibrancy. She is frank, smart, savvy, and when we don’t see eye-to-eye, we hash things out and then get back to work. She believes in me and I believe in her, and that to me is foundation of what makes our author/agent relationship work.

In seeking representation, or in ending an agenting relationship and searching for a new one, what is most important is having a firm sense of who you are as an artist, of where you see your work going, and being able to communicate that when that all-important agent makes contact.

And don’t be afraid to reassess and discuss and evaluate your joint and individual goals. The agent/author relationship is a special one, and like any relationship, it takes communication, but knowing someone has your back in this business is a godsend.

Cynsational Notes

Bethany is co-editor of the Young Adult and Children’s Literature literature section of Hunger Mountain–VCFA Journal of the Arts.

Check out the book trailer for Truth with a Capital T. Note: you may need to turn up the sound on your computer.

New Voice: Kathi Baron on Shattered

Kathi Baron is the first-time author of Shattered (WestSideBooks, 2009); visit Kathi at Blogger. From the promotional copy:

Teen violin prodigy Cassie has been tiptoeing around her father, whose moods have become increasingly explosive. After he destroys her beloved and valuable violin in a sudden rage, Cassie, shocked, runs away, eventually seeking refuge in a homeless shelter.

She later learns that her father, a former violinist, was physically beaten as a child by her grandfather, a painful secret he’s kept hidden from his family and the cause of his violent outbursts.

With all of their lives shattered in some way, Cassie’s family must struggle to repair their broken relationships.

As Cassie moves forward, she ultimately finds a way to help others, having developed compassion through her own painful experiences.

Written in lyrical prose, Shattered tells the moving story of how one girl finds inner strength through music.

Looking back, were you surprised to debut in 2009, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Yes, I’m surprised! My journey to this book has been 13 years long. I woke up on my fortieth birthday in May 1996 crying because I had not yet focused on my writing.

My husband, who is a psychiatrist, responded with, “Then, write.”

Before Shattered, I wrote two novels, five short stories, two picture books, many, many poems and a non-fiction essay. I’ve submitted all of these pieces over the years…to publishers, contests, and literary journals. One of my short stories received an honorable mention in a writing contest. It was supposed to be published in an anthology for young adults, but the publisher changed her mind and never published the collection of stories by contest winners.

So even though Shattered is the only thing I’ve published so far, it was all fruitful work. Each piece offered me opportunities to learn about pacing, page turning, plot, point of view, tense, and dialogue.

I’ve been afraid to count my rejections because there are so many! The most memorable is one from an agent I received on my second novel. He was brutally honest, harsh.

I cried reading it and thought of giving up. But playing with words and figuring out plots, discovering characters and researching things gives me so much joy that not writing anymore wasn’t an option. Instead, I decided I didn’t have enough skill to match the stories in my head.

In 2002, I applied to the Vermont College MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

There I learned how reading and critique could support my writing. In the role of apprentice, I tried to take in everything from my mentors.

Louise Hawes supported me to find the courage to write a story on domestic violence. She had me do “freewrites”—short pieces on whatever comes to mind. This is now an integral part of my process.

Sharon Darrow taught me to look for spaces in my text where I could go deeper emotionally.

From Kathi Appelt, I learned that working at poetry improves a sentence.

Tim Wynne-Jones helped me to not run from conflict, teaching how it’s “the engine” of story.

When the novel I wrote at Vermont didn’t sell, one of my classmates, Angela Morrison invited me to partner with her on a revision. I started over. For six months, we swapped manuscripts.

I almost didn’t submit it because I didn’t want to deal with rejection, but she pushed me to do so. I was completely ecstatic when not only did an offer come in from WestSide Books, but within three weeks, Angela sold her young adult novel, Taken by Storm (Razorbill, 2009).

Yet I didn’t believe my book would get published until I held it in my two writing hands this past summer.

I keep the faith through connection with other writers—through SCBWI, 1:1 and group critiques, and an “Artist’s Way” group.

I also pray for guidance to do my best work. I’m always on the look-out for inspiration; from other artists, nature, children, craft books, and baseball.

Finally, it’s easier to revise if I think of myself as an advocate of my main character, focusing on my belief in their story and in wanting to share it. If I’m focused only on trying to get published, then revision feels like pure drudgery. But if I believe in a story, my passion kicks in and being creative is playful. In the end, better writing prevails.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited?

In the fall of 2007, Vermont College emailed a letter from Evelyn Fazio at WestSide Books to alumni. It arrived shortly after I had finished my young adult novel, Shattered.

Evelyn’s note explained that WestSide Books was a new publisher of young adult fiction. She described the kind of manuscripts they were looking for: edgy novels reflecting real problems that teens face, including abuse.

She had just signed a Vermont College grad and was publishing her debut novel: Between Us Baxters by Bethany Hegedus (WestSide Books, 2009). Evelyn was very impressed with Bethany’s work and was writing to invite other graduates of the program to submit manuscripts.

I was in the program at the same time as Bethany and had heard her read her various pieces of work at student reading nights. I loved her work and thought it would be a dream to follow in her footsteps.

I also remember thinking that my manuscript was a good fit with Evelyn’s description. But instead of getting busy and following the submission guidelines, I made the decision not to submit my manuscript.

I know it doesn’t make sense, but at that time my son was struggling with a number of health complications as a result of going through six months of chemotherapy. He’s well now, but to me, there is nothing worse than seeing a child suffer. So my spirits were not exactly up and my faith was waning. I didn’t feel up for rejection, and I wasn’t in a place to hope for a sale.

Fortunately, when Angela Morrison heard my decision, she said something like, “Are you crazy?! Yours is perfect for WestSide! Submit. Today.” I have always been grateful for her kind words, and that I had enough sense to take her advice.

Evelyn called me in January 2008 and made me an offer.

What a gift to start the New Year by selling art!

Not only did I discover that Shattered is, in fact, a good fit with WestSide, but working with Evelyn is wonderful. During the revision process, it seemed she knew my main character even better than I did. She is fiercely loyal to readers, wanting everything to be clear and true.

Shattered is about intergenerational child abuse, which means the story not only is Cassie’s (the main character), but also her dad’s, and his dad’s, too. It was difficult for me to keep focused on Cassie’s story, while also telling her dad’s and grandfather’s.

Evelyn guided me to tell the tale of all three generations of this family without taking the focus off of Cassie. This is something I struggled with for many years. It was rewarding to get her help and to have it turn out as I had hoped.

I had submitted a previous version to 15 publishers and nothing worked out. While I was in the process of yet another revison, WestSide Books was born and eventually contact was made with Vermont College graduates via Bethany.

For me, it was a lesson in resilience. So much of the writing life is finding a way to keep going during long periods of hearing nothing and hearing a lot of “no.”

It becomes important to find ways to keep your spirits up, and especially to have supportive people in your life so you can be open to risk. You never know when your “yes” moment will happen.

Fortunately, because of Angela’s kindness, I didn’t miss mine.

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. Note: interviews with the debut authors of 2010 are scheduled to begin soon.

New Voice: Lauren Kate on Fallen

Lauren Kate is the first-time author of Fallen (Delacorte, 2009). From the promotional copy:

There’s something achingly familiar about Daniel Grigori.

Mysterious and aloof, he captures Luce Price’s attention from the moment she sees him on her first day at the Sword & Cross boarding school in sultry Savannah, Georgia. He’s the one bright spot in a place where cell phones are forbidden, the other students are all screw-ups, and security cameras watch every move.

Even though Daniel wants nothing to do with Luce–and goes out of his way to make that very clear–she can’t let it go. Drawn to him like a moth to a flame, she has to find out what Daniel is so desperate to keep secret . . . even if it kills her.

Dangerously exciting and darkly romantic, Fallen is a page turning thriller and the ultimate love story.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

Is it possible to be both a plotter and a plunger? Or a plunger who’s working on plotting? And sometimes a plotter who’s dying to plunge? I have struggled with plot for my whole writing career, and I’m still looking for the perfect mix of meticulousness and mystery.

Character is easy for me. Dialogue? Bring it on. Descriptions sometimes have to be pulled out of me like teeth, but I’ll give ‘em up eventually.

But plot? Most of the time I don’t have a clue. I’m the writer who spent six years working on a love story between a teen girl and her uncle—whose plot still needs a major kick in the pants to come to any sort of resolution.

I’m also the writer who kicked out four pseudonymous novels in two years with fun but very straightforward plots. You could say I was looking for a middle ground.

The two novels I have published on my own are getting closer to that. The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove (Razorbill, 2009) and Fallen were both meticulously plotted out before I wrote them. Character descriptions, paragraph-long synopses for each chapter, “big” endings, the whole deal.

Both outlines (along with a few chapters) were shared with writer-friends, agents and/or editors at very early stages.

And because the stories were larger and more complicated than I’d first realized, I actually did revisions on the outlines. Way more plotting than I’d ever done before.

At the end of plotting, when I was ready to plunge, it was comforting to sit down every day and know I had to write a chapter where X happened, followed by Y, and then Z.

But sometimes, it was also uninspiring. Suddenly, Y bored me, and Z felt really predictable. But it was in the outline, which fit together like a puzzle! What to do?

Eventually, I realized there were days when I would have to loosen my leash from my outlines, to let the story adapt and change organically as I went along. This was a very good decision, one that took me too long to make.

Right now, I’m in the middle of revising Torment (Fallen’s sequel). And honestly, the experience writing the first book and the second book has been night and day. Maybe it’s because much of the structure and world-building (see below) is already in place from the first book. Maybe it’s because I know the characters better.

But I know part of it is because I’m constantly refining my plotter-to-plunger ratio: freeing myself to stray when inspiration strikes, returning to my outline when I want to feel more grounded.

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

When I started writing Fallen, I wasn’t really aware that I was building a world. Looking back, I wonder how that was possible. Because world-building seems like Step One in how to write paranormal fiction, doesn’t it?

I used to work in YA publishing and got to edit many paranormal and fantasy authors. Working with them, I was always very conscious of the ways in which they built and experimented with their worlds.

I even enjoyed being a task-master if they broke the rules they’d set up. “But you said a wizard could only come back from the dead eleven times! This makes twelve.” That kind of thing.

But when it came to writing my own story, Fallen really began with the character. I had Lucinda and I had her conflict: she was looking for an escape from her past and a connection to something that felt real. That was where Daniel came in—bringing with him the beginnings of what I guess is called “the world.”

Suddenly, angels, demons, millennium-old curses, scores of reincarnations, and dueling forces of good and evil were all battling for a piece of the action in my little romance story. So it—the world, I mean—had to get bigger. Yank us into the world of Sword and Cross, my agent demanded when I sent him the first few chapters. Make it oppressive and inescapable and all-encompassing.

Oppressive? I had never written paranormal fiction in my life, and suddenly I wondered: could I do it?

Writers talk frequently about the worlds of fantasy and paranormal fiction, but of course, every novel has a world. A world is really just a setting, isn’t it? A setting whose bricks and mortar are really just description and imagination.

Even though, technically, Long Island already existed, Fitzgerald still had to build the world in The Great Gatsby (1925), didn’t he? You could say it’s just description, but the kind of description that informs everything else in the book—the protagonist, the conflicts, the emotional arcs of every character—that’s when description becomes world-building.

Turns out, it’s much less scary to think about world-building as imaginative description. The biggest difference between writing the worlds of straightforward contemporary fiction and paranormal fiction is that you get to make up fun new rules and dialect. I can’t say where most of these terms or rules come from. They just pop out of my mind onto the screen of my computer, and then I spend the rest of the series working through (and sometimes paying the price for) that little bit of impulsiveness.

For example, at the end of Fallen, I made an offhanded reference to a truce that is to last for eighteen days. Didn’t think too much about it, kind of just made it up. I had no idea that that one line would dictate the entire structure of the sequel, Torment. But once it went to the printer and I sat down to plot out Torment, eighteen days was what I had to work with, so eighteen days it was!

I’m not complaining, but I’ve learned to keep a notebook with a list of rules and terms for when I forget what I’ve tossed into Luce’s world. And I love the fact that I have three more books to work though, to let the world grow bigger, denser, and more complicated over the course of the series.

As you can see, building the world of my books is something I’m still figuring out, but I’m learning how to make the most of it, and sometimes even to enjoy it.

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. Note: interviews with the debut authors of 2010 are scheduled to begin soon.

New Voice: Deborah Lytton on Jane in Bloom

Deborah Lytton is the first-time author of Jane in Bloom (Dutton, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Jane’s big sister, Lizzie, has always been the center of attention. No one ever pays attention to boring, plain Jane.

But when Jane’s twelfth birthday marks the beginning of Lizzie’s final descent into a fatal eating disorder, Jane discovers that the only thing harder than living in her big sister’s shadow is living without her.

In the wake of tragedy, Jane learns to look through her camera lens and frame life differently, embracing her broken family and understanding that every girl has her season to blossom.

Spare and vulnerable prose marks this beautiful debut that is at once heartbreaking and uplifting.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters?

I get to know my main characters by writing. I start with an idea about who the character is and what she needs to say. Then I write a few pages from her point of view so I can begin to hear her voice. This usually happens with a pen and paper rather than the computer. My imagination tends to have more freedom when I touch the pen to paper.

Next, I delve more fully into her character by creating a diary for my main character–her birthday, her favorite color, the things she likes to eat, her favorite movies and music. I might add tear-outs from magazines, if I find something that resonates with me. I spend a lot of time thinking about the character until I have a visual of her to go with her voice.

With Jane, I used works of art and music to help enhance the connection with her. I listened to Michelle Branch, “The Spirit Room,” because her voice and lyrics sounded like Jane to me. And the painting, “Girl Before a Mirror” by Pablo Picasso was a visual representation for me of Jane’s view of herself, with the bright colors reflecting the chaos around her.

As I worked on my first draft of Jane, I discovered more about her, and this connection allowed me to further develop her character during the revision process.

I also use my background as an actress to become one with the character emotionally, almost as if I am preparing to play the role. I speak the dialogue out loud and visualize the manuscript as if it is a film.

When I was writing Jane in Bloom, I cried with her. My tears are in the manuscript because, as I wrote Jane’s story, I experienced her pain.

I use a similar method to discover my secondary characters. Again, I use the process of putting words on the page to allow the character to breathe and come alive. But my secondary characters sometimes necessitate a bit more research. They tend to be more removed from me. And that leads me to reading first-person accounts or talking to people in similar situations. I need to feel their emotions and their perspectives to connect with them.

In Jane in Bloom, there is a secondary character who is an older woman, Ethel. And she has a passion for growing roses. I know next to nothing about flowers, so I did a lot of research on the subject. Ethel’s passion for the art of growing roses flowed into an approach to life that is so optimistic. And Ethel allows Jane to bloom.

When I discovered Ethel, I also found the heart of my novel.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

I work as an attorney by day, and I am also a single mother of two young daughters. I long for the day when I can devote myself to writing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

But for now, I have to fit my writing schedule around the rest of my life. And that means I mostly write when my daughters are sleeping, either late at night or in the very early morning. I find this works well for me, because when I am tired, I am less critical and more creative. The next day, I begin writing by reading through my work from the previous night and revising.

I have also learned to write without being next to the computer. I write while I am sitting in traffic, by going over my story in my head and finding and discarding ideas as I drive. When I find one I like, I jot it down on a scrap of paper while stopped at a red light.

I also think about the story before I go to sleep.

Another thing I have learned is to click into my creative mode quickly. I do this by listening to music that connects me to the story, and I also use a bulletin board or book of visuals such as art or photographs to set the scene.

I’m sure that my schedule makes me slower to complete a manuscript, but I also know that taking more time forces me to let the manuscript breathe. And in that creative space, amazing ideas are born.

On the publicity side, I have learned to be especially organized. I make lists of things I need to accomplish and try to do a few things every week. My BlackBerry has been instrumental in this. I can respond to emails quickly and easily that way, and reserve non-writing computer time for blogging and promotion on Jane in Bloom. I wish I could say I have accomplished every single goal on my lists. But I just try to do the best I can.

For others like me who are trying to work and begin a career as a writer, I want to say this–you can do it. Believe in yourself and your talent. Set realistic goals for yourself, and find creative ways to write even when you are not at the computer.

The key to this life is balance. Be fair to yourself, and play to your strengths. If you work best in the daytime, set aside every Saturday morning to write. If you are a night owl, work for a few nights in a row and then get some sleep. Remember to keep pads of paper in your car and next to your bed for those moments when brilliance strikes. And never ever give up.

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. Note: interviews with the debut authors of 2010 are scheduled to begin soon.

A video interview with Deborah about Jane in Bloom from Stellar Media Group. Note: 9 minutes, 26 seconds.

New Voice: Susan VanHecke on Rock ‘N’ Roll Soldier: A Memoir

Susan VanHecke is the debut author of Rock ‘N’ Roll Soldier: A Memoir, co-authored by Dean Ellis Kohler (HarperTeen, 2009). From the promotional copy:

“During a time when none of us knew for sure if we would live or die, I came to know the true power of music.”

Dean Kohler is about to make it big–he’s finally scored a national record deal! But his dreams are abruptly put on hold by the arrival of his draft notice.

Now he’s in Qui Nhon, Vietnam, serving as a military policeman. He keeps telling himself he’s a musician, not a killer, and that he’s lucky he’s not fighting on the front lines. When Captain orders him to form a rock band, it’s up to Dean to find instruments and players, pronto.

Ingenuity and perseverance pay off, and soon the band is traveling through treacherous jungle terrain to perform for troops in desperate need of an escape–even if it’s only for three sets.

And for Dean–who lives with death, violence, and the fear that anyone could be a potential spy (even his Vietnamese girlfriend)–the band becomes the one thing that gets him through the day. During one of the most controversial wars in recent American history, this incredible true story is about music and camaraderie in the midst of chaos.

See also Susan VanHecke: Adventures in Authorhood.

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

When Dean Kohler first told me nearly ten years ago about the band he’d formed in Vietnam, I knew his story would make a great book. So I put together a proposal and sample chapters and landed an agent who shopped it around to publishers of books for grown-ups. We had no takers–Dean’s story was too “Boy Scout-ish,” they said, not enough blood and guts.

Of course, I was crushed, but I put the proposal away and moved on to other projects. Dean’s tale was always in the back of my head, though.

When I started writing for children a few years ago, I pulled the proposal back out, recast it as a YA, and pitched it to children’s publishers. Several editors were interested, and HarperCollins ultimately acquired it in a pre-empt.

One of the hazards, though, of selling a book from a proposal is that all parties involved–author, co-author, editor, agent–each have their own ideas of what the book should be.

My editor at HarperCollins hated our first manuscript. Despised it. Like not-sure-we-should-give-you-another-chance detested it.

I’ve been writing professionally for nearly 20 years, and it was the first time an editor didn’t at least sort of like what I had come up with. So that was totally devastating.

Thankfully, I was given another chance, but with a very short deadline to prove myself. To keep on track, I hired a pair of fabulous freelance editors with decades of children’s publishing experience.

With their guidance (actually, it was more like validation–to my relief, they both approved of the new direction I’d mapped out), I literally rewrote the entire manuscript from the ground up in just a few weeks.

When the book coaches were satisfied, when I was satisfied, when Dean was satisfied, I held my breath and sent the entirely revised manuscript off to HarperCollins.

And the editor liked it. Whew! There was work still to be done, but it got the green light.

We went through several more rounds of revisions to tighten dialogue and streamline some overwriting. To get the word count down to what HarperCollins wanted, we had to throw out many huge chunks–subplots, non-crucial action, etcetera–so I had to rejigger for continuity.

Some of the changes were difficult to swallow at first, but it was exciting to see how things all came together in the end. It took a lot of faith in our editor that she knew what was best for the manuscript, plus a willingness to compromise and to keep our minds open.

Ultimately, all the revising was worth it. We were able to secure a powerful foreword from rock musician Graham Nash and an endorsement from the National Vietnam War Museum. The book’s receiving excellent reviews and was nominated for a Cybil (Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Award) for best YA nonfiction of 2009 a month after its release. Dean and I are so grateful for the enthusiastic reception!

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

HarperCollins told us right from the top that they’ve found online publicity and promo the most effective at reaching the teen market. So that’s where we’ve focused most of our energies.

We set up a dedicated book website, and loaded it with Dean’s photos, 8 mm film footage, and audio from his Vietnam experience.

Now as you read the book, you can visit the site and view actual images of the characters, setting, and action, even hear clips of Dean’s wartime band. It really brings Dean’s story alive; we’re very excited about it.

We also included a discussion guide for use in the classroom and book clubs, plus a playlist of all music mentioned in the book.

Of course, we’re pursuing media coverage, as well. The HarperCollins publicity department has been truly awesome about sending out review copies. I know how swamped they are with so many titles all needing attention, so I’m totally willing to help out where I can.

I worked at a music industry PR firm in New York City eons ago, so it’s been fun for me to do all that stuff again–dream up media hooks and angles, craft a solid press release, research media outlets and the best ways to reach them and so forth. We’re fortunate in that our book also appeals to adults, so we have a broader audience to pitch to.

And, boy, the Internet has opened up so many PR possibilities! Bloggers, article and press release distribution sites, social networks, discussion groups and chat forums, video and photo sharing sites, web rings–it goes on and on! You could literally spend all day, every day plugging your book online.

I’ve tried to consolidate my cyber-efforts wherever possible. For instance, I’ve set up my author’s blog to feed to Amazon’s Author Central and Jacketflap, and I also do a quick cut-and-paste of every author-blog post to my blog at Red Room. That’s killing at least four birds with one stone–love that! Plus I cross-link all my blogs and websites (my author site, my other book sites). So I try to get everything working kind of synergistically.

The free online press release distribution services are especially useful. I’ve had releases picked up by blogs and news sites around the world, plus it gets your info out there on the all-important search engines.

I’m a big Google Analytics fan, too–gives you really helpful stats like where on the web your visitors are coming from, what search keywords they used to find your site, which pages they visit most and for how long, even where, geographically, in the world they’re located. Very cool stuff!

Cynsational Notes

Check out the book trailer below for Rock ‘N’ Roll Soldier: A Memoir.

Rainy Day in Downtown Qui Nhon, Vietnam, 1967: video of a quick ride through downtown Qui Nhon, Vietnam with teen soldier Dean Kohler of the 127th MP Company, US Army.

New Voice: Lara Zielin on Donut Days

Lara Zielin is the first-time author of Donut Days (Putnam, 2009), which was recently name to the 2010 Texas Library Association Lone Star List. From the promotional copy:

Emma has a lot going on. Her best friend’s not speaking to her, a boy she’s known all her life is suddenly smokin’ hot and in love with her, and oh yes, her evangelical minister parents may lose their church, especially if her mother keeps giving sermons saying Adam was a hermaphrodite.

But this weekend Emma’s only focused on Crispy Dream, a hot new donut franchise opening in town, where Harley bikers and Frodo wannabes camp out waiting to be the first ones served. Writing the best feature story on the camp for the local paper might just win Emma a scholarship to attend a non-Christian college. But soon enough Emma finds the donut camp isn’t quite the perfect escape from all her troubles at Living Word Redeemer.

In a fresh, funny voice, newcomer Lara Zielin offers up a mesmerizing, fast-paced narrative full of wit and insight.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2009, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Recently, at a Chicago book event with several other authors who’d had their debut novels published in 2009, someone in the audience asked how long the writing process took for each of us, from rough start to finished publication.

At the low end of the scale, some writers said between two and three years. I was at the high end of the scale, falling somewhere between eight and nine years.

I penned my first draft of Donut Days in 2001. It was pretty godawful. I revised and re-wrote for a long time, and it wasn’t until early 2007 when I finally landed an agent.

The book sold relatively quickly, and then came the editing process. Somehow, in my head, I assumed this wouldn’t really be that arduous or take that long.

I was wrong.

The editing process was super tough for me [don’t miss video below!].

My book went through many, many drafts and, even though my editor had great insights the whole time and was absolutely directing me toward the right changes, I just couldn’t make it all work. At one point I submitted a draft that was largely acknowledged as being much worse than the one that came before it.

My halting ability to do what my editor really needed me to definitely pushed out the publication date. I’m happy, actually, that it was 2009; for a while there, it was looking like it was going to be 2010.

I’m so thankful I had a solid editor who really was improving the book and not just asking for things willy-nilly. Ironically, I’m a magazine editor for my day job, and I kept thinking, I have the word “editor” in my job title. Why can’t I do what she needs me to do? I never quite figured that out, actually. The good news is, my editor’s work really made the novel sing–and I think that’s what kept me going, even amid all the frustration.

My second book, Promgate, which we’re editing right now, is slated for release in 2011. I’m hoping I’ll have an easier time of it, now that I have one book under my belt. We’ll see!

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

While there is a huge part of me that would love to write full-time, there’s a bigger part of me that’s grateful I have a job that I love doing work where I get to be creative and where I am surrounded by awesome colleagues. I think if my income was at all dependent on my writing, I would stress out about it a lot more.

I read once that the best advice anyone could offer for newly published writers is: Don’t quit your day job. Adopting an attitude that embraces full-time work for the mental freedom it offers me–versus carping about how I can’t have yoga pants for business attire–has been a great help.

In general, I’m the kind of person who thrives on structure. If you give me carte blanche to do whatever I want, I’ll probably lay around in my jammies all day eating cheese. It’s that bad. Having a day job is a good thing for me: it means I get up at a regular time, that I have a routine, and that I have to plan out when I’m going to write and actually be slightly thoughtful about it.

Most of the time, I don’t write during the workweek. Usually, I try and crave out some time on the weekends, ideally in the morning because I’m most productive (and creative) before noon. The challenge, of course, is to not fill up my weekend with errands and social events so that I can actually use my free time for writing.

I have found that it’s essential for me to communicate with my husband about what my writing needs are, and to collaborate with him about how to get it all done. So, for example, we had a schedule for a while where, during the workweek, I would walk our dog Amos in the morning, and my husband would walk Amos at night. Now, that schedule varies because I’ve decided to either write some mornings or attend a spin class. But I couldn’t have made that change without the help of my husband and communicating with him about how to make sure things–like the dog–still get taken care of.

One area where I’m looking to improve my productivity is to be more regular about writing. Because I mostly write on weekends, I won’t pen a word for five days, then I’ll sit down and pound out 6,000 words in one day. I think these fits and starts are fine, but I would like to try and have a bit more of a steady writing diet, versus starving then gorging myself.

I guess this means I’ll probably have to watch less Reality TV in the evenings (it was nice knowing you, “Ghost Hunters” and “Top Chef”!) but ultimately, I know it will be a positive change. And hopefully one that yields more published results!

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009.

In the video below, don’t miss “Lara Zielin’s agony and ecstasy as she edits her debut novel, Donut Days. ‘Editing Letter’ is sung, karaoke style, to Corey Hart‘s ‘Never Surrender.'” Note: highly recommended.