New Voice: Rebecca Maizel on Infinite Days

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Rebecca Maizel
is the first-time author of Infinite Days (St. Martin’s Press, 2010, 2013)(author blog & author facebook page). From the promotional copy:

“Throughout all my histories, I found no one I loved more than you…no one.”



Those were some of Rhode’s last words to me. The last time he would pronounce his love. The last time I would see his face.


It was the first time in 592 years I could take a breath. Lay in the sun. Taste.


Rhode sacrificed himself so I, Lenah Beaudonte, could be human again. So I could stop the blood lust.


I never expected to fall in love with someone else that wasn’t Rhode.


But Justin was…daring. Exciting. More beautiful than I could dream.


I never expected to be sixteen again…then again, I never expected my past to come back and haunt me…

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?

Rebecca at work!

The biggest learning curve? I didn’t realize how tactile I was; I actually need a pen and paper. Once I was contracted, I became super aware of every choice I was making and every word on the page.

When I knew that people were paying me for writing and it was no longer some pipe dream from behind the bar, I was super aware of my process of revision (I was a bartender for 11 years).

At that point, I had to identify and find my process. Other people were involved, giving me notes — people that had literally read thousands of books. That pressure was very hard to take, so I paid attention to what I was putting on the page, and how I was choosing to do it.

My process goes something like this: I type as much as I can, usually get blocked, hand write, input those handwritten pages into the computer, and then start printing — and repeat. I have to see my work on the printed page instead of on the computer.

Something about those infinite number of computer pages usually blocks me about half way into the second act. So when I print, I am able to see on the page what my book will look like.

I always knew that I needed to see my work on the page in front of me, I was just never aware of the repetition of my process. I hope other people do this and I don’t sound loony tunes. I also read aloud when things sound clunky. I should probably be reading this interview aloud.

Another aspect of my revising process is where I start my novel. Usually what I think is my beginning chapter, usually isn’t. It usually ends up being what I needed to write to get into the book. The faux opening expresses the voice of the book, but as I revise and think of the world I am setting up, I usually find a better way to open. Sometimes I need help.

For example: When penning the opening of Stolen Nights (St. Martin’s, 2013), I was 100% stuck on Lenah waking up from surviving the ritual in a hospital. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t imagine opening in a different way. That is, until my editor said to me that she wanted the problem/conflict on the first page. I don’t think she’ll mind me sharing this note because I think it’s an important editorial note.

A lot of writers struggle with the dilemma of where to begin. How do you balance world building, reveal of character/setting, and try to get the plot going?

It’s important to hook readers, especially young readers, and this note really tested my revising skills. I had to balance the two audiences of Stolen Nights, the readers who had read the first book in the series and the readers who had not.

I had to introduce Lovers Bay and Wickham Boarding School, all while establishing very quickly that this story was a fantasy, a low fantasy where the magical world is hidden from the realistic every day world.

I didn’t make it to page 1, but I did make it to the first half of page 2 and I’m quite proud of it. I’m not sure I could have found that beginning on my own. It’s important to trust your “trusted readers” (that’s why we call them that, after all) and to listen if someone thinks your opening isn’t working. Trust the process. Write the bad opening without knowing it then revise. Your characters will thank you for putting them in the wrong place at the right time in your manuscript.

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first-character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

Photo of Rebecca by Olivia Wilcox

When I first started writing Infinite Days, I was fascinated by the concept of accountability. I say this now, in hindsight, because I don’t think I was very conscious of this at the time. I think what happened artistically is that I heard a voice in my head and knew I had to write her.

Lenah came to me very viscerally and I knew immediately that she was old, very old, but I saw her in my head as very young physically. I reconciled these two things by making her a vampire.

I don’t think I thought very much about it except that she had a very big guilt issue. She had a big problem. She was old, she was angry, and she was tired of craving blood. She wanted to come back to the land of the living, she wanted to be human.

That was always my intention when writing Lenah. She wanted to come back to the light. But can you when you’ve been a murderous vampire for 592 years?

592 years gets to the answer of your question.

If Lenah has lived for hundreds of years but was a vampire, only certain aspects of history would matter to her. For instance, the older my vampires get, the more they can withstand the sun. Yet, the older they get, the more their minds begin to wane. Lenah, by the time she is 300, is really losing her mind. Being alive for too long is beginning to eat away at her mind.

Georgie on Rebecca’s desk

So I had to choose what would be important? Lenah is 592 years old and when she is made a vampire it is 1417. The plot of Infinite Days is modern day! That’s a long time! So I decided to keep the most important moments in history directly connected to Lenah’s internal, emotional arc.

Yes, the French Revolution is critical in the history of humanity but Lenah is living in England at that time. I didn’t include what didn’t affect her within the active moments of the story. I also only included what would stand out juxtaposed to modern day, as this book straddles Lenah’s history and present day.

For example, in 1850 Lenah meets Vicken, one of the main characters of Infinite Days and Stolen Nights. But it’s1850 Scotland. There are no cars, something Lenah comments on in the opening of Infinite Days. Everything in the modern day is so loud. So I chose Girvan, Scotland.

I wanted somewhere on the coast so I contacted the Girvan, Scotland library and spoke to a historian over e-mail for several months. I think he was a bit surprised to be working on a young adult Gothic fantasy, but he was endlessly helpful.

I don’t think you can be afraid to ask for help. I think it’s crucial to ask because even if you are writing fantasy, it has to be believable. Here are some moments in history/technological innovations, etc, that I really had to consider when writing Infinite Days and Stolen Nights.

  • Candlelight and the transition to electricity
  • Telephones (my vampires don’t use them or acknowledge them)
  • 18th century France
  • 19th century Scotland
  • Victorian England
  • Daguerreotypes
  • Orchards in the middle ages in England 
  • Clothing from 1400-2010 
  • The Order of the Garter/Richard the III 
  • The Black Plague 
  • Taverns in Girvan Scotland 
  • Bar songs of Scotland in 1850

You get the idea. I had to build an entire back story for Lenah and her coven. There are about 50 more items on this list, but this is a good place to start.

New Voice: John M. Cusick on Girl Parts

Now in paperback

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

John M. Cusick is the first-time author of Girl Parts (Candlewick, 2010, 2012) and the free e-book “Abandon Changes: A Girl Parts Story” (also Candlewick). From the promotional copy: 

David and Charlie are opposites. David has a million friends, online and off. Charlie is a soulful outsider, off the grid completely. But neither feels close to anybody.

When David’s parents present him with a hot Companion bot designed to encourage healthy bonds and treat his “dissociative disorder,” he can’t get enough of luscious redheaded Rose –and he can’t get it soon. Companions come with strict intimacy protocols, and whenever he tries anything, David gets an electric shock. 

Parted from the boy she was built to love, Rose turns to Charlie, who finds he can open up, knowing Rose isn’t real. With Charlie’s help, the ideal “companion” is about to become her own best friend.

In a stunning and hilarious debut, John Cusick takes rollicking aim at internet culture and our craving for meaningful connection in an uberconnected world.

How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level? What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal? What techniques have worked best and why?

Free e-book

The only way I can stay productive is through force of habit. Six days a week, two hours a day, I write. When writing a first draft, I shoot for five pages a day, usually completing three to seven.

My weekly day off usually isn’t planned; I just write until life happens and I have to run an errand or catch up on sleep instead.

I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration to strike. I’ve trained my brain to get inspired around 8:30 every morning, usually after the second or third cup of coffee. And when I’m not inspired, I just start putting words on the page until I find a thread I like, or it’s time to head into the office.

In the long run, a routine keeps me sane. Rather than saying, “I have to write well,” I say, “I have to write today.” This way I can feel good about putting in the hours even when I’ve had an off morning, and for the rest of the day, my writer-brain can rest and refresh.

And of course, the more you write, the better you get, period

In addition to being my passion, writing is also an income stream for me, so I’ve got to treat it like a job. But I was working this schedule long before I got published, and it helped me get there.

Before writing, I have to read for at least half-an-hour to get my brain thinking in complete sentences. I’ve never been a “voracious” reader, and never subscribed to the read widely rule you sometimes hear writers espouse; I’m too picky and I read too slowly.

My tastes do vary, from Ian Fleming to Jeffery Eugenides, but there’s just too much great stuff out there to slog through five-hundred pages of something I’m not excited about, or to read books too different from what I want to write.

I’m sure there’s some phenomenal experimental memoirs in verse out there, but not for me, thanks.

For the larger-picture stuff, like story arcs and theme, I find television and movies are a great tool. It’s hard to trace a character’s development, or the rising action and tension, when reading a book over the course of a week, but absorbing a movie’s story in two hours gives me a more immediate sense of how the writer (screenwriter, in this case) structured their tale.

By far the biggest hurdle I’ve had to overcome as an author is something I think a lot of other young writers struggle with: how to tell a story. Pretty language? No problem. I will seduce you with my flowery prose! Social themes? Learned that in college, my motifs run deep, baby.

But story? That’s the trickiest.

How do you keep the reader turning the pages? How do you make your protagonist active instead of a passive observer? Learning to tell stories that move and excite, rather than try to craft “works of art” to be dissected in a classroom, is something I constantly wrestle with and a major reason I write for teens.

Hardcover edition

Teens don’t care if your metaphors are genius, or if your novel is a retelling of Crime and Punishment. They want story. They want characters they feel for, who alter and are altered by the world around them.

While working on my follow-up to Girl Parts I had a major case of English Major-itis. I was more interested in how I was telling my story— i.e. my style— than my what my characters were experiencing.

Eventually I had to go back and start over from word one. It’s been a ton of work, but man what an education! So far I’m happy with the results. I have no idea what my social themes or over-arching metaphors might be, but I know my story.

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

I wanted the world of Girl Parts to be recognizably our own, so the characters’ problems would feel immediate and familiar. Yet I was writing about some seriously sci-fi-sophisticated robots.

I decided Sakora, the company that makes Rose and the other Companions, would be light-years ahead of their competitors, but still in the beta-testing stages of their robot-program. That way, the Companions would not be a widespread phenomenon like cell phones or laptops.

Otherwise, I wanted the technology in Girl Parts to be entirely contemporary: David Sun has a cell phone and an iPod, he chats online and spends time in a Second Life-like virtual world.

Electronically, he’s uber-connected, but doesn’t feel an emotional attachment to anyone or anything. This, to me, isn’t sci-fi but a real problem teens face.

The real fun came in figuring out Rose’s physiology. We can assume a few things about the way most human characters think and feel even without knowing their back stories. I had to build Rose from the ground up, keeping in mind who built her and why.

I decided Sakora would give her a finite vocabulary; Rose would learn slang and jargon by listening to the humans around her (like CleverBot, which didn’t exist when I was writing Girl Parts).

Like any expensive piece of hardware, she’d need a satellite link, so her creators could download software updates, and so Rose could effectively “Google” any phrase or situation she wasn’t familiar with. To be a better human-analog, Rose would eat food, which she would “process” in private with a dainty burp. As a high-end consumer product, Rose would come equipped with her own wardrobe, “ablutions”, and instructional DVD.

I wanted Rose’s packaging and accessories to feel flashy, cheap, and banal to underscore the very real, very humane thoughts and feelings going on inside her.

Figuring how Rose would think was another fun task. I have a sketch above my desk labeled “Rose’s Brain,” which I drew while writing a later draft: it’s just an arrow bounded by a circle. I decided that the reductive egg-heads at Sakora would give Rose a very Freudian brain, with an Id (Rose’s innate desire for David) checked by a Super Ego (the rules, guidelines, and morays Sakora enforces on her from without). Today I still use this as a guideline for most of my characters: a strong desire, checked by outside forces. I only drew the picture to help me conceptualize Rose’s mind, but the image found its way into the language of the novel, too, and then, to my surprise, became a running motif. This is how it appears in the book:

Rose’s mind was an arrow. It pointed to David. The rest of reality, whatever didn’t fall along the length of the arrow, was insignificant. An Ethernet link connected Rose to a data bank at Sakura HQ in Japan. As her emerald eyes passed over the lawn, information queued for access. Grass. Flower pot. Stairs. Driveway. Tree. Each node was the center of its own web. Tree connecting to Green, Poplar, Seasons, Paper. This complex veil, pierced by Rose’s unwavering arrow, was a techno-semantic marvel.

Cynsational Notes

Don’t miss these Girl Parts character destinations:

See also excerpt, sample chapter, audio book sample.

New Voice: Karen Kincy on Other and Bloodborn — Plus Giveaways

Karen Kincy is the author of Other (2010) and Bloodborn (2011), both from Flux. From the promotional copy of Other:

Seventeen-year-old Gwen hides a dangerous secret: she’s Other. Half-pooka, to be exact, thanks to the father she never met. 

Most Americans don’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for Others, especially not the small-town folks of Klikamuks, Washington. 

As if this isn’t bad enough, Gwen’s on the brink of revealing her true identity to her long-time boyfriend, Zack, but she’s scared he’ll lump her with the likes of bloodthirsty vampires and feral werewolves.

When a pack of werewolves chooses the national forest behind Gwen’s home as their new territory, the tensions in Klikamuks escalate–into murder. It soon becomes clear a serial killer is methodically slaying Others. 

The police turn a blind eye, leaving Gwen to find the killer before the killer finds her. As she hunts for clues, she uncovers more Others living nearby than she ever expected. Like Tavian, a sexy Japanese fox-spirit who rivals Zack and challenges her to embrace her Otherness. 

Gwen must struggle with her own conflicted identity, learn who she can trust, and–most importantly–stay alive.

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

Other was the first novel I ever wrote, and when I sent it out into the world, five agents duked it out in a battle to represent me, and then ten editors fought over the book in a fierce auction—I wish!

In reality, Other was my fourth novel, and I acquired a mountain of rejections before it ever made it to acquisitions at my publisher, Flux.

Karen Kincy

You want the true story? It all started when I was thirteen. I was writing a sci-fi about a talking chameleon and a fantasy about a dragon with the unpronounceable name of Jamvthund. (I had a thing for imaginary reptiles.) Needless to say, these novels remain unfinished and unseen. Call it part of the learning process. I was young and not a very good writer yet.

But I was determined to have a book published in my teens, possibly because I was an incorrigible show-off, so I kept writing and learning and getting better until—when I was eighteen—I finished a YA novel about werewolves, sent it out, and racked up ninety rejections.

Undeterred, still daydreaming about fame and fortune at a tender age, I wrote a novel about winged people. My second novel racked up another ninety or so rejections.

I fiddled with a third novel, never finished it, and was stumped for awhile.

Finally, I dug around in my imagination a bit more and hit pay dirt. My fourth novel, originally titled Otherworld: Portal Danger, was a parody of fantasies where portals dump ordinary teens into a magical world. Though my teens were extraordinary—a half-pooka shapeshifter, a Japanese fox-spirit, a werewolf guy, etc. Sound familiar, readers of Other?

Yes, I ditched the parody and kept the characters. The half-pooka shapeshifter, Gwen, became the star of a murder mystery in an alternate America nearly identical to our own—except for the fact that paranormal people exist and everybody knows it.

Lisa Ann Sandell, Sara Crowe (center) & Jenny Moss.

So here comes the mountain of rejections part. Other collected its ninety rejections before my editor, Brian Farrey at Flux, plucked it out of the slush pile, and I signed with my agent, Sara Crowe.

Everything happened so fast then—after years and years, suddenly I had a publication date, and a debut novel that needed revising. I don’t think it was inevitable, because I sold Other and a second novel, Bloodborn, while I was a sophomore at college—if I could have predicted it, I would have timed it a little better. My schedule was insane that year!

How did I keep the faith? Sheer stubborn persistence and just a touch of obsession.

Remember, I wanted to be a teen author. I missed that deadline by a few years, and now I realize that the gimmick of “look how young I am!” isn’t as important as, say, readers actually loving your writing.

Nowadays, knowing that there are fans of Other keeps me going. That is, at heart, why I wanted to be published. Otherwise, I could have crouched like Gollum in a cave, hissing at people who came too close to my manuscripts. And we wouldn’t want that.

As a paranormal writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your fantasy might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

I have always thought that the best speculative fiction—be it horror, high fantasy, or paranormal—acts as metaphor, exploring the crossroads of the real and the imaginary.

These aren’t just books about vampires, fairies, and werewolves. These are books that take our secret, often darker, thoughts and desires and explore them in a way strange yet familiar. The conflicts are recognizable, but also foreign enough to spark insight.

In Other, I wanted to tie together the magical and the mundane and then tighten all the knots. I had read many paranormal novels where werewolves and vampires conveniently hide from mainstream eyes. I wanted them to be an unavoidable part of everyday life.

From this idea came Others, paranormal people who live among us—and everybody knows it. Others have altered the culture we know in ways both large and small, everything from life-and-death laws to tiny details like tuna at the grocery store advertised as being caught in mermaid-safe nets. Others have become part of the ordinary, even if they are, by definition, extraordinary.

Clearly, Others are those who are not “us”—but haven’t we all felt this way at one time or another?

There’s always something about you or I that doesn’t fit “normal,” something we might be conflicted about sharing or hiding. Gwen, the half-pooka protagonist of Other, conceals her shapeshifting abilities from everyone outside her family, especially her boyfriend, since he’s a human from a conservative background. She thinks of herself as “under the bed,” a monster who hasn’t come out yet. But there are those who are openly Other, like those who march in the midnight Vampire Pride Parade in Seattle, or the centaur browsing produce at the grocery store—but of course, the centaur doesn’t have the luxury of hiding his identity.

Bloodborn, the second novel in the series, focuses on a particularly reviled group of Others: the werewolves. It’s not all about exciting shapeshifting, battles with rival packs, and occasional encounters with humans who tread on their territory.

In this world, werewolves are a minority, and they have to play by human rules. Or, if they break these rules, live as outlaws on the outskirts. Since werewolves often face discrimination and a lack of jobs, many have resorted to crime as a means to feed themselves and fight back against hunters. They run, hunt, and sleep in the national forests of America, moving between safe havens in caravans of cars and campers.

The protagonist of Bloodborn, Brock, first appears as an antagonist in Other. He bands together with those who hate and fear Others, hunting down werewolves in the forest. After being bitten by a werewolf, he becomes the very thing he hated. He fights the urge to transform every full moon, while his older brother—bitten by the same wolf—fights for his life in the hospital. Brock takes a drug to keep himself from changing into a wolf, but he’s infected, tainted, and he knows exactly why his family fears and shuns him. Obsessed with the desire for revenge, Brock vows to kill the werewolf who bit him and his brother.

But the true conflict of Bloodborn isn’t Brock’s hunt for the werewolf who bit him. For a newly bitten werewolf—a bloodborn—the struggle to embrace your new identity can be fatal. If the brutal first transformations don’t kill you, another werewolf or an overzealous sheriff might. The pain of resisting the change to wolf physically expresses the pain of leaving your old self behind. Not unlike that first time you move out on your own, and you alone have to face the bittersweet independence and make something of yourself.

It’s no coincidence that I wrote Bloodborn my second summer at college. I’m always fascinated by what happens when someone must change—no wonder I write about shapeshifters so often.

Cynsational Notes

Enter to win a copy of Other (2010) and/or Bloodborn (2011), both from Flux. To enter, comment on this post and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email me directly with “Other,” “Bloodborn” or “Other/Bloodborn” in the subject line. Publisher-sponsored. Eligibility: North America (U.S./Canada) Deadline: Oct. 14.

New Voice: Marianne Monson on The Mima Journals Vol 1: The Water is Wide

Marianne Monson is the first-time YA author of The Mima Journals Vol 1: The Water is Wide (Deseret Book Co., 2010). From the promotional copy:

When Mima’s mother meets a pair of LDS missionaries in the small English town of Wood Box in 1844, Mima prays that the townspeople won’t treat them any differently.

But when her mother chooses to be baptized, Mima’s worst fears are recognized. Even her best friend refused to stand by her.

So when her mother decides to leave for America, Mima is faced with some hard decisions. Should she stay in London with her brother, or face the journey to America with her mother and her strange new religion?

Book one of three, The Water is Wide, begins the beautifully written adventure of a teenage girl who experiences the life of a pioneer as an outsider.

How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level? What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal?

This book was written because I found myself as a student in the M.F.A. program at Vermont College and suddenly I needed to produce manuscript pages.

Like many writers, I had grown up as an obsessive reader. As a child, my mother claims that I had a penchant for drama and would “transform” into the protagonist from whatever book I happened to be reading at the time, mimicking their patterns of speech and dress.

(I remember elusively darting around corners clutching a notebook after reading Harriet The Spy [by Louise Fitzhugh (Harper & Row, 1964) for example.)

At age seven, I recorded in my journal that when I grew up I wanted to write stories. That desire always stayed with me. Although I wanted to be a writer desperately, I was also terrified of failing.

For years, I pushed my goal of being a writer into the future. I told myself that I would write once I had more life experience. I would write once I had more education. I would write once I had a “writer’s studio” (it is a good thing I didn’t hold out for that, since I still, alas, cannot claim ownership of such an idyllic-sounding space).

And suddenly there I was at Vermont College, surrounded by famous author-teachers, with a deadline looming in my face and a husband and a two-year-old baby waiting for me at home, wondering if I was wasting a goodly amount of both time and money.

Luckily, the deadlines forced me to push aside all my years of fears and excuses and do as Jane Resh Thomas brilliantly recommended: “put your butt in the chair.”

A few years previous, I had studied for a semester in England. While in Yorkshire, I visited a graveyard (I must admit I have always loved old graveyards) where the headstones were tilted and scoured by time.

Several of my own ancestors had been buried in that graveyard, and as I looked over the parish records, I saw their names, baptisms, marriages, and deaths recorded in spidery, scrolling ink. Generations of families had been born and raised and buried in this small, rustic town. And then missionaries from the Mormon church arrived and created a religious fervor that tore families and the community apart in many ways.

I had been fascinated by this story, imagining (as authors do) the individuals and their reactions to this situation. I had wanted to write about it at the time, but lacked the confidence (see preceding paragraphs) to begin.

Years later at Vermont College, the graveyard scene came back to me. And I wondered if, perhaps, I could attempt the story. I was very nervous about tackling this subject.

For one thing, religion was a taboo subject in young adult literature at that time (yes, things have changed since then). The fellow students I shared the idea with tended to respond with a blank stare and a rather floundering response.

I had been raised as a Mormon and was used to reactions ranging from comments about cults to follow-up questions involving polygamy. Writing about something so personal to me seemed like I might be opening up an intensely intimate side of myself for public ridicule.

But my Vermont College mentors challenged me to “write what haunts you.” They took the manuscript seriously and asked me to continue with it.

Kathi Appelt taught me that good writing always comes from an intimate, personal space and often involves overcoming fear.

Marion Dane Bauer worked closely with me on the manuscript, challenging me to revise, stay true to Mima’s story, and to tell it as authentically as I was able.

It was an honor to work with such gifted writers and teachers, who truly provided the structure and encouragement I needed to find my own voice.

The novel was completed as my Creative Thesis for the program when I graduated in 2006. An editor at Penguin Putnam was interested in it for a time, but when she eventually passed on the project, I put it away for a while, aware that it needed more revision.

I worked instead on a chapter book series that sold to Deseret Book in 2009. I mentioned the novel in passing to my editor there, and she requested to see it.

I was completely unprepared for my editor’s response. She loved the novel and wanted me to consider developing it into a trilogy. I had always envisioned the book as intended for a broad audience. I felt that Mima’s story was the story of a girl’s journey toward spiritual peace—a journey I hoped would speak to girls with a wide variety of religious backgrounds (or none at all).

I had never imagined the book being published by Deseret Book (a publisher that sells primarily to the Mormon marketplace), since my protagonist is not a member and has asks some pretty difficult questions about the church (including polygamy), but overall it has been a good fit. I particularly love what they did with the cover and the interior design. My editor Heidi Taylor has been a pillar of wisdom and support.

Reading the reviews and responses from readers is always a very emotional experience for me. When they connect with the story, when they respond to Mima’s journey, it is as if the reader and I have had a conversation—connecting us across time and space. It is an exhilarating feeling, a feeling that will motivate me to continue to write for years to come.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

I teach creative writing and composition/literature at Portland Community College.

Writing is a very solitary activity. Oftentimes, it involves me wrestling my beloved laptop and trying to extrude a morsel of insight from my brain, wringing it drop by precious drop onto my keyboard.

Writing is recursive. I return to the same scenes over and over, revising, reshaping, re-thinking.

Teaching is dynamic, spontaneous, and requires me to interact with live people, which I find to be of enormous benefit both to my emotional sanity as well as to my work as a writer. I learn constantly from my students—about the world, about human nature, and about the power of language to shape our experiences.

It is a blessed privilege to be able to do two things that I love so well and call this a career.

Cynsational Notes

Marianne Monson has always adored antique shops, steamer trunks, and old British Novels. She majored in English Literature at Brigham Young University where she particularly enjoyed studying the Brontes and spent a semester in London. She holds a master’s of fine arts degree (MFA) in creative writing from Vermont College. She teaches English and creative writing at Portland Community College and loves reading to her children, Nathan and Aria.

New Voice: Cindy Callaghan on Just Add Magic

Cindy Callaghan is the first-time author of Just Add Magic (Aladdin, 2010)(discussion guide). From the promotional copy:

When Kelly Quinn and her two BFFs discover a dusty old cookbook while cleaning out her attic, the girls decide to try a few of the mysterious recipes inside.

But the ancient book bears an eerie warning, and it doesn’t take long for the girls to realize that their dishes are linked to strange occurrences.

The Keep ‘Em Quiet Cobbler actually silences Kelly’s pesky little brother and the Hexberry Tarta brings an annoying curse to mean girl Charlotte Barney. And there’s the Love Bug Juice, which seems to have quite the effect on those cute Rusamano boys…

Could these recipes really be magical? Who wrote them, and where did they come from? And most importantly, what kind of trouble are the girls stirring up for themselves? Things are about to get just a little too hot in Kelly Quinn’s kitchen.

What is it like, to be a debut author? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? What came as the biggest surprise? In each case, why?

The debut of my work meant a transition from Writer to Promoter. I put writing on hold temporarily because time constraints wouldn’t allow me to do both. I really missed writing which, for me, is quiet and solitary.

Promotion is just the opposite, and as a modest person, I found it challenging talking about myself and my work. One of the things that surprised me was how amazingly excited people were for me. And they were so supportive. Especially the schools I visited, they were so kind to me, and the kids thought I was a celebrity, seriously. I always wanted to be a celebrity.

One time I was picking up my kids from after-school care and a very quiet, shy little girl that I didn’t know came up to me. I imagined it was hard for her to approach me like that.

She said, quite assertively, “Hey, Mrs. Callaghan.”

“Yes?” I asked.

And she pointed at me with both hands and said, surprisingly assertively, “Loved the book!” And she dashed off.

I laughed all afternoon.

You know another thing that surprises me? The emails I get from kids.

I got one the other day that really wanted an autographed picture of me. I thought, “I’ve arrived.” Of course I don’t have any autographed pictures of myself, but how could I let down this fan? What was I going to do? What any girl would do…called Dad. Presto, I’ve got a photograph that only needed to be signed and mailed.

I was in Manhattan recently, and we had a really long wait at this popular restaurant. I confidently approached the maître d’ to explain that I was famous and we should get a good seat….yadda yadda…okay, it didn’t work.

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 like to write in the morning. I wake up between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. most days. When I am involved in a project, I will write before work for about an hour.

But I really prefer to write in big time chunks. That way I don’t have to stop when I am on a roll.

As you can imagine with a family and job, large blocks of time are difficult to find. If my creative juices are really flowing, like with a first draft, I can get up really early and write for hours. It feels like minutes.

On a weekend morning I’ll leave the house at 5:30 a.m. I can get four hours of writing in before most people are awake!

If I can, I block a whole day, sometimes two. I go away if I can. It is very hard for me to find a quiet place at home, so getting away to our mountain house alone or with a few writing friends works very well.

Other times I can catch a half hour in the car, or in the waiting room at the doctor. A plan to maximize these little bits of time helps. I take about 10 minutes each Sunday to look at my calendar to make my plan. Something like:

Monday: 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. – Draft Chili Cook-off Scene

Tuesday: Doctor Appointment – Review Chili Cook-off Scene

Wednesday night: 30 minutes – Draft Blog entry

Thursday: get to gymnastics pick-up early and review blog entry in the car

Friday: too busy

Saturday: 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. – Draft Chapter 11

Sunday: Read Chris’ pages for critique group next week

I think a schedule would help anyone stay on track. But don’t be too hard on yourself. You can always reschedule the Chili Cook-off Scene for next week, and that’s okay.

Lastly, I would advise anyone who wants to be published to join a critique group. My critique group is invaluable. We’ve been meeting for six years. They’ve become very close friends and are a critical piece of my writing process. We really keep each other going.

Cynsational Notes

See a Sneak Peek at Recipes in Just Add Magic from Cindy Callaghan.

New Voice: Shawn Goodman on Something Like Hope

Shawn Goodman is the first-time author of Something Like Hope (Delacorte, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Shavonne is a fierce and desperate seventeen year-old who finds herself in a large juvenile lockup hundreds of miles from home. She wants to turn her life around before her eighteenth birthday, but her problems seem too big, and time is running out.

Amidst corrupt guards, out-of-control girls, and shadows from her past, Shavonne must find the courage to fight for a redemption she’s not sure she deserves.

This gritty and unflinchingly honest look at life in juvenile detention, winner of the 2009 Delacorte Contest, will break your heart, change the way you think about “troubled” teens, and ultimately, leave you feeling something like hope.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence your debut book?

I hated reading until I got my hands on The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy (Bantam, 1980). I was fifteen, and I remember staying up late reading by flashlight; my parents thought something was wrong with me because, for several days (I was and remain a very slow reader), I hardly came out of my room or played ball with my friends.


It was an awakening of sorts. I hadn’t known books like that existed. Before that, all the books I had read seemed like they were written for other people, people who talked differently and cared about different things. People who had no idea about my experiences or what was important to me.

And every day in English class, it was this slow death picking through irrelevant plots to find examples of symbolism, and foreshadowing. None of it meant anything to me. Which is why, as a YA writer/former reluctant reader, I have to keep in mind the thousand or so reasons kids have to not read.

On the surface there’s the usual things, the competing formats of television, social networking, YouTube, and video games that increasingly incorporate fairly complex narrative structures.

But it’s the deeper reasons concern me most, the ones that point to the disengaged kids who have given up on reading, and learning new things about the world. And it is for them that I try and write books with short engaging chapters, plenty of action and dialogue, and strong emotional content.

And I avoid big words, which is not to say that kids won’t understand; they do. But it’s more about establishing the right rhythm and cadence, like when kids are free from any adults and they talk to each other in this quick, easy, unobstructed way. Their language is infinitely flexible because it’s not bound by the rules, responsibilities, and conventions that govern almost everything that we as adults do.

The best YA books really nail that perfectly, and, not surprisingly, kids respond strongly.

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

Originally, I wrote Something Like Hope to process my own experiences working in a girls’ juvenile justice facility. Everything happening around me in those years was extreme and very disturbing, so I didn’t think about frames of reference or where things fell on the spectrum of behavior.

There was so much violence, and despair in those places that the only question was of how to tell the story accurately yet in a way that could be believable. I suspect that this is often the case when dealing with closed systems or groups of invisible people. Do you tell it like it really is, or do you make compromises for the sake of the story?

It’s a big question, and I think, ultimately, readers will have to judge if I responded adequately in Something Like Hope. I suppose I could defer to the standard about doing what’s right for the story, but that might be too simplistic for an emotional book about a character who is desperate and, at times, out of control.

Add to that the fact that she is changing, growing, actually, and reacting to other out-of-control characters, and how can you know what kind of behavior is right or wrong, and if it’s too edgy?

At the risk of sounding vague or mystical, I think that, at least in the case of this book, it comes down to tone. If I had compromised too much and changed the language, say, I took out some of the raw, violent, and offensive language, then I’m pretty sure the tone of the book would end up getting fouled. And if I took out a difficult or disturbing scene, it would have the same effect.

So for the kind of writing I do, which often deals with trauma and shame and, sometimes, redemption, it’s not so much a question of edginess as it is one of tone and how it
all feels.

Cynsational Notes

Shawn Goodman is a writer and school psychologist. His experiences working in several New York State juvenile detention facilities inspired Something Like Hope. He has been an outspoken advocate for juvenile justice reform, and has written and lectured on issues related to special education, foster care, and literacy. Shawn lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and children. Author photo by Sonya Sones.

“Debut novelist Goodman…delivers a gritty, frank tale that doesn’t shrink from the harshness of the setting but that also provides a much-needed redemption for both Shavonne and readers.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Goodman’s portrait of a life in crisis is heart- and mind- and gut-wrenching; his protagonist is hopped up on rage, surrounded by guards who are physically and emotionally abusive.” —The Horn Book

New Voice: Chelsea M. Campbell on The Rise of Renegade X

Chelsea M. Campbell is the first time author of The Rise of Renegade X (Egmont, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Damien Locke knows his destiny–attending the university for supervillains and becoming Golden City’s next professional evil genius. But when Damien discovers he’s the product of his supervillain mother’s one-night stand with–of all people–a superhero, his best-laid plans are ruined as he’s forced to live with his superhero family.

Going to extreme lengths (and heights), The Rise of Renegade X chronicles one boy’s struggles with the villainous and heroic pitfalls of growing up.

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

The book that really helped me and that significantly helped me on my publication journey (in fact, I don’t know if I’d be published if it wasn’t for what I learned in this book) is Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel (Writer’s Digest, 2002) and Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook (Writer’s Digest, 2004)).

I’m not big on books about writing, especially since most of them are written by people I’ve never heard of who just love writing how-to books. I think it’s fair to say that most writing how-to books piss me off.

Writing the Breakout Novel, however, is awesome. It’s about challenging yourself to improve your writing and take it to the next level. It doesn’t tell you how to write, but instead asks you questions to help you improve your story, like, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to your main character? When would be the worst time for that to happen?” Things like that.

It’s all about sharpening the conflict in your novel and upping the stakes, both physically and emotionally, and it’s hard not to get excited about working on a story while reading this book.

Another thing I love about it is that it’s useful at any level. A lot of writing books are only focused on beginners, and there’s not a lot aimed at the intermediate writer who knows the basics but can’t quite get over the last couple hurdles keeping them from getting published.

Writing the Breakout Novel is great for anyone who wants to improve their storytelling, whether they’ve got a few novels under their belt but “aren’t quite there yet” or have been published for years.

I know the quality of my books jumped up quite a bit after I read this and went through all the exercises in the workbook, and the info I’ve gotten from it has been invaluable.

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?

Comedy is tough. There’s nothing worse than someone who thinks they’re funny when they’re really not. I think we’ve all had at least one class with “that guy” who thinks he’s hilarious, but everyone in the room is silently willing him to shut the hell up. Obviously, you don’t want to be that guy. But the fact that you’re even thinking about not wanting to be that guy probably means you aren’t.

I think an important element of writing comedy is to write what makes you laugh. You’ve got to do it for yourself, because if the humor isn’t honest, that’ll come through and it won’t be funny. Plus, if it makes you laugh, it’s likely to resonate with other people, too.

I tend to write humorous stories, mostly because that’s what comes out and because I enjoy making myself laugh, and The Rise of Renegade X is no exception.

Damien, the protagonist, has a pretty snarky inner commentary running through the whole novel. He says a lot of things I might think to myself but would never actually say.

When I was writing him, I’d just sit down and show what was going on through his eyes, getting his opinions of everything in there, which were usually pretty funny.

Other than funny plot elements, like a supervillain kid having to live with his superhero father, I didn’t pre-plan the jokes, I just wrote them as I experienced the story through the character’s point of view.

I think it’s difficult, but important, to trust yourself. You have to trust that when you sit down to write, something funny is going to come out. Sometimes I don’t realize what I’ve written is funny until I read it over the next day, so don’t toss anything you think is boring until some time has passed or someone else has looked over it for you.

Use humor as a tool to show a character’s personality–like everything in writing, it should move the story forward and enrich the audience’s experience with and knowledge of the characters.

As you write, put in all the jokes you can make work, and worry about weeding out the not-that-great ones that nobody gets but you later on.

Mostly, trust yourself, relax, and have fun.

How “Buffy: the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003) has influenced my writing:

I have a confession to make: I actually didn’t start watching “Buffy” until sixth season. I couldn’t imagine that a show based on that movie could be any good, and it didn’t help that anyone I knew who watched it acted ashamed and called it a “guilty pleasure.”

But now I know better, and no one should ever feel ashamed to watch something as awesome as “Buffy.” I have since then seen way more episodes and become a big “Buffy” fan. It’s fun, and it’s got a girl with superpowers who kicks serious ass while dealing with the same problems as everyone else.

One of the other things I love about it is that Buffy can’t do it alone, and even the shy nerdy girl is super useful and eventually finds her strength (I was so that girl).

Even though I tend to write about guys, every time I sit down to write a new book, my mind turns to “Buffy.” How can I make something that awesome? How can I have characters that kick ass and who have the ability to be both serious and funny at the same time? How can I create relationships that complex?

Whenever I think about blending real life and fantasy elements in my novels, my go-to inspiration is “Buffy.” Is it a coincidence that I love writing about teens who live in a world that’s part reality, part magic? I always wanted to write fantasy, but it took me a long time to realize I wanted to write about it in the real world, and that the characters I really loved writing about were teens.

It’s a pretty safe bet to say that that seed started with “Buffy,” and I don’t know where I’d be without it. It changed how I thought about fantasy and about YA.

If you’ve never seen the show, I highly recommend it. You may start out snickering at all the 90s-isms, but don’t wig too much–it won’t take long for you to get hooked.

New Voice: Léna Roy on Edges

Léna Roy is the first-time author of Edges (FSG, 2010)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

After his mother dies and his father begins drinking again, Luke decides to leave New York City. Though he’s just sixteen, he finds a job and friends in fantastic, otherworldly Moab, Utah—the last place his family was happy together.

Back in New York, eighteen-year-old Ava finally admits she has a drinking problem. But life doesn’t automatically get easier when she joins Alcoholics Anonymous.

When circumstances—or fate—bring Ava to Moab as well, she and Luke both must figure out how to heal their families and themselves.

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

My protagonist, Luke, was based on a 16-year-old boy I knew fleetingly when I first moved to Moab, Utah, to start an outpatient program for adolescents in the juvenile court system. I was staying at the youth hostel, and he was “living” there, in a tent.

He moved on after a few days, but I always wondered what his story was. I had an image of him “settling down” at the hostel, moving into a trailer and hanging a painting, making himself at home. In my imagination, he was running away from an alcoholic father and the death of his mother. Someday I would write his story.

And then years later, this character, Luke, figuratively tapped me on the shoulder and whispered his story to me. Why not tell the story from the point of view of both father and son?

But then Ava appeared at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where Frank was trying to get sober in New York City, and that was that. This was a very exciting moment for me – the joy, the rush of creating. Ava herself was telling me that she had to be part of the story.

I think I had to work on Ava’s character harder than anyone’s. I had to spend a lot of time listening to her. How do you “show” the very slow process of recovery in a book that spans a week?

My first draft ended up having nine different points of view, from both the adult and teen perspectives. It helped that I knew everybody’s storyline when I simplified it to just Ava and Luke. Cin’s character was at first inspired by a real person, but then developed into something different. (She stole the storyline in my first draft!) Hal, the schizophrenic, is very much based on a real person. Everybody else I discovered through using my inner ear and practicing the craft of writing.

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?

It is indeed daunting! I have been incredibly proactive, but then again, there are always people out there doing more, so I feel that I’m not doing enough! But that’s my ego and insecurities talking, which are not so interesting, because I am so incredibly grateful for the world that has opened up for me through having an online presence.

I started blogging about a year ago at the insistence of my agent [Léna’s Lit Life]. I was skeptical at first – don’t you have to offer something fantastic to get readers? What do I have to offer that isn’t offered by other writers? I must admit that I have fallen in love with it.

I can’t say how much it has done marketing-wise, but it has gotten me to write every day, and to share myself in an authentic way. It has helped me to discover my voice as a writer, Léna Roy, without hiding behind my characters.

I have developed a small following, and it thrills me to build a relationship with my readers. I write about the joys and frustrations of the publication process, writing, parenting, spirituality as well as stories of my grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle.

I am also a passionate writing teacher – I lead workshops for kids, tweens and teens through Writopia, so I write about that and my work with Girls Write Now.

I started using Facebook a year and a half ago, and in early November, I created a page for just Edges. That has been really fun!

I’ve been making a soundtrack and posting photos that I love of Southeastern Utah. I have only just started to appreciate Twitter due to author Katie Davis, marketing genius, who was kindly able to explain it to me. I am creating both an online and live writing community.

I lament that I hadn’t started Twitter earlier, because it is a really great way to meet and talk to people. I have done a few guest blogs (and I feel like I should do more). I have slowly been putting together my own tour of readings and workshops. I have been hosting Open Mic events at my local Borders for kids aged 8-18 – mostly comprised of my students, but opening it up for the community at-large. I want my students to get used to putting themselves out there, to learn how to read in front of an audience, and to answer questions. (I still get so nervous!)

My advice to other authors just starting out (and myself) is to focus on building community, to have fun with Twitter and other social marketing, rather than “selling” books. Start a support group of other writers.

Rebecca Stead and I started a group a year a half ago in N.Y.C. where we meet for lunch once a month. I moved to Northern Westchester over the summer and have slowly started to build community out here, too.

It only feels like a chore when my insecurities get the better of me and I feel like there’s no point, or that I’m not getting any “real” writing done.

Author and friend Deborah Heiligman goes into her “bubble” every day to write, where she is not distracted by anything, so that she can work. Then she can have fun with social media! She is my inspiration. Judy Blundell and I live about a mile away from each other and often meet at the library for Internet-free working time, to support each other.

I also love the notion of supporting each other as writers and promoting each other’s work. The YA community is so incredibly generous. There’s more than enough room for all of us!

New Voice: Rebecca Janni on Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse

Rebecca Janni is the first-time author of Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse, illustrated by Lynne Avril (Dutton, 2010). From the promotional copy:

In Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse, Nellie Sue does everything with a western flair.

Whether it is cleaning up the animal sty (picking up her stuffed animals) or rounding up cattle (getting the neighborhood kids together for her birthday party), she does it like a true cowgirl. All she really needs is a horse.

So when Dad announces at her birthday party, “I got a horse right here for you,” Nellie Sue is excited. But when her horse turns out to be her first bicycle, it will take an imagination as big as Texas to help save the day.

Could you tell us about your writing community – your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

My husband tells me I would get more writing done if I were a shy, introverted writer, living alone with a small tribe of cats. But that would never work for me, and he knows it. I love the revolving door that is our home, and everyone who walks through it supports me emotionally and professionally, beginning with my husband and family.

Iowa has a rich writing community, one that I first discovered at the local library. At the Des Moines Area Writers Group (DAWG), I found a wonderful and talented group of people passionate about stories. We’re an eclectic bunch of published and not-yet-published writers who write everything from early picture books to YA murder mysteries. But even with such varied interests, everyone agrees on one thing.

Must. Join. SCBWI.

So I did. Right away. I love the conferences because there are always opportunities to work on craft and to learn about the publishing industry. Plus, I meet more amazing people. I decided early on that, even if nothing ever came of my writing, I would never stop. I enjoyed the act of writing too much, and I was making lifelong friends along the way.

Three of those friends make up my magical critique group – Sharelle Byars Moranville, Jan Blazanin, and Eileen Boggess. We exchange our works-in-progress online and meet in person once a month to share critique and cookies.


Our lives and writing styles are very different, but we share a singularity of purpose and a mutual admiration. The end result is a lot of growth and grace . . . and cookies.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, 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?

Hmm. Not well, I’m afraid. Our family of five grew to a family of six this summer, when we adopted our son from China. Now the muse in my life often masquerades as one of the kids. Life is full of joy and our entryway is full of shoes! Since our youngest is deaf, we’re also becoming a bilingual family – speaking and signing.


When I do manage to carve out time for writing, it usually involves my mother, a doting grandma who’s recently retired! I’m also quick to snatch up school time, nap time, and bedtime.

My best advice is what others have given to me, so I’ll pass it along.

(1) Find childcare, even if it is just once a week. If Grandma doesn’t live nearby, hire a babysitter or find a friend to help. Before my mom retired, a friend and I took turns watching each others’ kids.

(2) Make good work of school hours and nap times. If you have just a few hours between drop off and pick up, consider stopping at a library instead of going home. There will be fewer distractions.

(3) Attend SCBWI conferences. You’ll be inspired by the editors, agents, and authors who speak, and you’ll learn valuable information about the market. Plus, you never know what might happen . . .

(4) Take an occasional retreat – alone or with other writers. Writing weekends always give my productivity a boost. I’ve stayed at hotels, retreat centers, and even a friend’s farm. The benefits are huge – focused time to work on writing projects, immediate feedback from other writers, and inspiration that lasts long after the weekend is over. (At my friend’s farm, we even saw a calf being born!)

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 met Jamie Weiss Chilton of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency at (you’ll never guess) an SCBWI retreat right here in Iowa. While there were no calves born that weekend, it was a magical retreat – crisp October days, bright sun, vibrant colors, and leaves crunching beneath our feet. I had landed my first book contract about six months earlier, and I was ready to begin looking for an agent.

As Jamie presented, she struck me as kind and smart – a winning combination. Since I was so new to the business, I appreciated her willingness to do editorial work, to offer feedback on manuscripts before submitting them to editors. I knew I would love to sign on with Jamie, but I had just begun my search. How could I be so lucky?

I mustered up the courage to ask her a few questions, and we found ourselves chatting about my works-in-progress. She asked to see those manuscripts, and not long after, she offered to represent me. I was thrilled! I wanted to say “yes” then and there, but I took a step back and followed her advice, composing a list of questions for a follow-up phone interview.

One magical connector for us was the main character in my first book, Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse. Turns out Jamie has some cowgirl in her, but growing up in L.A., she could never have a horse. When she was little, she used to tie a jump rope to her bike handlebars to use as reins for her imaginary horse!

My best advice? I sound like a broken record, but I’ll say it again. Attend SCBWI conferences.

I was really glad to meet Jamie in person. Also, as giddy as I was about finding an agent, I’m glad I slowed down and thought through all of my questions up front. Somebody told me to remember that I wasn’t just being interviewed – I was also interviewing. When I did sign the dotted line, I felt confident that I was doing the right thing – no doubts or regrets.

Now, two years and three book contracts later, I couldn’t be happier to have Jamie as my agent!

New Voice: Mark Shulman on Scrawl

Mark Shulman is the first-time novelist of Scrawl (Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, 2010)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

Tod Munn is a bully. He’s tough, but times are even tougher. The wimps have stopped coughing up their lunch money. The administration is cracking down. Then to make things worse, Tod and his friends get busted doing something bad. Something really bad.

Lucky Tod must spend his daily detention in a hot, empty room with Mrs. Woodrow, a no-nonsense guidance counselor. He doesn’t know why he’s there, but she does. Tod’s punishment: to scrawl his story in a beat-up notebook. He can be painfully funny and he can be brutally honest. But can Mrs. Woodrow help Tod stop playing the bad guy before he actually turns into one . . . for real?

Read Tod’s notebook for yourself.

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

The lead character in Scrawl is a tough kid named Tod Munn. He arrived in my mind like a lightning bolt, and because I wasn’t a novelist, I had no use for him.

Tod showed up one afternoon when my friend, the author Alison James, included me in a story-writing exercise. It was an experience that bordered on mass hypnosis. A group of writers lay on the floor while Alison spoke softly about… well, I don’t exactly remember. I drifted into something like sleep. Then, suddenly, she sent each of us head-first into a place. Any place.

I ended up back in my old high school. The hall was the same, the floor was the same. A kid was getting beaten up. That was the same, too. But wait, something was wrong. I was the one on top, doing the hitting. That’s not right – I’m supposed to be the other guy.

How is it I’m breaking this kid’s glasses? Me? Who am I? And then, without warning, Alison told us to open our eyes and write.

So, in one five-minute epiphany, I had a location: my old high school. I had my character: he seemed to be an amalgam of several thugs and punks I encountered in my inner-city high school. And I had a few surreal paragraphs written, in which my fictional bully eloquently contemplates delivering a beating as if it were an artistic experience.

And that’s how I discovered Tod. Then I put away the notebook and went back to all the picture books, nonfiction, humor, and preschool books I’d been writing for years. As for getting to know him, I had no intention of doing that. What did I want with an oddball character like him? He’s not such a good fit for a picture book.

A few months later, I was speaking with my future editor, Neal Porter at Roaring Brook (pictured right). He had looked over all my various books and asked me, point blank, what I really wanted to be writing. And who among us doesn’t want to write a novel?

So write one, he said.

Well, Mr. Famous Editor, I don’t know how to write a novel.

Oh, he said, don’t worry. Just send me something.

That afternoon I went back to my office, and this character Tod, elbowed his way forward yet again. Just to shut Tod up, I typed up and mailed out the paragraphs I’d scribbled down in the sweat lodge. Then Neal asked me for a few more chapters. And a few more. And somehow he coaxed a book out of me. I guess that’s why he’s Neal Porter.

In those early character/discovery chapters, which make up the front of the book, I didn’t try to dissect Tod. I didn’t work out his home life or his goals or his fatal flaws. I didn’t try to get to know him at all. I tried to be him. Or, more accurately, I became him while I was writing.

I can’t explain how it happened, but it was a genuinely natural experience for a guy in his 40s to become an angry teenager. And I should point out that I wasn’t an angry teenager myself. I was a dork and a troublemaker, but I was upbeat about it.

Tod is a smart kid, as well as a smart-mouth. He’s got a good sense of humor. He’s an interesting kind of bad boy, full of bravado and opinions and he’s got an answer for everything. He likes to hang out in the library and read after school because he can’t afford his own books. He’s also an extortionist and a thief, but nobody’s perfect.

They say a writer should just follow his character around. That’s what I did. Because the book is in journal form, each entry is essentially a day’s worth of writing.

I sat down with a loose goal in mind: say, write a scene with Tod and his friend Rex. Okay. First they’re walking down the street after shoplifting (at the same corner deli my school’s basketball team robbed with the starter pistol, ski masks, and their personalized team jackets.) Now there’s a street preacher. Now Rex is in his face. Now it’s getting out of hand. And suddenly Rex was saying and doing things that blew me away as I was writing them. Tod takes a back seat and ends up as stunned as I was.

Growing up, there was a type of kid – skinny and street-smart with a nervous tic and menacing eyes. They look rural, but they thrive in the city. That’s Rex. Every time he showed up, the story darkened.

My other favorite character is Luz. She’s a classic scene-stealer. I only wanted her for a quick purpose – to be the artsy, elusive goth girl whose creation, a statue, becomes the touchstone for Tod’s awakening. I didn’t need the girl, I needed the statue. But when you meet Luz, you’ll understand how such a fireball could barge her way into the book and make herself indispensable from beginning to end. She is a work of art herself, and it was fascinating to watch her develop. I’ve never met anyone like her. Luz’s back-and-forths with Tod make for some of the snappiest dialog in the book.

And finally, Mrs. Woodrow, the guidance counselor, looms omnipresent. Her time on stage is relatively short, but she writes notes in Tod’s journal and that allows her to have her own voice. She’s also the person Tod’s writing to throughout. It was fun for me to write in the second person, and make the reader actually become her, through Tod’s eyes.

Each of the characters began as a type, more modal than human. In each one’s case, Neal encouraged me to have them do something counter to expectation. And that’s how they all evolved – from a type to an unpredictable human. It’s the characterizations, rather than a plot, that drives the first third of the book. Once the plot kicked in, the characters did a lot of improvising, and it stayed in the book.

One last word about the characters: It would be easy to typify this as a “boy book.” Yeah, there are confrontations and fights and nefarious behaviors. But it’s more than that.

It’s a realistic story of a person who is a boy. Also, Tod and his droogs may be in the center of the action, but they’re not the moral center of the story. That honor goes to a trio of women, all no-nonsense types: Luz, Mrs. Woodrow, and Tod’s steely mother. They do not let the smart, sarcastic, difficult boy get away with anything. They’re the guardrails. And try as he might, Tod does not dent them.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

On the whole, I don’t think it’s a good idea for adults who aren’t deep in the teenage culture to attempt building any bridges to modern technology, cutting-edge slang, or the newfangled social situations of our nation’s youth. It’s so gosh-darned tough to get jiggy with the hep lingo, or stay fresh with the gadgets, or 2 b edgy. That stuff changes all the time anyway.

I’m told Scrawl has a ring of reality to it. I think that partly comes from my determination not to date the book in any way. Or, rather, to set it in the present but not root it there.

Because I don’t have kids in high school (yet…though my eight-year-old thinks she is), my teen observations are limited to school visits, subway rides, and street chatter. The only teenagers I could draw from were the ones I knew from childhood. So that’s what I did.

And aren’t the most important situations and issues universal anyway?

While I was writing Scrawl, I kept my story simple and relatively timeless. A seemingly hopeless boy gets in trouble, and with some help from a teacher, the power of words and art ultimately show him a path. Like any writer, I cut patches from life to make my quilt, and that’s the point where I had to update the story. The more clever and heartless bullies of my day would have to sneak something humiliating into the school newspaper to broadcast their fun. Now there’s the internet, with its enormous, unrelenting reach, and I had to include it. Why draw a cruel cartoon when students can post a cruel photo? And when it comes to out-and-out intimidation, destroying something electronic lasts a lot longer than throwing a bookbag into the trees.

Once I had the story finished, I spent an entire draft removing every reference I could find that would date the book. Laptop became computer. MP3 player became music player. DVD player became video machine. Xbox became video game. Camcorder became video camera, and so on. Out went YouTube, Facebook, Google. (Remember Prodigy?) If there was even the hint of obsolescence – an icebox or a jalopy – I wrote around it. Now that the book is printed and in stores, I’m told there can be no more revisions. That’s too bad, because I found cable TV and a CD reference I couldn’t improve on.


And, on that note, one of my reasons for not wanting an image of Tod on the cover was because he’d eventually look to future readers like the denizens of disco look to us now.

How do you know what’s going to persevere and what’s a hula hoop? I can’t say, except it’s an instinct. Cole Porter had it. In his 1934 song “You’re the Top” he seems to have had a time machine to pick some of the everlasting references he used. There were countless entertainers available, but he chose Irving Berlin, Mae West, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire. Mickey Mouse was only seven years old and he got mentioned. Gandhi wouldn’t free India for another 14 years. Even Pepsodent is still on the shelves. In fact, the song itself is more dated than its references. But that’s another matter altogether.


Can you keep a secret? I want Scrawl to last. As long as possible. For a book in the second decade of the third millennium, “as long as possible” is usually three months. I know the odds, but still, I set my sights for the ultimate goal: being book-report-worthy. And to do that, I had to leave out the temporary stuff. I hope it worked.

Cynsational Notes

From Roaring Brook Press: “Mark Shulman has been a camp counselor, a radio announcer, a maitre d’ in a fancy restaurant, a New York City tour guide, and a creative advertising guy. He’s written many books about many things–sharks, storms, robots, palindromes, gorillas, dodo birds, “Star Wars,” Ben Franklin, how to hide stuff, how to voodoo your enemies, and how to make a video from start to finish. He’s written picture books for Oscar de la Hoya (the boxer) and Shamu (the whale). Mark is from Rochester and Buffalo, New York, but he has lived in New York City for so very long that he tawks like he’s from da Bronx. So do his kids. His wife Kara, a grade school reading specialist, has perfect diction.”

Where the Trouble Began: Scrawl by Mark Shulman from Get to the Point: a blog by Macmillan Publishing Group. Peek: “The literacy rate hovered at about 50%. The dropout rate was maybe 25%.”