Illustrator Marsha Riti on The Picky Little Witch

Marsha Riti on Marsha Riti: “I am a freelance illustrator based out of Austin, Texas. I have a BFA in studio art from the University of Texas in Austin. I love to create, and I take inspiration from early comic artists as well as more recent ones with a slight mid-century twist.”

Tell us about yourself as a young artist/reader. How does the child you were inform the illustrator/children’s book professional you are now?

As a child I was (and still am) curious and observant. Looking under and at everything helps when I need to sit down at the drawing table, and, for example, sketch two alligators on a tandem bicycle.

Also, I never lost my childlike excitement about new things and ideas, which my friends and colleagues can attest to.

Seeing something new is inspiring! My brain starts firing on all cylinders, and I get excited about my ideas for new projects!

How did you develop your artistic skills over time?

I have always been good at drawing. What helped my skills more than anything else was taking classes in life drawing. Also, I am (like most artists) never complacent about the quality of my work. You can always execute a drawing or painting better. Because of that, I am continually working on improving my craft. It’s never ending.

Marsha’s office.

Congratulations on your debut picture book, The Picky Little Witch, written by Elizabeth Brokamp (Pelican, 2011)! Tell us about the book.

It is a Halloween-themed picture book about Little Witch, who will not eat the special Halloween stew Mama Witch cooked up for her. Then the tables are turned on Mama Witch when Little Witch is trick-or-treating. There’s even a recipe in the back for delicious Halloween Soup!

It’s a fun read for kids before they go out on Halloween night.

How did you come to connect with Elizabeth’s text? What about it spoke to you?

I connected with the text when I began doing the page breaks. That’s when I began visualizing the story. I really liked Little Witch’s attitude. I thought she was just hilarious!

What approach did you take in illustrating the manuscript?

After reading the manuscript, I sketched out the characters and thumbnails, which is very standard. While doing this, I kept in mind that I wanted to create a visual story arc that starts and ends in the same spot, but with the characters’ attitudes about food changing.

I based my final sketches off the thumbnails (with some revisions). I scanned the sketches into Photoshop, deleted the whites and printed the cleaned-up sketches onto watercolor paper. After painting the foreground elements, I then scanned the paintings in to drop in the backgrounds.

Used with permission.

Used with permission.

What was your revision process like?

Because I work both traditionally and digitally, the revisions were a breeze to do.

For example, I originally had Little Witch in a full dress with a “Peter Pan” collar. However, Elizabeth wanted Little Witch to be more contemporary looking.

I just used Photoshop to redo the top for all my drawings. It was no problem at all and made the final artwork better. In fact, all the revisions made the book better. It’s extremely helpful having someone give you constructive feedback.

Used with permission.

What advice do you have for illustrators interested in breaking into children’s books?

About Marsha.

Everyone says this, but I think it’s really important: draw, draw, draw! Especially drawings of kids.

Have a great portfolio showing lots of kids, and animals in situations that imply narrative.

Have a good website with your portfolio at the top of the first page. And never ever stop working on your craft or improving.

Other than your own, what is your favorite recent picture book and why?

I’m Not. by Pam Smallcomb, illustrated by Robert Weinstock (Schwartz & Wade, 2010). I really love the silly paintings. They’re great and make me laugh out loud. The story is just wonderful, it’s both humorous and has heart.

The part I like the best is when the main character’s friend Evelyn (who can do everything) says, “I’m stinky at spelling.” That’s when our main character realizes she can do things, too.

It’s a great book about being friends and celebrating one another.

What do you do outside the world of books for young readers?

I love to cook! I also hang out with my lovely boyfriend and wonderful friends.

Cynsational Notes

Marsha’s launch party for The Picky Little Witch will be at 11:30 Oct. 1 at BookPeople in Austin.

New Voice: Audrey Vernick on Water Balloon

Audrey Vernick‘s debut novel Water Balloon (Clarion, 2011) is now available. From the promotional copy:

A warm debut novel about friendship and first love, from a popular picture-book author.

Marley’s life is as precarious as an overfull water balloon—one false move and everything will burst. Her best friends are pulling away from her, and her parents, newly separated, have decided she should spend the summer with her dad in his new house, with a job she didn’t ask for and certainly doesn’t want. 

On the upside is a cute boy who loves dogs as much as Marley does . . . but young love has lots of opportunity for humiliation and misinterpreted signals. 

Luckily, Marley is a girl who trusts her instincts and knows the truth when she sees it, making her an immensely appealing character and her story funny, heartfelt, and emotionally true.

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

I have visions of myself in a small white rocking chair in my bedroom, an open book in my lap. That could likely describe who I’ll be in another few decades—a reading grandma—but it was also who I was at five. Sometimes I would read to my gerbil, which sickens me to my core now, as I’m not a fan of rodents. But I digress.

It was all about character for me then, as it is to this day. I didn’t mind a great adventure or a historical setting, but if the author didn’t deliver on character, forget it.

As a young reader, when I was in love with a book, I felt like the authors had written them with a reader exactly like me in mind. I celebrated the characters’ quirks. I worried when they faced difficult decisions. I felt their sadness. Being a child who read often and widely was the ultimate training ground for empathy.

I was enamored with the friendships I read about. Adult-me has realized that these wonderful, idyllic friendships may have had something to do with the real-world disappointment I felt in many of my actual childhood friendships. I found literary friends to be far more interesting, loyal, funny, and daring than most of the friends I knew at school and in the neighborhood.

As a writer, I want to deliver that kind of character-reader connection.

The view from Audrey’s office window.

Plot has never been of great importance to me as a reader, so it wasn’t a tremendous surprise to learn it wasn’t one of my strengths as a writer. I wanted enough to happen to interest my reader, but I found that one of my plot pet peeves presented a huge challenge to me as a writer.

I take great exception to the moment in a book—and it happens in so many books—when a character acts in a way that seems at odds with who he/she is. As a writer, I know we are supposed to make life difficult for our characters, throw challenges at them, let them make mistakes. But I find, so often, that the mistakes characters make read like choices an author made to take it up a notch, to ensure the plot twists and turns.

These are the books I throw across the room.

I did not want such a moment in my book. But something had to happen.

My main character has really good judgment. She can be a little self-pitying at times (as can many a thirteen-year-old), but she’s reliable, with good common sense. She doesn’t get into trouble.

The scene in which she makes a really bad decision was a pivotal one for me, part of a big revision with an eye toward making the book less quiet. I think it’s a believable moment; I hope young-Audrey would not toss Water Balloon across the room when she reached that pivotal page.

I imagine most writers set out to create the type of book they would like to read. It’s a little extra-satisfying for children’s writers, as the time spent thinking and writing is akin to a lengthy visit with our younger selves.

Audrey’s office is decorated with art by her children; this fox is by her son.

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?

My first agent primarily represented writers of adult fiction. When I was first seeking representation, I read many of her clients’ books and felt something in the undercurrent of their texts that seemed present in mine too. I was thrilled when she offered to represent me, as she had some young adult sales, loved my upper middle grade book, and was determined to sell it.

As time went on, I kept writing for younger audiences and she stopped selling in the children’s market, so we parted ways.

Lesson learned: You can make what feels like the right choice and still have it not work out in the end.

Learn more about Audrey.

I wrote a second novel. I talked to friends about their experiences, read information in books and on discussion boards, attended conferences.

I went to one conference specifically to get a critique from Erin Murphy, an agent about whom I’d heard good things. The critique went very well.

I don’t remember why I reached the conference lunch late, but by the time I got there, there were hardly any open seats. I am very much not the kind of person who sits next to the agent who critiqued her work. But it was the only open seat that didn’t require me to get everyone at a table to stand. I took the available seat next to Erin.

Before long, my future agent and I shared a very large piece of chicken.

I am kind of a conference nightmare. I don’t want to be that annoying schmoozing person. I realize that networking is not generally considered annoying at a conference, but it is so far out of my comfort zone, the self-promoting schmooze. Just taking the seat next to Erin felt hideous.

Despite my discomfort, we had an instant and very natural rapport. We were comfortable. We laughed. We went halfsies on an entree.

I don’t think poultry sharing is a requirement when seeking representation. But it is important to do research, to know as much as can be known. In the end though, you can’t know everything.

It’s impossible to know with certainty whether or not, say, your agent’s enthusiasm will wane if your first manuscript doesn’t sell. Or if he will like your next project. Or turn out to be a reasonable communicator.

When possible, I’d urge people to find ways to get specific information from clients. When I relied upon reputation, I barked up a few wrong trees. There are some agents many consider top-tier whom I know would not be a good fit for me. One such agent considered my work very seriously. I had occasion to see that agent at a conference while still under consideration and it was plainly evident to me: it wouldn’t work. I felt the weight of the word “representation” and knew that person could not be the one to represent me.

Find out what you can and then use your best judgment. From there, it’s a leap of faith.

Spending that time eating chicken with Erin made me fairly desperate to have her as my agent, so I’m very grateful it worked out. Our senses of humor overlap. She connected to the emotional heart of my story. And I can’t say enough about her enthusiasm – what’s better than your agent being wildly enthusiastic about your work? I also like that she focuses on my career.

This depiction of Cookie Monster is by Audrey’s daughter.

One insight especially stayed with me…

Sometime in the past year or two, I told Erin that I felt like I was in a zone, which likely wouldn’t last. It felt like a tiny window in which the picture books I was writing were matching up reasonably well with what the market wanted. It seemed crazy to turn my attention to another novel, as they are so hard and I tend to write quiet ones, which are hard to sell.

I’ve also always been mindful of the way novels consume me—the way they pull me out of family life for a while. I’m ever-mindful of the fact that my kids will only live with my husband and me for a finite time, and it seemed crazy to make myself so much less available.

Erin pointed out that it would be a good idea to look beyond now, to think ahead to when my kids don’t live here, and how well novel-writing will fit into my life then. She added that I should probably continue to nurture the skills required to write a novel, not let them go dormant. She further made the point that if I sold Water Balloon, the acquiring editor would likely want to see another novel at some point, which has turned out to be true.

Lesson learned: when a piece of chicken is clearly too large for one person to consume by herself, sharing can sometimes lead in unexpected and wonderful directions.

Cynsational Notes

From IndieBound: “Audrey Vernick is the author of the picture books Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten?, She Loved Baseball, and Brothers at Bat (Clarion, 2012), as well as the novel Water Balloon. She has published short stories for adults and twice received the New Jersey State Council of the Arts‘ fiction fellowship. She lives with her family in New Jersey.”

Literary Friendships: Musings on Writing, Children’s Books, Stalking Strangers’ Dogs, and Friends: a blog from Audrey Vernick.

See also Audrey Vernick on Getting to the Funny (Writing Humorous Picture Books) from Cynsations.

New Voice: Shayne Leighton on Of Light and Darkness

Paperback cover.

Shayne Leighton is the first-time author of Of Light and Darkness (Book 1: The Vampire’s Daughter) (Decadent, 2011). From the promotional copy:

When one human stands before an army of impossible obstacles, the likelihood of overcoming them in this coming-of-age modern fairytale may result in war between light and darkness. 

Abandoned as an infant in Prague, naive and strong-willed Charlotte Ruzikova was raised by one of the last vampires left alive. As a human, she knows no other home than the one nestled deep in the woods of Eastern Europe, where witches drew spells of enchantment, phasers threw tea parties, and elves are the closest in kin. 

Charlotte has lived her life in the dark with her guardian, content to having him to herself and reveling in his attention, until she’s realizes she wants more… 

Resident medical doctor and vampire, Valek Ruzik fears the day his ward would come of age and blossom into a fine woman, and he is forced to confront his own motives as time is of the essence once his past catches up to him, and their lives become endangered…

As genocide and war threatens their secret society, the dictator in power is ready to wipe out Valek’s race, but Charlotte will not allow that to happen. Fighting for the only one she’s ever loved and truly believed in, she will do whatever it takes to save their love…before the sun comes up and light takes over.

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?

“Shayne” by Margo Hulse

I began writing Of Light and Darkness (Decadent, 2011) when I was sixteen years old and in high school. At sixteen, you think you know everything. I remember writing several pages when I probably should have been paying attention in class, sharing them with my friends, and since the feedback I was getting was so positive, thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Wrong!

Of course, I’m (mostly) joking. I knew I wasn’t anywhere near the greatness of sliced bread yet. But when I set out on this story, I loved the quirkiness of the characters and the plot so much, I knew this was the first novel I would finish. I made a decision that someday this would be published. I just wasn’t aware of how much work would be involved!

My pre-contract revision process was sort of like finding your way through a dark room with a dim flashlight. I could sort of tell that a lot of things needed to be fixed, and I tried my best to fix them. But being a young writer with no formal training or experience, the “how-do-I-fix” was the hardest part.

I consider Cynthia Leitich Smith my biggest mentor throughout writing this manuscript. In the really early stages, I sent her my opening pages, and she wrote back with tons of encouragement. She recommended that I get a beta reader, which was the best advice she could have given me at that point.

I had many of my friends and family members beta read.

Ebook cover

For any writer starting out, that is the best advice and I can lend as well. Get people to read your book. (The best are people you don’t know because then they can give you an unbiased opinion.) It will change your outlook. It changed mine.

But the real shock didn’t occur until my post-contract revisions began and Decadent Publishing assigned me my brilliant editor, Barbara Sheridan! (Terry Bruce was also a huge help and support and always on stand-by.) It wasn’t until this point, that I saw my manuscript as it was–a great story that needed a lot of tweaking.

These wonderful ladies shed light on everything I was missing. There were so many head-hops (point of view shifts) from paragraph to paragraph, unneeded scenes, slow moments, and other technical issues. They became my teachers.

Yes, it was painful to nix some things, but in the end, the story shines brighter.

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

I had a lot of help and inspiration from my husband who hails from the Czech Republic, where this story takes place.

Building the magic in this setting came easily, because Czech’s rich history and culture go back a long way and are shrouded in mystery. Prague provides the perfect backdrop for vampires, wizards, and other creatures of the night.

Since I was a very little girl, I always loved fairy tales, and I was introduced to fantasies early.

I pulled my mythical objects, words, and events from every culture and story. I went the library and read about mythologies and legends, looked up the meanings of various symbols.

The research for building the Of Light and Darkness world took months, and I continued it throughout my writing process.

I write whenever I get the chance and something inspires me. I always carry around a small pad of paper and a pencil. I’ll write in the middle of coffee shops, book stores or at home after everyone has gone to bed.

Of Light and Darkness is my absolute favorite story that I’ve come up with so far, and I have a lot planned for the series’ future.

New Voice: Michele Weber Hurwitz on Calli Be Gold

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the first-time author of Calli Be Gold (Random House/Wendy Lamb Books, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Observant but quiet fifth grader Calli Gold doesn’t seem to fit in with her loud, rushing family. 

Calli is the youngest child in a funny, endearing yet somewhat misguided suburban family that places high importance on achievement. Calli’s older brother Alex is a basketball star and her sister Becca is on a synchronized skating team, but 11-year old Calli thinks she’s a failure because she’s flopped at everything she’s tried.

In the Gold family, everyone needs to be “golden” and that means winning medals and placing first. But Calli is different. She likes to watch the world around her, and think about things. Plus, she’s not so sure she wants to be a star…inside, she feels content with who she is—an average fifth grade kid. But how to get that point across to her dad, who thinks his kids have to “do” something special in order to “be” somebody.

Calli’s dad signs her up for an acting class, hoping this will be it for his daughter and she’ll find her talent at last. But when Calli meets second grader Noah Zullo through a peer helper program at school, she begins to discover what her true passion might be…and it has nothing to do with acting, or for that matter, kicking a soccer ball or doing pliés or flipping on a balance beam. Noah has some issues, and Calli is drawn toward helping him and understanding what makes him tick. 

As the story unfolds, Calli, in her own quiet way, prompts her family to consider what achievement really means. Calli Be Gold is a heartwarming story about standing up for who you are and finding your own rightful place within a family.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2011, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

The truth is, nothing about my journey seemed inevitable. In fact, sometimes, I still can’t believe that I really published a book! Getting here took about three and a half years, and there were many bumps along the way when I doubted myself and this story.

Before I wrote Calli Be Gold, I had written two other middle grade manuscripts that never got published (probably because they weren’t very good), but now I realize that was part of the journey for me.

When I came up with the idea for Calli’s story, I did a lot of thinking about the theme, plot, and characters before I sat down to write. I love to walk (without my phone, music, or a friend — just by myself) and I learned that this is my best thinking time, something that’s essential for my writing process. A way to clear my head and let those ideas materialize.

So after I did all this walking and thinking, the writing of the manuscript took only about four months. When I finished, I sent a query letter to four agents, and all of them asked to see the manuscript. That was one of the first moments I thought I might have something here!

The first two agents didn’t take on the book, but the third called before she even finished reading — and asked to represent me. I thought okay, this is it, woo hoo, I have an agent, I’ll be published in no time! But this was when the economy was suffering, and some publishers were consolidating or downsizing, so it ended up taking about a year for my agent to sell the book.

This was a hard period of time. My agent kept reassuring me that she loved the story, and it was a matter of connecting with the right editor who would love it too, but we were so close so many times, only then to get a rejection, I admit it was frustrating. I am thankful that my agent didn’t give up and kept sending it out.

So how did I keep the faith? I’m lucky to have one very sane, patient, and even-tempered husband, and three kids who keep me laughing and busy. In the acknowlegements section of Calli Be Gold, I call them my four anchors, and thank them for keeping me afloat. It’s entirely true — without them, I might have sank!

Also, though, I kept hearing Calli’s voice in my head. She’s the main character in the book. I’m not crazy (well, maybe a little), but I’m definitely one of those authors who dreams about my characters and feels like they’re real. I just felt this girl in my heart and knew I couldn’t give up on her.

 I do have to add that also, at one point during the submission process, I took a look at all the comments we received from editors and went back to the manuscript and did a revision on my own. I added a couple of chapters and changed a few scenes. I think that helped make the book more marketable.

When the “call” finally did come, it was worth the wait. My agent called as I was driving to the grocery store and told me to “pull over,” that she had something big to tell me. The big thing was that Random House — Wendy Lamb Books — had made an offer.

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?

There were a couple of factors that I think helped me find the voice of Calli Gold. First, I had been in mother-daughter book clubs with both of my daughters for several years. That’s when I fell in love with the middle grade genre.

I read so many wonderful books, including So B. It by Sarah Weeks (Harper Collins, 2005), and Love, Ruby Lavender by Deborah Wiles (Sandpiper, 2002). The depth and poignancy of these stories really touched me.

I had always wanted to write a book, but it wasn’t until I started reading middle grade books that I became motivated to give it a try.

Being in the book clubs was, for me, more helpful than participating in an adult writers’ group, although I did that too. I listened to what the girls liked and didn’t like about the books we read, how they reacted to characters and plot, and when they felt unsatisfied with an ending. They taught me a great deal!

The second helpful factor in finding Calli’s voice is that when I wrote the book, my youngest daughter was eleven, the same age as Calli. Like many writers, I’m a huge observer and listener. I think my kids call that stalking! But truthfully, having a child the same age as the character I was writing about helped me create a believable, realistic girl. In fact, my daughter was actually the first person to read the manuscript and she was a great reality check for me. She told me if the dialogue didn’t ring true or something didn’t make sense to her. I had a fifth grade editor right in my house!

Lastly, much of Calli’s voice was just inside me. That’s probably the magic part. It’s hard to describe how it happens. I did draw on some of my own childhood experiences for Calli’s story. Calli is the youngest child in an intense, achievement-oriented family and she can’t seem to find a talent or measure up to her superstar siblings, nor please her helicopter parents, who only want her to succeed at a sport or an activity. The family motto is to “be Gold!”

Not that my experience was exactly the same, but I grew up with two younger brothers who were very into sports and highly competitive. My dad coached them in baseball summer after summer, and my mom brought the lemonade and snacks to every game. A quiet, shy kid, I really didn’t share my family’s love of baseball or competition. I definitely felt some of the same frustrations Calli has about not fitting in with her family.

A peek at Michele’s writing space.

While I was writing, I didn’t do character exercises, but I am a big note scribbler. I carry a pad of paper in my purse, and have one next to my bed, in the bathroom, in the kitchen — pretty much everywhere. I was constantly jotting down thoughts about each character in the book, scenes I envisioned, and dialogue that popped into my head.

The trick then was sitting down and compiling all of my scribbles! I do have a laptop that would make my note process much more efficient, but probably because my background is in journalism, I’ve just always been more comfortable with a notepad and pencil.

Aside from all my notes, I’m a firm believer in feeling a story, not just writing it. I think it has to come from your soul, from your heart. Sounds cliche, I know. But it’s true! When it’s there, when you feel it, then the writing just flows.

Cynsational Notes

Michele makes her home in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.

New Voice: Michelle Ray on Falling for Hamlet

Michelle Ray is the first-time author of Falling for Hamlet (Little, Brown/Poppy, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Meet Ophelia, high school senior, daughter of the Danish king’s most trusted adviser, and longtime girlfriend of Prince Hamlet. 

She lives a glamorous life, has a royal social circle, and her beautiful face is splashed across magazines and TV. But it comes with a price — her life is dominated not only by Hamlet’s fame and his overbearing royal family but also by the paparazzi who hound them wherever they go.

After the sudden and suspicious death of his father, the king, Hamlet spirals dangerously toward madness, and Ophelia finds herself torn between loyalty to her boyfriend, her father, her country, and her true self.

This is a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” from Ophelia’s point of view filled with drama, romance, tragedy, and humor. 

And this time, Ophelia doesn’t die.

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

As a kid, I wasn’t like many writers I know: constantly reading and with dreams of becoming a writer. I was smart and always loved books, but I had varied aspirations. I dreamt of being a pediatrician, a teacher, a women’s rights activist, a crossing guard (seemed glamorous to my kindergarten self – all that power).

Eventually, theater became my thing. My novel, a modern retelling of “Hamlet” from Ophelia’s point of view, is probably a bridge between my desire to write and my roots in drama. I always loved fast-paced stories that involved tragedy, and Falling for Hamlet has both.

My love of Shakespeare has lasted for decades. My first Shakespeare memory involves watching “Romeo and Juliet” on TV with my parents when I was little. It was gorgeous and romantic, and it made my entire family cry! The power of the story overwhelmed me. What truly amazed me was that, even though I couldn’t understand all of the words, I still got it.

I try to tell my students not to get caught up in every word, but to get the gist and let the feelings wash over them.

Another memory I have of loving Shakespeare is being taught “Hamlet” in fifth grade. I loved it so much that I named the parakeet I got that year “Polonius” (Ophelia’s dad). Nerdy, but true.

In middle school, I had tremendous English teachers who brought Shakespeare alive. One teacher did things like gather fallen leaves from the balcony outside the classroom and spread them on her desk for Juliet’s funeral bier. Wow!

As a reader and an audience member, I love Shakespeare’s genius in creating believable romance, drama, and revenge, as well as the challenge of the solving his word puzzles to make meaning of the whole thing. Plus, the language is beautiful and dirty and romantic and daring and just plain awesome in the truest sense of the word.

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?

I do not consider myself especially tech-savvy, but technology absolutely had to be a part of my story. First of all, I know that my students and their peers are constantly texting, emailing, and posting to Facebook (actually, when I began Falling for Hamlet, Facebook wasn’t a thing, so it didn’t make its way into the story). But not to include multiple forms of technology in a contemporary story about teen life would be absurd.

Additionally, technology allowed Ophelia to witness many important moments that she was not privy to in the original play, “Hamlet.” For instance, in my novel, she watches video surveillance tapes, overhears conversations via cell, and receives texts and email updates on Hamlet’s mental status from their best friend, Horatio. My favorite plot point is when Ophelia’s dad breaks into her email account and downloads love poems from Hamlet.

The danger, of course, is that technology does change so quickly. Consider movies from the 1990s when people pull out their cell phones and they’re as big as bricks. We all laugh and point. But as a writer, it’s terrifying to think of writing in the equivalent of the two-hands-needed mobile phone.

Two big things have changed dramatically in the years since I began writing Falling for Hamlet: the iPod and video chat.

1) I wrote about Horatio nervously fiddling with the iPod wheel, and a copy editor suggested changing it since those were vanishing and she didn’t want the book to seem dated. Carrying music on phones and on other devices wasn’t a possibility when I began, and it shocked me how quickly it happened.

2) I needed Ophelia to see a climactic incident while talking to Horatio, but she couldn’t be there. Originally, they were talking via cell and the event was televised, but that needed to change. I had an idea for video chat on their cell phones, and contacted a friend who works in the tech industry to find out if such technology existed. She said it was coming and sent me to a website that was advertising this new capability.

In a draft, I wrote about it, and got this comment on the manuscript: “Please explain. I don’t understand how this works.”

I added something like, “Ophelia, it’s like Skype, but on your cell phone. You’ll be able see what’s happening here, and I’ll be able to see you.”

Well, by the time we were doing final revisions, the technology was being advertised around the clock and it seemed everyone’s phones could do it. I frantically emailed my editor and we deleted the line. A small fix, but my greatest fear of being out of step could have been realized.

New Voice: Alex Epstein on The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan le Fay

Alex Epstein is the first-time author of The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan le Fay (Tradewind, 2011)(blog). From the promotional copy:

The sorceress Morgan le Fay – seducer of King Arthur and destroyer of Britain – was a girl once. But how did an exiled girl become a king’s nemesis?

Britain, 480 AD. Saxon barbarians are invading, pushing the civilized British out of their own island. Morgan is the daughter of the governor of Cornwall. But when her father is murdered and her mother taken as the King’s new wife, she has to flee to Ireland to avoid being murdered herself.

But Ireland is no refuge. She’s captured in a slave raid and sold to a village witch. As Morgan comes of age, she discovers her own magical powers. She falls in love with a young Irish chieftain, and makes him powerful. But will her drive for revenge destroy her one chance for love and happiness?

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

When I was a kid, my dad used to read the T.H. White books to me — The Once and Future King (Collins, 1958), The Book of Merlyn (University of Texas, 1977), The Sword in the Stone (Putnam, 1939). That gave me a lifelong fascination with the King Arthur stories.

At first I just loved the magic and the honor and the swordplay. But as I grew up, I got interested in the human relationships. There seemed to be a whole hidden story behind the legend. King Arthur has no children, but no one complains — why? For a king not to have an heir is alarming. Why does Arthur tolerate Morgan le Fay’s efforts to kill Guinevere? Why does he wait so long to confront Lancelot for having an affair with his wife? And of course the big question: how does Morgan go from being sent off to “a nunnery” to being the most powerful witch in legend? They don’t usually teach necromancy in nunneries, do they?

The Circle Cast is a try at some answers. It seemed to me that maybe Arthur loved Guinevere, but not as woman, as an ideal. But maybe he loved Morgan as a woman. She was his half-sister, which made that a problem; but only in the new, Christian context. To an early Celt, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. Arthur is torn between the old and the new, the ideal and the woman. He doesn’t confront Lancelot because he knows he’s not doing right by Guinevere. But he can’t help himself. You love who you love.

People in my own life did things that resonated with the Arthur story; I won’t get into them here; and maybe that’s why I stayed interested in the story over the 15 years I wrote and reworked the book through many drafts.

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?

I think you have to start with the character, and Morgan is a fantastic character. She’s so angry, but she has every right to be. She’s offered grace, and she’s offered love, but if she accepts either, she’ll have to stop being angry. And if she gives up her angry, who is she? It’s what’s defined her, what’s made her strong, what allowed her to survive — and it’s what powers the magic.

I did a lot of historical research. I do love to read about history. The Circle Cast is set in 480 AD, almost a century after the Romans abandoned Britain, and a generation after the barbarians sacked Rome. That’s not the traditional Arthurian setting, but it’s when Arthur probably flourished, if you believe Geoffrey Ashe. Ashe makes a very convincing case that a Roman-style dux bellorum called Riothamus (= “High King”) beat the Saxons for about two decades before heading off to help the Romans on the Continent. He disappeared near the town of Avallon.

It’s a time when all bets are off. The Saxons are pushing the British out of Britain. Christianity is replacing the Old Religion, which may have involved the worship of a war goddess called Bellona Morigenos. She’s the same goddess the Irish worship as the Morrígan, a scary battle queen whose crows take slain heroes to Valhalla by eating them. My first wife did her Ph. D. thesis on the Morrígan, and I edited it, so for a little while there I might have been the person who knew the second most about Her.

I went to Ireland and England, too, and climbed up on South Cadbury Castle, a hillfort that might have been Camelot. I climbed up on Cader Idris in Wales, known as Arthur’s Seat. I went to Tintagel. And I went to the lakeshore of the yew trees, now called Emly.

I tried to make the historical details as gritty and real as possible. Chimneys hadn’t been invented yet. The Irish didn’t have any horses big enough to ride; they had chariot ponies. The Irish worked butter into their hair before battle to make it stand up. All the strange details in the book come out of research.

The magic comes out of contemporary neo-pagan Wicca. I met a lot of witches when I was first writing this book, and participated in some intense rituals. I’ve rarely felt in touch with the powers of the Earth — certainly never anything like Morgan. I can make magic happen on the page but I rarely feel it. I’m not sensitive that way.

But I did see a woman draw down the Moon, and I could swear there was someone else in her, someone ageless and powerful. So the magic is as real as I could make it, too.

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 didn’t sell this book through an agent! It’s funny, because I have no shortage of agents. I have screenwriting agents in Toronto and Montreal, and I have a nonfiction book agent.

I had a terrific, smart, hardworking fiction agent for a while, Ginger Clark (formerly) of Writers House, and we came close, but at the time King Arthur books seemed to be out of style.

A couple years later, I contacted a publisher in Canada about the movie rights for a novel he published, and we got to talking.

Turned out he was interested in my book as a YA novel. It already more or less was one, it just needed to be trimmed down a bit — and the trims were all for the good, thanks to my terrific editor, Kim Aippersbach.

So I guess my advice would be: persevere. Try different avenues. Keep reworking the book when you get good feedback.

New Voice: Ashlee Fletcher on My Dog, My Cat

Ashlee Fletcher is the first-time author-illustrator of My Dog, My Cat (Tanglewood, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Readers learn the differences between dogs and cats and the way that love can bind even the most different of creatures together.

Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

When I got “the call” that my children’s book was being published I was going to the mall with my mom.

I was just pulling up into the parking lot when Peggy Tierney, the editor at Tanglewood Press, called. Peggy had emailed me about a week before and had warned me that she would be calling sometime early the following week. I parked my car and quickly answered the phone!

Peggy told me: “congratulations, you’re now a published author and illustrator!”

I was absolutely ecstatic and even more happy that my mom was there for that great moment in my life. I cried, and she cried. We hugged and hopped out of the car.

We celebrated by first calling all of my family and friends. Then proceeded into the mall where I bought a very cute yellow dress to match a pair of yellow shoes I had at home already.

As an author-illustrator, you come to children’s books with a double barrel of talent. Could you describe your apprenticeship in each area, and how well (or not) your inner writer and artist play together? What advice do you have for others interested in succeeding on this front?

I am first and foremost an illustrator. I have always loved to draw, paint, doodle, sketch—you name it really—but what inspires me to be an artist is writing.

Both of my talents really feed off of each other. In order for me to illustrate, I need to have a great story, and in order for me to write, I need to express myself visually.

I grew up wanting to be an artist, and that is what I love to do the best. I did art throughout high school and continued my studies at Laguna College of Art & Design in Laguna Beach, California. I studied there for four years and completed my bachelor’s degree in 2009.

In college, I studied fine art and illustration ranging from traditional figure and landscape painting to graphic design and printmaking. I really got into designing and writing children’s books after I took a picture book illustration course at school. We learned how to layout, design and construct a full children’s book in a semester, and I was hooked.

If I was going to offer anyone advice on how to be a children’s book writer or illustrator, I would say sketch, doodle, use your imagination and just be creative.

One of the things I was most thankful for was making a schedule for myself. I wrote everything down I wanted to accomplish in my calendar and was very sure to complete everything on the list. I studied up on each and every publisher’s submissions guidelines and made certain to cater to each company’s standards. I submitted my dummies and manuscripts and waited, but while I waited, I was productive on keeping up my website and designing new books.

I guess my main advice would be to be positive and stay productive!

Cynsational Notes

Valley publisher Peggy Tierney’s business has been booming Tanglewood Press has published more than 35 titles by Brian M. Boyce from Tribune-Star in Terre Haute, Indiana. Peek: “A No. 1 title on the New York Times bestseller list, The Kissing Hand (by Audrey Penn, illustrated by Ruth E. Harper) sells about 100,000 copies a year and has sold 3.3 million copies to date.”

New Voice: Sheela Chari on Vanished

Sheela Chari is the first-time author of Vanished (Hyperion, 2011)(author LJ). From the promotional copy:

Eleven-year-old Neela dreams of being a famous musician, performing for admiring crowds on her traditional Indian stringed instrument. Her particular instrument used to be her grandmother’s—made of warm, rich wood, and intricately carved with a mysterious-looking dragon.

When this special family heirloom vanishes from a local church, Neela is devastated. As she searches for it, strange clues surface: a teakettle ornamented with a familiar-looking dragon, a threatening note, a connection to a famous dead musician, and even a legendary curse.

The clues point all the way to India, where it seems that Neela’s instrument has a long history of vanishing and reappearing. If she is able to track it down, will she be able to stop it from disappearing again?

What is it like, to be a debut author (or illustrator or author-illustrator) in 2011? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? What came as the biggest surprise? In each case, why?

Being a debut author is an exciting, scary, nerve-wracking, one-of-a-kind experience. It means learning to work under a deadline and adapt to many changes along the way…but it also means seeing all that hard work pay off after so many years.

I think, as writers, we are so used to being sidelined, ignored, or rejected for so long, that it’s almost impossible to believe that now suddenly a whole team of people – editor, agent, cover artist, marketing and sales people – care about your book and are helping it to become a reality.

There are so many things I’ve loved about this year, but at the top of the list, has been meeting other debut authors along the way. One of the best decisions I made was saying yes when Sara Bennett Wealer (Rival, HarperTeen 2011) asked me to help her start The Elevensies, an online community for 2011 YA and MG authors.


A lot of the groundwork was done for us by the 2010 Tenners and 2009 Debutantes (our parents!), but Sara and I still had to learn so much along the way (I finally figured out what a chat room was!). I also know for me, being the shy, quiet writerly, type that I am, I would never have met so many people on my own had I not been a part of such a community from the beginning. They have been my life support, my go-to people, who’ve held my hand and celebrated my accomplishments through the whole year.

In general, I think I’ve been blessed in many ways. I had a fantastic editor who made me work very hard and raised difficult questions, but who always let me make the final decisions.

I had one of the most beautiful covers I could ever imagine made for my book by the fantastic Jon Klassen, and when my book was all done – I even had a first reader, my own eight-year-old daughter, who got to read my first ARC!

And I love talking to the librarians and booksellers in my area. I love that we are part of the same industry, that we are all passionate and energized about children’s books – that has really been like finding the mothership!

Still – as wonderful and all-consuming as the debut experience is, it does make writing the second book so hard. I thought I had it all figured out – plotting, editing, revising – but you end up having to do the hard work all over again.

Writing is hard work. And you have all the expectations and results of the first book hanging over you when you work on your second. The biggest challenge for me this year is finding the time to write new material, and not to expect it to be perfectly crafted and executed from the start.

In spite of that – in spite of the fact that I’m most happy when I’m writing, and I’m often dismayed by how much time I spend not writing while promoting (or worrying about promoting) Vanished – I know I will miss my debut year when it’s all over.

As a mystery writer, what first attracted you to that literary tradition? Have you been a long-time mystery reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?

Well, I am not a mystery writer by birth. I actually started off writing literary adult fiction. After I finished my MFA at NYU, I worked on a contemporary adult novel set in New York City, which I had started while I was in the program, and I found I wasn’t gaining much traction with it.

Then really by accident, I began working on a “fun project,” which was originally supposed to be birthday present for Neela, my niece. She was in elementary school at the time and a huge Harry Potter fan. She also played the veena, a traditional stringed instrument from India, and I thought it would be fun to write a short story about her and her veena. Because she was into Harry Potter, I decided to make it a mystery story with fantasy elements (I think I even had some magical fruit in the first draft!).

Honestly, I never imagined myself writing for children at that point, or that the fun project I was working on would turn into something larger and more serious.

But as I continued writing, I began to ask myself all these what-if questions: What if I wrote about an Indian-American girl growing up in the Boston area, a place that might be one of the most historically American places I know? What if I combined that with writing about an instrument that was part of a rich and ancient music tradition in India?

Some people might have heard of Bollywood, or Bhangra music, or eaten a naan or two, but it was unlikely that they would have encountered a veena. And in the children’s books I’d read so far, I had seen very little of South India, the region my family and I are from.

So the what-if’s continued. What if I could introduce an Indian-American girl and the veena and the city of Boston and the city of Chennai to kids…in the form of a mystery novel? Which led to the last what-if: What if someone stole Neela’s veena?

And that’s really how Vanished was born. By answering a lot of what-if’s.

Of course, that’s where a lot of problems started, too! It’s not easy writing a mystery, I soon discovered. A lot of planning had to take place to make sure that the clues “added up” by the end. In my previous life as a literary writer for adults, I seldom relied on plot to advance my story, but on the nuanced changes in my characters. Well – scrap that!

I learned to plot, I learned to write cliff-hangers, I learned to make sure that my chapter endings would (hopefully) get my reader to turn the page for more.

Writing Vanished was the hardest, and yet the most rewarding writing experience I’ve had. It really taught me so much about structure and tension, about what to reveal and when.

At the heart of any good book is a mystery, of wanting to know what happens next. What better training than to write a mystery for middle graders?

I’m really happy with the way Vanished turned out – it underwent so many changes from that first draft I sent my niece. I hope that kids who read it today will not only have a fun time, but will also learn a little about South Indian music and the dynamics of a modern Indian-American household.

And oh yeah, how to slide a lock open.

Cynsational Notes

Sheela Chari on Vanished from Uma Krishnaswami on Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek from Uma: “I was thrilled when I first heard about Vanished (Hyperion, 2011), because I’ve long been calling for South Asian-American fiction for young readers in which culture and social issues do not in themselves constitute the story. Here you have mystery, music, school friendships, honesty and self-awareness all converging in a most engaging novel.”

New Voice: Joseph Lunievicz on Open Wounds

Joseph Lunievicz is the first-time author of Open Wounds (WestSide, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Cid Wymann, a scrappy kid fighting to survive a harsh upbringing in Queens, New York, is almost a prisoner in his own home. His only escape is sneaking to Times Square to see Errol Flynn movies full of swordplay and duels. He’s determined to become a great fencer, but after his family disintegrates, Cid spends five years at an orphanage until his injured war-veteran cousin “Lefty” arrives from England to claim him.

Lefty teaches Cid about acting and stage combat, especially fencing, and introduces Cid to Nikolai Varvarinski, a brilliant drunken Russian fencing master who trains Cid. 

By 16, Cid learns to channel his aggression through the harsh discipline of the blade, eventually taking on enemies old and new as he perfects his skills.

Open Wounds is the page-turning story of a lost boy’s quest to become a man.

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

When I was eight my mother married a second time and we moved to a new town. The year before we moved I’d had a mean third grade teacher who had turned me off on reading.

I don’t know the details, but I know that because of my experience in third grade my mother was worried about how I would do in my fourth grade class. She really thought I wouldn’t read gain.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Gheller, turned out to be a wonderful woman who knew how to get boys interested in reading. She read The Cay by Theodore Taylor (Avon, 1969), to us out loud from beginning to end, and while she read to us, I fell in love with reading again.

I remember being terribly caught up in the adventure of the boy Phillip, his ship wreck with the man Timothy, and their cat on the island of Curacao. From that time on, I read just about anything but I was especially drawn to adventure stories.

In seventh grade my best friend introduced me to The Hobbit (Houghton Miffliln, 1937) and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien (Houghton MIfflin, 1965), and although it took me a while to persevere and read The Fellowship of the Ring from cover to cover, it gave me a lifetime interest in fantasy and science fiction that I carry with me today. That same friend was killed in a train accident the following year and reading became one of the ways I coped with his death.

I found and read A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (A.C.McClurg, 1917) and read the whole John Carter of Mars series. I moved on to Conan by Robert E. Howard (Ace Books, 1967) then became a fan of The Stand by Stephen King (Doubleday, 1978) and Salem’s Lot (Doubleday, 1975), which both terrified and thrilled me.

I spread out my interests to mystery writers like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee (Fawcett Publications, 1964 through 1984) series and historical novels from writers like Bernard Cornwell and Patrick O’Brian.

I was the kind of teenager who read all the time and everywhere. I carried a book in my backpack with me wherever I went and stayed up late reading into the night way best my bedtime, so caught up in stories that I couldn’t put them down. I still do that today.

The themes of adventure, loss, world building, swordplay, and the challenges of growing up all heavily influenced the development of my debut novel Open Wounds.

I have also always been fascinated by the first and second World Wars–two events that have shaped every aspect of our modern 2011 society. As I think back now, even The Cay was a story that took place during World War Two.

My natural father (who died when I was a teenager) was a paratrooper in the Second World War, and my great uncle was one of the first to see the concentration camps–something he never talked about. My uncle was in North Africa fighting Rommel, and my step-father and father-in-law were in the Korean War. Warfare surrounded me, in the stories I heard from my family and in the books that I read, whether they were fantasy, science fiction, or historical fiction.

My protagonist, Cid Wymann learns of the horrors of war through his cousin-guardian Winston Arnolf Leftingsham. “Lefty” is an English veteran from the first World War. He’s lost his left side, arm, leg, and eye, from artillery shelling and mustard gas. He is rotting from the inside out, and his smell is the smell of the trenches.

Cid’s view of the war is through the lens of film and Hollywood, and when he meets Lefty, his eyes are opened up to the reality of war’s aftermath. Lefty’s nightmares tell Cid about the horrors that he experienced, the death and the carnage.

I read to escape, and Cid sees movies, reads The New York Times, and reads books to escape his harsh childhood, the violence that is done to him, and the many losses that he undergoes. But even with these things there is adventure, great battles, heroic deeds, friendship, and love–all the things that my childhood and teenage readings were also filled with. This balance is what helps Cid to survive and what I hope I brought to my first novel Open Wounds.

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?

Photo by Casey Fatchett Photography.

I have a full-time job as the director of a small not-for-profit training institute and a part-time job as a yoga instructor in addition to writing. I have a nine-year-old son, and a wonderful, patient, partner who happens to be my wife, who also works part time in addition to the full time job of taking care of our son.

And we have two dogs. I just thought I’d add that in.

So how do I find the time to write? It isn’t easy, and it has changed over time. I’ve gone through three phases in my writing career, and I’m sure another one is on the way as my life changes and the needs of jobs and family also change.

The way I write has been greatly influenced by these patterns and habits in both good ways and bad.

These phases can be divided into two time periods: before my son was born (phase one) and after (phase two and three).

Phase One

Before my son was born I wrote mostly in the morning before work. I got more work done when I worked a job that started at 10 a.m. rather than 9 a.m., but doing HIV/AIDS work was emotionally exhausting and highly stressful so I didn’t have the energy when I got home to write. My brain was usually fried, so the evenings were very unproductive for me. I wrote between eight in the morning and nine. I averaged anywhere from twenty minutes to an a hour of writing each morning usually three-to-five mornings a week.

I am a morning person with more energy and focus in the a.m. so this worked well for me for years. I wrote four novels that way, about one every year or so.

I used a technique I learned from Telling Lies for Fun and Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block (Harper, 1994). Each morning I would edit what I wrote the day before and then write forward from there. I usually knew what was coming next but no more than that. Sometimes I had a larger plot point targeted, and sometimes I didn’t and was simply surprised by where I eventually ended up.

Every once in a while I’d do revisions at night, but it was rare. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was writing. I’d think about it while walking to work or on the subway, or on the treadmill at the gym or lifting weights.

You might say the characters, especially in my first draft, would be with me most of the time, in my peripheral vision. My wife has complained many times that I am married to my computer, but I think it’s more to my characters. It’s like living multiple lives one after the other and can be confusing at times.

Phase Two

After my son was born, I switched almost immediately to writing in the evening. I love being a father, but it is also exhausting. My normal writing time became taking-care-of-my-son time. He would usually go to bed around eight (though he has never liked to go to sleep), so I would finally get time to write around 10 p.m. I started writing late evenings between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., usually an hour or so would be all I could keep my eyes open for. I wrote most of Open Wounds late in the evening like this.

Problems with anxiety (I have struggled with an anxiety disorder most of my life) led me to develop a daily yoga practice early in the morning. This also made it difficult to write any time but in the evening. The problem is, getting less and less sleep has made it harder and harder to write in the evening, when my energy levels are at their lowest anyway. Many evenings I fall asleep with my son when putting him to bed. It’s a joke around our house that when I put my son to bed I usually fall asleep before he does. He’s gotten a lot of extra reading time out of that.

Phase Three

So… in this last six months I’ve gone back to early morning work for my fiction and evening work for my other writing and marketing (interviews, blog, essays). I write two-to-three days each week for 20-40 minutes at a time usually between the hours of 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. It’s what I’ve been able to carve out time-wise and makes for slow productivity, but it keeps me moving forward.

There have been three keys to making these kinds of schedules work. The first one is to make an appointment with myself to write and keep it. The second is to accept that I’ll get less sleep the night before I’m going to write. I’ll wake up at 5 a.m. and once six hits, there is a shower to take, clothes to put on, dogs to take out and feed, my son’s lunch to make for school, his breakfast to prepare, his clothes to put out, my son to wake up and feed (the dogs help with that), and my wife to help to get him out the door. Some mornings, if I’m lucky I can stay home an extra 30 minutes and write before I go into work. There are times when it’s good to be the boss.

The third key is to remember that even twenty minutes one day a week is enough time to write a novel–if you string enough twenty minute segments together over a longer period of time. Open Wounds took me seven years to write, but I wrote it over the first seven years of my son’s life when time was at a premium. A lot of those first years are still a bit hazy for me.

Only four times in my life have I had the chance to write full time. I was invited to write at four, two-week stays at Ragdale Foundation artists retreat in Lade Forest, Illinois; just outside of Chicago just before my son was born. It was a great chance to see if I could write every day and to see how much each day I could write. I found out that I could write about four hours in the morning and revise three-to-four hours in the afternoon after a good two-hour break for a run or the gym and lunch.

I did this pretty much every day for the 12 full days of writing that I had. I would write five-to-ten new pages each day and came out with 50 to 75 new pages of work from each visit.

But I also know it would be hard to continue like that. Writing retreats are very focused times without any distractions – just you and your room. I craved company in the evenings and in the afternoons towards the end of my stay like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t know if I could last a full month, but I sure would like to try.

What advice do I have? Set a time to write and write. Be realistic about your capabilities. If your expectations are unrealistic, you will fail in meeting your goals. Small goals allow for easier success, and each success you have helps you to increase your self-efficacy–your belief in your ability to do more. Don’t try to write eight hours a day for five days unless that’s your style and you have the time.

Remember, small amounts of time can work too. Work will take you longer to finish but… you will finish. When you only have twenty minutes to write, you’d be surprised how quickly you learn to focus and get typing.

Finally, remember that thinking time is also writing time, but sooner or later you have to sit down and type.

Cynsational Notes

Read an excerpt, check out the teacher’s guide, and visit Joseph’s author blog.

See also The Smell of Vinegar by Joseph Lunievicz from YA Bliss. Peek: “With so many details available to establish time and place in a historical novel it’s hard to figure out which ones to leave in, and which ones to leave out. Too many details quickly overburden the narrative with unnecessary detail. Too few leave you wondering where and when the characters exist – with the default being the present.”

New Voices: Charlotte Bennardo and Natalie Zaman on Sirenz

See excerpt and reader guide.

Natalie Zaman and Charlotte Bennardo are the first-time authors of Sirenz (Flux, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Bickering frenemies Meg and Shar are doing some serious damage at a midnight sample sale when the fashionistas find themselves arguing over a pair of shoes-with fatal consequences. 

One innocent bystander later, the girls are suddenly at the mercy of Hades, Lord of the Underworld himself. To make them atone for what they’ve done, Hades forces the teens to become special-assignment Sirens, luring to the Underworld an individual whose unholy contract is up.

Finding that delicate balance between their fashion addiction and their new part-time job in the eternal hellfire biz turns out to be harder than Meg and Shar expected, especially when an entire pantheon of Greek deities decides to get involved. Then there’s the matter of the fine print in their own contracts…

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?

We wrote a bajillion versions of Sirenz before it found its way into our editor Brian Farrey‘s hands (okay, maybe not that many—but we’re definitely talking double digits here!).

He liked what he saw, but had some changes in mind. This turned out to be nine pages of notes, mostly about the first five chapters which we would keep, but tweak. Then—wait for it—we had to rewrite the last three quarters of the book.

That was a little overwhelming at first, and after we got over the How. Are. We. Going. To. Do. This? We did it—and that new version landed us a contract.

Why Natalie is pink! Follow @Natalie_Zaman on Twitter!

After that, Sirenz went through three more rounds of revisions. We were always excited to get the notes, but then when we actually read them we were, like, Eek! But it always came down to “just do it.” Really.

It was interesting to see what we missed—typos and inconsistencies—with each pass—you think you’ve caught everything… um, no.

Two things that were extremely helpful for us:

First, having an editorial staff that was so supportive. We always felt comfortable asking questions and communicating.

The other thing is that we had each other. Rejection is more bearable, revision not so daunting, and success sweeter when you share it with someone. We realize that most books are not co-authored, but you can still have a writing buddy to team up with.

We learned quite a few things from this experience that:

  • Nothing is sacred—anything can be cut, whittled, changed, trashed…
  • As per above, just because it is cut out of the current manuscript, doesn’t mean that it’s been obliterated from the earth. We take great comfort in the fact that something we wrote that we really loved still exists somewhere, and so can potentially come out again in another form when the time is right.
  • It’s not a matter of if but when.
  • There is always at least one nugget of praise (also known as, you don’t need to change this) in every big steaming bowl of constructive criticism (also known as you really should consider changing this). And while the praise is nice—the criticism made both of us better writers.
  • There will always be something to fix—but there are also things that are just right. Recognize and be open to both—to making changes, and laughing at your own jokes (they are funny!).

As contemporary fiction writers, 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?

Follow @charbennardo on Twitter.

Sitting at Char’s poolside, we had several brainstorming sessions as to who these two girls should be. We’re very, and obviously different; Char’s tall, blonde (gray doesn’t count), and an admittedly princessy type while Nat is a short, brunette (was brunette as of this writing—this statistic is subject to change without notice) and slightly gothy.

Yet under the surface, there are things we share. We have kids all around the same age. Writing is more than a passion. We’re funny chicks, and we live with cats.

This idea, that two people that are not alike (we’ve had many people ask, “You’re friends?”) but could still have a fulfilling, productive relationship—could be friends—passed into these characters.

We found ourselves slipping into the characters as we wrote, so the first person narrative evolved as the best means to bring out the character personalities (FYI—we tried writing Sirenz in third person—it just wasn’t the same. But it had to be tried, which illustrates an important lesson in writing. No effort is ever wasted. When something doesn’t work, it underscores when something else does.).

As for exercises, we found that reading aloud dialogue and scenes (actually the whole book) helpful—but we would read each other’s character (in character—we love role-playing!), so we could see any impediments to flow, dialogue, action, etc. And it’s always fun to slip into someone else’s Gucci’s; who wouldn’t want to be Hades?

Ah, the language of young people. We live it. Literally. Between us, we have every age covered from 11 to 19. You can pick up a lot of good material—embarrassing, funny, tender, and of course, the lingo—with kids in the house. It’s all there if you listen.

If you don’t have ready access to teens and tweens, try getting adopted by that family of 19 plus kids. Barring that, try being a mentor (Char mentored three robotics teams for our local high school).

Let’s face it, skulking in the mall might be a little risky—and don’t dress like you’re 15 ’cause that’s just creepy.

Besides all this, spending time with kids brings back memories. Some things are universal, like mean girls at school, or befriending someone you never thought you’d be friends with.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Cynsational Notes

Read Charlotte’s blog and Natalie’s blog.