New Voice: Angela Cerrito on The End of the Line

Angela Cerrito is the first-time author of The End of the Line (Holiday House, 2011)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Robbie is locked in a room with nothing but a desk, a chair, a stack of paper and pencil. No belt, no shoes, no socks. He’s starving, but all they give him is water.

Robbie has reached The End of the Line, AKA Great Oaks School, and at Great Oaks there’s no time off for good behavior.

All good behavior will get you are points. Enough points and you get something to eat, a bed, bathroom privileges.

Thirteen-year-old Robbie’s first-person account of his struggles at the school—at times horrifying, at times hilarious—alternates with flashbacks to the events that led to his incarceration.

If Robbie is to survive The End of the Line, he must confront the truth: He is a murderer.

(Jacket photography by Edward McCain/Workbook Stock Collection/Getty Images.)

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?

Debuting in 2011 did not seem inevitable. There were times I wondered if this novel would make it at all and continued to work on other projects as I revised, re-revised and re-re-revised The End of the Line.

My journey started by subbing the first few pages to the (currently inactive) WIN contest in 2006. It was unfinished and middle grade, and I worried that it was just too dark. I was thrilled when the submission placed second in the middle grade category.

You were the judge, and you had the most encouraging words for the finalists. This inspired me to continue.

A few weeks later Roxyanne Young at wrote with the news that editor requested the full manuscript. I started waking up at 4 a.m. so I would have more time to write.

In addition to the WIN contest, some significant events along the way to publication were:

Reading the first few pages aloud at informal critique group meetings at SCBWI events (NY and Bologna, Italy). It was also significant to me that my friends who heard those early first pages continued to ask me about the project over the years.

An editor being totally honest with me –my setting was not believable and my climax was absent. She was 100 percent correct. I didn’t know much about revising at that point. I thought it happened after the contract and with the editor and author together. My writing was rough. Great Oaks didn’t come alive on the page. And I avoided writing the climax because it was too difficult for me. (This is explained more in the next question.)

An agent was totally honest with me and sent three pages of concerns about the manuscript. It was my first look at what a real revision would require. I actually highlighted the rejection letter and learned a great deal. Before this I’d only revised to chop words, strengthen sentences. I hadn’t ever taken the novel apart and tried to rebuild it. It needed so much work. But, thanks to this agent, I had a road map.

My critique groups – I belonged to an in-person critique group and online critique groups. The heartfelt critiques from these wonderful writers helped me a great deal with this novel and other projects too.

Continuing to learn from SCBWI conferences and workshops and being accepted to the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-one Plus Conference.

Whenever I got discouraged, I thought of the WIN contest, my SCBWI friends who heard the pages, my critique buddies and the encouraging words the first readers who read early drafts. They all wanted The End of the Line to succeed –and so did I!

The most significant step was connecting with Bill Reiss at John Hawkins & Associates. He liked the manuscript, wanted to represent it, and found a perfect home for the novel at Holiday House.

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?

The voice of Robbie wasn’t something I had to discover, I heard it in my head one day along with his greatest problem – he hated himself for his role in the death of his friend, Ryan.

It took me a lot longer to discover Ryan, and it was a long wait before I came to know him and could start writing the first page.

One day I was part of a conversation about several kids. One eight-year-old boy had been reported at school for not doing his homework. A month later, he was reported to social services for not being clean and for sleeping in school. They discovered the boy was the sole caregiver for his newborn sister. His father was not living at home, and his mom had postpartum depression and literally wasn’t getting out of bed to take care of the baby.

A friend told me about new kids in her neighborhood who were always hanging around her house. She was setting the table for dinner, and their eyes widened. The oldest said excitedly, “Look, she uses plates!” These were children whose meals at home were served in the can that was heated up on the stove. I knew by the end of the day that I had the building blocks for Ryan.

He would be a kid who pushed limits, broke a few rules, acted like he didn’t care. A kid who returned bottles to get money for food and tried (but failed) to take care of his newborn sister. A new kid who didn’t bother to fit in.

After I came to know Ryan, he told me his entire story. There is so much of Ryan’s past that didn’t make it into The End of the Line, an entire prequel. I love this kid as much as I love Robbie. Writing the scene of his death was one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever written.

(And this showed in the novel for many drafts because I didn’t dig deep enough to write that scene. I kept glossing over Ryan’s death and writing it in a very distant voice.)

I don’t think finding the voices of Robbie and Ryan were freeing my inner child but rather striving to “become” the characters. Even if it wasn’t related to the novel, I often asked myself “what would Robbie / Ryan think about (blank)?” The blank could be anything from a town I was visiting to a news story or a piece of artwork I liked. This never made it into the novel, but it helped me understand the two boys better and helped make their voices distinct.

The final revisions with my amazing editor (Julie Amper at Holiday House) did take me back to my childhood. Julie added so much to the novel. She asked me to clarify if Robbie and Ryan were really friends. Reflecting on fun times spent with my best friend, Jane, when I was Robbie and Ryan’s age helped me answer the question: what does being “friends” mean to Robbie and Ryan?

Cynsational Notes

Follow Angela at Twitter.

New Voice: Amy Fellner Dominy on OyMG

Amy Fellner Dominy is the first-time author of OyMG (Walker, 2011)(study guide PDF). From the promotional copy:

Ellie Taylor loves nothing better than a good argument. So when she gets accepted to the Christian Society Speech and Performing Arts summer camp, she’s sure that if she wins the final tournament, it’ll be her ticket to a scholarship to the best speech school in the country.

Unfortunately, the competition at CSSPA is hot-literally. His name is Devon and, whether she likes it or not, being near him makes her sizzle. Luckily, she’s confident enough to take on the challenge-until she begins to suspect that the private scholarship’s benefactor has negative feelings toward Jews.

Will hiding her true identity and heritage be worth a shot at her dream?

Debut author Amy Fellner Dominy mixes sweet romance, surprising secrets, and even some matzo ball soup to cook up a funny yet heartfelt story about an outspoken girl who must learn to speak out for herself.

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

I’ve had many, but none quite like my dad.

First of all, you have to know something about me: My inner voice hates me.

You know that inner voice…the one that tells us how we’re doing, and loves to offer comments while we’re writing? Well, mine never has a good thing to say. It usually pipes up with things like, “Your story is boring. You have no talent. Why don’t you give up?”

This is the voice that’s been inside my head for as long as I can remember.

But there’s another voice that’s also been inside my head. My dad’s voice. And that voice has always told me, “You’re good. You’re worthy. You can. You should. You will.”

When I was thirteen, I wrote a story that my dad thought was so good, he encouraged me to submit it for publication. I did. The story was rejected, but what stayed with me was his belief that I was good enough to be published.

All through my life, he continued to encourage and to believe. I think we all need a voice like that. Whether it’s from a parent, a friend, a critique partner, or a mentor. So when fear, panic or self-doubt expresses itself through your inner voice, you can drown it out with another.

My dad died in 2007—before I sold OyMG. I’m so sad I can’t share this with him. But I’m also blessed that I had him as long as I did.

And that I still have his voice inside my head, and my heart.

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?

If only it were magic! I could have really used some with this book. Ellie Taylor, the protagonist of OyMG, was a big problem for me. I think I decided who she should be/needed to be before I actually listened to her.

Normally, I “listen” to my characters by writing out monologues. I try not to have any preconceived ideas and see what comes out. Very simply, I start with a pad and paper. No computer—all this is long-hand.

I begin with a question that has to do with a topic or theme from the book. Then, I answer the way the character would. Eventually, it starts to flow as a stream-of-consciousness rant.

For instance, one of the themes in the book is Ellie’s comfort with her identity as a Jew. I asked Ellie, “How would you feel about bringing a matzo sandwich to school for lunch?”

(Matzo is a flat bread Jews eat during the Passover holiday.)

If Ellie said, “Bring matzo to school?—I’d rather starve.” I get a much different feel for her than if she said, “What’s the big deal—it’s just a giant cracker?”

For me, these monologues are a great way to develop the personality and voice of my characters.

The danger is that I sometimes start with an idea of what I want my character to think or believe. For instance, I thought Ellie would feel insecure about her religious differences in a camp where she was the only Jewish student. Because of that, I had troubles developing the story at first. It wasn’t until I took a big break and came back to it with no pre-conceived ideas, that I finally “heard” Ellie. And she was completely confident and sure of herself.

That changed everything…and the story came to life. This is sometimes just a process of trial and error, and then having a sense of what is “right.”

I should also add that I do like to eavesdrop on teens, and because I have two of them in my house, it just happens naturally. My daughter swears that my best lines are stolen from her. (She may be right!)

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews says: “Dominy’s debut balances light and heavy subject matter with ease…. Readers who like their frothy romance with a bracing dash of serious social issues will be clamoring for seconds.”

Find Amy at facebook and twitter.

New Voice: Clete Barrett Smith on Aliens on Vacation

Clete Barrett Smith is the first-time author of Aliens on Vacation (Disney-Hyperion Books, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Scrub isn’t happy about leaving Florida and his friends to summer with his crazy grandmother in “Middle-of-Nowhere,” Washington.

Arriving at her Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast, he isn’t surprised by its the-60’s-meets-Star-Wars décor, but he is surprised by the weird-looking guests.

It turns out that each room in the inn is an off-earth portal and his grandma the gate-keeper, allowing aliens to vacation on Earth. Grandma desperately needs Scrub’s help monitoring the visitors, shopping for cartloads of aluminum-foil for dinner, and taking rambunctious alien kids, that glow-in-the-dark and look like trees, camping.

The problem is, the town sheriff, already suspicious about Granny, is a scout leader camping in the same spot.

Will Scrub blow Granny’s cover, forcing the B&B to shut down for good, or will the intergalactic police have to intervene?

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

When I was born my parents were teenagers without many child-rearing resources. But they did have a library card, which turned out to be all the three of us needed.

My entertainment consisted of the thousands of stories they read to me, while their entertainment was watching me run around the house, in character, acting out scenes from the books.

Keeping characters alive through imaginative play—long after reading the last page of the book—was great training for becoming a fiction writer.

We lived in an area surrounded by a lot of forests but not very many houses, so after I got a little older (and when I wasn’t reading) you could usually find me playing out in the woods.

Actually, you probably wouldn’t have been able to find me, and that was kind of the point. Without any parents or teachers out there telling us what we could or couldn’t do, the forest seemed like a place where anything could happen. It was the perfect setting to imagine my favorite book characters continuing their adventures.

When I started to write stories for young readers, I wanted to capture that sense I had as a child that the great outdoors was a mysterious, magical place. The lives of kids are very different these days, and I don’t think enough of them get a chance to explore new places all by themselves anymore. So I wanted to give them that feeling in a story.

For the setting of my debut novel, I picked a place that I had fallen in love with as a kid: the foothills of Mt. Baker in Washington State. There are forests, rivers, waterfalls, a mountain range with snow-capped peaks; it’s breathtaking country. And my main character is a 12-year-old boy who learns about a big secret taking place out there. It turns out that anything really can happen in those woods: in my story, aliens are vacationing on Earth in disguise.

I always knew that I wanted to write stories and I’m thrilled to be able to share my first book with young readers. My dream is that somewhere out there, a kid will read this story and then go outside to play, keeping my characters alive in a brand new adventure.

As a science fiction/fantasy writer, what first attracted you to that literary tradition? Have you been a long-time sci-fi/fantasy reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?

When I was a kid, the middle grade/YA market was not nearly as robust as it is now, and I definitely wanted to start reading adult books at an early age. Genre fiction was a great entry point into that world.

I remember approaching my fourth grade teacher’s desk for one of our one-on-one reading conferences.

I brought Peter Benchley’s Jaws (Bantam, 1974) and Stephen King’s Firestarter (Viking Press, 1980) with me.

“I really liked both of these,” I told her, “so we can talk about either one.”

(Wherever you are now, Mrs. Pooleon, thank you for keeping a straight face during our conferences.)

Okay, so these are maybe not the most appropriate examples of reading material for ten-year-olds, but I do think there are good reasons that genre fiction appeals to young readers, especially sci-fi/fantasy. These are usually tightly plotted, fast moving stories with a page-turning combination of action and interesting ideas. And perhaps most importantly—at least for me as a young reader—they were not specifically marketed to kids. There is a subversive thrill in reading something that is not meant for you.

The series that probably had the biggest influence on my debut novel was the MythAdventure series by Robert Asprin (1978-). These stories came with all of the trappings of a fantasy series—magic, sorcerer’s apprentices, demons, dragons, etc.—but were told in a pun-heavy tongue-in-cheek style that had fun with the premise. I devoured these books in middle school, and it was the first time I had seen humor woven in so effectively with a fantasy story.

I am reminded of these books when I think about the genesis of the idea for Aliens on Vacation. I have always loved stories about aliens, and the visitors always have some Big Important Purpose for coming to Earth. They want to steal our water, or take over our bodies, or demolish our planet to make way for an interstellar freeway. Even E.T., who was here peacefully, was on a botanical research trip.

One day I thought to myself, “Wait a minute . . . what if they’re just coming here to hang out?” I decided that I wanted to write a funny sci-fi book that turned some of the genre’s conventions upside-down.

I think that all of the hours I spent with Robert Asprin as a kid probably had something to do with that.

New Voice: Caissie St.Onge on Jane Jones: Worst. Vampire. Ever.

Caissie St.Onge is the first-time author of Jane Jones: Worst. Vampire. Ever. (Ember/Random House, 2011)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

For Jane Jones, being a vampire is nothing like you read about in books. In fact, it kind of sucks. She’s not beautiful, she’s not rich, and she doesn’t “sparkle.”

She’s just an average, slightly nerdy girl from an ordinary suburban family (which happens to be made up of vampires). Jane’s from the wrong side of the tracks (not to mention stuck in the world’s longest awkward phase), so she doesn’t fit in with the cool vampire kids at school or with the humans kids.

To top it all off, she’s battling an overprotective mom, a clique of high school mean girls (the kind who really do have fangs), and the most embarrassing allergy in the history of the undead, she’s blood intolerant.

So no one’s more surprised than Jane when for the first time in her life, things start to heat up (as much as they can for a walking corpse, anyway) with not one, but two boys. Eli’s a geeky, but cute real-live boy in her history class, and Timothy is a beautiful, brooding bloodsucker, who might just hold the key to a possible “cure” for vampirism.

Facing an eternity of high school pressure, fumbling first dates, or a mere lifetime together with Timothy, what’s a 90-something-year-old teen vampire to do?

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

I love to write in big chunks, usually working on a first pass or a revision of an entire chapter at one time, if I can manage it. I do this, of course, sprawled out across my bed.

[Pictured: Frito Pie behaving.]

My house is kind of small, and we have an office/laundry room, but my husband is also a writer with a “day job” that he works from home and somehow that office became his office.

I’m not complaining, mind you. It fits his working style perfectly, and since he’s in there so much, he does ninety-eight percent of the laundry, too. I can’t argue with that!

I have a nice wingback chair in my bedroom, and I scored a vintage rolling typing cart on eBay, so I can sit up and type like a normal person when I want to, but I barely ever do. For some reason, I am most comfortable sitting cross-legged on my bed (hopefully made, but sometimes not) until my laptop starts burning my legs. Then I switch to lying on my stomach with my computer in front of me and maybe my cat balled up on the small of my back or my dog nosing my shoulder for chest rubs.

Writing in long all-day stretches is what works for me right now, because I also have a regular job working in television, and the show I work on currently is broadcast a couple of times a week, live and late at night. On those days, I’m in the office while the sun is up and then I head to the studio, where I usually don’t finish until the wee hours. I can’t steal any time at all to work on a manuscript during those two show days, but I’m so unbelievably lucky to have a gig where the rest of the week is mine to spend on my bed, writing.

I think the reason why the whole bed-as-desk thing works for me is because I’m a creature of comfort, first and foremost. I also think of writing as similar to acting. I’m trying to give life to these characters, so I’ll talk out loud to myself, or I’ll make a face or gesture in the mirror before I try to put it into words. I feel safe doing those kinds of weirdo things in my room. [Pictured: Frito Pie misbehaving.]

Finally, it probably works for me because I still feel, in many ways, like I am a teenager. Or at least that I can very clearly remember just what it felt like to be a teenager. And teenagers are the ones I’m trying to connect with.

So, it seems fitting that the way I’m working now is exactly the same way I was working when I was sixteen, only instead of flopping out and reading a book for Ms. Gallo’s English class, I’m flopped out trying to write a book.

It might be unconventional and it may not work for me (or my spine) forever, but it feels right for now. (And I’m really, really glad you didn’t ask what I wear when I’m writing. The world may never be ready to hear about my Sock Monkey pajamas.)

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?

Promoting my debut book is an interesting experience. I feel a little like I have two lives now. The first is as this comedy writer/producer/TV worker bee. The second is this new, and somewhat unexpected, life of a YA novelist. ‘

I have some experience in promoting things, but have never been in a position to promote something that was so…mine. My ideas, my words, my name. It’s exciting and fearsome all at once.

The idea for this book was born online. On Twitter, precisely (@Caissie). I’ve been using Twitter for about two and a half years, because it’s an excellent platform for a joke writer.

Brevity is the soul of wit, right? Well, you can’t get much briefer than 140 characters! I’d been using Twitter mainly to post topical zingers and thoughts that weren’t going into whatever TV stuff I was writing at the moment.

Then, something interesting started to happen. I began to connect with friends of friends – people I probably never would have met in real life – and they were talking back to me and sharing my little jokes with their followers, with whom I was also connecting.

Soon, I had built this little community of people who seem to like my humor and who are, in return, very likable, entertaining, smart, fascinating and generous.

One day when I made some joke about how being a teenage vampire would be so unsexy and awkward, and with my luck I’d be blood intolerant, people responded enthusiastically.

Without the people in my little Twitter community telling me to run with that idea, I might never have taken the next step in writing the novel. And it’s been that community that’s helped me brainstorm ideas for getting the word out there about the book. I owe a lot to these 7,000 people, most of whom I’ve never met in real life! Yet.

Mostly all of my promotional efforts thus far have been online. I’m working on a blog. I already have a little personal blog of personal essays that my personal friends read, and I love that, but I’m hoping to put together something a little more professional before my book comes out.

Your blog has really inspired me, and I’m hoping that eventually I could create an online space that not only serves to promote what I’ve written, but also allows me to promote other work I admire, and maybe even becomes a little community for young readers to communicate with kindred spirits. That’s the dream.

I’ve done a few other things too. I’ve set up an account and an author page on Now I’m racing around trying to put every book I’ve ever read on my virtual shelf. I think I only have twelve so far! If you’re my friend on GoodReads, please believe that I’ve read more than twelve books.

I’ve also made a (gulp) “fan” page on Facebook, which is just surreal to me. Right now, I think my mom is a fan, plus a handful of friends who are basically ribbing me for having made a fan page. This afternoon I’m going to try to talk my son into being my fan, but it might be a tough sell.

In real life, I’m scheduled to be interviewed on a couple of Internet podcasts, which now that I’m saying that I realize have the word “Internet: right in them, but somehow seem more real to me than virtual. I’ve also been asked to do a reading at my local library in Westport, Connecticut, which thrills me.

I’ve never Skyped with anyone in my life, but I am kind of fantasizing that maybe some schools will ask me to do some Skype visits. For that, I would be willing to learn how to Skype!

I’ve also worked with my editor at Random House, Shana Corey, on a list of my own personal contacts in the media to send the book out to. I think people might believe I have some kind of promotional advantage coming from the world of television, but that’s not really the case. [Shana pictured.]

Yes, I worked for David Letterman for several years, and I’m sure he wishes me every success in the world with my book, but it’s not very realistic to hope to be invited on his show to plug it. It just isn’t a likely fit for him or for my book.

If anything, the one advantage I have is understanding a little bit about how these things work, and not harboring any grand illusions that I will get on “Ellen” or “The Daily Show” because I know some people that work there. There’s more to it than that and having been the person on the receiving end of countless envelopes similar to those I’m sending out now, I recognize the chances of exposure are tiny.

But, if my publisher is willing to do it, why not? You never know when a seed scattered on the wind will take root, right? Plus, I’m excited to show my TV colleagues what I’ve been up to since I saw them last.

Whatever happens with the book, I’m enjoying the process of promoting it because I’m learning a lot. I mean, sometimes I wish I could learn a little faster, especially when I’ve spent forty minutes trying to find the button that connects my Facebook page to my GoodReads page, but how psyched was I when I finally found it!

I’m also looking at this as an opportunity to keep building that community that I’ve come to love so much.

Another thing it took me a long time to learn, but I’m so glad I did, is that the scary feeling that mounts just before you put yourself out there is no match for the amazingly beautiful feeling you can get when someone who’s been scanning the crowd says, “Oh, there you are…I’ve been looking to know someone just like you!”

I have yet to learn how successful my promotional endeavors will be, but if I were to offer advice on this front to anyone else, I would say that the first step is to put yourself out there. Join Facebook if you haven’t. Make a Twitter account, or if cyberfellowship is not your style, join a writing group or a book club of like-minded people. These will be the people you will turn to for inspiration as you write, and when you revise, and eventually when the time comes to unleash your writing on the world.

The very important second step, though, which I think that some people may forget, is that it’s not enough to just put yourself out there. You have to be active. You have to communicate with and be there for the other people you meet who are putting themselves out there.

When you’re using any type of community or platform to strictly broadcast your thoughts or your writing, it can be frustrating, because you often start to wonder why folks aren’t responding to it in the way you’d hoped, or at all. That may be because people can only “like” and “comment” and “retweet” and “buy” so many times before fatigue sets in, and they start to wonder what’s in it for them. You may have made an initial connection, but if it isn’t a two-way street, you may not maintain the connection.

It’s important that you’re willing to give as much as you’re asking for – and part of the giving will come in the form of creating something wonderful that people are eager to read and share, but I believe another part is responding to people who reach out to you as often as you can, sharing advice with people who aspire to do what you do and shouting out mad props for all the other people who are out there being creative or talented or dedicated or funny or kind.

Whew! I feel like I sounded kind of like a motivational speaker there. Well, the truth is that I’d love it if everybody got to enjoy the kind of support that I have had throughout this process, and while generating some positive buzz and selling a few books is certainly a welcome byproduct, the truth is that I place tremendous value on my relationships with these people, many of whom I wouldn’t recognize outside of a thumbnail avatar. And that would probably be just as true if I had decided to be a human cannonball instead of a young adult novelist!

Cynsational Notes

P.S. from Cassie: “In my career as a TV professional, I dislike ever having to pass on any pitch, book or otherwise. Every padded mailer that comes across my desk represents someone’s passion and ideas and effort, and those are three things I always want to say ‘yes’ to. And, despite not often being able to put a person’s work on my show, I am often able to enjoy it. In fact, some of my favorite books – books that I’ve read, reread and recommended time and time again – first came to my attention in the form of a pitch. It’s not Oprah’s Book Club, but it’s something.”

New Voice: Angie Smibert on Memento Nora

Angie Smibert is the first-time author of Memento Nora (Marshall Cavendish, April 1, 2011)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Nora, the popular girl and happy consumer, witnesses a horrific bombing on a shopping trip with her mother. In Nora’s near-future world, terrorism is so commonplace that she can pop one little white pill to forget and go on like nothing ever happened.

However, when Nora makes her first trip to a Therapeutic Forgetting Clinic, she learns what her mother, a frequent forgetter, has been frequently forgetting. Nora secretly spits out the pill and holds on to her memories.

The memory of the bombing as well as her mother’s secret and her budding awareness of the world outside her little clique make it increasingly difficult for Nora to cope. She turns to two new friends, each with their own reasons to remember, and together they share their experiences with their classmates through an underground comic. They soon learn, though, they can’t get away with remembering.

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

In a round about way, my precocious tastes in reading early on have influenced Memento Nora—or at least me writing in this genre.

In grade school, I remember reading Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series (1941-1989)—as well as an anthology by Alfred Hitchcock. I have a particular memory of the latter because I loved twisty shows like the “Twilight Zone” (1959-1964) and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-1962). Plus, my classmates laughed at me for saying he was my favorite author. To them, he was just the fat man their parents watched on TV. So even in grade school, I was getting ahead of myself.

By the time middle school came around, I’d already jumped into adult reading. Possibly that was because YA/middle grade wasn’t huge in the 70s. More than likely, though, it’s because I was bored.

One summer, I started on the classics shelf at the town library. I kept a list of everything I read. I do remember reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847) and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1951).

Then I discovered science fiction (and fantasy). I’d always loved “Star Trek” (1966-1969) and other science fiction series and movies. I started reading Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. It was meaty, yet fun reading that took me places (in my head).

I didn’t really start reading YA/middle grade again until much later. I went back and discovered things like the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (1950-1956).

Now, there’s so much great YA/middle grade fiction out there.

Writers like Scott Westerfeld and Phillip Pullman showed me what YA/middle grade science fiction and fantasy could be: entertaining and intelligent.

So, long story short, I guess I found my voice in YA/middle grade because I felt a huge gap in that genre when I was a young reader.

(Or, I just missed all the good stuff the first time around because I was too busy acting all grown up.)

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?

Marketing is the scariest part of the whole book process to me. So I decided not to go it alone. I joined both The Elevensies and the Class of 2k11.

I was also asked to join the League of Extraordinary Writers, a group blog about YA dystopian fiction.

The funny thing is that I’m not usually such a joiner, but I recognized that I didn’t have a clue about marketing my book.

And that’s the great thing about the Class of 2k11, for instance. Everybody knows something, and together we can do far more than we can do ourselves.

(Very few authors, especially new ones, have the luxury of a publishing house able to lavish big bucks—or any bucks—on marketing.)

The Class of 2K concept started back in 2007. The Class of 2k11 is a group of 18 debut authors—all YA/middle grade—whose emphasis is on the marketing aspect. However, we have become a great support system for each other. We have a website/blog (as well as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) dedicated to promoting our books. We also have lined up group book signings, conference events, contests, mailings, etc.

Elevensies is a wider community of YA/middle grade debuts. We do some group marketing but the emphasis (at least in my mind) is more on the online community—and the support we can give each other. It’s wonderful to have 70 or so other writers—all going through the same process—to which you can turn to for advice, celebration, or commiseration.

My advice to fellow debuts is to seek out fellow debuts and work together. It’ll make the seemingly overwhelming task of marketing your book seem more manageable and less like a chore. However, don’t forget that the most important thing is to keep writing.

New Voice: Kate Hosford on Big Bouffant

Kate Hosford is the first-time author of Big Bouffant, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown (Carolrhoda, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Annabelle doesn’t want the same boring hairstyle that all the other girls have.

When she spies a picture of her grandma, she has the perfect idea: a big bouffant!

But how can she make her style stand up? And will her classmates really be impressed with her daring ’do?

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

I come from a long line of readers. I think my grandmother had to make a rule for my mother that she was only allowed to read at the dinner table one night per week, and I was like that as well. I even remember reading through a school fire drill when I was in elementary school.

I was always attracted to independent female characters like Pippi Longstocking, Madeline, Eloise, and Anne of Green Gables. All of these girls went their own way without worrying too much about what other people thought. I probably based my main character, Annabelle, on this type of girl.

As I grew older, I sought out stories about children in New York City, like Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (Harper & Row, 1964) and From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (Atheneum, 1967). The idea of a child making her way through the city alone seemed so glamorous to me. I still feel that way when I reread those books.

So I guess it somehow makes sense that I ended up living in New York City, writing about an independent girl who wants a little more glamor in her classroom.

As a picture book writer, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

[Kate at launch party for Big Bouffant at Books of Wonder in New York City; photo by Charlie Hosford.]

About ten years ago, I was working as an illustrator. I started writing picture books as a way to get more illustration work, but gradually discovered that I preferred the writing to the illustrating. This realization was very liberating, and I decided to focus all of my energy on becoming a writer.

In January, I received my M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. This was a total immersion experience, which allowed me to work on the craft of writing for two solid years. It also provided me with an amazing network of writers.

Now I am more confident about revision, and if I get stuck, I have a lot of people who can help me out.

Writing can be lonely, and building a writer’s community is one of the most important things that a writer can do, second only to parking oneself in a chair and writing.

I think my main strength is coming up with whimsical ideas. I already have more ideas for Annabelle, the star of Big Bouffant, so stay tuned.

Often stories will come to me in the form of a title, and I’ll write it down and then come up with the story later. In the case of Big Bouffant, I started with “bouffant,” which is already a fun word to say, and then my younger son started saying “big bouffant.” The phrase “all I really want is a big bouffant” came to me soon after, and I would walk around mumbling it to myself.

That’s one of the great things about New York, you can walk down the street talking to yourself, and no one will even notice!

However, I then spent the next four years writing versions of the story in prose. At that time, I somehow felt I had to avoid rhyme, when actually rhyme was exactly what I needed to bring the story to life. If I had listened to that initial voice in my head, I would have realized that the correct form for the story was already there.

During graduate school, I discovered that I loved writing poetry, especially poems with rhymed couplets. I really enjoyed creating poetry collections, where I could explore a theme thoroughly through a series of poems.

[Photo from the launch party for Big Bouffant at Books of Wonder in New York City; photo by Greta Mansour.]

One challenge I have is making sure that my picture books stories lend themselves to visual images. This may sound obvious, however it’s easy to be swept away by a story that is interesting but not so visual.

I once wrote an entire story about a little girl talking to a seed that wouldn’t grow…. It would take a very special illustrator to bring that one to life!

Stories that have too much dialogue are often problematic because the characters are just standing around talking to one another. I try to storyboard my stories to make sure that an illustrator would have enough visual images for an entire book.

Another challenge that I face is walking that fine line between providing enough textual clues to inspire an illustrator, but also enough breathing room so that she can be a creative collaborator.

It’s easy to overwrite the text. Or sometimes the tendency is to underwrite, but then provide lots of art notes just in case the illustrator doesn’t “get” it. Finding that middle ground can be tricky, but it’s essential.

An evocative text allows the illustrations to sing, and when the interplay between words and images is right, a picture book really becomes more than the sum of its parts. That is one of the reasons why I find this genre so exciting.

Cynsational Notes

More photos from the launch party for Big Bouffant at Books of Wonder in New York City; photos by Greta Mansour.

New Voice: Bettina Restrepo on Illegal

Bettina Restrepo is the first-time author of Illegal (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins, 2011).

Nora is on a desperate journey far away from home. When her father leaves their beloved Mexico in search of work, Nora stays behind. She fights to make sense of her loss while living in poverty—waiting for her father’s return and a better day.

When the letters and money stop coming, Nora decides that she and her mother must look for him in Texas.

After a frightening experience crossing the border, the two are all alone in a strange place.

Now, Nora must find the strength to survive while aching for small comforts: friends, a new school, and her precious quinceañera.

Bettina Restrepo’s gripping, deeply hopeful debut novel captures the challenges of one girl’s unique yet universal immigrant experience.

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

My critique groups are the world to me. Originally when I began, Joyce Harlow invited me to sit at her dining room table on Sunday afternoons to drink tea and eat scones from delicate china plates.

We had several rotating players, but our main writers were Mary Ann Hellinghausen (Houston Community Newspapers) and Jenny Moss, author of Taking Off (Walker, 2011), Shadow (Scholastic, 2010), and Winnie’s War (Walker, 2009).

These women nurtured me through my newbie stories, the birth of my son, corrected my grammar, and helped me survive through the four billion drafts of Illegal. Sadly, we lost Joyce in October, but Jenny and Mary Ann are very much in my life now that I live in Dallas.

Here, I have a new group of writers who are taking care of me in a new way. Sally Lee, a nonfiction writer with about twenty books under her belt; Julie Richie, a freelance writer working on her MFA in creative writing from Lesley College in Boston; and Stephanie Ledyard, a graduate from Vermont College.

These amazing women put up with my antics at Einstein Brother’s Bagels twice a month. We are constantly learning from each other. It’s like I have my own personal cheering section, tissue provider, and laugh sessions all tied into one. It doesn’t matter if we are cheering for new grandchildren, a publishing contract or just telling silly stories, it all feeds into my writing life.

I must give kudos to my husband. He’s an engineer and not into books. But he’s mostly patient with me when I’m in a writing fervor. I forget to make dinner and forget to say things “out loud” (they sounded fine in my head). He pulls me into the real world for a break.

My son is quite the character, too. He thinks I know every story and must recite them upon demand. He keeps me reading all sorts of books, and he also pulls at me on days that I need with a good round of Wii.

As someone working with a publicist, how did you identify that person? Why did you decide to go with professional help? What steps are the two of you taking to raise awareness of your new release?

I knew that as a debut author of literary fiction – I wouldn’t get much attention. I am not Justin Bieber, but I’m thankful for his fast-selling biography that means more money is available for people like me to slip into the market.

But, knowing this, I knew I wanted to invest in myself and my work. And this takes an expert.

I asked my agent, Blair Hewes (Dunham Literary), and my editor, Katherine Tegen, for a short list of people I should work with.

In addition, I belong to an online support group of debut authors called The Elevensies.

A woman named Kirsten Cappy (at Curious City) hosted a chat. She’s actually a marketing person with great contacts in the school-library market. I really tuned into her ideas more than a publicist because I wasn’t just looking for ways to get featured in this magazine or that website. I wanted a way to promote the book over the long term.

Kirsten and I designed a photo contest for teenagers. Using Mitali Perkins’ idea of “multicultural books can be a window or a mirror,” teens can interpret the themes found in Illegal through photography.

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?

I’ve really been working the book blogging sites. These people are doing such a wonderful job connecting readers and highlighting new books. I think word of mouth, even via the Internet, is the most powerful tool.

But it’s important for me to be real with people. I don’t want to be some annoying salesperson looking for a quick hit like “here, review my book.” I want real connections.

It’s hard to read every blog every week, but I feel it’s important, that if they are doing their work, it must be honored. I try to comment when I have something good to say.

If I’m going to be in an area where the blogger lives or might be attending a conference, I want to meet them and give a hug.

I’m a hugger. I like personal connection, and a face speaks volumes to me.

But I have to tell you it takes a ton of time, and it never feels like enough. When it gets too cumbersome, I stop… but then I feel guilty. But by joining the class of 2k11, I have wonderful authors around me to cheer me on.

The one thing I am now hesitant to do is many bookstore visits. I love book people, and I want to talk with them. But these visits take a lot of time, and when you sit lonely at a table…. I want to interact. So, if I can interact with a small book group, or do a teen night – cool. Saturday afternoon story time, I would rather be playing with my family.

I’m just learning how to balance it all. I decide what I can control – and I do that with gusto.

The rest I will handle one step at a time.

Cynsational Notes

See the Educator’s Guide to Illegal.

Check out the Illegal Photo Contest. Peek: “…readers 13-18 to submit photo(s) that represent their reaction to the book Illegal…(HarperCollins, 2011) to win a chance at monthly prizes and the Grand Prize of a Nook e-reader.”

New Voice: Emily Howse on Zitface

Emily Howse is the first-time author of Zitface (Marshall Cavendish, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Thirteen-year-old Olivia Hughes knows what she wants to do with her life—be an actress. And she’s already on her way. She just landed a national ad campaign that should get her noticed.

But then her luck runs out. A little pimple turns into a full-blown case of acne, with serious side effects for her career, relationships, and budding romance with J.W., the new guy at school.

Now all Olivia wants to do is hide, but she can’t. She goes from being the girl at school everyone wants to be…to Zitface, a girl who is teased, dumped, and even fired.

What do you do when you’ve lost control of everything in your life? Olivia has to find out the hard way. And maybe, what she finds isn’t so bad after all.

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

Discovering my book’s characters was much easier than I’d anticipated. During previous book writing attempts, I compiled pages and pages of character traits, for every character.

Not one to embrace change, I dutifully began this same process before writing Zitface. Then I realized I didn’t need to. I related to most characters either from first-hand experience, or experience in knowing people like them. This happy revelation saved me from serious writer’s cramp…and countless hours of jotting down everyone’s likes, dislikes, favorite food, astrological sign, you name it.

Here’s what I knew, when contemplating the characters, to be true:

Olivia Hughes (13-year-old protagonist): Olivia, a likeable eighth-grader and TV commercial actress, seems to have it all. You know someone’s going down when you hear that phrase! Her world goes awry when she develops serious acne: her friendships suffer, her family’s conflicted, her career’s in jeopardy, and her romance with a studly classmate tanks.

My tween life wasn’t quite that dramatic, but I encountered similar experiences. I too was a child actress, for awhile. I was popular at my tiny Catholic elementary school in L.A.—then sunk to the bottom of the social eco-chain when my family moved to Dallas.

That geographic upheaval triggered family strife: I blamed my mom for decamping us to Texas, and hated that my dad remained mostly in L.A. (not unlike Olivia’s dad, who hightails it to Albuquerque, post-divorce). My sweet dad doesn’t resemble Olivia’s controlling father, but I’ve dated my share of sports-obsessed workaholics. As for acne: I didn’t break out during adolescence, but did big-time in my twenties (which also didn’t help my love life). Adult acne still occasionally plagues me, but it doesn’t own me—a realization Olivia comes to, as well.

Wendy Dahl (Olivia’s sometimes antagonistic friend): Wendy can’t keep quiet. Unfortunately, I suffer from that same syndrome. Over time, I’ve realized that not everyone’s interested in my take on things, so I’ve amended (somewhat) my mouthiness. Wendy isn’t there yet. She has things to say and says them, with mostly good intentions. Some characters don’t appreciate Wendy’s ego or opinion, but I can’t help rooting for her.

I consider Wendy misunderstood…which is exactly how I felt as a teen, when I shared what I considered my sparkling wit with friends and got reamed for being snarky. Unlike Wendy, I wasn’t a blonde cheerleader—I was a drill team member with a bad perm. But I get Wendy’s need to exude confidence, especially when she isn’t feeling it. Doesn’t every teen sometimes try to act cooler than they are? Wendy just does it more.

Theo Winters (O’s friend—and potential boyfriend): Theo is kinder and wiser than most people in the book, because he’s dealt with adversity and it’s made him a softer—not harder—person. Theo has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and managing a chronic disease makes him keenly aware of life’s uncertainties. Yet he appreciates life’s joys. Theo accepts his condition, experiences joy, and doesn’t shy away from his reality.

I respect this about Theo because I also have rheumatoid arthritis (though I wasn’t diagnosed until my mid-thirties). I generally accept having a condition and manage it well, but uncertainty occasionally breeds fear. RA runs an unpredictable course…it comes and goes, so it’s impossible to know exactly what’s coming next. A lot like life!

Regarding other Zitface characters, I related to them on different levels: Olivia’s aunt’s job-hopping (check!), her mom’s resistance to dating (check!), best friend Jenna’s occasional judgmental-ness (double-check!). Freud once said that, in our dreams, we are every person.

Okay, so Freud may now be considered a bit of a quack, but I think there’s a part of us—and sometimes a lot—in every character we create. Which makes writing about them all the more meaningful.

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft?

At an annual SCBWI conference in the 1990s, I saw Judy Blume and Paula Danziger play jacks in a hotel hallway. It was between breakout sessions, and most presenters/participants were snacking and schmoozing in the grand ballroom.

But Judy and Paula were sitting in an adjacent hall—cross-legged on the carpet—playing jacks with child-like enthusiasm. It struck me that I couldn’t imagine witnessing two prominent speakers doing this at any other type of conference.

Their gleeful focus on the game represented, to me, why we were all gathered there: because, as children’s writers, we all revel and exist, somewhat, in a youthful state. Our inner child enables us to create kidlit, and it comes alive when we do.

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?

I love questions that allow me to kvetch! Being the primary caregiver of a young child has been the greatest boon—and bane—to my writing.

On the upside, becoming a mom (I adopted a baby girl from Kazakhstan in 2005) rebooted my urge to write. The urge had waned due to my dwindling belief that I’d ever publish a children’s book. I’d written the first draft (of many) of Zitface back in 2003. My literary agent sent the manuscript to publishers…and I received rejection letters.

After this happened many times, I abandoned writing and focused on motherhood. I decided to adopt as a single mom—and began dating my now-husband in the process.

When I wasn’t exhausted from chasing after an indefatigable toddler, I reminisced about writing. I loved being a mother, but I missed being a writer. I didn’t want to close the door on this integral part of myself. Plus, I wanted to make my daughter proud, to show her how to reach for her dreams. Not that she cared at the time. All she wanted was the television remote control, so she could chew on it.

During the early toddler phase (which seemed to last way longer than it actually did), I didn’t have the time, energy or drive to write. I gave myself a one-year writing moratorium, but kept a story-brainstorming notebook. When creativity struck, putting my ideas on paper helped me feel proactive.

As my daughter got older, I got craftier about writing. Employed as a high school counselor, I sneaked in some writing at work. A key writing survival strategy!

I staunchly defend the ethics of doing this, because I only wrote when I had downtime (who really toils every minute of every eight-hour workday?).

Unfortunately, you can only get so far writing during brief work breaks. When no students came to my office in crisis, I could produce two or three pages in a day. But it wasn’t high-quality writing. Jotting words down five minutes here, ten minutes there—and hoping your boss doesn’t discover you’re not actually working—isn’t conducive to exemplary prose.

But, at the time, it was my best option. Some people happily write at night, God bless them. When I was single, I did so as well…because I wasn’t exhausted! Only once I had a kid, my brain and body pooped out by 6 p.m. Weekend days—another great time to write, if no high-energy kid keeps jumping on your lap—occasionally proved fruitful. But more often I spent them doing mom duty at the park, birthday parties, soccer games, etc.

After two years, I quit my job and wrote at home while my daughter attended preschool. It provided me ample writing time, but it wasn’t an easy decision. It meant financial hardship and numerous budgeting discussions with my fiscally-minded husband.

Months later, Zitface was purchased by Marshall Cavendish. A lucky break.

I spent much of 2008-2010 honing the manuscript (I had no idea how involved book editing is!). But I’m not complaining. I am, in fact, working on a sequel…and seeking a part-time job. It’s time. Especially since my husband’s been a great sport about my not bringing in a regular paycheck these past few years.

For stay-at-home folks with school-age kids, writing time is obvious: do as much as possible while the kids are in school because trying to accomplish anything once they’re home is iffy, at best.

I write most days and try to start first thing in the morning, so I don’t get distracted by other tasks. Some days I don’t make it to the grocery store, and that’s okay.

I’d rather spend an hour writing than cruising the vegetable aisle. I wish I could report writing faithfully from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 pm, but that would be false. I don’t always write at the same time, or even for the same amount of time. But I devote some time to writing/editing/research most days. I’m convinced that writing—like exercise—must be habitual to be effective, so it’s better to write a little bit every day than force it in three-times-weekly chunks.

Here’s a summertime suggestion: when kiddos are out of school and the days are long: join the local Y! I had an editing deadline this past summer, and I met it by going to the gym every weekday, for two hours. Nope, I wasn’t obsessively crunching my abs or doing downward dog. I dropped my daughter off in the kid-care room, then sat down at a nearby table with my laptop and edited my heart out. Members could leave children in the designated play area for two hours (but had to remain on the premises), so I edited for ninety minutes and worked out for thirty. I did this for several weeks—and I got the editing job done.

For parents with day jobs, however, finding time to write is tricky. You have to carefully consider your schedule, identifying every possible writing opportunity.

Does your kid love long baths? Write while they’re turning prune-y in the tub. Write while your spouse cooks dinner. Write when your kids are parked in front of the TV (any parent who says they never utilize this tactic is probably lying). Write as they play in the yard. Writing on the fly isn’t ideal, but it’s doable.

And for more concentrated time, there are plenty of places your child can go have fun on the weekend: a play place, art class, sport camp, etc. This usually requires parting with money, but if you can afford it and get sufficient free time in exchange, it’s worthwhile.

And if you have multiple kids and can’t afford farming them out to various activities? Send them to their grandparents (or anyone who will take them)!

Last, but not least: forging a writing career sometimes requires—ironically—putting writing on the back-burner. Since Zitface came out April 1, I’ve temporarily traded writing for book marketing. Initially, I ambitiously presumed I could plug my debut novel and simultaneously write a sequel. I was deluding myself.

Some people excel at multitasking, but I’m not one of them. So for the next two months, I’m concentrating on promoting my work.

New Voice: Carole Estby Dagg on The Year We Were Famous

Carole Estby Dagg is the first-time author of The Year We Were Famous (Clarion, 2011). From the promotional copy:

With their family home facing foreclosure, seventeen-year-old Clara Estby and her mother, Helga, need to raise a lot of money fast—no easy feat for two women in 1896. Helga wants to tackle the problem with her usual loud and flashy style, while Clara favors a less showy approach.

Together they come up with a plan to walk the 4,600 miles from Mica Creek, Washington, to New York City—and if they can do it in only seven months, a publisher has agreed to give them $10,000.

Based on the true story of the author’s great-aunt and great-grandmother, this is a fast-paced historical adventure that sets the drama of Around the World in Eighty Days against an American backdrop during the time of the suffragist movement, the 1896 presidential campaign, and the changing perception of “a woman’s place” in society.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

It helped that I was born nearly 20 years closer to 1896, the year of Great-aunt Clara Estby’s 4,000-mile walk with her mother, than to the current day. I have lived a good part of my life in houses built soon after the time of my story, with flour bins, wood stoves, and closets that assumed you had only three changes of clothes. I also had my own memories of Clara, who narrates The Year We Were Famous.

Intrigued by wondering what it was like to walk across America then, I spent a lot of time with old railroad maps that showed every whistle stop. Reconstructing a mile-by-mile, 232-day itinerary was tedious, but inspired several plot points.

Why, for instance did they detour to Cripple Creek when they knew they were behind schedule? How would they have felt about walking across the Umatilla Indian Reservation?

Newspapers articles were my greatest story prompts. Even with the help of librarians across the country I only found a dozen articles, but what tantalizing tidbits they contained! One-liners mentioning shooting an assailant, meeting President-elect McKinley and his wife in their home, nearly losing their lives in a flash flood, being lost for days without food or water, demonstrating their curling iron to Indians they met along the way—all blossomed in my imagination to whole chapters.

Pictures on the internet and in books and seeing some of the places Clara saw also inspired scenes. For instance, a postcard of Mrs. William McKinley in her parlor that I purchased off the Internet gave me the setting for the scene where Clara and her mother meet the next president.

Driving part of the route, I stopped by a little museum in Rawlings, Wyoming, where I found out about an early woman doctor who inspired my Dr. Holmes in another chapter.

As an old-time librarian, I used to think of research as something you did with books. In writing The Year We Were Famous, I discovered that material is where you find it, on-site with your camera, tiny museums, the Internet, and even e-Bay.

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?

What inspired me first were the real-life characters, Clara Estby and her mother Helga, my great-aunt and great-grandmother. In 1896, they walked from their farm in Mica Creek near Spokane, Washington, to New York City to win money to save the family’s farm—and to prove women could do it. It took them over seven months, wearing out 32 pairs of shoes between them. That story needed telling!

As I started research, I realized what a pivotal time 1896 was. It was three years after the Panic of 1893, which was as disastrous as the Great Depression. It was the year of the historic presidential race between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley.

By then, four states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho) had just allowed women to vote and the suffrage movement was gathering momentum.

To get into that world, I made an enormous sacrifice. For a year, I forswore all reading by living authors and read only books Clara might have read for high school classes or for pleasure. I read diaries of women of the 1800s. I put on white gloves to page through the fragile pages of women’s magazines of the 1890s. I even read dime novels which I found in entirety on the Internet. That florid dime-novel writing informed the style Clara adopted for writing about shooting an assailant in Oregon and helping her mother demonstrate a curling iron to Ute Indians they camped with.

From first rejection slip through publication was fifteen years. My inspirations for not giving up were Clara and Helga, who just kept walking one step at a time until they reached their goal.

New Voice: Chris Rylander on The Fourth Stall

Chris Rylander is the first-time author of The Fourth Stall (Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Do you need something? Mac can get it for you. It’s what he does—he and his best friend and business manager, Vince. Their methods might sometimes run afoul of the law—or at least the school code of conduct—but if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can pay him, Mac is on your side. His office is located in the east wing boys’ bathroom, fourth stall from the high window. And business is booming.

Or at least it was until this particular Monday. It starts with a third grader in need of protection. And before this ordeal is over, it’s going to involve a legendary high school crime boss named Staples, an intramural gambling ring, a graffiti ninja, the nine most dangerous bullies in school, and the first Chicago Cubs World Series game in almost seventy years. And that’s just the beginning.

Mac and Vince soon realize that the trouble with solving everyone else’s problems is that there’s no one left to solve yours.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid meets “The Sopranos” in this laugh-a-minute mystery from an exciting new talent.

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

At first, I’m definitely a plunger. (Ha ha, I just reread that, and I never thought I’d ever write that sentence.) Anyway, most of my stories and manuscripts have started with either the opening sentence or just the barest hint of an idea. And then I kind of “wing it” from there.

However, as I move further and further into the story, I typically do start to make more and more notes to myself, and by the time I’m roughly halfway through the story, I have developed an outline of sorts for the rest of it.

What appeals to me is the idea that I can start any story I want whenever I want without having to do any “work” beforehand. I feel like this really keeps ideas flowing, this feeling that I don’t ever have to adhere to any set outline or ideas.

Like, my debut, The Fourth Stall, started with a simple first few sentences that I thought were cool, and after page one, I had absolutely no idea what kind of story I was going to write or who the characters would be or anything, and that’s what appeals to me. The constant idea that I can do whatever I want in my stories.

I sort of view writing as the truest form of freedom that we have, in that you really can create whatever and whomever you want anytime you want and those things you create can do whatever you want them to.

It’s almost kind of starting to sound creepy to me when I describe it this way, but it’s that idea that I think can really help anyone struggling with plot.

Just keep reminding yourself: I can do whatever I want; it’s my story… so if you’re stuck, then unstick yourself. You’re the only one with control and power within your own story to do so! (I so wish that unstick was really a word, it would be a fine word, it really would.)

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 free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

I’ve always found that my voice for middle grade and young adult writing has come pretty naturally. And I feel like it’s always been my biggest asset. Because an editor or agent can help you with your plot, or your characters, or your structure, or even help you find your theme or heart of your story. But it’s much harder for them to help you find your “voice.” Which has been great for me since I needed a lot of help in all of the other areas, being that I don’t have an English degree and didn’t take any creative writing or English classes in college outside the minimum requirements.

To find my voice, really all I did was tap into my inner kid, which was easy for me since I still feel like a 12-year old most of the time.

I was only 23 when I started The Fourth Stall, and I grew up in the video-game age. So I feel like I already had a pretty strong connection to modern kids. I still love to do all things that most kids do: play video games; play and watch sports; watch movies; download tons of music, etc.

I mean, at risk of sounding completely immature, I’ll admit that I even still have a Nerf gun collection! So finding my voice was as easy, writing what entertained me. I thought back to what I would have found fun as a kid, which is more or less the same stuff that I find fun today. So that really helped, I think.

Also, I think another key is to let go of your filters. I don’t mean to just start cursing like a grizzled gold prospector, but so much of growing up and becoming adult involves censoring your imagination and personality more and more as you get older. There are a bevy of social rules that we’re always expected to follow, and as you enter the workplace there’s that ultimate kill-joy of “professionalism” hanging over our heads at all times.

But when you’re writing for kids, you really need to let all of that go. Be weird. Be crazy. Have fun. Just let everything you’ve been holding back at those formal dinner parties or work meetings or on the bus or wherever, just let all of that go when you’re writing. I think tapping into your “unfiltered” personality is one way of finding your true writing voice.

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