New Voice: Jeanne Ryan on Nerve

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jeanne Ryan is the first-time author of Nerve (Dial, Sept. 12, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

When Vee is picked to be a player in Nerve, an anonymous game of dares broadcast live online, she discovers that the game knows her. They tempt her with prizes taken from her ThisIsMe page and team her up with the perfect boy, sizzling-hot Ian. 

At first it’s exhilarating–Vee and Ian’s fans cheer them on to riskier dares with higher stakes. 

But the game takes a twisted turn. Suddenly they’re playing all or nothing, and the prize may be their lives.

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

This issue came up all the time in Nerve. Given that it’s based on an online game of dares that are supposed to draw in a large audience, the dares themselves had to be extreme enough to entice viewers and promote an uber-contemporary vibe.

At the same time, I wanted my main character, Vee, to be a “normal”, relatable girl. The way I approached this was to fashion the dares with the mindset of a cynical game designer, but then show Vee’s reaction to performing each dare, revealing her mortification, trepidation and concern about the unsuspecting people who might be impacted by her actions.

This meant I often had to do battle between my innate desire to make things right with the world (I have a degree in social welfare) and wanting to ensure that the story felt authentic.

For example, one of the dares has Vee posing as a prostitute until she can get a high enough offer from a potential client. “Pretty Woman” notwithstanding, there’s nothing light or funny about such a situation and the plight of girls caught in that lifestyle.

Yet it’s the type of dare a cynical group of game designers might dream up if their motivation was luring viewers who’d pay to watch.

I tried to portray Vee’s experience during that dare as starting out with false bravado, which wilts as she encounters danger and rejection. At times, she empathizes with the women on the street who aren’t there as part of a game. Since this is a fast-paced thriller, I couldn’t delve too deeply into these issues, but they are brought up to provide some measure of balance.

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?

Technology plays a huge role in this story in both the day-to-day interactions between the characters and in the mechanisms of the game itself. The dares in Nerve are captured on video via phones by both players and “Watchers,” and then broadcast on the net to be viewed on computers and phones.

Since I didn’t want to date the book, I tried to keep the technology as generic as possible, describing it more by function than name.

In the case where I did need a name for a ubiquitous social networking site, I called it ThisIsMe, which hopefully gets across the idea.

When it came to the phones, which are so integral in this book, I went with the highest common denominator, assuming that smart phones would become more the norm than they are now. So much so, that in the near future, they won’t be considered so “smart.” (In fact, there’s only one line where I refer to them as “smart” and that’s kind of a joke.)

The story simply presents kids whipping out their phones to take video and use the Internet. Another thing I was careful to do was say “phones” rather than “cell phones” since for most teens, this differentiation isn’t necessary, and, in my opinion, would already sound dated.

Of course, there’s no way to predict what’ll be available even a few years from now; nor would I since this is not sci-fi. So, like pretty much all contemporary fiction, aspects of this story will eventually become dated. All I could do was try to delay that as long as possible.

New Voice: Jay Kristoff on Stormdancer

U.S. cover

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jay Kristoff is the first-time author of Stormdancer
(Thomas Dunne/St Martin’s Press (USA)/Tor UK (United Kingdom), 2012). From the promotional copy:

The first in an epic new fantasy series, introducing an unforgettable new heroine and a stunningly original dystopian steampunk world with a flavor of feudal Japan.

A Dying Land

The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. 

The skies are red as blood, the land is choked with toxic pollution, and the great spirit animals that once roamed its wilds have departed forever.

An Impossible Quest

The hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a thunder tiger – a legendary creature, half-eagle, half-tiger. But any fool knows the beasts have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shōgun is death.

A Hidden Gift

Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a talent that if discovered, would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. 

Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. 

Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her.

But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire.

What inspired you to choose the particular point of view–first, second, third (or some alternating combination)–featured in your novel? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view at some point? If so, what made you change your mind?

Stormdancer is told in third person. I’m going to speak some hard truths here to our friend First Person Point of View (First Person PoV) here, if you’ll indulge me:

JK: *turns to First Person PoV, who is watching across the table, eyes already welling with tears*

“First, you’re an awesome person. Really. I have so much fun when we’re together. You’re great for establishing character voice very quickly. You pull readers into the heads of my protagonist like a super-magnet. And you’re great with the kids. But honestly? I find you kinda limiting.”

*puts up hand to cut off First’s indignant protest*

“Look, I’m writing a fantasy story here, First. I mean, you totally work in more intimate settings, but over the course of this series, I’m gonna have armies clashing and factions fighting and imperiums being played for and lost. Lots of different agendas and interests at play, lots of characters colliding and plotting and fighting. You’re just not going to work.

“Can you imagine the Lord of the Rings told only from Frodo’s perspective? Would it have the same feel? Would it be as big?

“If I use you, First, the only way for my readers to know what other characters are thinking or why they behaved the way they did is to have those characters tell my protagonist. If I use you, really important scenes that happen ‘off-screen’ have to be imparted verbally to my hero later on.

“Can you imagine Aragorn sitting down and telling Frodo about the Seige of Gondor after the fact? Would you have cried when Boromir died if Merry and Pippin told Frodo about it at the end of the story?

“Besides, I’m a 30-something year old man, First.

“My protagonist is a sixteen-year-old girl. I mean, it’s always a challenge for authors to create convincing characters. Writing a convincing sixteen-year-old girl in theory isn’t any harder than writing a convincing 500-year-old vampire, or a robot monkey ninja who hunts pirates in space.

Samwise AKA the muse

“Nobody wants to read a book about me sitting on the couch playing Guitar Hero, so in theory, I’m always going to be writing a character who’s different to me. But a thirty-something dude actually writing inside the head of a sixteen year old girl?

“That takes more courage than I’m currently in possession of, First. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m just saying my wheelbarrow isn’t that big yet.

“Besides, you’re a totally popular point of view. In fact, it seems like most books on the shelves these days, particularly in the YA section, are written in you. I want to be different. Lots of steampunk written in Victorian England. Lots of love triangles and flawless heroines. Lots of pretty skinny white girls on the cover. I don’t want any of that. It’s been done and done well. Time to roll on.

“It’s not you, First, it’s me. You deserve someone better. Someone who will love you for who you are. Now, you go out and find that special someone and hold onto them with all you’ve got.

“Hey, you don’t happen to have Third’s phone number, do you?”

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

World building is ultra-important in fantasy for me. In a good fantasy, the world should feel like an actual character. It’s just as important as your protagonist, and it should live and breathe and grow just like they do.

There should be rules laid down for the reader to follow – you need to strike a super happy fun time balance between giving the reader enough information to understand how everything works and killing them stone dead with five-page descriptions of every meal. But better too much than too little – you can always cut it later.

The most important part of any world, of course, are the people living in it. You need to question them constantly. Sit them down in your head for an interview. How does your society work? Who runs it? Who makes the rules? Who enforces those rules? Are people happy with the status quo? What is the glue that holds society together – grand notions like faith and honor, or big guys with bigger guns?

What do people believe? What do they do in their free time? Do they even have any? What does the average person in the street aspire to? What stops them just sitting down in the dust and dying?

How does the society feed itself? How do their transportation systems work? Do people own their own land? Are there slaves? Are there castes? Do people draw lines of division in terms of race? Faith? Blood/birth? Ancestry? Power? Who is the “other”? (Every society has one).

Is it peace time? Has it always been? How did the current people running the show get into power? Who wants to knock them off?

There are thousands of these questions, and a good fantasy writer will know the answer to them all.

A good place to start when building a fantasy world is an existing system. I based the world in Stormdancer on the Samurai age in Japan, then added a combustion-based technology and rolled on from there. George R.R. Martin used medieval England during the time of the War of the Roses, added some subtle magic and some dragons. Hey, presto.

Of course, if you base your world on an existing system (or one that used to exist), you don’t have to use everything. Use history like a salad bar: take what you want and leave the rest. And of course you don’t need to write down every little detail – you’ll probably make your reader envy the dead if you do. But you, the author, need to know how this stuff works, even if you don’t tell anyone else.

Knowing how things work will keep your world and characters consistent. This knowledge is the concrete upon which every additional structure you build in your novel will stand. If the structure is thin or unfinished or put together with no real plan, sooner or later the things you build on top of it are going to fall over. And everyone will die.

Guest Post: Cynthia Y. Levinson on Can You Really Ask That in a Children’s Book?

Cynthia at the Texas Library Association conference

By Cynthia Y. Levinson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

On September 15, 1963, 49 years ago today, three racist vigilantes—one of them nicknamed “Dynamite Bob” because of all the bombs he lobbed—blew up Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. 

For the previous six months, this church had been the headquarters for civil rights protests, which, in July, had finally forced the city to rescind its onerous Segregation Ordinances. 

The resulting blast killed four black girls and blinded another.

In my book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), I describe these events through the voices and experiences of four young activists.

In explaining how I found—and cajoled the life-stories from—the “main characters” in my debut middle-grade nonfiction book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), I’ve often said that I felt like a telephone insurance salesman or a door-to-door Ginzu knife pusher, making cold calls.

“Hello. My name is Cynthia Levinson, and have I got a deal for you! Just tell me every embarrassing detail about yourself, and, if I find a publisher, I’ll make you infamous.”

Why would any sane person, outside of reality TV, sign on to this crazy deal? Why would anyone agree to spill all to a novice writer in exchange for nothing, not even a vegetable peeler?

The four main interviewees—Audrey Faye Hendricks, Washington Booker III., Arnetta Streeter Gary, and James W. Stewart—would answer that they wanted young people today to know how they and over 3,000 other black children in Birmingham, Alabama had marched and gone to jail to desegregate what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the most racially violent city in America.

I suspect that, when they agreed to talk with me, they had no idea how many of their secrets, some held for nearly 50 years, would be revealed in the telling.

In 2004, Terry Gross, the host of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, published a collection of the interviews she conducted for the program in a book called All I Did Was Ask. Such a deceptively tongue-in-cheek title!

As Gross acknowledges in her Introduction, “I violate many rules of polite conversation in my interviews.” As an avid listener to Fresh Air, I can attest that she poses decidedly impolite inquiries but she does so deftly and effectively. As a result, her interviews often elicit, as she intends, “a revelation about my guest’s life.” Her techniques are all the more remarkable, given that her interviews last barely more than an hour.

If I replayed mine, on the other hand, end-to-end, they’d go on for days, possibly weeks. Unscrolled on pre-digital audiotape, they might stretch from Austin, where I live, to Birmingham. Unlike Terry Gross, I am an inefficient interviewer. One reason is that I wait. And, I wait. And, I wait.

During one of our early telephone conversations (I didn’t meet James until a year-and-a-half after we started talking), the volume and timbre of James’ voice suddenly dropped as he said, slowly and huskily, “The conditions in the jail were deplorable. Just. Deplorable.”

I could almost hear him shake his head as he recalled his astonishment and dismay at how he and the other teenaged prisoners were treated by the all-white Birmingham police force.

I waited for James to say more. But, my usually candid and eloquent interviewee seemed strangled. And, being a coward, as Gross admits she is, I choked up, too.

I couldn’t cough out the next obvious question and waited almost six months before I was ready to wind back to, “In what ways was the jail deplorable?” His responses were shocking.

But, like my eventual question, they were necessary to tell his story. “Deplorable” is an apt description but it is not a telling detail.

James’ explaining to me that his cell, which was built to accommodate 75 prisoners, was packed so tight with 300 to 400 young males that “we had to sleep in shifts [while] the rest stood around the walls” hits the reader between the eyes.

In researching and writing We’ve Got a Job, I knew that assertions require evidence, and statements beg for examples. The only way to uncover them, I learned, is to dig deep.

Cynthia and Wash

What, I wondered, for instance, did Wash Booker mean when he mentioned, over brunch at a pancake house, that he was a bad boy?

It meant, he told me when I finally asked, that “while everybody else was peacefully marching…we were more interested in hitting the policemen in the head with a rock.”

It meant, “burn anything the white folks owned.”

It meant, “Anything we could get our hands on owned by white folks, we destroyed it.”

All of which meant that, as a white writer, I also had to ask this man who was sharing so much with me that I had come to think of him as a friend, “Do you still hate white people?”

I flung many other tough questions from my arsenal. I had to ask Arnetta, a very decorous retired mathematics teacher, if she had lied to her parents about her activities in the civil rights movement. I had to ask Charles, a white interviewee, if his father ever stopped being a racist.

Above all, I had to ask myself: Why, as a teenager, like Arnetta, Wash, and James in 1963, did I timidly read articles in the newspapers about their courageous actions but never once considered joining them to protest segregation? Had I been prejudiced, too? Or, was I merely passive?

Does the difference between attitude and action (or, more accurately, inaction) matter? And, what residue of either of these remains within me? To what extent have I exorcised prejudice and inertia by writing We’ve Got a Job, thus fulfilling my new friends’ desire to share their stories with young people today?

Tough questions, apparently, begin at home. And, I often wondered, during the more than three years I obsessed about the book, about my own motivations and persistence.

In the end, I think it was not so much exorcism as trying to make amends.

Although my questions to others were, not infrequently, impertinent, they paid off in ways I didn’t anticipate not only for my readers but for me as well.

Gross observes that “When an interviewee clams up, it’s sometimes out of fear that the journalist he’s speaking with won’t fully comprehend what he’s saying or simply won’t care…[A] guest is more likely to share his innermost thoughts with someone he senses has a good grasp of what he’s all about.”

While several people got angry with me during our conversations, only a few people clammed up—because, they said, they plan to write books of their own. Certainly, Audrey, Arnetta, James, and Wash did not go silent. And, I would like to think that that’s in part because they know I comprehend, and I care.

As a result of what they shared with me, I learned much about their innermost thoughts—about the paramount place of God in their lives, for instance, about the spiritual basis of the Civil Rights Movement, about the values in their lives both before and after the desegregation that they brought about. James, in particular, patiently explained to me the nuances of racism that he still perceives today through careful listening and observation.

In a turn-about-is-fair-play move, I’ve also been interviewed since the book was published. Two radio program hosts, one black and the other white, in Grand Rapids, Michigan; asked me what I learned during this journey. In addition to the lessons I just mentioned, I also confessed that, thanks to the four, I now recognize that I have been in denial about the extent to which racism persists.

In my efforts to make amends, I’ve tried to remain not only attuned but also active in confronting prejudice and discrimination. It is in this way that my investigations have paid off in unanticipated ways—by changing me.

Fellow EMLA clients Jenny Ziegler, Chris Barton

I opened by raising the question of why anyone would want to be interviewed, especially when the interviews are probing, and the “victim” receives nothing in return.

Happily, Arnetta, Wash, and James have told me that, in fact, their innocently signing on to this project has benefited them, too. (Audrey died in 2009.)

Arnetta has had many conversations with her grandson about her involvement in the movement and encourages him to be an activist. (She also warns him not to lie to her the way she lied to his great-grandparents!) Wash is becoming a motivational presenter and public speaker about civil rights. And, James, who cried while talking about the jail at a presentation we made together to sixth-graders, is finding solace through sharing his stories.

I console myself with these outcomes not only for the time and anguish I extracted from the four of them but also because I’m doing it again. Stay tuned for news of my work in progress, for which I’m relentlessly interviewing young circus performers.

I wonder what they and I will learn about ourselves and how we will change from the process.

Cynsational Notes

New Voice: Cynthia Y. Levinson on We’ve Got a Job from Cynsations. Note: Cynthia talks about a transformative writing workshop and how she framed her research.

New Voice: E. M. Kokie on Personal Effects

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

E. M. Kokie is the first-time author of Personal Effects (Candlewick, 2012)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

One letter: 876 miles.

Five days to find his brother’s past and his own future.

Ever since his brother, T.J., was killed in Iraq, seventeen-year-old Matt Foster feels like he’s been sleepwalking through life — failing classes, getting into fights, and avoiding his dad’s lectures about following in his brother’s footsteps. 

T.J.’s gone, and the worst part is, there’s nothing left of him to hold on to. 

Matt can’t shake the feeling that if only he could get his hands on T.J.’s stuff from Iraq, he’d be able to make sense of his death. He wasn’t expecting T.J.’s personal effects to raise even more questions about his life.

Now, even if it means pushing his dad over the edge…

even if it means losing his best friend…

even if it means getting expelled from school…

Matt will do whatever it takes to find out the truth about his brother’s past.

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?

Research became extremely important for Personal Effects. I have no personal or familial experience with the military or with what it is like to have a loved one serving overseas, and especially not what happens after one of our service members is killed while serving. I had to research every aspect of enlistment, tours of duty, procedures after a service member is killed, etc.

I’m sort of an obsessive researcher, so I researched each aspect from several angles and avenues, using online and print resources, and even some personal accounts.

But there were two areas that were especially difficult to research: the details of notifying the family and assisting them post notification; and, the handling and delivery of the deceased service member’s personal effects.

Once I started combing through research materials from the perspective of both surviving family members and the notification officers, I was able to feel fairly comfortable with the details I included about the first part. But I really struggled with feeling like there were many
details I couldn’t know about the delivery and handling of the personal effects. And I really wanted to get those details right.

I wanted to know that if someone who has been through the experience read my book, they would feel like I at least got the essence of the experience right and treated it with respect. And because so much of
my writing really does come down to tactile details, there were all these small bits of the feel and appearance of the effects that I desperately wanted to know.

I got lucky early on, before I even signed with my agent, in that I connected online with someone who had worked at the personal effects depot who could help fill in some of my gaps. I was able to ask questions about how the effects would be processed, how they would be packed, what I should expect would definitely be included, and what
would not.

But I still had huge holes in my understanding about what happened after they were processed – how did they get secured for shipment, how were they shipped and delivered, and when, and by whom, etc.

E.K. often writes at her dining room table.

My questions felt simultaneously too trivial to risk contacting those with firsthand experience (it’s not the kind of thing you throw out on social media or hop into a forum and ask people to tell you
about the tactile details of such a personal and emotional event), and yet these details also felt too important to ignore. I put out some feelers, asking if anyone knew anyone who might talk to me, but I struck out. But I wasn’t ready to give up.

So, I researched as best I could, while I revised. Every few months I would run through my by-then-standard online searches, seeing if anything new would turn up. But I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Then, in a moment of inspiration, I realized I might have been asking the wrong questions. I had been searching online using fairly
sanitized search terms – deceased service member’s personal effects, deceased soldier’s personal effects, delivery of personal effects, etc. And I realized that anyone writing online about the subject would likely be doing so in a personal way – they would refer to the person specifically.

Once that inspiration struck, I found exactly what I was looking for after only a few search strings. I was able to connect with someone who had been present when a friend received his son’s personal effects. “Son’s personal effects” was the search string that lead to this amazingly generous person, who, with her friend’s permission, shared with me some of the sensory details about the delivery and appearance of the personal effects, and even shared insights I didn’t know to ask for.

It was an amazing, generous, affirming experience, which helped me get some key details right that I would have otherwise missed or had inaccurate. And it taught me a strong lesson in thinking about the point of view and motivations of potential sources of information when I am struggling to find tricky
bits. I had to remember that the information is gathered, organized and expressed by people, with emotions and relationships that impact how they will gather, organize and express what they are seeing, thinking and feeling.

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

As a teen in Band.

I feel like Matt came to me fully formed but I had to revise to draw him out and get him organically on the page.

After years of being too afraid to try to write something original, or more accurately, finish something original, I made a pact with myself to write a novel. It didn’t have to be good, and I didn’t have to do anything with it, but
I had to finish it.

I was doing free-writing exercises – sitting down and writing whatever came to mind – trying to decide what to write.

In one of those sessions I wrote parts of what is now chapter two of Personal Effects. It was the first bit I wrote of Personal Effects, and for a long time it was the first chapter of the story.

I had this scene with this amazingly angry kid, sitting in an office, waiting for his father and reliving and almost relishing the fight he had a few
hours earlier. He was visceral, and vulnerable, and he seemed so real. And I wanted to know why he was so angry. I wrote a good chunk of the first draft to find out.

Once I knew why Matt was so angry, I had to ask questions and make decisions about plot and pacing, etc. Matt came into sharper focus and became more confident in that anger in every draft. But he was there in that first exercise scene, hiding in plain sight.

Most of the secondary characters, including Shauna, took more deliberate choices, more questions about what would be reasonable for that character in that moment to feel and how he or she would react. And even though they started out as more deliberate characters, they also grew and changed through revision, sometimes in significant ways.
Harley went through many versions of herself, for example, as the story required.

Matt is at times his own antagonist, but to the extent his father is his external antagonist, he may be the character I had to think about the most as the story came into focus through revision.

For so much of the writing of this book I was so sunk into Matt’s point of view and perspective that I think at times even I didn’t see things clearly, didn’t see his father clearly. But in revision I would look at some of his father’s actions, and reactions, and I could see that he wasn’t quite the monster Matt believed him to be.

Don’t get me wrong: he’s not an ideal father by any stretch of the imagination, and Matt deserved better and more. But sometimes, in some moments, I realized Matt had no idea who his father was.

I looked for moments within Matt’s limited and narrow point of view to (hopefully) show the reader some small insights into his father’s character and perspective beyond Matt’s fears and frustrations and pain.

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


I love to revise. That’s where I feel the most joy in the process. But I hate first drafting. Hate. Despise. It’s torture at times.

I try to motivate myself to draft through concentrating on getting to the revision stage. I also have found that having a regular critique group is a great motivator.

Knowing I have a crit group meeting coming up, and that I want to have something to submit, is just the right amount of pressure to get me out of my head enough to just write experimentally. To let the writing flow more freely. And that critique as I write helps me start making choices as the draft is forming, which is great for my confidence as I write, and often saves me time later on in the process by helping me identify missteps during the drafting.

Since selling Personal Effects, the added pressure of knowing someone else will read my work, and exactly who in my editor and agent, made drafting all the harder – it was nearly paralyzing for more than a year. I pushed along, writing when I could, backing out when a draft wasn’t working and trying a different angle in, waiting for it all to
feel loose and experimental again.

Once I had the start of a draft I felt was working, I started submitting to my critique group more regularly, and it quickly started to feel experimental again. That give and take of critique, knowing it’s just a draft that I expect to revise, was what I needed to relax and draft more freely again.

writers don’t feel comfortable showing a work in progress draft to anyone, but for me, an intimate and trusted critique group really helps me stay motivated and helps me focus as I write.

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?

Chewbacca dressed as an Ewok, costume by E.K.

I think the key is figuring out how you write best. I tried sticking to a set schedule — ie, two pages, or one hour, or 1,000 words, etc. every day, week, whatever. But I have found that for me, when the words are flowing I have to let myself sink in deep, and write whenever I can.

Before work, after work, after dinner, late into the evening if it’s really going well. And I always end a section by writing myself some notes of what comes next so that when I sit down to write, I’m not coming to it cold.

When the words aren’t flowing, I take breaks, read, research, play, revise a little…whatever I can do to stay limber while the story marinates, waiting for the next burst of words to come.

Knowing that inspiration can be unpredictable, I have tried to schedule work so I do have opportunities to write most days. I also don’t over-schedule my weekends, knowing that if I am in a good writing head space, I might want to write for hours on end both weekend days.

Luckily, I have a partner who understands and supports my sunk-in times when I am glued to the computer and pretty much oblivious to the world around me.

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?

Okay, remember I said I’m pretty much an obsessive researcher?

What’s this in Chewbacca’s bed?

I applied that obsessive research to figuring out how to find an agent, too. I researched every aspect of the process while I was revising Personal Effects and working on my query. I created spreadsheets and charts and lists of agents, and found out everything I could about those at the top of my ever-changing list.

Then once I had a fairly solid list to start querying, I stayed up to date by doing a little research every week to stay current, watch trends, see who was asking for what, and signing who, and with what results, meaning that I re-prioritized my query list based on what I was seeing.

And when I actually started querying, I queried slow, a few queries at a time over about ten months, until I was sure my query letter and partial were working well enough to get requests. Then I decided to query all out.

I updated and re-prioritized my list of agents in July/August 2009 with plans to start sending queries in batches of five-to-seven a week until I ran out of viable candidates.

In that first batch in August/September 2009, I decided on a whim to add a newer agent to my list. I was interested because while he was new, he seemed to be building his client list slowly and he had a really good ratio of sales to clients, for books I thought sounded interesting. He also had a great bio that talked about books the way I talk about books. Something in that bio just felt right.

His name is Chris Richman and he’s with Upstart Crow Literary. When Chris offered me representation I was thrilled. I went through the process of notifying the other agents reading the manuscript, but I felt from our telephone call that Chris and I would be a good fit. We saw the book in similar ways, his ideas for revisions felt right, we had similar views for the
agent-client relationship and my long term writing plans, etc.

I couldn’t have asked for a better fit, and I often tell people that revising with Chris was like taking a course on pacing. His insights not only helped me strengthen Personal Effects, but they helped me better understand how to revise to improve pacing for future writing. So, I researched and queried for about a year, but all in all, I sent under 20 queries, signing with Chris in October 2009.

Learn about more debut authors!

As for advice for other writers, I also suggest they do their research. And that they do it themselves, instead of asking someone else to do it for them.

There is no magic in the process, but if you really put in the time to get to think about what you want and research potential agents, some bit of an interview or blog post or bio or even tweet might speak to you, might help you feel that this agent is the one for you. And you’ll have a better shot of making an informed decisions if you can remember that it is a business relationship, and look for the quantitative data, too, like how many clients they have, how often they request manuscripts, what sales have they made in your market and genre, etc.

I also advise writers to eradicate the term “dream agent” from their vocabulary. People are always asking who are the “dream agents.” Your dream agent will be different than someone else’s dream agent. Do your research, and you improve your chances of making that connection.

New Voice: Anne Marie Pace on Vampirina Ballerina

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Anne Marie Pace is the author of
Vampirina Ballerina, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Disney-Hyperion, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Oh, to be a ballerina! It’s a challenge for any little girl, but even more soif one happens to be a vampire like Vampirina.

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

I’ve been writing–sometimes intently, sometimes merely piddling–all my life, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my writing became more directed and more serious after I started connecting regularly with other writers, both online and in-person, about ten years ago.

As far as the online world goes, it’s been a great gift to writers in recent years–at least from my perspective–that the internet has allowed us to associate in ways we could not have done in the past.

Among non-writers, I’m fairly shy, but as writers go, I’m pretty much an extrovert; and I know I’d be miserable working alone at home without being able to reach out to writer friends during the day.

As far back as the mid-’90s, my husband and I belonged to a now-defunct online-service called GEnie, which had writers’ round tables. After GEnie went out of business, the children’s writers formed a new listserv called WRT4KDZ. Throughout the years when my kids were young, I clung to WRT4KDZ as if it were a life raft; even though I was hardly writing at all, even when I didn’t read the posts for weeks or even months, belonging to that group symbolized the knowledge that real people make a go of this writing gig.

Books don’t just appear; people have to write them–and maybe I could write one, too.

As my children grew older, I was able to write more; simultaneously, social media was evolving, and my online community grew. I’ve been part of the Yellow Board, various genre-based listservs, and LiveJournal; and I’ve been a member of the Blueboards since the very first day; in fact, I spent about six years as one of the Blueboard administrators.

I also have a wonderful writers group online, the core of which are writers who met on the Blueboards. And of course, now we have Facebook and Twitter. The format may be different, but the intent is the same: forging connection, support and friendship.

Back row, left to right, Cassandra Whetstone, Sara Lewis Holmes, Anne Marie Pace, Alma Fullerton, DeAnn O’Toole, Loree Griffin Burns, Katy S. Duffield, Kristy Dempsey, Linda Urban, and in front Kathryn Erskine and Tanya Seale. From a Highlights Foundation/Boyds Mills retreat.

In person, I have to credit almost all my connections to SCBWI and the Highlights Foundation’s Workshop at Chautauqua. Some of the members of the WRT4KDZ group I mentioned above encouraged me to join SCBWI.

As soon as I received the red roster (a book SCBWI used to send out with names and addresses of members), I started poring through it for local members to have coffee with (the introverts reading this are cringing, I know, but I needed writer friends).

My first regional conference, in 2002, I knew no one. The next year, I volunteered and began organizing local SCBWI events; and from there it snowballed. Now, ten years later, when I walk in the door at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference, it’s like coming home.

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

Harry and Honey, Anne Marie’s helpers

My early picture book manuscripts, like those by other beginning writers, were full of description, leaving little room for the illustrator’s imagination.

In fact, one called “The Tutu Store” was all description; there was no character, no plot–just paragraph after paragraph of setting.

I was convinced it was brilliant; after all, it was poetic, with alliteration (“spangly sparkly sequined skirts”) and onomatopoeia (“tappety-tap clicky-thump-clacky-thump tap shoes”) and I could visualize the illustrations in my head. That was enough, right?

Of course I was completely off-base.

Then one night, I was working on one of those manuscripts before bed. While I slept, I guess my subconscious went to work, because in the morning, in that gray haze between sleeping and waking, an entirely new opening popped into my brain, one that was shorter, snappier, and full of repetition. It was a huge moment of change for me as I realized I was doing picture books all wrong.

At that point, I headed to the library to find books–not just to read to my kids, but to study. I think my former-English-major self kicked in here, because I started analyzing texts in terms of the functions of different elements. Okay, yes, picture book texts can be poetic, but what does that alliteration accomplish in a read-aloud? Why does onomatopoeia appeal to young children? And of course, how do you fully develop a character and tell her story in 500 words?

Vampirina launch party!

Five years ago, I began working with my agent Linda Pratt. Linda took me on for a novel we didn’t sell, but she was interested in working with me on my picture books as well, and we’ve worked together over the years on a number of picture book manuscripts.

Linda represents many illustrators and author-illustrators and is tremendously keen at knowing what can and should be left out of picture-book text. I’ve been blessed to have her editorial tutelage over the years in that regard.

I also learned a lot from reading author-illustrators like Holly Keller, Pat Hutchins, and Kevin Henkes.

Picture book writers are sometimes given the advice not to study author-illustrators because a manuscript alone can’t convey to a potential editor what the dummy of an author-illustrator will convey.

I think that’s silly–be aware of that, yes, but don’t shut out an entire category of wonderful books just because you yourself can’t draw.

I know I’m a little biased, but I think you can tell from a book like Vampirina Ballerina, with LeUyen Pham‘s amazingly detailed, story-telling illustrations, what a talented illustrator can accomplish with a spare text.

Cynsational Notes

See the teachers’ guide for Vampirina Ballerina.

New Voice & Giveaway: Debbie Ridpath Ohi on I’m Bored

By Lena Coakley
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m Bored by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (Simon & Schuster, 2012). From the promotional copy:

There is nothing boring about being a kid, but one little girl is going to have to prove it in this anything-but-boring picture book from comedian Michael Ian Black.

Just when a little girl thinks she couldn’t possibly be more bored, she stumbles upon a potato who turns the tables on her by declaring that children are boring. 

But this girl isn’t going to let a vegetable tell her what’s what, so she sets out to show the unimpressed potato all the amazing things kids can do. Too bad the potato is anything but interested….

This tongue-in-cheek twist on a familiar topic is sure to entertain anyone who’s ever been bored—or had to hear about someone else being bored—and is filled with comedian Michael Ian Black’s trademark dry wit, accompanied by charismatic illustrations from newcomer Debbie Ridpath Ohi.

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft? What happened, and how did it help you?

Photo by Jeff Ridpath

Without a doubt, the conference that changed everything for me was the 2010 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles. I decided to submit one of my novels-in-progress for the manuscript critique consultation: a middle grade novel that had small illustrations imbedded throughout. Sadly, it was rejected because I had misread the critique rules.

Happily, rejection turned out to be a good thing. At that time, you could enter either the manuscript critique or the Portfolio Showcase, but not both.

An illustrator friend of mine, Beckett Gladney, suggested that I enter the Showcase and also helped me put my first portfolio together.

To my shock, I ended winning one of two Honor (runner-up) Awards for the overall showcase as well as being selected for the Mentorship Program, in which six industry experts each selected an artist whose portfolio showed promise.

The SCBWI Illustration Mentor who chose me was Cecilia Yung, who is Art Director at Penguin USA. I met with her as well as the five other Mentors (David Diaz, Rubin Pfeffer, Priscilla Burris, Pat Cummings, Bridget Strevens-Marzo). When we all met the following morning, we new Mentees were each asked to introduce ourselves and say what art training we had received.

When it was my turn, I had to confess that I had majored in Computer Science at the University Of Toronto and that I used to be a computer programmer/analyst.

Instead of looking down on me for my lack of art schooling, however, I’ve had tremendous support and encouragement from my Mentors as well as the other Mentees and have learned so much from all of them. I continue to be in touch with the other Mentees, and we launched our own website at

The conference was also significant because that’s where Justin Chanda found me. Justin is the publisher at Simon &Schuster in charge of three imprints: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, Atheneum & Margaret K. McElderry Books. During the conference, Justin told me about Michael Ian Black‘s book, and that he thought I’d be the perfect illustrator.

At Simon & Schuster: Debbie, Laurent Linn (art director), Justin Chanda (editor/publisher); photo by Dani Young

Justin’s interest led to a book contract and then two more book contracts with Simon &Schuster. Working with Justin and Laurent Linn (S&S art director) has been a joy, and I have improved as both a writer and illustrator as a result. For those interested, I’m blogging about my experience working with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers.

Debbie tapes sketches and drawings to her ceiling so she can see them better.

But back to the “aha” factor.

I include the details above to help show how I came to certain realizations. They were particular to my situation, yes, but I list some of them below in case they help others out there:

  • Don’t let rejections keep you down. Give yourself a day to feel sorry for yourself but then move on. If you let yourself get sucked into defeatist/negativity mode, then you may miss out on other opportunities.
  • Seek out and appreciate those who inspire and encourage you. I will always be grateful to my friend Beckett for nudging (okay, pushing) me to overcome my insecurities and try something completely new.
  • Don’t give up. Keep working on your craft. Get out and meet other creative people.

As for getting my novels published, I haven’t given up. Last year, I submitted a YA novel-in-progress for the SCBWI conference manuscript critique, was hugely encouraged by Jen Rofé‘s feedback, and my manuscript was nominated for the Sue Alexander “Most Promising Work” Award. It didn’t win, but it was a sign to me that I should keep working on my novel projects in addition to picture books.

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’ve been writing and drawing forever. I wrote my first chapter book
when I was in second grade (see photo above). I recall being so excited
about using a new word I had discovered in the dictionary:
“horrendous.” Sadly, I managed to misspell it in my story, and it got
red-lined by my teacher.

Although I’ve had a number of short pieces published in print and online venues as well as a book, my only published writing credit for young people so far is the illustrated short story I did for Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction: An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories, a teen anthology edited by Holly Thompson and published by Stone Bridge Press.

My first writing mentor was Lee Wardlaw, a West Coast writer, and I learned a great deal from her critiquing. Nowadays, my main writing critique group is MiGWriters.

By Ruth Ohi (Annick Press)

In illustration, I’ve learned the most from my sister, Ruth Ohi. Ruth has over 50 books published, and her continuing support and encouragement have helped me so many times. More recently, I’ve gained much more knowledge about the craft and business of illustrating children’s books from Laurent Linn, my art director at Simon & Schuster BFYR. And as I’ve mentioned earlier, the SCBWI Illustration Mentorship Program has been amazing for both advice and mutual encouragement.

The biggest piece of advice I can give those who write and illustrate: let your inner artist and writer out to play regularly, together as well as separately.

I do some web comics purely for the fun of it, plus I try to do a daily sketch. Some I post online, some I don’t.

I think it’s especially important for illustrators to do regular aimless doodling. Some people knit or do other needlework while they watch a movie or listen to music at home. I doodle. You never know what your subconscious is going to do or how it’s going to express itself, and who knows? You may come up with a character idea or story fragment that could spark a project down the road.

Sample notes for one of the spreads
Final version.

 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 illustrators and for those in the years to come?

My approach to promotion mainly focuses on connections I’ve made in the past as well as new connections. I’m hoping that some of the people who have been following me via my blogs or social media feeds or past projects will be intrigued enough to buy the book or help me promote it via word-of-mouth. I’ve never been a big fan of the hard sell, though I know it does work for some people.

To clarify: my approach won’t work for everyone. I’m also not saying that this is the best approach — for the book to sell really well, it needs to sell to total strangers who have no idea who I am. For me, though, the more personal approach feels the most natural and suits my personality.

I’m lucky in that I have publicists and a marketing team at Simon & Schuster in the U.S. and Canada who are going to be helping promote I’m Bored, but I know there’s a ton I can do on my own as well.

My advice for authors and illustrators who have a debut book:

  • Discover what works for you. Don’t force it. You don’t have to be on Twitter or Facebook or have a blog, if that type of venue makes you super-uncomfortable or you find them too much of a challenge. There are so many other ways to promote your book. Focus on your strengths and interests.
  • Also, think about what prompts you to buy a book. Make a list. Then go over the list and figure out which factors you can influence and which you can’t.
  • I’m giving a presentation at the SCBWI Niagara Canada East conference in 2013 about Networking and Promotion For Introverts, for anyone interested.

As for whether I’m enjoying the process of promoting I’m Bored, the basic answer is: yes. I do admit that I enjoy some types of promotion more than others. I’m not as comfortable with live interviews as I am with written, for example, and still get nervous when I have to do any public speaking in front of large groups.

But I’m super-excited about I’m Bored and very happy with how it turned out, and that makes promotion so much more fun. Here are just a few of the ways I’m promoting I’m Bored:

  • Book launch! Scheduled for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sept.18 at Type Books on Queen Street in Toronto. More details to be posted on the I’m Bored Facebook Page.
  • A song loosely based on the book, co-written with my friend Errol Elumir, and made into a music video (see below!).
  • Showing how I’m Bored was created in a process blog, with sketches and photos.
  • Comics about how I’m Bored was created: 

Dani Young (Editorial Assistant), Laurent Linn (Art Director), Justin Chanda (Editor & Publisher), Debbie

Photo credit: Navah Wolfe

Cynsational Notes

Don’t miss the I’m Bored Bonus Pages, including teacher’s guide and ready-to-print activity pages!

Greg Leitich Smith cheers I’m Bored: “With expressive illustrations and a hilarious point-counterpoint, a
little girl demonstrates that children are less boring than potatoes. 
And there are waterfowl, too.  Really.”

Cynsations Canada reporter Lena Coakley
was born in Milford, Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high
school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was
ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study
writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

She became interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director.

Witchlanders, her first novel, was called “a stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews and was the winner of the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for the Americas region. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto.

I’m Bored Music Video (inspired by the new picture book from Simon & Schuster BFYR) from debsanderrol on Vimeo.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of I’m Bored by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (Simon & Schuster, 2012). Illustrator sponsored. Eligibility: international.

Breaking News! Debbie Ridpath Ohi has added a hand-drawn doodle to the I’m Bored giveaway! 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

New Voice: Gina Rosati on Auracle

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Gina Rosati is the first-time author of Auracle (Roaring Brook, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Sixteen-year-old Anna Rogan has a secret she’s only shared with her best friend, Rei; she can astrally project out of her body, allowing her spirit to explore the world and the far reaches of the universe.

When there’s a fatal accident and her classmate Taylor takes over Anna’s body, what was an exhilarating distraction from her repressive home life threatens to become a permanent state. 

Faced with a future trapped in another dimension, Anna turns to Rei for help.

Now the two of them must find a way to get Anna back into her body and stop Taylor from accusing an innocent friend of murder. Together Anna and Rei form a plan but it doesn’t take into account the deeper feelings that are beginning to grow between them. 

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

I’ve read dozens of amazing, insightful writing resource books, but the one that stands out and really made a difference to me is Story Engineering by Larry Brooks (Writer’s Digest, 2011).

I wrote Auracle by the seat of my pants, and when I look back on all the suggestions made by my agent and editor, if I had known the information presented in Story Engineering, my first draft would have been cleaner, I could have saved myself a lot of editing time and the publication process would have gone much faster.

The main idea behind Story Engineering is the need to outline, or at the very least, to know your beginning, your end, and your major plot points. He breaks the process of writing a novel down into six core competencies (concept, character, theme, story structure, scene execution and writing voice), and thoroughly describes them in plain English using short examples to illustrate his points.

It’s a no-nonsense guide to writing from someone who has written and had several novels published within the conventional publishing system. It’s definitely the best $17.99 investment I’ve made in my writing.

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

Photo courtesy of Marc Nozell.

I’m not a librarian, but I’ve volunteered one day a week in a middle school library for the past six years, and that has had a major impact on my writing life.

Years ago, when I worked for a Burger King regional office, we were required to work in a restaurant for a few days so we could appreciate things like why we shouldn’t call the restaurant during lunch rush, the pain of burning fry oil splashing on our arm and understand what was important (the customer!).

It’s the same thing for me working in a library…

I’ve learned to appreciate that there’s no such thing as one size fits all when it comes to the teenage reader. I’ve learned to appreciate the role of a librarian, the limited resources they have to work with and the uncomfortable spots they find themselves in when a book is challenged.

I’ve even learned to appreciate the basic nuts and bolts of book layout – that publishers should never use black paper inside the cover because that’s where we stamp the books and they should always leave a blank space for the Date Due slip to be glued.

In return for a few hours a week spent checking books in and out, processing new books, and re-shelving returns, I get to study the elusive middle grade reader in their natural habitat, see which books they get really excited about (and which books are returned with a bookmark stuck at the halfway point) and gain all kinds of insight from my wonderful librarian friends about the world of middle grade and young adult lit.

One of the biggest thrills I get is when my librarian hands me the current VOYA or School Library Journal and asks what books I recommend she buys for the library. Volunteering in a school library brings the reason I write YA full circle for me.

Cynsational Notes

Find Gina at Twitter, Facebook, and Good Reads. She’s a member of the Apocalypsies and the Class of 2k12. See also Gina’s blog.

New Voice: Heather Anastasiu on Glitch

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Heather Anastasiu is the first-time author of Glitch (St. Martin’s, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Zoe lives in a world free of pain and war. Like all members of the Community, a small implanted chip protects her from the destructive emotions that destroyed the Old World. Until her hardware starts to glitch.

Zoe begins to develop her own thoughts and feelings, but nothing could be more dangerous in a place where malfunctions can get you killed. And she has another secret she must conceal at all costs: her glitches have given her uncontrollable telekinetic powers.

As she struggles to keep her burgeoning powers hidden, she finds other glitchers with abilities like hers, and together they plot to escape. But the more she learns about beauty, joy, and love, the more Zoe has to lose if they fail. With danger lurking around every corner, she’ll have to decide just how much she’s willing to risk to be free. 

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

Facing resistance to getting words on the page is definitely something I’ve fought with. I’ve come up with an arsenal of tools that can usually get me past the paralysis so that I can get working each day.

My most basic tool is setting a daily word count and sticking to it. No. Matter. What. The actual amount varies depending on what kind of deadlines I’m facing, but it’s usually somewhere from 1,000 to 2,000 words a day, and I try not to let up for even a single day.

When approaching a new scene, I’ll do a brief sketch of the goal, conflict, and end point, then I make myself start writing. Even if it feels stunted and wonky, I just keep going.

Most often the writing will start loosening up as I get into a scene. Some days it doesn’t, but that’s okay too. Words are still getting down on the page and the story is moving forward.

When I’m on a tight deadline, I’ll meet my word count in the morning, then do an editing session in the evening. Editing as I go is something that’s become necessary to avoid tons of wasted pages. It helps me stop and think through the plot as I go. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s wasted pages.

Then again, my last book had to be completely rewritten from scratch, so I’m trying to be more zen about embracing the process, even if it means tossing out whole drafts! Each step gets me closer to a book on the shelves that I can be proud of.

While getting words on the page is the first and foremost challenge, finding the inspiration to keep the writing and the characters fresh is also something I’m constantly aware of.

On Sara Zarr’s podcasts, she talks about the need to keep the well of creativity full and finding ways to refill it when you feel depleted. When I’m feeling creatively exhausted, I try to go back to the basics. Spending time surrounded by the beauty of the natural world is something I find very fulfilling. Because of a chronic illness I have, I can’t go hiking like I used to, so instead I go for long drives.

When I lived in Texas I couldn’t count the number of hours my husband and I spent driving around the central Texas Hill Country. I love that moment of getting to the top of a hill and seeing the incredible vista spread out below, with hills sloping into one another as far as you can see into the distance.

Another regular source of inspiration is Natalie Goldberg’s books, especially Writing Down the Bones (Shambahala,1986). She approaches writing practice as a means of getting to know one’s own mind and as a way to be fully present in the moment. That’s what I want both for my writing and for my life in general—to be fully present.

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

As I was coming up with some of the gadgets for the world of Glitch, I was definitely thinking about how the increasing role of technology in our lives affects the way we interact with one another.

Community garden outside Heather’s window.

In general, I think that the things that make life feel meaningful will continue to be a constant, no matter how technology affects the ways and means of communication. There is no substitute for the physical and emotional intimacy of relationships with the people around you. The impulse to love and make love is the best of what makes us human.

In Glitch, true to dystopian form, those in power attempt to regulate, control, and dampen individuality and the emotions which create those important human connections. For me, a main theme in the book is about the way human nature fights back and evolves to conquer even the most invasive means of control.

Even without a dystopian setting, though, it’s easy to fall into certain patterns of living that are drone-like. Commute back and forth to work, come home with only enough energy to watch TV, fall into bed, then wake up the next day and do it all over again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Busyness eclipses everything, and days or decades can pass half asleep.

It reminds me of that quote from Thoreau about why he went into the wilderness:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately […] and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

Waking up from a life spent as an unthinking drone is the central metaphor in Glitch, and one that I continue to find very personal. In writing the novel, I was excited to explore what it would be like to watch a person wake up from a lifetime of emotionless monotony and discover the world around her.

I think that sense of passionate discovery is also a good parallel to what it’s like to be a teenager. Suddenly everything seems brighter and more intense, and you get to start deciding what kind of person you want to be in the world.

New Voice: Suzanne Lazear on Innocent Darkness

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Suzanne Lazear is the first-time author of Innocent Darkness (Book 1, The Aether Chronicles)(Flux, 2012)(author blog), a YA fairytale steampunk story. From the promotional copy:

Wish. Love. Desire. Live. 

Sixteen-year-old Noli
Braddock’s hoyden ways land her in an abusive reform school far from
home. On mid-summer’s eve she wishes to be anyplace but that dreadful
school. Her wish sends her tumbling into the Otherworld. 

A mysterious
man from the Realm of Faerie rescues her, only to reveal that she must
be sacrificed, otherwise, the entire Otherworld civilization will perish.

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

Way back in graduate school I wanted to write a story about a girl who moves into a falling apart house with a crazy old tree and gets sucked into the Realm of Faerie. I was going to call it “Queen of the Broken Tree.” The very first manuscript I ever finished started with that premise and ended up a story about an elven princess, a vampire, and a human sorceress going to Harvard. (I think only one person has ever read that particular story.)

I still really wanted to write that original premise, so a few years later I went back to it and created the story that would eventually become Innocent Darkness. That was where Noli (my main character), V (her best friend), and Kevighn (the anti-hero), first emerged.

They’ve always been Noli, Steven (the nickname V came later), and Kevighn, even before the story was steampunk and named “Innocent Darkness.” (For all those wondering, Kevighn is pronounced like Kevin).

But it wasn’t until I sat down and actually wrote the first draft that I discovered so many things about them. Noli really changed personality wise, and I discovered she wanted to be a botanist.

When I first started writing, I had no idea Kevighn had a sister, that V loves the book Nicomachean Ethics, or that Noli’s older brother was an air-pirate. I just love discovering things about my characters as I write—it’s like magic.

The first draft was also where I got to know James and Charlotte, two secondary characters that I adore, one of which didn’t even exist before I started writing the story on paper.

Innocent Darkness still isn’t really that exact original premise – though it does involve a big tree and the Realm of Faerie. Queen of the Broken Tree just didn’t fit as a title either, but one day, maybe I’ll write a story that does fit it.

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?

Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. Every single day. Regardless of whether you want to or not. Even if it’s only fifteen minutes. It’s the only way you’re going to do it.

I have a family, a full time job, and three hours of commuting every day. I also write every single day.

It comes down to priorities. Obviously, some things have to give. Only you can decide that things you’re willing to cut out to make time for writing (and your family) when you’re not working. For me it was TV, pleasure reading (which hurt, but I couldn’t read one or two books a week and still write. I traded them for audio books to listen to in the car), and house cleaning.

I never really liked house cleaning anyway. Okay, I do clean; someone has to.

I write at lunch, every day, taking my lunch box and my laptop to a quiet corner instead of going out or being social. Often it’s the only good writing I get done during the week.

On Saturdays everyone knows that’s Mommy’s Day to write in her PJs until noon, then we do stuff as a family, housework, etc. I do some writing at night after my daughter goes to bed, but I make time for the hubby, too. A lot of it is about creative time management and balance. I plot and drive (so don’t drive behind me, okay?).

Discover what works for you, because what works for one person may not work for another, and go for it. Try to set a daily goal that works for you, where it’s writing for an hour, writing five pages, or writing 1,000 words.

Also, don’t neglect your family—even on deadline. Make them understand that Mommy needs to get work done, but schedule time for them, too. I do a lot of, “let me finish this chapter, then we’ll color.” Or “how about I take my laptop outside and write while you climb the tree.” (Timers are your friend).

They’re your biggest fans, writing is tough work and you need them.

Another thing I learned is to forgive yourself. If you don’t meet your goal for the day, it’s okay. But, the next day you have to get back to it. Keep going and don’t compare yourself to other people.

Most of all, don’t give up. It might take awhile, but you can do it.

Cynsational Notes

Suzanne Lazear writes steampunk stories for adults and teens. She always plays with swords, is never described as normal, and has been known to run with bustles. Suzanne lives in Southern California with her daughter, the hubby, a hermit crab, and two chickens, where she’s currently attempting to make a ray gun to match her ballgown.

New Voice: Joanne Levy on Small Medium at Large

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Joanne Levy on Small Medium at Large (Bloomsbury, 2012). From the promotional copy:

After she’s hit by lightning at a wedding, twelve-year-old Lilah Bloom develops a new talent: she can hear dead people. 

Among them, there’s her over-opinionated Bubby Dora; a prissy fashion designer; and an approval-seeking clown who livens up a séance. 

With Bubby Dora leading the way, these and other sweetly imperfect ghosts haunt Lilah through seventh grade, and help her face her one big fear: talking to—and possibly going to the seventh-grade dance with—her crush, Andrew Finkel.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2012, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Yes, I am surprised to be debuting in 2012, because I (very naively) thought it would have happened a lot sooner. Like several years sooner. And quite honestly, if I’d known at the beginning that it would take this long, I’m not sure I would have even started writing.

True story: I recently remembered that a friend and I went to see a psychic many years ago—I think it was about when I was writing my first book—and I asked if I would ever be published. The lady said yes, but only after a lot of rejection and it would take about 13 books.

Simon dislikes Joanne spending too much time at the computer.

I laughed and looked at my friend and said something to the effect of, “Yeah, like I would bother writing thirteen books with no results.”

Needless to say, I dismissed the psychic’s prediction (a good thing, methinks), and forgot all about this until recently.

Well, my publishing journey is definitely not one of those straight roads, but when I add up all the books, Small Medium at Large was the 13th book I wrote.

And it’s about a medium.

Spooky, huh?

Anyway, there were a lot of bumps in the road and there were many times I wanted to quit, but I’m stubborn and the harder it got, it seemed the more determined I became. I felt I was a good enough writer to get published (most days—who doesn’t have days filled with crushing doubts?) and I was willing to work on my craft to get even better.

It was just a matter of writing the right book to get into the right editor’s hands at just the right time. Seems like an easy enough thing to do, right?

Well, not so much, but it did happen eventually.

From starting my first book to publication date, my journey has spanned over eleven years, sixteen books written (like I said, it hasn’t been a straight road) and over a thousand rejections from agents and editors. Which brings me to the last part of the question—how did I keep the faith.

Joanne with Zoe.

Well, I won’t lie and say I faced each day with a smile and a basket full of optimism. By the time the offer finally came, I’d pretty much given up and hadn’t written anything new in about a year because it felt pointless. I’d lost the joy that comes from writing because I was focused only on the prize of being published.

And yes, it would have been healthier to focus on the writing and getting fulfillment just from that, but I couldn’t. My dream was to be published, to share my stories with the world, and that dream was being crushed daily when either I didn’t hear from my agent or I did hear, and it was bad news.

But then there was one day in December 2010 that changed it all. The day when my agent called to tell me we had an offer on the book I’d been working on for three years (which had been written and rewritten and rewritten again until I pretty much hated even thinking about it).

We had an offer.

It had all fallen into place somehow, and I was going to be published.

And now, looking back, it was all worth it. Every single drop of sweat, every tear, and every groan of frustration. It was all worth it. Seriously: it was all worth it.

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

Chester on the printer.

I’m a funny person.

You’re probably not buying that based on this blog post so far, but you’re going to have to trust me on this one.

I’m funny. Really, I am. It feels weird talking about it, but I have been known to be a bit of a class clown, doing just about anything to get the validation of laughter from others.

How do I decide what’s funny?

Well, I wouldn’t call it a serious decision-making process; I use my instinct to know what’s funny.

If something makes me laugh, then chances are, it will make other people laugh, too.

I think I have a knack for having good timing, which is that nebulous thing that actors and stand-up comedians talk about that make the difference between jokes landing well and jokes flopping to the sound of crickets chirping.

I’m not sure if timing is something you can learn or if you just need a good ear for it, so I’m going to talk here about a couple of other elements that I use to make things funny that I think you can work at.

Physical Comedy. I love physical comedy.

As a kid, I enjoyed watching “Three’s Company” for Jack’s physical antics (am I dating myself?).

“Seinfeld” was popular for the same kind of thing from Kramer, a master of physical comedy. There are lots of opportunities for physical laughs.

For example, in my book, Small Medium At Large, the main character, Lilah, is in Sears buying her first bra with the help of a couple of old-lady ghosts, (which is a funny scene on its own), but then after she makes her purchase, she drops it in front of her mega crush that she’s just run into.

Goodness. Can you imagine being twelve and dropping your first bra in front of the boy you’re crushing all over? Of course, it happens in slow motion right before your eyes and you’re completely powerless to stop it. And then the boy reaches down to pick it up for you…

Which brings me to another thing that I regularly mine for laughs: humiliation. I think we bond with our characters when we see them in humiliating situations that we can relate to.

Poor Lilah is horrified that she has dropped her bra in front of her crush, but let’s be honest; it’s pretty funny, too. And she doesn’t react very well, tearing out of the store and leaving her dad behind. Then she has to explain to her dad who the boy was = more humiliation.

Snappy dialogue is another way to get laughs and endear your characters
to your reader. I love nothing more than witty banter between
characters, especially when they’re razzing each other, showing both
their intelligence and senses of humor. I think you need a good ear for
great dialogue, so I like to listen often to people talking to make
sure I get that back and forth cadence of banter. A Starbucks
(particularly one near a high school at lunchtime) is great for this

Gabby is as mean as she looks.

But I think the best advice I can give to those looking to write funny, is try not to work too hard at it. You’ve seen that guy at parties who tells jokes badly or tries so hard to make a story funny, but everyone around him looks like they just want to crawl away. Don’t be that guy.

Be critical of your work and get a trusted critique partner to tell you the truth about if your jokes are landing the way you want them to.

I think everyone has their forte, what they’re good at writing, and if you are good at funny, do funny. It took me a while to realize I’m better at funny than I am at serious, issue stuff. But that’s okay because making people laugh is pretty darn validating.

Itemized breakdown of Joanne’s office at The Debutante Ball.

 Cynsational Notes

Joanne Levy’s love of books began at a very early age. Being the
youngest and the only female among four children, she was often left to
her own devices and could frequently be found sitting in a quiet corner
with her nose in a book.

After much teenage
misadventure, Joanne eventually graduated from university and now spends
her weekdays as an executive assistant at one of Canada’s big banks
planning meetings and thwarting coffee emergencies. When Joanne isn’t
working, she can usually be found at her computer, channeling her
younger self into books.

Find Joanne at facebook and Twitter.