New Voice: Cori McCarthy on The Color of Rain

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Cori McCarthy is the first-time author of The Color of Rain (Running Press, 2013). From the promotional copy:

If there is one thing that seventeen-year-old Rain knows and knows well, it is survival. Caring for her little brother, Walker, who is “Touched,” and losing the rest of her family to the same disease, Rain has long had to fend for herself on the bleak, dangerous streets of Earth City. 

When she looks to the stars, Rain sees escape and the only possible cure for Walker. And when a darkly handsome and mysterious captain named Johnny offers her passage to the Edge, Rain immediately boards his spaceship. Her only price: her “willingness.”


The Void cloaks many secrets, and Rain quickly discovers that Johnny’s ship serves as host for an underground slave trade for the Touched . . . and a prostitution ring for Johnny’s girls. 

With hair as red as the bracelet that indicates her status on the ship, the feeling of being a marked target is not helpful in Rain’s quest to escape. Even worse, Rain is unsure if she will be able to pay the costs of love, family, hope, and self-preservation.

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?

When I sat down to write what would become my debut, The Color of Rain, I knew that I was going to be stepping right off the edgy map. You see my main character, Rain, is a prostitute.

A space prostitute to be exact.

I suspected that I’d get frowns from parents, be banned from “clean” YA bookshelves, and that my oh-so-proud mom would not be able to hand this book around to her church friends. And yet, Rain’s story was more important to me than its obvious obstacles.

You might ask why.

Well, while there are a multitude of great stories about noble sacrifice and the glory of love, I felt compelled to talk about the other story—what happens when someone goes too far for love—when love leaves you with regret and shame instead of Happily Ever After feelings.

It does happen. It happened to me. And it definitely happens to teenagers more regularly than the rest of the population. So I wrote this super edgy story for those people with the hopeful message that there is a light at the end of the tunnel no matter what—or in Rain’s case, a light at the end of the Known Universe.

In my new book, Breaking Sky (Sourcebooks, 2015), I’ve come up against a whole new world of edgy complications.

My new main character, Chase, is unlikeable. Capital U. Self-centered, showoff, maverick—she’s a top fighter pilot at an Air Force academy for teens who keeps her eye on breaking a cold war standoff with Asia—and not on the people in her life.

Like Rain, Chase’s backstory harbors great disappointment, and in response to that hurt, Chase has closed herself off.

How is this edgy? Well, Chase has a reputation for leading on romantic interests for nothing more than a quick make-out session. Nothing deeper.

My beta readers for this story wondered where Chase’s heart-breaker status came from, and the answer to that has become as important to me as showing teen readers the flipside of love in Rain. In short, Chase’s story is about being careless with others. About isolating yourself from anyone who can hurt you—and then the long road back to caring.

After these two books, what I’ve learned about “edgy” is that it can be a powerful force in telling the toughest of emotional stories. For Rain, I chose an edgy premise that was as impossible to swallow as the enormous feelings behind her regret, and with Chase, I created a girl who hurt others in an attempt to keep anyone from ever hurting her ever again.

Could I have told these stories without edgy red flags like prostitution, human trafficking, swears, and “make-out sluts?”

Maybe. But I doubt they would hit home, feel real, and echo through the reader’s deepest life turns.

In the end, I want every reader who identifies with my story to come away feeling like they’re not alone. That may seem a little hokey, but hey, books have always been there for me.

If I can contribute to the great emotional library in any way, I’ll die happy.

As someone with a MFA in Writing for Children (and Young Adults), how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students/graduates in making the transition between school and publishing as a business?

Vermont College of Fine Arts

I would not be an author without the education I received at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Basically, my MFA turned my passion into a career.

I started writing when I was thirteen, poems mostly and a few memoir-type short stories. From eighth grade on, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I was a bit overwhelmed by the naysayers. The people who believe that paying money to study fine arts is a waste.

Luckily for me, I had parents who encouraged me to major in creative writing in undergrad. I attended Ohio University, which had an underdeveloped creative writing program and workshops that were overwhelmed by geology majors. I was depressed to be writing with people who took my major’s classes as a joke or an “easy pass.”

Relief came via a year abroad in Dublin, Ireland where I wandered constantly and filled notebooks full of poetry. When I came back to Ohio, I finished my degree and set my sights on film school and screenwriting.

Secretly, I still believed that I would not be able to be a writer unless I made money, and film…that’s where the money had to be, right? Wrong.

Years later while still scribbling in notebooks and writing a fantasy story that had 200 pages of backstory—no joke—I found out about VCFA.

With fellow YA author Amy Rose Capetta

The program completely changed my life overnight.

It taught me hard things, like throwing out that evil temptress of a fantasy novel, and glorious things, like how I could put myself into anything I wanted to write.

I recently heard another author ask what an MFA is good for if you don’t want to write the Great American Novel or short stories.

I was so appalled by that question.

No one at VCFA told me what to write.

No one told me how to write it.

What my mentors and my peers in workshop did for my work was to read whatever I was writing and talk about it openly and honestly.

They taught me how to recognize the easy shortcomings in my writing and how to take the criticism on the not-so-easy shortcomings.

Beyond the glorious craft talk at VCFA, there were many open discussions about literature, the market, the publishing industry, the importance of networking, and the ups and downs of this business.

This proved to be essential in launching my career.

After I graduated, I landed my top agent, but not because she fell in love with my creative thesis—because I didn’t run away with my fingers in my ears when she asked if I had something else.

Not even a year later, that something else sold as The Color of Rain.

New Voice: Peggy Eddleman on Sky Jumpers

Educator Guide

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Peggy Eddleman is the first-time author of Sky Jumpers (Random House, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Hope lives in White Rock, a town of inventors struggling to recover from the green bombs of World War III. 

But Hope is terrible at inventing and would much rather sneak off to cliff dive into the Bomb’s Breath—the deadly band of compressed air that covers the crater left by the bombs—than fail at yet another invention. 

When bandits discover that White Rock has priceless antibiotics, they invade. With a two-day deadline to finish making this year’s batch and no ingredients to make more, the town is left to choose whether to hand over the medicine and die from the disease that’s run rampant since the bombs, or die fighting the bandits now. Help lies in a neighboring town, but the bandits count everyone fourteen and older each hour. 

Hope and her friends Aaren and Brock might be the only ones who can escape to make the dangerous trek through the Bomb’s Breath and over the snow-covered mountain. 

For once, inventing isn’t the answer, but the daring and recklessness that usually get Hope into trouble might just save them all.

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

Peggy Eddleman

If anyone ever is in need of a group of supportive people who know what they are going through, it’s writers!

This is not a profession to be tackled alone. You need people who will celebrate your triumphs with you, commiserate with you on the frustrations, and share their knowledge and opinions on the million and one things you’ll have questions about along the way.

The people you surround yourselves with make all the difference in the world, and there are a lot of places to find them.

I met my writing group— the people I got together with once a week with to do critiques for over four years— in a writing class.

The things I learned about writing from this group was invaluable. There is no way I could’ve gotten my writing to a publishable point in the time frame I did without their help.

With as much as my writing group helped my writing, a different group helps me emotionally. They’re all writers who I met through blogging, then later found out most of them live in my state. We get together for writing retreats twice a year, and we have a Facebook group where we can share all the writing woes and wins and worries that we aren’t willing to shout out to the world.

Other groups have helped tons with the nitty-gritty business side, and figuring out how to be an author. If you write kidlit, every year a group forms of the authors debuting nationally.

For me, it was a very amazing group called The Lucky 13s. I can’t even begin to tell how helpful they’ve been. If you’re ever in the position to join one of these groups, do it! You’ll be so glad you did.

I was also fortunate enough to join the lovely folks at The League of Extraordinary Writers, and a group in my state of nationally published writers called Rock Canyon. In both of these, I’ve gotten valuable advice, camaraderie, and opportunities from people who have been in the business longer than I have. At every stage of your writing career, from when you’re just starting to having dozens of books out, you’ll get chances to join groups.

Critiquers Jessie Humphries (left), Erin Summerill (right)

Check them out! Give them a chance. With some of them, you and they will be a great fit.

My inner circle– the people I go to the most– consists of four people. One I was already friends with before either of us became writers. (When I decided I wanted to pursue this, I needed a buddy and went to her– and found out she had been closet writing.) One I met at a writer’s conference. One I served in the PTA with at our kids’ school. And one was an author I had listened to at conferences, started following her online, realized she’s brilliant, and then found out we live in the same city.

The thing is, there are writers everywhere, and your chances to meet ones you get along with swimmingly can happen in a million different places. All it takes is a little opening up to them, and you may have found someone (or a group of someones) that are exactly what you need, and you may be exactly what they need.

I know that no matter how crazy / confusing / exciting / frustrating / tough things get, there’s someone in one of my support groups I can go to. And that’s invaluable.

Peggy (center, middle) with the Writing Group of Joy and Awesomeness (yes, that’s actually their name)

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

I first met my agent—Sara Crowe—at a writer’s conference, before I was ready to query. I heard her speak in workshops and on panels, so I got a good sense of who she was and guessed that our personalities would work well together. I was thrilled that she was the one that I had signed up to pitch to.

But the pitch itself? That was another thing altogether. It was the first time I had ever pitched, and I was a bundle of nerves. I rushed through my pitch (speaking fast when I’m nervous is my specialty), forgetting half of what I was going to say, and somehow didn’t think to have any questions for her.

Three minutes later, I walked out of the pitch room with seven of our minutes unused. But, she had asked to see my full!

Sara and Peggy

(Which kind of helped to temper the fact that I totally flubbed my pitch. And also goes to show that you probably shouldn’t be so nervous when going in to pitch, because agents are nice. And they’re normal people. And they assume you are normal—extremely nervous, yes—but normal. And they base their requests on the book itself, and it’s okay if the meeting doesn’t go as gloriously as you had hoped.)

I wasn’t about to put all my eggs in one basket, though. I knew enough about the querying process to know that one agent showing some interest didn’t mean I had made it. My manuscript was finished and revised at that point, but I worked on it and my query letter for another four months, making both of them as perfect as I could possibly make them, because I was afraid to lose a chance with the agent who might be perfect for me if it wasn’t.

I researched agents like crazy. I made lists of all the agents I thought I’d work well with and that I thought would be interested in my book, and came up with my top agents. Then I started querying. I didn’t actually send Sara my manuscript until I had other agent interest.

In the end, I had a choice to make as far as which agent to choose, and I went with Sara.

In all honesty, even if I hadn’t met her in person beforehand, I still would’ve chosen her based on the phone calls alone. But I’ll also say that there is nothing like meeting an agent in person before you sign with them!

Coming up with that list of top agents isn’t easy, and if you sign with an agent who looks good on paper but is the completely wrong agent in reality, you lose so much time and gain so much stress.

That’s one of the huge benefits of going to writer’s conferences. Meeting those agents— even if it’s a few years before you query— really helps you to learn if they’re someone you want to work with, and if you want them to be on your “Query someday” list.

Guest Interview: Kathi Appelt & N. Griffin on The Whole Stupid Way We Are

Author photo by Leigh Elise

By Kathi Appelt
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

N. Griffin is the first-time author of The Whole Stupid Way We Are (Atheneum, 2013). From the promotional copy:

It’s Maine. It’s winter. And it’s freezing stinkin’ cold! 

Dinah is wildly worried about her best friend, Skint. He won’t wear a coat. Refuses to wear a coat. It’s twelve degrees out, and he won’t wear a coat. 

So Dinah’s going to figure out how to help. That’s what Dinah does—she helps. But she’s too busy trying to help to notice that sometimes, she’s doing more harm than good. Seeing the trees instead of the forest? That’s Dinah.


And Skint isn’t going to be the one to tell her. He’s got his own problems. He’s worried about a little boy whose dad won’t let him visit his mom. He’s worried about an elderly couple in a too-cold house down the street.


But the wedge between what drives Dinah and what concerns Skint is wide enough for a big old slab of ice. Because Skint’s own father is in trouble. Because Skint’s mother refuses to ask for help even though she’s at her breaking point. And because Dinah might just decide to…help. She thinks she’s cracking through a sheet of ice, but what’s actually there is an entire iceberg.

KA: First of all congratulations on being recognized as a “Flying Start” by Publishers Weekly! That’s a sweet recognition for you and your first book, The Whole Stupid Way We Are. In addition, the story of Dinah and Skint is getting quite a bit of critical acclaim.

NG: Thank you so much, Kathi! I was really grateful for this—it was so surprising and lovely to see that other people liked Dinah and Skint, too.

KA: Would you first of all, tell us where Dinah and Skint came from? Who are they and what would you like us to know most about both of them?

NG: What a neat question! Both Dinah and Skint came from all over the place even as both of them also came from parts of me. Dinah is a kind of willfully childlike teenager, which I know can be either super irritating or super appealing to people without many reactions in between. I’ve known a lot of teens (heck, even a lot of adults) like this.

I tend to love that kind of person, because in so many instances, there is so much awareness behind that retreat into childhood—a sense of keenly experienced or understood pain. And I think that is exactly true of Dinah. She knows just how hard life can be, for herself but almost more especially for other people, and she’s having none of it, on everyone’s behalf.

Skint is a bleaker, sadder kid. Retreat to childhood isn’t an option, because in many ways, he’s the most adult person in his own life and has to be. I’ve known tons of kids like this and was a kid like this, too, actually—even though I have a good dose of childlikeness in me as well. Likely because of the adultness, come to think of it.

But another big part of the creation of Skint was my belief that we sell our teens short. We are so quick to paint them as selfish and dippy that we disregard the truth that many kids and teens do feel the weight of the world and human suffering very keenly. The problem is our culture neither expects teens’ care nor offers them many clear paths to take action on that care, when action is, I think, the only antidote to the anger and powerlessness that we feel in the face of injustice.

So Skint is sort of an amalgam of these aspects of lots of kids I’ve known (and also parts of teen-me, but he is smarter and funnier than I ever was) as well as being possessed of a fully invented personality of his own.

KA: The weather in this book stands almost as a metaphor for the way that the characters and the readers too have to chip through the ice to get to a warm place. The freezing cold makes an appearance on almost every page, and in fact, while I read it, I felt shivery. And yet, Skint refuses to wear a coat. I kept wanting to throw a blanket over him, so I understand Dinah’s urge to protect him. What was going on there? Why the exposure to the elements?

NG: I think that sometimes, when something is unbearable, we do things to obliterate everything as a way of shutting out the unbearable as well as the feelings that come along with that.

In The Whole Stupid Way We Are, Skint is terrified, rage-filled and full of despair because of his home situation—a situation that is so overwhelming and so large a secret that is it more than anyone could bear alone. And Skint can’t. So, for me, his non-coat-wearing creates a physical discomfort so great it blasts away all those feelings and replaces them with the pure, physical misery of freezing.

I think there’s also a large dose of self-punishment in there, too. Other people might use drugs, not eat, cut, listen to loud music or play video games to do the same thing, but Skint freezes.

It kills me, too.

KA: The local church plays a large role here as well. And in fact, Dinah’s father is the Choir Director. Nevertheless, you skillfully kept religion out of the story for the most part. Still, the church serves as the “village” for this story. Can you talk about that?

Photo by Tobin Anderson

NG: I love churches, temples, any place of worship (except crazy persecuting ones, of course). I love belief and I love the hope of people coming together to bring out the best of what we can be on this earth.

At the same time, I think that it can be impossibly hard to reconcile the idea of love with the truth of suffering. And this is, I think, one of the central ideas of the book. So it made sense to me that a church would be front and center and the backdrop of everything, and that different characters would respond in vastly different ways to awfulness of that contradiction.

Also I am a fool for a potluck.

KA: One of the most riveting scenes is the one with the dancing donkey. Where did that come from?

NG: Oh, I love Walter the donkey! I still think about him all the time. He came to me in a flash—I always knew just the type of sad/not sad activities Dinah and Skint would love—what I wound up calling “Fantastic or Excruciating?” adventures, or FoE’s, in the book. These are performances, usually, that are so on the border between phenomenal and cringe-worthy that’s it’s tough to sit through them because you feel the passion and need of the performers so keenly and you want things to go well for them.

So one morning I was thinking about this when Walter stepped politely into my mind and I got all weepy because I loved him so much. Which is kind of obnoxious, when you think about it.

I moved my own self! Come on, Griffin.

KA: Each of your characters is so carefully drawn, so alive. One of my favorites is Dinah’s baby brother, Beagie. Through him, you gave us the wonderful phrase, “boss of light.” In fact, the story is shot through with the struggle between light and dark. Can you talk about that? And why Beagie? Why is he the fulcrum for the opposing sides?

NG: Thank you for loving Beagie! I still love him, too. Heck, I guess I still love all of those characters.

Good old Beagie was in the book from the start and I didn’t really think much about why until a lot later. He’s thirteen months old, which is an age I love and am fascinated by—a time when a lot of babies are furious because they want so badly to talk but can’t yet. Their frustration at their powerlessness makes them roar around, acting like the boss of things, which reaction makes perfect sense to me.

And so, in retrospect, I can see how my subconscious plucked a Beagie forth as another way to think about the tension between wanting power and the hideousness of not having it. But who’s to say?

Beagie is Beagie and he wants his sippy cup right now, please.

KA: This book is a testament to the very real ramifications of mental illness and the way it impacts families, friends, villages. You shone a light on the struggle that especially the caregivers have to face, including shame, which seems to underlie much of what Skint and his mother are coping with. But it’s Dinah’s reaction that is so telling. Would you talk about that?

NG: Sure. Dinah is a girl who has experienced death through the loss of an elderly relative, and that grief is keen and unyielding for her. So, I think in large part, she can’t bear for Skint to feel any pain even remotely akin to that, and she makes it her impossible business to save him from it.

But I also think, in her secret heart, she doesn’t want her own pain to be triggered in any way, and that makes her avoid, at least in part, the magnitude of Skint’s true pain as well.

I think this is such a familiar predicament to a lot of people, especially teenagers. I know I was very much this way as a younger girl. Poor Dinah. It’s an awful setup to want to save someone so badly.

KA: What do you hope your young readers will find here? What do you want to give them in return for reading this story?

NG: I hope that they experience the book as a true reflection of what it can be like to struggle with the hard things I’ve been talking about in these responses, whether they’ve had those kinds of struggles or not.

But I also hope they find a lot of light and humor in the book, and that their reading gives them the option of thinking about Dinah and Skint as friends they’d want to hang out with.

I did try to put in a lot of funny bits, y’all.

KA: On a more personal note, can you tell us a wee bit about your writing life?

NG: Oh, my writing life is a vile thing, people. I have a lot of anxiety around writing and every word is a battle. I have no tips for this. We terrified types must just bash through and salute our brethren and sistren who struggle along like this, too.

But here is an underdeveloped picture of the comfy chaise in which I do a lot of the struggling.

KA: And finally, what is next? And when will we see it?

NG: Next up is an untrammeledly fun book—a cheerful middle grade mystery with a pair of best friend detectives. It’s untitled as yet because I am so vastly bad at thinking of titles. But the detective children are named Smashie and Dontel and I love them. That book is scheduled for fall 2014 from Candlewick.

And right now, I am working on a new YA and I will be done with that in about 2079, probably. Maybe 2078 if I really get on the stick. Yargh.

Thank you so much for having me, Cyn and Kathi! You all are superheroine tangerine pies.

KA: I can’t wait. 



About Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt’s books have won numerous national and state awards.

Her first novel, The Underneath,
was a National Book Award Finalist and a Newbery Honor Book. It also
received the Pen USA Award, and was a finalist for the Heart of Hawick
Children’s Book Award. Her most recent novel, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, was also a National Book Award Finalist. Kathi serves as a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts in their MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.

Her cats are named Jazz, Hoss, D’jango, Peach, Mingus and Chica.

Guest Post: Greg Pincus on Writing & Marketing with Serious Lead Time

By Greg Pincus
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Greg Pincus is the first-time author of The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Gregory K. comes from a family of mathematical geniuses. But if he claimed to love math he’d be fibbing. 

What he really wants most is to go to Author Camp. But to get his parents’ permission he’s going to have to pass his math class, which has a probability of 0. 

Hilariously it’s the “Fibonacci Sequence,” a famous mathematical formula, that comes to the rescue.

I can safely say I never expected to be making my authorial debut in 2013…or at least I didn’t when I agreed to the deal for The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. back in April of 2006. Admittedly, there was no manuscript at the time, so I didn’t think I’d be debuting in 2006… but if you’d said 2013, I’d’ve laughed politely and said “I sure hope not.”

The journey, I will freely admit, has not always been entirely pleasant. One low point for me was the decision to jettison the entire first draft of my book and start over.

Okay, not totally over – the basic family structure and bones of the plot remained intact, as did a joke about fish sticks. Still, I think there are fewer than five sentences in the final book that are recognizable from the first draft, it went from first to third person, the structure changed, and the style/tone changed.

Even at the time I knew that my editor, Arthur Levine, was right in his suggestion to rethink…but that first draft was a labor of love and was fueled by passion and excitement.

So…no, that was not pleasant. Necessary for sure, but not pleasant.

I’ve learned plenty of lessons along the way, too, some of which are not necessarily applicable to other people or situations. For instance, if you happen to finish a draft of your novel when your editor is working 168 hours a week on the final Harry Potter book, you will not hear back with notes as quickly as you would under normal circumstances. Go figure.

Other lessons, though, strike me as more universal. In no particular order, here are things I learned or was reminded of during the 14 Fibs trip from brainstorm to final book:

  • writing is hard; 
  • rewriting is hard; 
  • listening deeply to intelligent notes will make your work better; 
  • focusing on the story you want to tell and not treating others’ ideas as prescriptions will also make your writing better; 
  • patience might or might not be a virtue but it is definitely necessary; 
  • be kind to yourself as you struggle to find the right word or phrase or storyline;
  •  and remember that everyone who gives you notes or hears you talk about your process wants you to write the best possible book and is offering their thoughts to help get you there.

It’s been quite a journey from inspiration until publication, and when all’s said and done, I’m thrilled to be making my debut in 2013 – the perfect time, because that’s simply how long it took to be ready.

Dog in a desk!

It also turns out that there are advantages to a longer road to first publication. After all, author/marketer Seth Godin has said that the best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out.

Heck, I had seven years lead time!

It does seem to me, though, that I hear more about marketing and promotion being an author’s job now than I did back in 2006.

Another advantage of my long journey, then, is that I’ve had lots of time to observe what others have done in terms of promotion. As a result, I’ve been able to pick a few ideas to focus on that I think will work for me and which make me feel comfortable – I know why I’m doing what I’m doing, so it feels good to me. Plus, I’ve found that most of my PR/marketing “ideas” are opportunities that spring up organically or are simply things I think would be fun.

The organic is easier to describe: because I’ve spent a lot of time over these years being active offline and online – blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, and the like – I’ve developed amazing relationships with wonderful people, and it turns out that these relationships have ended up creating lots of opportunities for me and The 14 Fibs.

For example, I have Skype visits set up with teachers who I’ve known and often blogged alongside for years and with others who I’ve only recently come to know. I’ve had bloggers and Twitter/Facebook friends help spread the word about my book trailer, cover reveal and other news. I’ve found myself in newsletters, been given names of people to talk to, and had wonderful interactions with folks all around the world.

Launch Pie!

Of course, I would pursue a brilliant PR idea if I had one, or hire someone to help me, as needed. But so far, my “big ideas” have all be things I think would be fun for me and others.

Along those lines, I streamed my book launch live on the web so my friends and family could be part of the celebration with me. Sure, that gave me another chance to remind everyone that my book was out (it is, by the way. You should all go buy it, of course, as I hear it makes a great gift!) and could lead to interesting PR opportunities, too, as it was “new”… but, for me, it was simply a blast to connect with others in a fun, different way.

What I’m doing may not be considered traditional PR or marketing paths, of course, but it’s all about the ideas that work for me. Nothing feels like a chore or a task, so I never resent it. I have fun, still have time to work, and also know I’m doing what I can to support my book.

And after the long journey I took to publication, I can’t imagine doing anything less than giving The 14 Fibs the love it deserves.

Guest Post: e.E. Charlton-Trujillo on Your Book, Your Niche from the Trench

By e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve spent several months on an unconventional book tour for my latest YA, Fat Angie (Candlewick, 2013)–workshopping with at-risk youth who have affectionately tagged me as the tattooed, rockstar, Wexican (whitest Mexican American) YA author/filmmaker.

This whirlwind tour, where I stuffed my belongings into storage and traveled by rental car, bus, train, and plane across America to empower at-risk youth through writing all at no cost to the youth programs I’ve visited, has been featured on MTV, in Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.

Unfortunately, I’m not independently wealthy. Had it not been for a tiny Kickstarter and the generosity of friends and strangers, the tour would never have come into fruition. So why do it?

Frustrated with the teen suicides and rise of kids on the fringe cutting on their skin instead of picking up a pen, I decided to embrace the niche audience for Fat Angie. I took this book, seam-busting with issues (bullying, self-harm, family, self-loathing, war, sexuality) and made it a platform for activism.

Armed with a few starred reviews, a high-quality book trailer, and a dream to inspire those who are often counted out, I changed the trajectory of Fat Angie and honestly, my own life.

Of course, not everyone can trade in life’s luxuries to live out of a carry-on and a backpack while criss-crossing the country in a rental car. I just got lucky that way.

But now that I’m three books and seven thousand miles in, I’ll share a few of the promotional secrets I’ve picked up along the way. Let my crazy Wexican book-tour experience help rock the promotion of your book.

1. What Do You Want Your Book To Do? 

The obvious answer is sell. But what do you really want the book to do? Spark conversation? Change lives? Win awards? I realized Fat Angie was an opportunity to talk tough issues and impact at-risk youth through outreach.

Whatever you decide, this is something to consider months before the release of your book.

When you know what you want your book to do, it will be easier to figure out how to maximize things like social media presence, signings, kinds of school visits, and other appearances.

2. Promotional Materials

Your cover art is great for stick-on tattoos and post cards, but you’ll also need an electronic PR Kit with: Synopsis, Bio, Review Sound Bites, Photos, and your School Visit Package. If you are not savvy on the art of design, find a talented graphic design student who is building their portfolio. Also, bookmarks are out. Book trailers and author interviews are in!

Important: Thirty seconds of quality sound and image have much more value than a minute and a half of crackling sound and Ken Burns effects. See the Fat Angie book trailer for an example of how you can make a $60,000 trailer for just a few hundred dollars.

3. No Fear, Please

Be comfortable talking about your book in public.
This doesn’t mean bend every ear at your partner’s/husband’s/wife’s
Christmas party about your book. The idea is to get people interested,
not annoyed, to create a dialogue about what inspired you to write the
novel — what excites you about it. You never know where that
conversation can lead.

While on my tour this summer, waiting at Boston’s
Logan Airport, bookseller Ellen Garfield asked about a book storeT -shirt I was wearing, which led to a conversation about Fat Angie.

By
the end of the day, Ellen ordered copies of the book for her airport
store. Since then, it has been faced-out and sold out three times over.
My interaction with this bookseller reminded me not to be afraid of
talking about my book. It’s sharing
something you love.

4. Who You Should Know

Independent booksellers and librarians can extend the lifespan of your book. These literacy titans know their community and educators.

Again, through social media, I connected with Ugly Dog Books and The Odyssey Bookshop in Massachusetts. We strategized on how to maximize my signing/discussion with the at-risk work I was doing. Both stores connected me with at-risk youth in their community to engage in creative workshop, which was the focal point of my tour. Later, they held book signings in their stores, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t approached them about help with community-building.

My suggestion: months before your book releases, find the independent booksellers you want to approach. Have your PR materials ready and reach out to them. Anytime you can generate a bigger event other than a signing, you are embracing the community and getting people excited about your book.

5. Keep Writing

Your agent, your best friend, your whoever-is-important is going to ask you, “When is your next book?” You gotta get that noise out of your head on the quick. Nothing destroys a stellar story quicker than the expectations of others.

While promoting your new book, continue listening to the world around you. Take time to connect with your creativity by jotting down ideas in a notebook, iPad or voice recorder. Promoting your book is necessary but so is your craft. So rock the word!

Cynsational Notes

e.E. Charlton-Trujillo won the prestigious Delacorte Dell Yearling Award and Parents’ Choice Silver Honor for Prizefighter en Mi Casa. Feels Like Home received critical praise, but it was Fat Angie that generated early buzz from Wicked author Gregory Maguire who compared it to Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. The book tour inspired Charlton-Trujillo to launch the organization Never Counted Out, which bridges the gap between artists and at-risk youth in their community. The feature documentary about the tour titled “At-Risk Summer” is slated for a May 2014 release.

New Voice: Sam Bond on Operation Golden Llama (Cousins in Action) & Self-Publishing

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sam Bond is the first-time author of Operation Golden Llama (Cousins in Action)(Volume 1)(Bound, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Dumped at their eccentric Grandma’s, Cagney, Olivia, Aidan, Lissy and Tess are convinced they’re in for a boring summer. But when Grandma gets a series of mysterious phone calls and a highly unlikely pet sitter arrives, the cousins find themselves jetting off to Peru, where, much to their surprise, they find the adventures have only just begun.

Why did you decide to self- publish independently rather than with a trade press?

Traveling the self-publishing route was not an easy decision. However, my reasons for self-publishing were very specific.

When I decided to write a children’s adventure book featuring my two girls and their three cousins, it didn’t occur to me there would be any issues. However, when submitting to agents and publishing houses I encountered the same complaint. Too many main characters.

Now, I’m English, and grew up reading one of England’s most prolific children’s writers, Enid Blyton. Her books are filled with adventure and mystery, with rarely a grown-up in sight. However, the one constant throughout her work is large groups of protagonists. The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, The Five Find-Outers and Six Cousins need no explanation as to the abundance of characters contained within.

Seeing I wrote my books as a gift to my children and their cousins, being told to remove two of the main characters was a deal breaker. After two or three agents reading fulls gave the same reason for rejection, I came to the hard decision that I needed to be true to my vision, and to do that, I would have to take a less traditional publishing route.

Believe me, I thought about making the changes requested. I knew writers who’d altered major portions of their book on the advice of an agent and gone on to be successfully published. However, in the end, I knew I would rather the book contain all five cousins and have a limited readership, than remove two of the cousins on the chance this would lead to the book reaching a wider audience.


What were the challenges?

Sam’s desk

I would say the biggest challenge to self-publishing is taking yourself seriously and truly believing you can do it. You must be aware there are no deadlines, other than ones you set yourself and nobody cares about this book, other than you, your critique partners and, if you’re lucky, your mother!

My biggest fear was that I would forget something. When I started a photography business ten years ago, I researched a photographer I admired, and purchased her three-part course on how to start a business. I took a year to create a website, build a portfolio and design a logo. I also formed a company, opened bank accounts and filed tax documents.

These things all took away from what I loved to do most – take photos, but I felt they were needed for me to proceed in an orderly manner and knew they would enhance my success down the line.

It has been the same with self-publishing, except instead of buying a tried and tested course I relied on the knowledge of several indie authors in the Austin area that I’d sought out ahead of time. In fact, finding mentors to answer questions and guide me through this process was fundamental to my success.

One provided an amazing six month countdown to launch. Another explained how KDP works to boost sales. A third was kind enough to share the more hum drum actions required – setting up bank accounts, LLCs and EINs. With these three authors to guide me, I at last felt confident to proceed.

What recommendations do you have for other writers considering this route?

Spend the time you would have dedicated to querying, checking out indie boards, becoming intimate with different companies that offer services and set yourself a budget.

At this point, I suggest being truly realistic about your strengths. Although I knew I could do a lot of the work, I am not technically minded and needed abundant help formatting and uploading my manuscript. I was not expecting to need help and it was almost my undoing.

I also recommend giving yourself plenty of time. Just because you have the power to set a launch date, it should not be something you rush into. Once committed to a launch date it marks you as amateur if you have to back out because you underestimate the hours it takes to go from prototype to finished product – and believe me, it will take longer than you think. In fact, I would suggest having your book in hand before you even think of launching it into the world.

Finally, just because you’ve decided to travel the self-publishing route, does not mean you should do it alone. If anything it’s even more important to make contacts, join local societies, attend conferences and get to know your writing community.

In fact, I believe the encouragement and support I received from fellow writers, plus the accountability I had to my peers, was the piece of the puzzle that made all the difference.

Sausage on the coach

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?

Operation Golden Llama has five main protagonists and is written in omniscient pov; this gave me a lot of heads to be inside. However, it was a POV I was familiar with from books I read as a child, and although I toyed with limiting the POV to just one character and rotating through the protagonists one chapter at a time, I decided my characters were too feisty to have their thoughts limited.

The youngest of the main protagonists is six, the oldest twelve. Luckily, I started writing Operation Golden Llama when my children were in first and second grade, so I had a lot of material to work with. Also, my characters are based on children I know, which made the writing easier.

I wanted the children to be realistic, but they obviously had to be somewhat smarter and more prepossessing than your average child in order to make them interesting. If you listen to conversations between typical elementary aged children and wrote it down verbatim, it might be realistic, but it would not be fascinating.

Striking that balance was the challenge, all the time making sure Tess used words appropriate to a six-year-old, and Cagney possessed the sass and confidence of a pre-teen.

Olivia, Tess and Sam

I found one of the ways to make Tess believable was to have her ask questions. Not only was it a great way of explaining a word or situation the reader might not understand themselves, but it also reminded us of the age gap between her and her four cousins.

Plus, I kept check of words each cousin would use regularly. For Cagney it was “good grief”. Lissy would often address an adult using the words “ma’am” or “sir” and Tess often ends her sentences asking for clarification.

As often as possible, I wanted readers to be able to identify which cousin was speaking from the dialogue alone without having to rely on identification tags.

It is also useful to have a word in your head that sums up your characters. To me, Olivia is fearless, Cagney exasperated. Lissy is smart, Aidan kind and Tess exuberant. Often, I would just write what I wanted the cousins to say with no tag lines, then return later and add tags appropriately. This often worked better than deciding at the time and helped with flow.

Often however, the characters seemed to claim their own lines, and if it was essential that one character said a line for the plot and it didn’t seem true, I would re-write the line in their voice. It was interesting how, when reading the book aloud, it was obvious to me if I had the tag lines wrong. Olivia would never be in awe of dramatic scenery, but Aidan would. In the same way, a character inquiring how someone was feeling would always be Lissy, never Cagney. That just left Tess and anything crazy fell in the “Tess” category.

Five cousins at the Golden Llama launch; photo courtesy of Dave Wilson Photography

New Voice: Susan Signe Morrison on Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Susan Signe Morrison is the first-time editor of Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America by Joan Wehlen Morrison (Chicago Review Press, 2012)(author blog and facebook page). From the promotional copy:

This diary of a smart, astute, and funny teenager provides a fascinating record of what an everyday American girl felt and thought during the Depression and the lead-up to World War II. 

Young Chicagoan Joan Wehlen describes her daily life growing up in the city and ruminates about the impending war, daily headlines, and major touchstones of the era—FDR’s radio addresses, the Lindbergh kidnapping, Goodbye Mr. Chips and Citizen Kane, Churchill and Hitler, war work and Red Cross meetings. 

Included are Joan’s charming doodles of her latest dress or haircut reflective of the era. Home Front Girl is not only an entertaining and delightful read but an important primary source—a vivid account of a real American girl’s lived experiences.

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?

Joan and Susan, 2005

My book is nonfiction. I found the diaries of my mother, the oral historian Joan Wehlen Morrison, in a file cabinet after her death in 2010. The diaries she wrote as a teenager, ages 14-20, from the year 1937 through 1943, just before she married my dad, Robert Thornton Morrison.

Some of the volumes of diaries are missing; three of the original six still exist. The missing ones must have been lost during the war years when my folks traveled many times when my dad was in the Navy.

My mom, Joan, always told us she had kept a diary. She even told us where it was and wanted to get a hold of it. But my dad was also a writer and there were all sorts of papers and junk in front of the file cabinet. After they died after 66 years of marriage within two months of each other, my brothers and I had to clean out and sell our family home. There, just as Joan had said, were the diaries!

So the following year, as I grieved for my parents, I read and re-read the diaries. I decided to transcribe sections of them as a family project (and therapy for me).

But at a certain point in the transcription, I realized these diaries were important. They were a unique source for those studying World War II, teenagers in the pre-war and war years, feminist historians, and others.

So I sought out a publisher. I’m a professor of medieval literature at Texas State University and have published scholarly books and articles. But this book was different.

At first I sent it to the presses I knew: university presses. But they were not quite right. One company published war diaries, but soldiers’ diaries. My mom’s book got very nice rejections (believe me, I know rejections—these were personal!), but I just hadn’t found the right publisher.

Then—I did: Chicago Review Press that specializes in young adult nonfiction. I heard from the editor in early November 2011. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2011 she proposed it to her board and they were all enthusiastic. Home Front Girl was out by November 1, 2012.

As for roadblocks, there were really none. Occasionally I couldn’t make out my mom’s handwriting, though generally it was pretty good. I would enlist my husband—sometimes even my kids—to help me figure out a word or two. But mainly it was fascinating and so emotionally wonderful to reconstruct her teen years. I used about 2/5 of the material I found and am now working on an edition of her poetry.

I’m also working on a second book for Chicago Review Press: a young adult history of women in the Middle Ages!

As a nonfiction writer, what first inspired you to take on your topic? What about it fascinated you? Why did you want to offer more information about it to young readers?

Friday, Dec. 6, 1940

Clearly my inspiration was totally personal. I was truly blessed that my mom had left me this gift after she died. It fascinated – and consoled – me because the writer of the diaries is my mom. To see how a girl – a very smart girl, who reads a lot, is witty, self-ironic, and philosophical– perceives the political situation as war is brewing in Europe is totally riveting.

I love the 1930s and 1940s period anyway, and now I got to see it first hand.

Diaries exist written by girls in Europe from that time period, but I never knew of one from the U.S. home front perspective. It adds something to the historical record. And the fact that Joan becomes a historian in later life makes her writing even more resonant.

My mom had the same sense of humor she had as an older woman. She had the same anti-war stance (one of her oral histories is about Vietnam). You can see her books here: http://homefrontgirldiary.com/joans-other-books/

And some moments were so “Mom.” For instance, when she gets in trouble in Study Hall.
Monday, April 19, 1937; Age 14


Mr. Lucas thinks I’m a communist. Today in Study, you see, Ruth and I were—well—you know—doing Latin together. Which isn’t approved of.

Then Alice asked me what onomatopoeia is and, while I was explaining, Mr. L. came over and said, “Can’t you work by yourself?” to me. “Are you helping these girls or are they helping you?”

And I said, “Well, it’s sort of community work, you see.”

And he said, “Well, you know we can’t have a lot of little communities in study hall.” And I said, thinking of Latin, “No, but why not one big community.”

I guess he must have thought I was a communist then, ’cause he looked sort of frightened and said we’d better work alone.

And I said, “Uh-huh.” And that was that. Once before he made me (and Ruth) stand in the corner for community work—me the socialist! And I had my red sweater on, too!

Desk with current YA history research

I wanted young readers (it’s geared for 12 & up) to read it. First of all, to see the importance of keeping a diary—for getting into the daily habit of writing even when it seems like “nothing” is happening.

 Often you can have your most profound insights on days devoid of action when you are just thinking and daydreaming.

I kept to the following themes: the war and politics; romance (plenty of “necking”!); nature; speculations about the meaning of life and God; literary musings; and just beautifully written passages.

It’s amazing what kids read back then—very difficult novels. After all, there was radio, but no television or internet to take up one’s time. And Joan went to the movies a lot. The book also has her doodles she drew in the corners of her pages, so they are especially cute to see.

And I’m thrilled it’s been named by the Children’s Book Committee of the Bank Street College of Education to the Best Children’s Book of the Year 2013 list (Memoir: Ages 14-up).

Now I’m planning to work on fiction set in the 1930s and 1940s. My mom’s life still inspires me!

Cynsational Notes

Check out the curriculum guide, book club discussion questions and excerpts.

Susan says: “In my blog, I try to include entries that link to a current event or issue, such as in this post that was one of the featured “Freshly Pressed” posts on WordPress.

New Voice: Amy Rose Capetta on Entangled

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Amy Rose Capetta is the first-time author of Entangled (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). From the promotional copy:

“Alone was the note Cade knew best. It was the root of all her chords.”

Seventeen-year-old Cade is a fierce survivor, solo in the universe with her cherry-red guitar. Or so she thought. 

Her world shakes apart when a hologram named Mr. Niven tells her she was created in a lab in the year 3112, then entangled at a subatomic level with a boy named Xan.


Cade’s quest to locate Xan joins her with an array of outlaws–her first friends–on a galaxy-spanning adventure. And once Cade discovers the wild joy of real connection, there’s no turning back.

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

My pre-contract revision process had two and a half stages. The first stage was me giving the manuscript to one reader, doing a three week slap-and-shine on the rough draft and declaring it done, definitely done, ready for the world, no more consideration, deliberation, deepening, polishing, hair-pulling, or english muffins for dinner.

Here was my reasoning: the story was going out into the world, where it would encounter agents and editors, who would smear their brilliance all over it.

Stage one and a half came less than twenty-four hours later when I went Wait, no, wait, I think that’s wrong. It really was as dramatic as an all-caps parade. I walked around the winter-strangled streets of Chicago thinking No, seriously, don’t send it out, it will come right back. And not with gold stars on it. It will come back in pieces, like you patted it gently in the direction of the nearest serial killer.

Cori (in black) and Amy Rose (in blue floral)

I have the good fortune to be friends with Cori McCarthy, the endlessly talented author of The Color of Rain (Running Press, 2013), who went through her first experience with the publishing process one step ahead of me. I e-mailed her, hoping for the magical fourteen-second turn-around.

Lo and behold! Fourteen seconds later: she told me not to panic submit.

As soon as I had a name for it, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it. I read a lot of fantasy. I believe in the power of names. And Panic Submit is not a pretty one.

Armed with this advice, I blocked off a few more months of my life, made peace with foaming a few thousand more lattes at Café Day Job, and moved on to step three.

I sat down. I made a list. Wait a second. I mean, I made The List. Because this was not a sedate, polite jotting-down of a few things I could do to nudge the manuscript into a generally better sort of shape. This was a wild feeding-frenzy of a list, a breathless collection of every single improve-able thing I could find—from structural issues to unfleshed secondary characters, right on down to metaphor overloads and words I love to use with the fire of a thousand redundant suns.

Then I sent the book back to its first reader, added three more, and stirred their own notes up with mine, mercilessly. When I sat down to work, The List was seventeen pages. Single spaced.

Amy Rose writing at Cyn’s dining room table.

This comforted me.

This, I could do. Not easily, or quickly. But The List, for all of its slap-dash, idea-strewn, sprawling nature, gave me a real metric for the progress of my revision.

I think one of the main differences between drafting and revision is that when you draft, you have the metric in front of your face, all the time. Word count, page count, is this chapter done? Word count, write a hypothetical cyborg makeout scene (to emphasize: not an actual scene from the book), The End.

You have a manuscript! You win drafting!

But revising can feel so nebulous. It shouldn’t, because you’re finally out of uncharted waters.

Now you have to chart the waters—again! That shouldn’t be hard! But pinning things down, at least for me, is harder than locating their vague general area. When I crossed an item off that massive list, I knew I had pinned something, even a small something. And as the list dwindled I could see that I was actually, substantially improving my manuscript.

Step three was hard to commit to. It is also, I am sure, what got the manuscript agent offers.

My post-contract revision process was wonderful, and it was also a different sort of challenge. It brought me into contact with one of those brilliant editors I had dreamed of working with. Her story notes are light. Deceptively light. They look like faint brushstrokes of suggestion, which could trick a writer into thinking there’s not much work left to be done.

The worst thing I could do, as a writer, is believe that. Those brushstrokes always point in the direction of some serious digging. When I rise to the challenge of my editor’s notes, really look at the implications and possibilities, I end up with a much richer story.

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

I had some of it swirling around in my head, gaining mass, before I started to write. I knew that my main character, Cade, lived on a desert planet. I knew that black holes were a source of endless rich weirdness, so I’d have to include one.

I felt a deep and abiding love for the spaceships in some of my favorite sci-fi stories, so I knew that my spaceship had to have character. What I didn’t know was how much character. She ended up stealing a lot of the scenes.

The central concept of quantum entanglement was there from the start; it slapped together the other aspects of the book in my head, like high concept superglue. I read about it and talked to Julia (my best friend and favorite scientist), and got all nerdily excited about this theory that particles (and therefore, maybe people) can break all of the laws of the universe, and communicate faster than the speed of light.

If it was strange enough to freak out Einstein, it’s interesting enough for me.

Cynsational Notes

Follow Amy Rose on Twitter, and don’t miss Amy Rose and Cory in The NerdBait Guide!

New Voice: Colleen Gleason on The Clockwork Scarab: A Stoker and Holmes Novel

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The Clockwork Scarab: A Stoker and Holmes Novel (Chronicle, 2013) is Colleen Gleason‘s debut young adult novel. She has previously published novels for grown-ups.

What inspired you to choose the point of view 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?

When I sat down to write this book, Mina Holmes’s voice popped into my head and I began to write in her proper, Victorian voice, in first person.

But because Evaline Stoker is just as important a lead character as Mina is, I also wanted to write scenes from her point of view.

At first, I wrote her scenes in third person. I thought it would be easier for the reader to differentiate between the two perspectives if I did one first person and the other third person. But my editor felt strongly that I should do them both in first person…which was a little more of a challenge.

Before writing this YA novel, I’d never written in first person (for publication), and definitely not in two very different voices. So not only did I have to create a strong voice for Mina Holmes, but I had to create a second strong voice for Evaline Stoker…while at the same time, keeping their language free of anachronisms and true to the relatively stilted Victorian tone I was attempting to replicate.

That was a great challenge, and I actually ended up making a chart that delineated each girl’s particular voice: structure and vocabulary, as well as any motivations or subtext that would drive from her character. I’ve now finished writing the second book in the series, and while I found it much easier this time around, I still had to go back and clean up some of the chapters to make the voices more distinct. I tend to slip into Mina’s voice more easily than Evaline’s (Mina’s is more stilted and pedantic—very much the flowery yet proper Victorian tone, while Evaline’s is more modern and terse), and when I got into the throes of a scene, I would sometimes “lose” the voice a little.

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?

Kate & Co. Photography

I have always loved historical settings. The majority of the two dozen novels I’ve written are set in either a historical setting or a dystopian/post-apocalyptic world (which in my mind is like a historical setting for many reasons).

Even though I set my book in an alternate historical world, needed to incorporate quite a bit of historical accuracy and detail for this quasi-Victorian setting in order to make it “real,” so I did a significant amount of research. In particular, I researched things like crime-solving techniques (what’s known as the Bertillon concept to identify perpetrators by measuring parts of their body and comparing it to clues left on-scene) as well as the political and cultural aspects of late Victorian London.

Some of my favorite resources when I do historical research is images. I’m a very visual person, and seeing a picture of London in 1880s really gives me something to build on. Whether it’s a photo, a drawing, or a painting, pictures give me a solid foundation for my world—and also provides details I might not get from other resources. I also like to look at advertisements—which help me as I “invent” the wild and often superfluous steampunk devices in my world—as well as newspapers.

One of the nice things about researching Victorian London, as opposed to, say, Medieval England (the setting for four novels I’ve written), is that I can actually find accurate images (photos, printed objects, etc.).

As far as worldbuilding and incorporating it into my story: I take both a macro and a micro approach.

In other words, I look at the world at a very high level: who’s in charge politically, what does the actual landscape/geography look like, are there any supernatural/unnatural elements or creatures, etc.

And then I look at it on a micro basis: what do my characters do for fun, what’s their slang, what do they wear, what sort of occupations might they have. And then I begin to fill in the middle. Some of the details included in the Stoker and Holmes world are true to history, but many others are little things that I made up as the story developed.

And that’s how I generally work with worldbuilding: most of it happens as I write, once I get the macro picture. Usually whatever the big picture is what drives at least part of the conflict and/or character development. The micro stuff is just plain old fun, and I often research it on the fly!

New Voice: Stephanie Watson on Psyching Yourself Up to Write, the Craft of Picture Books & The Wee Hours

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Stephanie Watson is the first-time author of The Wee Hours, illustrated by Mary GrandPré (Disney-Hyperion, 2013). From the promotional copy:


What if the wee, small hours of the morning weren’t just hours, but playful creatures instead? 

And what if those creatures came out in the early-morning hours, to make mischief while you sleep? 

The Wee Hours, this new brand-new picture book, imagines just that.


How do you psyche yourself up to write and to keep writing?

I use lots of tricks to keep on keepin’ on with the writing. Here are five of my current favorites:

  1. Drink pots and pots of highly caffeinated green tea. It gives me courage and stamina. 
  2. Blast “I Am Superman” by R.E.M. before I sit down to write. I do a jumpy-spinny-punchy dance in my office and get all pumped up to do the day’s work. 
  3. Watch YouTube interviews with writers and artists that inspire me (see: Quentin Blake, Lynda Barry, Daniel Handler, Mo Willems and Kate DiCamillo). 
  4. Make other kinds of art. I draw and paint and knit and collage and hot glue things to other things. Crafty projects are great palate cleansers to writing, especially when they’re not particularly fancy or difficult. Right now, I’m really into making things with Perler beads. 
  5. Go for quantity, not quality. Daily word count goals are easier to meet than objectives like “Write something awesome.” If I sit in my chair and work with 1000 words each day, I’m golden, I win, I pat myself on the back. The less pressure I put on the quality, the better the writing seems to go. Funny how that works.

The thing about tricks is that they eventually wear out. Like, the magic of “I Am Superman” will fade soon, and then I’ll have to pick another power anthem to jump and spin and kick to. Always developing new ways to con myself into being courageous enough to write—this is just part of the job.

Stephanie & “I Am Superman”


How did you learn the craft of picture book writing? What are your strengths? What has been your greatest challenge?

I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to my writing teachers over the years, but I’ve learned the most about writing picture books by reading them. I love to sit at the library and consume 20 picture books in a sitting.

By reading lots of this type of book, you quickly get a sense of what works, what’s funny, what falls flat, what a strong page turn feels like, what a satisfying ending feels like.

I love re-reading the classics, like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1963) as much as I love looking at new stuff, like Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem (Disney-Hyperion, 2009).

I think one of my strengths as a picture book writer is that I’m always up for following a strange idea to see where it might lead. In an early draft of The Wee Hours, the creatures that came out to play started pulling things from the sleeping child’s dream. I wasn’t sure if that could work, but I was intrigued.

I played with the idea and gave it some space to either grow into something cool or explode into a horrific mess. I got it to work, and it added a nice dimension to the story.

Challenges? Well, it can be hard to muster the endurance necessary to rewrite a piece over and over. I did 15+ drafts of The Wee Hours, and it’s only 375 words long. I put both of my 35,000-word novels through ten rewrites apiece.

For me, writing is a marathon. Sitting down day after day to work on something you are not sure will ever see the light of day: That can be hard. But hey, that’s what I Am Superman and green tea are for, right?